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Abolitionists and Emancipators page 3


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In the country the feeling grew daily stronger. The passage of the Reform Bill in 1832 and the General Election which followed it gave the Emancipators a great accession of strength in Parliament. During the Election, 'All the way through, instead of Corn laws or anything else Slavery was the cry.' (Letter from Buxton's daughter quoting a Candidate.) Many members had pledged themselves to support Emancipation, and with his hands thus strengthened Buxton determined to bring Parliament to a decision. Not that his task was easy, for, as he wrote, even the 'select band of our special friends and faithful supporters differed upon every practical point.' His daughter wrote: 'We are almost in a fight at the Anti-Slavery Parliament, as it is called.... Papa says that people's principles are the greatest nuisance in life. How he will ever manage his 250 refractory horses and get them to pull all one way is quite beyond my power to think.'

Nevertheless, greatly as Buxton's supporters in the new House differed on practical and important points such as compensation to the planters and instant or gradual Abolition, they were at one in their condemnation of Slavery, and Buxton was undoubtedly right in feeling that the moment had come to demand immediate Emancipation. Accordingly, he gave notice of a Motion. The Government were afraid of dividing their own supporters. The utmost pressure was brought to bear on him, even by his own friends. But he was now a seasoned Parliamentarian of fourteen years' standing, and he was above all a leader who knew his subject, his followers and his public. He stood firm. The cruelty of slavery was established beyond question. Persuasion had been tried with the planters and had failed; the state of the slaves was not one whit better. The only remedy was to end the system. His daughter describes how at this time he met with every possible opposition from friend and foe in the vain attempt to persuade him to postpone his Motion, and when that was found hopeless, to induce him to tone it down, or not to divide the House. Even Lushington was persuaded to counsel delay. 'Nearly every friend he had in the House came to him and... besought him to give way.'

Buxton, instinctively seeing victory ahead of boldness, gave to all of them a resolute 'no,' though, he says, 'I found it very difficult to stand firm. I felt far more distressed than I ought to have done at acting in hostility to my friends.'

His Motion was of course defeated, but in spite of the abstention of many who ought to have supported him, he obtained an unexpectedly large measure of support against the Government's proposals for delay, and drew from Althorp the remark: 'That Division of Buxton's has settled the Slavery question. If he can get 90 to vote with him when he is wrong, and when most of those really interested in the question vote against him, he can command a majority when he is right. The question is settled' - and it was!

Buxton himself said of this debate, 'the Cause made a seven league stride/ He had need of all his fortitude, for he was being at the same time furiously attacked by the more ardent section of the Anti-Slavery party for his moderation. Joseph Sturge was amongst his critics, but Buxton always appreciated and valued the zeal of which these criticisms were evidence. His attitude is defined in a letter to Zachary Macaulay, December, 1832:

Immediate and total emancipation is our right, and if we yield an iota of it, it must not be for the sake of the planter, nor for the sake of the Government, but for the benefit of the negro; and we must give up no more than it is in the interest of the negro to surrender. In short, we must fight the battle with a single eye to the benefit of our clients, the slaves.

The year of Victory, 1833, opened with an appeal from Buxton to the Churches to set aside January 16 as a day of prayer on the subject of slavery. In his own prayers it was never forgotten: 'Oh, give these unhappy creatures their liberty - and that liberty in peace, and protect their masters from ruin and desolation.'

It was understood that Earl Grey's Government had decided definitely to bring in an Emancipation BiU. Great was the disappointment of the Abolitionists when the King's Speech made no mention of the subject. Buxton, ever alert to the attack, gave notice at once of a Motion on the subject and asked the Government their intentions. In his own words: 'they replied that they would undertake the question and "introduce a safe and satisfactory measure." I feel excessively relieved and delighted, and not a little thankful for this great mercy.' No government, indeed, could have ignored the powerful increase in public feeling. Christianity was everywhere marshalling its forces, shaking off its lethargy and preparing for victory. Mr. Stanley (later Lord Stanley), in introducing the Government Bill, said that the Anti-Slavery movement sprang from religious principle and thence came its strength.

Buxton's efforts were now concentrated on doing all in his power to ensure that the Government's promised Bill should be adequate and give early Emancipation. As one of his friends noted: 'He puts himself entirely out of the question. It does not seem to excite one feeling in his mind, whether, after all his toils, he is to appear in the matter or not. He seems to care for nothing but the advancement of the Cause.'

