Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Charles Darwin On The Effects Of Slavery

To my mind, there are three individuals who epitomize different aspects of Victorian England at its height. Charles Dickens gave voice to the qualms about industrialization, urbanization, and class warfare all the while speaking with the voice of bourgeois moral rectitude. William Gladstone helped create the conditions for British economic and political power with a career in Parliament that began before Queen Victoria took the throne and lasted until her dotage. As Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister (the latter four times) he typified a kind of evangelical high-mindedness that lay thick over a country that assumed its power was ordained by God rather than as an accident of history. Charles Darwin gave the world the archetypal Victorian scientific theory, getting as much wrong as he did right, all the while setting the groundwork for how we understand the development of living organisms.

Before he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, while doing several years of research on roundworms, he also published a travelogue, a genre most loved by Victorian Britain as it settled in to the comfort of superpower status. Hired as the naturalist for a five year expedition aboard the H. M. S. Beagle, Darwin traveled through the Atlantic islands, South America, then on to the Galapagos. He kept a journal, collected hundreds of specimen samples on which he conducted experiments (many of which would be considered cruel by contemporary standards), and enjoyed the comforts a middle class British gentleman had come to expect from a world that granted British hegemony. His memoir of the trip is filled with notes on the geology of the places to which he traveled; inventories of interesting flora and fauna, including habits and practices of species that were generally not well known to British scientists; he also included many asides on the customs, habits, and social conditions in the lands through which he traveled. Early in the voyage, while in Brazil, he was crossing a river on a ferry pulled by a slave of African origin.
I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavoring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.
Not a stranger to typical middle class 19th century bigotries, Darwin still had insight enough to understand precisely what occurred in the exchange with the gentleman in question. There is some humor in Darwin calling the slave "uncommonly stupid" then going on to describe himself acting quite stupid, to the point of accidentally threatening the man, who seemed to understand the rules of communication in his land far better than did Darwin. All the same, Darwin shows us it is possible to overcome, at least in some fashion, the limitations of his own prejudices. Seeing this man cower, Darwin realized not only his own error, but the conditions in which he found himself. Would that we had more such people today.

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