Modern history

27

Why Should We See Great Britain Getting All the Slave Trade?

“Why should we see Great Britain getting all the slave trade to themselves? Why should not our country be enriched by that lucrative traffic?”

John Brown, member of the House of Representatives from Rhode Island, 1800

CAPTAIN JAMES dE WOLF St Thomas, April 1 1796 This will inform you of my arrival in this port safe, with seventy-eight well slaves. I lost two on my passage. I had sixty-two days’ passage. I received your letter and orders to draw bills on thirty days sight, but I have agreed to pay in slaves—two men slaves at twenty-eight joes and one boy at twenty-five joes and another at twenty joes.I I found times very bad on the coast. Prime slaves are one hogshead and thirty gallons of rum or seven joes gold and boys one hogshead of rum. I left captain Isaac Manchester at Anemebue [that is, Anamabo] with ninety slaves on board all well. Tomorrow I shall sail for Havana, agreeable to your orders. I shall do the best I can and without other orders load with molasses and return to Bristol.

I remain your friend and humble servant, Jeremiah Diman.

Persistence is the most important quality in politics. It was possessed in heroic quantity by Wilberforce who, in the spring of 1795, again inspired a motion in the House of Commons which would have enabled the country to go ahead with the abolition of the slave trade at the time which Henry Dundas had once suggested, at the beginning of 1796. But by now the public mood was in favor of indefinite delay. The consequences of the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue, the war, and the social problems at home caused the opposition to abolition to become far stronger. That year was one in which many people supposed that a revolution in the French style would break out in England, and the abolitionists were uncertain what to do. Yet, as usual, Wilberforce was supported by Fox and Pitt. All, as usual, spoke well, even if Pitt’s other preoccupations had somewhat dimmed his advocacy of “practical justice and rational liberty”—in comparison only, however, with what had prevailed in 1792. Dundas spoke of the desirability of further delays: “The propriety of abolishing the slave trade he thought no man could doubt; yet he thought it equally clear that this was not the period for its abolition.”1 As noted (in a letter to his sister) by the young George Canning, Pitt’s most brilliant protégé, now in Parliament for the first time, Wilberforce’s motion, “to the disgrace of the House, was negatived by . . . 78 to 61, in defiance of plain justice and humanity. . . . For my own part, the slave trade is a question upon which I find it so difficult to conceive how there can exist but one feeling. . . . When the question is put to me ‘Shall such enormities go on—for any purpose, under any circumstances, to any degree?’ I feel myself compelled at once, without looking to the right or the left, or taking any other than a straightforward view of the matter to answer with an unequivocal and unqualified ‘No’ . . .

“Of the leaders,” Canning continued, “I rather suspect that Sheridan has some little doubts upon the subject; but he was not present—indeed, I do not think he would divide against the measure, even if he thought against it much more decidedly than I suspect him to do.II Of us younger ones—Jenkinson [the future prime minister, Lord Liverpool], is a slave trader, so is Charles Ellis [he had been born in Jamaica where he had a plantation] . . . so is Granville Leveson [later the first earl Granville, a gambler known later, when ambassador to Paris, as “le Wellington des joueurs”]. . . . Seeing Leveson . . . I began to remonstrate with him jokingly upon his savageness in dividing so improperly.”2

Some businesses had anticipated the vote going the other way. Thus Alexander Houston and Co., one of the leading West Indian houses of Glasgow, assuming that the slave trade would end, speculated in the purchase of slaves. But, in the event, they had to maintain an army of unwanted Africans in Jamaica, of whom disease killed many, and the firm in consequence went bankrupt in 1795: the biggest financial disaster in the history of Glasgow till that date, and the worst in the history of the British slave trade.

The next year, 1796, Wilberforce yet again put his case to the legislature, securing permission, by 93 to 67, to introduce a bill on the subject.III Yet again, Fox and Pitt spoke eloquently for abolition. Yet again, Dundas insisted that, evil as the slave trade was, it was not possible for Parliament to give effect to the bill at that moment. Sir Philip Francis told the House that, if he had not voted in favor of abolition in 1789, he would have inherited a great fortune from a lady who had property in the West Indies. Wilberforce lost his bill, which demanded abolition of the trade as from January 1, 1797, on the bill’s third reading, by only four votes, 70 to 74.3 It was believed that the abolitionists lost some votes because of the rival attractions of a new comic opera presented that night.

The list of those who, all the same, voted with Wilberforce included as usual the greatest names in English political life: Pitt, Canning, Fox, Sheridan, as well as Francis. Yet their speeches had now become a little repetitious, lacking new information, partly because Clarkson, the essential linchpin, the packhorse, the patient traveler, the interviewer—indeed, the slave as it would have been put at that time—of the abolition movement, had collapsed. “All exertion was then over,” he himself reported; “the nervous system was almost shattered. . . . Both my memory and my hearing failed me. . . .”4 He had done the work of a hundred men and, according to his own account, had traveled on a large scale all over England in search of evidence. His place would soon be taken by James Stephen, the equally possessed son of a supercargo who had lived at the minor slave port of Poole, had been a lawyer at Saint Kitts in the Caribbean and saw, in England’s current discomfiture by France, a divine retribution for her part in the slave trade. (Stephen’s hostility to slavery had been fired by seeing two slaves condemned in Saint Kitts to be burned alive.)

The interest of British public opinion in the matter of slavery was maintained up to a certain point by another lawsuit comparable to that of the Zong, though with a different conclusion. This was Tatham v. Hodgson. A ship left Liverpool for Africa and picked up 168 slaves. She then set off for the West Indies. The voyage took over six months because of bad weather, and 128 slaves died en route—most of them as a result of starvation, since the captain had laid in food for only the usual six to nine weeks. The question was whether the loss of slaves could be attributed to the perils of the sea, in which case the insurance company would pay the owners. Lord Kenyon—the new lord chief justice, after Mansfield’s retirement—asked sharply whether the captain of the ship had also starved to death. The answer was no. In the end, Kenyon’s judgment was that the shipowners were not entitled to call on the underwriters to make good their loss.

