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The primary reason most scholars consider Darwin a great humanitarian and a non-racist is that he strongly opposed slavery. They make it seem like a simple issue: Slavery was an absolute evil and anyone against it was on the side of absolute good. That is a very false summary of the situation. The question really is: What kind of an emancipationist was Darwin? There were a variety of positions that people in his time took. This is about much more than Darwin’s personal views.
First, it was possible to be in favor of emancipation and yet also be a severe racist. This was true of Darwin’s friends, Thomas Huxley and Joseph Hooker. Anthony Trollope is another example. This was actually quite common, and without specific evidence for Darwin, it makes it difficult to say where he stood.
At the end of the American Civil War, Huxley gave a lecture in which he said that he was glad slavery was finally over (i.e., in the west), its doom being just, but he added there were “good grounds for repudiating half the arguments which have been employed by the winning side.” The main argument he wanted to reject was the argument for equality: “It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man … The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest.” It is possible that all that abolition will have accomplished is that “emancipation may convert the slave from a well-fed animal into a pauperised man” but that is because “The doctrine of equal natural rights may be an illogical delusion.”
Huxley was speaking for a lot of abolitionists. Was he also speaking for Darwin? I have not found any evidence one way or the other. But if so many people felt like this, why were they against slavery in the first place? One major reason was that the legal institution of slavery had come to be regarded as some sort of moral stain on the conscience of the west—a “monstrous stain” as Darwin called it in an early letter. Their goal was not the welfare of the slaves and ex-slaves, but simply their own conscience. As Huxley also said in that lecture, “whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore.”
That brings me to my second point: How much concern was there for what the freed slaves would face in society? Very little, it seems. They were on their own now, which is how Huxley and so many others felt about it. Very few gave any thought to the considerable racism they would face.
One of those few was Goldwin Smith, a professor of history at Oxford, who asked, “How can there be real political equality without social fusion, and how can there be social fusion while the difference of colour and the physical antipathy remain?” He posed that question in a letter to an American friend around the same time Huxley gave his lecture. It is not the kind of question you find in Darwin, so it is hard to tell whether he agreed with Smith or Huxley. In general, the civil rights of poor, working class people (which is where freed slaves found themselves) was not on Darwin’s agenda.
Third, despite legal emancipation, illegal slavery, or forced labor, continued in many places. In the United States, it was known as the peonage system; also, there was the practice of renting out black prisoners to businesses, which happened in places like Texas. In the Pacific South Seas, it was called blackbirding. Very few actively opposed the continuation of illegal slavery and I don’t see anything to indicate that Darwin expressed grave concerns about this. Opposing legal slavery was a good but limited position. We really cannot tell how much of a humanitarian Darwin was until we explore all the issues surrounding slavery.
Fourth, with the end of legalized slavery, some abolitionists moved to help aborigines in the British colonies. Darwin did not make that move. Thomas Fowell Buxton was one of the leading advocates for both slaves and aborigines. In testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee on Aborigines (1837), he tried to convince Parliament to take the plight of aborigines as seriously as it had finally taken slavery. After commenting on Britain’s final rejection of the slave trade and slavery itself, he said, “An evil remains very similar in character, and not altogether unfit to be compared with them in the amount of misery it produces. The oppression of the natives of barbarous countries is a practice which pleads no claim to indulgence.” Darwin would never make such a comparison.
Fifth, what was expected of the freed slaves? The main hope in Britain seems to have been that they would join the working class and help the empire’s capitalist economy become more prosperous. That did not happen. In Jamaica, for example, the former slaves did not like working on the sugar plantations. Wages were not good and working conditions were lousy. What they preferred was acquiring and working their own small plots of land, supplementing that with occasional plantation work. The sugar plantation economy basically collapsed—for many reasons (like the effects of free trade) and not just because of the unavailability of workers.
Nevertheless, many abolitionists overlooked the complexity of causes and blamed the ex-slaves for the collapse. Anthony Trollope in particular was incensed that the freed slaves preferred their own small peasant holdings to the big capitalist plantations. Like many others, he saw their refusal to work for rich white people as a sign of inborn laziness. In 1859, he wrote, “The negro’s idea of emancipation was, and is, emancipation not from slavery, but from work.” He continued: “To lie in the sun and eat breadfruit and yams is his idea of being free … Jamaica, as it now exists, is still under a devil’s ordinance.” He concluded among other things that “As far as we at present see, the struggle [to end slavery] has produced idleness and sensuality, rather than prosperity and civilization.” So much for the goodwill of abolitionists.
Did Darwin blame the freed slaves for the perceived failure of emancipation? I have no idea. He says little to nothing about most of these issues. And yet based on an almost total lack of information about these vital matters, scholars willy-nilly declare Darwin a great humanitarian. I am not criticizing Darwin who had no obligation to be great on every level. I am criticizing scholars for making categorical statements without evidence and covering up the real situation.
One concern white abolitionists had was that emancipated slaves, who had at least partly adapted to British culture when they were slaves, would revert back to a state of savagery in their new freedom. Again Trollope: “To recede from civilization and become again savage—as savage as the laws of the community will permit—has been to his [the negro’s] taste. I believe that he would altogether retrograde if left to himself.” He actually reaffirms here that “emancipation was clearly right” but we expected too much from it. Like Huxley, he believed that the main thing was that we white people have cleansed ourselves from the sin of slavery.
Too little information from Darwin is again the problem, but in general, we know that the argument about reverting to a state of savagery is an argument that would have made some sense to him. He would not have readily dismissed it. He had his own concerns about the low morality and civilization of savages (which he harps on in The Descent of Man). He would have been sympathetic to Trollope’s point and listened very carefully. Perhaps he would have said that we should wait and see how this develops.
Darwin was a low level humanitarian for opposing legal slavery, but he does not score high, or even at all, on all the other issues around slavery and emancipation. Most disappointing to me was his failure to see colonialism and slavery as similar evils. But as I said, this goes way beyond Darwin. Western civilization has patted itself on the back just a little too much for this one limited act of setting the slaves free. It actually did precious little to make sure that emancipation would be a full success. Huxley pointed out that emancipation benefitted the master more than the slave. Yup, that’s about the size of this great humanitarian act.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer