Friday, February 24, 2012

The Other Darker Charles Dickens

Pambazuka News
Nigel Westmaas
February 23, 2012.

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.

Comment: Around the time that Dickens was writing black folk were still being shipped and sold into slavery by the so called British Empire.  It is, therefore, hardly surprising to learn that he viewed black/brown folk as savages.  He was a mainstream product of the now lapsed empire that pilfered and colonized more than half the world.

It would be a stretch to think that such a product could be anything but a vile racist.

I think it foolish to ignore his literary contribution but like Westmaas says it is important to contextualize his politics and his degrading view of the racialized Other.



Tony said...

That type of thinking is prevalent today. People care about whom they perceive as people. Us darkies (off-white , non-white, coloured, asian....etc - pick your racial prejudice) aren't even a sub-species - we're the non-people; therefore not relevant. We then become easy to dismiss.
People here, often pass comments about Aboriginals that just smacks of racism that is born from ignorance and stupidity.

I wonder if stupidity is too strong a word. It is more a failure to think about or analyse the situation. I think of it as an intelligence failure. They've either failed their intellect by not thinking or their intellect has failed them because they don't have enough of it....maybe stupidity is not such a bad description after all.

I digress. Towards the non-people there is (as you put it) an accepted racism - that everyone has those type of prejudices and that any comment made will be accepted. This has tickled my political bone into action on quite a few occasions.

As an aside, I came across this - I have seen it before, but I haul it out every now and then:
A man is out walking in New York city when he sees a little girl being chased by a fierce dog. He fights off the dog by hitting the dog’s head with a stick and saves the girl’s life.

The girl’s mother rushes over to him: “Thank you so much for saving my little girl. You are a true hero. Tomorrow all the newspapers will have headlines about ‘Brave New Yorker Saves the Life of Young Girl’”

“But I’m not a New Yorker,” the man says.

“Oh, then it will say in all the newspapers Brave American Saves Life of Young Girl,” says the mother.

“But I’m not an American neither,” the man says.

“So, what are you then?” asks the mother.

“I’m an Iranian,” the man replied politely.

The next day he sees the newspaper headlines:

“Islamic Extremist Kills American Dog.”

Ridwan said...

Thanks kindly for your very valuable insight.

I find it very interesting that you raise the issue of "non-people".

You may remember that Sobukwe told us when we were kids not to accept the label of "non-white" because it actually designated us as "non-people".

I think he was right then and you are right now.

I think of the manner in which faceless people are manipulated/killed for purposes of western interests (read whiteness) and the term becomes even more relevant.

That is what Dickens was doing - showing sympathy for poor whites but ignoring the humanity of slaves and the Others colonized by Britain (even supporting their dehumanization).

He was not alone of course.

I think of Jefferson and even Lincoln who extolled on humanity and for the most part believed that Africans were not nearly as human as whites.

It was Lincoln who supposedly freed the slaves who supported sending freed slaves back to Africa - the American Colonization Society even established what is Liberia today because Lincoln and Quaker abolitionists did not believe Africans had a place in America (whiteness).

Jefferson was far worse - he raped a slave girl and had children with her (Sally Hemings) and then lied about those descendants as he railed against mixing with blacks/Indians, etc.

Yet this man is considered a key architect of American democracy.

That furore continues till today and as you say still plays out despite in contemporary times.

Black/brown life is cheap inside of whiteness - even meaningless unless attached to making whiteness more relevant.

I am still cracking up at your Islamic extremist story - it is funny but in construction it is true.

When I look at what is going on with Iran I see the west stoking war while Iran says we are willing to talk.

Iran is not threatening anyone - has not declared war in more than a century yet the US and its attachments view it as an extremist state.

How many wars has the US been involved in since the end of WWII alone?

And now you have Syria where Hillary Clinton is threatening Assad - and telling him what must be done even to the extent that the US and its attachments have recognized a bunch of sellouts as the government in exile (the official opposition as they put it).

How does that happen?

How does a group of states become the "friends of Syria" while at the same time calling for the destruction of yet another Arab state?

You don't like a state so you recognize an external group as the government in exile, in effect.

Can we do that for Britain and the US too?

It's madness this thing called whiteness - and it has very little to do with skin color.

Trust you are well my broer.

Peace and Onward!

Kweli said...

I read Dickens back in High School. I don't exactly remember why, but I thought that even his musings on the working poor were disingenuous. I'm afraid that because of that cliche about how he was paid by the page (or is it by word count?), his books are so fat I'd have trouble tracing what caused my adolescent opinions about his lack of authenticity (bad word this) in his voluminous prose.

*sits back and reads Chinua Achebe, even if doing so smacks of "nativism"*

Ridwan said...

Thank you kindly for comment brother Kweli.

I have to take your good word for the content of Dickens because I can't remember reading more than a few pages of his works.

I know the characters as they have been popularized but to wade through his novels was never on my agenda.

I did, however, read too many Enid Blyton books and remember the Golliwog caricature all too well.

Truth is we folks of Other do not fare too well when white folks tell stories to and about themselves.

Trust you are well up there boet.