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Debates on the slave trade

Parliamentary History, XXVIII, 41-101. 12/ 21 May 1789

The slave trade was important to Britain’s 18th century Atlantic trade and was crucial to the prosperity of Bristol and Liverpool. Within the British Empire, slavery itself occurred predominantly in the West Indies. The Somerset case of 1772 made slavery illegal in Britain. During the 1780s a powerful group of Whigs, including William Pitt, Charles James Fox and William Wilberforce tried to abolish the slave trade but they only succeeded in regulating conditions on British slave ships. Wilberforce (1759-1833) was the chief spokesman for the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament. The campaign did not succeed until 1807.

12 May: Wilberforce . . . A report has been made by H.M.'s Privy Council, which, I trust, every gentleman has read, and which ascertains the slave trade to be just such in practice as we know, from theory, it must be. What should we suppose must naturally be the consequence of our carrying on a slave trade with Africa? With a country vast in its extent, not utterly barbarous, but civilized in a very small degree? Does any one suppose a slave trade would help their civilization? Is it not plain, that she must suffer from it? That civilization must be checked; that her barbarous manners must be made more barbarous; and that the happiness of her millions of inhabitants must be prejudiced with her intercourse with Britain? Does not every one see that a slave trade, carried on around her coasts, must carry violence and desolation to her very centre? That in a Continent just emerging from barbarism, if a trade in men is established, if her men are all converted into goods, and become commodities that can be bartered, it follows, they must be subject to ravage just as goods are; and this, too, at a period of civilization, when there is no protecting Legislature to defend this their only sort of property, in the same manner as the rights of property are maintained by the Legislature of every civilized country. We see then, in the nature of things, how easily the practices of Africa are to be accounted for. Her Kings are never compelled to war, that we can hear of, by public principles, by national glory, still less by the love of their people. In Europe it is the extension of commerce, the maintenance of national honour, or some great public object, that is ever the motive to war with every Monarch; but, in Africa, it is the personal avarice and sensuality, of their Kings; these two vices ... we stimulate in all these African Princes, and we depend upon these vices for the very maintenance of the slave trade. Does the King of Barbessin want brandy? He has only to send his troops, in the night time, to burn and desolate a village; the captives will serve as commodities, that may be bartered with the British trader...

Having disposed now of the first part of this subject, I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject. So much misery condensed in so little room, is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived... Let any one imagine to himself 6 or 700 of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this? One would think it had been determined to heap upon them all the varieties of bodily pain, for the purpose of blunting the feelings of the mind; and yet, in this very point (to show the power of human prejudice) the situation of the slaves has been described by Mr. Norris, one of the Liverpool delegates, in a manner which, I am sure will convince the House how interest can draw a film over the eyes, so thick, that total blindness could do no more ...

"Their apartments," says Mr. Norris, "are fitted up as much for their advantage as circumstances will admit. The right ankle of one, indeed, is connected with the left ankle of another by a small iron fetter, and if they are turbulent, by another on their wrists. They have several meals a day; some of their own country provisions, with the best sauces of African cookery; and by way of variety, another meal of pulse, &c. according to European taste. After breakfast they have water to wash themselves, while their apartments are perfumed with frankincense and lime juice. Before dinner, they are amused after the manner of their, country. The song and dance are promoted," and, as if the whole was really a scene of pleasure and dissipation it is added, that games of chance are furnished. "The men play and sing, while the women and girls make fanciful ornaments with beads, which they are plentifully supplied with."... .

What will the House think when, by the concurring testimony of other witnesses, the true history is laid open? The slaves who are sometimes described as rejoicing at their captivity, are so wrung with misery at leaving their country, that it is the constant practice to set sail in the night, lest they should be sensible of their departure. The pulse which Mr. Norris talks of are horse beans; and the scantiness, both of water and provision, was suggested by the very Legislature of Jamaica in the report of their committee, to be a subject that called for the interference of Parliament. Mr. Norris talks of frankincense and lime juice; when the surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close, that there is not room to tread among them: and when you have it in evidence from Sir George Yonge, that even in a ship which wanted 200 of her complement, the stench was intolerable. The song and the dance, says Mr. Norris, are promoted. It had been more fair, perhaps, if he had explained that word promoted. The truth is, that for the sake of exercise, these miserable wretches, loaded with chains, oppressed with disease and wretchedness, are forced to dance by the terror of the lash, and sometimes by the actual use of it...

