RACISM OF EMPIRE EXEMPLIFIED BY CARYLYE’S WRITING ON THE ‘NIGGER QUESTION’
[ 2 August 1867 ]
On this day in 1867, an essay by one of Britain’s leading Victorian social commentators and historians, Thomas Carlyle, which had just appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine, received its first reviews in the British press with many journalists expressing their ardent approval.1 In his essay, Carlyle, exemplifying the anti-democratic and racist thinking of the British elite, reflected on the supposed fatuousness of popular movements in Britain and America. He focused his scorn particularly on the decision by the northern states to make emancipation of slavery a principal war aim.
‘Essentially the Nigger question,’ Carlyle claimed, ‘was one of the smallest, and in itself did not much concern mankind in the present time of struggles and hurries. One always rather likes the Nigger, evidently a poor blockhead with good dispositions, with affections, with attachments – with a turn for Nigger melodies and the like… The Almighty Maker has appointed him to be a servant.’ He admitted that ‘mischiefs, irregularities and injustices did probably abound’ in the relationship between slave and slave master but argued that these were gradually being remedied. Refusing to accept that plantation slavery was a savage injustice, he condemned the ‘frantic abolitionists fire-breathing like the old Chimaera’ and repeated his assertion that ‘the Nigger’s case was not the most pressing in the world but among the least so !’2
Not surprisingly, he also considered the agitation for the ‘extension of the suffrage’ in Britain to be ‘inexpressibly delirious’, a claim which was backed, with only minor reservations, by The Globe newspaper, which declared ‘nor is he far wrong. The infinite folly of those who make the mob believe the extension of the suffrage is a panacea, has been often denounced in these columns.’3 It was, Carlyle concluded, still the duty of the English nobleman to rule both at home and abroad. ‘The English nobleman,’ he believed, ‘has still left in him, after such sorrowful erosions, something considerable of chivalry and magnanimity: polite he is in the finest form; politeness, modest, simple, veritable, ineradicable, dwells in him to the bone’ and of this chivalrous character he commented that ‘no king can rule without it, none but potential kings can really have it.’4 So it was the English who appeared to be God’s chosen people to open up and rule those vast as yet uncolonised areas of the world.5
- ‘A Philosopher on Reform,’ The Globe, 2 August 1867, p. 2.
- Cited in ‘Shooting Niagra and After,’ The Glasgow Evening Post, 5 August 1867, p. 4.
- Cited in ‘A Philospher on Reform,’ The Globe, 2 August 1867, p. 2.
- Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 2010, p. 172.
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