Monday, February 25, 2013


I have been belaboring this point for the last few posts:  Racism certainly existed in the 19th century and is not an anachronistic idea to describe some of the conflicts of that time. I think most people know this. I would think it is pretty obvious. The only reason I am going over it again is that some Darwin scholars seemed very concerned to assert anachronism as a defense against this criticism of Darwin. Sometimes it seems like every sane person in the world realizes that racism was a serious problem back then and only Darwin scholars don’t see it.
However, the very denial of the existence of racism forces one to look for specific evidence for it, and while I knew the evidence would be there, I myself am pretty shocked to see just how much evidence there is for this. A good place to look is at the British experience with slavery and its abolition, particularly in the West Indies and especially in Jamaica.

Just as a little background to this:  Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the colonies in 1833. The latter went into effect in August 1834 which began a period of apprenticeship leading to full emancipation in 1838. But before 1833, you should know that there had long been a number of free coloreds and blacks (they made a lot of color distinctions at that time). The free coloreds were gradually growing in numbers and wealth, and were fighting for equal rights, as well as better conditions for the slaves, before emancipation came along. Out of my rough memory of this, I believe they achieved equal rights around 1830 or 1832. At least in theory they had obtained equality. The first colored members were elected to the Jamaican House of Assembly shortly thereafter, but they would always be a minority, even though the black population outnumbered the white by an enormous amount.
The other major piece of this history to note here is that in 1865 the very frustrated ex-slaves in Jamaica erupted in a riot or insurrection known as the Morant Bay Rebellion. It was brutally suppressed by Governor Edward Eyre who declared martial law for a month. Further controversy ensued when some people tried to have Eyre and a couple of military officers tried for murder. The group seeking this prosecution was the Jamaica Committee, formed around January 1866. Taking the opposite position was the Eyre Defence Committee.
That may be a little more background than necessary, but now to get to the point. In the last post, I mentioned Governor Sligo, governor of Jamaica from 1834 to 1836, who used an expression, ‘complexional distinctions.’ Some officials in the Colonial Office, especially Lord Elgin, were very concerned to remove all such distinctions from the laws of the colonies in the West Indies because they wanted emancipation to succeed. They tried, but the racism of the white planters proved to be too strong.
In 1823, Richard Hill, one of the colored leaders, used this term for what we would call a racist:  ‘complexional misanthrope.’ It shows you how lively language can be and can capture things more truly when you lack official terminology. Godwin Smith, a professor of history at Oxford, and a supporter of the North in the American Civil War, referred to ‘the difference of colour and the physical antipathy’ which would be obstacles to creating social fusion and political equality.
At the end of July 1866, in a Parliamentary debate over the question of censuring Eyre and the officers who had committed atrocities, W.E. Forster, former Under-Secretary for the Colonies, wondered whether this would have happened if the victims had been white (possibly the answer to that would have been yes if the whites in question had been Irish). He spotted the problem as being a feeling of contempt for those regarded as an inferior race. There should be one code of morality for black and white. In 1868, a liberal weekly, the Spectator, reached a similar conclusion when all attempts at prosecuting Eyre and others had failed. It actually said, “The upper and middle class of the English people, especially the latter … are positively enraged at the demand of negroes for equal consideration with Irishmen, Scotchmen, and Englishmen.”
I am only scratching the surface here. With a more assiduous effort, I have no doubt that much more evidence could be compiled. Many people knew racism existed and tried to do something about it. But when the overwhelming majority is dedicated to maintaining a racist system of privileges, it is very difficult to bring about major changes.
It was more than possible, by the way, to be opposed to slavery and yet have racist feelings of superiority. Anthony Trollope was one. I suppose this should be a subject for another post. As for Darwin, he joined the Jamaica Committee, but there is no writing which I am aware of where he explains why. For his friend Thomas Huxley and for many others, the controversy over the Jamaican massacre was about the protection of constitutional liberties. The misuse of martial law was particularly troubling. Huxley did not want what happened in Jamaica to set a precedent. In answer to a direct inquiry, he said he was not moved “by any particular love for, or admiration of the negro.” It was simply a constitutional question.
The evidence I have laid out here was only for the purpose of demonstrating that there existed an awareness of racial prejudice and its consequences. So if Darwin expresses any such prejudices in his writings, that is no anachronism. And in his time, these feelings could easily co-exist with opposition to slavery and a desire for justice when cruel acts were committed. Darwin always hated acts of cruelty, but that is very different from being free of ideas of racial superiority. These ideas in and of themselves were not cruel in his view. It was just nature.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer