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of a
upon the
Slave Trade
delivered in
The 9
of February, 1792

[by Archdeacon William Paley]


Carlisle: Printed and sold by F. Jollie


[Carlisle City Library/ 3/ 13 N, 1792: pages 7-10 missing from copy]

G W Meadley, Memoirs of William Paley, DD, pp 139-52





In pursuance of an advertisement, addressed to the inhabitants of Carlisle, to consider of, and frame a petition to Parliament, for the Abolition of the Slave trade; a number of gentlemen in the town, and neighbourhood of the city, met in the 9th inst. at Mrs Pringle’s Longroom. The Rev. Archdeacon Paley being unanimously voted into the chair, told the company the purpose of the meeting; and (holding a paper in his hand, which contained certain propositions) said, That a petition to the house of Commons, for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, might be in the usual form, or it might be founded upon, and the consequence of certain resolutions agreed to by the meeting. This last mode of petitioning being thought most eligible, the Liberal, Enlightned [sic] and Humane Gentleman, read each of the propositions, elucidating them, and removing every possible objection, in such a masterly manner, as to convince all present, of the impropriety, inhumanity, and wickedness, which attend the importation of Slaves from Africa, into the British West-Indies. Having gone through the propositions, and finished his elucidations upon them, they were severally put as resolutions, and agreed to without one dissentient voice, and engrossed in the form of a petition, to be presented by the City Members to the House of Commons.

It were much to be wished, that the Learned and Ingenious gentleman, cold be prevailed upon to favour the public with what he delivered at the meeting, upon the subject of the Slave Trade: the solidity, the force, and humanity of his arguments, would, I am sure, convince those who are inimical to its abolition, (if not wholly impenetrable to conviction) that they are in an error.

Whether or not he may gratify the wishes of his delighted audience, is to me uncertain; but, I hope, he will not take it amiss, if one, who heard him with pleasure, attempts to recollect from memory, (for he was not so fortunate as to take notes) something of those sentiments he so happily expressed.

The continent of Africa is inhabited by people differing from the inhabitants of Europe in their complexion, manners, and institutions. The inhabitants of those parts to which the Europeans resort for slaves being under no right form of government, and civil polity, live in a state of hostility. – Chief makes war against chief, town against town, and village against village. The vanquished are made slaves to the victors, and one plundering excursion give rise to another. Mutual depredations are continued, and the weak becomes a prey to the strong. But the African slave trade encourages and perpetuates those usages so disgraceful to human nature, and so detrimental to the well-being of society. For, as the intention of those British ships which visit Africa, is to purchase slaves, and as these can be procured from the natives, only by their committing acts of hostility upon one another; so, whilst the importation of salves is carried on, the unhappy Africans will always have an incitement to mutual wars, and the vanquished will be made captives and sold to the slave merchant.

Africa abounds in many valuable and rich productions; the soil, in many places, is rich, and capable of high cultivation – Cotton, indigo, and the sugar-cane, being suited to the climate, might be cultivated with great advantage; and, were the natives taught to rear them, the nations of Europe might carry on a much more valuable trade with that part of the world, than the trade in slaves. But the continuance of this diabolical traffic has, and will always be an insuperable bar to every such improvement, and just commercial connexion. Moreover, the Slave Trade is inimical to every improvement in the morals and civil condition of the Africans. The trader in slaves visits Africa, not with an intention to instruct the poor natives; not to teach them the principles of morality and religion; not to meliorate their condition as men; - but to reduce them into a state of endless slavery! And, when he has sold them in the West-Indies, the planter exacts their labour with severity; but dreads their emancipation, and, with a criminal indulgence, allows them to increase in profligacy and wickedness.

The Learned and Humane gentleman observed, upon the second proposition, that the situation and sufferings of the slaves, in their passage from Africa to the British West Indies, is such, as wholly to preclude the exercise of humanity. How humane and tender hearted soever the captain and crew of a slave ship may be, it is impossible for them to alleviate the sufferings of their cargo.

When Sir William Dolben’s bill (which allows a certain number of feet in the ship to every two slaves) was brought into Parliament, those concerned in the trade, combated it with the argument; that to be obliged to carry only a certain number of slaves, would be in effect to give up the trade, for that it could not be carried on, if reduced to the number specified in the bill. Therefore, as the slaves are confied to so little room on ship-board, (each not having the space a dead body occupies in its coffin) so their sufferings must still continue whilst the Slave Trade exists, as those concerned in it cannot carry it on, if the slaves are allowed more room in the middle passage.

