Thomas Clarkson.

The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, by the British Parliament (1839) online

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In the year 1750, the reverend Griffith Hughes, rector of St. Lucy, in
Barbados, published his Natural History of that island. He took an
opportunity, in the course of it, of laying open to the world the
miserable situation of the poor Africans, and the waste of them by hard
labour and other cruel means, and he had the generosity to vindicate
their capacities from the charge, which they who held them in bondage
brought against them, as a justification of their own wickedness in
continuing to deprive them of the rights of men.

Edmund Burke, in his account of the European settlements, (for this work
is usually attributed to him,) complains "that the Negroes in our
colonies endure a slavery more complete, and attended with far worse
circumstances, than what any people in their condition suffer, in any
other part of the world, or have suffered in any other period of time.
Proofs of this are not wanting. The prodigious waste, which we
experience in this unhappy part of our species, is a full and melancholy
evidence of this truth." And he goes on to advise the planters, for the
sake of their own interest, to behave like good men, good masters, and
good Christians, and to impose less labour upon their slaves, and to
give them recreation on some of the grand festivals, and to instruct
them in religion, as certain preventives of their decrease.

An anonymous author of a pamphlet, entitled, _An Essay in Vindication of
the Continental Colonies of America_, seems to have come forward next.
Speaking of slavery there, he says, "It is shocking to humanity,
violative of every generous sentiment, abhorrent utterly from the
Christian religion. - There cannot be a more dangerous maxim than that
necessity is a plea for injustice, for who shall fix the degree of this
necessity? What villain so atrocious, who may not urge this excuse, or,
as Milton has happily expressed it,

And with necessity,
The tyrant's plea, excuse his devilish deed?

"That our colonies," he continues, "want people, is a very weak argument
for so inhuman a violation of justice. - Shall a civilized, a Christian
nation encourage slavery, because the barbarous, savage, lawless African
hath done it? To what end do we profess a religion whose dictates we so
flagrantly violate? Wherefore have we that pattern of goodness and
humanity, if we refuse to follow it? How long shall we continue a
practice which policy rejects, justice condemns, and piety revolts at?"

The poet Shenstone, who comes next in order, seems to have written an
elegy on purpose to stigmatize this trade. Of this elegy I shall copy
only the following parts: -

See the poor native quit the Libyan shores,
Ah! not in love's delightful fetters bound!
No radiant smile his dying peace restores,
No love, nor fame, nor friendship, heals his wound.

Let vacant bards display their boasted woes;
Shall I the mockery of grief display?
No; let the muse his piercing pangs disclose,
Who bleeds and weeps his sum of life away!

On the wild heath in mournful guise he stood,
Ere the shrill boatswain gave the hated sign;
He dropt a tear unseen into the flood,
He stole one secret moment to repine -

"Why am I ravish'd from my native strand?
What savage race protects this impious gain?
Shall foreign plagues infest this teeming land,
And more than sea-born monsters plough the main?

Here the dire locusts' horrid swarms prevail;
Here the blue asps with livid poison swell;
Here the dry dipsa writhes his sinuous mail;
Can we not here secure from envy dwell?

When the grim lion urged his cruel chase,
When the stern panther sought his midnight prey;
What fate reserved me for this Christian race?
O race more polished, more severe than they!

Yet shores there are, bless'd shores for us remain,
And favour'd isles, with golden fruitage crown'd,
Where tufted flow'rets paint the verdant plain,
And every breeze shall medicine every wound."

In the year 1755, Dr. Hayter, bishop of Norwich, preached a sermon
before the _Society for the Propagation of the Gospel_, in which he bore
his testimony against the continuance of this trade.

Dyer, in his poem called _The Fleece_, expresses his sorrow on account
of this barbarous trade, and looks forward to a day of retributive
justice on account of the introduction of such an evil.

In the year 1760, a pamphlet appeared, entitled, _Two Dialogues on the
Man-trade_, by John Philmore. This name is supposed to be an assumed
one. The author, however, discovers himself to have been both an able
and a zealous advocate in favour of the African race.

