Slavery: British MPs In Their Own Words - African Business Magazine
Slavery: British MPs In Their Own Words

Slavery: British MPs In Their Own Words

For readers to fully grasp what went on in Britain’s Parliament in June 1806, when the Resolution was introduced to abolish the African Slave Trade, and to help the great cause of today’s slavery reparation activists, it is necessary to reproduce here an abridged version of the verbatim report of the debate that convulsed the House of Commons on 10 June 1806. Please sit back and be prepared to be amazed.

Proposing the Motion, Secretary of State Charles James Fox said:

Mr Speaker … the Motion with which I shall have the honour of concluding, will tend, in its consequence, to effectuate the total abolition of the African Slave Trade; and I do confess, that since I have sat in this House, a period of between 30 and 40 years, if I had done nothing else but had only been instrumental in carrying through this measure, I should think my life well spent, and should retire satisfied that I had not lived in vain. I shall commence with observing what indeed gives me pleasure, that whatever difference may have arisen, in the course of debates in this or the other House of Parliament, as to the mode of abolishing the African Slave Trade or the time when that object is to be effected with respect to the Slave Trade itself, the opinion which either House have almost unanimously entertained of it has been “that it is contrary to justice, to humanity, and to sound policy”.

This was the sentiment expressed by a Resolution of this House in 1792, and which will be found to have been the uniform opinion of this House with something very near unanimity.

Sir, I will not consume many minutes in arguing respecting the principle of the Slave Trade; in showing the injustice, the inhumanity, the hateful cruelty, of carrying defenceless human beings from their native land, in order to sell them, like a herd of cattle.

“To deal and traffick in human flesh and blood” – as was well expressed by an Honourable Gentleman [Mr Burke] whose splendid abilities mankind will long remember – “to deal and traffick” as he said, “not in the labour of men, but in men themselves, was to devour the root, instead of enjoying the fruit of human diligence.”

But it is argued you do not make these Negro slaves, you find them so; or at least you find them convicts for certain crimes. Without entering into the nature of these crimes, or the means of [in]criminating these unhappy beings, or the cruelty of such a principle, the pretence of which is only adding hypocrisy to the lust of gain; I will say that even if it were true that all whom we purchase had committed crimes, for which, by their own laws slavery may be imposed as a punishment, I really think that it is not for the British nation to provide shipping to conduct the police of Africa [sic]. I really think a trade founded on such a principle, and tending to perpetuate such misery, is not a fit trade for us to prosecute. In this plea, we may perceive how the lust of lucre, the sordid object of gain, can blind men who, when other objects are before them, are pretty clear sighted.

But I will go no further into this subject – it is unnecessary, because the sentiment of Parliament has been fully expressed upon it already, with a very few exceptions (with the exception of some persons in the other House of Parliament, and of the two members for Liverpool in this; one of whom indeed – General Gascoyne – has declared the Slave Trade to be a thing good in itself, so good, that if you had it not, you ought to create it by bounties). Another noble viscount, then also a Member of this House (Lord Melville), who did a great deal to prevent the abolition of the Slave Trade, not only delivered in this House but also recorded in its journals, an opinion, the substance of which was “that the Slave Trade, being contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy, it was fit that it should be abolished”, and this Resolution the noble Lord followed up by provisions for effecting a gradual abolition. Now, “justice and humanity, and sound policy” are the words which I have used in the Resolution which I shall have the honour to submit to the House. Upwards of 14 years have elapsed since this House declared its opinion to be that the African Slave Trade ought to be abolished. When I consider this declaration, and what has been done, or rather what has not been done, in pursuance of it – when I find that no one step has been taken towards an abolition, agreed to be fitting more than 14 years ago, I cannot help thinking that the House will find itself bound, from regard for its own character and reputation in this country, and in the rest of the world, to do something towards the abolition of a trade which the House itself resolved, most solemnly, should be abolished 10 years ago, viz. on the 1st of January 1796, and of which it has, so frequently, expressed its abhorrence.

In the year 1791, indeed, the proposition of my Honourable Friend [Mr Wilberforce] was rejected; but in the year 1792, the business having been very much considered by the country at large, warm feelings were necessarily excited, and those warm feelings were, as necessarily, communicated to this House. Then, and in a very full attendance, the question was agitated and was carried for a gradual abolition, contrary to my desire, because I was always for an immediate abolition.

It is, however, a fact that in that session [1792], it was resolved by this House that a period should be put to the Slave Trade, on the 1st of January 1796, and this after all the ample discussions which took place in that and several preceding sessions.