Increase and multiply, is the first law of nature, and it is evident from experience and observation, that no class of beings, when they have a sufficiency of food, and live in a climate suited to their constitution, ever decrease, but still keep up their numbers: the lowest class of the Irish affords a proof in point. they are poor, and in point of situation, in a state of slavery; yet they not only keep up their numbers, but are greatly upon the increase; an evidence that they have plenty of food, and live in a climate which suits them. The climate of the West Indies is not hostile to an African constitution; and yet there is an annual waste of twenty thousand slaves in the West India Islands: a demonstration, that the slaves in the British plantations, have not a sufficiency of food, or that their food is unwholesome, or both; for, were they properly treated, they would, at least, keep up their numbers.

This being so, the following inference may be justly drawn; that to remedy this evil, and enable the slaves not only to keep up their numbers, but increase them, the future importation of slaves from Africa into the British West Indies, must be prohibited. It is then, and only then, that the planters will be convinced of the necessity of adopting just regulations, and exercising proper dispositions towards their slaves. Were the importation stopped, the West Indians would take greatest care to preserve the lives, and better the morals of their slaves. They would not encourage the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, prostitution, and other wickednessess; they would enact wholesome laws concerning marriage; every man would have his own wife; they would be careful of their offspring; they would establish families, and allow them wherewith to support them; they would not neglect the education of the black children. But this will not come to pass, whilst the waste of slaves can be supplied from Africa, and as long as they thing they can procure them at a cheaper rate than they can rear them.

The enemies to an abolition of the Slave trade alledge, that the charges brought against it, are founded upon a few solitary instances of cruelty, which might happen, and have happened in England, or in any other country; but that the necessity of putting a stop to the Slave trade, cannot be justly argued from these.

To this it may be observed, that all these singular cases are put out of the question. None of the propositions rest upon one or two instances of cruelty, but proceed upon this data, that there is some radical error at the bottom, something fundamentally wrong. Particular instances of cruelty, proceeding from the passions of men, may happen, and yet those in a servile state, be upon the whole, comparatively happy; but it is the general treatment which the slaves receive, a treatment, the necessary consequence of the Slave trade, which renders their case so very hard, and which never will be better whilst the importation from Africa is permitted. That a trade however admits the possibility, the impunity, of such instances of cruelty, and we fear, occasions the frequency of such examples, is certainly an objection to its being carried on.

The West Indian slave has but a small chance of having justice done him. The slave-holder is both judge and juror, and we know how ready men are to be biassed, when their own interest is in view. Of this a proof was given in hat happened to a planter, who beat his female slave with his own hands in so cruel a manner, that she died about half an hour after. He was tried for the murder of his she-slave, and acquitted, upon the oath of a surgeon, who swore, that she was subject to fits when she was seventeen years of age: though it was well known, that many women are subject to them at that time of life. The truth is, she died of the blows she received from her master. This planter’s case, was exactly similar to that of Mrs Brownrigg, who was condemned and executed, some years ago, for the murder of her apprentice girl. But the one was tried by an impartial English jury, and the other by a jury of West Indian slave-holders.

Those who are averse to the abolition of the traffic in slaves, combat the solid reasons for its prohibition, with specious, but weak, arguments. ‘Slavery’, they say, ‘existed in Africa, before the English, or any other European nation, visited that part of the world to purchase slaves; therefore to impute to the Guinea trade, the evils which it is said to occasion, is an unjust accusation.’ To this argument it has been answered, that the allegation is futile, and can have no weight; for, though the Europeans were not the original cause of slavery in Africa, yet they certainly perpetuate, by a traffic in human flesh, the evils which necessarily result from it. And if men, with a view to their own interest, do, what in them lies, to continue wicked and unnatural customs, they may be said, with great justice, to be the immediate cause of them. Scalping was in practice among the Indians, long before the Europeans made settlements in America. None will surely plead in favour of scalping. But suppose scalps should become of request in Europe, and a trade in them be carried on with the American Indians, might it not be justly said, that the Europeans, by their trade in scalps, did all they could to perpetuate, amongst the natives of America, the inhuman practice of scalping?

