“Why, might there not be men in Africa of as fine feelings as ourselves, of as enlarged understandings, and as manly in their minds as any of us?”
Charles James Fox, in the House of Commons, April 1791
IN 1789, JUST BEFORE THE FALL of the Bastille transformed the political history of the world, debates on slavery and the slave trade were held in the legislatures of both the United States and Britain, ex-enemies whose interest in both the slave trade and in abolition was coincidentally stronger than anywhere else. The two debates by chance began within one day of each other but, given the slowness of communication, neither paid attention to the other.
The first and most important of these debates, taking into account the level of participation in the traffic, was that in the House of Commons to discuss the report of the Privy Council on the subject of the slave trade. Those who had read that admirable two-volume document, with its wealth of detail, its muster rolls of sailors, its statistics, and its testimony from participants, gained an intimate knowledge of how slaves were obtained in Africa, how they were transported to the Americas, and how they were treated there. Much of the information in the report was the consequence of the inquiries of the tireless Clarkson, who never allowed inconvenience to interrupt his pursuit of truth. No scholar in search of an explanation of the Maya glyphs, no explorer of the source of the Nile, has devoted more trouble than he to a great cause: “O Man!” he once allowed himself to reflect. “How often, in these solitary journeyings, have I exclaimed against the baseness of thy nature, when reflecting on the little paltry considerations which have smothered thy benevolence, and hindered thee from succouring an oppressed brother.”1 By that time, though, Clarkson was far from solitary, for he was the captain of a great army of philanthropists, the largest until that date ever to have been gathered to voluntary service in a great cause.
The debate in the House of Commons was introduced on May 12 by Wilberforce, in a fine speech lasting three and a half hours which set out to show how all the evidence gathered supported the case against the trade. We should imagine him, small in build, rising from the front bench of the chamber, the daylight coming in from the west window. Wilberforce began by declaring that, if guilt existed for the slave trade, all the people listening to him “were all of them participators in it.” He did not argue against slavery as such but suggested that the abolition of the trade would lead to planters being forced to treat their slaves better. It was nonsense that the slave trade was the nursery of the navy, as Lord Rodney had insisted during discussion of Dolben’s bill; rather, it was the grave. The orator dwelt at length on the middle passage: “So much misery condensed in so little room was more than human imagination had ever before conceived. Think only of six hundred persons linked together, trying to get rid of each other, crammed in a close vessel with every object that was nauseous and disgusting, and struggling with all the varieties of wretchedness . . . yet . . . this transportation had been described by several witnesses from Liverpool to be a comfortable conveyance.” Wilberforce made fun of the way in which some witnesses who had spoken in favor of slavery had depicted the crossing. Could it really be true that, when sailors had to be flogged, that punishment was administered out of the hearing of the Africans, lest it should depress their spirits? Was it usual for the “apartments” where the slaves slept to be “perfumed after breakfast with incense”? Wilberforce thought that France would soon follow Britain in abolishing the trade, so any suggestion that, after abolition, that country would take up the British trade was nonsensical.
But there was opposition: from members who again exhibited all the prejudice, and expressed all the received opinions, which had grown up over generations. Bamber Gascoyne even said that he was “persuaded that the slave trade might be made a much greater source of revenue and riches . . . than it was at present.” His fellow member for Liverpool, Lord Penrhyn, said that, were the Commons to vote for abolition, “they actually would strike at seventy millions of property, they ruined the colonies and, by destroying an essential nursery of seamen, gave up the dominion of the sea at a single stroke.” The members of Parliament for London also strongly opposed abolition, a reminder that the capital still had a substantial stake in slaving. For example, Alderman Newman, a banker and sugar grocer, grotesquely said that, if the trade were to be abolished, the City would be filled with men suffering as much as the poor Africans. Alderman Sawbridge, a stalwart of metropolitan radicalism in his youth, opposed Wilberforce on the ground that abolition would not serve Africans: “If they could not be sold as slaves, they would be butchered and executed at home.” George Dempster, member for the Scottish seat of Perth Burghs, insisted (despite his friendship with Scottish liberals such as Hume and Adam Ferguson) that neither Wilberforce nor Pitt nor anyone else who did not own plantations had any right to interfere with the interests of those who did. John Drake, member for Amersham, thought that abolition would be “very prejudicial” to the interests of the nation. Crisp Molineux, a West Indian planter, and member for Garboldisham, thought that his fellow entrepreneurs were really the greatest slaves—to their high responsibilities. If abolition became law, he thought, all sensible merchants would go to France, where they would be well received.I John Henniker, member for New Romney, read out in the House of Commons a long letter from the ruthless but effective King Agaja of Dahomey to the first duke of Chandos, which showed, to his satisfaction at least, that, “if we did not take the slaves off their hands, the miserable wretches would suffer still more severely.” He concluded with a quotation from Cicero.
But Wilberforce was supported by Burke, who used the occasion to state, characteristically, that “he was not over fond of abstract propositions.” Whatever he might have thought before, he now at least had no doubt that the slave trade was “an absolute robbery.” He insisted that Africa could never be civilized while the trade continued.II Pitt also spoke magisterially, committing himself to abolition for the first time as an individual, and suggested that a British termination of the traffic might, through negotiation, lead to a similar consummation in other countries. France in particular would agree that it was “highly becoming for Great Britain to take the lead of other nations in such a virtuous and magnificent measure.”2
The anticipation, or fear, that legislation would follow was evident. The same day that Parliament debated the trade, many petitions (fast becoming the main tactic of extraparliamentary pressure) were presented to the House of Commons against abolition, including one from the West Indian traders of Bristol. That document insisted that “it has been found . . . with great exactness that the African and West India trade constitute at least three fifths of the commerce of the port of Bristol and that if, upon such a motion [as proposed by Wilberforce], a Bill should pass into law, the decline of the trade of . . . Bristol must inevitably follow,” with the “ruin of thousands.” The trade, the meeting held at Merchants’ Hall in Bristol had concluded, was also a thing “on which the welfare of the West Indian Islands and the commerce and revenue of the kingdom so essentially depend.”3
This document was written by a committee chaired by the sugar merchant William Miles, an ex-mayor, the self-made chairman of a bank and of the second-biggest sugar refinery in Bristol. Miles, who had made his first fortune in Jamaica in the middle of the century, was not himself a slave merchant, though he did act as a guarantor for slave journeys. He was supported by five aldermen, all of whom were bankers. The petition was presented by Burke’s colleague as a member for the City, that Henry Cruger, of New York, whose family had been prominent in the colony’s politics until the revolution and who had often invested in the trade.
