« Private Prison Divestment | Main | CFP: Shifting the Geography of Reason XIII: Theorizing from Small Places »

August 24, 2015


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

SGRP Editor

Thanks, Nathaniel! I think your post also raises important methodological questions about how we identify and discover "philosophy." Angela Davis has urged us to consider "alternative" sources of philosophical/feminist ideas and arguments, e.g., in the blues (See her book: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.) African philosophers and those who have been racialized as Black have written philosophy in many forms - from treatises to poetry. As Audre Lorde says: "Yet even the form our creativity takes is often a class issue. Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper. Over the last few years, writing a novel on tight finances, I came to appreciate the enormous differences in the material demands between poetry and prose. As we reclaim our literature, poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women. A room of one's own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time. The actual requirements to produce the visual arts also help determine, along class lines, whose art is whose. In this day of inflated prices for material, who are our sculptors, our painters, our photographers? When we speak of a broadly based women's culture, we need to be aware of the effect of class and economic differences on the supplies available for producing art." (Lorde Sister/Outsider, 116) The same is true of philosophy. "Poetry is not a Luxury," (Lorde) but neither is philosophy, and we need to get beyond our preoccupation with form to hear voices that have been silenced. (I tried to link to the Lorde piece, but the links don't work here. Just google ["Poetry is Not a Luxury" Audre Lorde] and several pages come up. Sorry!)

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser

Thanks, Nathaniel, for this interview - and thanks too to Jeff Bowersox and Daniel James for translating it.

There is so much of substance here that I want to think more about; but one remark I find particularly striking is:

'persons racialised as white could increase the number of those enslaved by them by sexually abusing African women: the enslaved thus reproduced themselves.'

That is, it seems that slavery makes rape into a mode of production. This is, obviously, horrific; but it also seems very important to think about, and I'm grateful to Nathaniel for bringing it to my attention. It seems important for a variety of reasons. First of all, it makes vivid certain failings of 'liberal' models of sexual violence that analyse rape (and related phenomena)as a violations of autonomy rather than foregrounding the role sexual violence plays in creating and maintaining oppressive relations; *and* the failings of more radical analyses of rape that grant that rape is part of a system that produces an oppressed class, but think that the relations of subjugation rape is used to create/maintain are always and only distinctively gendered, rather than racialized too.

Second of all, it makes clear quite how blind a lot of 'classic' Marxist texts whose concern is with modes of production and the conditions that make possible their reproduction, to the history of slavery. So, for example, in his classic 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses', Althusser writes:

'As Marx said, every child knows that a social formation which did not reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produced would not last a year...How is the reproduction of labour power ensured? It is ensured by giving labour power the means with which to reproduce itself: by wages.'

It seems impossible to read this in the light of Nathaniel's work and not feel slightly sick.

Third of all - and this is very tentative, because it's not a literature I know well at all - it seems to throw up questions about how we ought to think about 'reproductive labour'. Is this a decent analytic category for understanding what Nathaniel is describing - the rape and forced pregnancy of enslaved women? I mean, reproductive labour is sometimes defined as 'that which allows paid labour to take place', which obviously fails to pick out a distinctive species of labour performed by enslaved persons. But more than this, it seems like reproductive labour, in terms of its theoretical function, is is often tied quite tightly to the institution of the nuclear family and related forms. But if that's so it's not clear the category of 'reproductive labour' gives us a good way of understanding the processes Nathaniel describes, where the forced work of bearing children and reproducing a 'workforce' are not tied to familial relations. But then perhaps there's work on this that I'm not familiar with.



I still wonder how this situation has gone on for so long. 

For years, UK universities have offered philosophy courses. Welcomed international students onto their campuses. Gladly collected their increased tuition fees but failed to admit their rich, global philosophical schools of thought through their front gates and into their curriculum. 

This does not make sense to me. Historically there has been an exchange of knowledge, ideas and cultures globally. Philosophy transcends international borders.

Is it even possible to draw clear distinctions given the constant borrowing?

Asian, Middle Eastern and African philosophy needs to be included on philosophy courses, either as modules or as seperate options to focus on. 

It is these philosophies (along with the European) that has influenced global historical events....the world we live in. 

The histories of African countries did not begin with slavery. We had ancient philosophy which was embedded (in different ways) into the fabric of communal lives. From the bite sized moral lessons imparted via proverbs to laws, politics and ways of governing. 

