Another October is here, which means another New African Black History Month issue – which this year has something special for the activists of African descent fighting for reparations for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They now have a shot in the arm. New African has in its possession an old and rare official record of British parliamentary debates in June 1806 in which both Houses of Parliament accepted that the UK, as a nation, had sanctioned and encouraged the “African Slave Trade” via various Acts of Parliament, and therefore it had responsibility to not only abolish the “great evil” (as some members of parliament put it at the time), but also “atone” for it. In other words, Britain said way back in 1806: “We are guilty”.
Comparing the integrity and forthrightness of European politicians of old and their descendants of today, at least judging from the descendants’ recent escapades in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and other such places, where a “no-fly zone” and the “protection of civilians” become a licence for regime change, is like comparing chalk and cheese – if a recently discovered treasure trove of British official records on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, dating back to 1806, is any guide.
In those halcyon days when politicians respected integrity and a good name better than deceit and spin-doctoring, British members of parliament stood up in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and proclaimed the guilt of their small great island in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and asked their motherland to “atone for the African Slave Trade”.
That must be the elusive legal peg that the African-descended slavery reparation activists, scattered to the four winds of the world, can use to make their case against Britain, Europe and America for the parts they played in the “African Slave Trade”. It is a legal peg they have been looking for for years without success – but now they have it!
Two volumes of British parliamentary records published by the now defunct publishing house, Phillips and Fardon of George Yard, Lombard Street, London, and also sold at the time by John Hatchard of 190 Piccadilly, London, have been discovered gathering dust in Ghana’s National Library in Accra (the roots of which go back to the pre-independence Gold Coast Library Board).
Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957, and the two volumes of parliamentary records were certainly brought into the country by the then British colonial government as they are stamped with the Gold Coast Library Board rubber stamp. And what a treasure trove this is!
The first volume came with the lugubrious title: “Substance of the Debates on a Resolution for Abolishing the Slave Trade, which was moved in the House of Commons on the 10th June 1806, and in the House of Lords on the 24th June 1806, with an Appendix, containing Notes and Illustrations”.
The title of the second volume was equally a mouthful: “Abstract of the Evidence delivered before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in the years 1790 and 1791 on the part of the Petitioners for the Abolition of the Slave Trade”.
While the first volume contains an abridged verbatim report of debates in both the House of Commons and House of Lords on a Resolution to abolish the African Slave Trade introduced by Britain’s first ever foreign secretary (or secretary of state) Charles James Fox, the second volume is an abstract of the evidence given before a House of Commons Select Committee by both pro- and anti-abolition campaigners of the time.
The publishers, Phillips and Fardon, explained in the Preface of the second volume thus: “In consequence of the numerous petitions which were sent to Parliament from different counties, cities, and towns of Great Britain, in the year 1788, for the abolition of the Slave Trade, it was determined by the House of Commons to hear evidence upon that subject. “The slave merchants and planters accordingly brought forward several persons as witnesses, the first [on] behalf of the continuance of [the] Slave Trade, and [the] latter in defence of the Colonial Slavery. These were heard and examined in the years 1789 and 1790.
Several persons were afterwards called on the side of the Petitioners of Great Britain to substantiate the foundation of their several petitions, and to invalidate several points of the evidence which the others had offered. These were examined in the years 1790 and 1791. “This abstract then is made up from the evidence of the latter, in which little other alteration has been made than that of bringing things on the same point into one chapter, which before lay scattered in different parts of the evidence; and this has been done to enable the reader to see every branch of the subject in a clear and distinct shape.”
Phillips and Fardon further explained that: “The evidence for Africa and the Middle Passage, on the side of the Petitioners of Great Britain, is given by persons who have been to almost all the conspicuous parts of Africa, from the River Senegal to Angola.
Many of them have had great opportunities of information, from having been resident on shore, or having been up and down the different rivers, or from having made each of them several voyages.
“Among these, as well as among those who have only had the opportunity perhaps of a single voyage, are to be reckoned several respectable persons of education, observation, and leisure, and it is to be observed that the information of the whole goes to things at different periods from the year 1754 to 1789.”
What the publishers were trying to establish here is that the evidence given before the Select Committee was kosher as it came from people who had been to Africa and the West Indies, and had seen with their own eyes the evils of the Slave Trade.
