William Edward Hartpole Lecky.

A history of England in the eighteenth century online

. (page 31 of 64)
Online LibraryWilliam Edward Hartpole LeckyA history of England in the eighteenth century → online text (page 31 of 64)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the English constitution, originally calculated for the preserva-
tion of liberty, tends in this instance to destroy it. Con-
sequently the English planters can indulge themselves in a
greater degree of passion and revenge than would be permitted
under the absolute governments of France, Spain, Portugal, or
Denmark/ In proof of this assertion Tucker refers to the Code
Noir of France, and he adds : l The regulations of the Spanish
Government respecting negro slaves are still more humane,
laying a foundation for the sober and industrious among them,
by allowing them the profits of two days' labour in each week,
to purchase their own liberty in the course of a few years.
And it may be observed in general, that though absolute
governments are tyrannical in themselves, yet they are a
great check on the tyranny of their intermediate subjects,
being ready to protect the helpless from being oppressed by
any but themselves. This is remarkably verified in the case of
those slaves who live under the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian
Governments, compared with the hard fate of others who still
groan under the bondage of the nobles of Poland.' In addi-

Digitized by LjOOQIC


tion to these reasons, he observes that an unusual proportion
of English planters lived habitually in England and consigned
the care of their property to bailiffs and overseers, who had a
manifest interest in stifling all complaints, and keeping their
principals as much as possible in the dark about the manage-
ment of their estates. 1 .

I have already mentioned the attempts that had been made
by some American provincial Legislatures, during the colonial
period, to discourage the excessive importation of slaves. They
appear to have been due mainly or solely to commercial and
political reasons, and, as we have seen, were overruled by the
British Government. In 1776, however, the Continental Con-
gress passed a memorable resolution, ' that no slaves be imported
into any of the thirteen United Colonies/ During the war, the
British cruisers very effectually prevented such importation, but,
on the attainment of independence, the question was decided
independently by the different Legislatures. In the great
majority of the States the slave trade was forbidden ; but, in
spite of the State laws, it was carried on to a considerabler extent
by New England vessels, and in some of the Southern States it
was fully legal. When the Constitution of 1787 was established,
there was a long dispute on the subject, and it was finally
decided that Georgia and the Carolinas should retain their right
of carrying on the slave trade for twenty more years. At this
date slavery, as distinguished from the slave trade, had not been
actually abolished in any State except Massachusetts; but a
measure for its gradual abolition had been adopted in Pennsyl-
vania, and imitated by many Northern States, and there were
already active organisations for hastening its abolition, and for
alleviating the condition of the slaves.*

The British slave trade had been greatly crippled by the
war of the American Bevolution, and the independence of
America cut off permanently one of its great markets. It also
very seriously, though indirectly, affected the lot of the negroes
in the British West India Islands. The active and profitable

1 Tucker's Reflection* on the pre- of slaves by the Spaniards, La BSpub-

sent Matter* in dispute between lique, liv. i. ch. v.

Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 10-12. * See Hildreth's History ef the

At the end of the sixteenth century, United States, iii. 509-520, iv. 174,

Bodin had noticed the good treatment 175.


by Google

ch. zzm. WEST INDIAN FAMINE. 285

commerce which had long subsisted between those islands and
the American colonies had been necessarily interrupted by the
war, but it was hoped that it might revive on the establishment
of peace. The Shelburne Ministry was especially distinguished
for its enlightened commercial views, and in March 1783 Pitt,
who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought before
Parliament a singularly liberal Bill repealing all the measures
prohibiting American ships from trading with the British
dominions, and establishing provisionally, and for a limited
time, perfect free trade between the United States and the
British Empire. The change of Ministry that immediately
followed, prevented this measure from being carried ; and the
Coalition Government which succeeded, contented itself with
repealing the prohibitory laws which had existed during the
war, and passing a measure, vesting in the Crown for a limited
period authority to regulate the commerce with America. 1

