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The Aftermath of Slavery - Buxton's Last Years

Foreign Slave Trade - Prince Albert and the Niger Expedition - Its 'Failure' - Buxton's Ill-health - Death - His Tomb in Westminster Abbey.
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No book written upon the hundred years' work of Emancipation would be complete without reference to the attempt to combat the evil of slavery from a new angle which occupied and saddened the last years of Buxton's life. His attempt is thus described in the inscription on his tomb in Westminster Abbey: 'The energies of his mind were afterwards concentrated on a great attempt to extinguish the Slave Trade in Africa, by the substitution of agriculture and commerce and by the civilising influence of the Gospel.'

The apparently insuperable difficulties of abolishing the foreign and African Slave Trade had long weighed on his mind. In 1835 he had moved an Address for making our treaties on this subject with foreign powers more stringent and the penalties of the crime more severe. The idea that struck him forcibly in 1837 was this, that 'though strong external measures ought still to be resorted to, the deliverance of Africa was to be effected by calling out her own resources.' Lord Palmerston, Buxton wrote, had been led 'to the same conclusion as my own, viz. that the Slave Trade is to be abolished by legitimate trade.'

Accordingly, he made laborious investigations into the trade and commercial resources of West Africa, and after collecting much evidence and interviewing nearly all the Ministers, he wrote a letter to Lord Melbourne embodying his ideas. The scheme which he proposed included an expedition up the Niger to develop trade and peaceful relations with the inhabitants, a trading company promoted by private individuals, a model agricultural farm, and the sending of missionaries. He urged the importance of making use of native agency, especially in view of the deadly climate. Buxton's plan was warmly received by Ministers, for the Cabinet appears to have considered the potential advantage to England, as well as to Africa, from opening a vast new field to commerce, of such importance as to justify the Government in attempting to carry the plan into effect. Buxton notes, however, that 'our friend, Joseph Sturge, who is somewhat restive about my Slave Trade views, won't go along with us.'

But with such powerful support from the Government the scheme was launched. Prince Albert gave it his support by presiding at a great public meeting of the African Civilisation Society held in Exeter Hall on June 1, 1840. Three steamers, the Albert, the Wilberforce and the Soudan, were fitted out by the Government and inspected by the Prince Consort before they sailed in the spring of 1841.

Buxton wrote to tell Sir John Jeremie, now Governor of West Africa, of his hopes for the expedition and of the day of prayer for its success which he had arranged should take place in all the churches in the country He attended no less thoroughly to every detail in he outfitting of the ships that might serve to protect the crews from the dreaded climate.

Every human precaution was taken, but in vain The expedition started well, and Commander Bird Allen, who commanded one of the ships has left an interesting description of the friendliness of the natives the busy market place at Goree (a town several hundred miles up the Niger) crowded with people and with goods which read like a list of the gifts brought by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon: 'Country cloths, camwood in balls, ironwork, twine, silk, straw hats with enormous brims, platters of wood and calabashes beautifully carved.' Bird Allen described the joy of some slaves whom he had persuaded their owners to liberate.

But before long almost ail the Englishmen were attacked by 'malignant fever' and two of the ships were forced to return to sea. The heroic Bird Allen still pushed forward on the Albert. Then he too was stricken, his ship forced to turn back, and he died at Fernando Po. Of the 301 persons who composed the expedition when it commenced the ascent of the Niger, 41 perished of fever, but it is worth noting that of the 150 Africans on board, not one died of the disease. Of the Englishmen a contemporary writer remarks: 'To its officers and men, dead as well as living, the highest credit appears to be due. They conquered everything but impossibilities: nature they could not conquer.'

