When the debate on the abolition of the African Slave Trade reached the House of Lords on 24 June 1806, it fell to Lord Grenville (aka William Wyndham Grenville), speaking as the prime minister, to move the Motion in the House. He told the Lords: “There is nothing comparable to the evil of the African Slave Trade to be found in the whole history of this world, ancient or modern.” Here is an abridged version of his and other MPs’ astounding addresses.
My Lords, I move that the Order of the Day be now read. The Order of the Day for taking into consideration the Resolution of the House of Commons: “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.”
My Lords, the first question is this: Is it true or false, that the African Slave Trade is contrary to justice, contrary to humanity, and contrary to sound policy? In the first place, is it contrary to humanity? Because if it is contrary to humanity, it must be contrary to justice.
My Lords, does that man exist, is there one human being on the face of the earth, in his senses, who will rise up and say that the African Slave Trade, lawful or unlawful, is not contrary to humanity?
My Lords, if we were to define humanity, what should we say it was? What are its attributes, what is its character? “A sympathy of feeling for the distress of others – a desire to accomplish good ends by good means.” Let any man examine these qualities, and tell you, if he can, how the Slave Trade agrees with either of them; and if he cannot, I think we can have no difficulty in saying that the Slave Trade is contrary to humanity.
My Lords, what is the purpose of the African Slave Trade? To seize human beings by force and violence, by artifice and fraud, and to carry them away from their friends, their families, and their country, for the pecuniary profit of those whom they never saw, and into a country they never knew, to toil in slavery for life.
That is the very definition of the Trade – to carry a vast number of human beings, by thousands and by tens of thousands, from the Coast of Africa, their native land, for the purpose of being purchased, like so many head of cattle by your planters, and made slaves for life, in order to cultivate your colonies in the West Indies.
My Lords, is it anything like humanity to tear human creatures from their native soil and to sell them for slaves for life, in another country? To deprive them by force, and fraud, and cruelty, of all those things in which it has pleased the Creator to make the happiness of his creatures to consist – in the maintenance of
society, in the charities of dear relations, of husband and wife, of father, son, and other kindred? In the due discharge of the relative duties of these different characters consists almost all the happiness of human life. The endearments of society depend upon them; and in depriving human beings of such endearments, do you not take away from them all happiness whatever? But, my Lords, is this all? Can we flatter ourselves that the mischief which it has created, will not be remembered for many ages, to our reproach?
And, indeed, I am afraid it is much greater than any of us conceive; certainly much greater than has been produced by any other system of policy, or of trade, that ever was adopted by this country, or indeed by any other; for there is nothing comparable to the evil of the African Slave Trade to be found in the whole history of this world, ancient or modern.
In ancient times, as history informs us, there were slaves made of captives taken in war. This was the practice of ancient Greece, but all the neighbouring states knew they were subject to the same calamity, and this had the universal effect of lessening the cruelties exercised over the unhappy victims, because the conquerors were subject, in their turn, to the same disaster.
But we are carrying on a trade in slavery, of which I hope in God we shall never be the objects and that no misfortune shall remind us of the miseries of captivity; and yet we ought to remind ourselves of it. But such is the disposition of the mind of man that he does not really sympathise in those miseries in which he is not a sufferer himself; and hence arises the facility with which men can speak of the miseries of the African Slave Trade almost without emotion.
But we should feel for such miseries, however improbable it is that we ourselves may become the objects of them. This reflection should lead us to a determination to remove the evil, not by trying to render that tolerable, which is, in its nature, absolutely intolerable; not to try to render that humane which is inhuman; but to abolish the thing itself; for there is no other remedy for the evil; and this is not only our duty, but we are really inexcusable for not having performed it long ago.
The practice is much more cruel in us than if it was founded on something like necessity, for which there is no pretence in our case. My Lords, in what manner are the slaves procured? Do not let us deceive ourselves on this subject. We should have the fortitude to look at the cruelties of this practice, however they may excite our horror. Have we forgotten the evidence which has been adduced to show that our practice of this Traffick tends to keep a large portion of the habitable globe in bondage?
We possess the most indisputable testimony of the cruelty of this Traffick; for a well-known author (Bryan Edwards), being himself a planter and a dealer in slaves, and besides an advocate for the continuance of the Traffick, tells you, I know not for what purpose except truth, and he speaks not from hearsay but from actual knowledge, that by far the larger part of them are put into that situation by the crimes of those who take them.
All nations calling themselves civilised, nay, many to whom we have denied the character of civilisation, have abolished this hateful practice [of selling captives made in war] as being inconsistent with humanity. By whom is it continued? By us who call ourselves the most civilised. By what means is it kept up? By the wars of Africa, instigated, not by the passions of the inhabitants of Africa, but by our avarice; because if it were not for this Traffick, thus carried on by us, there would be no motive for engaging in many, if not most, of those wars.