But it is the first volume, carrying the debates in both Houses of Parliament, that we shall concentrate on in this article for the meantime. The first volume, according to the publishers, contains “a faithful report, though in a more compressed form than that in which they were delivered [in Parliament]… It seemed to be highly desirable to preserve the substance of these speeches, as a record of the opinions which, after nearly 20 years of deliberation and enquiry, were entertained by our greatest statesmen, on one of the most momentous questions which perhaps ever agitated a legislative assembly.”
Setting the context in which the report was published, Phillips and Fardon explained that: “A bill was brought into Parliament, as early as in the last session as the circumstances of the country would permit, for cutting off some very important branches of [the African Slave Trade, though not total abolition]. Its object was threefold.
“First, to give effect to the Order of Council which had been issued at the close of the last year, prohibiting, with certain defined exceptions, the importation of slaves into the colonies conquered by the British arms during the present war. Second, to prohibit British subjects from being engaged in importing slaves into the colonies of any foreign power, whether hostile or neutral. Third, to prohibit British subjects and British capital from being employed in carrying on, or assisting to carry on, a slave trade in foreign ships; and also to prevent the outfit[ting] of foreign slave ships from British ports.”
After spirited debates in both Houses, the bill was carried by large majorities, and passed into law. As Phillips and Fardon put it: “During the discussions to which this measure gave birth, both Lord Grenville [in the House of Lords] and Mr Fox [in the Commons] declared in substance that they felt the question of the Slave Trade to be one which involves the dearest interests of humanity, and the most urgent claims of policy, justice, and religion; and that should they succeed in effecting its abolition, they would regard that success as entailing more true glory on their administration, and more honour and advantage on their country, than any other transaction in which they could be engaged”.
The Resolution, which was subsequently moved in the House of Commons by Secretary of State Charles James Fox and in the House of Lords by Lord William Grenville (then prime minister as head of the Ministry of All the Talents), was largely to the following effect: “That conceiving the African Slave Trade to be contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy, this House will, with all practicable expedition, take measures to abolish it, in such manner, and at such time, as shall be thought advisable.”
Both Houses agreed that the British King at the time, George III, should negotiate with foreign powers, for the purpose of procuring their concurrence in effecting a general abolition of the African Slave Trade. Parliament further agreed that: “The time, it is to be hoped, is not now far distant, when Africa will be relieved from the oppression, degradation, and misery of this impious commerce; [that] when arresting the progress of that system of fraud, treachery, and violence, which converts a large part of the habitable globe into a field of warfare and desolation, this nation [Great Britain] shall begin to atone to the Negro race for their accumulated wrongs, by ardent endeavours to impart to them the advantages of civilisation, the comforts and security of social life, and the estimable blessings of the Christian religion.”
Sadly, Secretary of State Fox and Dr Horsley, bishop of Asaph, both powerful advocates of “this cause of outraged justice and suffering humanity” died before the provisions of the Act became effective.
Mr Fox and his supporters inside and outside Parliament, including William Wilberforce, who had led the parliamentary campaign against abolition since the 1790s, wanted fresh imports of African slaves into the Caribbean islands and the Americas to be abolished, but not slavery itself. It meant that if their Resolution was carried, the Africans already enslaved on the plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean would still remain slaves.
Even on this, there was great resistance from the slave own-ers and their allies in Parliament. Two MPs from Liverpool were particularly vitriolic in their attacks on the Resolution. But in so doing, they unwittingly got Parliament to accept responsibility for the “African Slave Trade” and the guilt thereof.
When the debate opened in the House of Commons on 10 June 1806, one of the two Liverpool MPs, General Gascoyne, stood up and declared: “Knowing the benefits that have resulted to this country from the Slave Trade, I think it would have been advisable to institute rather than abolish such a Trade; for I know that if it had not been for that Trade, this country would never have been in its present independent situation.”
His extraordinary admission should surely strengthen the hands of the slavery reparation activists of today who have been struggling against huge odds to bring a prima facie case against Britain, Europe, and America for their roles in the Transatlantic Slave Trade in which, over 400 years, an estimated 150 million Africans were either shipped across the Atlantic or died during the long march from the interior of the continent to the coast, or during the horrendous Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
In fact General Gascoyne was not alone in acknowledging British founding role in the infamous “Trade” and the great benefits it brought to the UK as a nation, and its individual towns and cities.
Another MP from Liverpool, General Banastre Tarleton, even went further: “Whatever may be said about the injustice or the inhumanity of this Trade,” he told the House of Commons, “it is not to be denied that it is a Trade which has been carried on under the auspices of this House, and agreeable to law. I have no difficulty in saying that the prosperity of Liverpool is intimately connected with the African Slave Trade.”
