Recently, somewhat by accident, I stumbled into reading a couple of monstrously racist texts, and I’m going to need to update the Wikipedia entry for a famous British author. But I learned a few things along the way that I want to share.

Disclosure · I try to be antiracist, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. I sometimes have bigoted feelings but try hard to recognize and not act on them. I’m convinced that humans are naturally tribal and antiracist work will continue to be required for the foreseeable future.

The Author · Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) wrote 47 novels. I generally like them and we own a whole shelf-full. They are funny and tender and cynical; his characters love and marry and go into business and get elected to Parliament and are corrupt and engage in furious professional conflict. Those characters are, without exception, “gentle”, by which I mean members of the British ruling class.

Anthony Trollope in 1864

Anthony Trollope in 1864.

When I was traveling around the world a lot, regularly crossing major oceans before the era of in-air Internet, Trollope was a regular companion; his books tend to be big and thick and extremely readable. Want to get started? Barchester Towers, about a bitter feud among the clergymen of an English country town, is one of the funniest books ever written; also there’s an excellent BBC adaptation, with Alan Rickman deliciously smarmy as the horrid Mr Slope.

What happened was… · I’m on a publishing-oriented mailing list and someone wrote “I stumbled on the fact that Trollope wrote a book that describes race relations in the British West Indies” and someone wrote back “It’s a travelogue not a novel, it’s called The West Indies and the Spanish Main, and be careful, that race-relations stuff may not be pleasant to read.” On a whim, I summoned up the book from our excellent public-library system and, oh my goodness gracious, that “not pleasant” was understating it.

The book · Trollope earned his living, while he was establishing his literary career, as an official of the British Post Office, rising to a high level in the organization and not leaving it until he was almost 50.

In 1859, he was sent to reorganize the Post Office arrangements in the West Indies and the “Spanish Main”, the latter meaning southern Central America and northern South America. The expedition lasted several months and yielded this book. In his autobiography, Trollope wrote that he thought it “the best book which has come from my pen.” I think history would disagree. It’s on the Internet Archive, but I’m not linking to explicit racism.

So why am I going to write about it?! Because now, 165 years after this book, racism and its consequences remain a central focus of our cultural struggles. Understanding the forces we combat is kind of important. Also, I recently researched and wrote about the Demerara Rebellion (of the enslaved against their oppressors, in 1823) so I have more context on Trollope’s observations than most.

Background · Trollope’s tone is grumpy but good-humored. In the places he visits, he is generally contemptuous of the hotels, the food, the weather, and the local government.

The main narrative starts in Jamaica. By way of background, slavery had been abolished in 1833, just 25 years before. Many of the sugar plantations that occupied most of Jamaica had collapsed. Thus this:

By far the greater portion of the island is covered with wild wood and jungle… Through this, on an occasional favourable spot, and very frequently on the roadsides, one see the gardens or provision-grounds of the negroes…

These provision-grounds are very picturesque. They are not filled, as a peasant’s garden in England or in Ireland is filled, with potatoes and cabbages, or other vegetables similarly uninteresting in their growth; but contain cocoa-trees, breadfruit-trees, oranges, mangoes, limes, plantains, jack frout, sour-sop, avocado pears, and a score of others, all of which are luxuriant trees, some of considerable size, and all of them of great beauty… In addition to this, they always have the yam, which is with the negro somewhat as the potato is with the Irishman; only that the Irishman has nothing else, whereas the negro generally has either fish or meat, and has also a score of other fruits beside the yam.

We wouldn’t use that word any more to describe Black people, but it was thought courteous in Trollope’s day. He does deploy the N-word, albeit rarely, and clarifying that it was normally seen, even back then, as an insult.

The bad stuff · It comes on fast. In the Jamaica chapter, the first few subheadings are: “Introduction”, “Town”, “Country”, “Black Men”, “Coloured Men”, and “White Men”. That “Black Men” chapter begins with six or so pages of pure racist dogma about the supposed shortcomings of Black people. I will not enumerate them, and obviously none stand up to the cold light of scientific inquiry.

But then it gets a little weird. Trollope notes that “The first desire of a man in a state of a civilization is for property… Without a desire for property, man could make no progress.” And he is harsh in his criticism of the Black population for declining to work long shifts on the sugar plantations in hopes of building up some capital and getting ahead.