Malachi Postlethwaite, in his _Universal Dictionary of Trade and
Commerce_, proposes a number of queries on the subject of the Slave
Trade. I have not room to insert them at full length, but I shall give
the following as the substance of some of them to the reader: "Whether
this commerce be not the cause of incessant wars among the
Africans - Whether the Africans, if it were abolished, might not become
as ingenious, as humane, as industrious, and as capable of arts,
manufactures, and trades, as even the bulk of Europeans - Whether, if it
were abolished, a much more profitable trade might not be substituted,
and this to the very centre of their extended country, instead of the
trifling portion which now subsists upon their coasts - And whether the
great hindrance to such a new and advantageous commerce has not wholly
proceeded from that unjust, inhuman, unchristianlike traffic, called the
Slave Trade, which is carried on by the Europeans." The public proposal
of these and other queries by a man of so great commercial knowledge as
Postlethwaite, and by one who was himself a member of the African
Committee, was of great service in exposing the impolicy as well as
immorality of the Slave Trade.

In the year 1761, Thomas Jeffery published an account of a part of North
America, in which he lays open the miserable state of the slaves in the
West Indies, both as to their clothing, their food, their labour, and
their punishments. But, without going into particulars, the general
account be gives of them is affecting: "It is impossible," he says, "for
a human heart to reflect upon the slavery of these dregs of mankind,
without in some measure feeling for their misery, which ends but with
their lives - nothing can be more wretched than the condition of this

Sterne, in his account of the Negro girl in his _Life of Tristram
Shandy_, took decidedly the part of the oppressed Africans. The
pathetic, witty, and sentimental manner, in which he handled this
subject, occasioned many to remember it, and procured a certain portion
of feeling in their favour.

Rousseau contributed not a little in his day to the same end.

Bishop Warburton, preached a sermon in the year 1766, before the Society
for the Propagation of the Gospel, in which he took up the cause of the
miserable Africans, and in which he severely reprobated their
oppressors. The language in this sermon is so striking, that I shall
make an extract from it. "From the free savages," says he, "I now come
to the savages in bonds. By these I mean the vast multitudes yearly
stolen from the opposite continent, and sacrificed by the colonists to
their great idol, the god of gain. But what then say these sincere
worshippers of Mammon? They are our own property which we offer
up, - Gracious God! to talk, as of herds of cattle, of property in
rational creatures, creatures endued with all our faculties, possessing
all our qualities but that of colour, our brethren both by nature and
grace, shocks all the feelings of humanity, and the dictates of common
sense? But, alas! what is there, in the infinite abuses of society,
which does not shock them! Yet nothing is more certain in itself and
apparent to all, than that the infamous traffic for slaves directly
infringes both divine and human law. Nature created man free, and grace
invites him to assert his freedom.

"In excuse of this violation it hath been pretended, that though,
indeed, these miserable outcasts of humanity be torn from their homes
and native country by fraud and violence, yet they thereby become the
happier, and their condition the more eligible. But who are you, who
pretend to judge of another man's happiness; that state which each man
under the guidance of his Maker forms for himself, and not one man for
another? To know what constitutes mine or your happiness is the sole
prerogative of him who created us, and cast us in so various and
different moulds. Did your slaves ever complain to you of their
unhappiness amidst their native woods and deserts? or rather let me ask,
did they ever cease complaining of their condition under you their
lordly masters, where they see, indeed, the accommodations of civil
life, but see them all pass to others, themselves unbenefited by them?
Be so gracious then, ye petty tyrants over human freedom, to let your
slaves judge for themselves, what it is which makes their own happiness,
and then see whether they do not place it in the return to their own
country, rather than in the contemplation of your grandeur, of which
their misery makes so large a part; a return so passionately longed for,
that, despairing of happiness here, that is, of escaping the chains of
their cruel task-masters, they console themselves with feigning it to be
the gracious reward of heaven in their future state."

