Darwin the abolitionist

The theory of evolution is regarded as a triumph of disinterested scientific reason. Yet, on the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species," new research reveals that Darwin was driven to the idea of common descent by a great moral cause
February 28, 2009

Shackled legs, thumbscrews used to crush the fingers of errant female slaves, a six-year-old boy horse-whipped for handing out water in a dirty glass: these sound like scenes from a modern horror story, but all were seen by the young Charles Darwin on his travels with the Beagle around the slave-owning continent of South America. You will find no mention of them in the proudly reasoned, scientific pages of On the Origin of Species. Glance at Darwin's journals, private notebooks and family background, however, and you will find a man immersed in the rhetoric and fervent belief of the anti-slavery movement. Was the public man of science influenced by these private passions? In the light of painstaking archival investigations into Darwin's letters, papers and notes, I believe the answer is a firm "yes." Although he never admitted publicly to so political a motivation, anti-slavery sentiment was the handmaiden of Charles Darwin's great intellectual achievement—the theory of evolution. The standard tale of a disinterested gentleman-naturalist's journey of discovery will no longer wash. Rather, to understand both the man in his times and the true radicalism of his theory, we must look to the political and moral considerations that shaped his thought.

A wealthy young man fresh from the cloisters of Cambridge, Charles Darwin set sail in HMS Beagle from Plymouth on 27th December 1831. Aged just 23, a world of wonders lay before him. During the Beagle's five-year circumnavigation of the globe he spent most of his time on the east coast of South America, studying marine life and the rainforest fauna or galloping across Patagonian plains in search of fossils. Then the Beagle tacked round Cape Horn and up the Chilean coast to Valparaiso, where Darwin climbed the Andean foothills in 1835. After visiting the "frying hot" Galapagos islands, the ship steered a homeward journey, taking in Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and the Cape of Good Hope, before berthing back in England in October 1836.

This itinerary of far-flung places is well-known. What is less generally realised is that the voyage had multiple objectives. Darwin sailed as gentleman companion to the prickly Captain Robert FitzRoy, whose first aim was to return three Alakaluf and Yahgan aboriginals ("Fuegians" to Darwin, as they came from Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago of islands at the southernmost tip of the Americas). They had been snatched during the Beagle's previous voyage and Christianised as an experiment. Darwin lived for months with these so-called civilised "savages" and came to understand first-hand how, as he put it, the savage-to-civilised distance was no more than that between wild and domestic animals.

Still more significantly, the voyage exposed Darwin to what few English gentlemen of his day would ever see—the full barbarity of slavery in the raw. The Beagle's official brief was to map South America's coastal waters, so making them safe for British merchantmen; but this mapping also had a more martial intent. Since 1807, when Britain had outlawed the trade in slaves (although not slavery itself within the empire), the Royal Navy had been enforcing a blockade in the Atlantic aimed at suppressing the export of African slaves—a trade that still flourished in the southern US and South America, even though it was technically banned in both. Naval ships thus constantly played a stop-and-search role.

The locally-bought supply boat used on the previous Beagle voyage to South America, in 1826-30, had itself been a slaver. And when Darwin was leaving the River Plate in 1833 this old boat was seen slipping into Rio harbour having apparently landed nearly 200 Africans up the coast—it had returned to slaving. Everywhere, Darwin passed ships readying for the Africa run: being fitted with chains and branding irons. Moreover, when FitzRoy purchased the Beagle's new supply boat, he tried to get the Admiralty to reimburse him by telling the Sea Lords that it "will make a good privateer" against the slavers. FitzRoy had learned that the Uruguay government had just illegally sanctioned the import of what it termed "2,000 negro colonists."

On shore in South America, we know from the Journal he published in 1845 that Darwin saw those shackles, thumbscrews and the six-year-old boy horse-whipped, as well as other "heart-sickening atrocities." He described himself being powerless, as a foreigner, to step in (only the horse-whipped boy had him interfering; we know of no other instance). But after the voyage the frustration spilled out in his evolutionary notebooks—a resource of crucial importance in the development of his thought—which damned the slaver "who has debased his Nature & violates every best instinctive feeling by making slave of his fellow black." In the Journal, too, Darwin excoriated slavery in the strongest language he would ever use. Like most Victorians, Darwin was loath to expose his innermost feelings, so this diatribe—in which he itemised the "revolting details" of the tortures he had seen—emphasises how incensed he remained. "It makes one's blood boil… to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty." On no other subject would the usually mild Darwin talk so vehemently. He was a guest in one house, the Journal records, where "daily and hourly" a beating "enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal" was meted out to a poor "mulatto." Blacks were being bestialised before his eyes: broken in spirit the way wild animals are broken during domestication.