Liverpool, too, presented her opposition. The mayor was Thomas Earle, who had engaged in many slave ventures: he had a share in the Mars, for instance, which sailed for Africa that year, as well as the Othello and the Hawke. His petition stated firmly that “the enterprising spirit of the people,” which enabled them “to carry on the African slave trade with vigour,” had taken the city to “a pitch of mercantile consequence” which could “not but affect and improve the wealth and prosperity of the kingdom as a whole.” The sailmakers of Liverpool also expressed their horror at the idea of an end to the traffic (“Their principal dependance in the port of Liverpool is upon the outset and repairs of the shipping employed in the African trade”). So did the bakers of that city, for they, too, depended, they said, “chiefly for employment on the great number of ships fitted out in that port to supply the West India islands with negro slaves from the coast of Africa and from the great number of people, whites and blacks, to be fed on board during a long voyage.” After all, “almost every man in Liverpool is a merchant and he who cannot send a bale will send a bandbox. . . . The attractive African meteor has from time to time so dazzled their ideas that almost every order of people is interested in a Guinea cargo”; for it was well known that “many of the small vessels that import [only] a hundred slaves are fitted out by attornies, drapers, grocers, tallow chandlers, barbers, tailors, etc., [who] have one eighth, some a fifteenth, and some a thirty-second share. . . .”4
At that time, a quarter of the ships in Liverpool were probably engaged in the African trade. The city had five-eighths of the African trade of Britain and three-sevenths of the European; in 1792, the tonnage engaged in slaving would be nearly five times greater than it had been in 1752. In the years 1783-93, about 360 firms of Liverpool had engaged in the traffic in one way or another. William Gregson, with a part share of six slavers in 1791—a formidable figure in Liverpool politics, an ex-mayor, owner of the brutal Captain Collingwood’s Zong—made the patriots’ point: “Whenever it is abolished, the naval importance of this kingdom is abolish’d with it.”5
Nor was it just Liverpool which was worried: hardly a manufacturing town, much less a trading one, in England did not have some interest in the slave trade. Manchester, for example, annually sent £180,000 in goods to Africa in exchange for slaves. Another rising commercial town, Birmingham, also considered its fortunes tied to the slave trade: “A very considerable part of the various manufactures in which the petitioners are engaged,” ran one appeal from there, “are adapted to, and disposed of for, the African trade, and are not saleable in any other market.”6 The gunmakers presented a similar petition, talking of “the fatal consequences which must inevitably attend such a measure”—although, a real sign of the times, an alternative position was taken up by a group of persons led by the ironmasters’ chief spokesman, Samuel Garbett, and including several future bankers, the Quaker Lloyds.7
An alliance against abolition was now in being at Westminster. This included the articulate members of the royal family, of whom several were willing to speak and vote in Parliament; most of the admirals, active and retired; many landowners who feared any innovation; and, of course, the main commercial interests in London: people interested in cotton as well as sugar, for cotton, from both British and French islands, was needed in the new industrial revolution even more than sugar. At that time, 70 percent of the cotton used in Britain came from tropical America, principally Surinam, and less than 30 percent came from Turkey or elsewhere in the Old World. The West Indian islands were still considered in London the most brilliant of diamonds in the British imperial crown: Pitt estimated the income from West Indian plantations as four million pounds, compared with one from the rest of the world; and even Adam Smith thought that “the profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation . . . known in Europe or America.”8
Some signs of the newly organized opposition to the idea of abolition were visible when there was a further debate on the slave trade in the House of Commons in January 1790. Bamber Gascoyne, of Liverpool, was the main spokesman for the trade; he sought procedural delays to prevent the establishment even of a committee of inquiry into it. A leading role began to be played, too, after the election of 1790, by Colonel Banastre Tarleton, brother of John Tarleton, the Liverpool merchant who had protested against Dolben’s bill, and who was one of the few heroes of Britain’s unsuccessful war in North America. Banastre Tarleton had succeeded Lord Penrhyn as the member for Liverpool, and had a slave ship belonging to the family firm called after him: the Banastre, of ninety-three tons burden. Once, in a debate in 1791, he suggested that people (such as, presumably, Wilberforce) who were looking for philanthropic work should concern themselves with the poor laws rather than devote their time to ruining a trade of great benefit to the country.III
In these early days of his campaign, Wilberforce, however, always had the support of Pitt, Fox, and Burke, who spoke often, brilliantly, and effectively. The combination should have been devastating, yet they failed to convince a House of Commons in which slaving interests were so well represented.
That body now did set up its own special committee of inquiry, at which many of the important questions were again posed. For example, Dr. Jackson, who had been a physician in Jamaica, was asked the pertinent question “whether it was more the object of the overseers to work the slaves moderately and keep up their numbers by breeding; or to work them out, increasing thereby the produce of the estate, and trusting for recruits to the slave trade?” He answered, accurately: “The latter plan was more generally adopted, principally, I conceive, owing to this reason, that imported slaves are fit for immediate labour: slaves that are reared from childhood are liable to many accidents, and cannot make any return of labour for many years.”9 Evidence was also given by the much-traveled Swedish mineralogist Dr. Wadström, who had been to Gorée and Sénégal, and assured his questioners that, “if the slave trade were abolished, they [the Africans] would extend their cultivation and manufactures . . . particularly if some good European people had enterprising spirit enough to settle among them in another way than is the case at present.”10 The Reverend John Newton came forward to testify that, in his opinion, the Africans “with equal advantages . . . would be equal to ourselves in capacity.”11
What must have vividly struck those members of Parliament who studied this absorbing if terrible document was the account of the endless brutalities, whippings, and tortures executed as a matter of routine, and without any legal limitation, to the slaves at work on plantations in the West Indies. For example, Major General Tottenham gave evidence with regard to Barbados. In reply to the question “Did it appear to you that the slaves in the British islands were treated with mildness or severity?” he said: “I think in the island of Barbados, they were treated with the greatest cruelty. . . . I will mention one instance. . . . About three weeks before the hurricane, I saw a young man walking the streets in a most deplorable situation—he was entirely naked—he had an iron collar about his neck, with five long spikes projecting from it. His body before and behind his breech, belly and thighs were almost cut to pieces with running ulcers in them, and you might put your finger in some of the weals. He could not sit down, owing to his breech being in a state of mortification, and it was impossible for him to lie down, owing to the projection of the collar round his neck. . . . The field negroes are treated more like brutes than human beings. . . .”12
• • •
The second important debate in May 1789 was that in the United States House of Representatives. This was the first meeting of that body, and the members who assembled in City Hall in New York numbered a mere sixty-five. Here the discussion could not concern itself with the abolition of the trade, since the Constitution had left that aside, as a federal matter at least, till 1808. Instead, the debate concentrated on possible taxes to be imposed on slaves imported. Thus Josiah Parker, of Virginia, moved that a tax of ten dollars should be laid on every slave imported; the Irish-born O’Brien Smith, of South Carolina, wished to postpone a matter “so big with the most serious questions for the state which he represented”; and the experienced Roger Sherman of Connecticut could not “reconcile himself to the insertion of human beings as an item of duty.” James Jackson of Georgia thought that all these matters should be left to individual states, and later declared that the blacks were “better off as slaves than as freemen.” In the end, the bill was withdrawn, amid rising bad temper: only James Madison spoke in a way likely to be remembered, when he said, “By expressing a national disapprobation of this trade, we may destroy it, and save ourselves from reproaches, and our posterity the imbecility ever attendant on a country filled with slaves.”13
A further debate on slavery was held in the Congress of the United States in 1790, as it had been in England. This discussion, held in New York like its predecessor, occurred in response to numerous petitions from Quaker societies. Michael Stone, of Port Tobacco, Maryland, mocked the “disposition of religious sects to imagine that they understood the rights of human nature better than all the world besides.” Aedanus Burke, of South Carolina, born in Galway but a traveler to the West Indies before he went to live in Charleston, thought that “the rights of the southern states ought not to be threatened” in any way. When a petition was brought in—from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, and signed by Benjamin Franklin—that same Burke said that the mere discussion of the plan by a committee of Congress “would blow the trumpet of sedition in the southern states.” A colleague of his, Thomas Tudor Tucker, a surgeon from Bermuda who had been educated in Edinburgh, said ominously that the Southern states would not submit to a general emancipation without “civil war.” William Loughton Smith, also of South Carolina, like so many of his colleagues educated in England, said that he considered the idea of ending slavery as “an attack upon the palladium of the property of our country” (he was a planter). The scheme was then sent to a committee, on which there were no members from any Southern state. This body’s final report concluded that “Congress [did] have authority to restrain the citizens of the United States from carrying on the Africa trade for the purpose of supplying foreigners with slaves” (my emphasis). It also declared that Congress would be within its rights to insist on proper regulations for the humane treatment of slaves on their passage to the United States. The consequence was that Congress did prohibit foreigners (Cubans as well as Englishmen and other Europeans) from fitting out slave ships in the United States, and prohibited the United States slave trade to foreign ports. Everything else was left pending till 1808.