My Lord Melville, who was then a minister of state, and a person of considerable authority in this House, was for delaying the total abolition to the year 1800. That was the opinion of that statesman who was the most anxious to delay the abolition of this trade; and who most forcibly stated all the reasons he could collect for making the period for such an abolition, as distant as possible, and, certainly, more distant than any other person proposed it to be.

Even he, with all his desire to prolong the Trade as much as possible, proposed that its total abolition should take place in the year 1800. We are now in the year 1806, and have taken no step towards the completion of that work, which we undertook in the face of the world to accomplish; and with our negligence to complete that work, the country, the whole civilised world, may well reproach this House, for it is, to say the least of it, a deplorable negligence of our duty.

On this point, I have heard it said that it is not by Act of Parliament or anything that can be done in this country, that the Slave Trade can be abolished; but that it must be done by some measure in the colonies, first for the gradual diminution, and then for the final abolition of that Traffick. Now, Sir, although I have frequently heard hints thrown out to this effect, I have never yet heard any practicable plan proposed. When I do, I will attend to it with great patience; but, having considered this subject for 18 years pretty attentively, I am afraid that with respect to myself for one, it will be impossible to convince me that we can do our duty on the subject of the Slave Trade in any way short of its total abolition by a direct prohibitory law. Those, however, who think otherwise, will have an opportunity of stating their opinions.

The other point is as to the time when the abolition should take place; whether that abolition should be on the passing of the Act or the year ensuing. No longer delay than that, could, I apprehend, be necessary, as it would be 8 years beyond the longest period which was formerly proposed even by Lord Melville. To all those, however, who wish still to delay that abolition, I would only say that for the present the whole of that matter is left entirely open. But before I sit down, I would say a few words, and but a few, on points connected with the present question. First, I would warn all the Members of this House not to listen to that flattery with which one of the honourable members for Liverpool is likely to assure the House, as he and the town of Liverpool have done on more occasions than one, that we have already abolished the Slave Trade; that what we have done already under the name of regulation must put an end to it.

At the time when some regulations were first proposed to take place in the carrying on of that Trade, they told us it would be better, as well as more candid, to abolish the Trade at once, than adopt regulations which would have the effect of destroying it; and this they have said of every subsequent measure which has been proposed with a view to regulation.

In short, they have opposed in the most bitter manner everything that has been offered even in the way of regulation; witness their opposition to Sir William Dolben’s bill for mitigating the horrors of the Middle Passage. That bill, excellent though it was, these friends of the Slave Trade opposed most vehemently, alleging that it would be the inevitable ruin of the Slave Trade although we find, by experience, that it has had no such effect.

And to pass by other instances, when it was proposed in this very session to abolish the Foreign Slave Trade, and when some gentlemen connected with the West Indies gave us their support, the people of Liverpool said this was the worst measure that could be proposed. They told us: “What! Abolish this part of the Trade!

Abolish the whole of it, at once! This is actual destruction! Deal fairly with us, and tell us that you are bent upon destroying the whole of the Trade, that we may understand you!”

These Gentlemen will now tell us: “Do not think of doing anything more – the Trade is actually abolished.” To this I say: “Gentlemen, since you know the thing is done, since you are aware that the deed is executed, give me leave to ask you just to set your name to it.” That would not be much for one member of this House to ask of another in any ordinary transaction.

Now, with regard to what is stated of the ruin of the West Indies by the abolition of the African Trade, it is a subject to which great attention is due. But I am sure I cannot refute that assertion more effectually than by referring to a splendid speech which was delivered in this House, by a Right Honourable Gentleman [Mr Pitt] no longer among us – a speech which, although not successful in gaining the votes of a majority of this House, was nevertheless the most powerful and convincing eloquence that ever adorned these walls.

[It was] a speech not of vague and showy ornament, but of solid and indisputable facts, and unquestionable calculations, and conclusions drawn from premises as correctly as if they had been mathematical propositions, all tending to prove that instead of the West India plantations suffering an injury, they would derive a material benefit by the abolition of the African Slave Trade. I should have thought that what has taken place in North America would have satisfied those who are most prone to doubt that, by good treatment, the Negro population may be kept up without importation. Within these 19 or 20 years, the black population of America has been nearly doubled. Sir, when I hear these calculations made, when I find them authenticated by facts, when I find the consequences of them so admirably illustrated by argument, as I have done, I am driven to the conclusion that, with the same treatment, the Negro population would increase everywhere in the plantations, as it has done in some of them.

And this is a proof, I must not say a damning but a blessed proof, of the truth of the proposition, that there is no necessity for fresh importation to keep up the Negro population in our West India plantations; but that if you treat as well as they may be treated, they will increase every year; so that you would soon have, on the Islands, as many slaves as you would want.