In 1797 and 1798, Wilberforce was again defeated. On these occasions, he had new supporters—such as Benjamin Hobhouse, though he came from Bristol slave-trading stockIV—and new enemies, in the shape of Bryan Edwards, member of the Jamaican Assembly, as well as of the House of Commons, and the author of a competent history of the British West Indies. Edwards had the audacity to invoke the recent work of Mungo Park to support his contention that all Africa was in a condition of absolute slavery, and suggested to Wilberforce that, if he were desirous of exercising his humanity, he should look to Britain, where “he would even meet a race as worthy of his benevolent attention as those in the West Indies, namely the chimney sweeps.”V Another critic was Canning’s friend Charles Ellis who, in 1797, proposed that the governors of West Indian colonies should be instructed to encourage the West Indian legislatures to improve the conditions on plantations until the slaves’ natural increase made the trade unnecessary. Pitt was, for a time, attracted by this idea but, in the end, sided as usual with Wilberforce.5

In 1799, Wilberforce again put the question, being supported again by the same brilliant band of fine orators. A new opponent of Wilberforce was John Petrie, a merchant and banker who had four estates in Tobago and who, in his only speech in the House of Commons, argued that abolition would be the scourge of Africa. Dundas, with whom the spirit of inspired gradualism was turning to that of outright opposition, now argued that the future of a subject as important as the trade in slaves should be decided by the legislatures of the colonies themselves—a view effectively mocked by Canning, now in the government as undersecretary at the Foreign Office. Pitt on this occasion said ironically that the opponents of abolition evidently thought that “the blood of these poor negroes was to continue flowing; it was dangerous to stop it because it had run so long; besides, we were under contract with certain surgeons to allow them a certain supply of human bodies every year for them to try experiments on, and this we did out of pure love of science.” On this occasion, the motion to abolish the trade was defeated by only 74 to 82.6

Wilberforce also introduced a bill, making the more modest suggestion that slave traders should be excluded from the colony of Sierra Leone because of its freed citizenry. This rather obvious measure passed the Commons, but even that failed to pass through the Lords: the duke of Clarence assumed the lead of those who opposed the idea, and was presented for his pains with the freedom of the city of Liverpool.

One bill which did pass the House of Commons in 1799 restricted still further the number of slaves per ton of British shipping (the average number of slaves per ship henceforth was to be 289). Slaves would now be fitted into an average space of eight square feet instead of five to six square feet. As the future prime minister Lord Liverpool argued would be the case, in his opposition to this modest proposal, the profitability of these regulated ships was declining in comparison with Britain’s competitors: for example, in 1806, the Royal Navy captured as a prize 413 slaves on board a Dutch ship which, under British regulations, would have been allowed to carry a maximum of 260 slaves.

As the new century began, Wilberforce and his friends realized bitterly that, ten years after the formation of the abolitionist movement, British ships were still carrying over 50,000 slaves a year to the Americas, and that the years 1791-1800 had seen the British slave trade at its most grandiose—nearly 400,000 slaves had been landed from about 1,340 voyages. Despite the high prices of slaves in Africa, the trade was more profitable than it had been in the 1780s: the average profit per voyage was probably 13 percent. In 1798, almost 150 ships, the highest ever, left Liverpool for Africa.VI

The British economy appeared even more to depend either on slavery, or on slave-produced goods, in the first years of the nineteenth century than when the movement for abolition had been launched. In 1803, for instance, less than 8 percent of the cotton used in Britain derived from “free areas,” such as Turkey. The rest came from slave-using plantation colonies such as Louisiana, Brazil, or Demerara (the latter was the great cotton success of the early 1800s, the “most rapidly developing colony in the world,” where most cotton plantations were owned by English investors). Between 1790 and 1806, the slave population increased in the British empire by at least a quarter and, if the new West Indian islands, conquered or merely occupied, were added to the total, the increase would be about one-half. Liverpool merchants such as Baker and Dawson (so often mentioned), John Bolton, and John Tarleton (of Tarleton and Backhouse) figure as major investors, not only in trading slaves to Demerara, but in employing them when they got there and carrying steam engines there, too. James Stephen, now Wilberforce’s brother-in-law, wrote in a tract published in 1804: “I see my country still given up without remorse to the unbridled career of slave-trading speculators,” and added, “The monster, instead of being cut off, as the first burst of honest indignation promised, has been more fondly nourished than before; and fattened with fuller meals of misery and murder. . . .”7

One modern historian, Seymour Dreschler, was, therefore, quite correct to comment, more drily: “In terms of both capital value and overseas trade the slave system was expanding, not declining.”8

It need scarcely be added that neither the Portuguese Crown nor the Brazilian ascendancy had for a moment contemplated an end of their traffic in slaves. How could they? The income to the Portuguese state from the trade, as a result of per-capita taxes on slaves, was higher than ever before. In 1770, for instance, the tax on slaves amounted to 150 contos, whereas other receipts did not attain a twentieth of that. In 1801-10, about 200,000 slaves were carried to Brazil, over three-quarters from Angola and 50,000 from the Gulf of Guinea. About 10,000 were carried every year to Rio alone. Many of these were children, because of a lack of other supplies. Even Portugal was still importing slaves in the 1770s, perhaps several thousand a year, though it was illegal. (The first prosecution for importing slaves to Lisbon came in 1798.) No one in Brazil would have disagreed with a statement by the merchants of Bahia to the king of Portugal, in the 1790s, that “the arms of slaves . . . are those that cultivate the vast fields of Brazil; without them, there would perhaps not be those things as important as sugar, tobacco, cotton and the rest which are transported to the Motherland, and which enrich and augment national commerce and the royal treasury of Your Majesty. Any objection to the slave trade [such as, it might have been added, were being made by a few hypocrites in the parliament of His Majesty’s oldest ally] . . . are attacks on the population, the commerce and the income of Your Majesty.”9

