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Reign of George III. (Continued.) page 4


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In this session the first step was won in one of the greatest achievements of humanity which adorn the name of England. It was the grand preliminary towards annihilating the accursed trade in man. The kidnapping and trade in Africans had been originally introduced on the plea of humanity. Having destroyed whole nations of aborigines by their oppressions in America and the West Indies, the European natives had been taught by the preaching of Las Casas that it would be a measure of mercy to import negroes from Africa - men of a stronger constitution, and well calculated to toil under a tropical sun, to spare the failing energies of the Caribbean races. Under this false plea of substituting a distant people for one destroyed by cruelty and overtoil, a trade monstrous beyond all former conception or experience had sprung up. The natives of Africa were hunted down in their native woods by man-stealers, and were excited even to kidnap and betray one another, by bribes, and were then carried over to the warmer regions of America and the West Indies, and there sold into perpetual slavery to so-called Christian masters. Amongst the first to denounce and renounce this diabolical violation of human rights were the members of the Society of Friends in America, and the names of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet stand earliest and most prominent amongst these genuine followers of Christ, who could tolerate no sale of their brethren, of whatever colour, under any pleas which selfishness could invent. The perception of the unchristian character of this traffic soon pervaded the whole society in America. The liberation of all slaves by its members was strongly recommended by the yearly meetings there, and adopted to a man. The Friends of America not only liberated their own slaves, but called upon their country to do the same. They were not contented that the trade only should cease, but that the possession of slaves should cease, as utterly inhuman and unchristian. The spirit was communicated to their brethren in England, and the duty of assisting to put down this great evil and scandal of the Christian world became one of their most zealous and fixed doctrines from the year 1754.

The spirit of revolt against this odious trade had been gaining rapidly from other sources in the English mind. One of the earliest stabs given to it was by the pathetic story of Incle and Yarico, in the " History of Barbadoes," by Lygon, which was taken up and amplified in the " Spectator," and afterwards elaborated into an effective drama by Colman. The versatile but essentially philanthropic mind of Defoe, Dr. Johnson, Warburton, in his " Divine Legation of Moses," and in his sermons so early as 1766, Voltaire, and other writers, had diffused a strong and sound feeling on the subject. It had been early attempted to establish the legal maxim, that a slave cannot breathe in England; but in 1729 this had been positively pronounced against by Talbot and Yorke, then the highest legal authorities. But a more successful essay was made by Granville Sharpe in 1772, in the case of James Somerset, and the principle was established, that the moment a slave set his foot on English ground he became free. In 1782 the Friends presented a petition to parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1785 Thomas Clarkson, then a student at the University of Cambridge, competed for and won the first prize for an essay on " The Slavery and Commerce in the Human Species," and this, which was undertaken as an academical exercise, led him to devote himself to the great work of the utter extinction of this evil. Mr. Ramsay, a clergyman of Kent, who had lived in St. Kitts, published a pamphlet on the same subject. The friends of Ramsay, lady Middleton and Mrs. Bouverie, became zealous advocates of the cause, and finally Wilberforce resolved to make it the great object of Iiis life.

A society was now established in London, consisting only originally of twelve individuals, including the benevolent Mr. Thornton, and having Granville Sharpe for its chairman. The members, however, were opulent merchants and bankers, and they raised funds and set agents to work to collect sound information on the subject. The feeling rapidly spread; committees were formed in Manchester and other provincial towns for co-operation. They adopted a seal, having for its impress a negro kneeling and fettered, with the motto, " Am I not a man and a brother? "

It was resolved to make the first attack only on the trade in slaves, not on the whole gigantic subject, with all its widely ramified interests. Nay, it was deemed prudent by the committees, seeing well that the abolition of the monstrous practice of slave-holding must be a work of many years, in the first place to limit their exertions to the ameliorating of the sufferings of the negroes, in their passage from Africa to the scenes of their servitude. Numerous petitions had now reached the houses of parliament on the subject of the trade in and the sufferings of slaves, and a committee of the privy council was procured to hear evidence on the subject. This commenced its sittings on the 11th of February of the present year (1788). Before this committee were first heard the statements of the slave merchants of Liverpool. According to these gentlemen, all the horrors attributed to the slave trade were so many fables; so far from instigating African sovereigns to make war upon their neighbours and sell them for slaves, the oppressions of these despots were so horrible that it was a real blessing to bring away their unfortunate victims. But very different facts were advanced on the other side. On the part of the Liverpool merchants was the most palpable self-interest to colour their statements; on the other, was disinterested humanity. Amongst the gentlemen brought forward to unfold the real nature of the African traffic was Dr. Andrew Sparrman, professor of natural philosophy at Stockholm, who had, with Mr. Wadstrom, been engaged in botanical researches in Africa. This information put to flight the pleasant myths of the Liverpool traders, and produced a profound impression.

