1800-1859 | Slavery

Gladstone – My family’s slaves are ‘legally acquired property.’

Portrait of Gladstone in the 1830s
William H. Mote – Wikimedia.

[ 3 June 1833 ]

William Gladstone was to become Liberal prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894. He is often acclaimed as the most progressive of Britain’s Victorian prime ministers, extending voting rights to the majority of working men (though rejecting calls for extending the franchise to women) and according to one of his recent biographers ‘was acknowledged by friend and foe alike for his commitment to principle and Christian ideals.’1 It is, therefore, interesting to note his views on slavery. On 3 June 1833, in his maiden parliamentary speech from the back benches, he declared that he ‘deprecated slavery,’ and agreed ‘it was abhorrent to the nature of Englishmen; but,’ he continued, ‘conceding all these things were not Englishmen to retain a right to their own honestly and legally acquired property.’2

Gladstone argued strongly that British investors and owners of Caribbean sugar estates, including his father, should be compensated for losses resulting from the emancipation law that would soon be passed by parliament. He also rebutted allegations that brutality was widespread on the plantations. According to the Morning Advertiser, with respect to his father’s estate on St. Vincent (John Gladstone being one of Britain’s wealthiest slave owners), ‘he admitted that there had been a decrease of human life (but ) it was to be attributed to there being on the estate a number of old and infirm persons. It was not to be attributed to punishment, for the amount of punishment had been exceedingly small. There had been only one punishment in four months.’ He didn’t burden honourable members by elaborating on the gruesome details of the punishment, but repeated his claim that ‘the cultivation of sugar did not occasion a decrease of life,’ adding ‘that it was less pernicious to life than many trades at home.’ He urged MPs to be pragmatic and consider that ‘no emancipation would be effective unless it had the cooperation of the colonists,’ and this was greeted with cheers of ‘hear, hear’ from members, most of whom appeared to embrace his view that there could be no emancipation without compensation.3 Compensation for the slave owners, naturally, and after the emancipation bill was passed in August, his father was able to claim £93,526 for ‘the loss’ of his 2,039 slaves.4

FOOTNOTES

  1. David Bebbington, William Ewart Gladstone: Faith and Politics in Victorian Britain, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993, p vii.
  2. Hansard, 3 June 1833, p. 335.
  3. ‘House of Commons, Monday June 3,’ The Morning Advertiser, 4 June 1833, p. 2.
  4. S.G. Checkland, The Gladstones: A Family Biography, 1764-1851, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1971, p. 321.

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