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The West Indies, Free Labour, and Cotton

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1183, p. 33.

January 10, 1863


Ever since the commencement of the cotton dearth, and, indeed, on more than one occasion anterior to it, certain gentlemen whose names we need not specify, but the authenticity and adequacy of whose information on the matter we propose submitting to the notice of our readers cannot be reasonably doubted, have done their utmost to direct the attention of the British public to the capabilities of the West Indian islands and mainland, and more particularly of Jamaica, for the culture and preparation of cotton for the European market. According to their testimony, it would be difficult to select within cotton-growing latitudes any other area of equal extent possessed of so many recommendations for the cultivation of the precious staple. It has been proved by actual experiment that the plant grown in the West Indies may, with ordinary care, be so reared as to exhibit all the superior qualities, and to command at Liverpool the best prices, of Sea Island cotton. It is notorious that in Jamaica and Guiana immense tracts of suitable land lie waste, partly in consequence of the ingrossing care devoted to the production of sugar, but chiefly to a lack of a sufficient number of labouring population. It is obvious that the position of the Antilles in relation to Europe is but little less favourable for the transport of merchandise than that of the Slave States of America. It is asserted that even now the labour requisite for cotton plantations can be secured at a rate of wages which would leave to all parties engaged in the culture and carriage of the article ample remuneration; but it is admitted that a large accession of hands would be required to enable the West Indies to develop, to anything like the extent of which it is capable and which the wants of Europe demand, a new cotton-growing interest which shall fully compensate for the loss of the old one.

Now, it happens that, to the powerful arguments urged in favour of any well-considered scheme for realising the above-named advantages, the source of events having its course in the American civil conflict furnishes a series of nearly equal cogency. It is well known that the fortune of war has placed in the hands of the Federal Government above 200,000 "contrabands,"--i.e., slaves who have either been captured by the invading troops or who have escaped from their Southern masters to the Federal camps. These coloured people have become a burden upon the hands of Mr. Lincoln, and a cause of serious perplexity to his Cabinet. What is to be done with them? There seem to be strong objections, physical as well as social, to using them as soldiers. To transport the whole of them to Liberia would require a respectable navy, and would entail upon the North an enormous expense. The jealousy of the Free States against allowing negro labour to come into competition with the labour of whites is too strong and active to admit of a gradual absorption of the African element into the industrial population. Meanwhile, they have to be fed and sheltered at the public expense. During the continuance of the war, it is true, a large number of "contrabands" may be employed in the construction of military works and in performing the duties of the more menial camp offices. But their number is constantly on the increase and what shall be done with them when the present struggle has ceased is a problem which the lapse of every month renders at the same time more pressing and more difficult of solution.

Here, then, we have two conditions which, whenever they can be united, will realise a consummation equally advantageous to us, to our West Indian colonies, to the Federal

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Government and people of America, to the captured and liberated negroes, and to the cause of humanity. There is a soil waiting for labourers, and there are labourers waiting for a soil. They are not far distant from each other. The negroes themselves appear willing enough to go, for the great success of the black emigrants to the Northern States of Hayti has proved that in this instance deportation has no necessary connection with misery. The authorities and planters of the West Indian Islands are not only willing but eager to receive them, and to give such reasonable security as may be demanded for respecting their personal freedom and giving them profitable employment. The Government at Washington, on such securities being entered into, will not only let the coloured labourers depart, but will themselves convey, or be at the expense of conveying, them to their new home. Mr. Adams, the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, has broached the question to Earl Russell, her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and has intimated the readiness of the Federal Government to enter into a convention with that of the United Kingdom for the removal, to any of the West India colonies, of the blacks in America to whom the present war has given or may give liberty.