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At around the same time, slavery apologists in the US were asserting that Caucasians and Africans were distinct species. This was the claim not only of propagandists in the southern states, but also of slave-owning men of science. These various human species shared no common origin, it was argued—they passed back unchanged to the time of creation. There was no mixed blood; the notion was anathema in the south, where racial purity was paramount and any interbreeding was believed to result in "hybrids," who sooner or later became infertile.

Such plantation apologias appalled Darwin. But they weren't restricted to the US. A slave-owning southern physician, Charles Caldwell, spoke at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1841, to claim that Africans bore "a nearer resemblance" to the apes "than to the highest varieties of our own species." In fact, the times were moving away from the humanitarian sentiment that the abolitionists had ushered in. There was a reactionary hardening against the view that blacks could be turned into "gentlemen." Many anthropologists in Britain and America attracted large audiences after the 1840s by arguing that whites were the only species capable of civilisation. Philanthropy was portrayed as bleeding-heart, sentimental tosh that science, based on racial skull measuring, would disprove. After all, it was argued, blacks had never produced a "Cicero, a Bacon, or a Shakespeare." They were fated only to be slaves or servants. Red Indians and black people were ineducable and, outside the protective embrace of slavery, they would be unable to adapt to a spreading white civilisation. Philanthropy only dragged out the misery for those remaining in the "wild," said Caldwell; "their extinction will be a dispensation of kindness."

Darwin was quite aware of the "separate species" view. On the Beagle, he carried a 17-volume standard work, the Dictionnaire Classique d'Histoire Naturelle, which divided humans into 15 species and, quite egregiously (in Darwin's eyes), even named the Fuegians and Patagonians as two of them. Darwin, who was familiar with these peoples, knew that they were closely related but adapted to different terrains. For the Dictionnaire, each species had its own bloodline. Fuegians and Patagonians were not kin, any more than white and black men.


So Darwin returned to England thanking God "I shall never again visit a slave-country." The events were seared into his memory. "To this day," he wrote in 1845, "if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco [probably in the old town of Olinda in Brazil], 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."

Yet the voyage was not so much an awakening as a confirmation of the radical views in which Darwin had been raised. Even before setting foot on the Beagle, Darwin was primed to loathe what he saw in Brazil. The full extent of his family's commitment to the cessation of all slavery was revealed by Jim Moore after research among the neglected Wedgwood archives in the Potteries (Josiah Wedgwood, the master potter, was Darwin's maternal grandfather). Painstaking work with thousands of faded letters left no doubt of the commitment.

It is well-known that grandfather Wedgwood had produced the famous "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" seal for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade—in fact he produced thousands of medallions with the slogan at his own expense, and these became fashionable pieces, worn in solidarity, the poppies of their day. But he also bankrolled the great abolitionist agitator, Thomas Clarkson, the man who rode 35,000 miles between ports collecting statistics on the trade. Wedgwood money stood behind the Sierra Leone Company, too, set up to assist liberated slaves settling in Africa.

Darwin's uncle, Jos Wedgwood, sat on the London abolition committee, entered parliament on an abolitionist ticket, poured the proceeds from the sale of the Wedgwood London showroom into his Hanley and Shelton Anti-Slavery Society, and printed and distributed huge numbers of propaganda tracts. Darwin's aunt Sarah donated tens of thousands of pounds (in today's money) to anti-slavery societies, astonishing even the family with her largesse. In fact, all the Wedgwood women were involved in anti-slavery activity. The depth of this commitment has never been fully appreciated.

The Darwins and Wedgwoods were much intermarried. Darwin's mother and wife were Wedgwoods, and his sister married his wife's brother. His mother died when he was eight and he was raised by his sisters; holidays were spent in and out of the Wedgwood home. Darwin himself was no less committed to the cause. Even now, letters are turning up that confirm this. In one of the latest he praises the world's most uncompromising "immediatist" abolitionist, the American William Lloyd Garrison, as "a man to be for ever revered," or (as another letter says), a man "whom I honour from the bottom of my soul." And we now know that, as a youngster in Shrewsbury, Darwin had been a friend of Clarkson's right-hand man in the region. Look, again, at Darwin's culminating work uniting the human races and, indeed, all living creatures, The Descent of Man. Who stands at the moral apex?—Thomas Clarkson.

