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Abolitionists and Emancipators page 2


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In 1826 Denman entered the lists by raising the question of the illegality of the death sentence on eight of the negroes executed after the Jamaica insurrection. The House resolved that it would be inexpedient to impeach the sentences which had been already carried out, but' that further proof had been afforded by them of the evils inseparably attendant upon a state of slavery.' The latter part of this Resolution was striking evidence of the effect which the growth of public opinion was having upon Parliament. The dogged determination of the Emancipators was doing its work both in the House and outside it. During the years 1826-27, the period of grace which had been granted by Canning to the Colonial authorities, the Emancipators had perforce to hold their hand.

Buxton, however, was making good use of the time by prosecuting enquiries into what proved to be an outrageous state of affairs in Mauritius. Mr. Byam, late Commissary General of Police in that island, gave Buxton first-hand evidence that in spite of the prohibition of 1807, slave-trading on a large scale was openly carried on with the island and that atrocious cruelties were being inflicted on the slaves. James Stephen undertook the task of collecting further evidence, and in May, 1826, Buxton brought the question before Parliament. He described in detail the horrors, first of the capture of the slaves in Africa, and then of their fourteen hundred mile voyage to Mauritius, packed 'until, to use the expression of an eye-witness, "they are wedged together in one mass of living corruption."' His charges were so well supported by facts that he obtained, without much difficulty, a Select Committee to enquire whether the Slave Trade existed in Mauritius.

A year later, in May, 1827, Buxton was violently attacked by the late Governor of the island, Sir Robert Farquhar, who challenged him to prove his statements. This challenge came at a time when Buxton was seriously overworked and unwell, and he wrote to a friend, (Ought I to overwork myself, or underwork my slave cause? 'He spent May 19 in making a survey of the evidence of the atrocious cruelties practised upon the negroes in Mauritius. Several times he exclaimed aloud, entirely overcome by Ms feelings, 'Oh, it's too bad! I can't bear it.' Next morning he had a fit of apoplexy and was unconscious for several days. His first words on regaining consciousness were that he must go to the House and bring forward his Motion on Mauritius.

But the appointed day had passed and the motion had been dropped. For over a year Fowell Buxton's health remained very precarious and sustained exertion was impossible. On March 6, 1828, Mr. Wilmot Horton, a leading West Indian, brought forward a reactionary motion (See Hansard, March 6, 1828.) opposing manumission, which the Emancipators were bound to challenge. Buxton had been too unwell to study the documents and went down to the House with no intention of speaking, where he found himself the only member of his group present, with the exception of William Smith, who was by no means a powerful speaker. It was in these circumstances, unprepared, ill, and almost alone, but spiritually aflame, that he made what was not only one of the noblest but one of the ablest and most forcible speeches of his life. One of his friends wrote afterwards: 'The whole House was carried along by his earnestness, cheered him vehemently and listened attentively.'

Lushington and Brougham had for some time been at work on behalf of the free people of colour and in 1828 their efforts were completely successful. An Order in Council was issued by which they were placed at once on the same footing as Europeans; a measure whose happy consequences to the whole future of the West Indies are to be seen to this day.

Buxton had barely carried through his great work for Mauritius when his help was sought for the Hottentots of South Africa. Here his efforts were crowned with easy and complete success. Briefed by Dr. Philip, of the London Missionary Society, Buxton proved that the Hottentots, though not the legal property of individuals, were 'practically slaves,' that their rich lands and vast herds of cattle were the prey of the Dutch and English settlers and that they themselves were at the mercy of all who chose to oppress them or to compel them to work. Sir George Murray, then Colonial Secretary, accepted Buxton's Motion, and an Order in Council was sent out to the Cape. From that day onwards the Hottentots were entirely emancipated, protected by the same laws as the white man, permitted to own property, to demand wages, and no longer tied to their villages. With the help of the missionaries they made rapid progress. The Kat River Settlement was founded for them by the Cape Government, and so early as 1832, only four years after Buxton's successful effort on their behalf, it is stated that 'the success of the Hottentots has been equal to their industry, and good conduct. By patient labour, with manly moderation and Christian temperance, they have converted the desert into a fruitful field,' Buxton 'thanked God' that he had been 'entrusted with this easy and honourable task.'

