Ricard Nisbet – Slavery Not Forbidden by Scripture
Richard Nisbet was a West Indian enslaver who was residing in Philadelphia. In 1773, Nisbet published a pamphlet as a response to Benjamin Rush’s antislavery work, An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slave-Keeping. Rush, arguably America’s most famous physician in the latter part of the 18th Century, wrote the pamphlet in order to lend support to other abolitionists efforts to petition the colonial assembly of Pennsylvania. Nisbet’s pamphlet was a defense of not only the institution of slavery, but West-Indian slaveholders like himself.
Nisbet’s pamphlet represents a somewhat rare early defense of slavery. While slavery certainly had its defenders within the British Empire, Nisbet’s pamphlet is somewhat unique in that it pioneers many of the arguments that would come to define the “positive good” thesis of the 19th Century. In his defense of the institution, Nisbet essentially says that Africans are not only suited for slavery, but that enslavement helps them. Not many works before this had taken such a bold stance in defending slavery.
What might have been different by 1773 to encourage Nisbet to defend slavery in such a way? What arguments does Nisbet use to justify the institution of slavery? Why might Nisbet have felt compelled to defend West-Indian enslavers like himself? Does Nisbet acknowledge the ongoing imperial conflicts between the mainland British colonies and the metropole?
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Slavery Not Forbidden By Scripture
Or a Defense of the West-India Planters,
From the Aspersions Thrown Out Against Them, By the Author of a Pamphlet, Entitled,
“An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slave-Keeping
By A West-Indian
Who steals my Purse, steals trash, ‘tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me a good Name,
Robs me of that, which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.
Many writers, who aim at the reformation of mankind, point out plans for their conduct, which it is impossible to follow. They make no allowance for our frailties, nor consider that we cannot attain a state of absolute perfection. Among the rest , the declaimers against slavery never recollect that there are faults in every human institution. Instead of advising some wholesome regulations and improvements, they spend their time in fruitless reproaches, and afterwards declare that slavery ought to be utterly abolished, as if their dictates were to be implicitly followed. Till self-interest ceases to have influence over the actions of men,
Proposals that strike at the very root of their temporal concerns will never be pursued, and serve no other purpose, than to display the author’s talents.
SLAVERY, like all other human institutions, may be attended with its particular abuses, but that is not sufficient totally to condemn it, and to reckon everyone unworthy the society of men who owns a negro.
IF precedent constitutes law, surely it can be defended, for it has existed in all ages. The scriptures, instead of forbidding it, declare it lawful.
THE Author of the Address is of opinion, that slavery was not authorized by the patriarchs, because
their accounts of it are very short, just as if one could not understand an author’s meaning in a few words. A good christian might as well pretend, that he out not to pay any attention to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” nor several of the others, because they are expressed in a brief manner. With the same sophistry he adds, that Providence kept the neighbouring nations in bondage, to prevent the jews from corrupting their national religion and, by intermarriages, altering the descent of Jesus from what was originally ordained.
OUR Savior’s general maxims of charity and benevolence, cannot be mentioned as proofs against slavery. If the custom had been held in abhorrence by Christ and his disciples, they would, no doubt, have preached against it in direct terms. They were remarkable for the boldness † of their discourses, and intrepidity of conduct, which brought on them persecutions, imprisonment, and even death itself. However, the Addresser is so wicked as to accuse our Savior of the meanest dissimulation, by saying, that he forbore to mention any thing that might seem contrary to the Roman or Jewish laws. This Gentleman, attempting to be religious, becomes blasphemous. Enough, I believe, has been said, to shew his inability to prove that slavery is contrary to scripture.
IF this writer had confined himself to the impropriety of slavery in this, and some of the other colonies, and treated the subject in an unprejudiced manner, his labours might have been useful. In the northern parts of America there are now, numbers of industrious white inhabitants, and when that is the case, the importation of Negroes will cease, without any interposition of the legislature. No one who pays attention to his interest and peace of mind, will ever employ slaves to do his work, when he can get freemen at a moderate price.
But his proposal of settling the West-Indies entirely with whites, and giving the Negroes their liberty, could never come from a man of common sense.* The Author of the Address has, certainly, never been in the sugar islands, and consequently, whatever he mentions, concerning them, must be from a confused hear-say, not from experience.