And yet Trollope is forced to acknowledge that his position is weak. He describes an episode of a Black laborer knocking off work early and being abused by an overseer, saying he’ll starve. The laborer replies “No massa; no starve now; God send plenty yam.” Trollope muses “And who can blame the black man? He is free to work or free to let it alone.” It is amusingly obvious that this is causing him extreme cognitive dissonance.

And he seems shockingly oblivious to issues of labor economics. On another occasion it is a group of young women who are declining the hot nasty work in the cane fields:

On the morning of my visit they were lying with their hoes beside them… The planter was with me, and they instantly attacked him. “No, massa; we no workey; money no nuff,” said one. “Four bits no pay! no pay at all!” said another. “Five bits, massa, and we gin morrow ’arly.” It is hardly necessary to say that the gentleman refused to bargain with them… “But will they not look elsewhere for other work?” I asked. “Of course they will,” he said; “… but others cannot pay better than I do.”

(A “bit” was one eighth of a dollar; I can remember my grandfather referring to a quarter, i.e. a 25¢ coin, as “two bits”.)

They’re demanding a 20% raise and, as is very common today, the employer deems that impossible.

Trollope contrasts the situation in Barbados, where there is no spare land and thus no “provision grounds” and the working class (in this case, all-Black) is forced to labor diligently for their daily bread; and is confident that this is better.

He also visits Cuba, where slavery is still legal, and visits a plantation with an enslaved workforce: “During the crop time … from November till May, the negroes sleep during six hours out of the twenty-four, have two for their meals, and work for sixteen! No difference is made on Sunday.” Trollope’s biggest concern was that the enslaved received no religious instruction nor opportunities to worship.

Trollope regularly also has to wrestle with the tension that arises when he meets an accomplished or wise or influential Black person. For example, upon arriving in New Amsterdam (in Demerara):

At ten o’clock I found myself at the hotel, and pronounce it to be, without hesitation, the best inn, not only in that colony, but in any of these Western colonies belonging to Great Britain. It is kept by a negro, one Mr. Paris Brittain, of whom I was informed that he was once a slave… he is merely the exception which proves the rule.

Here are two more samples of Trollope twisting himself in knots over what seems to him an economic mystery.

But if the unfortunate labourers could be made to work, say four days a week, and on an average eight hours a day, would not that in itself be an advantage ? In our happy England, men are not slaves ; but the competition of the labour market forces upon them long days of continual labour. In our own country, ten hours of toil, repeated six days a week, for the majority of us will barely produce the necessaries of life. It is quite right that we should love the negroes ; but I cannot understand that we ought to love them better than ourselves.

The complaint generally resolves itself to this, that free labour in Jamaica cannot be commanded; that it cannot be had always, and up to a certain given quantity at a certain moment ; that labour is scarce, and therefore high priced, and that labour being high priced, a negro can live on half a day's wages, and will not therefore work the whole day — will not always work any part of the day at all, seeing that his yams, his breadfruit, and his plantains are ready to his hands.

In what sense is England “happy”? Granted, it’s obvious from the point of view of the “gentle” ruling class, none of whom are doing manual labour sixty hours per week.

That aside, the question he raises still stands, two centuries later: Why should anyone work harder than they need to, when the benefits of that work go to someone else?

“Coloured” · There’s lots more of this, but it’s worth saying that while Trollope was racist against Blacks, he was, oddly, not a white supremacist. He considers the all-white colonial ruling class to be pretty useless, no better than the Blacks he sneers at, and proclaims that the future belongs to the “coloured” (i.e. mixed-race) people. He backs this up with some weird “Race Science” that I won’t go into.

Unforgivable · Trollope’s one episode of pure venom is directed at the already-dying-out Indigenous people of the region, pointing out with approval that one of the island territories had simply deported that whole population, and suggesting that “we get rid of them altogether.” This seems not to be based on race but on the observation that they “more than once endeavoured to turn out their British masters”. Colonialism is right behind racism in the line-up of European bad behaviors. It may also be relevant that he apparently did not meet a single Indigenous West-Indian person.

Meta-Trollope · I finished reading The West Indies and the Spanish Main because Trollope’s portrayals of what he saw were so vivid and I couldn’t help being interested.