About this time certain cruel and wicked practices, which must now be
mentioned, had arrived at such a height, and had become so frequent in
the metropolis, as to produce of themselves other coadjutors to the

Before the year 1700, planters, merchants, and others, resident in the
West Indies, but coming to England, were accustomed to bring with them
certain slaves to act as servants with them during their stay. The
latter, seeing the freedom and the happiness of servants in this
country, and considering what would be their own hard fate on their
return to the islands, frequently absconded. Their masters of course
made search after them, and often had them seized and carried away by
force. It was, however, thrown out by many on these occasions, that the
English laws did not sanction such proceedings, for that all persons who
were baptized became free. The consequence of this was, that most of the
slaves, who came over with their masters, prevailed upon some pious
clergyman to baptize them. They took of course godfathers of such
citizens as had the generosity to espouse their cause. When they were
seized they usually sent to these, if they had an opportunity, for their
protection. And in the result, their godfathers, maintaining that they
had been baptized, and that they were free on this account as well as by
the general tenour of the law of England, dared those who had taken
possession of them to send them out of the kingdom.

The planters, merchants, and others, being thus circumstanced, knew not
what to do. They were afraid of taking their slaves away by force, and
they were equally afraid of bringing any of the cases before a public
court. In this dilemma, in 1729, they applied to York and Talbot, the
attorney and solicitor-general for the time being, and obtained the
following strange opinion from them: - "We are of opinion, that a slave
by coming from the West Indies into Great Britain or Ireland, either
with or without his master, does not become free, and that his master's
right and property in him is not thereby determined or varied, and that
baptism doth not bestow freedom on him, nor make any alteration in his
temporal condition in these kingdoms. We are also of opinion, that the
master may legally compel him to return again to the plantations."

This cruel and illegal opinion was delivered in the year 1729. The
planters, merchants, and others, gave it of course all the publicity in
their power. And the consequences were as might easily have been
apprehended. In a little time slaves absconding were advertised in the
London papers as runaways, and rewards offered for the apprehension of
them, in the same brutal manner as we find them advertised in the land
of slavery. They were advertised also, in the same papers, to be sold by
auction, sometimes by themselves, and at others with horses, chaises,
and harness? They were seized also by their masters, or by persons
employed by them, in the very streets, and dragged from thence to the
ships; and so unprotected now were these poor slaves, that persons in
nowise concerned with them began to institute a trade in their persons,
making agreements with captains of ships going to the West Indies to put
them on board at a certain price. This last instance shows how far human
nature is capable of going, and is an answer to those persons who have
denied that kidnapping in Africa was a source of supplying the Slave
Trade. It shows, as all history does from the time of Joseph, that where
there is a market for the persons of human beings, all kinds of
enormities will be practised to obtain them.

These circumstances then, as I observed before, did not fail of
producing new coadjutors in the cause. And first they produced that able
and indefatigable advocate, Mr. Granville Sharp. This gentleman is to be
distinguished from those who preceded him by this particular, that,
whereas these were only writers, he was both a writer and an actor in
the cause. In fact, he was the first labourer in it in England. By the
words "actor" and "labourer," I mean that he determined upon a plan of
action in behalf of the oppressed Africans, to the accomplishment of
which he devoted a considerable portion of his time, talents, and
substance. What Mr. Sharp has done to merit the title of coadjutor in
this high sense, I shall now explain. The following is a short history
of the beginning and of the course of his labours: -

In the year 1765, Mr. David Lisle had brought over from Barbados
Jonathan Strong, an African slave, as his servant. He used the latter in
a barbarous manner at his lodgings in Wapping, but particularly by
beating him over the head with a pistol, which occasioned his head to
swell. When the swelling went down, a disorder fell into his eyes, which
threatened the loss of them. To this an ague and fever succeeded, and a
lameness in both his legs.

Jonathan Strong, having been brought into this deplorable situation, and
being therefore wholly useless, was left by his master to go whither he
pleased. He applied accordingly to Mr. William Sharp, the surgeon, for
his advice, as to one who gave up a portion of his time to the healing
of the diseases of the poor. It was here that Mr. Granville Sharp, the
brother of the former, saw him. Suffice it to say, that in process of
time he was cured. During this time Mr. Granville Sharp, pitying his
hard case, supplied him with money, and he afterwards got him a
situation in the family of Mr. Brown, an apothecary, to carry out

In this new situation, when Strong had become healthy and robust in his
appearance, his master happened to see him. The latter immediately
formed the design of possessing him again. According, when he had found
out his residence, he procured John Ross, keeper of the Poultry-counter,
and William Miller, an officer under the Lord Mayor, to kidnap him. This
was done by sending for him to a public-house in Fenchurch-street, and
then seizing him. By these he was conveyed, without any warrant, to the
Poultry-counter, where he was sold by his master, to John Kerr, for
thirty pounds.