I IMAGINE there are above four-hundred thousand Negroes in the British islands: Can he point out a plan to procure the same number of whites in their stead? Or, if they could be got, would not there be a necessity for vast reinforcements, to supply the place of those cut off by disease? Where is the money to be raised ot make satisfaction to the Planters for the loss of their property? † The people in Britain already complain, that emigrators, from the mother country, are become too
numerous; and when they take the resolution of going abroad, they will certainly prefer the interior parts of America to the rugged rocks of the West-Indies, or the swamps of Carolina, as more likely to secure them every comfort of life. Many articles of subsistence, very necessary to families that come from Europe, such as, milk, butter and cheese, can hardly be procured in the West Indies, and no kind of grain, can be raised, except Guinea and Indian corn, with which they are totally unacquainted.
WITH regard to the Africans, they meet with few inconveniences of that nature, as the climate and productions of the two countries are so nearly alike.
THIS writer confesses, that hard labour within the tropics shortens human life, and that the colour of the negroes qualifies them for hot countries, yet he is desirous, that our white fellow subjects should toil in these sultry climates, that the Africans might indulge their natural laziness in their own country. The former are, no doubt, much obliged to him for his kind intentions.
TO support his benevolent scheme of abolishing slavery in the Islands, he makes use of a very specious argument, that agriculture can never flourish where slavery is tolerated. If he means the slavery of arbitrary states, he may be right, but with regard to the British West-Indies, where the proprietors are under a free government, and only the manual labour performed by slaves,
his observation will not hold good, for there are few, or no lands, better cultivated any where. The little island of St. KITTS, is not above eighty miles square, and yet, its annual produce amounts to half a million sterling, which is not, perhaps, to be equaled in the whole universe.
I HAVE no intention to insinuate, that the planters do not bestow proper correction when it is necessary. If they were totally neglectful in this particular, they would neither be lovers of justice, nor consult the happiness of their slaves; for nobody would ever with the bad to enjoy the same advantages as the good. The negroes of a very indulgent, easy master, for the most part, become compleat villains. They not only inure their master’s property, but likewise are a nusance to the neighbourhood, and for their flagrant crimes are often punished by the laws; which might have been prevented if they had been checked in proper time. You have no chance to acquire the esteem of negroes by never correcting them for a fault; they are sure ot laugh at your folly. It is a universal remark, that almost every insurrection in the West-Indies, has been hatched on the estates of over-indulgent masters, and ten to one, his favourite servants are the ringleaders, and strike the first blow.
We have no other method of judging, but by considering their genius and government in their native country. Afirca, except for small par of it inhabited by those of our own
colour, is totally over-run with barbarism. There is not a kingdom of any eminence; it chiefly consisting of a number of petty monarchies, perpetually at war with each other; and the sovereigns, are said to have to lives and properties of their subjects at their absolute disposal. They are, in their own country, said to be utterly unacquainted with arts, letters, manufacturers, and every thing which constitutes civilized life. I never would observe the Africans have the most distant idea of a supreme Being, or that they paid him the smallest worship. They have a confused notion of an evil spirit, called a Jumbee, who is able to do them mischief, and is is a custom among them to hang a broken bottle, a bit of rag, or anything else, by way of a charm, near their small spots of ground, which they name Oby. When their property is thus guarded, few negores will have the boldness to steal any part of it. This together with a few ceremonies, used at funerals, is all the religion they may be said to possess. They seem to be utterly unacquainted with friendship, gratitude, and every tie of the same king. Great pains are
Taken to give a high colouring to the affecting scenes between relations when parted at a sale;* but I appeal to every one who has been present, at the disposal of a cargo, if he has not seen these creatures, separated from their nearest relations without looking after them, or wishing them farewell. A few instances may be found, of African negroes possessing virtues and becoming ingenious, but still, what I have said, with regard to their general character, I dare say, most people acquainted with them, will agree to.†
WHAT is the reason that the vast continent of Africa remains in the same state of barbarism, as if it had been created yesterday? It must, in all probability, be owing to a want of genius in the people; for it has had more chances of improving than Europe, from its vast superiority in numbers of inhabitants. The stupidity of the natives cannot be attributed to climate, for the Moors, who are situated at no great distance from the blacks, have always made a figure in history, and the Egyptians were one of the first nations that became emi-
nent for their progress in the arts. I might, likewise, mention the ingenious turn of many of the Afiaticks, in the same latitudes: And if we look at the Chinese, we may observe what improvements, a single nation of whites, can make in every thing that is useful and elegant.
IT is somewhat strange, that there is a great difference between the negroes imported from Africa, and those born in the West-Indies. The greatest part of the former are to the last degree stupid, lazy, and forbidding in their persons: The latter have much superior intellects, and are by far more inclinable to work. They may likewise, be distinguished at first sight, from the former, by the superior robustness of their persons, their vivacity of aspect, smoothness of skin, and regularity of features. When an estate is sold, they are appraised much higher than the natives of Africa; yet it is endeavoured to make us believe, that negroes pine and degenerate in our part of the world.