And the effect of this increasing population would be a gradual, kind, prudent and well-guarded emancipation of such individuals as may be fit for emancipation. By this course, you would put the Islands on the best footing on which they can be placed, and which, although not now, nor soon, yet might ultimately place the slaves generally on a footing of freedom.

I shall now conclude with moving – “That this House, considering the African Slave Trade to be contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy, will, with all practicable expedition take effectual measures for the abolition of the said Trade, in such manner, and at such period, as may be deemed advisable.” Sir Ralph Milbank seconded Mr Fox’s Motion.

Mr Fox’s speech greatly needled the two MPs from Liverpool, a town which had become extremely prosperous on the back of the African Slave Trade. General Sir Banastre Tarleton , one of the two Liverpudlian MPs, was the first to rise, and said:

I confess I rise under considerable disadvantage after the eloquent speech which has just been delivered. It is my duty however to trouble the House with a few observations on this momentous subject. And first, as to the time when that subject was first brought forward, it was a time of profound peace; when taxes did not press upon all ranks of people as they do now, when we can but ill afford to adopt any measure that will occasion a diminution in the revenue.

Sir, having lost the question of the abolition of this Trade in a variety of periods during the last 17 or 18 years, that the advocates of that measure should come forward now, at a time so critical, is to me most extraordinary.

In the speech of the Right Honourable Gentleman [Mr Fox], I think I see an abatement of the vehemence with which the subject has usually been discussed. He does not seem to be possessed of his former notions of the monstrous inhumanity of the Trade: on that topic he has said little.

But these are not his only omissions: for not a word have we heard of the alteration in the circumstances of the times; not a word of the alteration which has taken place in our Trade; not a word of the injustice which will be done to Liverpool whenever the measure now proposed shall be adopted; nor of the inconvenience to be suffered by any other part of the kingdom.

And therefore I am led to think that we have not the genuine reasons laid before us for bringing forward this measure, but that it is bottomed on something which is not stated to this House, on a wish, perhaps, to gratify, for political purposes, the inclinations of an honourable member [Mr William Wilberforce] who is so extremely zealous on this subject.

The Right Honourable Gentleman has said with some pleasantry, that the gentlemen of Liverpool considered every regulation of this Trade as destructive to it. Now, the gentlemen of Liverpool have too much sense to think so: but I have no difficulty in saying that the prosperity of Liverpool is intimately connected with the African Slave Trade. The Right Honourable Gentleman says that I never approved of any measure which had for its object the regulation of the Slave Trade. Sir, it is difficult for me to assent to any measure which appears to be injurious to the interests of my constituents, closely connected as they are with the general interests of this country. As to the situation of Liverpool, I have this to say: It was once a mere fishing hamlet, but it has risen into prosperity in exact proportion to the extent of the African Slave Trade, so as to become the second place in wealth and population in the British empire, renowned for its loyalty, as well as for its commercial enterprise. Its exports, independent of the African Slave Trade, are superior to any other port except that of London, in the King’s dominions, and the sum which it contributes to the public purse, is near three million annually.

But Liverpool has suffered much by the accession of the Right Honourable Gentleman [Mr Fox] to office. I say that Liverpool has suffered, and will suffer considerably, in consequence of the restrictions which have been put upon the African Trade. Your shipping will thereby be much impaired; and great inconveniences have been and will still be felt, from the disputes which the discussions upon this subject in Parliament have produced, between the merchants and the planters.

Sir, I will put it to the House to consider, that this war is likely to continue: if so, we must prepare for an increase of taxation, and this measure is one which will cut up, by the roots, the sources of our wealth; so that one of these two evils must be the consequences, either we must consent to an ignoble peace, or we must tax the landed interest to carry on the war, a point so clear that I wonder the landed interest do not appear most decidedly against such a measure as this.

Nor is this all: those who are to suffer by the abolition of the Slave Trade will come to Parliament for compensation for their losses. There will be no pretence for refusing such a compensation, because, whatever may be said about the injustice or the inhumanity of this Trade, it is not to be denied that it is a Trade which has been carried on under the auspices of this House, and agreeable to law.

And therefore if this Trade is now to be abolished, all those who have carried it on must have their losses made up, particularly those who have been concerned in building ships for the Trade, which, from their peculiar construction, are unfit for any other; and this compensation, I can assure his Majesty’s ministers, will be very considerable in its amount. I have no doubt that much evil will result to this country at large, from the abolition of the Slave Trade, should that measure be adopted; but with regard to Liverpool, I am confident that great distress, public and private, will be the result; that bankruptcies will follow; and that a number of our most loyal, industrious, and useful subjects will emigrate to America.