Little enough transpired. The Congress of the United States, in February 1790, might hear a Quaker praying that God would inspire the new Congress against the wickedness of the slave trade. But the enemies of abolition were gathering. James Jackson—English-born, like so many friends of slavery, now a senator for Georgia where he had previously been a congressman and a grower of rice and cotton on his plantations—argued that slavery was permitted by the Bible. The trade itself was expanding too. In the first six months of 1792, regardless of the new law thirty-eight North American captains were recorded as arriving in Havana, Cuba, with slaves—that is, six a month on the average. Warren, Providence, and Bristol, Rhode Island, were still competing successfully in these years with their neighbor Newport as the new nation’s premier slave ports. William Ellery, a prominent Newport merchant who had become a collector of customs in the city, wrote in 1791, “an Ethiopian could as soon change his skin as a Newport merchant could be induced to change so lucrative a trade as that in slaves for the slow profits of any manufactory.” (In 1759, Ellery, as a young man, had himself taken a ship, with “82 barrels, 6 hogsheads, and 6 tierces of New England rum,” to Africa.)
Congress’s passage of the law condemning the foreign slave trade, of course, made many of these Rhode Island merchants technically criminals. The punishments for breaking the law were the surrender of the vessel concerned, and fines of $1,000 for each merchant or captain engaged and of $200 for each slave transported. The Quakers saw these penalties as constituting a triumph, but they had little effect on the Rhode Island shippers. The young United States was less law-abiding than its founding fathers assumed that it would be. The active men who came of age in the 1770s had, after all, been raised in a fiscal atmosphere in which lawbreaking, smuggling especially, was a defensible practice. British attempts to enforce the Sugar Acts had made illegal trading appear patriotic. Anyway, trading to Africa itself was not illegal, so there was no need for a slave captain to conceal his first port of call. The question of the final destination was more complicated, and some captains did what they could to remove from their vessels incriminating “equipment,” such as slave platforms, shackles, swivel guns, as well as letters and other documents relating to the traffic, before returning home. Some slavers sold their ships in Havana, and returned as passengers on other vessels. Other merchants devised two sets of papers.
All these subterfuges were necessary. Customs officers and federal agents in Rhode Island brought several cases against slave traders. There were a few instances of foreign slave ships’ being captured and condemned. This befell “two French ships from the coast of Guinea, with near 800 slaves on board,” at New London, Connecticut, in 1791. Yet the trade continued. Thirty-two ships left Newport, Rhode Island, for Africa in 1795. Among these was the Ascension, commanded by Captain Samuel Chace, who bought goods in Rotterdam and the Ile de France (Mauritius), with which he bought 283 slaves in Mozambique. These were sold at Montevideo, Havana, and Buenos Aires. This vessel was owned by the ex-sea captains Peleg Clarke and Caleb Gardner, in partnership with William Vernon. The biggest merchant in Rhode Island, however, was Cyprian Sterry of Providence. The Society for Abolition sought to persuade the United States attorney to prosecute both Sterry and John Brown, who was known as a man of “magnificent projects and extraordinary enterprises.” Sterry agreed surprisingly to withdraw from the trade. The case against Brown began, and was heard in 1797. His ship, Hope, was confiscated and sold, but no charges were preferred against him. In a second trial, Brown escaped because the prosecution case collapsed.
• • •
A few days after the second parliamentary discussion in London of the slave trade, in early 1790, Thomas Clarkson set off for Paris as the representative of the English abolitionists. The revolution in France had begun, and was still enjoying its “illusion lyrique.”IV He was received with enthusiasm by all the friends of liberty of Africans: La Rochefoucauld, Lavoisier, Condorcet, Petion de Villeneuve, Clavière, Brissot, Lafayette. All these men were now engaged in French Revolutionary activities. La Rochefoucauld had even raised the question of the liberty of slaves in the States-General of June 1789, while Lavoisier was busy on the commission working out a new system of weights and measures, and Condorcet was commissioner of the money supply. Petion de Villeneuve was at the height of his influence in the National Assembly, while Clavière was financial adviser to Mirabeau, apparently the man of the future. Brissot was the editor of the famous Le Patriote français, and Lafayette was talking grandiosely of a scheme for an “ideal” plantation in Cayenne. Clarkson saw them all, and showed them the diagram of the slave ship Brookes. When Mirabeau saw this, he ordered a mechanic to make a model of it in wood. It was a ship in miniature, about a yard long, and “little wooden men and women, which were painted black to represent the slaves, were seen stowed in their proper places. . . . The Bishop of ChartresV . . . told me that . . . he had not given credit to all the tales which had been related of the slave trade, till he had seen this diagram after which there was nothing so barbarous which might not readily be believed. . . .”14 The effect was, indeed, prodigious: a first example of political propaganda using a visual aid to create a scandal. Clarkson was everywhere well received. After all, the Declaration of the Rights of Man of August 1789 had stated plainly “Men are born free and are equal before the law.” Article VII had declared that nobody could be seized except by due process of law. How then could slavery be justified? Necker, back in power, talked of Clarkson to the king, who, however, was thought to be in too poor health to be able to stand seeing the picture of the Brookes. Clarkson also saw veterans of Africa such as Geoffroy de Villeneuve, who had been aide-decamp to the humane Chevalier de Boufflers at Gorée (he had been sent to that exile because of a love affair with the delightful Madame de Sabran), had been up the Sénégal with Dr. Wadström, and also had been “all over the kingdom of Cayor on foot.”
A Société des Amis des Noirs had, it will be remembered, already been founded in Paris. It included both La Rochefoucauld—“the most virtuous man in France,” in Lafayette’s phrase—and Lafayette himself, as well as Mirabeau. It now gathered much support. One of its leaders was still Condorcet, who urged France to follow the example of America, whose leaders, he believed, already knew that they would “debase their own pursuit of liberty if they continued to support slavery.” In Bordeaux, André-Daniel Laffon de Ladébat, son of a great négrier, had, in August 1788, bravely denounced the slave trade as “the greatest public crime.”15 This view gained some backing, but not enough to interest the Constituent Assembly when it first met. The société was represented by its planter-enemies as a nest of British agents. Members were threatened with death if they persisted in their activities. Ex-Secretary of State for the Marine Massiac organized a club to carry out these and other menaces. Clavière told Clarkson that he was being accused of conspiring to foment an insurrection in Saint-Domingue. Clarkson believed that two senior members of the Committee on Abolition were agents of slave traders in Nantes; and Mirabeau told him that all the members of the Assembly with whom he had talked of abolition had been canvassed by the slave traders. Clarkson in France was also discouraged by the strange affair of Samuel de Missy, an honest Rochelais, who had been a négrier and joined the Société des Amis des Noirs, but resigned from it when denounced by the Chamber of Commerce at La Rochelle, saying that he could see that his membership might plunge the port into misery.