It soon appeared that while the West Indian planters were
extremely anxious to reopen free trade with America, a strong
opposition to such a policy had grown up. It was desired to
confine the trade to these islands to British ships and to the
British dominions, and it was contended that by such restric-
tions the prosperity of Canada, Nova Scotia, and the island of
St. John, might be greatly stimulated. Pitt, on returning to
power, yielded to the clamour, abandoned the liberal policy
of the provisional Bill, consented to refer the whole matter to
the Committee of the Privy Council for the Board of Trade, and
at last, on the recommendation of that body, and in spite of the
protests and warnings of the planters, he agreed to confine the
intercourse between the British West India Islands and America
to British ships. The result was a destitution, lasting for many
years, and falling especially on the negro population. One or
two bad seasons and one or two devastating hurricanes aggra-
vated the calamity, and its magnitude is shown in a ghastly
report drawn up by a committee of the Assembly of Jamaica.
They express their firm conviction that in seven years, and in
consequence of the prohibition of foreign supplies, not less than
fifteen thousand negroes had perished. 'This number,' they
say, * we firmly believe to have perished of famine, or of diseases

1 Macpherson's Annals of Commerce, iv. 17-20. 23 George III. c. 39.

Digitized by CjOOQIC


contracted by scanty and unwholesome diet, between the latter
end of 1780 and the beginning of 1787/ l

The slave trade revived rapidly after the Peace of 1783, and
Liverpool became its special source. It has been computed that
between 1783 and 1793 not less than 74,000 negroes were
annually transported from Africa to the West Indies. Of these
it was estimated that Great Britain imported 38,000, Holland
4,000, Portugal 10,000, Denmark 2,000, and Prance 20,000.
It has also been estimated that of the immense number of
814,000 negroes who were carried from Africa to the West
Indies in eleven years, not less than 407,000 were carried in
Liverpool ships, and that the town derived from this unholy
trade an annual profit of about 298,4622.*

There were, however, increasing signs that the conscience of
England was beginning to awaken to the enormity of the trade.
Granville Sharp with an admirable perseverance continued his
efforts, and a peculiarly horrible case that occurred in 1783
contributed largely to arrest the attention of the public. The
master of a slave ship, called the ' Zong,' finding sickness raging
among his negroes, deliberately ordered 132 of them to be flung
into the sea. The pretext alleged was that the supply of water
had become insufficient, but this pretext was completely dis-
proved. The real motive was a desire to save the owners, who
would bear the cost if the negroes died of sickness, while, if
they were thrown overboard for the preservation of the ship, it
would fall upon the underwriters. There were two trials with
conflicting verdicts, but it was clearly laid down in them that
the only question at issue was a question of property or cost ;
that there was nothing in the transaction of the nature of a
murderous act, and that the case was legally of exactly the
same kind as if it had been horses and not human beings that
had been thrown into the sea. 8

About this time a small Quaker society was formed for
the purpose of influencing public opinion in favour of the
abolition of the trade, which it did by disseminating tracts, and
through the medium of the provincial press ; and in 1783, when

1 Bryan Edwards, History of the » Stuart's Memoir of Granville

West Indie*, book vi. ch. iv. Sharp, pp. 29-31. Clarkson's History

* Bainea* History of Liverpool, of the Abolition of the Slate Trade,

p. 719. L 96-97.

Digitized by LjOOQIC


a Bill for introducing some regulations into the trade was before
Parliament, a Quaker petition for its abolition was presented by
Sir Cecil Wray. Lord North in a few words expressed his
warm admiration for the Quaker body and his sympathy with
the object of their petition, but declared that the trade had be-
come 'in some measure necessary to almost every nation in
Europe/ and that ' it would be next to an impossibility to in-
duce them to give it up and renounce it for ever.' A similar
petition was presented to Parliament from the town of Bridge-
water in 1785, and nearly at the same time some of the most
powerful champions of abolition appeared in the field. A
clergyman named Ramsay, who had lived for many years in the
West India Islands, published in 1784 a work on the treatment
of the enslaved negroes which attracted much attention and
gave rise to a long and acrimonious controversy. In 1786
Thomas Clarkson began his lifelong labours in behalf of the
negroes by the publication of his essay on negro slavery. In
1787 Wilberforce agreed to bring the subject before Parliament,
and in the same year the ' Society for the Abolition of the Slave
Trade' was formed in London under the presidency of Granville

This society consisted in its origin of only twelve members,
most of them being London merchants and the great majority
Quakers. Its first business was to define its scope, and the
members wisely decided that they would not attempt a crusade
against slavery, but would aim only at the abolition of the slave
trade and the mitigation of the condition of the negroes.

