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Abolitionists and Emancipators


Motion for Emancipation - Attitude of Canning - Conflict between Planters and Colonial Office - Wilberforce applies for Chiltern Hundreds - Slaves' Revolt - Slave Trade in Mauritius - The Hottentots of South Africa - The Decision of 1830 - The Cruelties of Slavery - The 1832 Insurrection - The Emancipation Bill - Victory - Death of Wilberforce.
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'They conquer who believe they can.'

It was not until sixteen years after the Abolition of Slave-trading, namely in 1823, that operations against Slave-owning were commenced with vigour. In March Wilberforce published his well-known 'Appeal on behalf of the Slaves.' The Anti-Slavery Committee was formed, with Buxton as one of its Vice-Presidents. In Parliament, Wilberforce presented a petition against Slavery from the Society of Friends. Canning asked whether it was his intention to found any motion upon it. Wilberforce said that it was not, but that such was the intention of an esteemed friend.

On May 15, 1823, Buxton launched the Parliamentary campaign by moving that the state of Slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British Constitution and of the Christian religion; and that it ought to be gradually abolished throughout the British Colonies with as much expedition as may be found consistent with a due regard to the well-being of the parties concerned.

In his speech he declared plainly that the object at which we aim is nothing less than the extinction of slavery - in nothing less than the whole of the British dominions; not, however, the rapid termination of that state; not the sudden emancipation of the negro, but such preparatory steps, such measures of precaution, as, by slow degrees, and in a course of years, first fitting and qualifying the slaves for the enjoyment of freedom, shall gently conduct us to the annihilation of Slavery.

These words are enough to refute the charge brought against the Emancipators of wishing to give the slaves freedom before they were fit for it. It was the planters who persisted in rejecting all preparatory measures because they were meant to pave the way to emancipation. Buxton urged as a first and immediate step the emancipation of the children of the slaves, pointing out how surely, though slowly, slavery would thus die out. In a remarkable passage he dealt with the right of the master:

There are persons whose notions of justice are so confused and confounded by slavery, as to suppose that the planter has something like an honest title to the person of the slave. We have been so long accustomed to talk of 'my slave' and 'your slave,' and what he will fetch, if sold, that we are apt to imagine that he is really yours or mine, and, that we have a substantial right to keep or sell him. Then let us just for a moment fathom this right. Here is a certain valuable commodity, and here are two claimants for it, a white man and a black man. Now, what is the commodity in dispute? The body of the black man. The white man says, 'it is mine,' and the black man, 'it is mine.' Now the question is, if every man had his own, to whom would the black body belong? The claim of the black man is just this. Nature gave it to him. He holds it by the grant of God.... At least you will admit this. The negro has a pretty good prima facie claim to his own person. If any man thinks he has a better, the onus probandi rests with him. Then we come to the claim of the white man. What is the foundation of your right? It shall be the best that can possibly be conceived. You received him from your father - very good. Your father bought him from a neighbouring planter - very good. That planter bought him of a trader in the Kingston Slave Market, and that trader bought him of a man merchant in Africa - so far you are quite safe!

How did the man merchant acquire him? He stole Mm, he kidnapped him, the very root of your claim is robbery, violence, inconceivable wickedness. If anything was ever proved by evidence, it was proved by the Slave Trade Committee that the method of obtaining slaves in Africa was robbery, man-stealing and murder. Your pure title rests on these sacred foundations. If your slave came direct from Africa, your right to his person is absolutely nothing. But your claim to the child born in Jamaica is (if I may use the expression) less still. The new-born infant has done, can have done, nothing to forfeit his right to freedom. And to talk about rights, justice, equity and law as connected with slavery, is downright nonsense.

Canning, for the Government, replied sympathetically but was greatly afraid of the difficulties of Emancipation. The Resolutions moved and carried by Canning declared that it was 'expedient to adopt effectual and decisive measures for ameliorating the condition of the population in His Majesty's Indies,' that H.M. Government looked 'forward to a progressive improvement in the character of the slave population, such as may prepare them for a participation in those civil rights and privileges which are enjoyed by other classes of His Majesty's subjects,' and That this House is anxious for the accomplishment of this purpose, at the earliest period that shall be compatible with the interest of the slaves themselves, with the safety of the Colonies and with a fair and equitable consideration of the rights of private property.

