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Fact Check: Imagining Darwin’s Abolitionism

Photo: Statue of a young Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury School, by Ailurus~frwiki / CC BY-SA (

Yesterday I began a series of posts commenting on a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins. Their focus is claims about Darwin’s views on slavery and race. 

While Darwin was a student at Cambridge, Desmond and Moore note, a debate was held on February 15, 1831, regarding the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. The debate, we are told, was held at the Red Lion Inn, just a couple minutes’ walk from Cambridge. Desmond and Moore write:

We don’t know whether Darwin attended, but he did tell a cousin that he was going out that evening. Nothing meant more to him, as fellow students testified. They knew he abhorred cruelty in every form….A close friend, John Maurice Herbert, remembered: ‘With oppressed or suffering humanity he had the deepest sympathy. And it stirred one’s inmost depths of feeling to hear him descant upon & groan over the horrors of the slave-trade (65). 

An endnote refers to three sources: recollections about Darwin written by his Cambridge friend J. M. Herbert, Darwin’s autobiography (p. 59), and volume 1 of the correspondence (p. 117). 

Let’s Have a Look 

The correspondence contains a February 15, 1831, letter to Darwin’s cousin, William Darwin Fox, that begins, “I am going out this evening & have only time to write about business.” This establishes that Darwin did indeed go out that evening, but does not even hint that he attended the debate at the Red Lion Inn. The reference to the autobiography simply has Darwin recounting his academic accomplishments at Cambridge and is irrelevant to the point Desmond and Moore are trying to establish. The reference to Herbert’s recollections, however, is more interesting.

On May 26, 1882, Francis Darwin wrote to Herbert asking him for recollections about his father. Herbert responded that he would try to write something but that his memory of his Cambridge days had grown bad. Nevertheless, he followed up on June 2 with some remembrances. 

The quote that Desmond and Moore ascribe to Herbert is from this recollection and is cited accurately. But the context is interesting. Herbert begins by describing Darwin’s aversion to animal suffering. He remembers Darwin saying that he would give up shooting as a hobby after coming across a bird shot the previous day which remained alive but in utter torment. Herbert also recalls Darwin leaving a dog show fearing how harshly the masters might treat their dogs if they didn’t obey.

Herbert then describes Darwin’s aversion to the slave trade as quoted by Desmond and Moore. But was this a principled aversion to slavery? What does it suggest that Herbert included his recollection about Darwin’s aversion to slavery in the context of describing Darwin’s aversion to animal cruelty? Was it simply the cruelty he despised and not the racialized dehumanization? Desmond and Moore ignore this context and instead cobble together several sources giving the impression that Darwin had a principled aversion to slavery from his Cambridge days. But they have to stretch their sources to make this argument. We know that Darwin was very sensitive to suffering, but this does not make him the anti-racist champion Desmond and Moore want to portray him as.

A Familial Inspiration

Now, it is important to Desmond and Moore to show how Darwin’s abolitionist views were inspired by his family. To this end, they note that Darwin’s sisters, Catherine and Caroline, reported how enraged their sister Susan was 

to see the ‘odious’ ‘John Bull pretending that the Slaves lead a life of Comfort and Happiness’” (21). 

The John Bull was a Tory newspaper with pro-slavery sentiments. An endnote points us to volume 1 of the correspondence (pp. 31 and 36-41). Here we find a series of letters written between Darwin and his sisters while he was at Edinburgh.

Two of the letters document negative attitudes Caroline and Catherine harbored against slavery, but Susan is not mentioned in either one. On March 17, 1826, Susan did write to Darwin saying she hoped her brother would not read the “odious John Bull.” Then, on April 11, both Catherine and Caroline wrote to Darwin saying, “Susan is hotter than ever about Slavery — John Bull pretending that the Slaves lead a life of Comfort and Happiness.” 

Desmond and Moore are correct that Susan held anti-slavery views. But note how they take the single word odious from the March 17 letter and attach it to a phrase taken from the April 11 letter. The spirit of Desmond and Moore’s point is correct, but splicing words and phrases together from different sources seems to reflect a cavalier attitude toward primary sources. Unfortunately, they do this again with far more problematic results. 

Principles on Slavery?

Desmond and Moore tell us that Darwin assured his sisters that his principles on slavery hadn’t changed despite spending five years living with Captain FitzRoy, a noted supporter of slavery. They write: 

Darwin assured the ‘sisterhood’ that his five years cooped up with FitzRoy hadn’t dented his principles. They were ‘as firmly fixed and as wisely founded as ever’ (117). 

An endnote cites a string of eight letters from volume 1 of the correspondence to seemingly document this point. But five of the letters are from Darwin’s sisters and obviously cannot document Darwin’s attitude! Why they are cited is a mystery. Of the remaining three letters, one is from Darwin to his sister Caroline, but with no mention of FitzRoy. 

But another one is a letter from Darwin to FitzRoy dated October 6, 1836, just days after returning from the Beagle. Here Darwin tells FitzRoy; 

I put my radical sisters into an uproar at some of the prudent proceedings of our Government….But I am no renegade, and by the time we meet, my politics will be as firmly fixed and as wisely founded as ever. 

The Final Phrase

Note how Desmond and Moore present the final phrase (“as firmly fixed and wisely founded as ever”) as something Darwin said to his sisters when he actually said it to FitzRoy! More problematic, the final letter cited is a letter to Darwin’s cousin Fox where he states, “As for the good sisterhood at home, they remain, in statu quo, and long may they so remain.” Once again Desmond and Moore take one word completely out of context (sisterhood) that was said to Fox and attach it to a phrase that Darwin said to FitzRoy, and then pass the whole thing off as something he said to his sisters!

Darwin never assured his sisters of his unchanged principles, at least not in the sources Desmond and Moore cite. The idea that he did so appears to be a complete imagining, born of manipulation of the primary sources. But there is much more.