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Slavery: British MPs In Their Own Words

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Slavery: British MPs In Their Own Words

For readers to fully grasp what went on in Britain’s Parliament in June 1806, when the Resolution was introduced to abolish the African Slave Trade, and to help the great cause of today’s slavery reparation activists, it is necessary to reproduce here an abridged version of the verbatim report of the debate that convulsed the House of Commons on 10 June 1806. Please sit back and be prepared to be amazed.

Proposing the Motion, Secretary of State Charles James Fox said:

Mr Speaker … the Motion with which I shall have the honour of concluding, will tend, in its consequence, to effectuate the total abolition of the African Slave Trade; and I do confess, that since I have sat in this House, a period of between 30 and 40 years, if I had done nothing else but had only been instrumental in carrying through this measure, I should think my life well spent, and should retire satisfied that I had not lived in vain. I shall commence with observing what indeed gives me pleasure, that whatever difference may have arisen, in the course of debates in this or the other House of Parliament, as to the mode of abolishing the African Slave Trade or the time when that object is to be effected with respect to the Slave Trade itself, the opinion which either House have almost unanimously entertained of it has been “that it is contrary to justice, to humanity, and to sound policy”.

This was the sentiment expressed by a Resolution of this House in 1792, and which will be found to have been the uniform opinion of this House with something very near unanimity.

Sir, I will not consume many minutes in arguing respecting the principle of the Slave Trade; in showing the injustice, the inhumanity, the hateful cruelty, of carrying defenceless human beings from their native land, in order to sell them, like a herd of cattle.

“To deal and traffick in human flesh and blood” – as was well expressed by an Honourable Gentleman [Mr Burke] whose splendid abilities mankind will long remember – “to deal and traffick” as he said, “not in the labour of men, but in men themselves, was to devour the root, instead of enjoying the fruit of human diligence.”

But it is argued you do not make these Negro slaves, you find them so; or at least you find them convicts for certain crimes. Without entering into the nature of these crimes, or the means of [in]criminating these unhappy beings, or the cruelty of such a principle, the pretence of which is only adding hypocrisy to the lust of gain; I will say that even if it were true that all whom we purchase had committed crimes, for which, by their own laws slavery may be imposed as a punishment, I really think that it is not for the British nation to provide shipping to conduct the police of Africa [sic]. I really think a trade founded on such a principle, and tending to perpetuate such misery, is not a fit trade for us to prosecute. In this plea, we may perceive how the lust of lucre, the sordid object of gain, can blind men who, when other objects are before them, are pretty clear sighted.

But I will go no further into this subject – it is unnecessary, because the sentiment of Parliament has been fully expressed upon it already, with a very few exceptions (with the exception of some persons in the other House of Parliament, and of the two members for Liverpool in this; one of whom indeed – General Gascoyne – has declared the Slave Trade to be a thing good in itself, so good, that if you had it not, you ought to create it by bounties). Another noble viscount, then also a Member of this House (Lord Melville), who did a great deal to prevent the abolition of the Slave Trade, not only delivered in this House but also recorded in its journals, an opinion, the substance of which was “that the Slave Trade, being contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy, it was fit that it should be abolished”, and this Resolution the noble Lord followed up by provisions for effecting a gradual abolition.

Now, “justice and humanity, and sound policy” are the words which I have used in the Resolution which I shall have the honour to submit to the House. Upwards of 14 years have elapsed since this House declared its opinion to be that the African Slave Trade ought to be abolished. When I consider this declaration, and what has been done, or rather what has not been done, in pursuance of it – when I find that no one step has been taken towards an abolition, agreed to be fitting more than 14 years ago, I cannot help thinking that the House will find itself bound, from regard for its own character and reputation in this country, and in the rest of the world, to do something towards the abolition of a trade which the House itself resolved, most solemnly, should be abolished 10 years ago, viz. on the 1st of January 1796, and of which it has, so frequently, expressed its abhorrence.

In the year 1791, indeed, the proposition of my Honourable Friend [Mr Wilberforce] was rejected; but in the year 1792, the business having been very much considered by the country at large, warm feelings were necessarily excited, and those warm feelings were, as necessarily, communicated to this House. Then, and in a very full attendance, the question was agitated and was carried for a gradual abolition, contrary to my desire, because I was always for an immediate abolition.

It is, however, a fact that in that session [1792], it was resolved by this House that a period should be put to the Slave Trade, on the 1st of January 1796, and this after all the ample discussions which took place in that and several preceding sessions.

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