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British attitudes to the Negro, 1850-1870 Lorimer, Douglas Alexander

Abstract

This dissertation seeks to explain the rise of racial antipathy toward the Negro among mid-Victorian Englishmen. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Englishmen responded enthusiastically to the appeals of missionary promoters and abolitionists on behalf of sinning savages and suffering slaves. Black residents and visitors in Britain encountered little racial prejudice. During the 1850s and 1860s, English opinions about the Negro changed. An increasing number of commentators rejected sentimental appeals on behalf of black slaves and sinners, and began to assert that Negroes were inherently inferior and should be perpetually subservient to whites. This change in opinion also influenced behaviour. From the 1860s onwards, blacks in Britain more frequently faced discrimination. Contrary to common assumptions, this transition in racial attitudes in the mid-Victorian period was neither a product of the pressing demands of British imperial rule, nor a result of the growth of scientific racism. It was rather a consequence of changes within the social and political temper of English society itself. Remote from racial tensions overseas and rarely encountering blacks in Britain, the mid-Victorians perceived the Negro through the verbal descriptions of writers and lecturers. As a consequence, they founded their conceptions about the black man more upon their own experience within English society than upon the distant realities of Africa or the New World. Even when they did encounter blacks in Britain, Englishmen responded to the social attributes rather than to the physical characteristics of these dark strangers. During the 1860s, when respectable mid-Victorians started to redefine the attributes of gentility, they also adopted a new arrogant attitude toward well-educated blacks in Britain. The scientific racists attempted to catch hold of this new mood, but their theories failed to meet the critical tests of respected scientists, and their eccentricites undermined their attempts to achieve popular influence. Scientific racism was less important as a cause of the rise of racialism than as an expression of underlying political and social stresses. Political events not scientific developments attracted popular attentions. When they considered the Negro in the American Civil War and in the Jamaica Insurrection of 1865, the mid-Victorians found that their own political and social divisions stood in the way of any consensus about the nature of the black man. The extensive discussion of the Negro Question merely reinforced existing social and political attitudes, and more significantly, revealed how far those attitudes had changed. Respectable mid-Victorians assumed social inequalities to be part of the natural order, and therefore they had no qualms of conscience about accepting inequalities of race. They also believed that through self-help and industry an individual could surmount these inequalities and improve his social standing. Missionary spokesmen and abolitionists assumed that these avenues for self-improvement were open to blacks as well as whites, but increasingly in the mid-Victorian period, commentators asserted that blacks were incapable of such self-elevation. This change in attitude coincided with an alteration in the outlook of a new ascendant and influential group within mid-Victorian society. By the 1850s and 1860s, industrialists, manufacturers and professional men had established themselves in wealth and political influence. They now sought the social prestige of the gentry, and began to put less faith in the efficacy of self-improvement. Cultivating the habits of gentility, members of this new upper middle class became more exclusive in outlook, and sought to bolster their sense of social superiority by viewing themselves as a superior race. This small but influential minority found that their desire for gentle status was partly satisfied by a new vision of the Negro as the perpetual, biological inferior of their own superior, almost aristocratic, Anglo-Saxon race.

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