The failure of the Niger expedition almost broke Buxton's heart, and although he lived for three years more, it was the final blow to his broken health. His biographer writes: His health became gradually more feeble and he could no longer bear any sustained mental exertion. He was only 55 years of age; but already the evening was come of his day of ceaseless toil, nor was its close brightened by the beams of success and joy. The idea of what he so forcibly called 'the incomparable horrors' of the slave-trade had fastened itself on his mind with the most vivid reality; the burning and plundered villages of Africa, the ships traversing the Atlantic with their cargoes of torture - these pictures were ever before him. When unconscious that he was observed, he would at times utter such groans as if his heart was sinking beneath its load. He rarely spoke of the Expedition, scarcely alluded to Captain Bird Allen's death, but his grave demeanour, his worn pale face, the abstraction of his manner and the intense fervour of his supplication that God would 'pity poor Africa,' these showed too well the poignancy of his feelings. (Memoirs of Sir T. Powell Buxton, by C. Buxton.)

His cherished scheme for the constructive regeneration of Africa had failed, but we who see to-day the development of West Africa in prosperity and civilisation shall not feel that his attempt was altogether in vain, still less shall we feel that his principle, 'the deliverance of Africa by the calling out of her own resources,' was at fault. Lord John Russell, speaking at the melancholy meeting of the African Civilisation Society which took place after the failure of the expedition, came forward with his usual courage and asserted boldly that it had been based on sound principles. History has in fact demonstrated to the hilt that Buxton's principles were sound. From his beloved friend, Bishop Middleton of Calcutta, came letters of comfort and hope: 'Be not cast down, my dearest friend, nothing we do for God in the cause of humanity is lost.'

During this time of ill-health and disappointment his love of nature remained a consolation, and his plantations of young trees at Northrepps were a great interest to him. One of his friends remarked to him that his plantations would 'some day be the pride of the country, if England stands.' 'England stand,' said he, with a touch of his old fire. 'I will never believe that any country will fail, which has abolished Slavery as England has done.'

In 1843 came an alarming increase of bodily and mental weakness, but in January, 1844, he rallied for a time and addressed a clear and vigorous letter to Sir Robert Peel, then Prime Minister, on the grave danger of encouraging slavery and the slave trade by the proposal to admit slave-grown sugar from Cuba and Brazil into this country. Peel's reassuring reply included a warm tribute to 'the untiring friend of humanity and of the African race.'

A few months before his death he wrote a long letter to Lord Stanley, then Colonial Secretary, urging him to abandon a proposed scheme for obliging liberated Africans at Sierra Leone to emigrate to the West Indies. He feared anything approximating to compulsory emigration and objected strongly to breaking up in any degree the system of training and education at Sierra Leone which was just beginning to produce results of importance to the whole Continent of Africa. In his state of extreme weakness, the composition of the letter cost him an almost superhuman effort. His son writes that he would 'sink back exhausted in the middle of a sentence, then rouse himself, and try again, till at last it was completed.... But it scarcely displays any trace of the extreme debility under which he was labouring. With this act closed his long and arduous exertions on behalf of the negro race.'

Ten days before his death he began talking, apparently in his sleep, of the conversion of the heathen and of longing to be at work for them. 'I am ready to undertake all the working part,' he said. These last words are characteristic of the man.

He died on February 9, 1845. The inscription on his tomb in Westminster Abbey gives a true picture of a great Christian, a great reformer and a tireless worker in the cause of suffering humanity.

Endued with a vigorous and capacious mind,
of dauntless courage and untiring energy,
He was early led by the love of God,
To devote his powers to the Good of Man.
In Parliament, he laboured
For the improvement of prison discipline,
For the amendment of the Criminal Code,
For the suppression of suttees in India,
For the Liberation of the Hottentots in Southern Africa,
And, above all
For the emancipation of eight hundred thousand slaves
in the British Dominions.
In this last righteous enterprise,
After ten years of arduous conflict,
A final victory was given
to him and his co-adjutors,
'By the good Hand of our God'
On the memorable 1st of August 1834.
The energies of his mind were afterwards concentrated
On a great attempt
to extinguish the slave trade in Africa,
By the substitution of agriculture and commerce.
And by the civilizing influence of the Gospel.
Exhausted in mind and body
'He fell asleep'
Reposing in faith on his Redeemer,
in the 59th year of his age.
This Monument is erected
By his friends and fellow-labourers
at home and abroad;
Assisted by the grateful contributions
of many thousands of the African race.

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