The African Slave Trade/Chapter 4
O Liberty! thou goddess heavenly bright,
Profuse of bliss, and pregnant with delight!
Eternal pleasures in thy presence reign.
And smiling Plenty leads thy wanton train;
Eased of her load. Subjection grows more light,
And poverty looks cheerful in thy sight;
Thou mak'st the gloomy face of Nature gay,
Giv'st beauty to the sun, and pleasure to the day.
The slave trade having been tolerated for over two centuries, at length public attention in England and America was aroused to its dreadful evils.
Among the earliest and most zealous advocates of the abolition of this traffic were the members of the society of Friends, whose founder, George Fox, solemnly protested against it, as utterly indefensible.
As early as 1668, the celebrated William Penn denounced the trade as impolitic, unchristian, and cruel. In 1696 the subject was introduced at the annual meeting of the Society, and gradually an interest was awakened, until, at the yearly meeting in London, in 1727, it was resolved, "That the im porting of negroes was cruel and unjust, and was therefore, severely censured by the meeting." Ii 1760, they went farther, and resolved to exclude from their Society all who participated in the iniquitous traffic.
One of the first instances on record of a voluntary surrender of slave property, was by a Mr. Mifflin, i Friend, who, on inheriting forty slaves from hi^ father, gave them their liberty.
But the Friends were not alone in their noble efforts to crush this iniquity. Eminent divines and statesmen entered the field against the traffic. The Rev. Morgan Godwyn, of the Church of England, published the first treatise directly bearing upon the subject, entitled " The Negro's and Indian's Advocate," which he dedicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had witnessed the cruel treatment of the slaves in the Island of Barbadoes, and he fearlessly uttered his sentiments concerning the oppressors.
About the same time, the devoted Richard Baxter pleaded with fervor and eloquence for the rights of the African. In his "Christian Directory," he used language, which, if employed in this sensitive age and nation, would certainly expose him to the charge of fanaticism. He said that, "those who go put as pirates, and take any poor Africans, and eople of another land, who never forfeited hfe or librty, and make them slaves, or sell them, are the worst f robbers, and ought to be considered as the comlon enemies of mankind; and that they who buy hem, and use them as mere beasts of burden, for their own convenience, regardless of their spiritual welfare, are fitter to be called demons than Chrisians."
Many other treatises and tracts were published, which took the strongest ground against the traffic. As early as 1739, the eloquent preacher of righteousless. Rev. George Whitefield, while in America, addressed a letter to the settlers in districts where slavery existed, which produced a marked effect; and to the close of life, he pleaded for the oppressed with great success. The following is an extract from said letter:
Few men felt more keenly the wrongs of the slave trade than the eminent John Wesley, a name that should be an authority in this land, south and north. In 1774, he published his "Thoughts upon Slavery," and burning thoughts they are. We give two as specimens. Would that our brethren of the Methodist church would publish the whole tract, and circulate it over the country. He says:
"1. To Traders. — You have torn away children from their parents, and parents from their children; husbands from their wives; wives from their beloved husbands; brethren and sisters from each other. You have dragged them who have never one you any wrong, in chains, and forced them into the vilest slavery, never to end but with life; such slavery as is not found among the Turks in Algiers, nor among the heathens in America. You induce the villain to steal, rob, murder men, women, and children, without number, by paying him for his execrable labor. It is all your act and deed. your conscience quite reconciled to this? Does it never reproach you at all? Has gold entirely blinded your eyes, and stupefied your heart? Can you see, can you feel no harm therein? Is it doing as you would be done to? Make the case your own. 'Master,' said a slave at Liverpool, to the merchant that owned him, 'what if some of my countrymen were to come here, and take away mistress, and Tommy, and Billy, and carry them into our country, and make them slaves, how would you like it? 'His answer as worthy of a man 'I will never buy a slave more while live.' Let his resolution be yours. Have no more any part in this detestable business. Instantly leave it to those unfeeling wretches ' who laugh at human nature and compassion.' Be you a man; not a wolf, a devourer of the human species. Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy.