In March 1790, the matter of the slave trade was at last debated in the Constituent Assembly, some weeks after Clarkson had gone back to London. Inspired by information largely deriving from the English—France had as yet carried out no inquiry into the slave trade—the Société put forward three Girondin speakers: Vieuville des Essarts, Petion de Villeneuve, and Mirabeau, the so-called “Shakespeare of eloquence,” who prepared a powerful speech. He described in great detail the more brutal aspects of the slave trade and then mockingly asked his audience, in the spirit of Montesquieu, “Et ce commerce n’est pas inhumain?” The repetition several times of this ironic statement had the effect of a refrain. But Mirabeau unwisely chose to rehearse the speech at a meeting of the Jacobin Club. It was a triumph but, afterwards, his enemies, led by the demagogue Antoine-Pierre Barnave (often a friend of liberty, a word he would indeed die proclaiming, on the scaffold in 1793), managed to prevent the orator from speaking in the Chamber. They secured the passage of a decree which included the alarming phrase: “Whosoever works to excite risings against the colonists will be declared an enemy of the people.”16
Still, the matter was eventually discussed in the Assembly. Ten deputies came from the West Indies. Mirabeau asked why such small islands should send so many members. The reply he received was that, in the French empire (in emulation of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution of the United States), the slaves were counted in apportioning representation (though they could not vote). If that argument was accepted as valid, Mirabeau demanded, why should not the horses of France also be reckoned?
Some free mulattoes were among these West Indian deputies. They were rich men who had done well in business, but both slave merchants and planters thought that they should not sit. Arthur Dillon, soldier and scion of an ancient Irish family who represented Martinique, said that the colonies would revolt in fifteen minutes if the mulattoes were seated. The matter was shelved.
Shortly afterwards, a delegation from the newly founded and revolutionary Armée Patriotique of Bordeaux reached Paris and told both the Jacobin Club and the Assembly that five million Frenchmen depended on the colonial commerce for their livelihood, and that both the slave trade and West Indian slavery were essential for the prosperity of France. Another committee was then entrusted to make a report on slavery. That body, however, did little more than denounce attempts to cause risings against the colonists. Mirabeau was shouted down when he tried to oppose this. The assembly voted for the committee’s proposals for inaction and, until 1793, the French slave trade continued to receive a subsidy in the form of a bonus for every slave landed. Nantes in fact enjoyed its best year ever as a slave city in 1790, sending forty-nine ships to Africa. For the slave merchants in that politically radical city, the word “liberty” seems to have signified the idea that the slave trade should be open to all.
There was tumult in the West Indies in consequence of these events, and Vincent Ogé, a radical mulatto, appealed to the authorities in Saint-Domingue to insist that the mulatto members in Paris should be seated. (“Périssent les colonies plutôt qu’un principe,”he told the Assembly in Paris when he was allowed briefly to address it.) When he was not listened to, Ogé, who had political ambitions and had obtained weapons from the North Americans, raised a standard of insurrection in Saint-Domingue, near Cap François. After several skirmishes, he was defeated. He fled and escaped to the Spanish end of the island, where he was arrested and handed back to the French governor, who had him broken on the wheel. This disaster gave new support for the mulatto petitioners in France, and that in turn increased turmoil in the colonies. The debates in Paris on the matter became impassioned. Robespierre entered the discussion with an advocacy of full freedom for slaves, himself adding, “Eh, périssent vos colonies si vous les conservez à ce prix . . . !”
Early in 1791, the National Assembly condemned slavery in principle, but insisted that any immediate extension of the rights of man to slaves would be certain, at least at that stage, to be accompanied by many evils; all the same, the children of all free parents, regardless of color, would be looked upon as full citizens. The colonists saw that concession, modest as it was, as a betrayal. This was the first such condemnation in any European legislature.
The leaders of the free blacks and some of the slaves in Saint-Domingue had themselves been following these arguments, insofar as they could. As a result of the large-scale imports of slaves by French traders in the 1780s, they constituted an immense majority of the population in the rich colony: say, 450,000 blacks compared with fewer than 40,000 whites, and 50,000 mulattoes. The free blacks and the mulattoes were prepared to strike again at the colonial government, but the slaves made their rebellion first. They did so on August 22, 1791. Henceforth the machete and the firebrand ruled. The sugar plantations were set ablaze.
Too late, on August 28, the Constituent Assembly in Paris declared anyone who arrived in France to be free, whatever his color. This was twenty years after Lord Mansfield’s decision, in England, but 220 years since a judge in Bordeaux had first made a similar judgment. A deputy for the latter city, Béchade-Casaux, anxiously wrote home: “The States-General are still occupied by the declaration of the Rights of Man which must serve as a preamble to the Constitution. I am fearful lest that may lead to a suppression of the slave trade.”17 Thereafter, though, events moved so fast in Paris as to cause complete neglect of affairs in Saint-Domingue. The worst outrages in Paris in August 1792 were admittedly preceded by a riot in the city over shortages of sugar, themselves caused in part by events in Saint-Domingue. But few appreciated the interconnection and, in the colony, events moved ever more swiftly to catastrophe. The slave traders of Nantes, who had about sixty million livres’ worth of property in the colony (the Bouteillers, the Drouins, the Charauds, the Arnous had been the big investors of the 1780s), lost all they had there in the only completely successful slave revolution in history.
Eventually, in 1794, on February 4, the Convention in Paris declared the universal emancipation of slaves (though not actually outlawing the trade). The event was celebrated in the Temple of Reason (Notre Dame), as in many great “fêtes révolutionnaires” up and down the country. Hundreds of engravings denouncing slavery were published; and songs were composed. In Nantes, a black officer eloquently gave his thanks to the Republic. The most elaborate celebration was at Bordeaux. The Convention’s representative, the implacable Tallien, made a wonderfully enthusiastic speech in Bordeaux’s Temple of Reason (before and afterwards, the cathedral of Saint-André). Two hundred black people were present. Afterwards, the organizers of the meeting took one of these men or women by the arm, and walked with them in a procession to the Hôtel Franklin, where a colossal banquet was held.18, VI
By this time, the pioneers of the French abolition movement, Mirabeau, Clavière, La Rochefoucauld, Brissot, Lavoisier, Condorcet, and Petion had all died, the first in his bed, the second by his own hand in prison, the third at the hands of an assassin, the fourth by suicide, the fifth and sixth under the guillotine, and the last eaten by wolves during an escape from sanctuary. All that can be said of their achievements is that the French bounty on the carriage of slaves had been abolished.
But France had become engulfed in such terrible events that it was no longer easy for men to consider great moral issues. “The revolution,” Clarkson had to admit, “was of more importance to Frenchmen than the abolition of the slave trade.”19 Mirabeau had had at the end other pressing considerations though, “a host in himself,” according to Lafayette, to his death he maintained his interest in the question of slavery. That did not prevent Bernard Aîné et Cie from dispatching from Nantes a slave ship bearing his name, five months after his premature death in April 1791, with the purpose of carrying three hundred slaves from Angola to Martinique.
• • •
The French Revolution and its attendant outrages greatly helped the friends of the slave trade in Britain. Any change in the status quo could now be easily presented by them as potentially subversive of public order. Enlightenment was easily represented as certain to lead to barbarism. The legal reformer Samuel Romilly wrote: “If any person be desirous of having an adequate idea of the mischievous effects produced in this country by the French Revolution . . . he should attempt some reform on humane and liberal principles. . . .”20 So it was scarcely surprising that when, in April 1791, after many months of gathering more evidence (in the course of which Clarkson visited no fewer than 320 ships, in different English ports, traveling nearly seven thousand miles in 1790), Wilber-force’s motion to introduce a bill into parliament to abolish the slave trade was at long last introduced, it should have been obstructed.
