Horatio Nelson first met Simon Taylor during the American Revolutionary War, while stationed in Jamaica. The two remained in touch. As Nelson remarks towards the end of this letter, by 1805, they had been acquainted for about three decades. The letter was written while Nelson pursued the French fleet in the Caribbean, during the months before the Battle of Trafalgar, and in it Nelson expressed his opposition to William Wilberforce and the abolitionists. (The redacted name was that of Wilberforce). This version appeared in William Cobbett’s Political Register on 21 February 1807, while parliament debated abolition. Cobbett sympathised with slaveholders like Simon Taylor, hated Wilberforce and opposed the abolition of the slave trade. It seems likely that Taylor provided him with a copy of this letter in an effort to mobilise the heroic and patriotic reputation of the recently deceased Lord Nelson behind the pro-slavery cause, as part of a last ditch effort to halt the progress of the Abolition Bill.
Taylor commented to George Hibbert on the failure of Wilberforce’s abolition bill to pass the House of Lords in 1804. By this time, he was fully aware that such a setback would be unlikely to deter future efforts by his political adversaries. He claimed, however, that if the British state were compelled to pay financial compensation to British-Caribbean slaveholders, on the basis of purported commercial losses, then abolition would be unaffordable and, therefore, impossible. He also reiterated the by now familiar commercial argument against abolition, mentioning to Hibbert the calculations that he had been making about the value of West Indian trade to Britain, seeking to clarify the extent to which the mother country benefitted from and depended on the colonies. Lord Stanhope was a keen supporter of abolition, and he married his second wife, Louisa, in 1781. Taylor’s comments about her display the longstanding depth of antipathy that he harboured for those who professed antislavery views. Conversely, Taylor was impressed by the Duke of Clarence (who became King William IV in 1830).
I am favoured with yours of 4 July. I perfectly agree with you that the House of Lords have given Mr Willberforce a check, but I do believe his persevering Spiritt and that of the Gang he is connected with will never lett the Question rest untill they find that an abolition and full Compensation shall be awarded us for the Injuries our Properties will sustain, and when ever they find that their Humanity will will [sic] oblige them to putt their hands into the Pocketts it will vanish away. Lord Stanhope is and ever was a mad man, I remember him in 1792 and an expression his wife made use of that she wished that the Negroes would rise and murder every white Person in the Islands. It is a really [sic] pitty she had not been in St. Domingo since that time to this and she would have held a very different Language. The Duke of Clarence I believe has been very indefatigable in collecting information on the Subject and knows it better than most Men in the upper House. I do not thing think there are ten Men in either that know the benifitts that accrue to the British from the West India Trade, therefore I have been very anxious to know what the Actual Imports and Exports to every part of the World under their distinct Kingdoms and what was and has been the Imports and Exports to and from the West Indies both the old Islands and the Conquered ones and then it would be seen what a very considerable part of the Trade of Britain depends on the Island [sic] and how much she is benifitted by them.
(Taylor Family Papers, I/G/3, Simon Taylor to George Hibbert, Kingston, 29 August 1804)
At the end of 1792, Taylor wrote to tell Arcedeckne about his fear at the prospect of an end to the slave trade. The Jamaican assembly had produced a report, laying out their opposition to abolition and emphasising the economic value of the current slave system to the mother country. Such economic arguments were an important part of the proslavery defence of the slave trade, but as this letter also shows, constitutional arguments and claims about property rights were also important. The Jamaican assembly claimed that parliament had no right to pass legislation that would affect the internal affairs of Jamaica (as they claimed that the abolition of the slave trade would) and argued that slaveholders should receive financial compensation for any parliamentary measure that might affect their business interests. Taylor also sought to place the current imperial crisis over slavery in the context of the dispute that led to the American Revolution, claiming that Prime Minister Pitt’s political ally, William Grenville, was continuing the policies introduced by his father, George Grenville, during the 1760s.