During 1829 Parliament was chiefly occupied with the question of Catholic Emancipation. Buxton voted for it, though sure that it would cost him his seat, for the Weymouth electors were strongly opposed to it, but in his opinion 'the peace and safety of Ireland depend upon our vote.'

The Government now decided to appoint Protectors of Slaves for the four Crown Colonies, and Buxton persuaded Mr. John Jeremie, late Chief Justice of St. Lucia, who had incurred the hatred of the planters there by his abhorrence of the cruelty with which the slaves were treated, to undertake the office of Protector of the Slaves in Mauritius. When the proposal was first made to Jeremie he said that he had already suffered enough. 'Why,' said Buxton, 'it signifies very little whether you are killed or not: but it signifies very much whether the right man goes to Mauritius.' Jeremie went. His life was repeatedly threatened and even attempted. He was insulted, abused, harassed at every turn, and eventually recalled, but the incident illustrates not only his own courage and determination, but Buxton's power of inspiring these qualities in others.

In 1830 the Abolitionists took a vital decision. For seven years they had pursued a policy of persuading Government and Colonists to bring about Emancipation by evolution. Buxton had moved in 1823 for the first gradual steps to be taken towards 'fitting the Slaves for the enjoyment of freedom,' but in 1830 he, with the other leaders, had come to recognise that 'all attempts at gradual evolution are wild and visionary.' It was only too clear that the planters were violently opposed to all reform. The new policy was launched in the Freemasons' Hall in May, 1830. Wilberforce was in the chair and Buxton proposed 'at the earliest period the entire abolition of Slavery throughout the British dominions.' This was carried with great enthusiasm. Public opinion was indeed aroused, but the Government had no desire to accelerate the pace. Thus Buxton was wrestling now not so much with the West Indians as with a reluctant Government. In July Brougham succeeded in obtaining a large minority in favour of ultimate Emancipation and by November Buxton was more hopeful:

Our Slavery concerns go on well [he wrote]: the religious public has, at last, taken the field. The West Indians have done us good service. They have of late flogged slaves in Jamaica for praying and imprisoned the missionaries and they have given the nation to understand that preaching and praying are offences not to be tolerated in a slave colony. That is right - it exhibits slavery in its true colours - it enforces your doctrine, that, if you wish to teach religion to slaves, the first thing is, to put down slavery.

In every speech Buxton and his colleagues gave careful and exact evidence of the sufferings of the slaves - and it is essential that their sufferings should be realised. It is not suggested that all masters were inhuman, but that slavery itself is a system which only too often 'makes of the slaves brutes and the masters devils,' The master had almost absolute power, and public opinion was invariably on his side, even in a case so revolting as that charged against Mr. and Mrs. Moss, who were tried in the Bahama Courts in 1826 for fatal cruelty to their slave Kate. Accused of disobedience and of refusing to mend her clothes, she was confined in the stocks for seventeen days, flogged six times during that period, and sent to field labour. When she complained of cramp and fever, she was flogged again twice in three days, and the official report concludes, 'in the morning at 7 o'clock she was taken to work in the field, where she died at noon.' Mr. and Mrs. Moss were sentenced to five months' imprisonment and a fine of 300. 'The most respectable people of the island petitioned for a mitigation of their punishment, and finally, on their liberation from jail, gave them a public dinner.' To us at this period of history, the cruelty and degradation of the slavery imposed by white men seem well-nigh incredible. The bodies of the slaves were torn to pieces by the cruel lash. A South African judge has stated that 10 lashes is about as many as the body can stand, but in the West Indies punishments of 50 to 100 lashes were sometimes inflicted, and there are even cases recorded of 1,000 lashes. Elsewhere we read of slaves who were broken on the wheel, crucified, tortured. Gelding was a common practice. The immorality involved in slavery was one of its most serious evils. The juxtaposition of female slaves on the one hand and planters and overseers on the other, led to inevitable and flagrant moral evils. The slave could not even call his wife his own or protect his daughter.

The Barbados Legislature in 1826 decided that 'to forbid by legislative enactment the flogging of female slaves would, in the judgment of the Assembly, be productive of the most injurious consequences. The power of inflicting summary punishment, by the whip, the Assembly considers to be inseparable from a state of slavery.'