Yet there was no reasoned justification of slavery, or of the traffic. The speeches concentrated on the impracticability and unwisdom of abolition, rather than, as in 1789, on the benefits of the trade. Thus “tunbellied Tommy Grosvenor,” an elderly member of Parliament for Chester, acknowledged that the slave trade was “not an amiable trade but neither was the trade of a butcher an amiable trade, and yet a mutton chop was, nevertheless, a good thing.” Alderman Watson of London, a director of the Bank of England, argued as so many had done, that the natives of Africa were taken from a worse state of slavery in their own country to one more mild. Banastre Tarleton pointed out that the African monarchs themselves had no objection to the continuance of the slave trade. John Stanley, the agent for Nevis and member for Hastings, spoke strongly against abolition, which he described as unjust to planters and traders, injuring them without recompense. There were many allusions to France: whether she would steal the British trade if the British abolished it, or whether Britain should wait till France acted.
Some inspiring speeches were also made: “While we could hardly bear the sight of anything resembling slavery, even as a punishment among ourselves, should we countenance the exercise of the most despotic power over millions of creatures who, for aught we know, were not only innocent but meritorious?” James Martin, a banker who was member for Tewkesbury, teased the House of Commons for being so eager to condemn the proconsul, Warren Hastings, for his bad conduct in the East, while doing nothing about this abominable practice in the West. The trade was carried out with humanity? It was a new species of humanity, said John Courtenay, member for Tamworth, an erudite Irish wit of “the school of Diogenes.” Both Fox and Pitt spoke for Wilberforce. The former called on the House to “mark to all mankind their abhorrence of a practice so enormous, so savage, and so repugnant to all laws human and divine.” He made fun of the fact that many slaves captured in Africa were said to be being punished for adultery: “Was adultery then a crime which we needed to go to Africa to punish? Was this the way in which we were to establish the purity of our national character? . . . It was a most extraordinary pilgrimage, for a most extraordinary purpose.” Burke said that “to deal and traffic, not in the labour of men but in men themselves, was to devour the root, instead of enjoying the fruit, of human diligence”; yet, in Burke’s constituency of Bristol, when the vote was lost (88 to 163 against Wilberforce) in the House of Commons, church bells rang, cannon were fired on Brandon Hill, there was a bonfire and a fireworks display, and a half-holiday was granted to workmen and sailors.21 “Commerce chinked its purse,” Horace Walpole wrote to Mary Berry, “and that sound is generally prevalent with the majority.”22
The year 1791 was a good one, in fact, for the English slave trade. English shippers were making substantial inroads into the now open Cuban slave market. We find thirty English ships registered as having delivered slaves in Havana that year, including, in September, Captain Samuel Courtauld (of the Delaware branch of that Huguenot family) on the Vela Ana; and, in March, Captain Hugh Thomas on the Hammond.23, VII
The campaign continued, however, despite the parliamentary reverse. In 1792, no fewer than five hundred petitions against the slave trade were prepared from all over Britain. In Birmingham, a prominent Quaker raised the question whether it was right to accept financial support for the rebuilding of the Friends’ meeting house from the gunmakers Farmer and Galton, who had been concerned with the supply of weapons for the slave traffic, and indeed in the traffic itself. A campaign for a national boycott of slave-grown sugar was even launched.
Wilberforce, Clarkson, and the abolitionists were also much cheered by astounding news from Denmark. In March 1792, after a report from their Great Negro Trade Commission (three of whose members were directors of the Danish monopoly Baltic-Guinea Company), the Danish government abolished the import of slaves from Africa to their islands. The Danes had, for 150 years, participated on a small scale in the slave trade, although, on balance, it had been unprofitable, and although the forts in West Africa were only maintained in order to serve three tiny colonies in the West Indies. In the previous fifteen years Denmark had sent about a hundred ships to Africa. The Danish West Indian sugar islands had, however, been of importance to many merchants of Copenhagen, including the powerful Schimmelmann family, of whom Ernest was, in 1792, the humane, farseeing, and able minister of finance; he was also, influenced by his love of England, the leading promoter of abolition (even though he still owned four plantations on Saint Croix). Before the establishment of the commission, he had unavailingly sent a professor of divinity, Daniel Gotthilf Moldenhawer, to Madrid to offer an exchange of Denmark’s forts on the coast of Guinea; in return, the Spaniards would cede Crab Island (Bique), in the Caribbean, to Denmark. The Danes had also launched several intelligent schemes to create cotton plantations on the Gold Coast, thereby rendering the middle passage unnecessary.
The cautious royal statement in Copenhagen on abolition was definitive: “We, Christian VII, . . . from the result of . . . enquiries, . . . are convinced that it is possible, and will be advantageous to our West India islands, to desist from the further purchase of new negroes, when once the plantations are stocked with a sufficient number for propagation and the cultivation of the islands.” The trade, therefore, was to be prohibited after 1803. There were to be no taxes on imports of female slaves between 1792 and the deadline, and no more taxes were to be levied on female field slaves already in the country.24
Until 1803, any country, however, could import any number of slaves into the Danish islands, though none were to be exported any more from them. In fact, many continued to be so, for the island of Saint Thomas, close to Puerto Rico, remained a transit market for the Spaniards, and that trade seems to have reached its peak only in 1800. The truth about this commerce is difficult to disentangle, since some ships which were really North American, or English, sailed under Danish flags even after 1808.
The Danish commerce was abolished because the price of slaves in the Danish West Indies was low, because the government thought it certain that the British would abolish the trade shortly, and because it seemed that, on the two or three ships which were sent every year from Copenhagen, many members of the ships’ companies died. The Danish forts on the Guinea coast, such as Christiansborg Castle at Accra, were also expensive. The Danes believed that they could arrange for the number of slaves needed by encouraging natural increase.
The Danish trade flourished between 1792 and 1802. Many slaves taken to the Danish West Indies islands at Saint Croix and Saint Thomas were re-exported, often to Cuba, where nearly two hundred Danish ships seem to have gone between 1790 and 1807, carrying well over twelve thousand slaves.
Much encouraged by this news, in April 1792, Wilberforce tried again to carry a bill abolishing the trade. This was the occasion for one of the greatest debates in the history of legislative assemblies. “Africa, Africa,” said Wilberforce, to begin with, “your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart. Your sufferings no tongue can express, no language impart.” The orator pointed out how Denmark had now abolished the slave trade. Could Britain really be far behind? He described how, only the previous year, six British captains, to the outrage of a French captain present, had fired on an African settlement on the river Calabar, merely in order to secure lower prices of slaves. The record of the debate then states: “The House, in a burst of indignation, vociferated ‘Name! Name!’ Mr Wilberforce for a long time resisted. At last, the cry overcame him and he gave the following names of ships and captains: the ship Thomas, of Bristol, Captain Philipps; the Betsey of Liverpool, captain Doyle; theRecovery, of Bristol; the Wasp, Captain House; the Thomas of Liverpool; and, the Anatree, of Bristol.”
Many declarations were made, as before, in favor of the status quo; the first such was that by James Baillie, a Scotsman from Inverary, the agent for Grenada, who had lived both on that island and on Saint Kitts. He owned a plantation in Demerara and talked, in this, his only speech in the Commons, of the “wild, impracticable and visionary scheme of abolition”; he thought that there was brutality on innumerable ships, not just slave ships, and in innumerable European armies; and that there was more wretchedness in the parish of Saint Giles in London, where he lived, than in the colonies. He also thought that the revolution in Saint-Domingue had been directly caused by the unfortunate discussion of abolition of the slave trade. Then Benjamin Vaughan, a Unitarian merchant who confessed to being “a West Indian by birth,” profession, and private fortune, also vindicated the planters.VIII The future Lord Liverpool, the long-serving prime minister in the next century—then plain Robert Jenk-inson—pointed out that no major foreign slave-trading nation had shown any inclination to follow the British example; Denmark was of no importance. Banastre Tarleton once more inveighed against the folly of allowing a “junto of sectarians, sophists, enthusiasts, and fanatics” to destroy a trade which brought in £800,000 a year and employed 5,000 seamen, as well as 160 ships.