"Is there a God? You know there is. Is he a just God? hen there must be a state of retribution; a state wherein the just God will reward every man according to his works, then what reward will he render to you? Oh, think betimes, before you drop into eternity! Think now. 'He shall have judgment without mercy that hath showed no mercy.' Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. But have you, indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no sympathy? no sense of human woe? no pity for the miserable? When you saw the streaming eyes, the heaving breasts, the bleeding sides, and the tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, were you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? Had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now V If you do not, you must go on till the measure of your iniquities is fall. Then will the great God deal with you, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands. At that day it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for you. But if your heart does relent, resolve, God being your helper, to escape with your life. Regard not money! All that a man hath, will he give for his life. Whatever you lose, lose not your soul; nothing can countervail that loss. Immediately quit the horrid trade. At all events, be an honest man."2. To Slaveholders. — This equally concerns all slaveholders, of whatever rank and degree; seeing men-buyers are exactly on a level with men-stealers! 'Indeed,' you say, 'I pay honestly for my goods, and I am not concerned to know how they are come by.' Nay, but you are; you are deeply concerned to know they are honestly come by: otherwise you are partaker with a thief, and are not a jot honester than he. But you know they are not honestly come by you know they are procured by means nothing near so innocent as picking pockets' house-breaking, or robbery upon the highway. You know they are procured by a deliberate species of more complicated villainy, of fraud, robbery, and murder, than was ever practiced by Mohammedans or Paggans; in particular, by murders of all kinds; by the blood oi the innocent poured upon the ground like water. Now it your money that pays the African butcher. You, therefore, ire principally guilty of all these frauds, robberies, and murders. You are the spring that puts all the rest in motion. They would not stir a step without you: therefore, the blood of all these wretches who die before their time lies upon your head. 'The blood of thy brother crieth against thee from the earth.' Oh! whatever it costs, put a stop to its cry before it be too late; instantly, at any price, were it the half of your goods, deliver thyself from blood guiltiness! Thy hands, thy bed, thy furniture, thy house, and thy lands, at present are stained with blood. Surely it is enough; accumulate no more guilt; spill no more the blood of the innocent. Do not hire another to shed blood; do not pay him for doing it. Whether you are a Christian or not, show yourself a man. Be not more savage than a lion or a bear!"
Similar earnest appeals were made by other distinguished Christians and philanthropists. In 1785, Thomas Clarkson took the field against the traffic in human beings, and devoted to the sacred cause of human rights all the energies of his intellect, and sympathies of his heart.
While pursuing his studies at Cambridge University, "The Slave Trade" was given to him as a theme for a prize essay. Having, the year before, gained the first prize for a Latin dissertation, he was anxious to sustain his literary reputation, and secure, if possible, fresh laurels. He entered upon the investigation with great ardor; visited London, and read with avidity works bearing upon the subject. The horrible facts that passed in review before him so deeply affected his mind, that he lost sight of the honors of the university, in the intensity of his desire to redress the wrongs of Africa. "It is impossible," he says, in his "History of Slavery," "to imagine the severe anguish which the composition of this essay cost me. All the pleasure that I had promised myself from the contest, was exchanged for pain, by the astounding facts that were now continually before me. It was one gloomy subject, from morning till night. In the day, I was agitated and uneasy; in the night I had little or no rest. I was so overwhelmed with grief, that I sometimes never closed my eyes during the whole night; and I no longer regarded my essay as a mere trial for literary distinction. My great desire now was to produce a work that should call forth a vigorous public effort to redress the wrongs of injured Africa."
Under the influence of this desire, and with his intellectual powers thoroughly aroused and concentrated upon the theme, he produced an essay that not only won the highest prize, but touched a chord in the English heart that has not ceased to vibrate to this hour. And the great secret of his success in this, and in his subsequent efforts, was the fact, that he gave his whole soul to the work. He thus describes his feelings while on his way to London, after having read the essay at the university: " During my journey, the melancholy subject was not a moment absent from my thoughts. I occasionally stopped my horse, dismounted, and walked. I tried frequently to persuade myself that the statements in my essay could not be true. But the more I reflected on the authorities on which they were founded, the more constrained was I to give them credit. I sat down, disconsolate, on the turf by the road-side; and here it forcibly occurred to me, that if the statements that I had made were facts, it was high time that something should be done to put an end to such cruelties."