Then rose Lord Castlereagh (aka Robert Stewart), who said:

As to the general principle on which this Resolution is founded, I agree to it, and I do not know who can entertain a contrary opinion in this House. I think it is a proposition on which no human being can entertain a doubt, namely “that the Slave Trade is a great evil in itself”, and I think that as little doubt can be entertained upon another proposition, namely that it is the duty and the policy of Parliament to abrogate that evil and to exterminate it, if that be practicable, it being a stain upon the national character. But the question is, whether in point of fact you can do so.

Conceiving, therefore, that nothing can be worse imagined than the policy of this Resolution, I am extremely anxious not to be understood to give it my unqualified, and therefore I do not give an unexplained, concurrence. But, Sir, before I proceed further upon this subject, I should take notice of the situation in which we, at present, stand.

I had not the honour of a seat in this House when this subject was discussed in it, but it struck my mind that when a House of Parliament expressed the precise period at which the abolition of the African Slave Trade was to take place, and when that period arrived, and the House failed to redeem its pledge with the public, it carried with it an idea, either that Parliament did not really wish to accomplish that object, or that there was something impracticable in the thing itself, and that the view which was taken then, of the policy of the measure, was such as experience has shown it to be, a superficial one.

I have no hesitation in saying, that had I been in Parliament when this subject was first discussed, such is the natural repugnance I should feel to this Traffick, that the impulse of it would have carried me into a general concurrence in its unqualified abolition.

But still, I hope the Right Honourable Gentleman [Mr Fox] will be prepared to admit that if his own exertions and those of other eloquent members of this House, and particularly of my lately departed and ever to be esteemed Right Honourable Friend [Mr Pitt], failed of success [sic], the genuine sense of Parliament was decidedly against them. And therefore I do say that the general consent of all the parent states of Europe, supposing you could obtain it, would effect nothing without the cordial cooperation of the colonies.

Then, if in that view of the matter the thing is impracticable in itself as a general system, I am persuaded that our taking it up in the way which seems to be in view, will be so far from serving the cause of humanity, that it will increase the evil and expose us to the risk of losing a source of Traffick which is essential to our naval strength, without any advantage of any kind whatever, to counterbalance the loss. I should therefore wish that our national interest was considered in a more enlarged point of view.

I am not only convinced that this measure would throw the Trade into other hands, but by occasioning a deficiency in the supply of our own colonies, would drive them to adopt means of obtaining supplies against the law. Our colonies will be as well supplied as they now are, and that by a contraband trade, after all your regulations shall have been passed.

Now, it may be asked: “Is this country forever to remain satisfied, to admit of an evil of this great extent, and to make no effort to get rid of it?” No Act of Parliament passed in this country can have an effectual operation in a remote part of our dominion against the natural interest of those who are to carry it into execution.

For I am convinced we shall never make any effectual progress in the diminution of this evil, but by some measure which shall carry the interests and the feelings of the colonies along with us; and that we shall never, as a nation, do any good in controlling them unless we can show the policy of our act to be consistent with their immediate interest.

If we were to prohibit the importation into our colonies, it would operate only on our own shipping, for the importation would be immediately carried on by France, and you will only make France, instead of yourselves, a drain upon Africa.

The Solicitor General, Sir Samuel Romilly, now took the floor, and thundered:

I, as an individual of this country, do feel most seriously the reproachful situation in which we stand at this moment, with respect to the Slave Trade. The year 1796 was the utmost limit allowed for the existence of that most abominable and disgraceful Traffick, and yet it still subsists.

It is not however stating the case fairly to say that this House has made a pledge and that it has not done anything to redeem that pledge; for this House, in the session before the last, passed a bill for the abolition of the African Slave Trade; and it was only because another House of Parliament [the House of Lords] did not agree to it, that the Bill was lost.

In a very thin House, and on a very unexpected division in the last session, the measure was lost; and the situation in which this country stands in consequence of it, appears to me the most reproachful and the most disgraceful in which it can possibly be placed.

I can very well understand that nations as well as individuals may be guilty of the most immoral acts, from their not having the courage to inquire into all the circumstances of this Trade. But in that year this House had the courage to appoint a committee to investigate the complaints which were preferred against it.

The committee sat, and after a painful and anxious investigation, they reported to this House a great body of evidence, by which it is established beyond the possibility of dispute, that the African Slave Trade is carried on by rapine, robbery, and murder; by encouraging and fomenting wars; by false accusations and imaginary crimes.

