This article was written by Miriam Gibson, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
Content warning: This article uses contemporary quotes which contain offensive language and details of the transatlantic slave trade, which some readers may find upsetting.
“The storm is fast gathering; every instant it becomes blacker and blacker. We have no time to lose,” these words, spoken by British politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce, ended a day of intense Commons debate about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. It was 28th February 1805, twenty years into Wilberforce’s abolition campaign. Wilberforce was in the minority in the Commons, facing opposition from pro-slavery MPs, many of whom had family connections and financial interest in the transatlantic slave trade. This debate, one of many Commons debates about slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, exhibits many of the arguments for and against the practice of trading enslaved people between Africa and North America. This blog will examine the backgrounds of the MPs involved in this specific debate and their cases for and against this “disgraceful traffic”.
This debate specifically addresses the trade of enslaved people from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean. It did not address the overall ownership of enslaved people. “Abolition” in this blog, therefore, refers to abolishing the trading of enslaved people across the Atlantic (the transatlantic slave trade), not the practice of slavery.
The barbaric treatment of enslaved people is justified by anti-abolitionist MPs. Sir William Pulteney, MP for Shrewsbury, claims that “from his own knowledge and means of information,” enslaved people are, “universally much better treated now than they were formerly”. This alleged improvement suggests that the abolitionists’ case that slavery is “unjust and inhuman,” are now irrelevant. However, Pulteney goes on to undermine this by saying that it is, “absolutely necessary to use something of compulsion,” on enslaved people. Pulteney goes on to state that the Caribbean climate is too hot for Europeans to work in, so “some other class of the human species [who are] natives of warm climates,” are the only people who are able to do the work. Pulteney explains that the use of force on enslaved people is necessary because “natives of warm countries are not naturally disposed to labour”. Theories such as these, based on contemporary scientific belief though now disproved, were used to justify slavery by dehumanising enslaved people. For more information on this, see the Encyclopaedia Britannica article linked below this blog.
Pulteney had a personal motive for opposing abolition: his family had connections to estates in the Caribbean. These estates can be described as enforced labour camps where enslaved people were forced to work. Much of their wealth was linked to profits made from the slave trade. The Pulteney family were one of the wealthiest in Britain, and Sir William Pulteney financed roads, bridges and architecture in Bath. In this debate, he compares the use of force on enslaved people to how British labourers worked manual jobs through necessity. “It was by compulsion,” he asserts, “That we made our sailors go on board our ships, and this sort of compulsion was often very proper and necessary”.
Similar arguments are used by John Fuller, MP for Sussex. In 1777, Fuller inherited the Knollys Estate and the Grange Pen Estate, both in Jamaica. The Knollys Estate mostly produced sugar and rum, while in 1804 Grange Pen is listed as being used for the “hire of enslaved people”. In the February 1805 debate, Fuller tells the Commons that he has provided the enslaved people he owns with clothing, housing and medical attention. He then asks Wilberforce, “Can the honourable gentleman say that he has done so much, with all his talk and noise about humanity, for the peasantry of [his constituency] Yorkshire?”. This question belies another element of the anti-slavery debate, still be seen today: ethical issues versus British interests.
Other MPs raise similar points. General Banastre Tarleton, MP for Liverpool, came from a family who owned estates in Grenada and Dominica. He, therefore, had a financial interest in the slave trade. In this debate, Tarleton explains how Liverpool’s geographical size, population and financial capital have increased, and claims that “this amazing prosperity is almost entirely owing to the slave trade”. Another MP, William Young draws on a similar example, regarding Irish trade profits (in 1805, all of Ireland was part of the UK). Young owned around nine hundred enslaved people across four estates. In 1801, he published A Tour Through The Several Islands of Barbados, St Vincent, Tobago, and Grenada, in the Years 1791 and 1792. Young exploited the fact that many British people, including abolitionists- such as Wilberforce, had never visited the Caribbean. Knowing that his first-hand account would therefore be viewed as more reliable, he intentionally misrepresented the conditions under which slaves lived, positively depicting their lives and omitting much of the abuse and neglect they were subjected to. In this debate, Young warns that if slavery is abolished, the Irish linen trade, “will be almost completely destroyed”. He adds that, in risking the security of the colonies and stability of international trade, Wilberforce is “forgetting the interests of [his] country”.
“British interests” apply not only to the United Kingdom but to the Empire at large. Isaac Gascoyne was another Liverpool MP in attendance at this debate. He highlights that “if we abandoned this trade, it would go into other hands,” so therefore the transatlantic slave trade is necessary to ensure the success of the British Empire. This view is corroborated by Hiley Addington, MP for Harwich. Addington declares himself an “individual, utterly unconnected with the trade,” who is “aware that there was sort of popular odium attached to the defence of the existing slave trade,” which suggests that he will be less biased than Pulteney, Tarleton and Young. He suggests that “abolition of the trade would be impracticable,” and lead to instability throughout the Empire. Young also predicts that abolishing slavery will only lead to the illegal trade of enslaved people, which will have both financial impacts, and, Young predicts, make conditions for enslaved people worse. Joseph Foster Barham, MP for Stockbridge, makes points on both sides of this aspect of the debate. He disagrees with Addington’s view that Britain abolishing the transatlantic slave trade will lead to it being taken over by other countries. Instead, Barham believes that the threat to stability is the possibility of an uprising of enslaved people. The more enslaved people arriving in the Caribbean, Barham warns, the greater the impact a revolution would be. Barham, therefore, recommends that the transatlantic slave trade should end for the safety of the enslavers. Barham himself was one of these enslavers, and at the time of this debate owned two plantations, now known as forced labour camps.