Strong, in this situation, sent, as was usual, to his godfathers, John
London and Stephen Nail, for their protections. They went, but were
refused admittance to him. At length he sent for Mr. Granville Sharp:
the latter went, but they still refused access to the prisoner. He
insisted, however, upon seeing him, and charged the keeper of the prison
at his peril to deliver him up, till he had been carried before a

Mr. Sharp, immediately upon this, waited upon Sir Robert Kite, the then
lord mayor, and entreated him to send for Strong and to hear his case. A
day was accordingly appointed. Mr. Sharp attended, and also William
McBean, a notary public, and David Laird, captain of the ship Thames,
which was to have conveyed Strong to Jamaica, in behalf of the
purchaser, John Kerr. A long conversation ensued, in which the opinion
of York and Talbot was quoted. Mr. Sharp made his observations. Certain
lawyers who were present seemed to be staggered at the case, but
inclined rather to recommit the prisoner: the lord mayor, however,
discharged Strong, as he had been taken up without a warrant.

As soon as this determination was made known, the parties began to move
off. Captain Laird, however, who kept close to Strong, laid hold of him
before he had quitted the room, and said aloud, "Then I now seize him as
my slave." Upon this Mr. Sharp put his hand upon Laird's shoulder, and
pronounced these words: "I charge you, in the name of the king, with an
assault upon the person of Jonathan Strong, and all these are my
witnesses." Laird was greatly intimidated by this charge, made in the
presence of the lord mayor and others, and, fearing a prosecution, let
his prisoner go, leaving him to be conveyed away by Mr. Sharp.

Mr. Sharp having been greatly affected by this case, and foreseeing how
much he might be engaged in others of a similar nature, thought it time
that the law of the land should be known upon this subject: he applied,
therefore, to Dr. Blackstone, afterwards Judge Blackstone, for his
opinion upon it. He was, however, not satisfied with it when he received
it; nor could he obtain any satisfactory answer from several other
lawyers, to whom he afterwards applied. The truth is that the opinion of
York and Talbot, which had been made public and acted upon by the
planters, merchants, and others, was considered of high authority, and
scarcely any one dared to question the legality of it. In this situation
Mr. Sharp saw no means of help but in his own industry, and he
determined immediately to give up two or three years to the study of the
English law, that he might the better advocate the cause of these
miserable people. The result of these studies was the publication of a
book in the year 1769, which he called, _A Representation of the
Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery in England_. In
this work he refuted, in the clearest manner, the opinion of York and
Talbot: he produced against it the opinion of the Lord Chief Justice
Holt, who, many years before, had determined that every slave coming
into England became free: he attacked and refuted it again by a learned
and laborious inquiry into all the principles of Villenage. He refuted
it again by showing it to be an axiom in the British constitution, "That
every man in England was free to sue for and defend his rights, and that
force could not be used without a legal process," leaving it to the
judges to determine whether an African was a man. He attacked also the
opinion of Judge Blackstone, and showed where his error lay. This
valuable book, containing these and other kinds of arguments on the
subject, he distributed, but particularly among the lawyers, giving them
an opportunity of refuting or acknowledging the doctrines it contained.

While Mr. Sharp was engaged in this work, another case offered, in which
he took a part: this was in the year 1768. Hylas, an African slave,
prosecuted a person of the name of Newton for having kidnapped his wife,
and sent her to the West Indies. The result of the trial was, that
damages to the amount of a shilling were given, and the defendant was
bound to bring back the woman, either by the first ship, or in six
months from this decision of the court.

