An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African. Translated From a Latin Dissertation
by Thomas Clarkson
13 Feb, 2019
As the subject of the following work has fortunately become of late a topick of conversation, I cannot begin the preface in a manner more satisfactory to the feelings of the benevolent reader, than by giving an account of those humane and worthy pers
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As the subject of the following work has fortunately become of late a topick of conversation, I cannot begin the preface in a manner more satisfactory to the feelings of the benevolent reader, than by giving an account of those humane and worthy persons, who have endeavoured to draw upon it that share of the publick attention which it has obtained.
Among the well disposed individuals, of different nations and ages, who have humanely exerted themselves to suppress the abject personal slavery, introduced in the original cultivation of the European colonies in the western world, Bartholomew de las Casas, the pious bishop of Chiapa, in the fifteenth century, seems to have been the first. This amiable man, during his residence in Spanish America, was so sensibly affected at the treatment which the miserable Indians underwent that he returned to Spain, to make a publick remonstrance before the celebrated emperor Charles the fifth, declaring, that heaven would one day call him to an account for those cruelties, which he then had it in his power to prevent. The speech which he made on the occasion, is now extant, and is a most perfect picture of benevolence and piety.
But his intreaties, by opposition of avarice, were rendered ineffectual: and I do not find by any books which I have read upon the subject, that any other person interfered till the last century, when Morgan Godwyn, a British clergyman, distinguished himself in the cause.
The present age has also produced some zealous and able opposers of the colonial slavery. For about the middle of the present century, John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, two respectable members of the religious society called Quakers, devoted much of their time to the subject. The former travelled through most parts of North America on foot, to hold conversations with the members of his own sect, on the impiety of retaining those in a state of involuntary servitude, who had never given them offence. The latter kept a free school at Philadelphia, for the education of black people. He took every opportunity of pleading in their behalf. He published several treatises against slavery, and gave an hearty proof of his attachment to the cause, by leaving the whole of his fortune in support of that school, to which he had so generously devoted his time and attention when alive.
Till this time it does not appear, that any bodies of men, had collectively interested themselves in endeavouring to remedy the evil. But in the year 1754, the religious society, called Quakers, publickly testified their sentiments upon the subject, declaring, that "to live in ease and plenty by the toil of those, whom fraud and violence had put into their power, was neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice."
Impressed with these sentiments, many of this society immediately liberated their slaves; and though such a measure appeared to be attended with considerable loss to the benevolent individuals, who unconditionally presented them with their freedom, yet they adopted it with pleasure: nobly considering, that to possess a little, in an honourable way, was better than to possess much, through the medium of injustice. Their example was gradually followed by the rest. A general emancipation of the slaves in the possession of Quakers, at length took place; and so effectually did they serve the cause which they had undertaken, that they denied the claim of membership in their religious community, to all such as should hereafter oppose the suggestions of justice in this particular, either by retaining slaves in their possession, or by being in any manner concerned in the slave trade: and it is a fact, that through the vast tract of North America, there is not at this day a single slave in the possession of an acknowledged Quaker.
But though this measure appeared, as has been observed before, to be attended with considerable loss to the benevolent individuals who adopted it, yet, as virtue seldom fails of obtaining its reward, it became ultimately beneficial. Most of the slaves, who were thus unconditionally freed, returned without any solicitation to their former masters, to serve them, at stated wages; as free men. The work, which they now did, was found to better done than before. It was found also, that, a greater quantity was done in the same time. Hence less than the former number of labourers was sufficient. From these, and a variety of circumstances, it appeared, that their plantations were considerably more profitable when worked by free men, than when worked, as before, by slaves; and that they derived therefore, contrary to their expectations, a considerable advantage from their benevolence.
Animated by the example of the Quakers, the members of other sects began to deliberate about adopting the same measure. Some of those of the church of England, of the Roman Catholicks, and of the Presbyterians and Independants, freed their slaves; and there happened but one instance, where the matter was debated, where it was not immediately put in force. This was in Pennsylvania. It was agitated in the synod of the Presbyterians there, to oblige their members to liberate their slaves. The question was negatived by a majority of but one person; and this opposition seemed to arise rather from a dislike to the attempt of forcing such a measure upon the members of that community, than from any other consideration. I have the pleasure of being credibly informed, that the manumission of slaves, or the employment of free men in the plantations, is now daily gaining ground in North America. Should slavery be abolished there, (and it is an event, which, from these circumstances, we may reasonably expect to be produced in time) let it be remembered, that the Quakers will have had the merit of its abolition.
Nor have their brethren here been less assiduous in the cause. As there are happily no slaves in this country, so they have not had the same opportunity of shewing their benevolence by a general emancipation. They have not however omitted to shew it as far as they have been able. At their religious meetings they have regularly inquired if any of their members are concerned in the iniquitous African trade. They have appointed a committee for obtaining every kind of information on the subject, with a view to its suppression, and, about three or four years ago, petitioned parliament on the occasion for their interference and support. I am sorry to add, that their benevolent application was ineffectual, and that the reformation of an evil, productive of consequences equally impolitick and immoral, and generally acknowledged to have long disgraced our national character, is yet left to the unsupported efforts of piety morality and justice, against interest violence and oppression; and these, I blush to acknowledge, too strongly countenanced by the legislative authority of a country, the basis of whose government is liberty.
Nothing can be more clearly shewn, than that an inexhaustible mine of wealth is neglected in Africa, for prosecution of this impious traffick; that, if proper measures were taken, the revenue of this country might be greatly improved, its naval strength increased, its colonies in a more flourishing situation, the planters richer, and a trade, which is now a scene of blood and desolation, converted into one, which might be prosecuted with advantage and honour.
Such have been the exertions of the Quakers in the cause of humanity and virtue. They are still prosecuting, as far as they are able, their benevolent design; and I should stop here and praise them for thus continuing their humane endeavours, but that I conceive it to be unnecessary. They are acting consistently with the principles of religion. They will find a reward in their own consciences; and they will receive more real pleasure from a single reflection on their conduct, than they can possibly experience from the praises of an host of writers.
In giving this short account of those humane and worthy persons, who have endeavoured to restore to their fellow creatures the rights of nature, of which they had been unjustly deprived, I would feel myself unjust, were I to omit two zealous opposers of the colonial tyranny, conspicuous at the present day. Less