Thus are these unhappy beings, in order to supply this Traffick in human blood, torn from their families, relatives, and homes, not only in war, but profound peace, and after being sold in their native land, they are carried across the Atlantic, in the most deplorable state in which it is possible to convey them alive, and under circumstances of too much horror to bear reflection.

Now, Sir, after all this has been proved; after it has been ascertained by indisputable evidence, that this Trade cannot be carried on without the most iniquitous practices, that rapine, robbery, and murder are the foundations of it; that men are falsely accused, and on false accusations condemned, in order to supply its victims; that wars are fomented to support this Traffick; that most disgusting cruelties attend it, in the passage of this unhappy part of our species from their native home to the place of their slavery; that they are there subjected to a cruel and perpetual bondage, I do say that this Trade ought not to be suffered to continue for an hour.

It is a stain upon our national reputation, and ought to be wiped away. The inhumanity of the Traffick is most enormous, and such as we cannot look at without shuddering.

Since the period at which we resolved to abolish this Trade, viz. 1796, no less than 360,000 individuals have been torn by us fromthe Coast of Africa to supply this Trade! Such is the accumulation of guilt that hangs on the English nation at this moment!

I cannot, therefore, suffer this subject to pass without expressing my most anxious wish to concur in the immediate abolition of a Traffick that has brought upon this nation such indelible disgrace. And I do not object to the present motion, because it is perfectly consistent with that wish.

But it is said that if the abolition of the Slave Trade is to take place, it will be necessary to make compensation to those who now carry it on, for the loss which they will sustain by its continuance;and that this compensation must be a large one.

That is a subject for a subsequent consideration. I will grant, however, for the sake of the argument, and for the sake of the argument only, that this compensation may be necessary, but then I would ask those who maintain that necessity, whether (if this be indeed a debt due from the people of England to a few individuals), the debts of the people of England dare to be paid with the blood of the people of Africa?

I do not know whether we are bound to make any compensation in this case; but if we are, the blood of our fellow creatures is not the medium through which that compensation ought to flow.

The people of England are not to consent that there should be carried on, in their name, a system of blood, rapine, robbery and murder; and that, merely because we must make compensation to some individuals.

I do not see any reason to enter into the question generally, except to observe on one point which has been stated by the noble Lord who spoke last. He seems to think that there is no mode of abolishing this Trade but with the concurrence of the colonies – that we must obtain their consent to the measure – that it must be left to their feelings.

If so, I am afraid, we shall never abolish it. If we refer to the correspondence of the West India governors, we shall find that nothing of this kind is to be expected, and that whenever we have expressed a desire to abolish the Slave Trade, the aim of the colonies has been to disappoint us in the attainment of that object.

And I would take the liberty of asking the Noble Lord, whether he thinks this country ought to endure the disgrace and the guilt of continuing this hateful Traffick, until the period at which the colonies shall consent to its abolition.

I have assigned reasons why I could wish that not a moment of unnecessary delay should take place … in getting rid of that stain on our national character. I am of the opinion that this Resolution is consistent with that object, and therefore it has my entire concurrence.

Then, the other Liverpool MP, General Isaac Gascoyne, sensing that the debate was going against his dear Liverpool, rose and said:

I must say that in what has fallen from the Right Honourable Gentleman who brought forward this Motion, and to whom we all look up to for everything which talents can accomplish, nothing can be said to be new that has been offered upon this subject: nothing has been said in addition to the arguments formerly offered, and which have been already answered by the votes of this House. There can therefore exist no reason for altering our opinion with respect to measures like the present.

But what I would wish chiefly to impress on this House is that the repeated discussions of the subject in this House, and in other places, particularly in the West Indies, are extremely dangerous, in as much as they lessen the security of property; an effect which is destructive to the colonies, as well as to the merchants in this country who are concerned [with] the West India Trade. Unless therefore you abolish the Trade at once, which I say you cannot do, the less you say about it the better.

But on the subject of humanity, admitting the principle of the advocates for abolition to be just, I say the object of humanity will not be attained by abolition, for it will only increase the demand from the [slaving] powers if we discontinue. And therefore if the Trade be inhuman, which I do not admit, you will not diminish the evil by the Abolition. But I will venture to say that the present measure has not humanity for its object, or at least it will not produce that effect.

The time, in which this measure is brought forward, I think is quite objectionable. This is a time when we ought to foster our Trade and improve our manufactures, and protect our commerce; not a time to be indulging in idle and speculative opinions. If we are to try speculative opinions, let us try them when we have not the same necessity of taxation. Your colonial produce is essential to your taxation, and this the exigency of the war will require to be augmented, instead of being diminished.