Before the pro slavery propaganda machine got into full swing, European visitors to African countries (in the early stages) acknowledged their cultures, laws and forms of governance. African ambassadors visited Europe and vice versa. Some African leaders were multilingual and could speak and write European languages. 

In some cases, African concepts and symbols were so familiar to the European visitors that they thought that it must have been imported from Europe by an earlier visitor (eg Prestor John).

It is a pity to think that there was a window of opportunity in which Europe had the chance to be exposed to different African philosophies. Ways of living and thinking about the world. This knowledge exchange would have been a powerful force on the world stage. This opportunity has, in some cases, been lost due to slavery and colonialism.

African philosophy has been revitalised since the 1920s by returning scholars from Europe fed up with the kind of stereotypical / racist philosophy mentioned in your interview.

Philosophers such As, Julius Nyerere, Mogobe ramose, Leopold Senghor, kwasi wiredu etc also have valuable contributions to make. As well as Asian, middle eastern etc

Philosophy is not stationary, it should constantly evolve. Featured philosophers (in courses) should reflect this global evolution from past to present.

Maybe philosophy courses should start to work in a more multidisciplinary way with other departments like history, African /Asian/ Middle Eastern studies etc. Drawing from the latest research, philosophical theories and concepts from around the world in a thematic way.

By drawing this issue into the light, Nathaniel can help to spearhead a new development in UK provision of philosophy. A movement that may result in the UK being world class leaders in philosophical study and research.

Where there's a will, there is a way because.......

'A man who knows only the stream in his village cannot believe that vast oceans exist'

- Zambian proverb

'Wisdom does not reside in one head alone'

- Ghanian proverb

Comment posted by Ame 


Whitewashing is a historical operation of erasure. In not a single undergraduate or graduate philosophy course did I ever encounter ancient Africanist / Kemetian / Egyptian philosophers; Plato's references to them were considered "origin myths" rather than historical accounts of the spread of ideas from Kemet through to Greece. The most ancient we ever strayed were the pre-Socratics, who of course were considered "mystics", even as most demonstrated advanced knowledge of mathematics evidently gleaned from study at Alexandria and Heliopolis. I suspect the "whitewashing" of philosophy has taken place as contiguous to the invention of race/racism in the post-Enlightenment era. Earlier Greek and Roman philosophs recognised Kemet as the basis for Greek developments; unfortunately we've lost much of these histories and archives (not least due to the destruction of the library at Alexandria; but also because white Western philosophy persists in distrusting neo-Platonist accounts of earlier traditions).

I look forwards to teaching a Philosophy 100 course that begins with Babylonian and Indian texts and then shifts to Kemet before following the ideas to Greece. This is still a tracing of philo-sophia, but in its complexity rather than its erasure.

Stephen Cowley

I have some questions:

1. You say: "The "great" Enlightenment philosopher [Kant] thought that African people were incapable of organising and administering themselves rationally.In Haiti, however, that is exactly what they did."
Questions: Did the Haitians not begin by massacring the whites? Is Haiti really a model of good government? Was it ever?

2. You say: "the 1994 book The Bell Curve [...] attempts to establish a relationship between intelligence and "race.""
Questions: Does it and related work not make a plausible case at the level of averages? Why do you not address (or do you?) the possible truth and implications of race realist literature? Is this not separating the humanities from the biological sciences to the detriment of both?

3. I find your work at UCL valuable as a contribution to the history of ideas and would support it. Do you support UCL's decisions to expel/disrespect Dr Nicholas Kollerstrom or honorary professor Tim Hunt for their research/opinions, or to ban the radical right Nietzsche Society for political incorrectness? Did you ever speak up for them?

Elizabeth Anderson

Thank you, Nathaniel, for your highly informative post. I would like to point out that there are really 2 meanings of "whitewashing" philosophy at play in Nathaniel's post, one explicit, and the other implicit.

1. Nathaniel explicitly points out how philosophy unjustly excludes philosophers racialized as black, such as Cugoano and Douglass. I heartily agree that such writers are well worth the attention of philosophers today.