The most promising new market for slaves in these years, however, was still Cuba. Philip Baker, of Baker and Dawson took care in 1795 to inform the Commons that he had £500,000 invested in eighteen slave ships—for the service of Spain (that is, Cuba). The new circumstances there had encouraged the establishment, in Havana, of a new breed of slave traders. Havana previously had never had such merchants, for the planters on the island had usually traded there directly with the English, French, Dutch, or other captains. But now an oligarchy of merchants took shape which bought slaves and resold them to planters or, in some cases, sent ships themselves to other Caribbean ports to buy slaves. The new names included: Santiago Drake, whose interests included both trading in slaves and using them on plantations (born James Drake in England, he had gone to Havana when the old regulations were dismantled in 1792); his relations, the del Castillo family, one of whose members, José del Castillo, was dedicated to commerce of all kinds in Havana, whereas his cousins, the marquis of San Felipe and his brothers, grew sugar at their fine hacienda at Bejucal; Santiago de la Cuesta y Manzanal, a giant who would have a great future in public life and die a marquis; the de Poëy family; Cristóbal Durán (who specialized in carrying slaves from North America to Cuba); Clemente Ichaso; and Francisco Antonio de Comas. Many of these new Havana merchants had North American associates or even partners. For example, Santiago Drake had as a partner Charles Storey in that most northerly of Massachusetts ports, Newburyport, and he also had connections in his home country. Apart from him and the de Poëys, who were originally French, most of these merchants were born in Spain, even if they soon took their place among the business leaders of Cuba.

The new merchants were certain that their mission was to bring as many slaves to Cuba in as short a time as possible. For that reason, they turned a little away from the English suppliers who had sold them so many slaves in the past: the latest English law restricting the slaves per ship seemed unbusinesslike. Between 1796 and 1807, the United States dominated the Cuban slave trade, and, in that last year, thirty-five out of the total of forty-four ships which officially entered Havana were registered as North American, though sometimes these supposed United States ships were really British: “A large proportion, perhaps all the American slave ships which are now fitted out in our ports, are owned by British subjects,” James Stephen noted.10 But when the world was at peace—as it was in 1802, after the Peace of Amiens—English ships, such as William Jameson’s Fame, and Henry Colet’s Minerva (in May 1802), still occasionally brought the biggest cargoes to Havana: 380 and 246 slaves respectively.

One interesting change occurred in Havana in the 1790s. Las Casas, the Cuban captain-general (that is, governor of the island), ruled that only slaves direct from Africa could be brought to Cuba: those who had been working for many years in other Caribbean islands were potentially suspect as bearers of evil liberal ideas. For a time, this rule was interpreted as being an instruction to those buying from foreign captains; but it was already recognized in Cuba not only that “the need for labor of this kind is not temporary but permanent,” but also that “the entry and departure of foreigners to and from our ports is not convenient while we are in a position to reach another agreement.” By 1798, following the pioneering voyage of Lafuente in El Cometa of 1792, ships were beginning to leave Cuba direct for Africa quite often, if not regularly. For example, a vessel captained by Luis Beltrán Gonet, purchased 123 slaves on the river Sénégal. In 1802, José Maria Ormazabal, on behalf of Francisco Ignacio de Azcárate, a Basque merchant established in Havana, went to Africa, on the schooner Dolores, and brought back 122 slaves after an average of fifty-eight days, making a profit of 75 percent. This direct traffic was still technically illegal, and several of the captains, crews, and financing were not Spanish but, in 1804, the Spanish government gave its approval. Any Spanish citizen was henceforth to be allowed to import slaves from Africa for another twelve years, free of all duty. Foreigners were permitted to do the same, though only for six years. Sugar mills—this decree was proclaimed with an eye to Cuba, especially—were to be provided with slave women, so that reliance on imports would, it was optimistically hoped, eventually cease (planters never liked such provisions, and as usual did their best to avoid them). This reform was the result of a note sent from the king of Spain to the Council of the Indies, in April 1803, which declared firmly, “American agriculture, which, because of its impact on the commerce and navigation of European nations and the prosperity of the colonies themselves, is so important, cannot exist without the slave trade.”11

In consequence, even official figures suggest that, in the years 1790-1810, about 150,000 slaves were imported into Cuba; nearly 14,000 in 1802 alone.

•  •  •

In these years, the cause of abolition in the United States suffered new complications. On the one hand, all three Southern states where the import of slaves had been left as legal in 1787 formally prohibited it: Georgia in 1798 (which provision endured, although scarcely fulfilled); South Carolina in 1788, for five years and, when that prohibition ran out, she banned the trade for another two years, a law which continued to be extended, though with modest penalties, till 1803; and, finally, North Carolina, whose legislature, though the state had in 1790 repealed her prohibitory duties on slaving, in 1794, influenced by hideous stories of events in Haiti, introduced a bill to prevent the further import of slaves.

On the other hand, there were several further lawsuits against slave traders. During the second half of 1799 alone, there were six actions for breaking the federal law of 1794. But the prohibitions on importing were not really maintained; most of the lawsuits did not prosper, for the confiscation of the slave ship, which was the usual penalty, was customarily easily circumvented by the ship’s being bought back at an artificially low price by the old owner; the government’s attempts to prevent this usually proved futile. Other cases were lost on technical grounds.

A new act of 1800 tightened the federal law, making it technically illegal for both residents and citizens of the United States to have any share in a slave ship on its way to a foreign country. The Congress voted for this law overwhelmingly, the Senate by 67 to 4. The debate in the lower house was interesting for a speech by John Brown of Rhode Island, the famous merchant of Providence, who alleged that, in 1794, the members had been “drilled into [passing the act of that year] by certain members who would not take no for an answer.” He was certain that the existence of an act in the United States against the slave trade would not prevent the exportation of a single slave from Africa, because shippers from other countries would take them. He believed: “We might as well enjoy that trade as leave it wholly to others. It was the law of that country [Africa] to export those whom they held in slavery—who were as much slaves as those who were slaves in this country. . . . The very idea of making a law against this trade, which all our other nations enjoyed, was ill policy. He could further say that it [abolition] was wrong when considered in a moral point of view since, by the operation of the trade, the very people much bettered their condition. . . . [In addition] all our distilleries and manufacturies were lying idle for want of an extended commerce [in slaves]. He had been informed that, on those coasts [of Africa], New England rum was much preferred to the best Jamaica spirits. . . .”12

