This study of the ‘colour question’, 1870-1914, offers a new account of the British Empire’s most disturbing legacy. Following contradictions within the ideology of empire, the book provides a revisionist account of race in science, and an original narrative of the invention of the language of race relations, and of resistance to race-thinking. Constructions of race in both professional and popular science were rooted in the common culture, yet were presented as products of nature. Ironically, science only gained a larger public when imperialism, not nature, created a global pattern of racial subordination and conflict. Though often overlooked, the longer term legacy of Victorian racism grew out of the newly invented language of race relations. Originating in the abolitionist movement, this language applied to the management of the historically unprecedented multi-racial communities created by empire. A dissenting minority of abolitionists and persons of African and Asian descent championed racial egalitarianism and colonial nationalism in resistance to the dominant discourse. By 1910, they suffered a crushing defeat in contesting white power in South Africa. As a consequence, in the new twentieth century, visions of a colour-blind empire belonged to a sentimentalised, archaic abolitionist past. Under the guise of imperial trusteeship, a new lexicon of race relations gave legitimacy to the institutionalised inequalities of an empire bifurcated by race.
Our received narrative of the ideology of race needs to be reconsidered. It misconstrues the relationship between nineteenth-century science, race and culture. It overlooks the Victorian language of race relations which constitutes the longer term legacy of the past for the present, and has no place for the dissenting voices of resistance among persons of colour and a few surviving abolitionists. Even though there has been an explosion in studies of race, culture and empire, our selective use of sources to construct an archetypical nineteenth-century racism runs the risk of colonising the Victorians – of making them into our racist Other in contrast to our non-racist Self. A fuller exploration of a range of sources, including the newly invented language of race relations, and the efforts to resist race-thinking by a dissenting minority suggests that in the past as in the present race was a contested territory.
The language of race relations originated with the abolitionist movement. By the 1830s, the phrase ‘colour prejudice’ described a disturbing legacy of slavery. In 1837, a parliamentary commission reported on the destructive impact of colonialism on aboriginal peoples, and defended the natural rights of indigenous ‘nations’ or ‘natives’. The Aborigines Protection Society (APS) took up the cause proclaiming equality before the law of all British subjects regardless of race. For many, the philanthropists’ language was inadequate, and the case for protected but unequal status advanced along with the discourse of separate development. The APS continued to lobby for legal equality, but that equality was potential not actual, for the agency assumed colonised subjects would assimilate to Victorian civilised modernity. Institutionalised racism in democratic America invited British comparisons to caste in India. As imperialism brought the tropics into the world economy, generic terms such as ‘coloured races’, ‘non-Europeans’, and ‘non-whites’ described the global racial hierarchy of the twentieth century. By1910, a new and enduring phrase, ‘race relations’, addressed the management of inequality in the multi-racial communities created by the colonisation of aboriginal peoples, by race slavery, and by the forced and voluntary migration of colonised subjects.
Studies of imperialism and popular culture have amply demonstrated the omnipresence of the symbols of empire in the metropolis. Conflicts, even local riots, against the presence of ethnic minorities – the Irish, Jews, blacks and Chinese – point to stereotyping and hostility within the populace. Yet it is not clear that popular prejudices had roots in scientific racism. Popular science publications made little use of scientific racist constructions, and displayed some hostility toward the pretences of professional scientists. Racial typologies associated with scientific racism reached a wider audience only in the 1890s with the extensive publications of A. H. Keane who applied his science to contemporary imperial conflicts. With lower prices and the extensive use of photographs, scientific constructions of race reached a wider readership when a sense of crisis led commentators to anticipate that the new twentieth century would be unlike the old. In the multi-racial creations of the imperial project, conflict not stability seemed more apparent. This disordered unnatural world created by the human agency of colonialism could not be comprehended by the science of race, but only by the new language of race relations.
In 1837, as Queen Victoria’s reign commenced liberal imperialism, the anti-slavery movement and foreign missions championed a civilising mission. The goal was assimilation of the heathen and uncivilised to civilised, Victorian standards of modernity. By 1901, surviving abolitionists realised that racial oppression had grown larger in extent and more divers in form, yet their public was largely unresponsive to their appeals. As the inflated expectations of liberal progress, emancipation and conversion were not realised, after 1870, an alternative discourse of racial exclusion and separate development became the dominant though never the singular view. This racialism did not depend upon a crude biological determinism, but upon an ambiguous and toxic mix of race and culture. Some advocates of separate development advanced a degree of cultural relativism, but more commonly they supported new racist practices in the United States, sanctioned the white dominions’ racial exclusions, and forecast that the imagined ‘black peril’ in South Africa might infect the United Kingdom. This transformation occurred when the professional production of knowledge created new authoritative voices ready to affirm that the racial hierarchy of empire accorded to the dictates of nature.