2. Implicitly, he alludes to another notion of "whitewashing"--that is, covering up of scandal and crimes. Nathaniel shows how philosophy has been complicit in promoting slavery, imperialism, and racism. But the way philosophy is taught today covers this up. The explicitly racist, imperialist, proslavery texts are not taught today in philosophy classes, for the most part. Or racist passages are passed over without comment, as if irrelevant to the rest. Philosophers may try to excuse this by the distinction between intellectual history and normative philosophy. Intellectual historians need to view the history of ideas, warts and all--at least if they are doing their jobs. Normative philosophers claim to select only those works and passages for attention that are thought to have contemporary normative relevance--by which is meant, some degree of plausibility to current readers, at least at first glance, or some arguments still worth taking seriously on the merits, even if they are ultimately rejected. The difficulty with this is that it takes the texts out of context and thereby fails to come to grips with what the philosophers are really doing. Racism in the texts needs to be interrogated, not passed over in silence as an embarrassment, or something that can simply be excised without affecting the main point. It changes the meaning of what is said. Charles Mills has done important work reversing the whitewashing of philosophy with his work on the racial contract--the ways social contract theory, while ostensibly universalist, has in fact functioned as a legitimation of white supremacy.

At the same time, it is important not to represent white Enlightenment figures as all racist or wholly neglectful of the injustice of racialized slavery. Some Enlightenment figures were explicitly anti-slavery and anti-racist: Adam Smith and Olympe de Gouges are exemplary figures in that regard.


A really fascinating interview - utterly essential provocations. I'm always astounded by the capacity for discussions on topics such as this to draw out the most tediously reactionary opinions - in this case it was Stephen Cowley's role to play (see above). There was a violence to all of the posed questions, but question 3 in particular is acutely violent in what it attempts to conceal through a discourse of egalitarianism. To rephrase it accurately.

"3. Why didn't you defend people whose ideology, fully realised, would have you put to death?"

I'm baffled to why anyone would consider this a question even worth asking, especially with such an ill-concealed pretence for mutual respect.

Elizabeth Anderson

Stephen Cowley asks "Did the Haitians not begin by massacring the whites?" Such was the racist propaganda spread by European and American newspapers during the Haitian revolution; it is shocking to see it ignorantly repeated today. Let us consider the events of the Haitian Revolution in context:

1. The French in Saint-Domingue, as the colony was then called, began by inflicting a regime on enslaved Africans that was, for all practical purposes, genocidal: the business plan of the sugar plantations was to work the slaves to death, and then bring new ones from Africa to refresh the labor force. The death rate consistently exceeded the birth rate in French and British Caribbean sugar colonies in that era, requiring constant importation of new slaves from Africa.

2. The Haitian Revolution began as a war of liberation and for racial equality, not as a race war. While the slave revolution entailed killing a lot of slaveholders, who were white, Toussaint Louverture took pains to reject racism. His 1801 Constitution, written with the cooperation of white planters, was the first in the world to declare universal emancipation. Title 2, Article 4 declared equality of opportunity regardless of race. Title 2, Article 5 declared equality under the law and abolition of racial discrimination and racial distinctions under the law. Louverture sought racial equality, not race war, in Saint-Domingue.

3. When Napoleon took power in France, he attempted to reimpose slavery on Haiti. Recognizing that the freed people would never submit to slavery again, having fought a successful war of liberation, he took the advice of his General, Charles Leclerc, to wage a "war of extermination" against the blacks, and repopulate Saint-Domingue with fresh slaves from Africa. Leclerc's successor Rochambeau followed Leclerc's plan, starting with genocide of black soldiers in the French army in Saint-Domingue.

4. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who succeeded Louverture, discovered a letter in which the white planters declared their support for Rochambeau, and concluded that they were conspiring with Napoleon to reimpose slavery. Dessalines therefore declared them enemies, and killed several thousand French whites. However, even this was not a race war against whites as such. Dessalines protected the Poles who defected from the French army, as well as other whites who declared their allegiance to Haiti. These whites subsequently became citizens of Haiti. Under the 1805 constitution, they were declared "black"--a notable repudiation of any biological notion of race, replaced by a conception of race as tied to a political project of securing blacks against racialized subordination by barring the construction of any superior racial group.

You can read all about this history in Laurent Dubois' *Avengers of the New World.*

Crowley's claim that black Haitians "began" a race war is characteristic of the way racism has distorted whites' historical memories, projecting the crimes of whites onto blacks. It is precisely these kinds of distortions of thinking that Nathaniel is campaigning against in opposing the whitewashing of philosophy, and of curricula in white-dominated universities more generally.

Stephen Cowley

As Dr Coleman has yet to reply to anyone, perhaps I could respond to the criticisms of my questions by Jaqueimo and Elizabeth Anderson.