There was a moment when, despite the opposition of John Brown, it seemed that this act really might spell the end of the traffic from Rhode Island and elsewhere in New England; but the federal courts were still inactive, partly because of local threats of violence and bribery. The law seems to have had no effect at all on United States slave trading to Cuba. Then, in 1804, as a result of skillfully conducted local intrigues, an abolitionist, Jonathan Russell, was removed from the decisive post of collector of customs at Bristol, Rhode Island, and substituted by Charles Collins, a brother-in-law of James de Wolf. This was a disastrous appointment, since Collins had not only once been a slave captain, but was still part-owner of the slave ships Armstadt and Minerva; the very day when he was sworn in to his new post at Newport, the latter ship landed 150 slaves at Havana. Collins remained collector for twenty years. Not surprisingly, there were for the moment no more prosecutions in Rhode Island for breaking the law on trading slaves.VII

Partly in consequence of the trade originating in Rhode Island, an apparently uncontrollable traffic seemed to swamp the states which still thought themselves in need of slave labor: in particular, South Carolina which, in December 1803, reopened her own slave trade, allowing about 40,000 new slaves to enter legally until a federal prohibition took effect in 1807. These slaves were almost all from Africa, for the legislators in the state, like the captain-general in Cuba, feared a slave rebellion if West Indian slaves should come. According to customs-house returns, scarcely likely to exaggerate, the shippers came primarily from Britain (nearly 20,000 slaves, in ninety-one ships), Rhode Island (nearly 8,000 slaves, in eighty-eight ships), Charleston itself (2,000 slaves, in thirteen ships), and France (over 1,000 slaves, in ten ships).

The main firm in Charleston in these days was that of John Phillips and John Gardner, both of whom had come down from Newport to make their fortunes, and certainly seem to have done so: they sent twenty-five ships direct to Africa in the last four years of the slave trade. A representative of the de Wolf family (Henry or “Gentleman Jim,” for example, young men still in their teens) would probably be there to receive the cargoes which their uncle James de Wolf had commissioned.

The national response was modest. Representative David Bard, a pastor from Pennsylvania, was admittedly outraged at the resurgence of the traffic. He said: “Had I been informed that some formidable foreign power had invaded our country, I would not, I ought not, be more alarmed . . . while we see the flood gate open and pouring innumerable miseries into our country.” He then proposed a tax of $10 a head on the slaves imported: scarcely a severe penalty, since, at that time, the price of a slave was $100.13

As many Africans were probably introduced into the United States in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and the first eight years of the nineteenth century as in the entire era since the 1620s.

An impression of the African consequences was given by Captain Matthew Benson of Rhode Island, who had himself once traded in slaves, but was now concerned primarily with camwood and gum. He wrote home to Nicholas Brown & Co. of Providence in 1800, from the coast of Sierra Leone, to say that, there, the “American hive continues its swarming beyond all previous periods. Not a week passes without arrivals. The quantity of rum, tobacco and provisions arriving since the tenth of the current [month] is almost incredible.”14 In 1806, the United States slaving fleet was said to have been almost three-quarters the size of the British one. These vessels of the former, unlike those of the latter, were, of course, unregulated by anything like the Dolben bill, and so could carry as many slaves as their captains thought fit.

The early years of the nineteenth century thus looked distinctly unpromising for the abolition of the trade, much less that of slavery itself. No one could be certain what the Congress of the United States would decide in 1807, the year when there was, by the terms of the Constitution of 1787, certain to be a new debate; nor whether anything which might be decided would be effective in practice. The slaveholding states of the United States were now responsible for about 45 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives. The slaveholders were already looking to the Senate to admit new slave states. At the same time, the old enthusiasm for abolition in England had diminished. The campaigners were growing older, the attentions of Pitt were absorbed by the war, and little really had happened in respect of abolition. The novelty of the cause had worn thin. King George III looked on Wilberforce’s activities as a jest: “How go on your black clients, Mr. Wilberforce?” he once asked that statesman at a levée.15 The standing of the navy stood high, and the navy, from Nelson to the duke of Clarence, were generally in favor of the traffic. The former once said that he was “bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”16 In this atmosphere, it is scarcely surprising that, between 1801 and 1807, over a quarter-million slaves (266,000) were carried by Britain, without taking into account those carried in foreign-owned vessels which were really British. The war might have tired the abolitionists, but not the slavers.

Then, in 1802, France revived the trade: Napoleon greeted the Peace of Amiens by reintroducing slavery itself into the French empire. This law, of 30 Floréal in the year X, did not inspire the slightest opposition in the passive “tribunate” in Paris. Article III of the new document stated simply that the slave trade, which had never been abolished, would continue according to the rules obtaining before 1789. Napoleon had previously seen the deputies for Nantes, Bordeaux, and Marseilles, and they had talked to him of the urgent national need to revive the slave trade. Pierre Labarthe, in his Voyage à la côte de Guinée of 1802, praised Napoleon for this return to “the principles of a wise policy.”17

No doubt the deputies’ influence was considerable. Perhaps also Josephine, the brilliant daughter of Martinique, gave her counsel. But the first consul was not sentimental: his colonies required labor as much as his merchants required profits. The Council of Commerce in La Rochelle had earlier rejoiced that “les temps déplorables de la démagogie”—in which entire colonies had been allowed to perish in order to preserve a principle—“sont à la fin passés.” The Council of Commerce of Bordeaux, too, composed of nine men of whom five were négriers (Dominique Cabarrus, Mareilhac, Chicu-Bourbon, Gramont, and Brunaud), also stated firmly that “the supreme object of African commerce has always been to sustain our western colonies. . . . Cultivation cannot be usefully carried on except with the strong arms of Africans. De là, la nécessité de la traite”: always provided, in their opinion, that it was not a traite managed by one of those terrible privileged companies which in the past had so damaged honest traders.18

Bordeaux, for a short time, was the biggest slave port of France, sending, between February 1802 and January 1804, fifteen ships to Africa, among them such prettily named vessels as the Grand d’Alembert, the Incroyable, and the Harmonie. The dominant trader in this new phase of the history of the Gironde was Jacques Conte, the Protestant son of a sea captain from the peninsula of Arvert (Charente-Maritime), who had first made a fortune from seizing merchant ships as a privateer: 152 in all. The slave trade was popular. Men advertised themselves to work on board the new generation of vessels: “Un citoyen des bonnes moeurs, âgé de 32 ans, appartenant à une famille connue . . . s’emploierait sur les côtes d’Amérique ou d’Afrique [comme] subrécargue.”19 Local papers published numerous advertisements announcing that the merchant concerned had the ideal cargo necessary for the journey.VIII

The French restoration of the institution of the trade removed in England the stigma of Jacobinism from the abolitionist cause; and, by the same token, it soon came to seem pro-British or antipatriotic to oppose slavery in France.

