One of the defenses made on Darwin’s behalf is that to accuse him of any racism is an anachronism. It is claimed that just about everybody in Europe at that time had prejudices against the darker races (as they were sometimes referred to). Darwin was no different. To judge him severely for this is to use a standard from a later time. Stephen Gould defended him in this manner.
This defense does not hold up. It is not quite true that everyone was a racist back then. There were anti-racists. What is an anachronism is the term ‘racist’. That was not in use. That does not mean that the attitudes which we designate as racist and anti-racist did not exist in the 19th century.
I think we can take racism, in any day and age, to mean a combination of denial of political, voting, and civil rights, and allegations of intellectual, moral, and cultural inferiority. Certainly these things went on in the 19th century. Imperialism was more than just invading other countries and stealing land, resources, and labor. It was a whole system of thought in which legal and scientific fictions were invented to make the subjugation of natives seem moral and natural.
For my purposes here, there are two important things to note: 1) there were some Europeans, not many, who vigorously opposed this racism towards native peoples, and 2) Darwin was not one of them. Oh, let’s add a third: Mainstream science, of which Darwin was a representative, was mostly on the wrong side. And a fourth: The historical study of science, with a few exceptions, has generally covered this up.
There were some who were in an in-between position. They were opposed to the more inhumane aspects of imperialism, but not opposed to imperialism per se or the notion that European civilization was superior. It is not clear if Darwin supported even a limited humanitarianism towards colonized peoples. He certainly did not protest their gradual extermination. That was acceptable to him.
The British Aborigines’ Protection Society (APS), 1836-1909, and most of its supporters and members occupied the intermediate position. They were mainly interested in protecting natives from undue harm and especially from extermination. But they were never big advocates of rights or self-determination. Darwin may have attended one early meeting for the purpose of having input for a questionnaire that would be used to gather information about various tribes before they disappeared from the earth forever. But his interest in the Society did not extend beyond this. I don’t think that Darwin can be counted among even the moderate opponents of racism. Many of the Society’s original members came over from the anti-slavery movement (which had reached one of its major goals of banning slavery in the colonies in 1833). Darwin did not make that move.
The real test that racism existed in his time and is not an anachronism is that there were staunch anti-racists. The existence of anti-racists would make no sense unless racism had been a reality. The level of anti-racism varied quite a bit, but among the strongest I would count Alfred Wallace and Harriette Colenso who was active in South Africa. I don’t want to say too much at this point because I’m still doing research. There were probably others like Wallace and Colenso whom I have yet to discover.
As for these two, I am pretty sure this much can be said: Wallace had a much higher opinion of native cultures than Darwin did and was deeply concerned that western colonialism and competition would lead to their extinction unless steps were taken to prevent it. Harriette Colenso went beyond the idea of protection embraced by the APS and fought for the rights of Zulus to maintain their culture and land. I hope I’ve got that right, as I know the least about her life and career, but I hope to change that very soon.
The point is that some people in Darwin’s time were very concerned about the sheer brutality and savagery of the British empire and the arrogant assumptions made about natives. Interestingly, Darwin once wrote to Charles Lyell that he did not care whether present-day man (i.e., European man) will one day be regarded as a savage. That says it all. And he didn’t even have to wait for a remote future, as he put it, to hear this charge. It was being made in his very own time.
© 2012 Leon Zitzer