[…] We are very much afraid here respecting the abolition, and should have petitioned the Crown on it, but it was found that it was as unparliamentary to petition the Crown upon any matter pending in Parliament, but I have sent you a copy of a report made by a committee of the House [the Jamaican assembly], which shews from authentick facts, that if the trade is abolished, that shall not be the only suffers [sic], and claim as our right our having our properties paid for, and disclaim their having any right to legislate internally for us, for my own part I am hopefull when this report goes home, and getts into the hands of dispationate [sic] men, that they will see their interest is too much involved in it, to suffer the minister to wantonly throw away so very a beneficial commerce, as that of the West Indies […] As for Pitt, I have no hopes from him, he is led by that cursed fellow Grenville, who and whose father have ever been the bitter enemies of the colonies, and to whom the loss of America from the British Empire is to be attributed, he first alienated the minds of the people there from Britain, and has in a great manner done the same here, and when hatred once begins, separation is not a great way behind. […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1792/14, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Spanish Town, 5 December 1792)
On his return to Jamaica, Taylor wrote to tell Arcedeckne about his voyage and the time he had spent in England, which was an even more disagreeable episode to him than when the sugar canes on his Holland estate had been afflicted by disease (‘the blast’). In particular, he despaired at British attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade. Taylor also showed concern that talk of abolition and the rise of radical politics in the mother country might encourage enslaved people in Jamaica to rebel and discussed the unhopeful prospect of a self-reproducing enslaved population on the island.
I am favoured with yours of 29 July, my former letters will have informed you that I arrived here safe, it would have been too much to have lost a ship going out, as well as coming home. after the first week which was the whole time contrary, we carried an easterly wind with us to this place. I assure you that my time except when I was among my intimate friends, was as disagreably [sic] spent, as at any period of my life, not even taking in the time I had the blast at Holland. Such an obstinacy of opinion among men who were intirely ignorant of the matter they spoke on, and malignancy of mind I never before knew or heard of among the Lords there seemed to be some reason, but I believe a great many were poisoned by Pitt & Genville. […] from what I have seen of the negroes, they seem to be very quiet, whether it is that they are contented, or that there are constant musterings of the militia, I know not. but this I know that if they had been treated as is represented they would have revolted long ago, considering the encouragement they have mett with from the speeches and inflamatory doctrine held out in the House of Commons, the publick papers, and the pulpitts. The levelling doctrines that are held out also in England may have some effect, except particular care is taken, to shew the men in power what it is to have a ferment among the multitude, and that it is much better to go on in the old beaten track, than to try new experiments, which may do harm, but cannot possibly do good. As for increasing their numbers by our own internall breed, I conceive it impossible, I have tried every means that I have known of, to do it, but have never been able to succeed. Every means that I can think of, I will still try, but I really despair of success. […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1792/11, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Kingston, 6 October 1792)
Taylor travelled from Jamaica to Britain in 1791. It is likely that he was at sea when the August 1791 rebellion by enslaved people in French Saint-Domingue broke out. He received news of it while in London in the autumn and remained in Britain until the summer of 1792. While there, he visited Arcedeckne in Suffolk, met with the West India Committee of Planters and Merchants in London, and gave evidence to the House of Lords, who were conducting an inquiry on Caribbean slavery and the slave trade, a measure of the upper house to stall the progress of Wilberforce’s proposals in the Commons for abolition. Taylor’s fear that the Lords would approve abolition in 1792 proved unfounded, and his comments about the actions of whites in Saint-Domingue demonstrate the fluctuating character of politics in the French Atlantic, where alongside uprisings by enslaved and free people of colour, white slaveholders sought autonomy from an increasingly radical metropole.
[…] I have taken my passage out to Jamaica in the Canada Capt. Sewell and believe she will sail on or about the first of next month […] I was in very good hopes that the Lords would have thrown out the slave bill, but from the report of the Chancellors being out, I am afraid that the malignancy of the minister and his friends will force it through the Lords, what to say, or what to think I am at a loss. I am told that the inhabitants of St. Domingo have actually refused the edict of putting the free people of colour on the footing of whites, that the troops of the line have joined the whites, and they are to give freedom to 24000 negroe men to join them, to defend themselves against all powers who may attack them, and have opened their ports to all the world, but the people of Bordeaux. God knows if we may not be drove to some extremities. I beg my best respects to Mrs Arcedeckne and the little ones and I ever am with the greatest truth & sincerity […]
(Vanneck-Arc/3A/1792/2, Simon Taylor to Chaloner Arcedeckne, Ibbotsons Hotell, Vere Street, London, 21 May 1792)