Where, then, is the obstacle, and of what kind is it, that a proposal which meets the wishes of so many parties is not forthwith carried into effect? From the tenour of a despatch forwarded by the Duke of Newcastle to the Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica it appears that the British Government are not prepared to enter into such a convention as that suggested by Mr. Adams; and, from the published diplomatic correspondence of the American Ambassador, it seems that our Cabinet, after discussing the subject with fitting seriousness, came to the conclusion that, "on the whole, it might be the means of entangling them in some way or other with the difficulties in the United States, by possible reclamations of fugitives, or in some other way--a danger which they were most desirous to avoid." However much the decision is to be regretted, the evident anxiety of the British Government to avoid furnishing a pretext of quarrel to either of the belligerents in America will command the approval of the English public. How far this excessive caution should be carried is a question not very easy to be determined; and perhaps it is better that those who are responsible for the maintenance of international amity should err on the side of apprehension rather than of recklessness. But, supposing the reason assigned by Earl Russell for declining the offer of Mr. Seward to be the only one that exists, it is a fair question for consideration whether our Government are not abnegating national rights, or, at any rate, abstaining from the exercise of them, beyond the limits imposed by the exigences of the situation; and whether, on the ground of what we now refuse to do, demands may not be made upon us hereafter which we shall certainly resist, even at the cost of war.

It is matter of notoriety, besides being in strict accordance with international law, that, as opportunity occurs, we make valid contracts, whether of purchase or of sale, with both the parties to the civil war. The tobacco, the rice, or the cotton which reach us, though in but small quantities, through the North, are just as likely to have been the property of Confederate planters, and to have changed hands by other than commercial means during the war, as are the fugitive negroes. On the Constitutional principles of the Southern States these now homeless "contrabands" are in precisely the same position with regard to the outer world as any other article of property would be which the chances of war had transferred from its former owner to its present possessor. No nation can pretend, at the close of a contest with some other nation, that it has a right to reclaim from those who were neutrals all commodities and "chattels" of which its citizens may have been deprived by military force, and which have thereby found their way into the hands of a third party. Besides, we do not in this country recognise the right of property in man. Should any one of the African labourers whom our Government declines to receive in the West Indies, with the double consent of the Federal Cabinet and of the wretched captives themselves, have found his way to any part of her Majesty's dominions, even before the period of the Secession, he would thereupon have become a free man, and we should have refused the rendition of him to any Power on earth, and at any risk of consequences. We did so but recently in the case of John Anderson, who had taken refuge in Canada; and, unquestionably, we shall do so again and again whenever and by whomsoever reclamation is made upon us for fugitive slaves. We trust her Majesty's Government have not, in the excess of their caution, laid ground for the urging of some such demand upon us when the war shall have ceased. We should be sorry that an inference could he justly drawn from any decision of theirs to the effect that the British Government recognise the doctrine that slaves are property which may be reclaimed, as such, by one Power from another. That we should surrender or even seem to ignore an iota of our own national creed in this matter for the sake of showing our delicate impartiality, does not strike us as dictated by a far-seeing wisdom. And if, on any question affecting international relations, no decision can be wholly free from risk, it does appear to us that a convention with the Federal authorities for the effectuation of an object so desirable to all parties and in all senses as the one proposed should not have been refused, lest at some time hereafter we may be asked by an irritated nation to do what we never have done and never shall do.

The question will be sure to come up in other shapes before long, and will probably be determined by Parliamentary authority. The last advices from Jamaica inform us that notice of motion had been given in the Assembly of that island for the appointment of a committee to consider the best means of promoting the immigration of the coloured and black people of the States. Our own Legislature can hardly evade, or wish to evade, so important a question. The operatives of Lancashire who are now subsisting, not without a bitter pang, on public charity, magnanimously scorned to lessen their own distress by giving their sanction to the continuance of negro slavery. If, then, their prospects can be brightened, and the staple of their manufacture largely increased, by a process which, so far as it goes, will convert slaves into free man, we cannot but think that they have a genuine claim upon the consideration of their countrymen. Are we entitled to shut them out from the most promising advantages which have hitherto been offered them, lest, by acting upon right principles, we may hereafter be called to account by a Government founded upon wrong principles? Of course, we take for granted that, should Parliament show a disposition to assume the responsibility of accepting Mr. Seward's offer, the Ministers can urge no further objection to it. To the arrangement itself, whereby the negroes captured by Northern arms may, with their own consent, he sent across to the West Indies, they can offer no opposition but that which arises out of apprehension for the future; but if the country is resolved to face the risk of war with the yet unrecognised Confederacy, on grounds which it can fully justify and be proud of, the Government, we cannot doubt, will cordially concur in its decision.

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