This is the text of a speech Sir George in a House of Commons debate, commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Bill abolishing the Slave Trade
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). She made a thoughtful speech that examined some of the challenges of 220 years ago and put them in a modern context, and she outlined the challenges that remain. I apologise to the House for not being here for the opening speeches. I want to make a brief contribution to what has been a moving debate.
Thanks to the diligence of the Library, I discovered that one of my ancestors played a small part in the parliamentary proceedings leading to the abolition of slavery. The report of our proceedings on 18 April 1791 has a speech by William Wilberforce in which he says:
“An honourable baronet, Sir George Young, and many others, had said they saw the slaves treated in a manner which they were sure their owners would have resented if it had been known to them.”
There have been six Sir George Youngs between that one and this one. That one was serving in the Navy;he went on to become an Admiral. In a letter dated14 October 1787, he says:
“From the present appearance of War, I am induced to request, you will please to acquaint My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that should such an event take place, I should wish to be employed in a more active situation than that of Commander of the Royal Yacht.”
In fact, following an Order in Council dated 11 Feb 1788 concerning
“the present State of the Trade to Africa, and particularly the trade in slaves; and concerning the effects and consequences of this trade, as well in Africa and the West Indies, as to the general commerce of this Kingdom”,
he was examined before the Bar of the House on the African slave trade and, we are told,
“gave evidence of its evils, not less valuable because temperately worded.”
I hope that that gene has survived.
Sir George Young gave evidence which was summarised in the Committee’s report, which stated:
“By the evidence of Sir George Young. He...observed that they”—
“were so crowded, particularly on Board of one ship, that the stench of the hatchway was intolerable.”
He also said that
“the men slaves were chained”
“the women were at liberty”.
He went on board a ship of 300 tons, in which there were 520 slaves.
Sir George was cross-examined by their Lordships about the stock of slaves in the West Indies. He replied that
“by putting an end to polygamy, and by releasing the women from field labour and confining them to domestic work and by shewing proper attention to them when pregnant, the stock might not only be kept up but would be increased. But, he added, the planters did not seem desirous to encourage the breeding of slaves, but thought it cheaper to purchase.”
That was an inhuman attitude, treating people no better than cattle.
What appalled my ancestor was not just the overcrowding of the slaves, but the poor treatment of the sailors—
“They were half starved, ill-cloathed and inhumanly treated by their captains. The reason assigned by the sailors for this ill-treatment was to induce them to run away in the West Indies and forfeit their wages.”
Elsewhere in his evidence, he calls them “Emaciated wretched objects”. He also said:
“A guinea ship seldom returns with more than half her complement and the annual loss of seamen sustained by the nation by the guinea Trade amounts to the manning of two ships of the line.”
He was concerned that, at a time when we were heavily dependent on the Navy and on sailors, the reserve of manpower was being seriously depleted by the irresponsible behaviour of those owning the ships in which the slaves were transported.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) mentioned some of the excuses that were put forward to justify the trade. A report was made to Mr. Speaker in 1789 by a joint council, which concluded:
“It is notorious our slaves in general are not only treated with kindness and humanity, but they are also protected by law from immoderate chastisement or cruel treatment, and enjoy more easy, comfortable and happy lives, than multitudes of the labourers in Great Britain.”
The subtext was why should people worry about exploitation in the West Indies when there was worse exploitation somewhere else. Another pretext was the financial consequences of abolition. The joint council said:
“On the faith of an Act of Parliament, passed on purpose to make the receiving of six percent on colonial securities lawful in Great Britain, great numbers of persons at home, as well as the subjects of foreign states, have likewise embarked considerable sums on mortgages. Now, the Slave Trade being the source of every West Indian improvement, its abolition must inevitably diminish the value of all such securities, and drive the creditors to use every means in their power to extricate their property from such a precarious situation, to the immediate distress of the planters and their families.”
Happily, that special pleading was swept aside and there is no longer any moral debate about slavery, although—as many contributors to this debate have said—the practical application of slavery remains a problem. In some of the arguments that were put forward 220 years ago, we see precursors of other debates, such as poverty wages for suppliers of imported goods. It is still argued that if we do not import them someone else will. On CO2 emissions, people ask why we should cut our emissions when others do not. The same moral argument is made about the export of land mines: if we do not sell them, someone else will.
It struck me, listening to the debate this evening, that we need the moral certainty and conviction of Wilberforce, who recognised that something was wrong and had the stamina and the courage to continue until he won the argument. I hope that, in 220 years time, when the descendants of those who take part in this debate look at Hansard, they will find that some of us have said something useful and on the right side of the argument.