Napoleon, having in 1800 forced Spain to return Louisiana to him, sent an army to Saint-Domingue to reconquer it, and it seems as if, for a time, he anticipated a new French empire in the Americas, without rights for slaves. Another French army reconquered Guadeloupe from the rebel Victor Hugues. But the failure of General Leclerc to re-establish French power in Saint-Domingue weakened Napoleon’s imperial desires, as well as placing power in the new republic of Haiti in the hands of the despot Dessalines, who cut himself off from the world (even if he did, on proclaiming himself emperor, receive a crown from the United States, brought on the Connecticut). The incompetence of Dessalines did not make the new country seem a good example for the future of other once successful sugar colonies.

The resumption of the war in Europe in 1803 persuaded Napoleon to withdraw from his Caribbean ambitions. He even sold Louisiana to the United States, thereby doubling the size of the Union (for the territory stretched far to the north) and, in the long run, making possible the United States’ growth to its modern place as a world power.

The slave history of Louisiana after its sale is instructive. It was soon accepted that slaves should move into Louisiana as easily as into Mississippi (where, in 1798, the bill introduced to establish it as a state contained a specific declaration that the antislaving clause of the Constitution should not apply, since slavery was a legal institution in the surrounding country). At that time, Louisiana was a small producer of sugar—a mere five thousand tons—and thus scarcely a big slave consumer. But a substantial proportion of the large numbers of slaves imported during these years into South Carolina found themselves eventually in Louisiana.

A federal law soon condemned the Louisiana slave trade. But, despite protests to President Jefferson (notably by Representative James Hillhouse and by the pamphleteer Tom Paine, now back in the United States), slavery itself was permitted. The marquis of Casa Calvo, the last Spanish governor of the colony, wrote, after his return to Havana: “Truly, it is impossible for lower Louisiana to get along without slaves. And it will be very damaging to their interests if they cannot obtain the hands necessary for their work which will infallibly decline. It is not easy to adduce a reason for this conduct [of the government of the United States] in the colony which was making great strides towards prosperity and wealth. The inhabitants are so angered that it is with difficulty that they will be able to be amalgamated with the rude citizens of the United States.”20

The same opinions were expressed by an official, John Watkins, sent to travel in Louisiana by the territory’s first United States governor, William Claiborne: “No subject seems to be so interesting to the minds of the inhabitants of all that part of the country which I have visited as that of the importation of brute negroes from Africa. This permission would go further with them, and better reconcile them to the government of the United States, than any other privilege that could be extended to this country. They appear only to claim it for a few years. . . . White labourers, they say, cannot be had in this unhealthy climate.”21 Few, in fact, thought that the planters of Louisiana, with their growing cotton production, would obey federal laws on slavery. That distrust was correct.IX

•  •  •

By chance, Napoleon’s revival of slavery coincided with a fresh impetus for the cause of abolition.

First, in 1803, the Danes carried out their agreement of 1792 to abolish the slave trade. True, as might have been expected, the number of slaves carried in their last years exceeded all past levels, so that, by 1802, the few small islands of the Danish West Indies counted over 35,000 slaves (in comparison with about 28,000 in 1792).

Then in 1802, a brilliant young Spanish geographer, Isidoro Antillón, read before an academy of Spanish law in Madrid a dissertation against the commerce and enslavement of Africans. Though his essay was largely an adaptation of the ideas of Montesquieu, it was certainly the first faint indication of abolitionism in a country whose colonial merchants were every year expanding the traffic.22 There had been just a whiff of the same even in Cuba a few years before, when a Jesuit, Fray José Jesús Parreno, was expelled from the island for mentioning the matter in a sermon (his manuscripts were seized). Even in Portugal and Brazil, some enlightened spirits were questioning the basis of the traffic in slaves on which the latter dominion seemed still absolutely to depend. In 1794, for example, a Capuchin brother, José de Bolonha, was expelled from Bahia, since he, too, had publicly maintained that the African trade was illegal, on the ground this time that so many slaves were kidnapped. Two years later, Bernardino de Andrade, who had been an official of the Grão and Maranhão Company, wrote rather optimistically from Guinea-Bissau to his secretary of state in Lisbon that, if the slave trade could only be replaced by other enterprises, the people of Upper Guinea might end “their interminable dissensions and return to agriculture.”23

Probably without knowing of these Latin initiatives, the patient Wilberforce revived his efforts in 1804; this time the bill, his fourth, actually passed the House of Commons, by 49 votes to 24—a victory achieved because many of the (new) Irish members voted for him.X In the debate, Wilberforce had some entertainment in mocking the remarks of the historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, which had included the outrageous reflection, “An orang-outang husband would by no means disgrace a negro woman.”24 (Long was still the proprietor of a five-hundred acre sugar estate in Jamaica, Lucky Hill, in the parish of Clarendon, which made him £4,000 a year.) As usual, in those debates, Wilberforce found new enemies, such as John Fuller, member for Sussex, a planter in Jamaica (he had inherited the Rose Hill plantation) who insisted that “he had never heard the Africans deny their mental inferiority.” Another new enemy of reform was William Devyanes, a banker and member for Barnstaple, sometime chairman of the East India Company, who had spent years in Africa and told the House of Commons that an African king had assured him that “if the slave merchants did not purchase from him and others their prisoners taken in war, they would be killed.” (Devyanes, however, was known as an “active philanthropist.”) But the House of Lords, whither the crafty Dundas had now been translated as Lord Melville, as usual proposed a delay, such as was equivalent to the defeat of the bill. Once again, the ineffable duke of Clarence spoke for procrastination. Wilberforce wrote to a friend, Lord Muncaster, a Westmorland peer, that “it was truly humiliating to see, in the House of Lords, four of the Royal Family come down to vote against the poor, helpless, friendless slaves.”25