Modern British MPs, used to spin-doctoring and hedging, will need to take lessons from General Tarleton in honesty and truthfulness.
“As to the situation of Liverpool,” the great General went on, “I have this to say: It was once a mere fishing hamlet, but it has risen into prosperity in exact proportion to the extent of the African Slave Trade, so as to become the second place in wealth and population in the British empire, renowned for its loyalty as well as for its commercial enterprise. Its exports, independent of the African Slave Trade, are superior to any other port except that of London, in the King’s dominions, and the sum which it contributes to the public purse, is near three million annually…
“I have no doubt that much evil will result to this country at large, from the abolition of the Slave Trade, should that measure be adopted; but with regard to Liverpool, I am confident that great distress, public and private, will be the result; that bankruptcies will follow; and that a number of our most loyal, industrious, and useful subjects will emigrate to America.”
Poor General Tarleton. He and the people of Liverpool knew that the businesses in that town (now city) were soaked in African blood and that if that flow of blood was cut off by an Act of Parliament, the local economy would die and great distress would follow.
But there was not much he could do except ask for compensation for the expected “great loss”.
In this demand, he was not alone. General Gascoyne and many MPs and plantation owners in the Caribbean and the Americas all wanted the slave owners to be compensated if the British government went ahead and abolished the African Slave Trade. In the end, they got their compensation – including the Church of England for the loss of its slaves; a church supposedly operating in the sight of God, owned and kept slaves and mistreated them, like the other owners!
In fact, Generals Tarleton and Gascoyne and like-minded people should not have worried because Secretary of State Mr Fox, who introduced the abolition motion in Parliament, was clear in his mind that Britain, as a state, was fully responsible for sanctioning and encouraging what he called “the cruelty of seizing multitudes by force, by rapine; [and] supporting that seizure by murder”. And as such, Britain had to pay compensation to the slave owners.
The greatest evil ever
Having introduced the debate in the morning of 10 June 1806, Mr Fox had the honour of closing it that night. And did he not enjoy the occasion? “There never was a time in which any other evil existed that was comparable to that of the African Slave Trade,” he told the hushed House of Commons. “There never was, among human beings, before the institution of the African Slave Trade, anything like the cruelty of seizing multitudes by force, by rapine; supporting that seizure by murder; possessing them by fraud; by false accusation; supporting such accusation by the mockery of justice; and all this for the purpose of carrying on this detestable Traffick; for the purpose of transporting them to a foreign country to slavery for life. I say, there is nothing which resembles these cruelties in all the ancient history of this world. “And so what has been said of slavery having existed in all ages, I have admitted to it. But where do you find the account of any of the cruelties I have just stated? And I have by no means stated them all. I am confident you will find nothing like them, or any of them, in the whole history of Asia. It would be in vain to look for them in Europe, nor indeed in any other place… Why all this misery should be continued in compliment to a few persons connected with the West Indies, I cannot conceive…” Mr Fox then hit the nail on the head, at least for the cause of today’s slavery reparation activists: “An Honourable Gentleman [Mr Manning],” Mr Fox said, “has said that ‘the African Slave Trade reproaches not us, it is a Trade carried on under British law, and that it is, to all intents a British Trade’. “It certainly is so; and therefore it is a Trade within the jurisdiction and control of the British Parliament. When the Honourable Gentleman says ‘you have encouraged this Trade’, I do not deny the fact; I am bound to admit it. But then, by so much more do I say, it is your duty to atone for it, and to put an end to the mischief which you have thereby occasioned. And if anybody suffers by the adoption of that course of justice, and the injury is satisfactorily made out, let a compensation be made to the party who sustains it. And here I would observe that I would not consider so much the magnitude of the compensation as the justice of it…”
The question was then put, and strangers withdrew. In the Commons the Resolution was carried, Ayes 114, Noes 15, Majority 99.
When the debate was taken up by the House of Lords on 24 June 1806, it voted 41 to 20 for the Resolution, the substance of which was then duly passed into law with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. So, in the end, the Mother of Parliaments decided that Great Britain, as a nation (and by extrapolation the other European slaving powers), was guilty of sanctioning and encouraging the African Slave Trade via the many Acts of Parliaments it had passed over four centuries.
Now, in the year of our Lord 2011, it is the turn of the slavery reparation activists to take up the gauntlet and make Britain and the other former slaving powers pay for their sins.