By adopting this course they greatly diminished the amount
of opposition. They avoided the delicate constitutional ques-
tions that might be raised if the English Parliament were asked
to interfere with the institutions of colonies which had their
own Legislatures, and they at the same time took a course which
was excellently fitted to mitigate the abuses of slavery. The
slave trade was in itself a more horrible thing than the simple
maintenance of slavery ; and by furnishing the plantations with
an unlimited supply of cheap and fresh negro labour, it gave
slavery its worst features of atrocity. It took away the one
serious restraint of self-interest which prevented the extreme
ill-treatment of slaves, and it inevitably produced an enormous

Digitized by VjOOQLC


disproportion between the sexes, a total destruction of family
life, extreme and general dissoluteness.

It was the opinion of Pitt and of a large number of the
opponents of the slave trade, that if this trade were abolished
colonial slavery would lose its worst characteristics and that it
might at the same time become self-supporting. In North
America and also in the Bermudas this had been already achieved,
and the result of some measures regulating the condition of
negroes in Jamaica appeared to show that if slaves were only
compelled to work in moderation, and if family life were duly
maintained, the simple increase of population would make the
slave trade wholly unnecessary. 1

The first great work of the Society for the Abolition of
the Slave Trade, was to collect evidence. Clarkson devoted
himself to this task, and the facts collected by him in long
and laborious inquiries at Bristol and Liverpool, and after-
wards brought before Parliament, revealed a series of horrors
which made a deep and lasting impression on the mind and
conscience of England. The pretence that the negroes ex-
ported from Africa were simply or mainly criminals, was easily
dispelled ; and the horrible system of kidnapping, and of desola-
ting native wars by which the trade was sustained, was abun-
dantly shown.

Not less appalling were the horrors of the Middle Passage,
and the terrible mortality that attended it. Though the negroes
taken from Africa were chiefly strong men, Wilberforce was
able to state before Parliament, that of every hundred carried
from Africa, seventeen on an average died in about nine weeks,
and not more than fifty lived to become effective labourers in
our islands. 5 Many in despair tried to starve themselves to
death, and an instrument employed by surgeons in cases of
lockjaw was in habitual use to defeat their attempts. Others,
in spite of all precautions, succeeded in plunging into the Bea,
and they had been seen flinging up their arms in exultation,
and shouting with the triumph of recovered liberty, as they
sank beneath thf waves. Nor were the abuses of the slave
trade confined to the treatment of negroes. The trade had
fallen chiefly into the worst hands j and while it was alleged by
1 See Maopherson, ir. 15a * Clarkson, ii. 58.

Digitized by LjOOQIC


its defenders that it was the nursery of British seamen, it was
proved beyond all doubt that in no other department of the
British Navy was the mortality so great.

While the Committee were engaged in collecting such evi-
dence, the management of the cause of abolition in Parliament
was taken up by William Wilberforce, who conducted it to its
final triumph, and whose fame has somewhat eclipsed the me-
mory of the minor agents in the movement. A considerable
social position, very eminent social gifts, a large fortune, the
weight attaching to the representation of the first county in
England, and the still greater weight derived from a most inti-
mate friendship with Pitt, at once made the adhesion of Wilber-
force to the cause a matter of great moment. He could not
be compared in intellectual power with Pitt, Fox, Burke, or
Sheridan, but he stood high in the second line of parliamentary
debaters. He was quite capable of mastering in its details a
vast and complicated subject, and though he seemed the frailest
and feeblest of mortals, he could sway great multitudes of
excited men by a clear and popular eloquence, and by the ex-
quisite beauty of his voice and his elocution. He had passed
completely under the influence of the Evangelical revival, and
he showed something of its weakness and narrowness, as well
as of its earnestness and strength. The enormity of drilling
militiamen on Sunday afternoons in a time of great public
danger, or meeting on that day for recreation or secular instruc-
tion, appears to have been in his eyes hardly less than the enor-
mities of the slave trade ; and the journals in which he recorded
his daily emotions, seem to me to show much of that jnorbid,
exaggerated, and somewhat effeminate self-consciousness, which
is the frequent, and indeed the natural, accompaniment, of a
constant habit of religious introspection and self-analysis. It
would be difficult to speak too highly of the purity and beauty
of his career, but something too much has been said of its self-
sacrifice. A public man who leads and represents the great
religious party of his time, and identifies himself with a small
number of conspicuous philanthropic causes, must no doubt
sacrifice some of the great prizes of political ambition, but even
from a worldly point of view his career is by no means without
charm. Of politicians of the same intellectual calibre, very few