Darwin's earliest encounter with a black person, too, is as intriguing as it is little known. Sent to study medicine at Edinburgh University late in 1825, Darwin was a failure, and his couple of years there are usually dismissed. Surgery terrified him; lectures bored him. But, by my reckoning, he spent 40 hours in the first winter learning bird-stuffing from a freed Guyanese slave John Edmonston, who had tales to tell of plantation life and the rainforest beyond. Guyana was in the news: a slave rebellion had been crushed there just months earlier, and John (presumably descended from west African captives) had travelled through the forest with the explorer Charles Waterton, whose Wanderings in South America were the sensation of the moment. So, for Darwin, who was nearly 17, there was a certain cachet to this man's company in the frosty winter of 1826. John became, in Darwin's own words, an "intimate."

Visiting Americans were appalled at the sight of blacks being treated as equals on British streets, but Darwin showed no sense of ignominy at being taught by a "full-blooded negro." His anti-slavery sisters had done their job. Add to this his subsequent experiences on the Beagle accompanied by Christianised Fuegians, and his four days travelling around the Cape with a white-gloved and well-spoken Khoikhoi guide (or "Hottentot," a people depicted by slavery apologists as little short of apes), and you have a young man primed to see through the "scientific" claims of pro-slavery racism.

He knew that black people could be civilised; he had even treated them as "intimates." He knew that the races were not separate species as slave-masters claimed, but was frustrated at being unable to do anything about slavery abroad. Now his pent-up feeling was poured into a new, strange science: one that rested on an opposite and obvious truth, that the black slave was a "Man and a Brother." For him, the corollary of brotherhood was a radically different racial image to that held by almost all of his contemporaries: one of "common descent." And it was this that would form the central image of Darwin's unique evolutionary science.


To most of Darwin's peers, evolution in any guise was bizarre and abhorrent. It was "that most extravagant of all suppositions, that most grovelling of all religions—the self-created, self-endowed, and self-creating powers of Nature." Natural causes took the place of miraculous events, and with this spiritual emasculation the church lost its temporal power. In short, it was subversive. One of Darwin's church-ordained geology teachers wanted to stamp with "an iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion." To announce similar abominations could even risk a court appearance. The radical surgeon William Lawrence was forced to recant for arguing in his materialistic Lectures on Man that humans were little more than sinews, nerves and muscles. The Court of Chancery declared the book blasphemous, which meant that it was stripped of copyright. One had to step gingerly as a rationalist gent in a straitlaced society whose mythology underwrote the Anglican order. Plenty of activists had spent a year at His Majesty's expense for denying Christianity—and Darwin's private evolution notebooks of 1837-39 could be interpreted as sapping its miraculous basis.

Darwin's agonies over his own theories are well-known. In our biography of Darwin, published eighteen years ago, Jim Moore and I drew attention to the retiring squire's strategy for dealing with his "blasphemous" views: to delay publication as long as possible. It took Darwin three decades to reveal fully his thinking on human evolution. He devised his theory in 1837-39, published On the Origin of Species, which all but avoided talk of mankind, in 1859 and finally summoned up the courage to announce his belief in human evolution in The Descent of Man in 1871.

The years that Darwin sat on his theory—an entire generation—were lonely ones, during which he confided only fleetingly in a few confidants or relations. Perhaps he feared upsetting his devout wife. Even then, he rarely said more than that he doubted "species stability"—the idea that animals had always existed, unchanged, in their present forms—or that he believed that the classification of animals and plants should be like a human genealogical tree, uniting blood kin. That was it. The stomach complaint that set in as he formulated his ideas in the later 1830s was possibly prompted by the fear and guilt he was experiencing. Darwin himself admitted that his covert evolutionary work caused "the main part of the ills to which my flesh is heir."

Even decades later, admitting to human evolution remained difficult. Alfred Russel Wallace, who precipitated Darwin's rush to publish The Origin of Species by threatening to pip him to the post, asked one of Darwin's naturalist friends in the 1860s why "men of science [are] so dreadfully afraid to say what they think" about human origins. The friend wrote caustically to Darwin that, if the footloose Wallace had "as many kind & good relations as I have, who would be grieved & pained to hear me say all I think… he would not wonder so much." "I fully agree," Darwin wrote back. With a pious wife, parish respectability and a good name, he had much to lose.

The burning question, in fact, is why a young man fresh off the Beagle with a glittering career in prospect—a gentleman for whom honour was paramount—would have considered risking everything by developing a "monkey-man" theory that affronted the most sacred principles of the Christian society to which he belonged; and why he then persevered with it through these long years of doubt and fearful isolation. It is in his relationship with slavery and the abolitionist cause that we find our answer.

There is, first of all, one nagging question to be answered. If his proudly-held abolitionist views were so central to his science, why did Darwin never explicitly mention the link between them? The answer is twofold. First, even if he did consciously recognise such moral principles as self-evident truths, there is the sheer secrecy in which he shrouded all his thinking on evolution. Second, there is a larger point about the way in which Darwin conceived of his own "motivations." Darwin was a man of science working at a time when such men were supposed to follow Baconian inductive principles. The Origin of Species itself presents his work as a patient accumulation of facts that forced him to evolutionary conclusions. His covert notebooks, written immediately after the Beagle voyage, tell a totally different story; but Darwin would never have conceived of his own studies as motivated by anything other than observation and reasoning. His underlying assumptions, as so often for men of science, went unexamined.

The key to understanding both Darwin's conflicted position and his ultimate actions is not so much the evidence that he collected as the particular way in which he shaped it. The mainstream account of this process—that the "facts" he had discovered forced his hand and compelled him to develop his theories in the way he did—does not hold water. There is no doubt that the Galapagos mockingbirds and pampas ground sloths were crucial. But many naval naturalists had seen as much as Darwin had and not cried "Evolution!" Take the drunken John MacGillivray, a brilliant naturalist ready to sit down with aboriginals and learn their language (not something Darwin ever did). On HMS Rattlesnake, charting Australia's barrier reef, MacGillivray realised that each island, even reef, had its unique snail species. But where Darwin's recognition of the Galapagos faunal variation led to his work on speciation, MacGillivray saw nothing that needed explaining.

Moreover, there were (a few) rival evolutionists even in Darwin's day—but, for them, nothing like Darwin's now famous "tree" image was conceivable; no common descent, no notion that living monkeys and humans shared an ancient ancestor. Their science was largely a series of parallel lines. One early line had reached humans, another later one had only got as far as monkeys, and the last to start had only risen to the amoeba stage. Each line passed through the same stages, so that today's monkeys would be tomorrow's humans. No forking, no joint ancestor—it seemed quite logical to race theorists that blacks were just "lower," less-developed humans.

Darwin was different. And the historian of science must try to understand what drove him to see evolution specifically, and uniquely, in terms of common descent, and thus to make man only a better sort of brute. What was the moral gain that outweighed the consequences: the sleepless nights, the fears of derision, ostracism or worse?

The answer is clear. Primed by his anti-slavery heritage and horrifying experience of Brazilian slavery, Darwin returned to England in 1836 and immediately conceived an image of common descent. His private evolutionary notebooks of 1837-38 show his thinking move outward from racial kinship and brotherhood to unite all suffering creation. He developed these ideas at a time of growing abolitionist euphoria as the slaves were ending their compulsory "apprenticeships" and finally being freed. It was no coincidence, either, that his dining companions in these critical months were the feisty "immediatist" Harriet Martineau, proselytising after her two years in the American south, and her antithesis, the sour sage Thomas Carlyle, who saw "Mungo" better off in slavery. There was no escaping the battle.

Crucially, the model we can trace for Darwin's developing theory throughout his earliest evolutionary notes is the human pedigree itself. As he jotted in May 1838: "I cannot help thinking good analogy might be traced between relationship of all men now living & the classification of animals." His notes were often disjointed, but their meaning shines through—and always there were tantalising insights into the way his reasoning was forged from his abolitionist heritage. Human differences became the paradigm. Explain them, and the evolution of all life followed.

I have used the anachronistic word "evolution" throughout, but Darwin's preferred term was "descent," a heraldic word, used by pedigree-chasers. I doubt it had been used in such an evolutionary sense before; it came straight from genealogical lore.