It was resolved to bring the matter before parliament. Wilberforce gave notice of motion on the subject, but falling ill at Bath, Clarkson applied to Pitt and Mr. Granville, and was strongly supported by Granville Sharp and the London committee. Pitt had not considered the subject till it was forced on his attention by the evidence before the privy council; but he had come to the conclusion that the trade was not only inhuman, but really injurious to the interests of the nation. He consented to introduce the question, and, on the 9th of May, gave notice that early in the next session parliament would take into consideration the allegations against the slave trade, made in upwards of a hundred petitions presented to it. He recommended this short delay in order that the inquiries before the privy council might be fully matured. But both Fox and Burke - the latter of whom had been thinking for eight years of taking up the question - declared that the delay would be as cruel as it was useless; that it did not become the house of commons to wait to receive instructions from the privy council, as if it were dependent Upon it, but originate such inquiries itself. Sir William Dolben warmly supported this view of immediate action, contending that at least a bill should be brought in to restrain the cruelties of the sea-passage, which would otherwise sacrifice ten thousand lives, as hundreds of thousands had been sacrificed before. This was acceded to. Pitt's resolution was carried by a considerable majority; and Sir William Dolben, on the 21st of May moved to bring in a bill to regulate the transport of slaves. Sir William stated that there was no law to restrain the avarice and cruelty of the slave dealers, and that the mortality from the crowding of the slaves on board was most frightful.

The slave merchants of Liverpool and London immediately demanded to be heard against even this degree of interference. On the 2nd of June counsel was heard on their behalf at the bar of the house of commons. These gentlemen endeavoured to prove that the interest of the merchants was the best guarantee of the good treatment of the slaves; that the statements to the contrary were malicious falsehoods; and they called witnesses to prove that nothing could be more delightful and salubrious than the condition of slaves on the voyage; that they had plenty of room; that there were very few deaths indeed; and that the negroes passed their time most charmingly in dancing and singing on the deck. But, on cross-examination, these very witnesses were compelled to disclose one of the most revolting pictures of inhuman atrocity ever brought to the light of day. It was found that no slave, whatever his size, had more room during the whole voyage than five feet six inches in length, and sixteen inches in breadth; that the floor of every deck was thus densely packed with human beings; between the floor and the deck above were other platforms or broad shelves packed in the same manner! The height from the floor to the ceiling seldom exceeded five feet eight inches, and in some cases not four feet. The men were chained together two and two by their hands and feet, and were fastened by ringbolts to the deck or floor. In this position they were kept all the time they remained on the coast - often from six weeks to six months. Their allowance was a pint of water daily and two meals of yams and horse-beans. After eating they were ordered to jump in their irons to preserve their health, and were flogged if they refused; and this was the dancing! When the weather was wet they were often kept below for several days together. And this was the condition in which human beings were kept on these hot and smothering voyages, and the horrors of what was called the middle passage were terrible and fatal beyond description. It was calculated that up to that time the Europeans had consumed ten millions of slaves, and that the English alone were then carrying over forty-two thousand of Africans annually.

Besides the truths drawn by cross-examination from the witnesses for the slave-dealing merchants, who contended that even Sir William Dolben's bill would nearly ruin Liverpool, Captain Parry, who had been sent by Pitt to Liverpool to examine some of the slave ships, brought the directest proofs that the representations of these witnesses were most false, and the accommodation for the slaves most inhuman; Sir William Dolben himself had examined a slave-ship then fitting out in the Thames, and gave details which horrified the house. This bill went to prohibit any ship carrying more than one slave to a ton of its register; the only matter in which the house gave way was that none should carry more than five slaves to every three tons, and a very few years proved that this restriction had been the greatest boon to the dealers as well as the slaves in the preservation of the living cargoes. So much does selfishness stand in its own light generally! The bill met with some opposition in the lords, and the admirals Rodney and Heathfield, both naturally humane men, were amongst the strongest opponents. The measure, however, passed, and received the royal assent on the 11th of July. Some well-meaning people thought that by legalising the freightage of slaves, England had acknowledged the lawfulness of the trade; but the advocates of the abolition made no secret of their determination to persevere, and this victory only quickened their exertions, and the numbers who thought with them daily and rapidly increased.