Various MPs hold up France as an example of the risks in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. slavery and the slave trade had been abolished in the French Empire in 1794, under the First Republic. This regime was closely associated with the revolutionary Jacobin club. The Jacobins rose to power during the French Revolution and were largely responsible for the Terror, a period around 1793 that saw massacres and public executions of those suspected to be counter-revolutionaries. Due to their anti-monarchy stance and the ruthlessness of the Terror, the Jacobin Club were largely viewed with horror and distaste in Britain. Tarleton abolitionism as being “a remnant of Jacobinism”. Tarleton plays on British wariness about revolution by linking abolitionism to the Jacobins.
After the fall of the First French Republic, Napoleon came to power. He re-established slavery in the French Empire in 1802. Charles Brooke uses this U-turn as an example of why abolishing slavery leads to instability. Brooke was the MP for Ilchester. At the time this debate took place, he owned four estates across St Vincent and Tobago. The abolitionist movement, therefore, threatened his businesses directly, so he had personal motives for suggesting that the abolitionist movement would lead to political instability. Gascoyne also expresses concerns about the Napoleonic war. When this debate took place in 1805, Britain was almost two years into war with France, and Gascoyne uses this as justification to continue to justify the transatlantic slave trade so as not to disrupt the status quo during a time of war. He also mentions that the trade is financially necessary due to the cost of the war. Gascoyne suggests that Napoleon’s France is the most likely contender to overtake Britain’s slave trading in the West Indies, which will be a further threat. This demonstrates how financially dependent Britain was on the slave trade and the work of the enslaved people.
Wilberforce was not the only MP in opposition to these views during this debate. His abolitionist views were supported by John Huddlestone and Charles James Fox. Huddlestone was MP for the Somerset constituency of Bridgewater, while Fox represented Westminster and was the long-term rival of then-Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Fox disputes Gascoyne’s concerns about the effect of abolition on the war with France. He insists that “the war certainly presented no difficulty,” in abolishing the trade because trade with France and Spain was already compromised by the war. Huddlestone, meanwhile, highlights humanitarian arguments for abolition. He labels the transatlantic slave trade, “the most detestable system of oppression and cruelty that ever disgraced a civilized nation”. Sarcastically, he asks, “which is the more merciful procedure, to bleed a man to death at once, or to flog and sweat him to death through every stage of lingering disease?”. While Huddlestone is here not directly addressing the MPs with slavery connections, the implications of the question would be different for them. Huddlestone also uses the example of “the East Indies,” (regions of South-East Asia and the Indian sub-continent). Again, using a rhetorical question to make his point, Huddlestone asks how that region can produce sugar without relying on the import and labour of enslaved people. Huddlestone recommends that “freedom and kindness,” will be beneficial not only to the enslaved population but also to the enslavers, as free workers will “wish for prolonged existence, and to multiply their species”. Huddlestone’s use of “species”, and his mention of financial benefits for the enslavers dehumanises enslaved people. Abolitionists, and the arguments they used to advocate for abolitionism, could themselves hold colonialist views now considered to be abhorrently racist.
At the end of this debate, the Bill was narrowly defeated by 77 votes to 70. It was the eleventh time in fifteen years in which an abolition bill had failed in Parliament. While the arguments proposed by the anti-abolitionist MPs make for unsettling reading, the personal links and financial dependence many of them had to slavery demonstrate why abolishing the transatlantic slave trade was a monumental struggle. It took another two years for the abolitionist MPs to get a majority vote in the Commons and successfully pass An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
The dehumanisation of enslaved people means that, amongst all the evidence presented in Parliament slavery debates, the voices of enslaved people are omitted. Enslaved people were aware of how their lives and future were viewed by many as only being worthwhile in terms of European profits and political stability. This is evidenced in Boyrereau Brinch’s memoir, The Blind African Slave. Brinch writes that the “purchasing, stealing, and decoying into the chains of bondage,” of people was “a custom sanctioned by the laws of several governments”. Writing in 1810, after the passing of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Brinch recounts that “the advocates of African freedom have caused the walls of the House of Commons to reverberate the thunder of their eloquence”. However, only “partial emancipation has been effected”. The trafficking and trade of enslaved people had been abolished, though it took until 1833 for legislation to be passed to emancipate all enslaved people in the Caribbean, with apprentices enslaved until 1838.
The full text of this debate can be read in Hansard online, available here: