Charles Kingsley once described some of the population of Ireland as ‘white chimpanzees’! So who was Charles Kingsley, and why did he say this about men and women who, the Bible says, were ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27)?

Propagandist for evolution

The 19th century English clergyman Charles Kingsley (1819–1875) was also a writer, amateur naturalist and historian. Today’s older generation probably know him best for his children’s book The Water Babies, a curious work which featured a form of ‘evolution in reverse’. For example, the main character, Tom, is a human child who has become an amphibian with gills and now lives in the water.

In 1859, Kingsley was so taken with Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that he wrote a letter of commendation to Darwin in which he said: ‘ … if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written’, and he went on to say that now he was free from the ‘superstition’ that God required a fresh act of creation for each kind of creature.1 Darwin was looking for a prominent clergyman’s endorsement to buttress his views on evolution, and promptly added part of Kingsley’s letter to the last chapter of the 1860 second edition of his Origin.2,3

Evolutionary ideas were emerging in Britain in Kingsley’s time from many sources, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier and Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles), whose book Zoonomia (1794) greatly influenced his more famous grandson. Many Victorians believed that evolution justified slavery and racism. And the new pseudoscience of phrenology said that the structures of the human skull and jaw showed which races were inferior to others. In this situation, the Irish, who were Celts, were held by Victorian evolutionists to be a lower evolutionary form than their alleged ‘superiors’, the Anglo-Saxons. Thus, ‘the ‘ape-like’ Celt’ had become like a ‘cliché of Victorian racism’.6

The potato factor

The great Irish potato famine provides the backdrop for Kingsley’s comments. In the early 1800s, the potato had become the staple diet of about 3 million Irish farmers, after it had been introduced to Europe from South America by the Spanish in the late 1500s. Potatoes were nutritious, easy to grow, and produced more calories per acre than any other crop….

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