The Clapham Sect and the language of race: some thoughts

The Daily Telegraph of 2 June 2014 has a timely article by the conservative journalist and politician, Daniel Hannan, which argues that racial insults are unacceptable, not because of the dictates of political correctness but because of simple good manners and respect for fellow human beings. This is a point that would have been self-evident to the members of the Clapham Sect, who were careful not only to avoid racial insults but to counter the prejudice that lay behind them.

In the writings of Hannah More, we can observe a process of self-correction over racial language. Here she is at the end of 1792 when her counter-revolutionary tract, Village Politics, went to the press:

We follow the French! Why they only begun all this mischief at first, in order to be just what we are already. Why I’d sooner go to the Negers to get learning, or to the Turks to get religion, than to the French for freedom and happiness.

When she came to revise Village Politics in 1801 she altered the n-word to the then less offensive ‘negroes’. Someone must have told her that the term was unacceptable. Of course she was still disparaging African culture, but this disparagement represented her view of the current state of Africa rather than an essentialist view of African nature. Writing about the mental capacities of women in her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1798), (vol. ii, pp. 30-1) she argued that

…the question must always remain as undecided as to the degree of difference between the masculine and feminine understandings, as the question between the understanding of blacks and whites; for until Africans and Europeans are put more nearly on a par in the cultivation of their minds, the shades of difference, if any there be, between their native powers can never be fairly ascertained.

More’s apparent denigration of African culture was in part a rhetorical flourish. She knew enough from conversations with her abolitionist friends, John Newton and James Ramsay, to realise that David Hume’s famous dismissal of African civilisation was based on ignorance. One of the footnotes to her poem Slavery (1788) makes the point that ‘besides many valuable productions of the soil, cloths and carpets of exquisite manufacture are brought from the coast of Guinea’. But though she clearly respected African craftsmanship, she was still dismissive of the state of their education.

There is a different emphasis in Wilberforce’s writings. In 1823 he published his last work, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies to coincide with the founding of the Anti-Slavery Society. Though the slave trade had been abolished since 1807, West Indian slavery showed no sign of dying out as the abolitionists had previously hoped. The great push now was to abolish the institution of slavery altogether, and it was an important part of Wilberforce’s argument to assert the complete equality of Africans. Far from denigrating any part of their culture, he was concerned to praise it in order to contrast it with the degraded state of the slaves in the West Indies. Using the writings of the explorers, the Scotsman Mungo Park and the Frenchman Sylvian Meinrad Xavier de Golbéry, he was able to argue that

the Negroes…while yet in Africa were represented to be industrious, generous, eminent for truth, seldom chargeable with licentiousness, distinguished for their domestic affections and capable at times of acts of heroic magnanimity

If the West Indian slaves were, according to the contemporary crude stereotypes,

selfish, indolent, deceitful, ungrateful – and above all, in whatever respects the intercourse between the sexes, incurably licentious (p. 32)

whose fault was that?

Wilberforce was therefore more careful than Hannah More to avoid dismissive language about African culture. He believed that the experiment of Sierra Leone, the freed slave colony set up by the Clapham Sect, disproved the lazy caricature of the African as idle and promiscuous. Modern historians are on the whole very critical of this venture, but Wilberforce felt confident enough in its success to use it as a case-study in his argument for racial equality.

For all their limitations, both he and Hannah More recognised that, in writing about race language mattered.


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