exercised so wide an influence as Wilberforoe. Few, if any,
enjoyed so large an amount of contemporary admiration, and
not one has been so canonised by posterity. He encountered,
it is true, in his career, some measure of obloquy and disap-
pointment, but probably much less than he would hare encoun-
tered had he taken an equally prominent part in party warfare.
His character, however, if it was not exactly of the heroic type,
was at least singularly pure, attractive, and unselfish. It was,
perhaps, as free from all taint of sordid and unworthy motives,
from all envy, jealousy, and bitterness, as any in modern history,
and though a very devoted follower of Pitt, he showed on a few
occasions in his political conduct a considerable independence of

The prospects of the cause in 1788 were exceedingly en-
couraging. Public opinion was strongly and widely moved, and
no less than a hundred and three petitions praying for the
abolition of the trade were presented to Parliament. The
number may not appear great according to the measure of our
time, but it appears to have been at least double of the number
that had ever before, even in periods of greatest popular excite-
ment, been presented to Parliament. Among them were peti-
tions from the Corporation of London, and from most of the
other leading Corporations in England and Scotland. Bristol,
though only second to Liverpool as a centre of the slave trade,
sent up a petition for its abolition ; and there was a petition
from the Chamber of Commerce in Dublin, expressing their
satisfaction that Ireland had been unpolluted by the traffic, and
promising that if it were abolished in England, they would do
the utmost in their power to prevent it from finding any asylum
in the ports of Ireland. 1

Very important measures were in this year taken to diminish
or ameliorate the trade. In February, an Order of Council was
issued, directing a Committee of the Privy Council to make a
thorough inquiry into its condition and abuses ; and as Wilber-
force was incapacitated by illness, Pitt himself in May intro-
duced and carried a resolution, pledging the House early in the
next session of Parliament to take into consideration the peti-

1 Maopherson's AnnaU of Commerce, iv. 141, 154. Claxkson, L 491. 496.
May's Const. Hist. i. 447, 448.

Digitized by VjOOQIC

gr. xxiit. DOLBEHTS ACT, 1788. ' 291

tions that had been presented. Whether the trade should be
abolished, or simply regulated, Pitt said, was a question on
which he could give no opinion, pending the inquiry which was
going on before the Privy Council. Although there was some
objection to the tribunal by which the inquiry was to be con-
ducted, and some doubt about the necessity of postponing
legislation, there was very little difference of opinion about the
great evils of the existing trade. Fox at once, and in the most
explicit terms, declared that his opinion on the subject was fully
determined: that he was convinced that the slave trade ought
not to be regulated, but absolutely destroyed. Burke was little
less emphatic. His attention had been already for some time
directed to the trade, and in 1780 he had even drawn up a code
for its mitigation and ultimate abolition, but had abandoned it
through a conviction that it would be impossible to carry it. 1
He now spoke strongly to the effect that the trade was one
which ought to be totally abolished, but if this was not now
possible, it ought to be regulated at once. All delay in such a
matter was criminal.*

There was no serious opposition. The resolution pledging
the House was unanimously passed, and a few weeks later Sir
William Dolben introduced a temporary measure to mitigate
the horrors of the middle passage, of which abundant evidence
had been already disclosed. Its chief object was to limit the
number of negroes who might be carried in slave ships, by esta-
blishing a fixed proportion between the cargo and the tonnage,
and a few additional regulations were afterwards introduced into
the Bill before it became law. The measure was warmly sup-
ported by Pitt, who urged, among other arguments, that there
was reason to fear that the prospect of a speedy abolition of the
trade might for a time aggravate it, by inducing the slave
traders to carry as many slaves as possible to the West Indies
before Parliament came to a definite decision on the subject.
The Bill was violently and persistently opposed in the Commons
by the members for Liverpool, and in the Lords by the Chan-
cellor, Lord Thurlow, but it ultimately became law, and it was
the first step taken towards the mitigation of the trade.