Buxton's reply at the conclusion of the debate was, according to Wilberforce, 'short and, not sweet indeed; but excellent.' In replying to the argument that to discuss slavery in the House would make the negroes discontented he exclaimed:

What then, does the slave require any hint from us that he is a slave and that slavery is of all conditions the most miserable? Why, Sir, he hears this, he sees it, he feels it, too, in all around him. He sees his harsh uncompensated labour; he hears the crack of the whip; he feels - he writhes under the lash.... He sees the mother of his children stripped naked before the gang of male negroes and flogged unmercifully; he sees his children sent to market, to be sold at the best price they will fetch; he sees in himself not a man, but a thing;... will any man tell me [exclaimed Buxton], that the negro, with all this staring him in the face, never dreams there is injustice in such treatment till he sits down to the perusal of an English newspaper, and there, to his astonishment, discovers that there are enthusiasts in England who from the bottom of their hearts deplore and abhor all negro slavery? There are such enthusiasts; I am one of them; and while we breathe, we will never abandon the cause, till that thing - that chattel - is reinstated in all the privileges of man!

The immediate practical result of Buxton's Motion was that letters were addressed by the Government to the various Colonial authorities, recommending (but only recommending) reforms which included religious instruction for the slaves, prohibition of Sunday labour, legalisation of marriage, prevention of separation of families by sale or otherwise, restraint of the master's power of arbitrary punishment, abolition of the driving whip in the field, abolition of 'the degrading corporal punishment of females,' and admission of the evidence of the slaves in Court of Justice. This last was an important point, for, as Wilberforce wrote to Buxton (1826), 'Where black witnesses cannot give evidence in a case which affects the life of a white man, the law is an absolute premium on murder.'

'Those canting hypocritical rascals,' as the Emancipators were called by the Jamaica Journal in June, 1828, had difficult days before them. When the Home Government's Order in Council recommending reforms reached Demerara, the authorities stupidly tried to conceal the news from the negroes, with the result that the slaves believed that 'the great King of England' had set them free and that the planters had suppressed the Edict. On several estates they refused to work. Compulsion was resorted to, they resisted, and the troops were called out. Not one soldier was killed, but pressed down and running over was the vengeance meted out to the unhappy slaves. As Brougham said in Parliament, 'It was deemed fitting to make tremendous examples of them,' and he described the executions of prisoners and how 'within the short space of a week ten were torn to pieces by the lash; some of these had been condemned to six or seven hundred lashes, five to one thousand each; of which inhuman torture one had received the whole, and the others almost the whole at once.'

The West Indian planters took vengeance not only on the slaves but on the missionaries, and when the revolt took place they resolved to fix the blame upon the Independent and Wesleyan missionaries. Many were persecuted and a missionary named John Smith was tried in an illegal manner before a court-martial of officers and condemned to be hanged; but his treatment in prison had destroyed his already failing health and he anticipated the executioner by dying in his dungeon.

The Emancipators in England were bitterly blamed for the revolt and for the colonists' anger and discontent. Worse still, the Government took fright at the colonial protests and weakened so perceptibly that Buxton arranged an interview with Canning, when his worst fears were confirmed, for he writes Feb. 14, 1823: 'We have had a very unsatisfactory interview with Canning. The Government mean to forfeit their pledge and do next to nothing.' Three days later Buxton, now almost despairing, writes: 'The Slavery question looks wretchedly. I begin to think that, opposed as we are by the West Indians, deserted by Government, and deemed enthusiasts by the public, we shall be able to do little or nothing. However, I rejoice that we have tried.' Ridicule and abuse were now heaped upon the Emancipators. They were stigmatised as fools, or knaves, or both. When the storm was at its height, one of Buxton's friends asked him what he was to say when he heard him attacked. 'Say,' he replied, snapping his fingers, 'Say that I You good folk think too much of your good name. Do right, and right will be done you.'

The Government [wrote Buxton] have determined to yield to the West Indian clamour and do nothing, except in Trinidad, where there is no Colonial Assembly... this timidity is very painful. It frustrates all our hopes and it will enable the West Indians to say that we are wild enthusiastic people, and that the people of England ought to be guided by the sober discretion of Government - which sober discretion is downright timidity.

