Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question
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The essay "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" was written by Thomas Carlyle about the acceptability of using black slaves and indentured servants. It was first anonymously published as an article in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country of London in February, 1849, and was reprinted as a pamphlet four years later with the title Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question. The essay was the spark of a debate between Carlyle and John Stuart Mill.
The article began as a devil's advocate work with the aim of challenging what Carlyle perceived to be a hypocritical philanthropic movement for the emancipation of West Indian slaves. Although the slave trade had been abolished in the British colonies by 1807, and in the British Empire by 1833, Cuba and Brazil continued to use slaves for economic advantage after 1838. In its original publication, Carlyle presented it as a speech "delivered by we know not whom" written down by an unreliable reporter by the name of "Phelin M'Quirk" (the fictitious "Absconded Reporter"). The manuscript was supposedly sold to the publisher by M'Quirk's landlady in lieu of unpaid rent - she found it lying in his room after he ran off. When he stated in his introduction, "you shall hear what I have to say on the matter; and you will not, in the least, like it," it seems Carlyle intended the reader to be aware of the dubious value of the work.
The bigger question is what the Negro Question is really about: the freedom of all men. While it is racist (with a line referring to the West Indies as "a black Ireland"), it is not simply about the freedom of black people but about the freedom of all people and, in Carlyle's mind, the impossibility of that. The Negro Question was published in 1849, when the infant mortality rate for working-class people living in Manchester, England was around 50% for children under five years old. Carlyle stated that "British whites are rather badly off--several millions of them hanging on the verge of continual famine" (as with the potato people in Ireland in 1849).
The infant mortality rate recorded for southern slaves in mainland America was 48%. The infant mortality rate among slaves in the West Indies is difficult to determine. Although black people in the West Indies were classed as slaves, many poor white people in England lived the lives of slaves but were classified as free. Poor white children worked in mills from the age of six and huge numbers of white people lived in desperate poverty. While the British ruling class did little to address the poverty on their doorstep, they turned en masse against the slavery of black Africans in the West Indies. It was against this background that Carlyle wrote the deeply unpopular Negro Question.
In its 1849 publication, a fictitious speaker, who seems to be a caricature of a racist, makes various controversial points ranging from downright racist insults about the appearance and intelligence of black Africans, all the way through to radical alternative solutions to the slavery problem. These are probably opinions that Carlyle has gathered from the British under-class and upper-class, plantation owners, such as his friend John Stirling, and some of the remaining pro-slavery elite he met in London, all fused into one. It brings the contemporary reader into the feelings and controversies of the time. The present day reader might find some of the facts and figures incredible. The speaker suggests that the conditions on most slave ships are not nearly as awful as the worst reported, and that many countries aside from Britain are involved in the slave trade, so that trying to stop it would be impossible. Additionally, rather than simply setting slaves free into a (capitalist) world of which they have little understanding, slave owners should be obliged to look after their slaves like a (lesser) member of their family, by caring for them into old age.
Throughout the (imaginary) delivery of the speech to the public, M'Quirk reports that members of the audience got up and left in disgust, suggesting that Carlyle well knew how the essay would be received. Just as he had expected, the work met with widespread disapproval, and in the minds of many people, Carlyle's reputation was forever tarnished. Carlyle's closest friends criticized him for his stand but, rather than back down, he grew contrary and isolated. In later publications, the M'Quirk framework was entirely omitted, and Carlyle expressed the opinions as if they were his own.
Debate with John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill's reply, in the next issue of Fraser's Magazine under the title "The Negro question", was also published anonymously.
- "The Carlyle-Mill "Negro Question" Debate", Department of Economics of the New School for Social Research, 2007, webpage: cepa.newschool.edu-negroquest.
- "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", Thomas Carlyle, 1849, Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country (London, Vol. XL., February 1849), webpage: newschool.edu-carlodnq.
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