Just at the critical time when the Anti-Slavery leaders were most anxious to rouse public opinion, a young book-keeper named Whiteley arrived unexpectedly in England from the West Indies, He recounted to Buxton the everyday sufferings of the slaves as he himself had witnessed them. Buxton made him put down his experiences in writing. His account was printed as a pamphlet, and the printing presses of that day could not cope with the demand. Edition followed edition, until within a fortnight two hundred thousand copies had been sold. An important deputation to the Premier, led by Buxton and the two Gurneys, included' merchants, squires, bankers, magistrates, clergymen and dissenting ministers from every part of the United Kingdom,' whilst petitions poured in from all parts of the country. On May 14 Stanley, as Colonial Secretary, introduced the Government Bill for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions. Then Buxton and his colleagues knew that they had not laboured in vain, for Stanley used with great effect the very arguments and facts which they had made familiar to the House.

In a private conversation some years later Buxton said: I was amused to hear all my old arguments about population etc. which had so long been reviled and ridiculed, brought forward as if they were quite new, and applauded instead of laughed at. We were so delighted at carrying our measure, we were perfectly indifferent as to who did the deed.

But the Government proposals were far from being entirely satisfactory. Slavery was to be abolished and children under six were to be freed at once. But there was to be a twelve years' period of apprenticeship, during which the slaves were to work for their present masters. They were still to be liable to corporal punishment and the planters were to be compensated by a loan (afterwards changed into a gift) of 20,000,000. Buxton did not like the apprenticeship proposals, and he was vigorously censured by the more ardent of his followers for consenting to compensation.

But the only hope of success lay in accepting the Bill as a Government measure, and he was convinced that to attain their object (the statutory abolition of Slavery), concession and compromise were unavoidable. He refused to divide the House on the second reading, and voted for the grant to the planters. He moved, however, an amendment to limit apprenticeship to the shortest period necessary for establishing free labour, and suggested one year. This was lost, but only by seven votes, and Stanley agreed to reduce the period to seven years. (It was in fact terminated, as we shall see, after four years.)

On August 7, 1833, the Bill for the Total Abolition of Colonial Slavery passed the Lower House, and on August 20 it went through the House of Lords. The personal achievement of Buxton and his faithful handful had been astounding. Althorp said to Lushington: 'Well! you and Buxton have wielded a power too great for any individuals in this House. I hope we shall never see such another instance.' On another occasion, while Grey, the Prime Minister, was speaking to Buxton, Wellington remarked: 'If that individual is to have more power than Lords and Commons both, we may as well give up the Bill.' The comment of another member was: 'So after all the fanatics were right.'

Wilberforce died on July 29, but the passage of the Emancipation Bill was already assured, and he was able to 'Thank God that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty million sterling for the Abolition of Slavery.' Buxton's decision, despite all the censure of his own extremists, not to oppose the second reading of the Bill, was warmly approved by the veteran leader, Clarkson, who wrote to Buxton: 'That the Bill is not entirely what I wished, I have no objection to confess; but yet I am thankful, inexpressibly thankful for it. I tremble to think what might have been the consequences, if you had refused the proposals of Parliament.' Buxton gave glory to God and in his characteristically practical way went straight ahead with schemes for the education and religious instruction of the negroes, whose Emancipation was to take effect on August 1, 1834.

There was great anxiety as to whether they would receive their freedom peacefully. Troops and warships were sent out to be at hand in case of disturbance (Lord Sligo, the Governor of Jamaica, reported in a letter to the Colonial Office in January, 1835, that no case of riot among the negroes had been reported; the troops and ships had been recalled and 'it is impossible that matters can be better'). Buxton, with the responsibility for Emancipation upon his shoulders, felt the anxiety intensely. His son and biographer records that he was at Northrepps Hall when on the loth of September (1834) a large pile of letters came in with the Colonial stamps upon them. Well knowing that they would contain the long-looked for intelligence, he took them and walked out in the wood, desiring no witness but One, of the emotion and anxiety which he experienced. He opened them and deep indeed was his joy and gratitude to God, when he found that one letter after another was filled with accounts of the admirable conduct of the negroes on the great day of freedom. Throughout the Colonies the Churches and Chapels had been thrown open, and the slaves had crowded into them, on the evening of the 3ist July. As the hour of midnight approached, they fell upon their knees and awaited the solemn moment, all hushed in silent prayer. When twelve sounded from the Chapel bells, they sprang upon their feet, and through every island rang the glad sound of thanksgiving to the Father of all, for the chains were broken and the slaves were free (It is recorded that on the following Monday, three days later, they all returned quietly to work).

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