Sir, we hear a great many hard words respecting this Trade. Robbery, rapine, murder, and all the other terrible expressions which the language can afford, have fallen from the lips of some gentlemen in this House; and we have heard much against slavery as being inconsistent with the principles of our Constitution. Now that was so far from being the opinion of our ancestors, that it was admitted, by them, to be necessary.

So far has it been from being considered an odious thing that no civilised nation ever existed upon the earth in which slavery did not exist, in some degree or other, under different regulations, as different circumstances might require.

Sir, the Right Honourable Gentleman [the Solicitor General] will easily confute me if I am wrong, but I shall quote divine authority to this House to show that the greatest, the wisest, and the happiest nation upon the earth, admitted slavery; for in the 25th Chapter of Leviticus, and in the 44th and 46th verses, it is thus recorded: “Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, which thou shall have, shall be of the Heathen that are round about thee; of them shall you have bondmen and bondmaids. And thou shall take them as an inheritance for thy children after thee to inherit them for a possession; they shall be thy bondmen forever.”

Now, Sir, I am sure that the Honourable and Learned Gentleman who spoke last, had he attended at all to the question as it really is, would have been much more moderate in his language, instead of dealing out, as he has done, anathemas of the most unfounded kind. But this question has hitherto been treated quite unfairly; and I trust it will appear to the House that its proper course is to appoint a committee to examine into the losses of those who shall be sufferers by the abolition of this Trade before any idea can be seriously entertained of that abolition.

I should think that the House would lay it down as a principle in the outset of such a proceeding as this, that indemnity to those who may suffer under it will be a distinguishing feature of any bill that may be brought forward.

For surely in your anxious wishes to favour Africans, you will not deny justice to your own countrymen; for it must be remembered that the ships which have been fitted up for this Trade, must be broken up for old timber when the Trade is abolished; for they will not be fit for any other trade, on account of their being built, according to an Act of Parliament, of particular dimensions.

And I say also, that your having suffered the Trade to exist so long is a reason why you cannot abolish it without injustice, unless you afford to every person interested in its continuance full indemnity for his loss; and I say that as to the town of Liverpool, it must be absolutely ruined by that abolition.

Now I come to the point which the Right Honourable Gentleman reminded me of; which is a declaration of mine in this House, from which I do not shrink. What I said then was what I shall now repeat, notwithstanding what has been said by that Right Honourable Gentleman.

That, knowing the benefits that have resulted to this country from the Slave Trade, I think it would have been advisable to institute rather than abolish such a Trade; for I know that if it had not been for that Trade, this country would never have been in its present independent situation. Will anyone assert that Europeans can cultivate our colonies? If he thinks so, I would advise him to look at the returns of the mortality of our regiments which do military service there, and that will correct his judgement; for certain it is that Europeans cannot live there!

William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, had heard enough from the Liverpudlians, so he rose and told the House:

With regard to one part of the speech of the Honourable General [Gascoyne], I allude to the levity with which he treated Scripture; and I am doubtful whether he might not have been checked by the regular enforcement of the orders of the House, which have decorum for their basis. Could I persuade myself that the Honourable General really believes that the Slave Trade is sanctioned by our holy religion [Christianity], I should be disposed to pity his weakness, and should willingly endeavour to rectify his mistaken judgement in the spirit of mildness and conciliation.

But it is impossible not to perceive, in the very tone and manner of his allusion to the sacred writings, that their authority has not been adduced by him for any purpose of grave and serious argument, on the present occasion. It seems therefore unnecessary for me to disprove the allegation that Scripture gives any countenance to the Slave Trade, especially as I am fully confident that this House is already impressed with a contrary conviction.

Indeed, among the various signal proofs of the purity and excellence of the religion we profess, it is not the least remarkable that not only is the practice of the Slave Trade forbidden, and the principle on which it proceeds held out for our abhorrence, but it is specifically denounced as “the stealers of men”.

Besides, the criminality of this practice is put on plain and universal principles, clear in their meaning, and reasonable in their application; principles which both pointedly interdict the indulgence of vicious and mercenary wishes, and require us always to act on motives of love and kindness, and goodwill to man.

Indeed it is one of the glories of Christianity to have gradually extinguished the Slave Trade, and even slavery, wherever its influence was felt… Now, Sir, with regard to the principle of duty on the importation of Negroes into the West India colonies, does not my noble friend recollect that although during the time we have been discussing this subject, the price of slaves has increased 100 per cent, that is to say, from £30 to £70 a head, a much larger increase than any duty which he would think of imposing, the number of slaves imported into the colonies has not diminished?