It may be observed, too, with respect to food, that all instrument is sometimes carried out, in order to force them to eat which is the same sort of proof how much they enjoy themselves in that instance also. As to their singing, what shall we say when we are told that their songs are songs of lamentation upon their departure which, while they sing, are always in tears, insomuch, that one captain (more humane as I should conceive him, therefore than the rest) threatened one of the women with a flogging, because the mournfulness of her song was too painful for his feelings.

In order, however, not to trust too much to any sort of description, I will call the attention of the House to one species of evidence, which is absolutely infallible. Death, at least, is a sure ground of evidence, and the proportion of deaths will not only confirm, but if possible will even aggravate our suspicion of their misery in the transit. It will be found, upon an average of all the ships of which evidence has been given at the Privy Council that exclusive of those who perish before they sail, not less than 12½ per cent perish in the passage. Besides these, the Jamaica report tells you, that not less than 4½ per cent die on shore before the day of sale, which is only a week or two from the time of landing. One third more die in the seasoning, and this in a country exactly like their own, where they are healthy and happy as some of the evidences would pretend... Upon the whole, however, here is a mortality of about 50 per cent and this among negroes who are not bought unless quite healthy at first, and unless (as the phrase is with cattle) they are sound in wind and limb. How then can the House refuse its belief to the multiplied testimonies before the Privy Council, of the savage treatment of the negroes in the middle passage e Nay, indeed, what need is there of any evidence? The number of deaths speaks for itself, and makes all such inquiry superfluous.

As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you, Sir, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might, - let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition ... it is true, indeed, my mind was harassed beyond measure; for when West-India planters and merchants retorted it upon me that it was the British Parliament had authorized this trade; when they said to me, "it is your Acts of Parliament, it is your encouragement, it is faith in your laws, in your protection, that has tempted us into this trade, and has now made it necessary for us," it became difficult, indeed, what to answer. If the ruin of the West-Indies threatened us on the one hand, while this load of wickedness pressed upon us on the other, the alternative, indeed, was awful. It naturally suggested itself to me, how strange it was that Providence, however mysterious in its ways, should so have constituted the world as to make one part of it depend for its existence oil the depopulation and devastation of another. I could not therefore help distrusting the arguments of those who insisted that the plundering of Africa was necessary for the cultivation of the West-Indies. I could not believe that the same Being who forbids rapine and bloodshed, had made rapine, and bloodshed necessary to the well-being of any part of His universe...

I hope now to prove by authentic evidence that, in truth, the West Indies have nothing to fear from the total and immediate abolition of the slave trade: ... Let us ask then what are the causes of the mortality in the West Indies: - In the first place, the disproportion of sexes; all evil which, when the slave trade is abolished, must in the course of nature cure itself. In the second place, the disorders contracted in the middle passage... A third cause of deaths in the West Indies is excessive labour joined with improper food. I mean not to blame the West Indians, for this evil springs from the very nature of things. In this country the work is fairly paid for and distributed among our labourers, according to the reasonableness of things; and if a trader or manufacturer finds his profits decrease, he retrenches his own expenses, he lessens the number of his hands, and every branch of trade finds its proper level. In the West Indies the whole number of slaves remains with the same master. Is the master pinched in his profits? - the slave allowance is pinched in consequence; for as charity begins at home, the usual gratification of the master will never be given up so long as there is a possibility of making the retrenchment from the allowance of the slaves. There is therefore a constant tendency to the very minimum with respect to slaves' allowance; and if in any one hard year the slaves get through upon a reduced allowance ... this becomes a precedent upon other occasions; nor is the gradual destruction of the slave a consideration sufficient to counteract the immediate advantage and profit that is got by their hard usage. Here then we perceive again how the argument of interest fails also with respect to the treatment of slaves in the West Indies...

Another cause of the mortality of slaves is the dreadful dissoluteness of their manners. Here it might be said that self-interest must induce the planters to wish for some order and decency around their families; but in this case also, it is slavery itself that is the mischief. Slaves, considered as cattle, left without instruction, without any institution of marriage, so depressed as to have no means almost of civilization, will undoubtedly be dissolute; and, until attempts are made to raise them a little above their present situation, this source of mortality will remain...