I had read Trollope’s autobiography and some more bits and pieces about him, and had encountered not a word to the effect that whatever his virtues and accomplishments, he was shockingly racist. So I checked a couple of biographies out of the local library and yep, hardly a mention. One author noted that The West Indies and the Spanish Main was out of tune with today’s opinions, but there was no serious discussion of the issue. Wikipedia had nothing, and still doesn’t as I write this, but I plan to fix that.

I dug a little harder here and there around the Internet and turned up nothing about anti-Black racism, but a cluster of pieces addressing antisemitism; see Troubled by Trollope? and Why Anthony Trollope Is the Most Jewish of the Great English Novelists. There are a few Jews in Trollope’s novels, ranging from wholly-admirable heroes (and heroines) to revolting villains. So you might think he comes off reasonably well, were it not for casual splashes of antisemitic tropes; the usual crap I’m not going to repeat here.

In case it’s not obvious, Trollope’s writings and opinions were strikingly self-inconsistent, often within the course of a few pages. Well, and so is racism itself.

At that point in history there was an entire absence of intersectionalist discourse about racism being, you know, intrinsically bad, and there were many who engaged in it enthusiastically and sincerely while remaining in polite society.

Trollope’s racism is undeniable, but then he (once again, inconsistently) sounds non-racist in theory. (However, he was gloomy about the attitudes of the white population.) Check this out:

It seems to us natural that white men should hold ascendency over those who are black or coloured. Although we have emancipated our slaves, and done so much to abolish slavery elsewhere, nevertheless we regard the negro as born to be a servant. We do not realize it to ourselves that it is his right to share with us the high places of the world, and that it should be an affair of individual merit whether we wait on his beck or he on ours. We have never yet brought ourselves so to think, and probably never shall.

That text feels remarkably modern to me. I am a little more optimistic than he is in his closing four words; some white people work hard at antiracism. But for a lot of white people, his take remains depressingly accurate.

Degrees of racism? · I suspect that, if Trollope were with us today, his writings would probably be conventionally antiracist. His opinions were solidly in his era’s mainstream and I suspect he would find himself in ours, because he was really a pretty conventional and actually kind of boring person.

With the single exception of those two sentences about the Indigenous people, he seems to exhibit no particular emotional bias against any ethnic group.

Why, you might wonder, do I mention this? Therein lies a tale. In his autobiography, when he discusses The West Indies and the Spanish Main, he notes that it received a favorable review in The Times of London. I thought I’d like, for the sake of context, to read that. (Thanks to William Denton for retrieving the page images.)

I certainly didn’t enjoy reading The West Indies (unsigned) from early 1860 in The Times. It fills most of a broadsheet page, dozens of column-inches one after the other oozing vitriolic hate of Black people. I’m not going to even try to describe it any further; I felt literally nauseated in reading and didn’t make it through to the end.

I suspect that if that Times writer were with us today, he’d be an unreconstructed alt-right dog-whistler, a good ole boy in a MAGA hat.

Reading this crap made me feel a little less angry about Trollope, who generally liked people. Here’s what I think I learned: Racism comes in multiple flavors. There are some people (like Trollope) who are intersectionally bigoted in a sort of unthinking and incurious way, but not that emotionally bound to it. These are the people that need to hear the antiracist message, loudly and clearly, over and over. Because they might listen and learn.

Then there are the others. In 1860, that Times reviewer. Today, the slave-state GOP MAGAs, the Israeli settler movement, Modi’s Hindutva hoodlums. They genuinely hate The Other, down in their bellies. It’s how they define themselves. Talking to them is useless. They have to be defeated and removed from positions of power and influence. Then, thankfully, they can be ignored. Because listening to them is useless too.


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From: Fazal Majid (May 19 2024, at 23:26)

Most of these sound more classist than racist, and he would probably have held Irishmen in the same low regard. Then again, the English of the day did not consider Irish, French, Germans or Swedes as white either, as evidenced by Benjamin Franklin’s equally nasty screed:


From: Dave Pawson (May 20 2024, at 23:59)

"I try to be antiracist, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. I sometimes have bigoted feelings but try hard to recognize and not act on them. " Fair comment Tim.

I'd extend that to prejudice in general. Fine, once recognised I can deal with it. Until then, it's plain ignorance.


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