I AM little acquainted with the method of carrying on the slave trade, and, therefore, shall say little on the subject. I appears plain, however, that slaves are bought in the fair course of trade, and that the Europeans have seldom, or never, an opportunity of carrying them off by stealth, though they were inclinable. It is, likewise, certain, that these creatures, by being sold to the Europeans, are often saved from the most cruel deaths, or more wretched slavery to their fellow barbarisms.
I SUPPOSE that many more negroes would be born in the West-Indies, than are at present, if their increase was not checked by the irregularities of both sexes, and their carelessness in preserving their health. They frequently assemble, after their work is over, and dance great part of the night. Instead of going home they often sleep in open air, which exposes them to numberless disorders. I may add, that the misfortunes they meet with are mostly of their own seeking.
A NEGRO may be said to have fewer cares, and less reason to be anxious about to-morrow, than any other
individual of our species. A savage may be unsuccessful against his enemies, and in the chance. The former may expose him and all his family to a miserable death, and the latter to the horrors of famine. It is a very rare instance indeed, when the negroe does not receive his usual quantity of provisions; and he is entirely unacquainted with all the distresses attendant upon war. The negroe, it is true, cannot easily change his master, but to make amends for this inconvenience, he enjoys this singular advantage, over his broth in freedom, of being attended with care during sickness, and of having the same provision in old age, as in the days of his youth. Instead of being oppressed to feed a large family, like the labourer in Europe, the more children he has, the richer he becomes; for the moment a child is born, the parents receive the same quantity of food for its support, as if it were a grown person; and in case of their own death, if they have any reflection, they will quit the world with the certainty, of their children being brought up with the same care they formerly experienced themselves.
I SHALL take my leave of the Addresser and others who have written in the same stile, with wishing, that they may, for the future, employ their talents on more useful subjects. They will find that their labours will have a much better chance of reforming the abuses they complain of, by offering rational proposals of improvement, than by indulging themselves in such idle chimeras. What advises the ruin of a number of individuals, can not be called a scheme of publick utility. These gentlemen, perhaps, think it meritorious, to give the twentieth, or even fiftieth, part of their income to the poor,
yet they gravely desire a numerous body of British subjects, to beggar themselves and families, to gratify their caprice. All the while too, they profess humanity, christian charity, and brotherly love.–God defend me from these virtues, if they could produce such effects!
If the Author of the Address were to become owner of a West-India estate, by the death of a relation, or some other unexpected means, can he lay his hand on his heart, and, with a safe conscience, say that he would instantly free all his slaves and destroy his sugar-works? I am afraid he would hesitate, if we may judge from the conduct of others. Many of the firmest supporters of religion, in England, both clergy and laity (whose names I could mention) have no scruples to be masters of West-India plantations. Until the Addresser reduces to practice, what he points out to others, people must suspect that he writes from selfish motives, and that he advices, what is foreign to his real opinion. I even imagine that he may miss his aim, if he has interested views, for, though he may ingratiate himself with many gloomy fanaticks, yet he must lose the esteem of men of sense, and of a rational way of thinking.
I SHALL, lastly, observe that a person can hardly err so grosly, as not to be able to make attonement. I flatter myself that, upon mature reflection, the Author of the Address, will candidly confess, that his treatise was hastily written, without having sufficient proofs for what he advanced, and be sorry for his ungenerous abuse of a set of men, whom he never had an opportunity of knowing, and who, I dare say, never injure him.
 [Page 8] † Witness Pau’s behavior before Agrippa.
 [Page 9] *To prove that negroes earn their freedom, our Author rates the profits of their yearly labour, at ten pounds sterling, and their expences, forty shillings, but, including taxes, food, cloathing, doctors fee and the interest of the original cost of a Negro, it is well known that his yearly charges will amount to near eight pound. Besides, how can he be certain that the Negro will labour twenty years, when the life of a healthy person can only be valued seven years. I mention this, to shew that he is totally unacquainted with his subject.
 [Page 9] Fifty-two millions would be required; twenty-two millions for the Negroes, and thirty in consideration of the lands, buildings, &c.
 [Page 23] * A gentleman of my acquaintance assures me, that he attended most of the sales this year at Charlestown, and only saw two instances of a reluctance at parting; and another of my friends, who was a clerk two years in one of the first Guinea houses, in Grenada, assures me, that he never saw a single instance of the kind.
 [Page23] † The Author of the Address gives a single example of a negro girl writing a few silly poems, to prove that the blacks are not deficient to us in understanding.
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