It is also alledged, that the miseries which result from the Slave trade, would not be diminished, even supposed the importation of slaves from Africa into the British West Indies, were to cease; for that other nations, availing themselves of that circumstance, would take possession of the trade we relinquished. This in an argument of no force; it is only a weak excuse to palliate a practice replete with many evils, and can have no weight with those who see the Slave Trade in its proper light. What other nations may, or may not do, should have no weight with the inhabitants of Britain; the Slave Trade has been clearly proved to be incompatible with the natural rights of man, contrary to the principles of religion and morality, founded in extreme injustice, and the cause of many cruelties. Shall it be said, that this horrid complexioned trade must be continued, because if we give it up, other nations will take possession of it? Every person, but those swayed by a sordid interest, will scout the idea.

However, suppose other nations should not follow the example of Britain, but still continue the inhumane traffic. We have done our duty, by doing all be could to put an end to the evils of slavery. When we are convinced of the justness and propriety of certain actions, we allow not our selves to be influenced by probable conjectures about the conduct of others; no, we act in consequence of what seems to us to be just and right. The prohibition of the Slave Trade, is just and right; this let us endeavour to obtain without troubling ourselves about the manner in which other nations may act. But, (as is well expressed in the resolutions [Ed. note: Meadley has “propositions”]) one good consequence “of the prohibition of the importation of slaves into the British West-Indies will be, a decrease of the mass of wickedness and misery, attending the trade, in the proportion that the waste of slaves, in our islands, bears to the supply of other European settlements.”

A bad cause is supported by bad arguments. The friends to the Slave Trade adduce, in proof of the injustice and impolicy of its abolition, the late insurrection at St Domingo. That such insurrection of the slaves has existed, cannot be denied; that many lives have been lost, and much damage done, must be lamented; but this insurrection was owing to a principle inherent in every man, and proves only, “That a slave watches his opportunity to get free.” The revolution in France, reached their West Indian settlements, the people of colour wished to participate equal privileges with the whites; this the latter were unwilling to grant them, notwithstanding the French National Assembly had decreed (if I mistake not) that both should enjoy all the rights of free citizens. This gave occasion to animosities and quarrels, and the slaves, thinking it the favourable moment to get free, rebelled, and retaliated upon their masters, for the many hardships they had endured. But no such evil may be dreaded from the abolition of the Slave Trade, as we do not aim at the emancipation of the slaves, in the British West Indies, but only that the future importation of them, from Africa, may be prohibited. Let the slave-holder use those now in his possession, with humanity and kindness, and he will have no cause to be afraid of an insurrection. In vain do the white inhabitants of the British West Indies say, they are kind and humane masters, and their slaves happy in their present situation. The application to government, for an additional military force, the purchase of arms for themselves, and the associations entered into by the whites, are proofs in point, that so far from being humane, as they would make us believe, they are sever task masters, who rule their slaves with a rod of iron. Did the West Indian planter treat his slaves in the manner servants are treated in England, they would at all times be the faithful defenders of his life and property. Besides, the prohibition of the importation of slaves form Africa could be no incitement to the slaves in the British West Indies to rebel, but rather the contrary; as it will be an inducement to the slave holder to use his slaves better, knowing that he is precluded from a future supply.

To say then, that the principle of liberty, which excites the slave to gain his freedom, had no existence previous to the discussions and transactions which have passed upon the subject in England, is very unjust. This is a principle of nature which every human being has in a greater or lesser degree, and, unless this principle is totally destroyed by severe and tyrannical treatment, will shew itself upon every proper occasion.

Let the friends to the abolition of the Slave Trade, act with firmness and moderation; let them take every opportunity to disseminate through Britain the knowledge of the iniquitous traffic, and, as the cause they espouse, is that of humanity and justice, there are strong reasons to believe, that their generous exertions will in time prove successful.

The Chairman having finished this luminous and comprehensive speech, the several propositions which he brought forward were successively put to the vote, and it was unanimously


That it appears to us,

I. That the exercise of the Slave trade, upon the coast of Africa, has a necessary tendency to encourage and perpetuate the vicious usages and institutions which prevail in that country; and to obstruct other commercial intercourse with the inhabitants, as well as all improvements in their moral character and civil condition.

II. That the sufferings of the Slaves in the middle passage are inseparable from the trade.

III. That it is contrary to uniform experience, and the the known laws of nature, that any class of human beings, who are properly treated, and placed in a climate suiting with their constitution, should not be able to keep up their numbers.

