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British History - The Whigs and the Empire - Abolition of Slavery, 1833 - South Africa, the Great Trek - Emigration and Gibbon Wakefield - Australasia - Canada, 1837 - 54 : the Durham report and Lord Elgin's governorship - Responsible government and the Imperial connection.

( Originally Published 1922 )



THE Tory statesmen who overcame Napoleon had rendered possible the reconstruction of a British Empire across the sea. The Whig statesmen rendered it two services of vital moment. They abolished the slave-trade and slavery, and they introduced the principle of responsible government for the white colonies. But whereas the principle of complete self-government for Canada was specifically the work of Lord Durham, who almost alone of the British statesmen of his day seriously studied colonial problems from an Imperial point of view, the abolition of slavery in 1833, like that of the slave-trade in 1807, was the outcome of the intense feeling of the country as a whole, stimulated and organised by William Wilberforce and his fellow-workers.

In the last stages of the long battle Wilberforce was too old a man to take an active part. In 1823 the anti-Slavery Association was formed, and began a vigorous propaganda in and out of Parliament under the leadership of Fowell Buxton. It was a continuance or revival of the old anti-slave-trade campaign, under much the same leadership of Evangelical Church-men and Dissenters ; but in the new age the alliance of Radicals, deists and democrats was an added strength, instead of being a cause of reproach as in the old anti-Jacobin days. Brougham filled the sails of the abolitionist movement with the great winds of popular agitation, and in 1830 won his famous election for Wilberforce's Yorkshire almost as much on anti-slavery as on reform. Wilberforce next year accepted the Reform Bill as a change that would be ' for the benefit of our poor West Indian clients.

Slavery abolition had of course to encounter the contempt and dislike of cynics, but it met no such active opposition in this island as the Bristol shipping interest had formerly put up in defence of its valuable traffic in slaves. On the other hand, the Imperial aspect of the question was one of much greater difficulty, for the planters of the West Indies had far more reason to be attached to slavery than to the slave-trade.

The abolition of the slave-trade had been good for Africa, but had not materially altered conditions in the West Indies, where slaves were thenceforth bred instead of being imported. But the planters argued, not without a measure of truth, that their sugar and other business depended on the labour of slaves, and that Emancipation would undermine the prosperity of the West Indian Islands.1 The relative importance of those islands to the whole Empire was greater then than now, though not so great in 1833 as it had been a generation before. Discreetly managed, the opposition of the planters would have been very formidable, but they showed the same violent spirit as the slave-owners of the United States, in the following generation, without the same power to threaten secession. Their refusal to compromise by any amendment of the system, their continued severity to negroes and roughness to missionaries, whom they regarded as agents of abolition, showed a defiance of the tribunal of opinion at home, and hopelessly ruined their cause.

In 1833 the Grey Ministry passed a Bill to abolish slavery. It was put through Parliament with al][ the vigour and eloquence of Edward Stanley, then Colonial Minister. Twenty millions sterling were paid in compensation to the slave-owners, by a nation which, though eager for ' retrenchment,' was willing to pay the price of justice and freedom.

On the First of August, 1834, all slaves in the British Empire were to become free. On the last night of slavery, the negroes in the West Indian Islands went up on to the hill-tops to watch for the sun to rise, bringing them freedom as its first rays struck the waters. But far away in the forests of Central Africa, in the heart of darkness yet unexplored, none. understood or regarded the day. 'Yet it was that continent whose future was most deeply affected. Before its exploitation by Europe had well begun, it had been decided by the most powerful of its future masters that slavery should not be the relation of the black man to the white. To enforce that decision in spirit as well as letter would be a more difficult task than Wilberforce knew, a burden as well as an honour to his country-men in many lands. He meanwhile had died, having seen all his tasks accomplished, and was buried in Westminster Abbey among the great statesmen to whom he had so long held up a higher light than that of political ambition.

