Race and Victorian Science

J. J. Thomas, from Froudacity (1889)

John Jacob Thomas (c.1840–1889) was the descendent of slaves, born into poverty in Trinidad. A mostly self-educated intellectual, he was a linguist, folklorist, teacher, civil servant, philologist, and author. Froudacity was written during a visit to London, where Thomas died of tuberculosis.

 

We find paraded ostentatiously enough the doctrine that in the adjustment of human affairs the possession of a white skin should be the strongest recommendation. Wonder might fairly be felt that there is no suggestion of a corresponding advantage being accorded to the possession of a long nose or of auburn hair. Indeed, little or no attention that can be deemed serious is given to the interest of the Blacks, as a large and (out of Africa) no longer despicable section of the human family, in the great world-problems which are so visibly preparing and press for definitive solutions. The intra-African Negro is clearly powerless to struggle successfully against personal enslavement, annexation, or volunteer forcible "protection" of his territory. What, we ask, will in the coming ages be the opinion and attitude of the extra-African millions— ten millions in the Western Hemisphere— dispersed so widely over the surface of the globe, apt apprentices in every conceivable department of civilised culture? Will these men remain for ever too poor, too isolated from one another for grand racial combinations? Or will the naturally opulent cradle of their people, too long a prey to violence and unholy greed, become at length the sacred watchword of a generation willing and able to conquer or perish under its inspiration? . . .

. . . Accepting the theory of human development propounded by our author, let us apply it to the African race. Except, of course, to intelligences having a share in the Councils of Eternity, there can be no attainable knowledge respecting the laws which regulate the growth and progress of civilisation among the races of the earth. That in the existence of the human family every age has been marked by its own essential characteristics with regard to manifestations of intellectual life, however circumscribed, is a proposition too self-evident to require more than the stating. But investigation beyond such evidence as we possess concerning the past— whether recorded by man himself in the written pages of history, or by the Creator on the tablets of nature— would be worse than futile. We see that in the past different races have successively come to the front, as prominent actors on the world's stage. The years of civilised development have dawned in turn on many sections of the human family, and the Anglo-Saxons, who now enjoy preeminence, got their turn only after Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and others had successfully held the palm of supremacy. And since these mighty empires have all passed away, may we not then, if the past teaches aught, confidently expect that other racial hegemonies will arise in the future to keep up the ceaseless progression of temporal existence towards the existence that is eternal? What is it in the nature of things that will oust the African race from the right to participate, in times to come, in the high destinies that have been assigned in times past to so many races that have not been in anywise superior to us in the qualifications, physical, moral, and intellectual, that mark out a race for prominence amongst other races?

The normal composition of the typical Negro has the testimony of ages to its essential soundness and nobility. Physically, as an active labourer, he is capable of the most protracted exertion under climatic conditions the most exhausting. By the mere strain of his brawn and sinew he has converted waste tracts of earth into fertile regions of agricultural bountifulness. On the scenes of strife he has in his savage state been known to be indomitable save by the stress of irresistible forces, whether of men or of circumstances. Staunch in his friendship and tender towards the weak directly under his protection, the unvitiated African furnishes in himself the combination of native virtue which in the land of his exile was so prolific of good results for the welfare of the whole slave-class. But distracted at home by the sudden irruptions of skulking foes, he has been robbed, both intellectually and morally, of the immense advantage of Peace, which is the mother of Progress. Transplanted to alien climes, and through centuries of desolating trials, this irrepressible race has bated not one throb of its energy, nor one jot of its heart or hope. . . .

. . . The above summary of our past vicissitudes and actual position shows that there is nothing in our political circumstances to occasion uneasiness. The miserable skin and race doctrine we have been discussing does not at all prefigure the destinies at all events of the West Indies, or determine the motives that will affect them. With the exception of those belonging to the Southern States of the Union, the vast body of African descendants now dispersed in various countries of the Western hemisphere are at sufficient peace to begin occupying themselves, according to some fixed programme, about matters of racial importance. More than ten millions of Africans are scattered over the wide area indicated, and possess amongst them instances of mental and other qualifications which render them remarkable among their fellow-men. But like the essential parts of a complicated albeit perfect machine, these attainments and qualifications so widely dispersed await, it is evident, some potential agency to collect and adjust them into the vast engine essential for executing the true purposes of the civilised African Race. Already, especially since the late Emancipation Jubilee, are signs manifest of a desire for intercommunion and intercomprehension amongst the more distinguished of our people. With intercourse and unity of purpose will be secured the means to carry out the obvious duties which are sure to devolve upon us, especially with reference to the cradle of our Race, which is most probably destined to be the ultimate resting-place and headquarters of millions of our posterity. Within the short time that we had to compass all that we have achieved, there could not have arisen opportunities for doing more than we have effected. Meanwhile our present device is: "Work, Hope, and Wait!"


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