These convictions increased, rather than diminished, in the noble-hearted youth, and he felt that to accomplish any thing, he must give himself wholly to the work. Upon this point he consulted the ardent friends of freedom; and after mature deliberation, and a careful survey of the difficulties of the undertaking, he resolved to abandon all other pursuits, and give his life to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.
The electric influence of his decision was at once felt upon others; — it increased their confidence, and fired their zeal. Sir Charles Middleton, M. P., Dr. Porteus, and Lord Scarsdale, both members of the House of Lords; Granville Sharp, J. Phillips Ramsay, and the united Society of Friends, — all rallied to his support. They knew the sacrifices that he had made, the brilliant prospects for usefulness and distinction in the church that he had renounced, and the struggles through which his mind had passed, — and they applauded the decision. They were impressed with his sincerity, his ardor, and his readiness to obey the divine will in the matter. Nor was he without encouragement from a higher source. He declared that he pledged himself to the task, " not because I saw any reasonable prospect of success in my new undertaking, but in obedience, I believe, to a higher power. And I can say, that both at the moment of this resolution, and for some time afterwards, I had more sublime and happy feelings than at any former period of my life."
In the prosecution of his work, Clarkson visited every person in London and the vicinity, who had been connected with the slave trade, or who had visited Africa; and he also inspected the slave ships, and informed himself upon every point touching the iniquity he had grappled with. The startling facts which he had accumulated, aroused many to the enormity of the evil, and especially Mr. Wilberforce, who at once coöperated with Mr. Clarkson, and through life rendered his name illustrious by his devotion to the cause of human liberty.
Soon after, a committee of twelve gentlemen was formed for the purpose of bringing the evils of slavery more fully before the British nation, and to organize a society for its entire abolition. At the head of this committee stood Granville Sharp, whom Clarkson justly styled, "the father of the cause in England." To promote their object, public meetings were held, treatises, showing the evils of the slave trade, were widely circulated, and many petitions were sent to Parliament, praying for the abolition of the traffic. The history of the efforts made to secure the action of Parliament, though deeply interesting and instructive, our limits will not allow us to give in its details. It is sufficient to state that the subject was introduced into the House of Commons in 1788, by Mr, Pitt, who proposed that the slave trade should be investigated at the next sessions. He was ably supported by Mr. Fox, Mr. Burke, Sir. W. Dolben, and others, and the motion passed unanimously.
Another measure, on the 22d of May, was proposed by Sir W. Dolben, which excited alarm among the traders in Liverpool and Bristol. It was that the number of slaves brought in a vessel should be in proportion to its tonnage. This the pro-slavery party were determined to resist, and they obtained leave to be heard by counsel before the House in their defense. But thus early, British philanthropy triumphed, and the motion passed by a large majority.
As the friends of humanity pushed their measures, opposition was of course excited, and the advocates of the traffic succeeded in defeating motion after motion, until 1804, when the abortion bill was carried through the House of Commons. It was, ever, thrown out by the House of Lords, and the next year it was lost in the Commons.
The people now rose in their strength, and pulpits and presses thundered their anathemas against the great national disgrace. The indefatigable Clarkson provided himself with fresh materials, that he might be ready to meet the arguments of his ojDponents, convince the doubting, and especially to influence the House of Lords to a right decision.
The hour of victory was at hand. On the 10th of June, 1806, the following resolution was moved in both houses: "That this House, considering the African Slave Trade to be contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy, will, with all practicable expedition, take effectual measures for the abolition of said trade, in such manner, and at such period, as may be deemed advisable."
