Gateway to the Classics: Conversations on Government by Jane Marcet
Conversations on Government by  Jane Marcet

On Slavery

W ILLY had been much interested about the slaves of the Spartans, and he inquired of his mother, the next day, whether there were slaves in any country at this present time.

"I am sorry to say that slavery still exists in some countries," replied she; "but as people become wiser and better they see how wicked it is to deprive fellow creatures of their liberty, and in many places slavery has been abolished, that is, it is no longer permitted."

"Were there ever any slaves in England?" said Willy.

"There were in very ancient times," replied his mother; "but slavery was abolished before the Norman conquest, and it has long been one of the laws of England, that the moment a slave sets his foot in this country he is free. But, some few years ago, Englishmen were allowed to have slaves in the West Indies islands, several of which belong to England. It is a very distant country, where sugar and coffee grow. Now the weather is very hot in these islands, and the Englishmen thought it too fatiguing to work in the fields to cultivate the sugar and coffee, so they sent across the Atlantic ocean to Africa, where the Negroes live, and they offered to give the kings of those countries knives and glasses, and fine clothes, and a number of other things, which they do not know how to make in Negro-land, if the king would give them in exchange some of the Negroes for slaves, to cultivate the sugar and coffee. Then the king of the Negroes used to go with his troops, and take all the people of a village prisoners, and sell them to the Englishmen, who took them to the West Indies, and made them work for them. But it was not the English alone who carried on this shameful trade: for all the countries who possessed islands in the West Indies did the same;—French, Spaniards, Dutch, and many others; so that the poor Negroes were sadly tormented. There are a great many small kingdoms in Negro-land, and the kings were constantly going to war with each other on purpose to make prisoners, and sell them for slaves."

"What a shame!" exclaimed Willy, indignantly; "it is worse than the Spartans!"

"Well, Willy, you will rejoice to hear that this iniquitous trade has at length been abolished; and that it was England who had the glory of setting the example. There was a very wise and very good man whose name was Mr. Wilberforce; he was a member of Parliament; and every year he made eloquent speeches, in which he described the hardships and cruelties the poor Negroes suffered. How they were driven every morning to their work in the fields by men with long whips, just like a herd of cattle; and were severely lashed if there was the least remissness in their labour; and he always concluded by begging the Parliament to make a law to abolish the slave trade; but though many people wished it as well as himself, during twenty years he never could gain a majority in both Houses of Parliament for abolishing so cruel a trade."

"And why not, Mamma? Surely people are not so wicked as to like to buy slaves?"

"All those who had estates in the West Indies thought that they should be ruined, if they were not allowed to continue to buy slaves; for the poor slaves died very fast, and others were wanted to replace them. It is true that the Negroes being used to a hot climate, were better able to work in the fields than the Europeans; but then they were so wretched at being torn from their native land and wives, from their children and friends, that many of them died of grief. Others were so hardly used by their masters, so severely beaten by their overseers, that they fell sick and died. For many years after the dreadful cruelties were made known, they were allowed to continue. But good Mr. Wilberforce was not disheartened; he persevered in his humane efforts; and after twenty years people grew wiser and better, and the Parliament gained a majority against the slave trade. The Lords agreed to it, the King gave his consent, and this wicked traffic was abolished."

"How glad I am!" cried Willy; "and I hope they made the French, and Spanish, and all the other countries, abolish it too, Mamma?"

"Oh! Willy, you forget that we do not reign over other countries; however, we did all we could to persuade them to abolish the slave trade as we had done; and many of them did so that there are very few countries now where Negroes are bought and sold."

"But what is become of the Negroes who were made slaves before, Mamma?"

"They continued slaves for many years; but as their masters knew that when any of them died they would not be allowed to buy others, they were, perhaps, more careful not to overwork them, or use them as ill as before and they took more care of the health of their children, in order that they might be strong and robust enough to cultivate the sugar and coffee when they were grown up."

"But still they were slaves, Mamma!" said Willy, with a sigh.

"It is much more difficult to abolish slavery, than the slave trade, Willy; for however wrong it might be, the slaves belonged to their masters, who had bought them with their money, just as much as the sheep and cattle belong to the farmer who has bought them."

"But then they ought not to have bought slaves," said Willy; "and it serves the masters right to take them away."

"No, Willy: the Government can only punish men for doing what is contrary to law; as long as the law allowed men to have slaves, the Government had no right to take them away, any more than they have to take away the sheep and cattle of the farmer."

"Then, Mamma, the Parliament that can make what laws it pleases, should make a law to destroy slavery, and let all the slaves in the West Indies be free, as they are if they come to England."

"That law was also proposed," said his Mother; "but the masters of the slaves said that it would be very unfair, unless the money they had paid for their slaves was restored to them. Then the Government said, "No, that would not be fair either; for the negroes will remain with you and be your servants, though they will no longer be your slaves; if you use them well they will not leave you; but as they will not be your slaves, you must pay them wages, and we will give you a sum of money to help you to pay their wages.' Then the people of England were so humane and generous as to give a very large sum of money to the masters of the slaves, and a law was made that the slaves should all be free; you cannot think what rejoicing there was, Willy, not only amongst the poor Negroes in the West Indies, but amongst the people of England, who, being free themselves, could not bear that there should be slaves in any country which belonged to England."

"How good they were, Mamma but Mr. Wilberforce must have been the most pleased of any body."

"At the abolition of the slave trade, I dare say that he was; and he lived long enough to know that the law for the abolition of slavery was on the point of being completed. Thus he received the reward of the labours of his long and virtuous life at the moment of his death.

Willy's holidays being now over, he returned to school, and it was a long time before he had an opportunity of renewing his conversation with his Mother.

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