From David Maughan Brown in York: Dickens and the San

June 12th

David Vincent’s very pertinent blog about Charles Dickens, with its vivid quotation from Little Dorrit describing Victorian lockdown in London, raises an interesting issue in the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests.  That relatively short quotation is enough to illustrate Dickens’ excellence as a descriptive writer whose extensive body of fiction fully justifies his reputation as one of England’s leading novelists.   In addition to being a powerful novelist, Dickens was a social reformer whose fiction is regarded as having assisted with bringing about positive social change during the nineteenth century.  But, unsurprisingly perhaps, there were other sides to him, as there were to the ‘philanthropists’ Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, not the least of which was, by all accounts, the way he behaved towards his family.

In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the mention of Rhodes and Colston in a blog reflecting on Dickens is not inadvertent.   Dickens visited the exhibition of ‘Bushmen’ in the Egyptian Hall in London in 1847, and wrote an article in Household Words in 1853 excoriating the notion of the Noble Savage.  In that article, he announces that he ‘abhors, detests, abominates and abjures’ the ‘horrid little’ leader of the San group on display ‘in his filth and his antipathy to water, and his straddled legs, and his odious eyes shaded by his brutal hand.’  But he goes further than merely expressing his abhorrence when he declares: ‘I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage…. I call a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth… he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails and beastly customs….”  Dickens’s casual countenancing of the genocide which took place in parts of South Africa in the nineteenth century, which is implicit in the desirability of “civilizing” savages off the face of the earth, is made explicit later in the same essay: “All the noble savage’s wars with his fellow savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination – which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him.’

While the language is as vivid, and the description of the San leader as powerful (in this instance as powerfully offensive), as it often is in his fiction, this is clearly not the Dickens of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.  In so far as Dickens appears to be advocating genocide, the extent of the explicit racism expressed here goes beyond that of Rhodes and probably, although I haven’t read any of his writings, of Colston.   Colston needed his slaves to be alive if they were going to bring any money in for him; and Rhodes needed black labourers to dig for his diamonds.  So should the Black Lives Matter movement be moving on to have statues of Dickens removed as well, and while they are about it, have his books removed from our library shelves and burned, once all the statues of Victorian slave owners and other overt racists have been removed?

The obvious answer is a resounding “no”.   That, of course, is what anyone would expect from a retired English professor.  But isn’t that a bit hypocritical, coming from someone who has been a strong advocate for the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, and has expressed regret the Colston’s statue wasn’t removed in response to earlier petitions?  Why not statues of Dickens as well?  The argument that Dickens has enriched our cultural life immeasurably, and that his fiction was promoting progressive social causes won’t wash.  As philanthropists, Rhodes with his scholarships and other donations, and Colston with the money he gave to schools in Bristol will unquestionably have brought social benefit, in spite of the sources of their wealth.  The tired argument that Dickens, like Colston and Rhodes, were ‘men of their time’ isn’t any more convincing.  There were plenty of mid-Victorians who didn’t think that genocide was a good idea.

Leaving aside the obvious argument that burning books isn’t a good idea in principle, there seem to me to be three main arguments for distinguishing between Dickens on the one hand and Rhodes and Colston on the other.  First, Dickens’ abhorrent views about ‘noble savages’ didn’t inform his fiction in any significant way, unlike, for example, the way Wilbur Smith’s racist ideology has informed his best-selling novels and influenced for the worse hundreds of thousands of readers’ racial attitudes in the process.  Second, leading on from that, Dickens’ racial views have not led to thousands of deaths.   The genocidal Afrikaaner settlers who murdered all the San in the Orange Free State were not inspired to do so by having read Dickens’ articles in Household Words.  Third, anybody looking at a statue of Dickens will recognise it as a tribute to an unquestionably important novelist whose major legacy is his body of fiction, not anything he wrote in Household Words.  In fact, perhaps regrettably, the chances of anybody, including any possible San visitors to U.K., knowing anything about his views on the San are vanishingly small, so it is highly unlikely that his statue, unlike those of Rhodes and Colston, is going to be hurtful or offensive to  anyone.   

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