Karl Marx in the New-York Tribune 1858

The British Government and the Slave-Trade

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, July 2, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

London, June 18, 1858

In the sitting of the House of Lords on June 17, the question of the slave-trade was introduced by the Bishop of Oxford, who presented a petition against that trade from the Parish of St. Mary in Jamaica. The impression these debates are sure to produce upon every mind not strongly prejudiced is that of great moderation on the part of the present British Government, and its firm purpose of avoiding any pretext of quarrel with the United States. Lord Malmesbury dropped altogether the “right of visit,” as far as ships under the American flag are concerned, by the following declaration:

“The United States say that on no account, for no purpose, and upon no suspicion shall a ship carrying the American flag be boarded except by an American ship, unless at the risk of the officer boarding or detaining her. I have not admitted the international law as laid down by the American Minister for Foreign Affairs, until that statement had been approved and fortified by the law officers of the Crown. But having admitted that, I have put it as strong as possible to the American Government that if it is known that the American flag covers every iniquity, every pirate and slaver on earth will carry it and no other; that this must bring disgrace on that honored banner, and that instead of vindicating the honor of the country by an obstinate adherence to their present declaration the contrary result will follow; that the American flag will he prostituted to the worst of purposes. I shall continue to urge that it is necessary in these civilized times, with countless vessels navigating the ocean, that there should be a police on the ocean; that there should be, if not a right by international law, an agreement among nations how far they would go to verify the nationality of vessels, and ascertain their right to bear a particular flag. From the language I have used, from the conversations which I had with the American Minister resident in this country, and from the observations contained in a very able paper drawn up by Gen. Cass on this subject, I am not without strong hope that some arrangement of this kind may be made with the United States, which, with the orders given to the officers of both countries, may enable us to verify the flags of all countries, without running the risk of offense to the country to which a ship belongs.”

On the Opposition benches there was also no attempt made at vindicating the right of visit on the part of Great Britain against the United States, but, as Earl Grey remarked,

“The English had treaties with Spain and other powers for the prevention of the slave-trade, and if they had reasonable grounds for suspecting that a vessel was engaged in this abominable traffic, and that she had for the time made use of the United States flag, that she was not really an American ship at all, they had a right to overhaul her and to search her. If, however, she produced the American papers, even though she be full of slaves, it was their duty to discharge her, and to leave to the United States the disgrace of that iniquitous traffic. He hoped and trusted that the orders to their cruisers were strict in this respect, and that any excess of that discretion which was allowed their officers under the circumstances would meet with proper punishment.”

The question then turns exclusively upon the point, and even this point seems abandoned by Lord Malmesbury, whether or not vessels suspected of usurping the American flag may not be called upon to produce their papers. Lord Aberdeen directly denied that any controversy could arise out of such a practice, since the instructions under which the British officers were to proceed on such an occurrence – instructions drawn up by Dr. Lushington and Sir G. Cockburn — had been communicated at the time to the American Government and acquiesced in by Mr. Webster, on the part of that Government. If, therefore, there had been no change in these instructions, and if the officers had acted within their limits, “the American Government could have no ground of complaint.” There seemed, indeed, a strong suspicion hovering in the minds of the hereditary wisdom, that Palmerston had played one of his usual tricks by effecting some arbitrary change in the orders issued to the British cruisers. It is known that Palmerston, while boasting of his zeal in the suppression of the slave-trade, had, during the eleven years of his administration of foreign affairs, ending in 1841, broken up all the existing slave-trade treaties, had ordered acts which the British law authorities pronounced criminal, and which actually subjected one of his instruments to legal procedure and placed a slave-dealer under the protection of the law of England against its own Government. He chose the slave-trade as his field of battle, and converted it into a mere instrument of provoking quarrels between England and other States. Before leaving office in 1841 he had given instructions which, according to the words of Sir Robert Peel, “must have led, had they not been countermanded, to a collision with the United States.” In his own words, he had enjoined the naval officers “to have no very nice regard to the law of nations.” Lord Malmesbury, although in very reserved language, intimated that “by sending the British squadrons to the Cuban waters, instead of leaving them on the coast of Africa,” Palmerston removed them from a station where, before the outbreak of the Russian war, they had almost succeeded in extinguishing the slave-trade, to a place where they could be good for little else than picking up a quarrel with the United States. Lord Woodhouse, Palmerston’s own late Embassador to the Court of St. Petersburg, concurring, in this view of the case, remarked that,

“No matter what instructions had been given, if the Government gave authority to the British vessels to go in such numbers into the American waters, a difference would sooner or later arise between us and the United States.”

