Friday, September 30, 2016

Darwin's Revulsion toward Slavery

George Richmond's watercolor
portrait of Darwin, c. 1840. 
I love antique books, and a few months ago I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over the next several weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

One book that I found was Charles Darwin's first book, A Naturalist's Voyage: Journal of Researches Into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.A. (London, John Murray, 1839, second revised edition, 1845). The affordable copy that I purchased was an 1889 printing. Looking over the copies for sale at, I learned that 1889 was the first printing with the price 3/6---three pence, six shillings---on the spine, and it was also the last printing to feature Darwin's 1860 postscript of corrections as a separate chapter. From 1890 editions on, those corrections were incorporated into the text.

When I was a kid, I had a notion for a while that I'd like to be a naturalist, which to me generally meant I'd study things to be found outdoors. It would be hard to overestimate the influence of the Evans Public Library in Vandalia, IL, my hometown, in inculcating my interests and favorite subjects---topics dear to me to this day. I got a library card there in 1961, when the place was brand-new and I was four. When I was in grade school, I liked the science books in the children's section including biographies of people like Darwin, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, and others.

HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego
(from Wikipedia)  
Many people know that Charles Darwin' foundational theories were influenced by his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle. When he was 22 in 1831, he had the opportunity to join Captain Robert FitzRoy's survey expedition. (FitzRoy, 1805-1865, is known because of Darwin but he had an eventful life and was a pioneering meteorologist, coining the term "forecast" for daily weather reports.) The trip was supposed to last two years but stretched to five, during which time Darwin explored the lands, read numerous books on board, and kept detailed notes on geology, biology, and anthropology. He also collected specimens of animals, birds, fossils, and stones, back to England for later identification and study. His famous visit to the Galapagos Islands was one of many stops.

His observations led him to question then-prevailing theories about the fixity of species. He wondered instead whether species develop and change over time. But how much time? A book that had been given to him, Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830), advanced the theology of geological uniformitarianism---that the earth is subject to slow changes in ways uniform with current and observable changes---over many millions of years. (I'll write about Lyell soon.) This theory challenged the theory of catastrophism; this theory, which did not require disagreement with biblical chronology, stated that the earth changes in response to catastrophes. Darwin began to think about the progress of life over long periods of time.
On the cover, a horseman
chases an ostrich.

He did not publish his theory right away, however. His Journal was published in 1839, with a revised edition in 1845, and his well-developed theory was not presented until On the Origin of Species (1859), Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), and The Descent of Man (1871). Even Origin might not have been published when it was but for parallel researches by Alfred Russel Wallace, which caused Darwin to hasten his writing. (I'll also write about Wallace soon.)

I was going to summarize the book, but Darwin visited so many places. Here instead is s a good summary of the book and its contents, with the routes illustrated:

Here is the online text itself:

Near the end of the book is an interesting passage concerning slavery. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809. As everyone knows, Lincoln was repelled by slavery from an early age, and how fascinating to learn that Darwin, too, had experiences as a young man of horror and moral revulsion toward slavery---and like Lincoln he considered it a sin requiring expiation. Darwin surely shared aspects of the colonial world view of the England of his era, and this passage reflects some class sentiments of the time. But he wanted his readers to understand his feelings about slavery:

"On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have staid in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating for ever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro, as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated; and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such enquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master's ears.

"It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we [Englishmen] at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin" [via the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833] (pp. 499-500).

After I posted this, a colleague drew my attention to a U of Chicago Press book, in which the author argues that Darwin's abolitionist passions lay behind his scientific reflections. I'll look for this book soon!

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