My Lords, it is said that all the cruelties exercised over the Negroes are done by the Africans themselves; and that those Negroes who are purchased by us would be put to death by them if we did not buy them. But by this assertion, intended I presume, as a defence of the African Slave Trade, we are made the executioners of the inhuman cruelties of the inhabitants of Africa.
In civilised nations, even when acting under the authority of the law, the office of executioner is generally an odious office; and yet you, the first nation upon [the] earth, by the continuance of this Traffick stoop to become the executioners of the cruelties of the most barbarous people upon [the] earth.
It is said, as an excuse for our conduct, that we do this to prevent cruelties. What shall we say, my Lords, if it should turn out that we are the cause of those very cruelties which we affect to prevent? But if it were not so, shall we condescend to be the executioners of the cruelties of bloody tyrants whose names cannot be mentioned, or whose character cannot be alluded to in this House, but with horror?
The next thing to be noticed is a practice which is prevalent in Africa and is distinct from that of making captives in war; I mean the practice of “man-stealing”. This is another source of supply to the Slave Trade, and we are the persons who excite and encourage this system of violence and fraud. My Lords, these are the modes by which the Trade is carried on. How inhuman is a system towards those who are its wretched victims! I will not say by what fraud, what robbery, what bloodshed, this system is kept up.
I will not say over what a large track of the habitable globe you spread this misery; over nearly a whole quarter of the world, the inhabitants of which are, by your practices, and for our avarice, doomed to slavery, after hundreds and thousands of their countrymen have been murdered to effect our object! And of the truth of all this, no human being, who has the gift of reason, and will peruse the evidence, can entertain a single doubt.
While you give encouragement to war in Africa, war will prevail there. While you give encouragement to fraud, violence and cruelty, in Africa, fraud, violence and cruelty will prevail there. Remember, my Lords, that this can only be done by your consent. The unhappy victims being thus procured, in what manner are they carried to another country; and how are they treated in their transit? We have on our table, and we have read enough, and more than enough, of the cruelties of what is called the Middle Passage. My Lords, the hearts of even those who were steeled against everything that was urged against the Traffick in general were unable to bear the recital of the cruelties of this part of it.
We endeavoured, but endeavoured in vain, to remedy the evil. There is but one remedy that can be applied with effect; for as long as you suffer your ships to sail in this Traffick of human blood; [Hear! Hear! Hear!, from various parts of the House]; as long as you steal men from the Coast of Africa and carry them by force to the West Indies; so long will you have human beings (who are called men) whose hearts are steeled against humanity, who will inflict without remorse every species of cruelty on their victims, by which profit may be produced, or even expected.
The misery of their fellow creatures is nothing to such persons when in competition with profit; and therefore, all the measures which were so laudably taken by the Legislature in favour of the health, and with a view of alleviating the sufferings of these wretched beings, have failed of their intended effect. It is true that they did a little good; but cruelty being the essence of the Traffick, misery is the inevitable effect, notwithstanding any legislative regulation which you may adopt.
I could almost have wished it had been repeated at your bar, to impress upon the mind of everyone of your Lordships, that which has long been impressed on mine, evidence in many instances, not by witnesses who were called in favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, but against it.
I could wish that the [slave trader] witnesses should declare to you, my Lords, in their own language, their savage brutal language, the acts which they themselves commit, and which, according to their feelings are justified by the necessity of the thing, and which, for naught I know, may be absolutely necessary for the attainment of their object in the course of their odious pursuit. I am perfectly confident that if your Lordships were, now, to hear at your bar, those who are employed in the passage of the Negroes, declare what they do, and what they justify the doing of, from the necessity of it; in short what is called the Defence of the Traffick, your Lordships would regard it as a perfectly good reason for the Abolition.
In the passage of the Negroes from the Coast of Africa, there is a greater portion of human misery condensed within a smaller space than has ever yet been found in any other place on the face of this globe.
I have often repeated, and I say again “that men who are engaged in this Traffick, do, for the gratification of their avarice, press together and condense a greater portion of human beings in one mass of common misery than ever were put together in the same space in any other instance, at any time, upon the face of the globe”.
Never will I cease to utter this sentence when occasion shall require it, while I possess the power of speech – never shall I cease to lift up my voice, exclaim and protest to Heaven, against this most frightful injustice; and I will add, that if you have no sense of feeling for the helpless Africans, who are torn from their country, their families, and friends, if the practices employed to procure them, fraud, violence, and bloodshed, do not excite your horror, turn your eyes to the ships employed in the passage of these victims from their native land, to their land of slavery.
