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Mill and Sidgwick, Imperialism and Racism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2007

University of


This essay is in effect something of a self-review of my book Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe (2004) and of the volume, co-edited with Georgios Varouxakis, Utilitarianism and Empire (2005). My chief concern here is to go beyond those earlier works in underscoring the arbitrariness of the dominant contextualist and reconstructive historical accounts of J. S. Mill and Henry Sidgwick on the subjects of race and racism. The forms of racism are many, and simple historical accuracy suggests that both Mill and Sidgwick could be described as ‘racist’ on some plausible understandings of that term.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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1 Nussbaum, Martha, ‘Mill on Happiness: The Enduring Value of a Complex Critique’, Utilitarianism and Empire, ed. Schultz, Bart and Varouxakis, Georgios (Lanham, Md., 2005), pp. 120–3.

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2 Varouxakis, Georgios, Mill on Nationality (London, 2002), p. 116.

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3 Nussbaum, Martha, ‘An Interview with Martha Nussbaum’, The Dualist (2004), p. 65.

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4 Appiah, Anthony Kwame, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, 2004), p. 144.

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5 Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, pp. 145–6.

6 But I will largely set aside the Catherine Hall versus Peter Mandler debate over the salience of the notion of race in the mid-Victorian context. My sympathies are rather obviously with Hall (see Hall, Catherine, Civilizing Subjects (Chicago, 2002), p. 497, n. 127), though I think the theorizing about race (and racism) is in both cases somewhat sweeping. However, I should also stress – although it should be quite obvious – that my own take on race and racism follows Hall's and Thomas Holt's in recognizing how important it is to go beyond the simple definition of racism as ‘the hostility one group feels toward another on the basis of the alleged biological and/or cultural inferiority of that other’ – that is, how important it is to recognize that ‘both race and ethnicity are socially constructed identities’ and that the task is to locate the historical shifts and transformations of racism (Holt, Thomas C., The Problem of Race in the 21st Century (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), p. 4 and p. 18). This point has also long been stressed by Goldberg: ‘I am suggesting that race is a fluid, transforming, historically specific concept parasitic on theoretic and social discourses for the meaning it assumes at any given historical moment’ (Goldberg, David Theo, Racist Culture (Oxford, 1993), p. 74). See also Shelby, Tommie, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge, Mass., 2005) and Mills, Charles W., Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca, NY, 1998).

7 Mehta, Uday, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999), pp. 195–6.

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8 Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, p. 15.

9 Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, p. 214.

10 In the rest of this essay, I will focus chiefly on Mill in connection with the Jamaican blacks, though parallel arguments could usually be made about his views of the peoples of India, the Maori, Native Americans, and many others, including of course the Irish, about whom he was often quite disparaging (while also being more positive about their capitalistic potential; see volume XI of the Collected Works: Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire [1982]). Zastoupil, Lynn, John Stuart Mill and India (Stanford, 1994) is especially helpful on Mill and India, on which subject there is now a considerable literature.

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11 Holt, Thomas C., The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, 1992), p. 328.

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12 Goldberg, David Theo, ‘Liberalism's Limits: Carlyle and Mill on “The Negro Question”’, Utilitarianism and Empire, ed. Schultz, and Varouxakis, , pp. 133–4.

13 Carlyle, , Carlyle The Nigger Question, Mill The Negro Question, ed. August, Eugene R. (New York, 1971).

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14 Mill, Carlyle The Nigger Question, Mill The Negro Question, ed. August, p. 40; see also Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXI (Toronto, 1984).

15 Mill, Carlyle The Nigger Question, Mill The Negro Question, ed. August, p. 46.

16 Goldberg, ‘Liberalism's Limits’, p. 129.

17 Miller, J. Joseph, ‘Chairing the Jamaica Committee: J. S. Mill and the Limits of Colonial Authority’, Utilitarianism and Empire, ed. Varouxakis, Schultz and, p. 163.