It is now to be remarked that all these causes of mortality among the slaves do undoubtedly admit of a remedy, and it is the abolition of the slave trade that will serve as this remedy. When the manager shall know that a fresh importation is not to be had from Africa, and that he cannot retrieve the deaths he occasions by any new purchases, humanity must be introduced; an improvement in the system of treating them will thus infallibly be effected, an assiduous care of their health and of their morals, marriage institutions, and many other things, as yet little thought of, will take place; because they will be absolutely necessary. Births will thus increase naturally; instead of fresh accessions of the same negroes from Africa, each generation will then improve upon the former, and thus will the West Indies themselves eventually profit by the abolition of the slave trade. But, Sir, I will show by experience already had, how the multiplication of slaves depends upon their good treatment. All sides agree that slaves are much better treated now than they were thirty years ago in the West Indies, and that there is every day a growing improvement. I will show, therefore, by authentic documents, how their numbers have increased (or rather how the decrease has lessened) in the same proportion as the treatment has improved. There were in Jamaica, in the year 1761, 147,000 slaves; in the year 1787, there were 256,000; in all this period of 26 years, 165,000 were imported, which would be upon an average 2150 per annum, there being, on an average of the whole 26 years, 11-15th per cent. yearly diminution of the number of slaves on the island. In fact, however, I find that the diminution in the first period, when they were the worst used, was 21 per cent; in the next 7 years it was 1 per cent.; and the average of the last period is 3-5ths per cent. It should also be observed, that there has lately been, on account of the war, a much more than ordinary diminution, which was the case also in the former war, besides that 15,000 have been destroyed by the late famine and hurricanes. Upon these promises I ground a conclusion, that in Jamaica there is at this time an actual increase of population among the slaves begun. It may fairly be presumed, that since the year 1782 this has been the case, and that the births by this time exceed the deaths by about 1000 or 1100 per annum... In the island of Barbadoes the case is nearly the same as at Jamaica. In St. Christopher's, there are 9600 females, and 10,300 males; so that an increase by birth, if the treatment is tolerable, may fairly be expected. In Dominica ... there is a natural increase, though it is yet inconsiderable... In Nevis there are absolutely five women to four men. In Antigua, the epidemical disorders have lately cut off 1-4th or 1-5th of the negroes; but this cannot be expected to return, especially when the grand cause of epidemical disorders is removed. In Bermudas and the Bahamas there is an actual increase. In Montserrat there is much the same decrease as there has been in Jamaica, which is to be accounted for by the emigrations from that island... But, allowing even the number of negroes to be deficient, still there are many other resources to be had - the waste of labour which now prevails - the introduction of the plough and other machinery - the division of work, which in free and civilized countries is the grand source of wealth - the reduction of the number of negro servants, of whom not less than from 20 to 40 are kept in ordinary families - All these I touch upon merely as hints, to show that the West Indies are not bereaved of all the means of cultivating their estates, as some persons have feared. But, Sir, even if these suppositions are all false and idle, if every one of these succedanea should fail, I still do maintain that the West India planters can and will indemnify themselves by the increased price of their produce in our market; a principle which is so clear, that in questions of taxation, or any other question of policy, this sort of argument would undoubtedly be admitted. I say, therefore, that the West Indians who contend against the abolition, are nonsuited in every part of the argument...

The next subject which I shall touch upon, is, the influence of the slave trade upon our marine: and instead of being a benefit to our sailors as some have ignorantly argued I do assert it is their grave. The evidence upon the point is clear; for, by the indefatigable industry and public spirit of Mr. Clarkson, the muster rolls of all the slave ships have been collected and compared with those of other trades; and it appears in the result that more sailors die in one year in the slave trade, than die in two years in all our other trades put together. It appears by the muster roll to 88 slave ships which sailed from Liverpool in 1787, that the original crews consisted of 3170 sailors - of these only 1428 returned: 642 died or were lost, and I too were discharged oil the voyage or deserted either in Africa or the West Indies...