See the misery on board. If this cannot affect you, and make you exclaim against the Traffick; turn your eyes upon your own interest and see the mortality it creates among your seamen, and then let me ask you whether, even upon the score of interest, anything can justify your conduct in continuing the Slave Trade? Whether any good, if good it were, that can attend this Traffick, can counterbalance so much evil?
But my Lords, what is meant to be attained by all this? The end is, my Lords, that these most wretched Africans, if they survive the sickness arising from the stench and pestilence of their passage, shall be carried to your West India islands, there to be doomed to interminable slavery.
My Lords, we have been so much accustomed to words descriptive of the cruelty of this Traffick that we have almost forgotten their meaning. Would to God that a person educated as an Englishman, well acquainted with our language and able to deliver his sentiments in it with fluency, instructed in our holy religion, and now, for the first time informed of all the horrors of the African Slave
Trade, had to address your Lordships on the subject of its Abolition, what would be the feelings of such a man, and how would he express himself to you upon such a subject, and what would you yourselves feel, my Lords, if it were the first time you heard of these things, and were assured of their existence, and that they were practised in the dominions of our own sovereign, but could not be continued without your consent?
Is it possible to conceive that you would hesitate, for one moment, to order that such enormities should cease? But the continuance of this hateful Traffick has made cruelty familiar to us; and the recital of its horrors has been so frequently repeated that we can now hear them stated without being affected as we should be. We can now hear, almost without emotion, of thousands and tens of thousands of human beings being kept in this miserable existence! Multitudes of human creatures under the arbitrary will of a cruel task-master, rising in the morning and lying down at night under the lash of his whip; who can hardly be supposed to dream of anything but torture, and who awake “only to discover sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace and rest can never dwell, hope never comes that comes to all; but torture without end…”
There is no mitigation of their sufferings, they know no change except the humour of their master to whom their whole destiny, from day to day, and every moment of the day, is entrusted; and whose discretion is frequently so abused as to produce every extremity short of murder; nay, often terminating in murder itself. Having stated these matters, I hope I may now be permitted to conclude that no man will attempt to say that the Slave Trade is not repugnant to the principles of humanity. Why then, my Lords, is it, or is it not, repugnant to the principles of justice?
It is most clear that the labour of one man should not be forced from him wholly for the benefit of another. It is most manifestly unjust that a man should be made to labour, during the whole of his life, and yet have no benefit whatever from that labour.
That never can be the case in a state of nature, and never should be so, in a state of society; for a state of society should be an improvement upon, not a degradation of, a state of nature; and by the rights of nature, prior to all law, prior to all human institution, every human being is entitled to the fruit of his own labour.
The origin of all law for the protection of property is founded upon that principle. But in this Traffick, as well as in our system of colonial bondage, there is an absolute repugnance to that principle. The African Slave Trade is, in its very commencement, contrary, not only to our general ideas of common justice from man to man, in a state of nature, but directly contrary to the principles of distributive justice in a state of society, and those who are the advocates of this Trade cannot defend it without overturning the principle on which the very extensive property of this country is secured to its owners.
As between man and man therefore, social or savage, the African Slave Trade is founded on the essence of injustice. Whatever benefit is derived from that Trade to any individual, or to any body of individuals, that benefit is derived from dishonour and dishonesty. Nor is it possible to debate this point with even the semblance of reason, unless you could prove that it has pleased God to give to the inhabitants of Great Britain, a property in the liberty and life of the inhabitants of Africa. And I would ask the advocates of this Traffick, in what book, human or divine, am I to read, in what principle of ethics am I to find, or by what rule of reasoning can I say, that you, the inhabitants of the island of Great Britain, are born with a right to buy and sell the flesh and blood of human beings?
For not only are the Negroes taken in a way which nothing can justify, but that taking is accompanied with cruelty, and the most shocking outrages to humanity. If others had a right to sell, you would have no right to buy them; you would have no right to take them by force. If they were brought to your ships, you would have no right to carry them against their will. If they were brought to you in a way less barbarous than they are, still you would have no right to act as you do towards them; still your conduct would be unjust. And you should remember that you are a powerful nation, and in proportion to your power, you give benevolence to all men.
But what shall I say of you, if instead of being benevolent, you are unmerciful, and abuse your power; if you commit acts of such inhumanity, that they cannot with any propriety of language, be called by any other name than murder, for what is it but murder, to pursue a practice which produces death, untimely death, to thousands and tens of thousands of innocent and helpless human beings? It is a duty which you owe to your Creator, as you hope for mercy, to abstain from these horrid acts!