1. Jaqueimo wrongly accuses me of a deceptive "discourse of egalitarianism". My political stance is not egalitarian, though I support some universal rights, e.g. free non-violent expression. I can see that any political position might be framed as "violent", as it advocates laws that are in the last instance maintained by force on the part of the authorities. However, that is equally (perhaps more) true of egalitarian politics - think of the Marxist theories of revolution, or the realities of communist rule. No basis is offered for the supposed accurate rephrasing of Kollerstrom's and Hunt's "ideology", so there is not much to reply to there.

2. Elizabeth Anderson describes the massacre of whites on Haiti as "racist propaganda" spread by newspaper reports. She then admits that "the slave revolution entailed killing a lot of slaveholders, who were white" (but not because they were white) and that "Dessalines... killed several thousand French whites" on the basis of a letter. She doesn't say how many he left alive. How many Haitian whites are there today?

The contrast between egalitarian ideals, such as the 1801 Haitian constitution, and the violence necessary to realize and maintain them is well known in the case of the French and Russian revolutions. It seems to have been no different in Haiti. A business plan of working unpaid laborers to death and then paying for new ones makes no sense.

The death rate of whites in contemporary Britain exceeds the birth rate and this is used by the liberal-Marxist left as a reason for displacement level immigration. Does she think that this is genocidal?

She says that "racism has distorted whites' historical memories". Thinking in terms of ethnic interests is a human universal: it foregrounds facts that are salient to the interests of an ethnic group. Distortion of facts is still a defect of racially identified thought, as the racial group benefits from an accurate grasp of reality. I agree with her that Dr Coleman has identified some distortions of our common culture(s).

I have read contemporary British newspaper reports of St Domingue (Haiti) and Martinique and they are if anything hostile to the French, with whom Britain was at war, and sympathetic to Toussaint L'Ouverture. For a racially conscious account of Haiti, see Lothrop Stoddard's The French Revolution in St Domingue (copy in UCL library). Stoddard's account is based on archival material, not newspapers.

Elizabeth Anderson

Stephen Cowley laments the violence needed to overthrow a genocidal regime in Saint-Domingue and replace it with something more egalitarian. By this standard, he should also lament the Allies' violence against Germany and Japan in WWII.

He claims that "a business plan of working unpaid laborers to death and then paying for new ones makes no sense." But, as the demographic evidence introduced by opponents of the slave trade demonstrated, that was precisely the business plan in the Caribbean sugar colonies. It did produce immense profits, because the value of the extra production achieved by working slaves to death for the years they remained alive exceeded their purchase price. In addition, obtaining fresh adult slaves from Africa was cheaper than rearing child slaves from infancy, because it spared slaveholders the cost of supporting slave children before they were old enough to work the fields.

It is sheer sophistry to compare current British demographic realities, where birth rates are below replacement level due to voluntary birth control, and people are living longer than ever, with the demographics of slavery in Haiti, where slaves were worked to an early death.

And it is racist to speak of "displacement level immigration." For all its faults, one thing the US has learned to do better than Europe is to continually refresh and invigorate itself by incorporating immigrants from all shores. Current anti-Latino hysteria notwithstanding, immigrants today are enriching the US economically and culturally, just as previous waves of immigrants have. Within a generation or two, they will come to be seen as American as those who trace their ancestors to the US further back. The UK would be well-advised to view immigration similarly, not as displacing but as enriching British culture and society. Only then will it be able to fulfill Nathaniel's aspiration for Britain to repudiate racism as a constitutive principle of its culture, self-interpretation, and construction of its historical memory.


This is a wonderful piece, thank you Nathaniel. That this has happened seems like a logical result of the history of white supremacy and power.
It's in the powerful's best interest to maintain certain narratives, which includes the gatekeeping that determines who we accept as legitimate philosophers (in history and today). These beliefs are so entrenched that it is difficult to see just how racism, and other oppressive systems have altered how we understand institutions of knowledge. This is the strength and importance of what Nathaniel and others are doing. It's easy enough for me, as a white woman to accept the white-dominated narrative of the history of philosophy and history in general. I suffer in philosophy from the history of gender bias and exclusion, however because of my skin color I am afforded a certain amount of unearned legitimacy. My white, male counterpart will certainly be taken as a serious philosopher, while I will have to prove myself. However this is nothing compared to my non-white counterparts. This is true in the second decade of the twenty-first century—so why do we not think that it was true in earlier ones? To think that an entire category of people were merely taking their oppression and not uttering a word, not philosophizing about the situation, is ridiculous. It’s our duty now to recognize the issue and actively work to resolve it. This is what social justice is—recognizing the humanity and philosophical acuity of those who were previously seen as inhumane.
This work is important. Taking someone racialized as black as a knower and taking their account of the erasure of black voices in the history of philosophy, seriously is important. If we fail to do this, we are no better than our historical counterparts who failed so seriously to recognize non-whites as people capable of understanding the wrong and injustice of their own treatment. This whitewashing seems to be a vestige of colonialism, and the erasure of non-white philosophers in the history of philosophy is further dehumanizing of those people.
Thanks again for this, Nathaniel. It was a wonderful read, and I look forward to reading those philosophers you citied.