There is one other argument, in my opinion a very weak and absurd one, which many persons, however, have much dwelt upon, I mean, that, if we relinquish the slave trade, France will take it up. If the slave trade be such as I have described it ... we cannot wish a greater mischief to France than that she should adopt it. For the sake of France, however, and for the sake of humanity, I trust, nay, I am sure, she will not. France is too enlightened a nation to begin pushing a scandalous as well as ruinous traffic at the very time when England sees her folly and resolves to give it up. it is clearly no argument whatever against the wickedness of the trade, that France will adopt it: for those who argue thus may argue equally that we may rob, murder, and commit any crime which any one else would have committed if we did not. The truth is, that, by our example, we shall produce the contrary effect. If we refuse the abolition, we shall he, therefore, under the twofold guilt of knowingly persisting in this wicked trade ourselves, and, as far as we can, of inducing France to do the same. Let us, therefore, lead the way; let this enlightened country take precedence in this noble cause, and we shall soon find that France is not backward to follow, nay, perhaps, to accompany our steps. If they should be mad enough to adopt it, they will have every disadvantage to cope with. They must buy the negroes much dearer than we; the manufactures they sell, must probably be ours; an expensive floating factory, ruinous to the health of sailors, which we have hitherto maintained, must be set up; and, after all, the trade can serve only as a sort of Gibraltar, upon which they may spend their strength, while the productive branches of their commerce must in proportion be neglected and starved...

When we consider the vastness of the continent of Africa; when we reflect how all other countries have for some centuries past been advancing in happiness and civilization; when we think how in this same period all improvement in Africa has been defeated by her intercourse with Britain; when we reflect it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt; how the slave trade has enslaved their minds, blackened their character, and sunk them so low in the scale of animal beings, that some think the very apes are of a higher class, and fancy the ourang-outang has given them the go-by. What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or to attempt any reparation! it seems, indeed, as if we had determined to forbear from all interference until the measure of our folly and wickedness was so full and complete: until the impolicy which eventually belongs to vice, was become so plain and glaring, that not an individual in the country should refuse to join in the abolition; it seems as if we had waited until the persons most interested should be tired out with the folly and nefariousness of the trade, and should unite in petitioning against it...

Alderman Newnham said, that though he wished as well to the cause of humanity as any man, yet, as a representative of the City of London, he could not give his consent to a proposition which, if carried, would fill the City with men suffering as much as the poor Africans. He conceived, that if wise regulations were applied to the slave trade, so as to cure it of the many abuses that he had no doubt prevailed in it, it might be made a source of revenue and material commercial advantage. If it were abolished altogether, he was persuaded it would render the City of London one scene of bankruptcy and ruin. Standing in the situation that he did in that House, he must suppress his feelings, and act upon motives of prudence. He therefore cautioned gentlemen not rashly and precipitately to put an end to a trade, so essentially advantageous as a branch of our national commerce.

Lord Penrhyn rose again, merely to prevent the Committee from going away with an idea that sugar could be cheaply cultivated by freemen. No such thing was practicable. It had been tried, and tried in vain. Notwithstanding the reveries, therefore, of the hon. mover, that speculation must be abandoned. There were mortgages in the West India Islands to the amount of seventy millions; the fact therefore was, if they passed the vote of abolition, they actually struck at seventy millions of property, they ruined the colonies, and by destroying an essential nursery for seamen, gave lip the dominion of the sea at a single stroke.

21 May: Mr. Cruger was for the Speaker's leaving the Chair, because it would give the House all opportunity of refuting what were, on a former day, considered as misrepresentations. As to the show of benevolence, and the motives that actuated gentlemen, he hoped and wished to be among the foremost in the cause of humanity, and in opposition to every species of oppression; but he thought, at the same time, if the House was determined at all hazards to carry these propositions, it would become the justice of the nation to repair such losses as might be sustained by the merchants and planters from the abolition of the trade, otherwise gentlemen might be justly considered as liberal, or even ostentatious, in their sacrifice to the cause of humanity at the expense - of others. As the honour would be national, whatever losses might arise from it should not fall on a particular class of individuals, but be national also. In that case they must think of raising a fund of at least 60 or 70 millions sterling... He had also heard of emancipating all the slaves in the West-India islands. Was that a part of the project? He was well persuaded that whoever offered any thing in favour of the slave trade, or engaged in it, had invincible prejudices to encounter. The people had been taught to associate every thing cruel and oppressive with the idea of the trade; but, from his own knowledge, and the evidence which would be laid before the House, he could venture to pronounce the picture overcharged. At any rate, however, as it was a trade which had been so long sanctioned by the laws of this country, and the practice of every civilized nation, those who had engaged in it, on the faith of public protection, would have a fair claim to public compensation. The planters, indeed, might be reimbursed, but the merchants stood little chance of retribution...

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