But the speeches attacking the slave trade were of a high quality. Thus Robert Milbanke, Lord Byron’s future father-in-law, argued, in the spirit of Adam Smith, that, where slavery was used as a form of labor, “every operation was performed in a rude and unworkmanlike manner.”
Then came what turned out to be the decisive oration: Henry Dundas, the “indispensable coadjutor” of the ministry (treasurer of the navy and the leading politician on the Board of Control of the East India Company), in effect minister both for Scotland and for India, whose control over Pitt was both so profound and so inexplicable, introduced, in his broad Scottish accent, and ungraceful manner, “as a compromise,” the word “gradually” into the motion. His intention, he said, was to propose a middle way. He conceded that the trade “ought to be ultimately abolished but, by moderate measures, which should not invade the property of individuals, nor shock too suddenly the prejudices of our West India islands.” The cooperation of the planters with any new law was surely essential. He agreed that newly imported slaves were likely to inspire revolts. Dundas also talked airily of the imperial network of investments in undeveloped lands as a major argument against immediate abolition. He suggested one or two further amendments: a prohibition on the import of elderly slaves, and an agreement, such as had occurred in the United States, to abolish the foreign trade. Dundas had, in 1778, taken the side of the slave Joseph Knight, in a Scottish version of the Somerset case. He had been on the side of the angels then. But time, power, and age seem to have taken their toll, and the reasonableness of his procrastination scarcely concealed that he now sided with the West Indian interests.IX
Charles James Fox ridiculed Dundas. Advocates of “moderation” reminded him of a passage in Middleton’s life of Cicero: “To break open a man’s house, and kill him, his wife and family in the night is certainly a most heinous crime, and deserving of death, but even this may be done with moderation.” Fox pointed out that, if a Bristol ship were to go to France and the democrats were to sell the aristocrats into slavery, “such a transaction . . . would strike every man with horror . . . because they were of our colour.” Fox thought that, if the plantations could not be cultivated without slaves, they ought not to be cultivated at all.
Pitt, the prime minister, next made what was, by all accounts, the most eloquent speech of his career. Though confessing himself exhausted—it was already five o’clock in the morning when he began to speak—he described the trade as “the greatest practical evil which has ever afflicted the human race.” He analyzed Dundas’s position without losing track of his own. How was the slave trade ever to be eradicated if every nation was “prudentially to wait till the concurrence of all the world?” For the last twenty minutes of this speech, Pitt, his friends thought, “seemed to be really inspired.” He imagined how a Roman senator, looking at the world of the second century A.D., and speaking to “British barbarians,” might say, “There is a people that will never rise to civilisation.” He adjured the House—immediately, and without any delay—to restore Africans to “the rank of human beings.” Towards the end of his oration, he quoted two lines of Virgil:
Nos primus equis Oriens afflavit anhelis;
Illic sera rubens accendit lumina Vesper . . .
and the first rays of the early-morning sun are said to have entered the House of Commons behind the Speaker’s chair at that moment.X
The Commons then voted (it was April 3) 230-85 in favor of Dundas’s amended motion “that the slave trade ought to be gradually abolished”. The vote was taken at half past six in the morning. Returning home by foot across a still sleeping London, Fox, Charles Grey (the future prime minister of the Reform Bill), and William Windham (who later deserted the cause of abolition, for reasons still unclear) agreed that Pitt’s speech “was one of the most extraordinary displays of eloquence they had ever heard.” They had been present, as they believed, at the supreme moment of parliamentary democracy.25
The votes on these motions, if inadequate for Wilberforce, Fox, Burke, and Pitt, constituted a remarkable change from what had happened the previous year. Yet the main event in recent politics was the revolution in Saint-Domingue, an occurrence which was already causing a real shortage of sugar, and not just in France. Perhaps the impact of that terrible event was to make the members realize that an end had to come one day to the system of slave plantations. Of course, Saint-Domingue was referred to in the debate. Whence, for example, asked Samuel Whitbread, the nonconformist brewer, did the slaves there learn the cruelties they practiced? Where, he answered himself, but from the French planters?
In the subsequent debate in the House of Lords on this same motion, the lord chancellor, still old obstinate Lord Thurlow, wondered why, if the slave trade were such a vile crime, it had taken the House of Commons till 1792 to realize it. The duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, chose to make his maiden speech on this occasion, and stated, probably with the support of his father, King George III, that he had unequivocal proof that the slaves were not as a rule treated in the manner which had so agitated the public mind. He had, after all, been in Jamaica as a midshipman in the navy and, when ill, had been cared for by a famous mulatto nurse, Couba Cornwallis. Slaves in his opinion lived in a state of humble happiness. All the same, and despite this royal sermon, the Lords supported Dundas’s amendment. (In the course of the debate, Lord Barrington, grandson of a Bristol merchant trading to Virginia and Maryland, Sir William Daines, made the interesting comment that slaves appeared to him so happy that he often wished himself in their situation.)26
What Dundas’s amendment signified in practice was less than clear. Britain had committed itself to abolish the slave trade, at some indefinite time in the future. The date seemed to depend on Dundas himself, who made it every day evident that his motion for delay was a ruse for indefinite postponement. The suggestion that the final date should be 1796 was soon agreed; but nobody expected that commitment to be fulfilled. The most brilliant orators in British history had been outmaneuvered, as had the parliamentary leader, Wilberforce, of the most powerful movement of agitation which any country had experienced. The consequences would have become immediately apparent, no doubt, and Wilberforce, Clarkson, and their friends would have acted differently, had it not been that, when Parliament resumed in early 1793, war with revolutionary France was about to begin (which it did in February, just after the execution of King Louis XVI). Wilberforce’s opposition to the conflict lost him support everywhere; Pitt’s responsibility for leading the nation at war caused his attention to shift to matters other than humanitarian.XI
Now, too, every attack on the slave trade could be represented as an attack on ancient British institutions, apparently everywhere under attack, precisely because of the French Revolution—and the war. This did not seem the moment for any adventure. Lord Abingdon, in his youth a friend of liberty—and of John Wilkes—in April 1793, in the House of Lords, specifically linked the demands for abolition of the traffic with the disastrous obsession with the rights of man which had so damaged France: “What [else] does the abolition of the slave trade mean more or less in effect than liberty and equality?” In this debate, the duke of Clarence again declared how impolitic and unjust it would be to abolish the slave trade, and described Wilberforce as either a fanatic or a hypocrite. (“William made a most incomparable speech,” remarked his brother, the prince of Wales.)27
So, for the moment, such merchants as Richard Miles and Jerome Bernard Weuves in London, with their ships the Spy and the Iris, or Sir James Laroche and James Rogers in Bristol, with the African Queen and the Fame, as well as John Tarleton, Daniel Backhouse, Peter Baker, James Dawson, and Thomas Leyland in Liverpool, with the Eliza, the Princess Royal, and the Ned, could sleep in peace a few more years; and their captains, Samuel Courtauld and Hugh Thomas included, could sleep happily, in their high-strung hammocks. Their equivalents in North America, Rio de Janeiro, and even Havana in Cuba seemed equally confident. True, the vast French slave trade had collapsed as a consequence of the revolution and the war, but the years of the middle 1790s were good ones for France’s neighbors.