Great article. I learned a lot from it. The repercussions of the altering of history still has major impacts in every single aspect of our lives even in Education (that is supposed to be accurate and truthful).
Research suggests that across the HE sector there are differing attainment levels based on factors such as race, gender, socio-economics and ethnicity. The latter is of particular concern to universities that as an institution are proud of its ethnically diverse student body and commitment to equality and inclusion. Universities have set themselves targets to address the difference in attainment for BME and non-BME learners which is a positive move.
The BME Attainment Gap
BME attainment gap, refers to the difference in outcomes for BME and non-BME students and a complex set of issues that cannot be simply explained by differences in entry level qualifications. At present the BME attainment gap within the HE sector is 23%. Social inequalities provide a partial explanation for the gap with BME students others might include the challenges of finance and striking the balance between paid work and study. There is evidence to suggest that some BME students are more likely to undertake paid work more in order to make ends meet to the detriment of attendance. This is significant given the correlation between attendance and results. A recent exercise where posters were placed strategically in the University’s main corridor asked student’s to comment what they believed could help them enhance their university experience. One of the factors that was articulated time and time again was the sense of “exclusion”.
Students, particularly from BME backgrounds, did not feel their cultural heritage was reflected in the current curriculum. They don’t believe that the current curriculum content provides a fair reflection of the wider student population with the current curriculum being taught ignoring issues of black culture heritage. These students believed the curriculum to be “white’.
Whilst it is widely accepted that notions of “Race” are social constructs. I would argue it was not socially constructed benevolently – it was constructed to divide and order humans beings into a hierarchy. When the students who participated in this exercise referred to the “whiteness” of the curriculum, they were not referring themselves as people who are Caucasians but to power. Whiteness is an ideology construct which says that people who are Caucasian are morally and intellectually superior to people from different ethnicities.
Students who participated also believed this position was reflected in course reading lists. For example, ideas tend to be from European male thinkers. The students were not advocating removing these thinkers from the curriculum for race sake as they would like a curriculum based on merit. However, they believe that the opinions given were from a myopic perspective and that other great thinkers are simply not included in the curriculum. If other cultures didn’t contribute to the development and growth of the world civilisation then this request could be seen as unreasonable however students know that it isn’t the case.
The introduction of a black history MA program will interest black and non-black students. It also has the potential to provide BME students role models based on history and current affairs as well as presenting them with a wealth of information. Students will be able to learn about the contributions of their cultural heritage towards the history and civilisation of the world. This program will appeal to students from diverse sectors of the University including faculties such as arts, economics, science, philosophy or religion.
Two events this year were organized with the help of KUSU and the Widening and Participation department:
Renowned artist and MOBO award winner Akala impressed the many KU students and staff who attended his lesson on African History the 24th of February 2015 in the Clattern Lecture Theatre. The lecture titled ‘Africa in History’ explored the idea that much of the continent’s history has been distorted over thousands of years by historians and Hollywood. The lecture lasted for over two hours and ranged from ancient Egypt and slavery to obscure 16th century explorers and 13th century universities in Timbuktu. The content gave us a clear understanding of the contributions of Africa towards the development of the history of the world and civilisation. We also heard about imperialism and class. The main focus on Africa and Diasporic history and how the obscuring of past human possibilities affects our vision of today.
In May, KRS-ONE gave a Hip-Hop master class lecture in the Clattern Lecture Theatre. KRS-ONE was named the “Consciousness of Hip-Hop” by Rolling Stones Magazine and his overall contributions to hip hop, the pioneering artist has been the recipient of numerous tributes and accolades, by the United Nations, VH1, Billboard magazine and Source Magazine, including BET’s 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award and VH1’s 2004 Hip Hop Honors. Hip Hop is a cultural movement formed during the late 1960s among African Americans.
Both these events were massive successes with great attendance and demand for materials. We’d like to continue promoting similar educational events.
Way Forward/What Next? Subtitle needed
We would like to build a program that includes lectures and seminars from KU and non KU staff. It will add a very credible and dynamic programme as we will benefit from the knowledge by KU staff such as Dr. Ware, Dr. Cappel and non KU staff such as Dr. Kehinde Andrews or even Akala as students will be able to hear different information and perspectives on a range of different topics which would also broaden the student experiences further.
Even if we restricted our focus from 18th century to 21st century, there are various black personalities and organisations important in political history such as Malcolm X, Ella Baker Oludah Equiano, William Cuffay, and Henry Sylvester Williams and the Pan African Movement. In Literature, there were best-selling black writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Mary Prince, the dramatic actor Ira Aldridge, and the Black Newspapers Africa and Orient Review and The Keys. In Music, there were black classical and popular musicians such as Ignatius Sancho, Professor Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. Universities brand themselves as a place for diversity and innovation however it’s not reflected it its teaachings. In the UK there’s currently on program related to Black History and it’s taught by Goldsmith university.
Universities, as students, we believe should reflect the best in society and not reproduce certain inequalities. Only by implementing new measures which do not go against the dominant intellectual culture but simply enhance it by offering different perspectives can Universities genuinely build and inclusive and progressive environment for learning.

Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir

Thanks for this very interesting piece. I know I'm coming late to the discussion, but I feel compelled to come to Mary Wollstonecraft's defense. While her use of the word 'slavery' and related terms is complex, especially in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and her focus there is on the rights on women rather than the rights of African slaves in the Caribbean, the claim that she didn't want to get her hands dirty with the matters of African slaves seems enormously unfair to me. She was an outspoken abolitionist throughout her writing career. One of her early assignments was a review of "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano" for the radical publication The Analytical Review. She assembled a reader for young women, "The Female Reader: or Miscellaneous Pieces for the Improvement of Young Women", in which she included several anti-slavery pieces, such as the passage "Negro woman" from Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Hymn VIII, a passage from William Cowper's poem The Task, and the Legend of Inkle and Yarico.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Men, which is pretty much a tirade against Edmund Burke's views on the French revolution, Wollstonecraft mentions slavery and the slave trade several times. Among other things, she criticizes Burke, who was also an abolitionist, at least nominally, for not being sufficiently outspoken against the slave trade in parliament: "You find it very difficult to separate policy from justice: in the political world they have frequently been separated with shameful dexterity. To mention a recent instance. According to the limited views of timid, or interested politicians, an abolition of the infernal slave trade would not only be unsound policy, but a flagrant infringement of the laws (which are allowed to have been infamous) that induced the planters to purchase their estates. But is it not consonant with justice, with the common principles of humanity, not to mention Christianity, to abolish this abominable mischief? There is not one argument, one invective, levelled by you at the confiscators of the church revenue, which could not, with the strictest propriety, be applied by the planters and negro-drivers to our Parliament, if it gloriously dared to shew the world that British senators were men if the natural feelings of humanity silenced the cold cautions of timidity, till this stigma on our nature was wiped off, and all men were allowed to enjoy their birth-right–liberty, till by their crimes they had authorized society to deprive them of the blessing they had abused."

A couple of more examples of her mentioning Caribbean slaves in VRM: "the lash resounds on the slave’s naked sides; and the sick wretch, who can no longer earn the sour bread of unremitting labour, steals to a ditch to bid the world a long good night" and "Where is the dignity, the infallibility of sensibility, in the fair ladies, whom, if the voice of rumour is to be credited, the captive negroes curse in all the agony of bodily pain, for the unheard of tortures they invent?"

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman her focus is on other things -- the rights of women. However, she does mention slavery in the Caribbean and/or the slave trade in a couple of places at least and it's clear that she's not forgotten the plight of African slaves. She's most certainly not in the business of trying to keep her hands clean. For example: "Is sugar always to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard, only to sweeten the cup of man? Is not this indirectly to deny woman reason?" And here: "And when a question of humanity is agitated he may dip a sop in the milk of human kindness, to silence Cerberus, and talk of the interest which his heart takes in an attempt to make the earth no longer cry for vengeance as it sucks in its children's blood, though his cold hand may at the very moment rivet their chains, by sanctioning the abominable traffick."

It's true that Wollstonecraft does at times use the word 'enslaved' about wealthy women, in the sense that their minds, for instance, were enslaved. I believe that's quite consistent with common usage of the word at the time. That does not at all mean that her concern was mostly for wealthy women. In fact, they, and upper class people in general, are the ones she scorns. But like I said, her use of 'enslaved', 'slavery', etc. is complex and not something that can be covered quickly.

The comments to this entry are closed.