During this session a piece of justice was done to lord Newburgh, the grandson of Charles Radcliffe, who was beheaded in 1746 for his concern in the rebellion of 1715, in which his brother, James Radcliffe, the third earl of Derwentwater, was also engaged, and who suffered in 1716. As the estates of the Scotch rebels had been restored, it was now agreed to grant lord Newburgh two thousand five hundred pounds a-year out of the estates of his grandfather and great uncle. The estates themselves had been conferred on Greenwich Hospital, or they would undoubtedly have been wholly restored.

On the 12th of December, 1787, Sir Gilbert Elliot had presented six charges of serious import against Sir Elijah Impey. The chief of these charges, however, related to the trial and execution of Nuncomar; to his acceptance of the judgeship of the new court which Hastings had established, which was declared to be illegal; and to his conduct in Oude and Benares, where he had certainly assisted in the oppressions of Hastings. Sir Gilbert produced these charges in writing, and made a full and able statement of them; they were ordered to be printed; and on the 1st of February, 1788, Impey made his defence. This defence was a very able and energetic one. He answered in a bold and masterly manner the charge that he had brought Nuncomar under the jurisdiction of his court; he endeavoured to show that Nuncomar was a settled inhabitant of Calcutta, and therefore, though a native, subject to his jurisdiction. He alluded to the statements which had been made, that lord Mansfield had condemned his conduct in the matter of Nuncomar, and produced letters of approbation from Blackstone, lord Walsingham, lord Ashburton, and Mr. Wallace, the attorney-general. He took shelter from the charge of having acted unduly in condemning Nuncomar, as the enemy and accuser of his great friend Hastings, by professing that this fact was only known to him by rumour, whilst nothing could be more notorious than that he had long been intimately acquainted with this fact. He also sheltered himself under the circumstances that, though the head of the supreme court, which condemned Nuncomar, the other judges had joined in the decision. Yet it was well known that Sir Robert Chambers had greatly demurred, though he acquiesced in the sentence at last. A question which must present itself to every reader, though it did not seem to have claimed attention in the impeachment, is, how far the three other judges were friends and partisans of Hastings? Certainly, after reading carefully the most ingenious defence of Impey, there remains on our minds the unpleasant impression of these facts: that Impey was the great friend of Hastings; that he received his chief advancement from hün; that he was made by Hastings the sole judge of a new and most important tribunal, which Hastings himself created, and which Hastings intended should produce Impey an income of eight thousand pounds a-year, in addition to a similar sum for his chief justiceship; that afterwards, in Oude and Benares, where his jurisdiction did not extend, he was active in assisting Hastings' terrible oppressions; that, in addition to these general circumstances, the particular ones, that Nuncomar had just come forward to give evidence against Hastings to the other members of the council, and that, though not arrested at the direct suit of Hastings, it was most palpably to his benefit, and occurred precisely at the time when it could be most useful; that though it was strongly urged upon the judges, that the natives did not attach any such idea to the charge of forgery, as that it deserved death, and though only one native had been condemned under this new law from England, and he had been respited, yet Impey and his associate judges would insist, in disregard of strong entreaties on the part of the natives, in hanging the Maharajah Nuncomar; that though Impey alleged that Nuricomar's crime had been committed six years before, and therefore there had been no undue haste shown, yet it was also proved that they had seized the very first moment when it was in their power to try and condemn him; that though it had been strongly urged that the case, being a new one as regarded a native, and suspicious, as that native was a dangerous enemy of the governor-general, therefore the judges should suspend the sentence until it could receive the consideration of the authorities in England, yet Impey would hear of no such reference, but hurried and completed the sentence, as it was shown by the evidence of the sheriff of Calcutta, who superintended the execution, to the intense horror of the natives. When all these circumstances are taken into account, we confess that, setting aside legal technicalities, the impression on every unsophisticated mind must be, that though Impey might have kept within the precincts of the law, he was by no means free from suspicions of having, in this first charge regarding Nuncomar, the only one then tried, exceeded the limits of justice and impartiality. The charge, however, was defeated by a majority of eighteen in favour of Impey, and the rest of the charges being postponed for three months, were never taken up again. The far greater question of the crimes of Warren Hastings seemed to swallow up these, and though there lay still very grievous implications on his character and conduct as regarded the oppression of the begums and other matters, Sir Elijah took no means of clearing these up by the open and effective medium of the press. It has been well observed that " the accusations were specified, and were spread in all directions - in books, in pamphlets, in parliamentary reports and parliamentary histories, in annual registers, in newspapers and magazines - and it might have been expected that a man, anxious for his fair fame, and being both an able lawyer and an accomplished writer, would, at some moment, have taken up the pen to undo the evil impressions which were made, and which have lasted more than half a century." He never did, and the fair inference is, that he thought these matters better let alone - an inference strongly corroborated by the facts already stated on these subjects.

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