Canning, speaking for the Government, carefully withdrew his support from the Emancipators, whom he now discovered to be acting 'under the impulses of enthusiasm,' Buxton had been pressed, even by some of his own followers, to receive the attack in silence. But he was at all times a bold leader and he at once dauntlessly attacked the Government for its vacillation. He concluded his speech, in which he described atrocious cruelties inflicted on the negroes, by stating:

No man is more aware than I am of my inability to follow the brilliant and able speech which has just been delivered [Canning]. But I have a duty to perform and I will perform it. I know well what I incur by this.... I have no hostility to the planter. Compensation to the planter, emancipation to the children of the negro - these are my desires, this is the consummation, the just and glorious consummation, on which my hopes are planted, and to which, as long as I live, my most strenuous efforts shall be directed.

Lushington, Evans and Wilberforce supported him vigorously.

Wilberforce wrote to him after the debate that, despite appearances, he could discern streaks of morning light. I hope I may live to congratulate you, even in this world, upon the complete success of your generous labours - at all events, I trust humbly that we may rejoice and triumph together in a better world, for we, my dear friend, may, more truly than the great historian, affirm that we are working for eternity.

Brougham's powerful speech in the following June, on a motion respecting the missionary, John Smith, produced a deep effect on public opinion. The nation, which had shared the alarm and timidity of the Government, began to awaken to the real nature of the crime of slavery. It was at this juncture that Denman joined the little band of Emancipators in the House of Commons.

After a continuous Parliamentary career of forty-one years, Wilberforce was compelled by ill-health to retire early in 1825, and he entrusted his friend with the task of applying on his behalf for the Chiltern Hundreds.

I should like you [wrote Wilberforce] to be the person to move for a new writ for Bramber as my Parliamentary Executor. I can now only say, may God bless you and yours, bless you in public and private.... So wishes, so prays for you and all that are most dear to you - Your ever sincere and affectionate friend, W. Wilberforce.

The hitherto unpublished letter which we print here shows how deeply Buxton esteemed the honour.
cromer hall, Feby. 6, 1825.

my dear friend,
I fully expected that the time was not far distant in which you could come to the conclusion that you ought to quit Parlt., and yet in spite of this degree of preparation your letter has made me feel thoroughly melancholy. - Not however that I by any means question the propriety of your resolutions. - Your life is eminently important not merely to your family and friends but to many great causes - and therefore I confess that it is good economy to avoid the risk of Parliamentary honors, - &c. &c.

The Carthaginians put upon Hannibal's tomb 'We vehemently desired him in the day of battle,' which exactly describes my feelings - I go to town to-morrow by Mail - and therefore shall arrive there as soon as this does - I shall see you as early as possible. I need not say I feel it an honour to be ranked among the numbers of your friends - and to be known as resolved to devote myself to some of those subjects which have been under your care. So far as I am flattered and gratified by the proposal of moving for the new writ - on the other hand there is not, I am sure, one particle of affectation in the declaration that I feel myself in every respect totally unworthy and incompetent to represent you - With my best regards to Mrs. W. and your daughter,
Yours very truly,
T. F. buxton.

During these first years of the struggle for Emancipation success seemed far distant, and the main task of the Anti-Slavery leaders was by investigation and exposure of the evils and cruelties of the system to prepare the way. They owed much to that 'mighty book,' as they called it, 'Delineation of Slavery,' by the veteran opponent of the Slave Trade, James Stephen.

In 1825 Buxton exposed in Parliament the treatment meted out by the planters to Mr. Shrewsbury, a Wesleyan missionary in Barbados, who, for instructing and preaching the Gospel to the negroes and for no other crime, had his Chapel and Mission House pulled down by an infuriated mob, and his life attempted. At the end of the debate the House was content to pass a vote of censure on those concerned in the crime. Again Buxton showed his genius for leadership by seizing upon the real issues at stake, pressing home the cruelty and crime of slavery, and ending his speech with these words: 'I wish it to be clearly understood that it is my firm and unalterable resolution to devote all my life to the cause of the slaves and that I will persist in that cause in spite of opposition, unpopularity, obloquy or falsehood.'

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