In a lengthy debate, the resolution was opposed, on the ground that it might be injurious to the trade of Liverpool; affect unfavorably the planters, and gentlemen engaged in the traffic; reduce the revenue of the country; be a reflection upon the characters of their ancestors, who established the business, and deprive the Africans themselves of the advantages of a residence in the West Indies; all of which arguments were scattered to the wind by the invincible logic of the defenders of the resolution. The Bishop of St. Asaph, in the upper House, remarked, on commencing his speech, "My lords, I can not but assent to every part of the resolution now before your lordships, at any season of the year, or any day of the year, or any hour of the day."
The idea of supporting the traffic on account of its antiquity, was ably refuted by the declaration that any villainy which had existed since Cain murdered his brother, might be sustained on the same ground.
The assertion that the Scriptures countenanced the traffic, was denounced as "one of the greatest libels that was ever published against the Christian religion." The other objections were disposed of very easily, and the resolution passed by a majority of ninety-nine in the House of Commons, and twenty-one in the House of Lords.
The next year a bill was introduced, entitled "An act for the abolition of the slave trade," which also passed by large majorities. The friends of humanity were now exultant. The heroes of the mighty revolution which had been achieved in public sentiment exchanged congratulations, and expressed their gratitude to Heaven for so signal a victory.
In the midst of these rejoicings, a deep anxiety pervaded the kingdom, lest the bill should not receive the sanction of the Crown. But just before the dissolution of the ministry, it was announced that the king had given his assent, and the act, in the usual way, became a law." Just as the clock struck twelve, while the sun was shining in its meridian splendor, as if to witness the august act, and to sanction it by its glorious beams, the magna charta of Africa was completed." Thus the first effectual blow against the slave trade was struck, and the friends of the African believed that the unholy system had received its death-wound. But they did not rightly estimate the strength of human wickedness, and the power of those fiendish passions that were burning in the hearts of corrupt men. They did not see that the lust for gold would continue to seek gratification, at whatever expense of cruelty, and that brutes in human shape would laugh at compassion, sneer at just laws, and spurn the very idea of mercy.
For, what does a man engaged in this traffic know of humanity, justice, or the rights of a fellow man? What does he care for the sufferings of the captive, the shrieks of the agonized mother, the imploring looks and pathetic appeals of the dying slave? With the horrors of the middle passage constantly before him, does his heart relent? Looking down upon the crowded group of miserable, groaning victims of his cupidity, does a tear start in his eye? Throwing overboard the sick, for the sake of the insurance, does he reflect upon the infinite sacrifices he makes to gain a few dollars? A slave trader reflecting! What an absurdity! His conscience and heart moved! He has no conscience, — has no heart. Look into the soul of the captain of a slave ship, and what do you see? You need not read the vision of Dante, nor visit afterwards the regions of the lost.
Still the friends of the slave were hopeful, and efforts were made to secure the coöperation of the other European powers, and of the States of America, in the suppression of the traffic. Our country, however, had been moving simultaneously with Great Britain; and, to its honor be it said, it was The first to prohibit the prosecution of the slave trade.
As early as 1794, it was enacted, that no person in the United States should fit out any vessel for the purpose of carrying on any traffic in slaves to a foreign country, or for procuring from any foreign country the inhabitants thereof, to be disposed of as slaves. In 1800, it was declared to be unlawful for my citizen of the United States to have property in my vessel employed in transporting slaves from one foreign country to another, or to serve on board such a vessel.
A more stringent law was passed in 1807, to take effect on the first of January, 1808, declaring that no one should bring into the United States, or the territories thereof, from any foreign country, any negro, mulatto, or person of color, with the intention of holding him or selling him as a slave; and heavy penalties were imposed on the violators of this law.
As an evidence of the progress of public sentiment, and the general and deep-seated abhorrence of the slave trade in the American mind at that time, the traffic, in 1820, was pronounced piracy, and the guilty participators in the crime were adjudged worthy of death. It was enacted:
At that period, and as far back as the time when the United States Constitution was adopted, the hostility to slavery was national, and the pro-slavery feeling was local, and limited to a comparatively small portion of the people. We might fill volumes with the testimony of the great and good men of that day, which contributed to the formation of the public opinion that called for the enactment of the laws to which we have referred.