There was one consolation in the retrospect for the breach with the American colonies : it had relieved the British Empire from dealing with the resistance of the Carolinas and Georgia to negro emancipation. On that reef either the cause of abolition or the unity of the Empire would very probably have been wrecked. But in the West Indian Islands the white planters were so few that they could not attempt to resist an Act of the Imperial Parliament. In tropical colonies the treatment of negroes and natives can be supervised through the agents of the central Imperial authority, without the complications arising where white self-government is a necessary part of the social fabric.1

In South Africa, therefore, the political aspect of the coloured problem was more serious. The South African veldt is a dry and salubrious tableland, raised high above the malaria of the coast. It is potentially a white man's country, but was occupied beforehand by African tribes. The whites are indeed in a minority, but they are so numerous outside the native territories, that South Africa, unlike the West Indies, is now a self-governing Dominion.

For more than twenty years after our first annexation of the Cape (I 795), the Dutch farmers lived out their patriarchal lives neither more nor less contentedly under a British governor than under the rule of the Dutch trading company in the past. It was only in 1820 that five thousand British immigrants settled in the Cape Colony. Shortly afterwards, the substitution of the English for the Dutch language in the law-courts began to cause ill-feeling.

The Boers had lived in great isolation since their first coming to Africa in the seventeenth century, and retained much of their ancestors' habits of thought on religion, life and the management of natives. They disliked the modern English missionary, to whose views on the native problem, wise and foolish alike, the British government was beginning to lend a credent ear. In 1828 the free native was given equal civic rights with the white man. In 1833 came slavery abolition, which the Boers showed themselves ready to accept, being assured of full money compensation.1 But when it was discovered that they had been allotted only half the estimated value of their slave property, they considered that they had been defrauded. In 1835 a dangerous and destructive raid into the Colony by one of the Kaffir tribes always hanging round its border, led to another of the long series of Kaffir wars. The British Governor D'Urban punished the offending tribe by annexing its territory and policing it for the greater safety of the Boer farmers. Lord Melbourne's Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg, overrode his action, and, contrary to the feeling of both British and Dutch in South Africa, cancelled the annexation. The Government was held to have failed in protecting the outlying Dutch farms from Kaffir raids, and was accused of indifference not only to the wishes but to the safety of its white subjects.

This proved the last straw. The Dutch thought the British Government was in league with the natives inside and outside the Colony. Several thousand Boers sold their farms and taking their families with them in their long-spanned ox waggons set out into the wilderness, like the children of Israel going up out of Egypt. Among them was a boy named Paul Kruger.

So in 1836 the Great Trek began. Emigration across the veldt was no new thing to the Boers, but emigration on so great a scale as took place in the following twenty years was altogether new, as also was the establishment of republics outside the sphere of the Cape government. It broke the natural development of South Africa by leaving the Cape Colony too thinly peopled, while it opened out prematurely grave native questions in the interior. Above all, it prevented the peaceful amalgamation of the Dutch and British races in one community. The Boers went forth in anger, hoping never again to see the face of British folk and British government. But in a world about to be linked up by the steamship and the steam-engine, such a wish was vain. They founded one farmer republic on the Orange River, and another in Natal, where they met and fought the Zulus. But by 1843 the British had already followed them to Natal and annexed it.

The Boers had been badly handled. Lord Glenelg's action had been largely shaped by the advice of some, though apparently a minority, of the South African missionaries, and by the influence on Downing Street of the 'Clapham Sect' of Evangelicals. This influence was wholesome in the main, and with-out it the abolition of slavery would never have been made a reality all over the Empire, any more than Africa could have been explored and the native races studied and cared for without the work of the missionaries in the age of Livingstone. But unfortunately in 1835 a section of the missionaries and their patrons were almost the only source of intelligent information that the Colonial Office of that day possessed. Men who knew nothing about the Dutch or about South Africa from any angle save the one, failed to see its problems as a whole and sowed the seeds of future disaster.