A cause which was supported by one of the most powerful
1 WUbeiforcSi L\fe t S. 152, 153. ■ Pari Hut. xxviL 495-506.

Digitized by VjOOQIC


prime ministers ever known in England, which was equally
favoured by the leaden of the Opposition, and which had
already excited a strong outburst of popular enthusiasm,
seemed not far from its triumph, but 1789 and 1790 passed
without any further measure in Parliament than a renewal of
Dolben's Act. The report of the Privy Council had indeed now
been drawn up, and Wilberforce introduced the subject in a
long, eloquent, and comprehensive speech, and moved that
the House should go into committee upon it ; but although
Pitt, Fox, and Burke strongly supported him, the signs of
opposition were more considerable. The enormous amount of
capital directly invested in the trade, or closely connected with
it, told powerfully on Parliament. Much use was made of some
regulating enactments which had lately been carried through
the colonial Legislatures. Fears were expressed lest the sudden
abolition of the trade would ruin the West Indian Isles, produce
dangerous insurrectionary movements among the negroes, per-
haps throw a great and lucrative branch of English commerce
wholly into the hands of France. There was a demand for
further inquiry, and the question was twice adjourned. In the
country, however, the popular agitation on the subject showed
little or no signs of abatement. A print of the plan and section
of a slave ship, which was at this time very widely diffused, had
a great influence on the popular imagination. 1 The rising
Methodist and Evangelical party had taken up the question very
warmly, and most of its prominent leaders were identified with
the struggle.

The movement was at the same time strongly supported
on the Continent, though by very different men. In France,
Montesquieu, and Raynal, and also Necker, who was now at the
head of French affairs, had written strongly on the iniquity of
the trade, and the cause of abolition was vehemently advocated,
on the grounds of the rights of men, by a large proportion of
the rising revolutionary party. Lafayette, Mirabeau, Brissot,
Clavidre, and Condorcet had fully adopted it, and it was soon
brought before the National Assembly. In France, however, as
in England, there were fears that if one nation abolished the
trade, its rival would rapidly monopolise it, and the growing
1 See Clarkson, li. 110-112.

Digitized by LjOOQIC


distrust and alienation between the two countries was very
unfavourable to the cause. Mirabeau told Clarkson that out of
the twelve hundred members of the National Assembly, about
three hundred would probably vote unconditionally for the sup-
pression of the trade, but that about five hundred more would
vote for it, if they had an unequivocal proof that it was the
intention of England to abolish it. 1 At present all that could
be promised was the suppression of the bounties by which the
trade was encouraged. 1

The fear of the French Revolution and its principles now
exercised a great influence on English public opinion. The
abolition of the slave trade, being supported by Jacobins, began
to wear, in the eyes of many, a Jacobinical aspect, and the horrors
of the negro insurrection at St. Domingo, followed by serious
negro disturbances in the British colony of Dominica, greatly
strengthened the reaction. It was noticed as an incontestable
fact, that the opinion of the House of Commons in 1791 had
turned decidedly against the abolitionists. In April Wilber-
force moved for leave to bring in a Bill to prevent the further
importation of slaves into the British West Indies, but after a
long and interesting debate, and in spite of the support of Pitt,
Fox, and Burke, the motion was defeated by 163 to 88. It was
remarked, however, that nearly all the eminent men in the
House of Commons were in the minority.*

It was about this time that the Sierra Leone colony obtained
its charter of incorporation. This colony had been established

Online LibraryWilliam Edward Hartpole LeckyA history of England in the eighteenth century → online text (page 31 of 64)