Besides, if we cannot do anything effectual in this matter without the consent of the colonies, what hope can we entertain of obtaining that consent to the noble Lord’s system of duty? In short, I am persuaded that the smuggling of Negroes, after the importation shall have been totally prohibited, is no subject of just apprehension, and as an argument against abolition, amounts to almost nothing. Thus, although in the year 1791, 300 persons voted against abolition, yet in the year 1792 when a proper feeling upon it had been excited, there was a very large majority of this House in favour of that measure; and yet, so clear is it, that where there is no personal interest, the zeal of mankind abates, that in this very matter the zeal of the members of this House actually died away, and they became almost indifferent about it.

They were satisfied with this one exertion, and, on subsequent occasions, stayed away from the discussions, and, although the whole of the country had declared the Trade to be the most abominable system of cruelty that ever disgraced any part of the civilised world, yet nothing effectual was done. There is a shame in the recollection of some of these events, and I must say that this House and the public are indebted to my Right Honourable Friend [Mr Fox] for proposing a vote to rescue this House from so disgraceful a situation, and to do justice to the injured character of Parliament.

What evils my noble friend can possibly allude to, I cannot conceive. There certainly are none that have any affinity with the Slave Trade, which have existed in this country since those days of gloomy bigotry and furious fanaticism, from the horrors of which we are now most happily exempt.

The greatest evil of our condition that I know is the continuance in our name of a Traffick in human beings, the reproach of which we ought no longer to endure. If the members of this House could actually see one thousandth part of the evils of that practice which they have for so many years under one pretence or other, been prevailed on to suffer to be continued, I do in my conscience verily believe they would not suffer the Slave Trade to exist for another year, if they would for another hour.

But it is because they do not see; because some among us receive the profits, and do not see the sufferings of their fellow creatures; because the objects, as they actually exist, are not allowed to obtrude upon their vision, and interpose the reality of things between these Gentlemen’s consciences and their calculations.

It is for these reasons that arguments such as we constantly hear, in favour of the continuance of the Slave Trade, are heard at all. If one-thousandth part of the real horrors of this Traffick (I repeat it) were to be the subject of actual vision with its defenders, none of their arguments, I am confident, would be urged again. Shall we then continue a system of injustice and inhumanity when we have so much experience of its ruinous effects on the condition of mankind?

Mr Barham, an MP who owned hundreds of slaves and several plantations in the Caribbean, was the next to speak:

As to the slaves obtaining the condition of free labour, I am not one of those who deprecate the abolition of the Slave Trade on a prospect of any evils arising from that condition of free labour which may be the result of it. That however is a state of things not to be brought forward by an Act of Parliament here, but preparation must be made for it by rendering the slaves fit for freedom, and that must be accomplished gradually, by granting to them, from time to time, as much freedom as they can bear, until they shall all become fit for it; but they should not have it sooner.

And when that great work is accomplished, it will not only redound to the honour of this country, but it will also be greatly to the advantage of this country in the dry calculation of pounds, shillings and pence; and that advantage will be in proportion to the extent of the improvement.

I, as an individual, have tried to bring about an improvement of that kind among some of my own Negroes, but in their present state, I do not think they can be prevailed upon to work for money.

A Negro does not understand any condition but that of master and slave. He has so few wants that nothing you can offer him in the way of money will be regarded as an equivalent for his labour, when he has his choice between labour and rest.

With him, there is no privilege equal to that of being free from labour; for that reason a Negro is hardly ever induced to work as a free labourer: he has so few wants that money is no temptation to him. That he will be a soldier is true, because that is not inconsistent with his aversion from labour. He has no wants which the extra labour of a week will not furnish funds to supply for almost a year; and therefore he has no inducement to labour for hire. Happening to possess estates in different parts of the Islands, I can venture to affirm that for 40 or 50 years past, no means have been left untried, which imagination could devise or labour execute, to counteract the evils which necessarily attend the system of slavery; but they have been without anything like the desired effect.

The Negro should be made fond of free labour by degrees, which he is not at present. If that system should be submitted to by them, it will do; but if not, and the system should be attempted to be altered by force, such interference would be resisted. But this, I must add, that to put an end to all slavery in the Islands immediately is impossible.

Then rose Mr Manning, a strident anti-abolitionist:

I confess that I have heard nothing in the course of this debate that has changed my opinion as to the expediency of this Resolution. I am of the opinion that the frequent agitation of this subject in this House is highly injurious to our valuable possessions in the West Indies, and that the present debate might therefore well have been spared, for in my opinion nothing can be effectually done without the concurrence of the Assemblies of the Islands.

An expression made use of in the course of this debate by an honourable and learned gentleman [the Solicitor General] appears to me very alarming. He asked, “Shall the debts of England be paid by the blood of the inhabitants of Africa?”

