Not all humanitarians in the 19th century looked alike or sounded the same. There was quite a range. You could say it is like the gradation of species. There were many grades of humanitarians. All deserve some praise and those with deficiencies should be noted.
Sir George Grey, who served as Governor of New Zealand and then in South Africa in mid-century, was a low-level humanitarian. He took a very strong anti-racist position by arguing that all human beings were equal in intellectual endowments and that different races should be able to live together. He was opposed to the separation of races. But that was about as far as it went for him. He drew no conclusions that native peoples should be treated with justice or be given any power. He had no respect for native cultures. Despite his belief in equality, he was bent on taking all the land from the Maoris in New Zealand and the Xhosa in South Africa. They lost a lot because of him.
Way up there on the list of great humanitarians were people like Saxe Bannister and Charles Napier. They not only stood firmly for anti-racist views, they were not afraid to follow up with demands for justice. Equal treatment under the law was a theme that both struck. They were committed to colonialism, but they objected to its callousness towards native peoples and its unfairness.
Bannister, an Attorney General in New South Wales in the mid-1820s, wanted to see colonial expansion regulated with an eye to restraining the worst vices of colonists. He expressed so much concern for native rights (e.g., that there should be a board independent of the Colonial Office to oversee the interests of natives and that colored people should serve on this board) that an under-secretary would say he suffered from mental aberration.
Napier was a British military hero who was offered the Governorship of a new colony in South Australia in the 1830s, but his demand for enough soldiers and money to ensure success in case the colony ran into trouble resulted in his not getting the job. He despised people who ranked races and who looked at Australian Aborigines as the missing link between man and monkey. He saw no reason why natives should not be allowed to live as it suited them. He said that if he had been appointed Governor, he would have made sure that natives were treated the same under the law, equal to himself and the men who served under him.
There were many more who were somewhere in between Grey and Napier or Bannister. Those humanitarians who stuck by their convictions often suffered for it. They became outcasts, leading ruined lives. Others, when push came to shove, compromised so that they could continue to live in their society. The history of humanitarianism deserves better treatment than it has received so far.
Where does all this leave Darwin? Where does he fit into this spectrum? I am not sure that he even reaches the low level represented by Sir George Grey. In The Descent of Man, he is very clear that he does not regard all races as equal. Savages are generally ranked by him as intellectually and morally inferior to Europeans. It is their inferiority which he regards as the chief cause of their impending extermination and not immoral behavior on the part of colonizing Europe.
The only reason anyone thinks Darwin could be considered a humanitarian is because he was anti-slavery. But that was a very limited idea. It was legalized slavery that he abhorred. As far as I know, he never raised concerns about illegal slavery or forced labor. He totally supported colonialism which was a kind of de facto slavery, as far as indigenous people experienced it. Many humanitarians saw colonialism that way too and some thought it was worse than slavery, but Darwin never joined them.
It is hard to know everything about the relationship between Darwin and humanitarianism because he was basically silent on most of these issues, except for his firm belief in the inferiority of most natives. There were quite a variety of humanitarians around Darwin. Some of them, like Grey, he read. But none of it seems to have had an impact on him. He certainly did not agree with their humane views, but he never took the trouble to acknowledge them or dispute them. He gives them the silent treatment. And that is troubling.
© 2015 Leon Zitzer