There is a paradox between the Dickens of empathy for the working class in industrial England and the Dickens who spoke and wrote about and supported some of the vilest descriptions and actions on blacks and Asians.
February 7, the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Dickens, kicked off a year of celebrations to commemorate the work and impact of the great British novelist. His timeless prose, including Hard Times, A Tale of Two cities, Bleak House, Pickwick Papers and other great books of the Victorian era will be re-read, celebrated and analysed. His class portrayals of industrial Britain with its high measure of empathy for the working class and the colorful characters that made his books live in the imagination will be fêted.
Nevertheless, in this anniversary year it is also important for us to take a closer look at the least discussed aspects of Dickens’ life and work. Call it what you will, but there is a paradox, ambiguity, or hypocrisy between the Dickens of empathy for the working class in industrial England and the Dickens who spoke and wrote about and supported some of the vilest descriptions and actions on blacks and Asians. In other terms, his reputation as a Victorian social reformer scarcely measures up to his “darker” side – the one in which Dickens in public and private prose held contempt for the black world. Perhaps there were hints in his works on his positions on Britain’s colonial subjects abroad. Let’s say for the sake of literary license we forget those transgressions. But there were two major events in the colonial world that defines the strategic Dickens and that are specially valid and poignant examples of his regular descriptive of blacks and Asians as “savages”.
In 1865 there was a cataclysmic social explosion in a Caribbean colony of Jamaica had a profound impact on English society and severely questioned Victorian liberal values.
The event in question came to be called the Morant Bay rebellion. In summary, rebels led by a black Jamaican deacon Paul Bogle seized a courthouse to protest economic and judicial injustice on the island. The action, which also resulted in the deaths of policemen, colonial officials and native Jamaicans, triggered a savage response from the island’s Governor, Edward John Eyre that unleashed a brutal crackdown on the rebels and the general black and colored population. By the time the dust settled after a month of martial law, hundreds were dead, the majority executed on the Governors’ orders.
The grisly statistics of the outcome were “439 dead, six hundred flogged and 1,000 houses burned.” Another leader described as a radical spokesperson for the demonstration, George William Gordon, a colored man, was put on trial and summarily hanged for his alleged role in the initial revolt. Racial vengeance was at its worst. When the news of the uprising and subsequent repression reached London, the brutality of the Governor’s response evoked horror and rage in some quarters in England. Two major lines of public opinion were drawn in the sand. Some English luminaries called for Governor Eyre to be put on trial for the atrocity. These came to be known as the Jamaica Committee and included Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and even “survival of the fittest” proponent Herbert Spencer.
Other Victorian leading lights immediately sprang to Eyre’s defense. Among them were Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens. The defenders were dubbed the Eyre Defence Committee. Of course the agency of the black Jamaicans on whose soil the atrocity was committed was scarcely heard amid the public voice of the two committees. Here we also have to be careful for another reason. The participants in the Jamaica Committee were far from being anti-colonial activists and were certainly not supporters of the Morant Bay revolt. As British historian Catherine Hall observed, the “protagonists and antagonists of Governor Eyre in the metropole were convinced that Jamaica was not fit for representative government, and that dependencies were best ruled from London.”
Dickens’ support for the genocidal Governor of Jamaica was by no means an aberration. In October 1849, Dickens reportedly wrote to a friend about a proposal for an article in his Household Words that would discuss “a history of savages, showing the singular respect in which all savages are like each other; and those in which civilized men, under circumstances of difficulty, soonest become like savages.”
Eight years earlier in 1857, another powerful revolt had taken place in India, then a colony in the British Empire. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 also known as the Sepoy(Indian soldiers employed by the British) Mutiny began as a revolt against the British East India Company's army in Meerut near Delhi and spread throughout India. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to British rule in India. It was finally contained and brutally crushed by the British army by June 1858. The Indian populace suffered horrific causalities in the aftermath. The course and aftermath of the revolt was also a source of debate in England.
On the Indian “mutiny” Dickens wrote to an acquaintance: “I wish I were Commander in Chief in India… I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon the stain of the late cruelties rested…to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
The responses of Charles Dickens to both incidents in the British Empire, Morant Bay and the Sepoy revolt, in a context where issues of race, empire and morality were subjects of debate in Victorian England.
This anniversary then, while paying tribute to the undoubtedly great novelist must take pause and place in context the gravity of his social and political positions on some of the victims of the British Empire. Arguments will rationalise that Dickens actions and statements on race should not be a shock given the century in which it occurred. Whatever the overall perception of the celebrated novelist in this 200th anniversary, we owe it to posterity to subscribe to a fuller, holistic sense of Charles Dickens, his positions on the black world inclusive.
Indeed the novelist who in much of his work inspired charity at home and showed humanity toward the poor and neglected in London, was not as charitable to the non-white poor in opposite ends of the British empire.
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* Nigel Westmaas is Assistant Professor Africana Studies Hamilton Cole
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