Thomas Carlyle on the Negro Question and Slavery

Thomas Carlyle’s Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question was once described by historian and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams as “the most offensive document in the entire world literature on slavery and the West Indies.” And, indeed, from its inception it was greeted with shock and anger, all the more so because Carlyle, with The French Revolution, Sartor Resartus, Past and Present, and On Heroes and Hero-Worship behind him, was one of the most influential writers in England at this point, though his reputation didn’t recover from the Occasional Discourse and other politically extreme writings from this era. Carlyle’s one-time close friend, the liberal John Stuart Mill, attacked Carlyle publicly for his stance, and the two were irreversibly estranged.

In the first publication of the Occasional Discourse, Carlyle introduced a jocose framing narrative claiming the paper had been found in a premises recently vacated by one Phelim M’Quirk, a reporter of dubious reputation, and that it was being published by M’Quirk’s former landlady in the hopes of raising some of the arrears he had left without paying her. The content of the paper, though, was generally assumed to be a genuine reflection of Carlyle’s own position, and was fairly consistent with some of his other writings. In later editions Carlyle removed the framing device and the references to M’Quirk, and presented it as a straightforward essay from his own hand.

The essay proper opens with a sneer at the various philanthropic movements popular and influential at the time; he refers to these movements collectively as the “Universal Abolition-of-Pain Association.” Then he moves on to “the negro question”, first telling us that “what I have to say on the matter… you will not, in the least, like it.”

Carlyle considers the case of the West Indies, where slavery has been abolished some 15 years. In his view, the freed slaves now lead lives of indolent pleasure: “Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for every new work, and the pumpkins cheap as grass in those rich climates; while the sugar crops rot round them, uncut, because labor cannot be hired, so cheap are the pumpkins” So, because they have enough pumpkins to eat, the inhabitants refuse to do any other work all day but eat pumpkins, this obstructing the attempts of the civilizing English to develop the land.

It is worth noting at this point that Carlyle had never been to the West Indies, he had been no nearer to them, geographically speaking, than Ireland, and he used Ireland as a point of reference in this essay: the West Indies, he said, were, since emancipation, in danger of becoming a “black Ireland”. Ireland had, of course, recently been prey to a devastating famine, and Carlyle had travelled to Ireland in the later stages of that disaster, and the poverty and degradation, rather than accentuating the sympathy he had expressed for Ireland in some earlier papers, seemed rather to have disgusted him and hardened his views: “Human swinery… Abomination of desolation. What can you make of it?”

For the West Indies, Carlyle proposed a counter emancipation: “’emancipate him from his indolence, and, by some wise means… compel him to do the work he is fit for.” Carlyle’s core tenet was the importance of work to mankind. Man’s first duty is to work, to do whatever work it falls to his abilities, and, perhaps more importantly, to his station, to do. A man had only one right, for Carlyle: “the divine right of being compelled (if “permitted” will not answer) to do what work they are appointed for.” In other words, no right at all, as a “right to be compelled” is a self-contradiction.

Carlyle goes on to argue for the supremacy of the “Saxon British”: “they hitherto have cultivated with some manfulness; and when a manfuller class of cultivators, stronger, worthier to have such land, abler to bring fruit from it, shall make their appearance, they, doubt it not, by fortune of war, and other confused negotiation and vicissitude, will be declared by nature and fact to be the worthier.” (533) This is a clear articulation of the “might is right” philosophy that has often been associated with Carlyle. But in any case Carlyle uses it to justify his belief that the work of the West Indians is to work, the work of the British is to ensure that the West Indians work. Without the Saxon influence, writes Carlyle, his rhetoric growing now almost hysterical, the West Indies would become a “tropical dog-kennel and pestiferous jungle.”

Clearly, Eric Williams’s judgement of Carlyle’s paper is not an unreasonable one; there may well be other papers on the subject equally obnoxious to the modern mind (and to many of Carlyle’s contemporaries minds, too), but there is probably no such paper by such an intellectual heavyweight, a man of such influence. This is the man of whom the great novelist George Eliot said: “It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence. If they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown the forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings.” And whom Charles Dickens cited as his greatest influence.

But the Occasional Discourse was to usher in Carlyle’s decline as a writer. Always an expounder of views that clashed with liberal democratic values, his writing still strained to make sense of a quickly-changing society. Here, though, he lost it, producing a work both shocking and lacking any intellectual coherence beyond the “might is right” creed, though still filled with his trademark passion. His career and reputation never quite recovered.

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