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Darwin and the “Eyre Affair”: A Speculative Tale

Photo: Edward John Eyre, by Jessamine Buxton, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In a series of posts, I have been commenting on a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins. This is Part IV of the series. Look here for Part IPart II, and Part III.

October 7, 1865, saw a revolt break out in Jamaica in which 18 officials and militia men were killed by members of the freed black population. In response, the governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, authorized a brutal crackdown against the black population, killing 439 rebels, flogging more than 600, and burning down more than 1,000 peasant homes. As word of this affair reached back to England, people with abolitionist sympathies, like John Stuart Mill, started the Jamaica Committee to protest Eyre’s violent actions. It appears Darwin was also a member of this committee.  

Despite the work of the Jamaica Committee, Eyre’s return to England in August of 1866 was greeted by many with a hero’s welcome, and a banquet in his honor was arranged in Southampton, where his ship had docked. Southampton also happened to be the place where Darwin’s oldest son William was working as a banker. The Times, in a story about the banquet, listed the names of prominent people who had attended, and the list surprisingly included the name “Darwin.” 

Desmond and Moore seize on this “Eyre affair” to tell a tale about how William’s apparent support for Eyre led to a dramatic showdown between father and son. They begin by painting a vivid picture of Darwin’s reaction to seeing the name “Darwin” on the banquet guest list published by the Times:

It could only be William, his father felt in the pit of his stomach. William Erasmus Darwin, his eldest, whom he had coached in botany as a child and worked with that spring on flower physiology; William who had lived in his father’s college rooms at Cambridge and, with his help, had bought into a Southampton bank. William, twenty-seven years old, lending the Darwin name to this celebration of wanton cruelty — the destruction of black families, the taking of black lives. Darwin’s worst nightmares teemed with such atrocities….Now the Times had his eldest supping with the devil (352).

The elegance of Desmond and Moore’s prose is undeniable. But are these fanciful speculations or are they grounded in reality? Let’s check.

Two Source Citations

Desmond and Moore provide two source citations for this passage. One is from a letter appearing in volume 9 of the correspondence and the other from volume 13. Both are letters Darwin wrote to his son, William, but neither mentions anything about William’s possible connection to the Eyre affair. In fact both letters were written in 1861 (five years before the Eyre banquet!). All these letters do is provide documentation of William’s banking career in Southampton. But this is a well-known fact that hardly needs to be cited. Desmond and Moore’s speculations about Darwin’s reaction to the Times report remain unsourced and must be considered more imagination than history.  

And the imagining doesn’t stop there. Desmond and Moore go on to note that William came home from Southampton to Downe on the weekend of September 22-24, 1866, a fact confirmed by Emma’s diary. We are told that during this visit, “William’s presence at the banquet was thrashed out face-to-face (353).” An endnote refers to Darwinian manuscript DAR 112.2, a recollection William wrote about his father shortly after his father’s death in 1882. William relates a memory of a meeting held at his Uncle Erasmus’s house (no date is indicated) where William made a joke about the Jamaica Committee which angered his father. William also denies attending the banquet for Eyre but says nothing about a dramatic confrontation at Down House. 

There clearly was some tension between father and son over the Eyre affair, but Desmond and Moore’s dramatic scene of a “face-to-face thrashing out at Down House” appears to be myth-making.  

The Myth-Making Continues

Desmond and Moore go on to note William’s denial of attendance at the banquet and write:

Was he (William) never involved with Eyre’s arrival in Southampton? There was no wriggling free, no more for a Darwin than a Hunt or an Agassiz who endorsed racial wrong. By Monday morning, after the weekend confrontation, Darwin was ‘giddy & unwell’ for the first time in months (354).

An endnote points us to a letter Darwin wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker on September 25, 1866, the very Monday following the “confrontation” with William. In the letter, Darwin mentions nothing about William, nothing about the Eyre affair, nor even anything about his health. The letter simply contains a series of brief comments about various natural history subjects and a brief notice that his sister Susan is dying (she died a week later). There is no obvious reason why this letter is cited other than to give the appearance that Desmond and Moore’s speculations are grounded in fact. 

As for Darwin being “giddy & unwell,” this phrase comes from Emma’s diary. But Desmond and Moore admit in an endnote that the change in Darwin’s health may have been due to concerns over his dying sister, not stress over his “confrontation” with William. So, in the text, Desmond and Moore create the impression that Darwin’s sudden unwellness resulted from his face-to-face thrashing out with William, but admit in a buried endnote nobody will read the more likely possibility that it was due to Susan’s grave illness.

But Desmond and Moore refuse to give up on viewing the Eyre affair, and William’s potential involvement in it, as of immense concern to Darwin. They introduce us to Robert Monsey Rolfe, who held the title of Lord Cranworth, a nobleman with abolitionist views who made regular contributions to charities in the village of Downe (Darwin was the bookkeeper for these charity payments). Desmond and Moore continue:

The events at Morant Bay (Jamaica) showed Cranworth that, even thirty years after emancipation, the planters still let slavery’s ‘Incubus’ oppress the island. Surely Cranworth would sympathize with Darwin; perhaps he would have a word in the right ear about The Times slur. As former Lord Chancellor (until a few months previously) it was in his power. Had the Liberals not left office, the Lord of the ‘Wilberforce oak’ might have been called to sit in judgement on ex-Governor Eyre (355).

Given Lord Cranworth’s position and sentiments, Desmond and Moore speculate, “That’s how worried Darwin was by the affair — it occasioned a private complaint to the former head of the English judiciary.” How do we know about Darwin’s private complaint? Desmond and Moore cite two letters, one from volume 10 and one from volume 14 of the correspondence. Readers have a right to expect that these letters will document Darwin’s private complaint to Cranworth.

Well, the first is a letter from Lord Cranworth to Darwin dated November 28, 1862 (four years before the Eyre affair). This is just a brief notice Cranworth sent to Darwin with a check for the Downe charity fund. The second letter likewise is a brief December 8, 1866, note from Cranworth to Darwin accompanying another payment to the Downe charities. Desmond and Moore have successfully documented the mundane truth that Cranworth was a regular contributor to the Downe charities, but the more important historical fact of Darwin’s private complaint to Cranworth about the Eyre affair appears to be another instance of imagining made to look (by virtue of the citations) like a documented historical fact.

No Support in the Sources

Did William really attend the banquet? We can’t know. But the idea that Darwin was so upset about this possibility that he confronted William face-to-face at Down House, became physically unwell due to the stress, and enlisted the help of Lord Cranworth finds no support in the sources Desmond and Moore cite. This story appears to be historical fiction writing.

In a final post, I will share a couple of additional examples of poor historiographical method and consider the larger importance of what we have learned from this exercise in fact-checking Desmond and Moore.