The slave trade did particularly well in 1793 in, for example, Britain’s prime colony of Jamaica, which imported a record number of 23,000 captives that year. The total for 1791-95 was just under 80,000, far more than in any other quinquennium (even if at least 15,000 were re-exported to Cuba). In 1791, Jamaica employed 250,000 slaves and, in 1797, she would employ 300,000. The output of sugar increased, too: Jamaica produced 60,000 tons in 1791, over 70,000 by 1800—its greatest year ever being 1805, when it was the biggest exporter of sugar in the world, producing nearly 100,000 tons.28 For the first time, too, in the years after the revolution in Saint-Domingue, Jamaica was producing substantial quantities of coffee: 22 million tons in 1804. By then, Britain was also exporting (re-exporting) as much coffee as it did wool.
Jamaican planters were, of course, horrified at the possibility of abolition of the traffic: they not only busied themselves with reinforcing resistance to the idea in Westminster, but began to do what they could to encourage the breeding of slaves at home. Thus a Jamaican law of 1792 offered incentives to both proprietors and overseers of estates who could show a natural increase during the year. The wife of the governor of Jamaica, Lady Nugent, recorded in her diary that Lewis Cuthbert, a planter, told her that, at his Clifton plantation—on the Liguanea plain, now part of Kingston—“he gave two dollars to every woman who produced a healthy child.”29
Then, as many opponents of abolition had argued in debate in London, the supposition that the British might be about to bring their slave traffic to an end did have the effect of stimulating their rivals. When the Dutch minister to London heard of the first vote against the slave trade in the Commons, he sent a special messenger home to Amsterdam so that his countrymen would be able to take advantage of the opportunity. But though this did inspire a brief revival of the Dutch slave trade, the French conquest of Holland, and the subsequent establishment of the Batavian Republic, under French influence, in 1795, made the continuation of such activities on any large scale unthinkable. Yet the thought of abolition was unacceptable in Holland: a few years later, the fiscal at Elmina, on the Gold Coast, Jan de Maree, would write that it would do “irreparable damage to our richest source of trade.”30, XII
The news from the United States was equally discouraging for the cause of abolition. Despite the successful prosecution of the brig Hope,XIII other such lawsuits proved unsuccessful, and the slave traders of Rhode Island continued unperturbed. The Quakers tried their usual tactics of persuasion by correspondence but, for once, they were ineffective. Dr. Samuel Hopkins of Newport told Moses Brown that a printer who had promised to print one of his pamphlets had explained to him later that “he had consulted his friends and they tell him that it will greatly hurt his interest to do it, that there is so large a number of his customers either in the slave trade or in such connection with it, or so disposed with respect to it, to whom it will give the greatest offence, that it is not prudent for him to do it. . . . In vain do I tell him that he has fallen from his profession.”31, XIV
The Spanish colony of Cuba, too, was expanding, not withdrawing in any way from, her slave interests, and here traders of Liverpool such as Baker and Dawson, and Thomas Leyland, were deeply engaged. There were 500,000 acres of land in sugar cane in Cuba in 1792 in comparison with little more than 3,000 in 1762, there were 530 sugar mills throughout the island, and the slave population, though far behind its neighbors, was over 80,000. French refugees to Cuba from Saint-Domingue were establishing coffee farms both in East Cuba and near Havana, often using more slaves than the sugar planters. Steam engines were being introduced for the first time into the sugar plantations. But this technological innovation seemed to have no effect on the planters’ need for slaves from Africa.
In 1792, Francisco de Arango and Ignacio, the count of Casa Montalvo, young, well-educated members of the planter oligarchy in Cuba (both of them were sons of men who recalled the British occupation of Havana), set off on another voyage of inquiry to England. Arango, then in his twenties, was the most intelligent criollo of his generation; later, he would be known as the “Colbert of Cuba.” He accepted that the trade in slaves was a “miserable” thing, but what he wanted was an adequate supply of slaves to enable his island to compete with Jamaica, and then to end the traffic.XV Arango told Spanish ministers that the high price of sugar after the collapse of French production in Saint-Domingue could make Cuba as rich as Mexico. All that was needed was freedom to introduce slaves into Cuba for eight years. As a consequence, for the first time, in 1792, a Cuban vessel, El Cometa, captain Pedro Laporte, set off from Havana, with slaving cargoes such as aguardiente, tobacco, and some white sugar, to Africa direct and, without losing a single sailor, brought back 233 slaves, of whom 87 were women. This expedition was repeated in September of the same year, under a French captain, Pedro Lacroix Dufresne.33
So it was that, during these very years when the issue of abolition had been so sensationally raised in Britain, the world’s major commercial power, the slave trade was growing as never before on an island in which that nation, like the United States, already had many interests. Official statistics suggest that, in 1790, about fifty ships entered Havana, bringing 2,270 slaves. Of these, six were North American (including James de Wolf’s María), two Dutch, thirty Spanish, seven English, one “Anglo-American,” whatever that may mean, two French, three Danish, and two unknown. The next year, free-for-all slave trading in Havana was extended till 1798. Both the old subsidy and the per-capita tax were removed, as was the requirement that a third of the slaves imported had to be women. The maximum tonnage of foreign slavers was raised to 500 tons, too. Agents of foreign slave traders, such as Allwood, the representative of Baker and Dawson of Liverpool, were able to establish themselves legally in Havana—including, after 1792, French agents, who, in theory, had been excluded from the first arrangements (even though, illegally, many French slavers had come in: perhaps thirty-two between 1790 and 1792). Allwood, meantime, remained the largest importer: the captain-general of Cuba, perhaps bribed, evaded the order of the government in Madrid to expel him for attempted corruption of officials.
Whereas Liverpool merchants more than maintained their interest, those from the United States seem to have compensated in Cuba for losing some of their markets in North America itself. Indeed, in the 1790s, United States slave ships sailed more often to Cuba than to anywhere else—South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Georgia were far behind. There was another innovation in the traffic in the 1790s for North Americans: it became for a time profitable for traders to buy slaves on one Caribbean island and sell them on another. This was, for J. and T. Handasyde Perkins of Boston, as they pointed out themselves, a “business which we are particularly well situated to effect. . . . We will do the business at 5 percent.”34 Sometimes that meant taking from Savannah, Georgia, a cargo of rice or indigo to exchange for slaves in the Windward Islands and sell them in Cuba. That was done, for instance, by Captain William McNeill in the Perkins’ Clarissa.
This North American trading to Havana was, of course, illegal, under the federal law which forbade the trading of slaves to foreign states. So the merchants ran risks of prosecution at home. A lawsuit in Salem was, indeed, once brought against Sinclair and Waters, the owners of the Abeona, by a private individual, Stephen Cleveland. The owners lost the case, but refused to pay the fine of £4,000. Three of their vessels were then seized by the court. The owners appealed. The court became entangled in discussion of its own competence, and the case did not prevent the Abeona from sailing again.
In these years, Salem, whose merchants had done little with respect to the trade in the past, became the most important Massachusetts slave port. The brothers Joseph and Joshua Grafton were the first leaders, though John White and George Crowninshield soon caught up; the latter found the business rather expensive: “We find prime slaves were not to be purchased for less than 200 galls. rum each,” they wrote thoughtfully to Captain Edward Boss, who wanted to take out one of their ships to the slave harbors.35Whatever the price, Boss was all the same to be found with the sloop General Green, with slaves to sell in the river Surinam in 1794.
