Edmund Burke’s Negro Code

Though all his life Burke fought against injustice, cruelty and oppression, his attitude towards the slave-trade was at times ambiguous. Yet, writes Robert W. Smith, the great writer was the first statesman in Britain or Ireland to produce a plan for ending it.

Among the writings of Edmund Burke is a ‘Sketch of a Negro Code’ that had a strange history. It was a detailed plan for the regulation of both the African slave-trade and of West Indian slavery. It was never introduced- in Parliament, was seen by few during Burke’s lifetime, and not published until fifteen years after his death. Burke’s attitude toward slavery is a puzzle.

What led him so early as 1780 to construct a detailed plan of regulation when the subject had not yet come under Parliamentary discussion? Why did he then set the project aside? When the campaign to end the slave-trade began in 1788, Burke spoke strongly in favour of immediately ending the trade. By 1792, however, he appeared to be co-operating with Henry Dundas who successfully side-tracked abolition that year.

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