Wilberforce was, however, encouraged by his success in the House of Commons. The signs were suddenly propitious to his cause. As so often in politics, patience had its rewards. Dundas, without whose skillful obstructions the trade would have been abolished in 1796, if not 1792, was impeached in April 1805.XI Pitt’s prejudiced lord chancellor, Thurlow, was dying. Whatever the attitude of the royal family and the House of Lords, the mood of the new generation in the House of Commons was evidently inclined to abolitionism, thanks to the propaganda of Clarkson, Sharp, and Stephen. Though Pitt was in the last year of his life, he was still concerned, and indeed was anxious to avoid the risks of a new Saint-Domingue in newly captured Caribbean territories such as Trinidad, Tobago, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent.XII An order-in-council also forebade the import of slaves to the three new rich Guianan colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice (which Britain had temporarily acquired) after December 1, 1805, but only beyond 3 percent per year of the existing populations. A full ban on the import of slaves from Africa would take place after January 1, 1807. In order to prevent illegal import, there would also be a register of all slaves.

This modest restriction, following what had transpired in respect to Saint Vincent and Trinidad, was a turning point in the history of abolition; the new rule inspired fury among the cotton planters of Demerara, and led to the import for the first time there of Chinese labor, and to the hiring of some free blacks.

All the same, the next year, Wilberforce was to his surprise again obstructed, this time by a delaying amendment to a new version of his bill by Isaac, the brother of his old enemy Bamber Gascoyne of Liverpool (the voting on the second reading was 70 to 77). For the first time in this long series of debates, Pitt, preoccupied by personal as well as national problems (he was deeply distressed by the impeachment of Dundas), declined to speak on the matter.

•  •  •

Britain and the United States now moved as if together, though, of course, there was no possibility of deliberate cooperation. For, after several interesting debates as to whether it was right to deal with the slave trade exclusively by taxing imports of slaves, President Thomas Jefferson, in his annual message in December 1806, condemned those “violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa,” and urged Congress to take advantage of the end of the constitutional limitation of twenty years, which would come in 1807, to abolish the slave traffic absolutely.26 This was a remarkably firm statement for a president who was so often ambiguous, especially on the question of slavery. At one stage of his life, when most influenced by the French philosophes, he did once more talk of the relation of master and slave as “a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most remitting despotisms on the one hand, and degrading submissions on the other.”27 But he himself always employed, and sometime sold, slaves, and never endorsed outright the cause of abolition. He had also approved the fatal appointment of Collector of Customs Collins in Newport, a designation leading to the worst evasions of the law.

The day after Jefferson’s statement, Senator Stephen Bradley of Vermont (also known as the inventor of the stars and stripes on the flag of the United States) introduced a bill which would eventually prohibit the African slave trade. The ensuing debate concerned itself with important details. What, for example, was to be done with illegally imported slaves if they were identified as such? Surely they could not be sold because, if that were done, “we punish the criminal, and then step into his place and complete the crime.” But could they become free Africans inside the United States? Or should they be returned to Africa? If so, could their old homes be found, and how could they be prevented from being sold again as slaves? Punishment of those found guilty of illegal importing and the limitation of the interstate traffic naturally concerned the Congress, too. It was also admitted that violations of the law would be certain to occur, at least at first. Speakers from the Southern states suggested that no federal law against the slave trade could be put into effect in the Carolinas and in Georgia, where the trading of slaves would be seen at the most as a misdemeanor, not a crime: Peter Early of Georgia asked, “What honour will you derive from a law which will be broken every day of your lives?”

As to punishments of illegal traders, the argument came up against the difficulty of correlating them with existing severe penalties for theft; and Representative Joseph Stanton of Rhode Island, no doubt thinking of old friends at home, declared: “I cannot believe that a man ought to be hung [sic] for only stealing a negro.”

But, in the end, a bill in favor of abolition of the slave trade passed the Senate on January 27, 1807, and in the House of Representatives on February 11. President Jefferson signed it on March 2. It stated unequivocally that, from January 1, 1808, it would be illegal to introduce into the United States any “negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave.” The law also prohibited any United States citizen from equipping or financing any slave ship, to operate from any port in the United States. Sales of slaves to Cuba as to Brazil would henceforth be as much a crime as a sale to South Carolina. The question of the treatment of freed slaves was resolved by leaving the matter to the legislatures of the states concerned. Punishments would be a fine of $20,000 for equipping a ship, as well as the loss of the ship; for transporting slaves, a fine of $5,000 and the loss of the ship; and for carrying illegal slaves, a fine of $1,000 to $10,000, as well as imprisonment for five to ten years, accompanied by the forfeiture of both ship and slaves. Anyone who bought illegally imported slaves would be fined $800 a slave, and would forfeit the ship.28

The shortcoming of the act passed in Congress was that no special machinery was devised for their enforcement. Most of the Southern states, admittedly, did pass acts which were concerned with the disposal of illegally imported slaves. Thus Georgia and the new Alabama-Mississippi Territory (in 1815), and North Carolina (in 1816) caused the slaves to be sold by auction for the benefit of the state. For the rest, the secretary of the Treasury, responsible for the collection of customs, was theoretically in charge, but he had no special police at his disposal. In 1820, Secretary William Crawford, a Georgian, would tell Congress, “It appears, from an examination of the records of this office, that no particular instructions have ever been given by the Secretary of the Treasury, under the original or supplementary acts prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the United States.”29

The discussion in the Congress of the United States on the final abolition was quite different from its equivalent in the House of Commons in London, since the legislature of the United States was concerned with something on which everyone present was to some extent informed from personal experience: every senator or congressman (even Bradley of Vermont, the one state in the Union which had never known slavery) had known a slave. On the other hand, in London, only a small minority of lords or members of Parliament had had experience in the West Indies, and practically none in North America.