Fortunately, in these critical years when the British Empire was being rebuilt after the catastrophe of 1776, other influences were at work besides the apathy and ineptitude of Lord Glenelg and the staff of the Colonial Office. It was the era of Gibbon Wakefield and Lord Durham. The second quarter of the nineteenth century was the period in the settlement of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which decided that those lands should be peopled mainly from Britain and should become parts of a free British Commonwealth.

The sudden overpeopling of Great Britain deplored by Malthus, and the sorry plight of the English peasantry at home, caused in these years the great rural exodus to the Colonies on which the modern Empire was rebuilt. The tide of emigration also ran strongly to the United States and might have run there almost to the exclusion of British territories but for the organised effort of emigration societies, and the occasional assistance of Government, inspired by the propaganda of Gibbon Wakefield. He preached to his countrymen that emigration was the true relief of their economic miseries, and that colonies need not in all cases be mere ports of call or places of trade, but might be new British nations. To him is largely due the systematised and aided emigration that founded modern Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

It was Wakefield who first brought the public to believe that New Zealand might accommodate other races besides the Maori tribes. His New Zealand Association, founded in 1837, made the first British settlements there, only just in time to prevent the annexation of the southern island by France. In this, as in their Canadian work, Lord Durham and Gibbon Wakefield were closely associated, and had much to suffer at the hands of Lord Glenelg and the hostile Colonial Office.

The New Zealand settlements of the next twenty years were partly idealist and religious in origin. Dunedin was planted by the new-born Free Kirk of Scotland; and Christ-church, with its Port Lyttelton and the plains of Canterbury be-hind, was planted by the Church of England as the first-fruits of its reviving apostolic energy. During this formative period of New Zealand, the relations of the settlers to the Maoris and other problems were ably dealt with by the greatest of the Australasian governors, Sir George Grey.' Another great man, Bishop Selwyn, contemporaneously founded the Anglican Church in New Zealand, giving to it in its new and democratic home a new spirit, partly represented in synods of clergy and laity. His work had influence on the spirit of the Church in other Colonies, and eventually had reactions on the Church at home.

Meanwhile Australian immigration was growing fast, from purely economic causes. During the French wars, Captain Macarthur, one of the officers of the garrison, had perceived that the empty continent was fitted for sheep-farming on a large scale. He had helped his brother officers to introduce a fine breed of sheep from the Cape, and, returning home, had preached his doctrine to the British manufacturers, then looking round desperately for more wool to feed their new machines, just when the Napoleonic wars made it impossible to count on the usual supply from Europe. Macarthur persuaded some of them to embark capital in a strange country at the other end of the globe. The ' squatter aristocracy ' of big sheep-farmers, many of them of the ` service ' and ' university ' classes from the old country, were the originators of Australian prosperity and free colonisation. Later in the century their descendants and successors had to fight a prolonged and losing battle with the democratic land-policy of the small farmer and his friends in the legislature.

In 1840 the new Australia of some 130,000 white inhabitants was large enough to prevail on the mother country to stop the dumping of convicts, though the bad practice was revived fitfully in subsequent years.

In 1851 the discovery of gold at Ballarat produced such a sudden increase in the tide of immigrants that, in the phrase of Gibbon Wakefield, ' the colony was precipitated into a nation.' All the gold seekers could not make their for-tunes, and many stayed on as farmers and artisans. In the 'fifties, the Australian colonies that already enjoyed representative institutions, each demanded and received complete responsible self-government. But for the origin of that solution of Imperial relationships we must look to the history of Canada.

In 1861 the self-governing colonies on the continent were : the mother colony of New South Wales; South Australia, over whose infancy Sir George Grey had presided ; Victoria, sprung to sudden greatness through the gold diggings ; and Queens-land, the latest to separate from New South Wales. Each of the four democracies was quite independent of the other, with no legal bond of union but the Crown. Together they numbered, in the census of 1861, just over a million inhabitants, who have increased nearly fivefold, partly by immigration, in the two generations that have since elapsed. Van Diemen's Land, that had changed its name to Tasmania, had also obtained responsible government in the 'fifties. Western Australia, though a separate province since 1829, was still too thinly inhabited for popular government. During the whole nineteenth century the epic of the Australian explorer's struggle with the wilderness and the desert was going on. Having conquered the east, the explorers were now continuing their battle with the vast spaces of the north and west.

