Monday, 19 April 2021

Racism 1880s


In a speech in 1888 prime minister Lord Salisbury referred back to the election of 1885 when the Conservative candidate had won the Holborn seat, saying that the winner had been  “opposed to a black man, and, however great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to the point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them ... I am speaking roughly and using language in its colloquial sense, because I imagine the colour is not exactly black, but at all events, he was a man of another race". 

The defeated candidate was the Hon. Dadabhai Naoroji.

‘Few more unfortunate utterances have ever fallen from the lips of a British prime Minister’, began a Radical response published in the Pall Mall Gazette, the London evening newspaper. ‘It would have seemed unspeakably shocking to him to have sneered at the colour of a brother noble’s hair or even at a country squire’s freckles. These people are within the circle of the sacred caste. But to those who are without, the mere Irishry, the Hottentots, and Blackfellows generally, Lord Salisbury can be as rude as a bargee without ever dreaming that he is displaying a vulgarity of soul that is disgraceful to an English gentleman.

‘We see the same thing constantly in the case of slaveowners, and in a less degree the dealings of men with women.  A man loses caste for ever if he cheats another man at cards, but if he cheats a woman of her honour he is none the less received into society and indeed is regarded by many who would cut him dead if he cheated at cards as a very fine fellow indeed.

‘Now in Asia our myriad subjects have been made to feel that in the eyes of this proud patrician, who after all is but of yesterday compared with many of their ancient families, that they are all but “n*****s”.

‘Many a better man than Lord Salisbury has been a “Blackman”. Equally, it is true that many of our fellow subjects in India have skins swarthier in hue than our own.  That was also true in all probability of Christ and the Twelve Apostles …  The whiteman is the aristocrat of the world and he sums up his superiority in his own estimation when he sneers at the blackamoor.’

Salisbury's defence when rebuked was inimitably imperialist.  Claiming that the term ‘black’ did not imply contempt, he remarked that “The people whom we have been fighting at Suakim [sic, in Sudan], and whom we have happily conquered, are among the finest tribes in the world, and many of them are as black as my hat".   And, he went on, the House of Commons was too unique and “too delicate to be managed by any but those who have been born within these isles".  

In 1892, Naoroji was elected as MP for Finsbury.

The author of the letter in the Pall Mall Gazette and of its anti-racist views was a Dissenting minister named J Page Hobbs, who was based in Leicester.  According to Sydney Gimson, whose family owned the large iron foundry and engineering works there, his fellow middle class Radicals in the Leicester Secular Society were vehement Individualists in the wake of John Stuart Mill, but also decided to hear ‘the best that could be said for the new Socialism which was then rapidly coming to the fore.’  On consecutive weeks in January 1884, they listened therefore to H.M.Hyndman and William Morris, both from the newly-launched Social Democratic Federation, followed in the third week by J.Page Hobbs on ‘Sensible Socialism’. 

Gimson and his architect brother Ernest were greatly impressed by Morris, who gave what became his default speech on ‘Art and Socialism’.  It’s likely that current political events were also discussed, including the British military expedition against the Madhist uprising in the Sudan, on which Morris had forthright views.  When General Gordon was killed ‘defending’ Khartoum, Morris’s anti-jingoist comment was ‘Khartoum has fallen – into the hands of those to whom it belongs’.  That might have been too extreme for most of Leicester’s Secularists, by maybe not for Page Hobbs.

Hobbs is best remembered for a famous exchange that took place in the Gimsons’ home after Morris’s lecture.  ‘After supper we were talking about the lecture, Page Hobbs sitting in an easy chair, Morris on a dinner table chair,’ recalled Gimson. ‘Page Hobbs said, "You know, Mr. Morris, that would be a very charming Society that you have been describing, but it's quite impossible, it would need God Almighty himself to manage it!" Immediately Morris jumped up, ran his fingers through his hair and ruffled it, walked once or twice round his chair, then, shaking his fist close to Page Hobbs' face, exclaimed: "All right, man, you catch your God Almighty, we'll have him!" There was a burst of delighted laughter, in which Page Hobbs heartily joined.’ 

[ Sydney Gimson, Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society, March 1932, pp.20-23]

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