Yet, whatever may have been Palmerston’s secret intentions, it is evident that they are baffled by the Tory Government in 1858, as they had been in 1842, and that the war cry so lustily raised in the Congress and in the press is doomed to result in “much ado about nothing.”

As to the question of the slave-trade itself, Spain was denounced by the Bishop of Oxford, as well as Lord Brougham, as the main stay of that nefarious traffic. Both of them called upon the British Government to force, by every means in its power, that country into a course of policy consonant to existing treaties. As early as 1814 a general treaty was entered into between Great Britain and Spain, by which the latter passed an unequivocal condemnation of the slave-trade. In 1817 a specific treaty was concluded, by which Spain fixed the abolition of the slave-trade, on the part of her own subjects, for the year 1820, and, by way of compensation for the losses her subjects might suffer by carrying out the contract, received an indemnity of £400,000. The money was pocketed, but no equivalent was tendered for it. In 1835 a new treaty was entered into, by which Spain bound herself formally to bring in a sufficiently stringent penal law to make it impossible for her subjects to continue the traffic. The procrastinating Spanish proverb, “A la mañana,” was again strictly adhered to. It was only ten years later that the penal law was carried; but, by a singular mischance, the principal clause contended for by England was left out, namely, that of making the slave-trade piracy. In one word, nothing was done, save that the Captain-General of Cuba, the Minister at home, the Camarilla, and, if rumor speaks truth, royal personages themselves, raised a private tax upon the slavers, selling the license of dealing in human flesh and blood at so many doubloons per head.

“Spain,” said the Bishop of Oxford, “had not the excuse that this traffic was a system which her Government was not strong enough to put down, because Gen. Valdez had shown that such a plea could not be urged with any show of truth. On his arrival in the island he called together the principal contractors, and, giving them six months’ time to close all their transactions in the slave-trade, told them that he was determined to put it down at the end of that period. What was the result? In 1840, the year previous to the administration of Gen. Valdez, the number of ships which came to Cuba from the coast of Africa with slaves was 56. In 1842, while Gen. Valdez was Captain-General, the number was only 3. In 1840 no less than 14,470 slaves were landed at the island; in 1842 the number was 3, 100.”

Now what shall England do with Spain? Repeat her protests, multiply her dispatches, renew her negotiations? Lord Malmesbury himself states that they could cover all the waters from the Spanish coast to Cuba with the documents vainly exchanged between the two Governments. Or shall England enforce her claims, sanctioned by so many treaties? Here it is that the shoe pinches. In steps the sinister figure of the “august ally,” now the acknowledged guardian angel of the slave-trade. The third Bonaparte, the patron of Slavery in all its forms, forbids England to act up to her convictions and her treaties. Lord Malmesbury, it is known, is strongly suspected of an undue intimacy with the hero of Satory. Nevertheless, he denounced him in plain terms as the general slave-dealer of Europe — as the man who had revived the infamous traffic in its worst features under the pretext of “free emigration” of the blacks to the French colonies. Earl Grey completed this denunciation by stating that “wars had been undertaken in Africa for the purpose of making captives, who were to be sold to the agents of the French Government.” The Earl of Clarendon added that “both Spain and France were rivals in the African market, offering a certain sum per man; and there was not the least difference in the treatment of these negroes, whether they were conveyed to Cuba or to a French colony.”

Such, then, is the glorious position England finds herself in by having lent her help to that man in overthrowing the Republic. The second Republic, like the first one, had abolished Slavery. Bonaparte, who acquired his power solely by truckling to the meanest passions of men, is unable to prolong it save by buying day by day new accomplices. Thus he has not only restored Slavery, but has bought the planters by the renewal of the slave-trade. Everything degrading the conscience of the nation, is a new lease of power granted to him. To convert France into a slave-trading nation would be the surest means of enslaving France, who, when herself, had the boldness of proclaiming in the face of the world: Let the colonies perish, but let principles live! One thing at least has been accomplished by Bonaparte. The slave-trade has become a battle-cry between the Imperialist and the Republican camps. If the French Republic be restored to-day, to-morrow Spain will be forced to abandon the infamous traffic.