But the tide of emigration from England and Scotland was setting strongest of all to Canada. At the time of the great Reform Bill as many as 50,000 emigrants from Great Britain were floated up the St. Lawrence in one year. Then, for a decade, the disturbed political state of the two Canadas discouraged immigration. In 1837 there were already a million inhabitants, and already the English-speaking outnumbered the French. The wise policy of Pitt had divided Upper or English from Lower or French Canada, and had endowed both provinces with elected Assemblies, without giving to the Assemblies the power of nominating the executive.' These institutions had weathered the storm of invasion in 1812, but no longer met the need of communities arrived at political manhood, In Lower Canada a growing English minority, the progressive and trading part of the province, were always at loggerheads with the French Catholic majority, who were in turn aggrieved at a wholly English administration, which they thwarted in the Assembly in every possible way. Finally, in 1836, the French Assembly refused supplies and things rapidly moved to a crisis. Next year a rebellion broke out under Papineau, but it speedily collapsed.

Papineau's rising proved the signal for a rising in the upper province. The English-speaking rebels had indeed less than no sympathy with the French rebels, but in both provinces the revolt was directed against an unrepresentative and unsympathetic officialdom. In Upper Canada one of the chief grievances was the ' clergy reserves,' a vast acreage of rich lands kept out of cultivation as future endowment for the Anglican Church, then in a small minority among Scots and Dissenters. This rebellion, like that in the French province, was a half-hearted affair and was easily crushed.

The two rebellions compelled the mother country to attend to the Canadian problem as a whole. Melbourne's Government suspended the constitution and sent out Lord Durham as temporary despot, to act in place of the usual authorities and to report on the real state of affairs, which was very little understood in England, even by Lord Durham himself when he started on his mission.

The selection of Durham saved Canada and the Empire. His temper and his health were bad. But he had both ability and vision. And he had two predispositions, essential to the discovery of what we now know to have been the right solution: a belief in democratic institutions, then rare among Whig and Conservative statesmen, and a belief in the future of the Empire and of the Imperial connection then rare among Radicals, Whigs and even among Conservatives. He took with him two men worthy of himself and of the occasion, Gibbon Wakefield and young Charles Buller, whose early death cut short a great career.

Acting in the spirit of his instructions, Durham exerted the plenary powers of his temporary despotism to banish certain agitators, preferably to putting them in prison. His personal enemy, Lord Brougham, who had since his Lord-Chancellorship degenerated into the malicious harlequin familiar to posterity in the early volumes of Punch, attacked this action as illegal, and led to the chase the Tory peers who hated Durham for his radicalism. Such an attack in the Upper House would have been nothing if the Government had stood firm. But Lords Melbourne and Glenelg feebly and basely deserted the man whom they themselves had chosen as dictator in the hour of need.

It was a gloomy winter day for Canada when Durham left her shores in disgrace, but with the full sympathy of the English-speaking population. Everyone now expected the worst, and indeed his recall was prelude to another brief rebellion. But it was darkness before dawn. Lord John Russell spoke in the House of Commons in a sense adverse to the cowardly betrayal of Durham, and persuaded the Cabinet to accept his report.