In addition to the opinions of Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Jay, and Hamilton, already quoted, let me call the reader's attention to the sentiments of others, whose influence and services are incorporated in the history of the republic.
Benjamin Franklin, according to Steuben's account, (see Life of Franklin, by William Temple Franklin,) was President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and as such signed the memorial that was presented to the House of Representatives of the United States, on the 12th of February, 1789, praying that body to exert, to their fullest extent, the power vested in em by the Constitution, in discouraging the traffic human flesh. In the memorial the system of slavery is condemned in the strongest language, and it poses with a most touching and earnest appeal to the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, "to devise means for removing this consistency from the character of the American people, and to step to the very verge of the power rested in them for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow men."
Other memorials were sent in 1791. In the memorial from Connecticut it is stated:
The memorialists from Pennsylvania say:
Hear, also, the voice that sixty years ago was uttered by Virginia:
These memorials were not only read in the House of Representatives, but were referred to a select committee.
James Monroe, in a speech pronounced in the Virginia Convention, said:
The views of Samuel Adams may be learned from the following extract:
At a meeting in Darien, Georgia, in 1775, the following resolution was put forth:
The patriotic, high-minded, and eloquent William Pinkney, in a speech in the Maryland House Delegates, in 1789, said: "Eternal infamy awaits the abandoned miscreants, whos e selfish souls could ever prompt them to rob unhappy Africa of her sons, and freight them hither by thousands, to poison the fair Eden of Liberty with the rank weed of individual bondage! Nor is it more to the credit of our ancestors, that they did not command these savage spoilers to bear their hateful cargo to another shore, where the shrine of freedom knew no votaries, and every purchaser would at once both a master and a slave.
"In the dawn of time, when the rough feelings of barbarism had not experienced the softening touches of refinement, such an unprincipled prostration of the inherent right of human nature would have needed the gloss of an apology but to the everlasting reproach of Maryland, be it said, that when her citizens rivaled the nation from whence they emigrated, in the knowledge of moral principles, and an enthusiasm in the cause of general freedom, they stooped to become the purchasers of their fellow creatures, and to introduce an hereditary bondage into the bosom of their country which should widen with every successive generation.
"For my own part, I would willingly draw the veil oblivion over this disgusting scene of iniquity, but that the present abject state of those who are descended from their kidnapped sufferers, perpetually brings it forward to the memory.
"But wherefore should we confine the edge of censure our ancestors, or those from whom they purchased? Are not we equally guilty? They strewed around the seeds slavery, — we cherish and sustain the growth. They introduced the system, — we enlarge, invigorate, and confirm it, Yes, let it be handed down to posterity, that the people of Maryland, who could fly to arms with the promptitude of Roman citizens, when the hand of oppression was lifted against themselves; who could behold their country desolated, and their citizens slaughtered; who could brave, with unshaken firmness, every calamity of war, before they would submit to the smallest infringement of their rights, — that his very people could yet see thousands of their fellow creatures, within the limits of their territory, bending beeath an unnatural yoke; and, instead of being assiduous to destroy their shackles, anxious to immortalize their duration, to that a nation of slaves might for ever exist in a country here freedom is its boast."
The whole speech is one of irresistible force, noble sentiment, and burning eloquence.
The style in which the House of Representatives was addressed at that period, may be learned from the letter of Warner Mifflin, dated in Kent County, Delaware, 2d of 1st month, 1793. He said:
When the subject of continuing or abolishing the slave trade was before the Convention called to frame the Constitution of these United States, some of the members expressed very boldly and fully their views upon the whole slavery question. I will give a few extracts, as reported by Mr. Yates, (pp. 64-67:)
That slavery is inconsistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency to destroy those principles on which it is supported, as it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression. It was further urged, that by this system of government, every State is to be protected both from foreign invasions and from domestic insurrections; that from this consideration, it was of the utmost importance it should have a power to restrain the importation of slaves, since in proportion as the number of slaves was increased in any State, in the same proportion the State is weakened, and exposed to foreign invasion or domestic insurrection, and by so much ess will it be able to protect itself against either, and therefore will, by so much the more, want aid from, and be a burden to, the Union."