In the early part of 1806, the abolitionists held a series of discussions in London with the new “government of all the talents”—that is, with the prime minister, Lord Grenville (Pitt had died); with Lord Henry Petty, the young chancellor of the Exchequer; and with Charles James Fox, who was at last secretary of state. Grenville, son of Pitt’s “Gentle Shepherd,” who, through his Stamp Act, had done so much to lose the American colonies for Britain, had been an enemy of slavery since the first debate in the House of Commons on the trade in 1789. He, like Fox, had spoken against the trade in nearly all the debates of the 1790s. Petty—the chancellor of the Exchequer, son of Shelburne—was only twenty-five, but had the reputation of having been “a friend of democrats” at Cambridge (he would later be the politically long-lasting mid-Victorian Lord Lansdowne). The attorney-general, Sir Arthur Pigott (son of John Pigott of Barbados, having been also attorney-general in Grenada, he knew the Caribbean background) then introduced a bill forbidding British captains to sell slaves to foreign countries. This was a stepping stone to full abolition, but it was introduced quietly, so that Sir Robert Peel, the cotton manufacturer and slaveowning member for Tamworth, had to admit, in a speech on the third reading, that he had not been present during the earlier discussions because he had not realized the bill’s importance. The Commons voted 35 to 13 in favor. In May 1806, this bill passed even the Lords (by 43 to 18). By then, a new economic argument had been added to the purely humanitarian one: the West Indies were in debt, there was a large sugar surplus, and the “saturated” old colonies did not want new slaves. The abolitionists were now cock-a-hoop: Clarkson, recovered from his mental maladies, could comment, “There was never perhaps a season when so much virtuous feeling pervaded all ranks.”30

Further debates were held in June 1806. Fox and Grenville then moved, in the lower and upper houses respectively, resolutions which pledged Parliament to abolish the slave trade “with all practicable expedition.” Both houses were persuaded also to urge the government to negotiate with other countries in order to achieve a general abolition of the traffic: British abolition would lead to an international British crusade. The recent death of Pitt, and the sword of Damocles hanging over Dundas, cast a shadow over the debates. In the Lords, the new lord chancellor, the brilliant but mercurial Thomas Erskine, redeemed the dismissive comments of his predecessor, Thurlow, in 1792, by saying, first, that he had personally changed his mind in favor of abolition, and that “it was our duty to God and to our country, which was the morning star of enlightened Europe and whose boast and glory was to grant liberty and life, and administer humanity and justice to all nations, to remedy that evil.” So a motion in favor of abolition was carried in both houses, by 114 to 15 in the Commons, and 41 to 20 in the Lords. The debates showed, Canning wrote enthusiastically, “what a government can do if it pleases.”31

An act was quickly passed enacting that, after August 1807, no new ships should be employed in the slave trade. In the debate in the House of Commons, Isaac Gascoyne, declared that he had no doubt that, after the abolition, “great distress, public and private, will follow . . . and that a number of our most loyal, industrious and useful subjects will emigrate to America.” Wilberforce introduced the argument that, were the slave trade to be abolished, planters would be constrained to look after their slaves much better; indeed, “to do everything which was likely to have the effect of increasing the population”—a point further stressed by Henry Petty, who said, “Where provisions are abundant and labor not excessive, the natural population of every place will answer its demands.” George Rose, a member of Parliament for Christchurch, an old ally of Clarkson and agent for Dominica, yet who had a financial interest in the continuing traffic in slaves, thought that there was a danger that abolition of the trade would lead to the emancipation of the slaves: “I can think of no man living, who looks at the matter without prejudice, who can be of the opinion that the negroes will be in a better state after emancipation than they are at present.” He even refused to think that the middle passage was “a period of misery; now one half of the evidence shews it to be very different.”32, XIII

Grenville, in the Lords, percipiently asked, “Can we flatter ourselves that the mischief which [the slave trade] has created will not be remembered for many ages, to our reproach?” He piously hoped that “we shall never be the objects” of slavery. He also thought that “we are really inexcusable” for not having abolished the trade long before. He pointed out that the trade was the worse because it was “not founded in necessity.” Those who justified the slave trade said that the Africans had condemned the men to be slaves: by that assertion, “we are made the executioners of the inhuman cruelties of the inhabitants of Africa.”33

Grenville as prime minister then felt able, in January 1807, by a most curious chance the same month as the Congress of the United States took its similar step, to introduce a bill for full abolition in the Lords. This stated that the trade was “contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy.” In his speech on the second reading, Grenville spoke of the trade as not only detestable but “criminal”—an interesting adjective for a prime minister to use in relation to something which had been supported by governments of Britain for many generations. Since he was a peer, he had to initiate the bill in the House of Lords; but, given the past hostility of that house to abolition, that arrangement was perhaps as well. His bill declared that “all manner of dealing and trading in the purchase, sale, barter or transfer of slaves . . . on, in, at, to or from any part of the coast of Africa” be prohibited. The envisaged punishments were similar to those specified in the United States: a malefactor would in future have to pay £100 for every slave found on board, as well as suffer the confiscation of the ship concerned. Grenville argued that abolition was necessary to ensure the survival of the older Caribbean colonies: “Are they not now distressed by the accumulation of produce on their hands, for which they cannot find a market? And will it not be adding to their distress . . . if you suffer the continuation of further importations?”34

