Charles Darwin on the atrocity of slavery and the origin of inequality

In 1836, a twenty-seven years old Charles Darwin, came back from a five-year, extraordinary survey expedition around the world. In 1839, he published a book that was later given a title The Voyage of the Beagle, bringing Darwin considerable fame and respect. The book was a vivid travel memoir as well as a detailed scientific field journal covering biology, geology, natural history, and anthropology. In the book Darwin also sporadically included his observations on slavery, briefly reflecting by the way on some crucial economic, social and moral themes of that (and even this) time. The following penetrating lines portray a surprising representation of this revolutionary naturalist that is still frequently linked to racism and even fascism.

[In Brazil] I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this actIt may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. (Ch. 2) […]
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 stayed 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 de 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 forever 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 inquirers 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. (Ch. 21)

After reading these staggering lines from The Voyage of the Beagle, I recalled Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s latest and fascinating biography of Darwin, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s views on Human Evolution, that seeks to correct the inaccurate depiction of Darwin, linking him to racism and sorts of “social Darwinism”. Their efforts have been assisted by increased accessibility to Darwin’s correspondence, his marginalia in books, his notebooks, and voluminous manuscript material, which have been painstakingly deciphered and transcribed for the past 35 years. Desmond and Moore’s central argument is quite daring; the primary force driving Darwin—even as a young man—was his detestation of slavery and racism. They assert evolutionists, secularists and even creationists are wrong when they attribute Darwin’s success to “his single-minded pursuit of science,” and that “a zeal for scientific knowledge consumed him, keeping him on target to overthrow God and bestialize humanity” (p. xvi). Acknowledging contradictions in Darwin’s thought and writings—“paradoxical” in Desmond and Moore’s words—nevertheless, they find “a moral passion firing his evolutionary work” (p. xviii), so much so that “human evolution wasn’t his last piece in the evolution jigsaw; it was the first.” (p. xvi).

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One comment

  1. Always wondered about Darwin with respect to being in empathy-with the other, ever since I did a word search of his main books and found far more reference to the community of shared interest than to the self-interest. The post clarifies Darwin fully understood the need to be so connected, in the case at hand, with slaves. Ego-based self-interest had to be tempered with the empathy-based shared interest, in this case, with the slaves. Slave owners did not as a general matter so empathize: So, there had to be violence… like the US Civil War… to stop the violence.

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