18 Goldberg, ‘Liberalism's Limits’, p. 130.

19 Goldberg, ‘Liberalism's Limits’, p. 134.

20 Goldberg, ‘Liberalism's Limits’, p. 132; see also Goldberg, Racist Culture for an important treatment.

21 Anthony Bogues, ‘John Stuart Mill and “The Negro Question” Race, Colonialism, and the Ladder of Civilization’, Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, ed. Andrew Valls (Ithaca, NY, 2005), p. 222.

22 Pitts, Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005), p. 160.

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23 As Bogues helpfully summarizes it, when the rebellion (largely led by Bogle and his followers) reached its peak, involving some two thousand persons in the parish of St. Thomas, the ‘colonial government reacted by establishing a council of war. Arguing that this was but the tip of an island-wide conspiracy to overthrow the colonial government, and with the memory of the Haitian Revolution hovering over the colony, Governor Eyre organized a military force to brutally crush the rebellion. At the end of the day, Eyre unleashed severe repression – 439 persons were killed, hundreds were brutally flogged, thousands of houses were burnt, and many of the leaders including Bogle were hanged. Eyre held Gordon responsible for the rebellion and duly executed him’ (Bogues, ‘John Stuart Mill’, p. 224). The best extended accounts of the rebellion are Holt, The Problem of Freedom; Hall, Civilizing Subjects; Bernard Semmel, Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience: The Governor Eyre Controversy (Westport, Conn., 1962); and Gad Heuman, The Killing Time: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica (Knoxville, Tenn., 1994). Hall is particularly good on Eyre's background and character, though she has surprisingly little to say about Mill. (But see the essay ‘Competing Masculinities: Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and the Case of Governor Eyre’, White, Male, and Middle-Class: Explorations in Feminism and History, ed. Catherine Hall (Cambridge, 1992), for some very illuminating remarks on the construction of both gender and race in this controversy. In developing a comparison between Mill's feminism and his views on race, Hall allows that, for Mill's account, ‘whether there would be in the end, whatever the degree of education achieved by the blacks, a natural division of labor between the races, remains a problem’, p. 288.)

24 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, p. 161.

25 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, p. 162.

26 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, p. 162. Pitts’ argument here is, I believe, primarily concerned with the limits of English and French liberal discourse, rather than with the overall cultural and historical limitations of the ‘times’.

27 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, p. 241.

28 Robson, John, ‘Civilisation and Culture as Moral Concepts’, The Cambridge Companion to Mill, ed. Skorupski, J. (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 353. Robson also quotes from Mill's ‘Remarks on Bentham's Philosophy’: ‘For a tribe of North American Indians, improvement means, taming down their proud and solitary self-dependence: for a body of emancipated negroes, it means accustoming them to be self-dependent, instead of being merely obedient to orders: for our semi-barbarous ancestors it would have meant softening them; for a race of enervated Asiatics it would mean hardening them’ (p. 368).

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29 Georgios Varouxakis, ‘Empire, Race, Euro-centrism: John Stuart Mill and His Critics’, Utilitarianism and Empire, ed. Schultz and Varouxakis, p. 142.

30 Varouxakis, ‘Empire, Race, Euro-centrism’, p. 144.

31 Varouxakis, ‘Empire, Race, Euro-centrism’, p. 141.

32 H. S. Jones, ‘The Early Utilitarians, Race, and Empire: The State of the Argument’, Utilitarianism and Empire, ed. Schultz and Varouxakis, p. 185.

33 Jones, ‘The Early Utilitarians, Race, and Empire’, p. 185.

34 Jones, ‘The Early Utilitarians, Race, and Empire’, p. 186.

35 The form of the argument here is something like an historically adapted variant of the case made in Brown, Michael et al. , Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley, 2003), which is also the line of Goldberg and Bogues. This critique does not, of course, at all diminish the importance of Varouxakis's reconstruction of Mill's cosmopolitanism, for a recent statement of which see Georgios Varouxakis, ‘Cosmopolitan Patriotism in J. S. Mill's Political Thought and Activism’ (forthcoming). But the Varouxakis/Jones response does not recognize the cogency of Goldberg's construction of the interweaving of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, for an extended treatment of which see Goldberg (1993) which also includes an important critique of Appiah's biological conception of race.

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36 See Shelby, We Who Are Dark, for an excellent account of biological essentialism versus anti-essentialism; also Goldberg, Racist Culture.