There was, of course, still opposition: not only from the duke of Clarence, but also from Lords Westmorland, Saint Vincent (at that time the supreme commander of the navy), and Hawkesbury, of whom the first, furious at Wilberforce, said, with too much candor for comfort, that many of the noble lords owed their seats in that upper house to the slave trade. Hawkesbury wanted to suppress the words “contrary to the principles of justice [and] humanity,” in the text of the bill, and simply leave “contrary to sound policy” as the theme of the bill. One royal duke, that of Gloucester, a liberal and old acquaintance of Wilberforce’s, spoke in favor of abolition (he later became president of the Africa Institution).35 The bill passed (100 to 34), and then went to the Commons. There Sir Charles Pole, groom of the bedchamber to the duke of Clarence, an admiral, said that the “immediate abolition of the slave trade would be the most barbarous proceeding even to the negro himself.” He spoke as member of Parliament for Plymouth, a port which had scarcely taken part in the slave trade, but the naval tradition there was strong. T. W. Plummer, member for Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight (“little Bacchus Plummer,” according to the diarist Creevey), who had been in shipping—his firm was the agent for Lady Holland’s Jamaican plantation—said that he was as much an advocate of liberty as any man, but thought it was dangerous to propagate such ideas “among a people so unintelligent and so easily provoked to revolt as the negroes.” A new London member, George Hibbert, chairman of the West India Dock, member for Seaford, who had once traded in slaves himself and had property in Jamaica, insisted that more acts of cruelty occurred every week in London than in a month in Jamaica. Thomas Hughan, member for Dundalk, and one of Ireland’s few West Indian merchants, said that the bill was “fraught with ruin to the colonies and to the empire.” William Windham, then secretary for war and colonies, was the only member of the administration who opposed abolition; he said that it was not the time to embark “on such a dangerous experiment.” John Fuller, member for Sussex, one of the richest and most boisterous county members, who had opposed abolition continually, said, “We might as well say, ‘Oh, we will not have our chimney swept, because it is a little troublesome to the boy.’ ” Despite such trenchant, candid opposition, the bill passed on February 23 by 283 to 16, for the first time with a large number of members voting. The final debate was remarkable for an elegant comparison by Sir Samuel Romilly between Napoleon and Wil-berforce; at the end of it, the whole house rose to give the latter unprecedented applause. He deserved it: Wilberforce’s achievement is one of the most remarkable examples of the triumph of an individual statesman on a major philanthropic issue, and at the same time one more reminder that individuals can make history.36

The bill received royal assent on March 25. The trade was to be illegal from May 1, 1807.

There was, of course, discomfiture among the slave traders: for example, in Africa itself, Tucker and Gudgeon, on the river Sherbro; Crundell and Mason on the Gallinas; William Peel in Bullam; Goss in the Plantaines; and J. N. Dolz in Havana—not to speak of the Andersons, who had succeeded Richard Oswald and his friends as proprietors of Bence Island, opposite the estuary of the Sierra Leone. The African kings with whom the English had dealt so long could not believe the news: resentment on the Gold Coast even led to riots. Was not the slave trade the mainstay of Dahomey, Bonny, and Lagos, to say the least? The Atlantic slave trade had shaped too many African societies for the staple article in commerce to be so easily dropped overnight. The king of Bonny told Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool in 1807, “We think that this trade must go on. That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.”37

Many ordinary petitions were also laid against this decision of the legislature of the world’s largest slave trader: for example, one from Joseph Marryat, member of Parliament for Horsham, a substantial West Indies merchant and father of “Captain Marryat,” the novelist. But they were to no avail. April 30, 1807, was the last date when a slaver legally sailed from a British port; and all the duke of Clarence, the future King William IV, could do was complain, “Lord Grenville, at one blow, destroys . . . the maritime strength of the nation.”38

James de Wolf, “Captain Jim,” also took a last slave voyage to Africa in 1807 in his ship the Andromache and then, foreseeing the likely ruin which would come to his town once slaving was abolished, invested his fortune in the Arkwright textile mills to the north of Providence.

It was widely supposed, since the British and the United States agreed about the matter, and since recent victories in war had given Britain control of so much of the Atlantic and the Caribbean, that the slave trade as such would soon be brought to an end. Grenville had said as much, when introducing his motion to abolish the trade: “Did not the noble lord [Eldon] see that, if we gave up the trade, it was not possible for any other state, without our permission, to take it up? Did we not ride everywhere unrivalled on the ocean?”39 The eloquent Henry Brougham, now moving to the center of the political stage, which he would often dominate, had argued in 1803 that, since “we have been the chief trader, I mean the ringleaders in the crime,” it was to be expected that British abolition would lead to imitation by other states.40 Alas, many tears were still to be shed, as some English opponents of abolition had anticipated, before the aspiration contained in those fine words could be fulfilled.


IA “joe” was a “Johannes,” a gold coin of Portugal, called for King João, worth eight dollars at the time.

IISheridan had, however, in 1790 told the House of Commons that “he required no further information to convince him that the power possessed by the West India merchant over the slave was such that no man ought to have over another.”

IIIThis is the only roll call of voting members in the Houses of Commons and Lords on this issue which seems to have survived.

IVHe was father of Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse, but nephew of Isaac Hobhouse the slave trader of the first part of the eighteenth century.

VHigh society, meantime, was diverted by the song of the popular musician Ferrari, with words by the much-loved duchess of Devonshire, based on one of the most affecting incidents in Mungo Park’s Travels.

VILiverpool sent to Africa 135 ships a year between 1798 and 1802, carrying an average of 37,086 slaves a year; and 103 between 1803 and 1807, carrying 25,953 a year; compared with London’s mere eighteen and thirteen, and Bristol’s mere four and one respectively.

VIIFor example, the government confiscated the Lucy, belonging to Charles de Wolf. The surveyor of the port of Bristol was ordered to buy the ship for the government at a reasonable price. The day before the sale, the surveyor was visited by Charles and James de Wolf, with John Brown. They advised him not to go to the auction. The day of the auction, the surveyor was kidnapped by some of the de Wolfs’ seamen, and kept in hiding till the Lucy had been sold back to its old owner at a negligible price.

VIIIThe same year as the restoration of slavery, the entry of blacks into France was finally forbidden.

IXThe settled portion of “Louisiana” would be admitted to the Union as a state in 1812. The great stretch of land to the north and west became known as the “Missouri Territory.”

XThe independent Irish Parliament, “Grattan’s Parliament,” had come to an end after the Act of Union of 1800.

XIFor mismanagement of funds when treasurer of the navy.

XIIPitt was constrained to act because of an issue which had been raised during the shortlived previous administration, in 1801. Some investors pressed Lord Addington, when prime minister, to sell off the Crown lands in the recently acquired Trinidad and Saint Vincent, to increase government revenue and encourage the clearing of new land. That would have given an impetus to the slave trade there. Canning, speaking as a private member of Parliament, not as a minister, hoping to force the Addington administration out of office, warned the Commons of the risks of stocking Trinidad with slaves. He asked for a suspension of the plan to sell off the land, urging an agricultural reform by which Trinidad would become a model island. Addington backed down.

XIIIOf Rose at his death, John William Ward wrote, “I had grown accustomed to him in the House of Commons just as one grows accustomed to an old, clumsy, ill-contrived piece of furniture.”

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