The instrument of punishment was the heavy leather cartwhip, capable of cutting deeply into the flesh. Dr. Williamson (though himself an advocate of the Colonial system) observed: 'If, in a warm day, we pass by a gang when they are uncovered, it is a shame to every white man to observe in them the recently lacerated sores, or the deep furrows which, though healed up, leave the marks of cruel punishment.' Many of the worst abuses arose from the fact that the wealthier proprietors lived in England and left their estates under the control of overseers who committed cruelties of which the owners had no knowledge. The total number of floggings was appalling. Official records show that in the four Crown Colonies of Demerara, Berbice, St. Lucia and Trinidad (in which, owing to the power of the Crown, slavery existed in its mildest form), 68,921 punishments, of which 25,094 were upon women, were registered in the two years 1828-29. The legal limit of 25 stripes was frequently exceeded. Estimating only 20 lashes per punishment, the number of lashes inflicted reaches the enormous total, in these four islands in two years, of not less than 1,350,000 lashes. (Large numbers of punishments were unregistered - e.g., in Demerara, in 1829: 'Mary Lowe, convicted of tying up first a little girl and then a little boy, by the wrists, the one for 5, the other for 9 hours, and flogging them unmercifully, and of other cruelties.' Yet her estate gave no returns of punishments. See Parliamentary Returns.)

The whip was only one of many forms of cruelty. The feeding of the slaves was always poor and often insufficient, particularly when their long hours of exhausting work under a blazing sun are considered. In Jamaica the legally permitted hours were 19 hours a day during crop time and 14½ during the remainder of the year (with intervals of rest amounting to 2½ hours).

'The slaves were divided into gangs of from 30 to 50 persons... they were placed in a line in the field, with drivers (armed with the whip) at equal distances,.. those who were not so strong as the others were literally flogged up by the drivers.' No wonder that the slave population declined.

In one of Buxton's most effective and important speeches in the House (April 15,1831), he gave statistics proving that 'in the last ten years the slave population in those fourteen colonies had decreased by 45,800 persons.' The appalling fact was never denied that between the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 and 1830, the slave population of the West Indies had, in spite of importations, decreased from 800,000 to 700,000. Buxton went on to say, 'the fact is that the whip extorts from the slave a degree of physical exertion which the human constitution cannot support. Terrible accounts (of cruelties) have been received in England within this day or two. The whip, however, is not the cause of mortality. It is extreme toil.'

He showed that in contrast to the terrible decrease among the West Indian slaves, the free negroes of Hayti had more than doubled their numbers in twenty years. He concluded by moving a Resolution to the effect that slavery 'should be dealt with, not by palliatives, but by destroying it altogether,' and that the House should 'adopt the best means of effecting its abolition throughout the British dominions.' Lord Althorp, replying for the Government, refused to accept the Motion but thought it time 'to adopt other measures with the Colonists than those of mere recommendations.' The debate was adjourned, but O'Connell, who throughout gave steady and energetic support, came across the floor of the House and said, 'Buxton, I see land.'

The year 1832 opened with an insurrection in Jamaica. As in Demerara in 1828, the negroes thought that 'the free paper was come' and was being suppressed by the planters. Many were shot. The planters again tried to implicate the missionaries, two of whom, Gardner and Knibb, were arrested, but not one tittle of evidence could be brought against them and the charge broke down.

At home the West Indian proprietors and their friends in the House of Lords obtained a Committee of Inquiry on West Indian affairs. Buxton feared it would mean delay, for Suffield was almost the only consistent supporter of Emancipation among the temporal peers. He wrote to Suffield (April 19,1832): 'I could hardly listen to them (the Lords) in silence the other night, or refrain from cheering the solitary voice that was lifted up for truth and righteousness.... I cannot but congratulate you on what I consider so pre-eminently the post of honour.' A few days later, when Sufneld was dispirited, Buxton wrote to him again: 'Away with all mortification. I can truly say, that I would rather incur obloquy, shame and disappointment in our good cause, than get glory in any other; and I know nothing of your mind if you are not of the same opinion.' Buxton prepared his evidence for the Lords' Committee with great care, and although its Report was indecisive, the evidence did much to educate the Peers.

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