IV. That consequently, to prohibit the future importation of slaves into the British West Indies, is only to lay the planters under a necessity of forming and executing proper dispositions and regulations in favor of the Negroes already in those islands, which dispositions and regulations, without such necessity, we conceive will not be formed, or if formed, will not be executed.

V. That whereas it is alleged, that the charges brought against the Slave trade are founded in extreme cases of cruelty and misconduct; in the conclusions above stated, these cases are not in any manner relied upon, although it be an additional objection to the trade, that it admits the possibility, the impunity, and as we fear, the frequency of such examples.

VI. That it is a weak excuse for a bad practice to say, that if we do not pursue it others will; but that even this excuse is inapplicable to the present case, because the prohibiting of the importation of slaves into the British West Indies, whether the example be followed by other nations or not, will diminish the mass of wickedness and misery attending the trade, in the proportion that the waste of slaves in our islands bears to the supply of European settlements.

VII. That the late insurrection at St Domingo, proves only, ‘that a salve watches his opportunity to get free.’

VIII. That the existence of this principle cannot, without extreme injustice, be ascribed to the discussions and transactions which have passed upon the subject in England.

IX. That a petition to Parliament, stating the above reasons, and praying the abolition of the Slave trade, be now proposed, and that after receiving the signatures of such inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood, as choose to subscribe it, the members for the city be requested to present the same to the House of Commons.

X. That the thanks of this meeting be given to the rev. Archdeacon Paley, for his excellent speech and conduct in the chair.”


A petition containing the substance of these resolutions being also approved of by the meeting, and signed by a number of the inhabitants, was presented to the House of Commons, on the 27th of the same Month.



Paley was an early opponent of slavery, even as an undergraduate, and wrote at some length about the problem in Principles, which was a standard text book at Cambridge from 1786, thus having the potential to exercise influence over the opinions of the undergraduates of the era. In the memoir published by Thomas Tegg in 1825, the author refers to two works published by Paley against the slave trade. The present work is a recollection of Paley’s speech, rather than a publication by Paley, so it remains to be determined whether the Tegg memoir is correct.

Edmund Paley, Life of William Paley (1825), p 196-98), wrote: “Another occasion on which he came forward rather more publicly and prominently than was his custom, was in the year 1792, at a meeting held by the inhabitants of Carlisle, for the purpose of petitioning parliament for the abolition of the slave trade. He had already found occasion to notice this traffic in the course of his Moral Philosophy, though it is not to be found in his Lectures. He had been in correspondence for three or four years previously with the committee in London, but never set himself fairly to any extraordinary activity, farther than as he in common with other able men might give publicity to their sentiments in that neighbourhood. [*It does not appear to me, that what is called his treatise titled, “arguments against the unjust pretentions of slave dealers and holders to be idemnified by pecuniary allowances at the public expense, in case the slave trade should be abolished,” was sent as, or intended to be, a regular treatise. Mr Clarkson’s correspondence on the subject, which by the favour of Mr Meadley’s friends had been made known to me, seems only to authorise the mention of some hints, which Mr Clarkson, in making up one of his reports or pamphlets, wishes to avail himself of, but had mislaid them amongst his other papers. Mr Paley’s name appears on the books of the committee as a correspondent. Ed. ]  The slave trade had excited a great deal of agitation in Carlisle and its vicinity, as it did in other places, partly from the talents and abilities that were roused throughout the kingdom in favour of the Africans, and partly from its being a common subject of interest in that neighbourhood, probably from the connexion between Carlisle, Lancaster, and Liverpool. That silly project of breaking the neck of the trade by lessening the consumption of sugar was rigorously and resolutely tried in many families, and, but for the sweetness of heroism, which made both young and old vie with each other in bearing with tasteless potions, would have spoiled many a cup of tea.... Mr Paley, from having a relation at Lancaster who had amassed a considerable fortune in the West Indies as a planter, had an opportunity of making himself well acquainted with the mysteries of cruelty which lurked there; and neither his feeling of humanity, nor his common sense of morality, allowed him to hesitate on the subject.

It could be that Paleys’ convictions were formed in his father’s company, though there is no actual positive evidence on the point. It is certain, however, that he read Tristram Shandy as a young man, and that Laurence Sterne included a passages critical of slavery on humanitarian grounds. Sterne also criticised slavery in his published Sermons. (Indeed, Sterne was a friend and correspondent of Ignatius Sancho.)