37 Appiah, Anthony Kwame, ‘The Uncompleted Argument: DuBois and the Illusion of Race’, The Idea of Race, ed. Bernasconi, Robert and Lott, Tommy (Indianapolis, 2000), pp. 126–7.

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38 And as Holt notes, ‘by the nineteenth century the term “ethnic” is found in both English and French dictionaries coupled with “race” as one of its synonyms’ (Holt, The Problem of Race in the 21st Century, p. 17). As Hall points out, ‘these two discourses, that of cultural differentialism and that of biological racism, were, as Stuart Hall has argued, not two different systems, but “racism's two registers”, and in many situations discourses of both were in play, the cultural slipping into the biological, and vice versa’ (Hall, Civilizing Subjects, p. 17). Again, Goldberg (Racist Culture) takes a similar position. For additional helpful overviews of the cultural content of the notions of race, see the contributions by de Groot, Joanna, Ley Stepan, Nancy, and Stoler, Ann Laura to Catherine Hall, Cultures of Empire: A Reader (London, 2000). Clearly, the historical situation in the Caribbean and Latin America was very complex; as Holt observes, of the treatment of mulattos and mixed-blood peoples, ‘they came to occupy a social status not unlike the Jewish and Muslim converts. They were not classified with blacks but as a separate caste, and they filled the interstitial jobs – and some of high status – that American frontier societies with small white settler populations required. In the British West Indies there were legal procedures – if one could pay for them – for having oneself actually declared white by an act of the legislature. In Jamaica in the 1830s the white planters hoped that the brown population could be assimilated to the white side of the racial divide so that they would form a protective bulwark against the soon-to-be-emancipated black slave majority’ (Holt, The Problem of Race in the 21st Century, p. 47).

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39 One need only think of the histories portrayed in James, C. L. R., The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, 1963). It is true that Mill had little to say about the Haitian revolution, but in his essay on the Edinburgh Review he did direct some properly nasty remarks at the apologists for the white slaveholders: ‘Then all who venture to doubt whether it is perfectly just and humane to aid in reducing one half of the people of Hayti to slavery, and exterminating the other half, are accused of sympathizing exclusively with the blacks. We wonder what the writer would call sympathizing exclusively with the whites. We should have thought that the lives and liberties of a whole nation were an ample sacrifice for the value of a slight, or rather, as the event proved, an imaginary, addition to the security of the property of a few West India planters’ (Mill, Collected Works, I, p. 305).

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40 Holt, The Problem of Freedom, p. 291.

41 Sherlock, Philip and Bennett, Hazel, The Story of the Jamaican People (Kingston, Jamaica, 1998), pp. 247–8; see also Semmel, Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience; Hall, Civilizing Subjects; and Heuman, The Killing Time.

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42 For a very sobering short account of just how tough the fight was, see Bryan, Patrick, ‘The White Minority in Jamaica at the End of the Nineteenth Century’, The White Minority in the Caribbean, ed. Johnson, H. and Watson, K. (Kingston, Jamaica, 1998).

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43 Bogues, ‘John Stuart Mill’, p. 223.

44 Heuman, The Killing Time, p. 42.

45 Heuman, The Killing Time, pp. 185–6.

46 Pitts, A Turn to Empire, p. 157.

47 The allusion is of course to those nostalgic, delusional accounts of empire spawned by the neoconservatism of recent decades, such as David Cannadine's Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (Oxford, 2001). A much better sense of the historical realities of empire – and one consistent with Goldberg's analysis – can be found in Dirks, Nicholas B., The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge, Mass., 2006). On the crucial importance of the reciprocal influence of metropole and colony, my sympathies are clearly with Dirks and Hall (Civilizing Subjects).

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48 Fredrickson, George, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, 2002), pp. 8, 3–4.

