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Darwin and
the Slaveholders

A Brief Narrative
of Charles Darwin's
Response to Slavery

By Punkerslut

By Laura Russell, 1869
Image: By Laura Russell, 1869

Start Date: April 12, 2011
Finish Date: April 12, 2011

"Where, then, are these young people who have been taught at our expense? These youths whom we fed and clothed while they studied? Where are those for whom, our backs bent double beneath our burdens and our bellies empty, we have built these houses, these colleges, these lecture-rooms, these museums? Where are the men for whose benefit we, with our pale, worn faces, have printed these fine books, most of which we cannot even read? Where are they, these professors who claim to possess the science of mankind, and for whom humanity itself is not worth a rare caterpillar? Where are the men who are ever speaking in praise of liberty, and never think to champion our freedom, trampled as it is each day beneath their feet? Where are they, these writers and poets, these painters and sculptors? Where, in a word, is the whole gang of hypocrites who speak of the people with tears in their eyes, but who never, by any chance, find themselves among us, helping us in our laborious work?"
          --Peter Kropotkin, 1880
          "An Appeal to the Young"

     In 1831, Charles Darwin boarded the H.M.S. Beagle and set sail for the Galapagos Islands, where he would develop his theory of Evolution. The ship was under the control of Captain FitzRoy, acting on behalf of the British Royal Navy. When the ship had reached the eastern coast of Brazil in South America, the Beagle entered port and parked. There was an incident that happened here that doesn't come up much in history, either in sociology or biology.

     Captain FitzRoy led Darwin to the slave plantation of one of his old friends. Europeans had been exploiting the indigenous people of Brazil for centuries, and friends of the British Royal government found themselves in the position of slaveholders. The plantation owner brought out all of his slaves and lined them up in front of Darwin and FitzRoy. He said to his slaves, "Do you wish to be free?" and all of them gave a resounding, "No."

     The captain turned to Darwin, and said, "So, you see, even the slaves don't imagine themselves ever being free." Charles Darwin was an intelligent, thoughtful individual. He was now face-to-face with the slaves that British historians pushed to the side and never wanted to recognize. But, he was too smart to believe their lies, and he handled the situation of British slave masters in a rational, thoughtful, intelligent manner. "Do you wish to be free?" the slavemaster asked, and the slaves echo back, "No." Captain FitzRoy waited for an answer. In a calm, almost unemotional tone, Darwin replies, "Perhaps the presence of their master is influencing their decision." Captain FitzRoy's face turned red in anger, but he said nothing and walked away.

     Later that day, Darwin was heading back to the H.M.S. Beagle, ready to continue the expedition to the other side of South America. When he reached the ship, he had found that all of his belongings had been thrown over the side; the pile of suitcases and bags looked unappealing as they slowly sank into the mud. Yet Darwin still maintained his cold, hard, scientific grip of the world around him. He pulled out a book, packed his pipe, and sat for a good read. There was not the slightest sign of distress in this intellectual about to be abandoned to the untamed jungles of South America. Two hours later, Captain FitzRoy apologized to Darwin and requested him back onto the ship, which he likewise accepted without any emotional strain.

     Books on evolutionary biology, even if they cover the life and biography of Charles Darwin, will leave out these little, minute details. The parts of the scientist that made him human, that made him deserve our sympathy and understanding, can only be read in between the lines. This story about Darwin has its origin in his Autobiography, which is written as though he viewed himself as the most insignificant person in the world. Behold, the human scientist! Universities can only teach his science, because they do not yet understand his humanity.

"Away, forever away with the creeds and books and forms and laws and religions that take from the soul liberty and reason. Down with the idea that thought is dangerous! Perish the infamous doctrine that man can have property in man. Let us resent with indignation every effort to put a chain upon our minds. If there is no God, certainly we should not bow and cringe and crawl. If there is a God, there should be no slaves."
          --Robert Green Ingersoll, 1877
          "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child"


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