That expression is an alarming one, as it appears to me, nor is it as I conceive, a correct mode of speaking of the African Traffick; for different Acts of Parliament which I will not detain the House with moving to have read, have encouraged the African Slave Trade. The preamble of one of which runs thus: “Whereas the Trade to Africa is highly beneficial…” [Hear! Hear! from Mr Fuller].

I say this is an encouragement to go into the Trade, which makes it bona fide British.

If therefore you have changed your opinion of this Trade, no matter from what cause, I say you are bound in the first instance, to give a pledge to all the planters of the colonies that in all cases made out fairly, you will grant compensation. I should have been satisfied had the Right Honourable Secretary of State [Mr Fox] stated thus much; I trust that in the next session of Parliament you will give that pledge, without which I do not see the smallest chance of our intention being carried into effect…

My Honourable Friend [Mr Wilberforce] alluded to the vote of 1791, [in] which the division in this House was 300 to 82, and he seems to think there is no reason for this House coming to a different Resolution at the present moment. But, Sir, has nothing happened in the interim, which should induce Gentlemen in this House to pause at this measure? Do they forget the state of St Domingo [Haiti]? Do they forget that this Traffick produces £6m of revenue? Let them look at the state of St Domingo. I do hope that every Gentleman who has a vote to give upon this subject will turn it in his mind a great deal before he gives that vote.

Then Mr William Smith, a pro-abolitionist, rose and said:

The Honourable Gentleman who spoke lately asks: “Whether or not this Trade had been sanctioned by [an] Act of Parliament?” Is it really possible that any Gentleman can, with the common ideas of a legislator, ask that question in this House, with a view of offering it as an impediment to the abolition of the Slave Trade?

Are we after such a full and ample discussion as this subject has undergone; after we have solemnly declared “that the Slave Trade is contrary to justice and humanity”, to be gravely told that we cannot abolish it because it was sanctioned in the time of Elizabeth, and has been continued to the disgrace of this country, to the infinite disgrace of this country, up to the present day? Is the length of time which this Traffick has been allowed to subsist, capable of being used for anything but our own reproach?

Sir, I have long thought that whether this Trade be abolished or not, it cannot long exist; for a great many parts of this country are actually tired of the load of guilt which attends it. It is, at present, only carried on in the ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool. The city of Bristol, to its honour, as well as to its interest, has almost washed its hands of it. The city of London is doing the same thing, for there are but [a] few employed in it now, in that port. That in Liverpool it would continue longer if not abolished by law, I have no doubt; for there the maxim of defendit numerus applies. But I am confident that if it proceeds with such rapid strides to decline, as it has done of late, no man engaged in the Slave Trade will be able soon to show his face. No dealer in human blood, even in the town of Liverpool, will be long able to encounter the execration of all mankind by continuing it. And while the friends of the Trade talk of danger in the discussion, by which they mean only danger to the continuance of the Trade, for that danger certainly must attend the discussion of it; the friends of abolition take pleasure in seeing the moral effect of that discussion. What I meant chiefly to say tonight was that the Slave Trade is, in my opinion, wrong in itself, a great evil in itself, and that therefore, you should somehow abolish it.

But how is a matter to be considered deliberately thereafter, not excluding considerations of the prosperity of this country, of the causes of that prosperity; of the power of this country, of the means of continuing that power; of the safety of our dominions, of the effect likely to be produced in Africa by the abolition; of the effect in Europe, of the effect in the West Indies. And, seeing all these points before me, it will be on a balance of them that I shall decide for myself on the question of the final abolition of this Traffick.

Summing up

The debate went on far into the night, and finally, Secretary of State Fox had the honour to sum up and close it. He told the House: “I rejoice at what I have heard tonight, by which we find that almost without exception, the African Slave Trade has been held up in this House to the execration of mankind. Even the Honourable Members who think it cannot be abolished, have, in their speeches, admitted the character of it to be detestable. “This must give pleasure to the House, as it has done to me. It goes to the conviction of men’s understanding while it gratifies their feelings. We should retain in our memory the execration of this Trade, and mix an expression to that effect with the execution of our duty in the abolition of this abominable Traffick.”

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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah, born in Ghana, has been editor of New African since July 1999. His passion is Africa and its Diaspora. A journalist since 1980, Baffour started his career at The Pioneer, the oldest existing newspaper in Ghana, where he became editor 1983-86. He joined New African in mid-1988 as assistant editor, then rose to deputy editor in 1994, and editor in 1999. His column, Baffour's Beefs, a big hit for New African readers, has been running since 1988.

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