Yikes, Darwin Family

I just finished reading Janis McLarren Caldwell’s Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain while doing some research. I discovered this deeply uncomfortable story about Charles Darwin which, sadly, was probably all too prevalent in its day.

In 1838, Darwin made some personal notes about his indecision to marry:

“But then if I married tomorrow: there would be an infinity of trouble and expense in getting and furnishing a house, – fighting about no Society – morning calls – awkwardness – loss of time every day …. Then how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife. – Eheu!! I never should know French, – or see the Continent, – or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales – poor slave, you will be worse than a negro – And then horrid poverty …. Never mind my boy – Cheer up – One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless and cold and childless staring one in one’s face, already beginning to wrinkle. Never mind, trust to chance – keep a sharp look out. – There is many a happy slave-

Darwin, of course, went on to marry his cousin Emma. Caldwell goes on to explain of Darwin’s excerpt, “Darwin’s wife Emma probably saw these notes, and very likely preserved them herself. She seems to have enjoyed the joke, addressing Darwin in early letters, disturbingly, as ‘my own dear Nigger'” (140).

Guys, no. I’m not exactly sure of the evolution of that word in the UK in terms of offense, but surely even then this must have been considered a bit coarse (to say the least). If anyone can tell me anything about the reception of the term in the UK over the course of the nineteenth-century, I’d be very grateful.

And this isn’t even getting into all the issues about marriage being compared to slavery, which, in Darwin’s understanding of marriage-as-slavery, seems to have baffling and offensive misunderstanding of gender politics ON TOP OF everything else.

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One Response to Yikes, Darwin Family

  1. The UK simply didn’t have the same institution of chattel slavery with racial overtones. Slavery per se was abolished in the late 18th century on English soil, but even before then it just wasn’t the same thing — there was no widespread practice of importing abducted slaves from Africa to work there.

    “Nigger” was still an insult (and has become much more so in recent years, partly due to cultural bleed-over from the USA) but to the Darwins slavery was a distant foreign practice and “negroes” were not people you saw every day; they were something you read about in the newspapers.

    I will note that Guy Gibson VC’s dog — while he was squadron leader with 617 squadron RAF, the Dambusters — was named “nigger”. That was in 1942-43. And he wasn’t remembered for being particularly racist.


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