My Lords, I know, and I am glad to know, that the happiness of man is constituted by the right use of his power; and I know too, that it never can be politick for a nation to be unjust. If at any time it forsakes humanity or justice, its conduct is to that extent impolitick. Those who like to continue cruelties for pecuniary gain must admit this to be a very objectionable mode of discussing the subject. I say that the policy of this Trade, in the absence of all considerations of justice, is no longer left a question even upon the score of commercial profit.
I am convinced that, that which is inhuman ought not, under any pretence, to be suffered to exist, no, not for an hour, my Lords. I will merely state that nothing would perfectly satisfy my mind, as being agreeable to justice, to humanity, and to sound policy, but the forbidding, immediately after this Resolution passes, the carrying of one African more in a British ship from his native land.
Such is my opinion, my Lords. I do not ask you to be of that opinion, I only state it as my own. My Lords, I now move the Resolution which has been already read.
Then Beilby Porteus, the Bishop of London, rose and said:
I would first call the attention of your Lordships to the nature of this Trade on the Coast of Africa; and, for that purpose, it is necessary to inquire in what manner the Negroes are taken on the Coast. Your Lordships know in what mode they are made slaves. First, by kidnapping; next by means of pretended crimes; and, last of all, by the means of the breaking up of villages, and being taken in war. Now, my Lords, with regard to the first, I leave it to your Lordships to say whether there is any humanity in the practice. If you examine the subject, you will also find that a great number of those who are sold as delinquents are accused and condemned, often falsely, but almost always of the most trivial offences; and for these crimes, the chief of which is witchcraft, innumerable families (the mother and her children) have been sold for slaves. And it is proved, incontestably, by evidence that a great part of those who are called delinquents are accused for the very purpose of making them slaves. It is needless therefore to say that many thousands of them are falsely accused and condemned. My Lords, I beg leave to observe upon what has been stated by [other] Noble Lords concerning slavery, that it has subsisted from the earliest ages of the world down to the present period, and [they] added something as if [they] considered that we have now hardly any right to meddle with it, because the policy of the Trade has been recognised by the Legislature. My Lords, I should be glad to know if this Trade has been, at any time, the subject of regulation by the Legislature, why it may not again be the subject of regulation, or Abolition, by the [same] Legislature? And why the Legislature can be considered to have power at one time which it has not at another time?
Indeed, my Lords, it does not seem to me, that this mode of defending, or rather of attempting to justify, evils, because they exist, and have long existed, would prevent forever the removal of any evil in this world. But to come nearer to ourselves. You know that the practice of piracy has been in existence longer than the Slave Trade; and that practice has not only been permitted, but sanctioned by the [British] Government whose subjects practice it; and this has been in use for four or five hundred years; and I do not see why that practice may not be as well defended as the Slave Trade, on the ground of the length of time during which it has subsisted; for, in point of justice, they are equal to each other. But it is said there is, in truth, no inhumanity in the African Slave Trade, for that, practically speaking, we are doing the slaves on the Coast of Africa a great kindness by taking them from an infinitely worse condition than that in which we place them. My Lords, what right have we to insist upon making a man happier than he chooses to be?
My Lords, all the inhabitants of Africa, not only appeal to your compassion, but demand justice of you, and I am confident that a British House of Lords will not refuse that demand.
It was the turn of the Lord Chancellor, John Scott:
My Lords, I have not been in the internal parts of Africa, but I believe what is related of them by men whom I know to be impartial and diligent in their inquiries. From them I find that parents are torn from their children; children torn from their parents; husbands torn from their wives; wives from their husbands; all ties of blood and affection (for Negroes have affections as well as ourselves) torn up by the roots.
My Lords, I have myself seen these unhappy creatures put together in heaps in the hold of a ship, which, with every possible attention to their accommodation, must still be intolerable; and I have heard proved, in courts of justice, facts still more dreadful, if possible, than those which I have seen.
My Lords, I know that great evils have existed from age to age in this world, but I know too that many of them have been remedied by the progress of civilisation; and is it not our duty, my Lords, to do everything in our power to remove them?
Should we not, my Lords, exult in the consideration that we, the inhabitants of a small island, at the extremity of the globe, almost at its north pole, are become the morning star to enlighten the nations of the earth, and conduct them out of the shades of darkness into the realms of light, thus exhibiting to an astonished and admiring world the blessings of a free constitution? Should we neglect a duty of such importance which we owe to our own character, as well as to the happiness of so large a portion of the human race; and that at a time when we know we can, with facility, perform that duty? My Lords, I cannot believe your Lordships will suffer to escape from you an opportunity so glorious.