Among the captains to be found in Havana was James de Wolf, the outstanding captain and merchant in this era of North American slave trading. De Wolf, with his “florid cheeks, a blunt nose, gray eyes, an upper lip as sheer as a carpenter’s plane, and big, capable sailor’s hands,” was one of five brothers of Bristol, Rhode Island, who were all for a time slave captains or merchants. They were sons of Mark Antony de Wolf, who, it will be recalled,XVI had captained slave ships for his father-in-law, Simeon Potter in the early 1770s. The de Wolfs entered the trade in their own right after the American Revolution. James de Wolf, a hero of several naval fights against the British, was the outstanding individual. Before he was twenty, he was master of his own ship; before he was twenty-five, he had made enough money from the slave trade to last him the rest of his life. Though operating from a house on Mount Hope, a hill outside the little port of Bristol, he would sometimes go down to Charleston or Savannah to superintend the landing of slaves from his ships. He sensibly married the daughter of William Bradford, the owner of Bristol’s large rum distillery (and a United States senator), when rum was still the main slave cargo on the African coast. Simeon Potter, writing to his successful nephew in 1794, explained how, despite the new federal law which prohibited the citizens of the United States from carrying slaves to other nations, there were ways in which vessels could still be fitted out for the trade. James profited from this advice, and he or other members of the family fitted out eighty-eight journeys to Africa for slaves between 1784 and 1807. In order to benefit from this form of labor the more, James de Wolf bought a sugar plantation in Cuba—one of the first North Americans to invest in that island after it became legal to do so in 1790.36
It was not simply Cuba in the Spanish empire where planters and traders were now taking advantage of the new conditions: the slave trade to Lima also expanded in the 1790s, slaves being bought as a rule in Buenos Aires or Montevideo and taken overland to Peru. The greatest merchant there was José Antonio del Valle Cortés, a well-connected mayor of Lima, who had become count of Premio Real for his services in the colony’s fight against the Inca rebellion of Tupac Amaru; between 1792 and 1803, he sold an average of 270 slaves a year on the Lima market. Del Valle’s son Juan Bautista bought a substantial hacienda, Villa, south of Lima, where he put fifteen hundred African slaves to work his cane fields. Sales in Caracas also increased, the buyers being the cocoa farmers of the valley: 350 slaves a year were sold there at the end of the century, another of Baker and Dawson’s representatives from Liverpool, Edward Barry, being the major seller.37
Though the international news was, therefore, far from promising, the abolitionists found some encouragement at home. For example, they gained comfort from a financial crash in Bristol. Some of the outstanding merchants were ruined—among them James Rogers, the most vociferous in his denunciations of abolition. The last in the great series of admirable Scottish philosophers, James Beattie, published in 1793 the second volume of his Elements of Moral Science, in which (as usual among British writers of the era, following Montesquieu) he firmly stated, “All the men upon earth whatever their colour are our brethren.”38 Further, though the new war with France delayed innovation in politics, it had the same consequence for commerce as had occurred during all the wars of the century. Indeed, because of the fighting, and the conversion of so many merchant ships into privateers, no ships left Liverpool for slaving in 1794.
Yet there were always new merchants ready to seize any opportunities which opened up as a result of the renewed war in Europe. The United States, not France, was the obvious candidate now for succession to Britain as the world’s major slaver, should abolition be carried through. Zachary Macaulay, who was still in Sierra Leone, wrote from there in 1796 to the Reverend Samuel Hopkins in Newport, “You will be sorry to learn that, during the last year, the number of American slave traders on the coast has increased to an unprecedented degree. Were it not for their pertinacious adherence to that abominable traffic,” he added, rather optimistically, “it would, in consequence of the war, have been almost wholly abolished.”39
Despite the war and the contrived hostility of Thurlow and Dundas, as well as of the duke of Clarence (with all that that suggested), Wilberforce held fast to his mission. He was still supported by both Pitt and Fox, even if the former’s mind had to be on the war. In 1794, when it was supposed that the trade would end in 1796, he successfully introduced a bill providing for a ban on British merchants’ sale of slaves to foreign markets. The same opponents as usual spoke against him (Tarleton, Sir William Young, Alderman Newman). There were some new voices, too, such as that of Edmund Lechmere, member for Worcester who thought that, “since all Europe was in a state of confusion, it would be highly imprudent to adopt any untried expedient.” Also among the Tory opposition there appears for the first time the name of Robert Peel, member for Tamworth, the first cotton king to sit in Parliament, who thought that the Africans were not yet sufficiently mature to deserve liberty. Wilberforce on this occasion persuaded the Commons to vote for him, but the House of Lords as usual defeated him, the names of the lords who opposed being, apparently, not recorded.
It thus became clear, seven years after the first debate on the matter in the House of Commons, that the parliamentary effort to end the slave trade would constitute a long struggle.40 As Lord Shelburne—Pitt’s predecessor as prime minister, and the first such statesman to write an autobiography—once put it: “it requires no small labour to open the eyes of either the public or of individuals but, when that is accomplished you are not got a third of the way. The real difficulty remains in getting people to apply the principles which they have admitted and of which they are now so fully convinced. Then springs the mine composed of private interests and personal animosity.”41
IMolineux, whose property was in Saint Kitts, was a special enemy of the Reverend Ramsay and, when that philanthropist died, in the summer of 1789, from calumnies inspired by the planters, his friends thought, Molineux wrote to his illegitimate son in Saint Kitts: “Ramsay is dead: I have killed him.”
IIThis was a speech which the generous Charles Fox later described as “the most brilliant and convincing speech that ever was . . . delivered in this or any other place” (“O si illum vidisse, si illum audivisse . . .”).
IIITarleton had fought bravely in the American war, and his crippled hand, with two fingers lost in action, became an asset in elections. He was the lover of the actress Perdita Robinson, ex-mistress of the prince of Wales, but afterwards he and his wife were thought excessively uxorious: they not only customarily sat on the same chair but ate off the same plate.
IVThe expression by André Malraux with regard to the early stages of the Spanish Civil War.
VJean-Baptiste-Joseph de Lubersac, who had already demonstrated his liberalism by voting in the States-General for the abolition of hunting rights.
VITallien in Bordeaux fell in love with the granddaughter of one of Bordeaux’s prominent négriers, Dominique Cabarrus: she “sweetened his life,” and dictated his career; shortly afterwards, he married her.
VIIThe latter captain’s deliveries can be seen in illustration 57.
VIIIVaughan later became an extreme radical, fled to France on being suspected of treachery, and eventually went to live, and die, in the United States.
IXDundas originally proposed January 1, 1800, as the date to end the trade, but others, including Pitt, “saw no reason why 1793 was not preferable.” The years 1794. and 1795 were also canvassed. This was the occasion when Lord Carhampton, whose grandfather had been governor of Jamaica, said that “gentlemen might talk of inhumanity but he did not know what right anyone had to do so inhumane a thing as to inflict a speech of four hours long on a set of innocent, worthy and respectable men.” Dundas was a formidable parliamentary opponent for the abolitionists: Lord Holland recalled how “he never hesitated in making any assertion and, without attempting to answer an argument, he either treated it as quite preposterous or, after some bold misstatements and inapplicable maxims, confidently alleged that he had refuted it.”
XAlas, Pitt’s biographer John Ehrman says that he knows of no evidence that the sun did so rise.
XIEnglish political history may not be understood unless it be realized that Parliament in those days sat between January and August, never in the autumn.
XIIThe trade in the Dutch empire had never recovered after the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, in the early 1780s; and the many slaves needed by the Dutch colonists in Surinam were often carried there by North Americans.
XIIISee page 520.
XIVIn 1792, Kentucky entered the union as a new slave state. When the South (Georgia and the Carolinas) relinquished claims on the territory to the west of them, they had stipulated that any new state there should be slaveholding. By now, the Northern and Southern populations in the new nation were more or less equal, and expansion was expected to be a lateral matter.
XVThe countess of Merlin, a niece of Montalvo, would express in the 1840s what Arango seems to have thought fifty years earlier: “Nothing is more just than the abolition of the slave trade; nothing is more unjust than the abolition of slavery.”32 She thought the latter a violation of the rights of property, an attack on something which all governments had always supported, and even helped to finance.
XVISee page 285.