Problems of Empire/Sugar Bounties and the West Indies

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Extract from a Speech at Christchurch, November, 1898.

What the decline in sugar has meant for the West Indies. The present evils in the West Indies are not solely due to the late hurricane, but to causes of deeper root. Owing to the competition of bounty-fed Continental sugar, the islands have been declining in prosperity for some time. The Royal Commission reported last year that the sugar industry was threatened by such reduction in the immediate future 'as may not in some of the Colonies differ from extinction.' The result has been that whereas formerly three-fourths of the exports were the products of the sugar-cane, there is now want of employment, reduction in the rate of wages and in the standard of living, and consequent inability to meet expenditure. Many of our West Indian possessions, as, for instance, British Guiana, St. Vincent, Barbadoes, and Dominica—the conditions of which are described in the Report—are entirely dependent on the sugar industry, and the price of sugar has fallen to less than half of what it was in 1882.

Countervailing duties. The remedies proposed by the Royal Commission are peasant proprietorship and the encouragement of minor industries, better communication, and the increase of the fruit trade, besides grants of money to the various islands. Whilst there may be some justification under the special circumstances for the grants recommended by the Royal Commission, I am strenuously opposed to dealing out doles of Imperial money, because such a policy is an inadequate remedy, and because it will tend to sap the energies and self-dependence of the people and the government of the Colonies concerned. The question before us is, Are British subjects to be ruined by artificial competition? Attempts have been made and failed to secure the abolition of bounties; the only remaining course is for the British Government to impose countervailing duties on bounty - fed sugar. The British people have made great sacrifices in order to abolish slavery; they would do the same again for a great object. The sacrifice involved in the present case is small.

British moral responsibility for the West Indian people. If by the imposition of a duty to checkmate the policy of France and Germany the price of sugar is raised to the extent of 2l. a ton, it would mean less than a farthing a pound to the consumer, but a great deal to the West Indian producer. If that sacrifice is too great, it might be met with a lessened duty on tea. Already the Canadian people have realised the injustice done to the West Indies by bounty-fed Continental sugar, and have taken action to counteract it. Allow me to quote from a letter just received from a well-known Canadian. 'We have,' he writes, 'succeeded in getting our Government to give the West Indies a preference in our market. We had free sugar before; now we are paying hard cash to help the Empire.' The British people must remember that they have great responsibilities in regard to the West Indies. The negro population was brought to those islands as slaves under the authority of the British Government; we are morally responsible that those people do not starve. The present distress in the West Indies is due, at any rate in part, to foreign protective duties and bounties, of which the people of the United Kingdom have been reaping the benefit, to the loss of their West Indian fellow-subjects.