Abolition of Slavery and the Abolitionists: Wilberforce and Clarkson

Mauritius Times 60 Years Ago – 2nd YEAR NO. 33 – Friday 25th March 1955

Glimpses of Mauritian History

“Think, ye masters iron-hearted

Lolling at your jovial boards,

Think how many backs have smarted

For the sweets your cane affords”

— Cowpower: The Negro’s Complaint

The abolition of Slavery in British Colonies in 1834 was of deep significance to our island. I have therefore thought it fitting to retrace the events which led to it.

Two things contributed to rouse the English bull-dog against slavery: English Literature and a display of the Negro’s tragedy before the eyes of Englishmen. During the last decade of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, publicists, preachers and poets, however lonely their voices, made themselves heard in favour of the slaves. Bishop Warburton thundered from the pulpit in 1766 that “the infamous traffic for slaves directly infringes both divine and human law”. Locke, in his treatise on Civil Government, denounced slavery, and Adam Smith in his ‘Wealth of Nations’ argued that free labour was cheaper than slavery. Mrs A. Behn in her novel ‘OROONOKO’, took a Negro for her hero, and Thomson in the ‘Seasons’ thus depicted a shark following a slave ship.

“And from the partners

of that cruel trade,

Which spoils unhappy

Guinea of her sons.

Demands his share of prey”

But these outbursts were too lonely and too confined to reach public opinion. Slave owners soon came into conflict with the machinery of the law. Colonial planters came to England accompanied with some of their slaves. It often happened that some desperate slave managed to escape and a slave hunt became a familiar sight in London streets. The law was not clear in its dealing with the runaway slave until Attorney General Yorke and Solicitor General Talbot declared that residence in England and baptism did not affect the master’s “right and property.” The masters gave much publicity to this legal foothold. They began to advertise the sale of slaves by auction and to offer rewards for the capture of runways.

The ruling of Yorke and Talbot had the effect of inspiring Granville Sharp (who was later to become an enthusiastic Abolitionist) to study the law. He succeeded in resuscitating the earlier opinion of Chief Justice Holt that every slave entering England became free. In 1772 he brought forward the case of James Stewart, a captured runaway, whose claim was supported by Holt’s legal opinion. In this case the verdict was given by Chief Justice Mansfield who said: “Tracing the subject to natural principles the claim of slavery never can be supported. The power claimed never was in use here or acknowledged by the Law.” This ruling gave the death blow to masters’ claims over slaves on English soil.

In 1787 a committee for the abolition of the slave trade was formed. Among the prominent members were Granville Sharp, Rev Ramsay and Thomas Clarkson. Ramsay was an ex-planter from St Christopher where he had spent 19 years and Clarkson had recently left St Jonh’s College, Cambridge, where he had attracted notice by winning the first prize for a brilliant essay in Latin on Slavery. About this essay, he writes in his ‘History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (two fat volumes which may be found at the Carnegie Library): “I frequently tried to persuade myself that the contents of my essay could not be true… if the contents of the essay were true it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”

The abolitionists needed a politician to introduce a Bill in Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. They found him in Wilberforce who with religious zeal set about to master the facts necessary for the purpose. At breakfast parties and dinner tables abolitionists often met and discussed the slave problem. William Pitt, the leader of the Whig Party and a close friend of Wilberforce, was in favour of Abolition to be a matter above parties and could find no better choice than Wilberforce to champion the cause of the slaves.

Clarkson meanwhile was busy collecting evidence. He spent most of his time with captains and sailors of slave ships and slave merchants at Bristol, Liverpool and Lancaster, the three ports outside London concerned with the slave trade. He saw “in the window of a Liverpool shop the leg shackles, handcuffs, thumbscrews and mouth openers used in slave ships and wisely purchased a specimen of each.”

On the 12th of May 1789, the motion for the abolition of the slave trade was brought before Parliament. Wilberforce opened his speech by appealing “not to the passion but the cool reason” of his hearers. He described the cruelties to which the slaves were subject during the voyage. Among other things, he said that bound in chains in pairs, they were laid on the floor and on shelves made for that purpose. They were so closely packed together that they had no room to lie flat on their backs. Dysentery was rife among them. In fine weather they were forced to dance in chains for exercise.

Pitt, Fox, Burke and other great orators of the day ranked on the side of Wilberforce. The great majority on both sides could not at once make up their minds on the questions, so it was agreed without a division to go into committee on 9 specified days. By the time this was done, the session had ended.

The question was taken again in 1791. This time Fox put before the House the terrible realities. He told them “of the planter who had ordered his surgeon to cut off a fugitive Negro’s leg and on his humane refusal had broken the leg himself; and of the female slave tied naked to a beam by the wrists and burnt about the body as she writhed and swung.”

The Prime Minister, Pitt, concluded in saying: “How can we hesitate a moment to abolish this commerce in human flesh which has too long disgraced our country?”

It was of no avail that the famous orators of the day spoke in favour of the slaves. The vested interests were too strong for them and after two days’ debate Wilberforce’s motion was defeated by 163 votes to 88.

(M.Times – 25 March 1955)

***

A Letter from Hon. J. Koeing

Phoenix
March 18th, 1955.
The Editor,

Mautitius Times
Dear Sir,

I, unfortunately, read only today the article which appeared in your issue of March 11 on my resignation as Mayor of Port Louis.

Will you, kindly, publish this letter in answer thereto?

The only reason for my resignation is well known. The General Purposes Committee of the Municipal Council decided on February 16, 1955, that all charges of larceny of electric current should be referred to the Police for action. I readily accepted to implement this decision. A few days later, however the G. P. Committee decided that, eventually, only a warning should be given by me to a doctor who was alleged to have issued a false medical certificate to a municipal employee who, without it, might have been held to have vacated his post. I considered these two decisions irreconcilable.

I refused to implement the second one. I found that it would be difficult for me in future to prosecute outright ordinary offenders and I resigned.

But your article says, in substance, that I have resigned because I found something rotten in the administration and when I wanted to redress matters I met with opposition of my own group; that I could not adjust the voice of my conscience to the existing state of affairs; that I disagreed with my friends of my group and that I broke away from them.

All this is totally incorrect. Although I did find that certain reforms should be made, and I did make them with or without any opposition, yet I did not find the state of affairs to be rotten.

Therefore, the question of my meeting with the opposition of anybody when I wanted to redress a rotten state of affairs which did not exist, did not and could not arise. As to reforms, who is the new administrator who does not find any to achieve in any sphere of human activities?

On the whole, a simple and unique disagreement, on a question of conscience, between the G. P. Committee of the Municipal Council and myself has been sought to be transformed into an opposition of my own group to my attempts to redress an unexistant general rotten state of affairs.

The Standing Orders of the Municipal Council do not, very unfortunately allow me to divulge the individual opinions and attitudes of the councillors who attended the two meetings of the G.P. Committee referred to above nor should I even give the name of the Councillors. But, why should it be recklessly and unfairly assumed, as regards the second meeting chiefly, either that only members of my group were in attendance or that I only had the support of all the Labour Councillors present and that I met with the successful opposition only of my friends of my group for that second decision, which I refused to implement?

Can one imagine a more profoundly unjust assumption?

I thank you for your hospitality.

Yours Sincerely,

Jules Koeing

(Mr Koeing’s explanation may not satisfy many but we consider that it would be pointless to maintain that Mr Koeing was not justified to resign for the reason he gives.

After all, Mr Koeing has to respect his own sense of values and conception of justice. ED)

(M.Times – 25 March 1955)

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