But soon after the work just mentioned was out, and when Mr. Sharp was
better prepared, a third case occurred: this happened in the year 1770.
Robert Stapylton, who lived at Chelsea, in conjunction with John Malony
and Edward Armstrong, two watermen, seized the person of Thomas Lewis,
an African slave, in a dark night, and dragged him to a boat lying in
the Thames; they then gagged him and tied him with a cord, and rowed him
down to a ship, and put him on board to be sold as a slave in Jamaica.
This base action took place near the garden of Mrs. Banks, the mother of
the late Sir Joseph Banks. Lewis, it appears, on being seized, screamed
violently. The servants of Mrs. Banks, who heard his cries, ran to his
assistance, but the boat was gone. On informing their mistress of what
had happened, she sent for Mr. Sharp, who began now to be known as the
friend of the helpless Africans, and professed her willingness to incur
the expense of bringing the delinquents to justice. Mr. Sharp, with some
difficulty, procured a _habeas corpus_, in consequence of which Lewis
was brought from Gravesend just as the vessel was on the point of
sailing. An action was then commenced against Stapylton, who defended
himself on the plea, "That Lewis belonged to him as his slave." In the
course of the trial, Mr. Dunning, who was counsel for Lewis, paid Mr.
Sharp a handsome compliment; for he held in his hand Mr. Sharp's book,
on the _Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery in
England_, while he was pleading; and in his address to the jury he spoke
and acted thus: - "I shall submit to you," says Mr. Dunning, "what my
ideas are upon such evidence, reserving to myself an opportunity of
discussing it more particularly, and reserving to myself a right to
insist upon a position, which I will maintain (and here he held up the
book to the notice of those present,) in any place and in any court of
the kingdom, that our laws admit of no such property[A]." The result of
the trial was, that the jury pronounced the plaintiff not to have been
the property of the defendant, several of them crying out, "No property,
no property."

[Footnote A: It is lamentable to think that the same Mr. Dunning, in a
cause of this kind, which came on afterwards, took the opposite side of
the question.]

After this one or two other trials came on, in which the oppressor was
defeated, and several cases occurred in which poor slaves were liberated
from the holds of vessels and other places of confinement, by the
exertions of Mr. Sharp. One of these cases was singular. The vessels on
board which a poor African had been dragged and confined, had reached
the Downs, and had actually got under weigh for the West Indies: in two
or three hours she would have been out of sight; but just at this
critical moment the writ of _habeas corpus_ was carried on board. The
officer who served it on the captain saw the miserable African chained
to the mainmast, bathed in tears, and casting a last mournful look on
the land of freedom, which was fast receding from his sight. The
captain, on receiving the writ, became outrageous; but knowing the
serious consequences of resisting the law of the land, he gave up his
prisoner, whom the officer carried safe, but now crying for joy, to the

But though the injured Africans, whose causes had been tried, escaped
slavery, and though many who had been forcibly carried into dungeons,
ready to be transported into the Colonies, had been delivered out of
them, Mr. Sharp was not easy in his mind: not one of the cases had yet
been pleaded on the broad ground, "Whether an African slave, coming into
England, became free?" This great question had been hitherto studiously
avoided; it was still, therefore, left in doubt. Mr. Sharp was almost
daily acting as if it had been determined, and as if he had been
following the known law of the land: he wished, therefore, that the next
cause might be argued upon this principle. Lord Mansfield too, who had
been biassed by the opinion of York and Talbot, began to waver in
consequence of the different pleadings he had heard on this subject: he
saw also no end of trials like these, till the law should be
ascertained, and he was anxious for a decision on the same basis as Mr.
Sharp. In this situation the following case offered, which was agreed
upon for the determination of this important question.

James Somerset, an African slave, had been brought to England by his
master, Charles Stewart, in November 1769. Somerset in process of time
left him. Stewart took an opportunity of seizing him, and had him
conveyed on board the Ann and Mary, Captain Knowles, to be carried out
of the kingdom and sold as a slave in Jamaica: the question was,
"Whether a slave, by coming into England, became free?"

In order that time might be given for ascertaining the law fully on this

Online LibraryThomas ClarksonThe History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, by the British Parliament (1839) → online text (page 6 of 56)