By Clyde W Thierens
The abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 had raised expectations that British Caribbean slave owners would have been moved by necessity to improve the lot of their slaves. While some planters insisted that improvements had occurred in the treatment and care of slaves, and in their living and working conditions, abolitionists did not endorse this view. Thus, by 1815, the abolitionists moved to pass legislation to ameliorate the British slave laws. They also sought compulsory registration of all slaves in the British West Indies in order to monitor the state of the slave population.
Slave owners vehemently objected to Parliamentary ‘interference’ in their affairs which they claimed would prove disastrous to their welfare. Generally, despite the passing of the Slave Registry Bill by 1819, slave conditions did not improve much.
In addition to the increasing anti-slavery agitation in the early 1820s, planters also faced serious economic challenges from the East Indies. In January, 1823, prominent Quakers and politicians allied themselves to form the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions. This Society launched a series of activities to galvanize support for the amelioration of slavery and, ultimately, for its abolition. A petition to this effect was presented to the House of Commons on March 19, 1823.
In response, the British Government, with some input from a Select Committee of West Indian Planters and Merchants, formulated proposals for the improvement of slavery in its colonies. Planters were encouraged to adopt the recommendations in an effort to curtail the mounting criticism of the system. However, in almost all the colonies, planters ferociously opposed the amelioration proposals on a number of grounds, with more successful resistance evidenced in colonies with representative assemblies.
Amelioration encompassed consideration for the welfare of both slaves and slave owners. Ultimately, the programme aimed at eliciting the greatest level of productivity in improved conditions of enslavement which prepared the enslaved for life as free people. The economic aspect of amelioration was evident in Barbados where some proprietors undertook to promote the longevity and natural- increase capability of their slaves. This, the Barbadian planters argued, precluded them from being forced to implement proposals initiated by the British Parliament.
Thomas Buxton’s resolution in the British parliament, in March 1823, condemned slavery as “repugnant to the principles of the British Constitution and of the Christian religion.” He called for its abolition after consideration of how all involved in it would be affected. The British Government stated its willingness to sanction a ‘gradual abolition’ and communicated this, along with proposals for the amelioration of the system, to colonial legislatures in May 1823, for consideration and implementation. Further proposals were dispatched in July. The reforms were enforced in the Crown Colonies to serve as examples for the other colonies.
Planters opposed the amelioration proposals on legal and traditional grounds. They claimed that slavery was a legal and historical institution which, under the British system, guaranteed their rights to private property. They argued that, in addition to the institution being historically accepted by English society, parliamentary legislation had been formulated to govern its operations. Under these legislations, they continued, the slave was the ‘absolute property’ of the master and, changing this state of affairs would only serve to destroy the system, and result in their ruin.
Many planters, especially in Barbados and Trinidad, argued that their system needed no reforms. The Trinidadian planters asserted that enslaved Africans in that colony were the best treated in the region because their system of enslavement there operated under the comparatively ‘milder’ Spanish slave laws and traditions which were still evident in the colony. Planters in St Vincent found it inconceivable that British West Indian planters should be made to orchestrate their self destruction by adopting proposals to divest themselves of their slave property. The majority of West Indian planters echoed the sentiment that the entire package of proposals constituted unlawful intrusion into their affairs.
One such highly contentious proposal was the one that sought to curtail the use of the whip by limiting the number of lashes a male slave could receive, in addition to prohibiting the flogging of enslaved females and flogging in the field. Some owners agreed to limit the flogging of enslaved males to 25 lashes while, in colonies like St Vincent and Grenada, planters agreed to end the use of the whip in the field. However, many contended that the whip was indispensable as it was used to alert, instruct, correct, guide and discipline the slaves. Some planters claimed that the whip was necessary to maintain productivity as the enslaved would only work assiduously when they were driven. They argued that curtailment of its use would cause them to become impoverished.
The proposal to prohibit the flogging of females was opposed on the grounds that enslaved females were often harder to control that their male counterparts. They further made the point that, at this time, females were flogged in England’s correction houses. They claimed the right to flog the enslaved by arguing that the whip was used in other cultures to discipline recalcitrant slaves, while it was also used in the British Navy.
Planters objected to the enslaved being allowed to testify in legal proceedings for fear that this would erode their authority. Planters in Barbados modified this proposal by only allowing a slave’s testimony that was corroborated by circumstantial evidence. In Jamaica this proposal was stridently opposed by overseers and small proprietors whose circumstances placed them more at risk of losing status if they were testified against.
In the crown colony of Demerara-Essequibo planters objected to the passage of certain proposals on the grounds that these proposals breached the Articles of Capitulation under which the colonies were acquired from the Dutch. In 1824 the Court of Policy refused to include proposals allowing the enslaved to purchase their freedom on the grounds that this would be a breach of the colony’s ‘fundamental laws’ and a violation of planters’ rights to private property
British West Indian planters generally protested the promulgation of the amelioration proposals on the grounds that the real issue was a meddling in their internal affairs. This stance was maintained even while the British Government appeared to be inclined to ‘encourage’ colonies with representative assemblies to adopt the proposals on their own. Jamaican planters were the most aggressive in seeking to maintain their independence. They claimed that they were as fully entitled to self determination as the British Parliament, describing the British assumption of superiority over the colony’s affairs as “subversive of their rights and dangerous to their lives and properties”. Planters in Demerara-Essequibo strongly expressed their disapproval of the fact that their very survival depended upon a parliament too distant and uninformed to make knowledgeable decisions.
Up to 1823, eleven of the fourteen British West Indian colonies were administered by representative government. The other three were administered by the crown or by its representative. Despite this, the British Government allowed almost all the colonies varying degrees of freedom to administer their own affairs. Therefore, while opposing the proposals with the aim of preserving their own political independence, resident planters argued that their knowledge and experience made them best equipped to decide on reforms which, in any event, could only succeed with their cooperation. The argument was made that the imposition of the proposals on the colonies was a clear indication that their interests had not been considered.
The West Indian planters resented the idea that the amelioration proposals were being used by the British Government to placate its political opponents. They were aggrieved that, according to them, they were being sacrificed as political pawns to those they perceived as enemies of the colonies. These ‘enemies’ included abolitionists who were members of the African Institution- a body formed just after 1807 to monitor the abolition of the slave trade and generally promote African interests. Planters suspected this group of instigating anti-West Indian sentiment in an effort to garner support for the East Indies.
The planters also opposed the seemingly hypocritical nature of the proposals which, in seeking to end slavery in the British Dominions, ignored the existence of the institution in India. Like other abolitionists, Buxton was accused of denouncing the monopolistic West Indian system while being involved in enterprises which matched the monopoly and harsh conditions of slavery. Similarly planters also condemned British philanthropists who, while seeking reforms in the West Indies, ignored the terrible plight of Britain’s working class which provided for their enrichment.
Barbadian planters, like many others, while refusing to legislate what they perceived as their ‘political suicide’ opposed the proposals in the belief that their implementation would eventually contribute to Britain losing her West Indian colonies. Drawing attention to what had occurred in St Domingue, planters in St Vincent warned that attempting to reform the system of slavery would have very dangerous consequences.