Posted by: Rob Viens | March 12, 2012

Darwin the Abolitionist

March 12th, and the pain has abated enough for Darwin to write in his diary:

“Since the 6th I have been for the greater part of the time in my hammock; my knee continued to swell & was exceedingly painful. — To day is the first I have been able to sit up for many hours together. — It has been mortifying to see the clear blue sky above my head & not be able to enjoy it. — I have heard of interesting geological facts & am disabled from examining them; but instead of grumbling I must think myself lucky in having at all seen the glorious city of Bahia.” (Mar 12)

Hmm – sounds like he no longer agrees with his March 6th assessment that “neither mind or body require any exercise; watching the sky is sufficient occupation for the former & the latter seems well contented with lying still.”

On the 10th Darwin’s entertaining friend Captain Paget visited the Beagle:

“We have had some festivities on board; the day before yesterday there was a grand dinner on the quarter deck. — Cap Paget has paid us numberless visits & is always very amusing” (Mar 12)

I can just imagine these dinners, with Paget the center of attention, telling stories of his adventures (see Cap’n Paget of the HMS Samarang).  Even though he was an adventurer now, I suspect Darwin was still in awe of the stories. Only this time the discussion hit one of Darwin’s hot buttons – slavery.

Darwin’s account of the discussion was included in his diary:

“[Paget] has mentioned in the presence of those who would if they could have contradicted him, facts about slavery so revolting, that if I had read them in England, I should have placed them to the credulous zeal of well-meaning people: The extent to which the trade is carried on; the ferocity with which it is defended; the respectable (!) people who are concerned in it are far from being exaggerated at home. — I have no doubt the actual state of by far the greater part of the slave population is far happier than one would be previously inclined to believe. Interest & any good feelings the proprietor may possess would tend to this. — But it is utterly false (as Cap Paget satisfactorily proved) that any, even the very best treated, do not wish to return to their countries. — “If I could but see my father & my two sisters once again, I should be happy. I never can forget them.” Such was the expression of one of these people, who are ranked by the polished savages in England as hardly their brethren, even in Gods eyes. — From instances I have seen of people so blindly & obstinately prejudiced, who in other points I would credit, on this one I shall never again scruple utterly to disbelieve: As far as my testimony goes, every individual who has the glory of having exerted himself on the subject of slavery, may rely on it his labours are exerted against miseries perhaps even greater than he imagines.” (Mar 12)

Slavery in Rio in the 1820’s (from a book by Maria Graham, via the Historical Boys Clothing web site)

slavery in Rio

On several occasions Darwin’s diary reflects his very strong feelings against slavery. In fact, it is one of the few things that he really seems to get emotional about in his writings. This passion makes sense if taken in context of his family history.  The late 1700’s and early 1800’s were a pivotal time for ending slavery in the British Empire (and for many other countries).  The Darwin’s, including grandfather Erasmus and father Robert, were actively involved in speaking out against slavery.

In 1807 Parliament outlawed the “slave trade” by enacting the Slave Trade Act of 1807.  However, this act did not abolish slavery – if you were already a slave you were still a slave.  The abolition debate continued and reached a head about the time Darwin left for South America.  So it is very likely that it was frequently a topic of conversation around his house and among his friends in 1831. Darwin was an abolitionist his whole life.

Being used to the idea of speaking his mind on the issue, it would appear that Darwin got into a discussion with FitzRoy about slavery the next morning over breakfast.  FitzRoy, though not pro-slavery, seemed to think that if you asked a slave if they were happy (in front of their owner) and they said “yes, then everything must have been just fine.  Darwin, rightfully, thought this was a load of you-know-what. Darwin notes the encounter in his Autobiography:

“We had several quarrels; for when out of temper he was utterly unreasonable. For instance, early in the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together. I thought that I should have been compelled to leave the ship; but as soon as the news spread, which it did quickly, as the captain sent for the first lieutenant to assuage his anger by abusing me, I was deeply gratified by receiving an invitation from all the gun-room officers to mess with them.” (Autobiography of Charles Darwin)

Sounds like the hot coffee was flowing that morning! (See “Coffee Talk” with Captain FitzRoy). (Ironically, the coffee plantations were one of the places many of the slaves ended up.)

To be fair, I suspect this argument may have been more about FitzRoy’s temper than the specifics of the slave trade. Or maybe FitzRoy later learned to dislike slavery from spending so much time with Darwin.  By the time he wrote his narrative of the voyage (after they returned), he seemed to be as much an abolitionist as Darwin.  In the section on Bahia FitzRoy wrote:

“The immense extent and increase of the slave population is an evil long foreseen and now severely felt. Humanely as the Brazilians in general treat their slaves, no one can suppose that any benevolence will eradicate feelings excited by the situation of those human beings. … Could the Brazilians see clearly their own position, unanimously condemn and prevent the selfish conduct of individuals, emancipate the slaves now in their country, and decidedly prevent the introduction of more, Brazil would commence a career of prosperity, and her population would increase in an unlimited degree. ” (Narrative of the Voyage of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy)

More importantly for Darwin’s future on the ship, FitzRoy got over the fight pretty quickly:

“But after a few hours Fitz-Roy showed his usual magnanimity by sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would continue to live with him.”  (Autobiography of Charles Darwin)

Interestingly, the law that abolished slavery in the British Empire, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, was passed by Parliament about a year later.  No doubt that these where interesting times. (RJV)


  1. […] the cruelty of human beings , particularly in the form of slavery, turns him red with anger (see Darwin the Abolitionist). It all seems to come together in this one short diary […]

  2. […] also responsible for tremendous growth in slavery in Brazil – a subject that Darwin abhorred (see Darwin the Abolition). Cheap coffee was only possible with cheap (or virtually free) labor, so slavery intensified as […]

  3. […] I think he would still stand by his earlier argument that they would still prefer to be free (see Darwin the Abolitionist)).   In the second, he argues that slavery brings out the worst in people, even people he […]

  4. […] That last line could be said about Darwin’s own critics later in his life (regarding On the Origin of Species). It is interesting foreshadowing that he uses it in defense of human rights now, especially as a 23–year old who is mainly interested in beetles and rocks. For more on Darwin’s anti-slavery views be sure to see Darwin the Abolitionist. […]

  5. […] Of course, pirates are at least one step above slavers in Darwin’s mind, and the pirate ship Presidenté had been captured by one of the greatest anti-slavery ships of the day – the HMS Black Joke. Given his passion against slavery, I’m sure that the Black Joke was a ship that Darwin would have heard of (see Darwin the Abolitionist). […]

  6. […] was banned to mess with the crew with instructions to get off the boat at the next convenient stop. FitzRoy came to his senses after a few days of dining alone. Two things about this episode: First, it shows Darwin as a committed anti-racist; second, it […]

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