The Durham Report of 1839, which took effect in Russell's Canada Union Act of 1840, advised that the time had come for full responsible government to be given to Canada that is, that the executive should in future be chosen from the ranks of the majority in the elected Assembly. This principle of responsible government was applied first to Canada, then to the rest of British North America, next to Australasia, and finally to South Africa.1 It is acknowledged to have proved the cement of Empire. In the days of its first adoption it appeared to some statesmen, both Liberal and Conservative, to be a step towards an inevitable friendly parting of colonies and mother country. But this error in opinion as to the future did not involve those who held it in mistaken action in the present. The indifference that allowed colonists to go their own way, was much less fatal to Imperial unity than any attempt to hold them to the connection by force. But Durham saw his own recommendations in their true light, as being the only possible path to the Imperial unity that he desired.

The other principle of the Durham Report and of the legislation based on it was local and temporary in application. The two Canadas were thrown together in one, so that the English-speaking majority of a United Canada could outvote the French. If this had not been done, responsible government might have been unworkable in Lower Canada, where the large and progressive English minority were in no mood to have their interests left completely in the control of inimical French peasants. The French were exceedingly angry at the Union, and by no means regarded Durham as a liberator. But the policy was justified by its success. The Union of the two provinces in 1840, by making responsible government possible, led to their re-division in 1867, as part of a Federation of British North America, among whose provinces the two Canadas stood as the chief among peers.'

Before that consummation could be reached, a difficult and dangerous period had to be passed through. The pilot who weathered the storm was Lord Elgin, Governor of Canada from 1847 to 1854.2 Elgin carried out the political testament of his father-in-law, Lord Durham. He was, indeed, no slavish imitator; he made it his task to appease the deep animosity of the French, whose racial feelings Durham had, rightly or wrongly, felt himself obliged to disregard. Elgin's insistence that the late rebels should not be penalised, lost him much popularity among the British loyalists. At the same time he helped the progressive part of both the French and English- speaking communities to work together and to establish the tradition of parliamentary self-government. He persuaded the Whigs at home to abandon the ` clergy reserves ' to the Canadian Parliament. Canadian parties, to some extent cutting across racial divisions, now began to develop a healthy rivalry. The Liberal-Conservative party, under the leadership of John Macdonald, hastened the coming of a new and more hopeful age.

The question whether Canada would drift off from the Empire into political connection with the United States was gravely affected, though never entirely dominated, by economic and commercial considerations. In i 846 the adoption of free trade in corn by the mother country was a severe blow to Canadian interests. Fortunately this was counterbalanced by the new principle of complete economic self-government for Canada, even to the extent of permitting her to abolish preferences for the mother country. And in 1849 the abolition of the Navigation Laws by the Whig Government opened Canada to the commerce of the world. In 1854 Lord Elgin with great difficulty succeeded in obtaining from the United States a Reciprocity Treaty for a large measure of free trade.

The treaty gave Canada ten years of internal development and content, tending to allay the annexation movement during a critical decade, and established good relations between all the countries of the English-speaking world. Unfortunately the American Civil War of 1861-5, and the attitude adopted towards it by too many British statesmen and journalists, put an end to this state of things, and in 1865 the United States, sore with all things British, refused to renew the Canadian Reciprocity Treaty. But by that time the economic development and patriotism of Canada were capable of standing the shock, and the action of the United States, instead of compelling a renewal of the movement for annexation, helped on the federation of British North America in 1867.

The work of Elgin and Macdonald, following on that of Durham, had been to associate in men's minds the idea of colonial self-government with the idea of the Imperial connection, which statesmen of all parties on both sides the Atlantic had been too prone to regard as mutually opposed. ` These wretched Colonies,' wrote Disraeli in 1852, ' will all be independent in a few years, and are a millstone round our necks.'

Lord Elgin thus summed up his own work:

`I have been possessed (I use the word advisedly, for I find that most persons in England consider it a case of possession) with the idea that it is possible to maintain on this soil of North America, and in the face of Republican America, British connection and British institutions, if you give the latter freely and trustingly. Faith, when it is sincere, is always catching ; and I have imparted this faith more or less thoroughly to all Canadian statesmen with whom I have been in official relationship since 1848, and to all intelligent Englishmen with whom I have come into contact since 1850.'

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