Common origins, at this time, were almost unknown in natural history. But they were all-pervasive in abolitionist ideology. (They were basic, too, in books such as ethnologist James Cowles Prichard's monumental compendium Researches into the Physical History of Mankind. Prichard promoted a unity of the races springing from Adam, and Darwin found Prichard's evidence for common descent invaluable.) This abolitionist literature was Darwin's source. As in society, there was to be a new meritocracy of nature. Unlike Carlyle, who thought that black people had little cultural aptitude, Darwin had learned from an intelligent Guyanese teacher, lived with Fuegians and been guided by a well-mannered "Hottentot" at the Cape. Civilisation, he knew, was no white prerogative. Such feelings lay behind the gush of notes of 1838 in which Darwin pushed his conclusions to their limit.


There are multiple ironies here. Darwin was freeing the slaves to make them equally human. But he was equally turning all humans into animals, dismissing those who "think mankind's origin godlike." For many of his critics, one abomination was replacing another; and the evolutionary medicine was as bad as slavery's disease. But others understood him.

There is, also, a sadder irony. Darwin's was a blinkered humanism. It reflected the conflicted nature of British society, where half the nation was trying to free slaves, while their expatriate peers in Australia and elsewhere were busy exterminating nomadic aborigines in the name of economic progress. In the economic depression that began in the late 1830s, some 400,000 unemployed were shipped from Britain to the colonies annually. The boatloads devastated local cultures to the extent that the annihilation of all aboriginal peoples was projected within a century.

Darwin himself had witnessed ethnic-cleansing on a world scale: the pampas Indians in Argentina butchered by General Rosas's gauchos to clear the ground for cattle; the last Tasmanians herded into camps. The Beagle arrived amid the Xhosa wars in the Cape, at the start of the Boers "great trek." Such events prefigured a darker side to Darwinism; and Darwin's own vision became bleaker after he read Malthus on the wars and famine stemming from population pressures. He used Malthusian ideas to normalise and naturalise the colonial genocide, making it part of the evolutionary process, suggesting how such conflict was not only "natural," but beneficial (inasmuch as the "fitter" survivors carried the human race forward). The uncivilised peoples of the plains were going the way of the megafauna he found fossilised under their feet. But Darwin took colonial conflict as an inevitability to be explained, not a policy choice to be challenged. It is a supreme irony that the gentle, squeamish abolitionist should end up justifying colonial eradication.

He didn't see the incongruity. And as the years passed he adopted more of the attitudes of his gentlemanly class about the "higher" moral, technological and intellectual order achieved by white Europeans. Sixty-two by the time he announced his views on human evolution, in The Descent of Man (1871), he was now mired in his contemporaries' "ladder" image of world cultures, with whites on the top civilisational rung and blacks at the bottom. The notion of a unilinear "higher" and "lower," denounced in his old notebooks as meaningless, was effectively reinstated in cultural terms. He was following the trend, but in shifting the emphasis from a biological racial kinship to a single cultural yardstick for all races, standardised on western achievements, his science failed to live up to its early emancipatory promise.

"Darwinism," then, was never distinct from "social Darwinism." It is traditional to deflect blame away from Darwin himself for all the unpleasant social implications of this phrase, keeping his theory of natural selection scientific and ideologically untainted—the blame is conveniently shunted off on to his young contemporary Herbert Spencer. But this attempt to protect the purity of Darwinism won't wash. Indeed, Darwin, who thought Spencer a windbag, would not have recognised a separate category of "social Darwinism"—for him, the "social" was integral to his system. He dealt with race, slavery, genocide and colonial conflict from the first: his theory of evolution was intended to explain society.

So one has to live with Darwin warts and all. He was a man of his time, a mirror to his culture; racist while also race-saving, distressed by cruelty as he naturalised genocide, able to pass the blame to nature, rather than man. History is messy and Darwin was always a paradoxical thinker, the more so as he began to bend with the breeze late in life.

To celebrate historical figures we have first to understand them. In 2009, 200 years after his birth, it is time to switch the spotlight onto the younger Darwin—the man whose belief in human brotherhood transmuted into an evolutionary theory of common descent. Rather than being morally subversive, as his Christian critics claim, Darwin's achievement was morally grounded. Rather than being a dispassionate practice, his science had a humanitarian drive. It made brothers and sisters not only of all human races, but of all life.

Discuss this essay at First Drafts, Prospect's blog