But I need not multiply testimonies on this point, very student of American history knows what has been the state of the public mind, in the past, on the question before us.
But the inquiry is made, how far the laws against the slave trade, passed by Great Britain, the United States, and other nations, were successful in suppressing the traffic.
As we have already intimated, the answer to this question opens a melancholy chapter in the history of human nature. But before entering upon it, we can not but pay a passing tribute to the noble philanthropy of Great Britain, and to the efforts of our ancestors to sweep from the earth the curse of the traffic in human beings.
Whatever may have been the course of England in regard to her other great national interests, we must allow, that in her hostility to slavery and the slave trade, she has been firm, consistent, and self-sacrificing; and deserves the hearty applause of the civilized world. She has grappled with this evil boldly, manfully, as under a solemn consciousness of her obligations to society, and accountability to God. Mistress of the seas, she has struck this infamous traffic from the roll of her commerce. Sovereign of vast territories, she has decreed that no lave shall breathe the air of her realms.
Her diplomatic influence has been used to arouse their governments to a sense of their duty, and secure their coöperation in this great work of humanity. For years she has, at great expense, sustained her cruisers along the coast of Africa, and Lear the West Indies, to break up the vile traffic. She has poured out her money like water, in the cause, having, in 1833, borrowed twenty millions of pounds, to purchase the freedom of slaves in her colonies, and up to 1843, having expended fifteen millions of pounds sterling in payment to foreign governments and courts, to effect the extinction of the lave trade.
Had the other European nations come up to the work as they ought to have done, and had the good beginning made in America been prosecuted with a perseverance and zeal commensurate with the growth of our national power, and the increase of our educational and religious privileges, this great wickedless might have been annihilated.
And why has America retrograded? What has chilled her heart, and palsied her energies, and made her pause in the career of fame and glory? What has blinded the eyes of her citizens to their true interests, corrupted her government, struck dumb he ministers at the altar, and clothed oppression nth such power?
We have a goodly clime,
Broad vales and streams we boast,
Our mountain frontiers frown sublime,
Old Ocean guards our coast;
Suns bless our harvest fair,
With fervid smile serene,
But a dark shade is gathering there! —
What can its blackness mean?
We have a birthright proud,
For our young sons to claim,
An eagle soaring o'er the cloud,
In freedom and in fame;
We have a scutcheon bright,
By our dear fathers bought, —
A fearful blot distains its white,
Who hath such evil wrought?
Our banner o'er the sea
Looks forth with starry eye,
Emblazoned, glorious, bold, and free,
A letter on the sky.
What hand, with shameful stain,
Hath marred its heavenly blue ?
The yoke! the fetters! and the chain !
Say, are these emblems true ?
This day doth music rare
Swell through our nation's bound,
But Afric's wailing mingles there,
And Heaven doth hear the sound!
O God of power! we turn
In penitence to thee;
Bid our loved land the lesson learn, —
To bid the slave be free.Mrs. L. H. Sigourney.
- Condensed from "Fox's History of Missions in Africa, and Account of the Slave Trade."
- For a full account of these efforts, see "Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade."
- In April, 1792, no less than five hundred and seventeen petitions against the slave trade had been laid before Parliament.
- Encyclopædia Americana, vol. xi. p. 433.
- In 1815, Louis XVIII, by the treaty of Paris, consented to the immediate abolition of the slave trade. Denmark, as early as 1804, declared the trade unlawful. Sweden did the same in 1813, and in 1831 conferred upon the free negroes in the island of St Bartholomew, all the privileges that the whites enjoyed, Portugal, having received the promise of £300,000 from England, provided for the abolition of the slave trade in 1823. Spain came into the measure in 1820, her citizens having been paid £400,000 by England. On the 24th of December 1814, the United States engaged, according to the treaty of Ghent, t( do all in their power to suppress the traffic. We shall soon see how the promise was fulfilled.
- Fourth of July.