Here is a list of names which might contain one or two you have heard of but most will be unfamiliar to everyone, as they once were to me. They were all active in the 19th century: Thomas Fowell Buxton, James Bonwick, Alfred Rusel Wallace, Lawrence Threlkeld, Thomas Hodgkin, Robert Menli Lyon, John Savage, Alexander von Humboldt, Montagu Hawtrey, and George Augustus Robinson. I tried to keep it short. Many more could be added, including those who were active anonymously.
Many of them were Christian missionaries. What they all had in common was a passionate concern to end the injustices committed against native peoples. Some of them were vilified for their efforts. I call them great humanitarians but I mean ‘great’ in a relative sense. None of them were perfect. They were great for their time and place.
The other thing they all had in common was that they accepted colonialism. They believed that Europe had a mission to civilize (and Christianize) the world of savage tribes. This they shared with Charles Darwin. But what distinguishes these people from Darwin is that they were quite incensed at the way it was being done. The inhumanity of Europe’s colonial program as actually carried out was an outrage to them. One newspaper in Australia published a series of editorials in 1880 under the heading The Way We Civilize.
Consider how the Rev. Montagu Hawtrey begins an 1837 essay with this heading for section 1: “It is possible to oppress and destroy under a show of justice.” He goes on to explain, “[W]here one of the parties is immeasurably inferior to the other, the only consequence of establishing the same rights and the same obligations for both will be to destroy the weaker under a show of justice.”
The problem cannot be solved by making sure that everyone is equal in rights. The real problem is that Europeans are competing the natives to death. Britain in particular had become a highly competitive society where “every individual is more or less in a state of competition with every other individual.” When that is carried over to a colony like New Zealand, it will “never cease till it ended in the degradation and destruction of the New Zealanders [i.e., the Maoris].”
Bear in mind that competition, even to the death, is at the heart of Darwin’s system of evolution. Darwin extended that to what civilized Europe was doing in the uncivilized countries of the world. Humanitarians like Hawtrey objected. These humanitarian efforts were a part of Darwin’s context. About thirty years after Hawtrey’s essay, Alfred Wallace made a similar point and suggested that Europeans scale back their competitive drive in the colonies.
As for Darwin’s opinion of the inferiority of savages, I will just offer this from Robert Lyon who settled in Australia in 1829. In 1839, he wrote that those who presented the savages as savage in nature were “entirely ignorant of their manner and disposition.” He earned this opinion by spending a lot of time among aborigines. He recognized that settlers made the savages out to be inferior because they needed “to render them odious to the public at home, by representing them in the worst light.” Many of the others I listed above would have concurred that savages were not nearly as savage as many Europeans made them out to be, but Darwin fell hook, line, and sinker for the negative descriptions of savages, as The Descent of Man abundantly attests.
All this is to say that in Darwin’s time, there were plenty of true humanitarians who saw the injustice of colonial policies and actions. Not everybody was a racist back then. Darwin had a lot of competition for his biased anthropological ideas but they were drowned out by mainstream voices.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer