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Abolition of slavery in the British Colonies

from The Times, 14 May 1833

On so complicated and embarrassing a subject as that of the abolition of colonial slavery, it could not have been expected that any Government could have discovered the means of entirely reconciling extreme parties, by any device or project even of super-human wisdom or capacity. It was plainly impossible that there could be invented a middle term between the most direct contradictions, — between the spirit of the abolitionists, who demand an immediate manifesto of freedom for all our colonial slaves, and the West India planters, who insist upon maintaining their rights of property in these same slaves, — between those who regard the negroes as entitled to all the privileges of civil freedom, and those who consider them as human chattels, to be transferred by deed or gift from one proprietor to another, — to become the objects of a legacy, or to be disposed of by public auction for the debts of an estate.

While this contrariety existed between the demands of the abolitionists and the pretensions of the planters, it was equally impossible for any Administration to stand still, in a kind of neutral position, between their antagonist forces. The increasing voice of enlightened humanity — a growing respect for the rights of human nature — the diffusion of information on the barbarities of the colonial system — the new power of the pulpit, the hustings, and the press, in spreading knowledge on the state of the colonies — the repeated declarations of Parliament in promise of a speedy abolition of bondage — and the pledges taken by candidates at the last general election, must have convinced any Ministry that the abominations of the slave system could not be tolerated much longer. On the other hand, the planters, ever since the celebrated resolutions of Mr. CANNING in 1823, have appeared to make a merit of insulting the humane feelings and the legislative authority of the mother country — have resisted the chief recommendations of the British Parliament for the mitigation of slavery, — have opposed all schemes for legal manumissions, at the instance of slaves prepared to purchase their freedom, — have refused of the necessary time for relaxation from the labours of the cane-field and the mill, — have resisted the admission of slave evidence (where slave evidence was the only protection to the slave) — have opposed the moral education and religious instructiong of their bondsmen, have discouraged marriage, — and have continued the use of the cart whip, even in its horrid laceration of women, not only as an instrument of vindictivepunishment but as a stimulus to ordinary labour. As if to give the finishing blow to any hope of amelioration from the planters, some of the colonies have absolutely placed themselves in open hostility to the King's Government, — have refused to admit a King's officer into their territory, as in the case of the Mauritius, — have denied the rights of the mother country to regulate their destiny, — and have insulted publicly the KING'S representative, as in the case of Jamaica. Is it possible to conceive that any government could hope to conciliate such opposite parties by a mutual compromise, or to stand long between them, like an isthmus, beaten by the waves of two furious seas?

But should not the very notoriety of these difficulties, and the irresistible acknowledgment of the necessity of some decisive measure, induce, if not the abolitionists and planters, at least all other persons, to concur in the adoption of some general principles, calculated to reconcile as far as possible such conflicting views and interests? The Ministers cannot be so bigoted to their own scheme as not to receive with favour every reasonable suggestion of improvement, come from what quarter it may; nor can they have a conceivable interest in ruining the colonists to please the abolitionists, or in postponing the hour of slave emancipation to gratify the planters, or, finally, in entailing an unnecessary burden upon the nation for the benefit of either or both.

They found it necessary to declare the liberation of 800,000 of our fellow subjects at present in bondage, at the almost unanimous call of the people of England, but though elevated by this act above the situation of mere chattels or brute animals, these coloured freemen are not released from that labour in which their masters ought only originally to have obtained a right. They are registered as "apprenticed labourers," and enter into a new engagement as such. They are not to be driven to the field, indeed, by the cart whip of the driver, but they are to be punished for refusing to fulfil their contract with their masters, at the decision of the magistrate. But even this ameliorated state of things is not to be continued for ever. The "apprenticed labourer" would only be a slave under a different name, and working under a different authority, if his "apprenticeship" was to continue for ever; but provision is made in the act itself for his complete emancipation in the course of 12 years by the purchase of his freedom from the fruits of his own exertions. He will thus become accustomed to the management of his own affairs, to the exchange of his labour for wages and to the feeling of the benefits of industry, before he has been entirely released from the last fetters which his original bondage had imposed upon his race. His offspring will be instantly free, if he can maintain them in freedom; if not, they will become like himself, not slaves, liable to the lash of a driver, but servants, bound to reimburse the expenses of their infant maintenance by a subsequent contribution of their labour. They will, in fact be in no worse condition than an English emigrant, who, for the price of his passage to one of our colonies, should engage to work a certain time for the person of capital who had aided in his transport and establishment. If the abolitionists are not satisfied with this arrangement, we entreat them to declare their objections to it without passion or violence, and they will, we are sure, receive a candid hearing. They must, at all events, allow that the great majority of the slave population having never been before accustomed to exercise any forethought as to their lot, or to provide for their future wants, having been naturally in the habit of regarding freedom as merely a release from toil, and having experienced the facility with which, in the course of one day of the week, they can produce all the scanty fare necessary for their subsistence, could not all at once become industrious labourers without the superintendance of the magistrate, or without passing through an intermediate state between the cart whip of the driver and the emancipating wand of the lictor.

On the other hand, the West India planters, proprietors, and mortgagees, ought perpetually to keep before their minds that emancipation, by the refractory conduct of the colonists in resisting all improvement, had become with the Government not an act of choice, but of necessity, and that they can now only obtain a modification of its terms, and not a reversal of its substance. After the country has demanded, after the Ministry has granted, and after the Parliament has sanctioned a scheme of slave liberation, what could a handful of white masters, attornies, or managers, do to resist the decree, which would show them instantly their weakness and isolation? What, for instance, in Jamaica, could 15,000 blustering or rebellious white colonists do against a slave population of 350,000, if the latter were supported in their claims by the power and authority of the mother country? Talk, indeed, of throwing themselves under the protection of the United States of America! The United States have too many slaves of their own, and would by no means add to the number by accepting so dangerous and unworthy a present.

But, in making such an observation, we do not wish to heap reproaches on the colonists, we only wish to sound the note of warning, and to invite the spirit of conciliation. Whatever suggestions may be made by the planters or their friends, short of an abandonment of the great principle of the measure, will be received with indulgence and examined with care; but let them not entertain the hope for a moment that property in man can any longer be permitted by law in any portion of the wide range of empire under the British sceptre, from "the rising to the setting sun." Let them reflect, that by agreeing to emancipation with a good grace, their compulsory slaves may become their willing servants; that they will have the cordial support of the British Government, assisted by a strong police and a zealous magistracy, to preserve order and to secure the performance of contracts; and that they may find in the promised pecuniary aid of the mother country more than they lose in the diminished labours of their negroes. Let them, at the same time, reflect on the total hopelessness of resistance, and never forget that St. Domingo saw its plantations in flames, and its white inhabitants massacred, simply because they entered into a contest at once with their slaves and with their mother country.

We have heard, as we have already hinted, and we believe it to be true, that the Government is willing to receive every reasonable suggestion for the improvement of their plan from any party whose interests it may affect, or whose feelings it may not satisfy. Let us, therefore, hope that no attempt will be made merely to embarrass their movements, or to misrepresent their objects objects which ought to be considered by far too high and holy for the narrow spirit of faction.


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