When the debate on the abolition of the African Slave Trade reached the House of Lords on 24 June 1806, it fell to Lord Grenville (aka William Wyndham Grenville), speaking as the prime minister, to move the Motion in the House. He told the Lords: “There is nothing comparable to the evil of the African Slave Trade to be found in the whole history of this world, ancient or modern.” Here is an abridged version of his and other MPs’ astounding addresses.
My Lords, I move that the Order of the Day be now read. The Order of the Day for taking into consideration the Resolution of the House of Commons: “That this House, considering the African Slave Trade to be contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy, will, with all practicable expedition, take effectual measures for the abolition of the said Trade, in such manner and at such period as may be deemed advisable.”
My Lords, the first question is this: Is it true or false, that the African Slave Trade is contrary to justice, contrary to humanity, and contrary to sound policy? In the first place, is it contrary to humanity? Because if it is contrary to humanity, it must be contrary to justice.
My Lords, does that man exist, is there one human being on the face of the earth, in his senses, who will rise up and say that the African Slave Trade, lawful or unlawful, is not contrary to humanity?
My Lords, if we were to define humanity, what should we say it was? What are its attributes, what is its character? “A sympathy of feeling for the distress of others – a desire to accomplish good ends by good means.” Let any man examine these qualities, and tell you, if he can, how the Slave Trade agrees with either of them; and if he cannot, I think we can have no difficulty in saying that the Slave Trade is contrary to humanity.
My Lords, what is the purpose of the African Slave Trade? To seize human beings by force and violence, by artifice and fraud, and to carry them away from their friends, their families, and their country, for the pecuniary profit of those whom they never saw, and into a country they never knew, to toil in slavery for life.
That is the very definition of the Trade – to carry a vast number of human beings, by thousands and by tens of thousands, from the Coast of Africa, their native land, for the purpose of being purchased, like so many head of cattle by your planters, and made slaves for life, in order to cultivate your colonies in the West Indies.
My Lords, is it anything like humanity to tear human creatures from their native soil and to sell them for slaves for life, in another country? To deprive them by force, and fraud, and cruelty, of all those things in which it has pleased the Creator to make the happiness of his creatures to consist – in the maintenance of society, in the charities of dear relations, of husband and wife, of father, son, and other kindred? In the due discharge of the relative duties of these different characters consists almost all the happiness of human life. The endearments of society depend upon them; and in depriving human beings of such endearments, do you not take away from them all happiness whatever? But, my Lords, is this all? Can we flatter ourselves that the mischief which it has created, will not be remembered for many ages, to our reproach?
And, indeed, I am afraid it is much greater than any of us conceive; certainly much greater than has been produced by any other system of policy, or of trade, that ever was adopted by this country, or indeed by any other; for there is nothing comparable to the evil of the African Slave Trade to be found in the whole history of this world, ancient or modern.
In ancient times, as history informs us, there were slaves made of captives taken in war. This was the practice of ancient Greece, but all the neighbouring states knew they were subject to the same calamity, and this had the universal effect of lessening the cruelties exercised over the unhappy victims, because the conquerors were subject, in their turn, to the same disaster.
But we are carrying on a trade in slavery, of which I hope in God we shall never be the objects and that no misfortune shall remind us of the miseries of captivity; and yet we ought to remind ourselves of it. But such is the disposition of the mind of man that he does not really sympathise in those miseries in which he is not a sufferer himself; and hence arises the facility with which men can speak of the miseries of the African Slave Trade almost without emotion.