Zero Tolerance
14 Aug 2011

Race and Class

To begin with the first. In the Memoirs of Granville Sharp, lately published, there is an anecdote recorded of the young Prince Naimbanna, well worthy the attention of all unfledged sophists, and embryo politicians.

‘The name of a person having been mentioned in his presence, who was understood by him to have publicly asserted something very degrading to the general character of Africans, he broke out into violent and vindictive language. He was immediately reminded of the Christian duty of forgiving his enemies; upon which he answered nearly in the following words: – “If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot at me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave-ship, so that we should pass all the rest of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him; but” (added he, rising from his seat with much emotion) “if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I can never forgive him.” Being asked, why he would not extend his forgiveness to those who took away the character of the people of his country, he answered – “If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me and my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but if anyone takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing that he may not do to Black people ever after. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, Oh, it is only a Black man, why should I not beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people; for when he has taken away their character, he will say, Oh, they are only Black people, why should I not make them slaves? That man will take away all the people of Africa if he can catch them; and if you ask him, But why do you take away all these people? he will say, Oh, they are only Black people – why should I not take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country,”’ p. 369. – So we conceive, that if we take away the character of the people of this country, or of any large proportion of them, there is no degree of turpitude or injustice that we may not introduce into the measures and treatment which we consider as most fit for them. To legislate wisely, and for the best, it is necessary that we should think as well, and not as ill, as possible, of those for whom we legislate; or otherwise we shall soon reduce them to the level of our own theories. To treat men as brute beasts in our speculations, is to encourage ourselves to treat them as such in our practice; and that is the way to make them what we pretend to believe they are. To take it for granted that any class of the community is utterly depraved and incorrigible, is not the way either to improve our own treatment of them, or to correct their vicious qualities. And when we see the lower classes of the English people uniformly singled out as marks for the malice or servility of a certain description of writers – when we see them studiously separated, like a degraded caste, from the rest of the community, with scarcely the attributes and faculties of the species allowed them, – nay, when they are thrust lower in the scale of humanity than the same classes of any other nation in Europe – though it is to these very classes that we owe the valour of our naval and military heroes, the industry of our artisans and labouring mechanics, and all that we have been told, again and again, elevates us above every other nation in Europe – when we see the redundant population (as it is fashionably called) selected as the butt for every effusion of paltry spite, and as the last resource of vindictive penal statutes – when we see every existing evil derived from this unfortunate race, and every possible vice ascribed to them – when we are accustomed to hear the poor, the uninformed, the friendless, put, by tacit consent, out of the pale of society – when their faults and wretchedness are exaggerated with eager impatience, and still greater impatience is shown at every expression of a wish to amend them – when they are familiarly spoken of as a sort of vermin only fit to be hunted down, and exterminated at the discretion of their betters: – we know pretty well what to think, both of the disinterestedness of the motives which give currency to this jargon, and of the wisdom of the policy which should either sanction, or suffer itself to be influenced by its suggestions.

From ‘Capital Punishments’ in the Edinburgh Review (July 1821).

— William Hazlitt, Selected Writings, ed. by Ronald Blythe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), pp. 464-6.