‘Race’ has no meaning in biology. Consequently, narratives of racism need to assess how and when scientists established their authority on race, and to explore how imperialism shaped the scientists’ thinking. Francis Galton’s phrase, ‘nature versus nurture’, best captured the tension between biology and culture in Victorian science. Before the Anthropological Institute, founded in 1871, and in the columns of Nature, ethnography and travel literature rather than comparative anatomy more commonly depicted the racialised peoples of the empire. Knowledgeable about the global distribution of human phenotypes, the scientists largely accepted that humankind had a common origin, and attributed variations to migration, intermixture and adaptation over a lengthy evolutionary history. After the mid-1880s, colonisation in Africa, innovations in statistics, and advances in theories of biological inheritance gave race-thinking a new stimulus. Racism gained credibility with the rise of specialised, professional experts as producers of knowledge in the natural and social sciences. Under the patronage of Galton, eugenics and psychology probed the inherited character of human differences. Anthropology, only recently recognised as a science, studied the exotic cultures of colonised peoples. Its practitioners promoted the utility of their discipline for the administration of a multi-racial empire.
‘The greatest difficulty in the British Empire’ (1900–14)
Douglas A. Lorimer
Commentaries on the ‘colour question’, 1900-14, marked a new departure. Post-war reconstruction in South African War posed the most immediate problem, but observers also anticipated a longer term, global crisis. Engaged in the ferment of ideas in Edwardian London, participants moved between political advocacy, journalism and the academy, often as exponents of the new social sciences. Colonial administrators, trained in the classics, recognised that race relations were a creation of modern history, and they anticipated that the future would be one of increased racial strife. Some observers turned to psychology, renaming colour prejudice ‘race instinct’, to explain the intensity of white racism. Others were sceptical about instinct, and analysed the dimensions of race relations in light of the transformations effected by colonial labour in modernising economies, and by the spread of democratic citizenship and the new demands of colonial nationalists. Most participants in this discussion presumed the inequality of races, but recognised that institutionalised racism threatened the viability of the empire. A dissenting minority, still attached to an archaic racial egalitarianism, engaged in resistance to the regressive advance of systemic racism.
Histories of racism overlook the role of opposing historical actors, and yet anti-racism has roots in the past. The first line of resistance came from persons of colour subject to slavery and other oppressive practices. Espousing the common humanity of all peoples, abolitionists had the potential to join in resistance, but their commitment to the civilising mission, response to slave emancipation, and support of colonial interventions compromised this potential. After 1865, the Aborigines Protection Society (APS) exposed new coercive labour practices and articulated a doctrine of native rights. From the mid-1880s to 1900, radical abolitionists and persons of colour, including early colonial nationalists, came together to challenge racist practices in the empire, the United States, and metropolitan Britain. With the South Africa War, the language of critics became more radical, but had limited impact in the face of white power. In 1909, the APS, exhausted by this struggle, joined with the more moderate British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The new society abandoned the language of native rights in favour of a paternalistic imperial trusteeship. The alliance with persons of colour was broken, and colonial nationalists faced the task of reconstituting forces of resistance.
Between 1870 and 1914, ‘race’ remained a contested territory, ambiguous in meaning and subject to dispute. A regressive change occurred under the new imperialism when scientists established their authority as producers of ‘real’ knowledge. In popular science, the common culture had established racial stereotypes long before the 1890s, when state education, mass consumerism and the omnipresence of empire facilitated the dissemination of scientific racism. Unequal and oppressive relationships between peoples and cultures, contrary to the claims of science, were not a product of nature, but a result of human agency. To address this disordered human world, abolitionists and colonial officials invented the language of race relations. Maturing under the new imperialism, the innovations of democratic America, and post-war reconstruction in South Africa, this language strengthened the legitimacy of racial inequality. In response, a dissenting minority initiated a critique of the global pattern of racial oppression. In 1911, the Universal Races Congress met to cultivate racial harmony but could only repeat the century-old pieties of the abolitionists. By then, the abolitionists favoured imperial trusteeship over human rights, and colonial nationalists, marginalised by political failure and war, needed to reconstitute resistance to the imperial state and the hegemonic racism of its culture.