Darwin’s biographers, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, have produced another book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, which they claim “is the untold story of how Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery led to our modern understanding of evolution”.1 So what did Darwin think of slavery? Did it have anything to do with his theory of evolution? And was he trying to counter those in the pro-slavery lobby who said that the black races originated from a different source than the white, and were therefore somehow sub-human?

A family against slavery

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was born into a family which vigorously opposed slavery. His grandfathers, the humanist and evolutionist Erasmus Darwin2 and the Unitarian pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood I,3 provided finance and helped form an anti-slavery lobby group in support of the work of the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce in parliament.

This resulted in the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (which made it illegal for British ships to carry slaves),4 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (which made slavery illegal throughout the British Empire).5

Darwin’s own experiences of slavery

Charles Darwin had three very diverse experiences of slaves and slavery:

1. During his medical studies in Edinburgh, he learned how to stuff birds from a former negro slave, John Edmonston, about whom he wrote: “I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man”.6

2. During his Beagle voyage (1831–36), he saw the brutality of slavery first-hand in the South American countries he visited, and wrote:

“Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto,7 daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. … I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people … [who] speak of slavery as a tolerable evil.”8….

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