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49 Fredrickson, Racism, p. 108. Fredrickson is very careful on this score, allowing that ‘insofar as those relatively few individuals who assimilated Western civilization could actually gain such rights, the racist aspect was attenuated’, and may not, as in the French case, always count as racism ‘strictly speaking’ (p. 108). But clearly, on his account it does make very good sense to call some such colonial or imperial situations racist, when considering the functional or ‘polite’ form of racism. And obviously, I completely agree with Fredrickson that ‘something that can be legitimately described as racism existed well before the twentieth century or even the late nineteenth century’ (p. 100). This is perfectly in keeping with the careful social constructionist line developed by Holt (The Problem of Race in the 21st Century) and Hall (Civilizing Subjects).

50 Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXVIII (Toronto, 1988), p. 118.

51 Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XVI (Toronto, 1972), p. 1136.

52 Collected Works, XVI, p. 1206. There were of course others. In another 1866 letter to Urquhart, Mill laments the ‘sympathy of officials with officials & of the classes from whom officials are selected with officials of all sorts’ and ‘the sympathy with authority & power, generated in our higher & upper middle classes by the feeling of being specially privileged to exercise them, & by living in a constant dread of the encroachment of the class beneath which makes it one of their strongest feelings that resistance to authority must be put down per fas et nefas. . . There is much in American politics that is regrettable enough, but I do not observe that there is a particle of the English upper class feeling that authority (meaning the person in authority) must be supported at all costs’ (p. 1209).

53 Kinzer, Bruce L., Robson, Ann P. and Robson, John M., A Moralist In and Out of Parliament: John Stuart Mill at Westminster, 1865–1868 (Toronto, 1992), pp. 216–17.

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54 Miller, ‘Chairing the Jamaica Committee’, p. 172.

55 When the Grand Jury threw out the charges against Eyre, Punch celebrated the occasion with a singularly nasty poem, the first stanza of which runs ‘Ye savages thirsting for bloodshed and plunder / Ye miscreants burning for rapine and prey, / By the fear of the lash and the gallows kept under, / Henceforth who shall venture to stand in your way? / Run riot, destroy, ravage, kill without pity, / Let any man how he molests you beware. / Beholding how hard the Jamaica Committee / To ruin are trying to hunt gallant EYRE’ (in The White Man's Burden: An Anthology of British Poetry of the Empire, ed. Chris Brooks and Peter Faulkner (Exeter, 1996), p. 206). Indeed, given the nature of the times, it is hard to see why it is any consolation – or at all to the point – to say that Mill was good for them, not that our own day is much better.

56 Though it is true, as Hall notes, that it ‘was essential to the Eyre Defense Committee. . . that the true character of the negro as it had been revealed all too clearly by the events at Morant Bay, in their view, should be exposed’ (Hall, Civilizing Subjects, p. 63). Carlyle's racism (and hero worship) was the basis for the entire Eyre defense, which attracted such literary types as Tennyson, Ruskin, and Dickens (in contrast to the Jamaica Committee, which in addition to Mill attracted such figures as Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and Spencer). See Kinzer, et al., A Moralist In and Out of Parliament, for a fairly detailed account of Mill's work with the Jamaica Committee, albeit one that largely avoids the issue of racism. Their work also shows that whatever political self-censoring Mill may have done with respect to the Eyre affair would have been in the first part of 1866, before the fall of the Russell–Gladstone ministry. At best, one might claim, with Pitts (A Turn to Empire), that Mill's ‘speeches and writings on the subject can be read as an effort to alter the British public's understanding of their rights and obligations as citizens: to enlist their support for the victimized British subjects, rather than for the white perpetrators that racial sympathy and national sympathy might otherwise lead them to defend’ (p. 154).

57 Though the work as a whole was avowedly constructed on Saidian lines (see Schultz, Bart, Henry Sidgwick, Eye of the Universe: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2004), p. 20); see also contribution, Said's to Relocating Postcolonialism, ed. Goldberg, David Theo and Quayson, Ato (Oxford, 2002), for a congenial perspective.

58 Rob Shaver, ‘Review: Henry Sidgwick, Eye of the Universe’, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (12 Feb. 2005).

59 Along the lines of Mandler, Peter, ‘“Race” and “Nation” in Mid-Victorian Thought’, History, Religion, and Culture, ed. Collini, S., Whitmore, R. and Young, B. (Cambridge, 2000) and Varouxakis, Mill on Nationality.

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60 See Schultz, in Schultz and Varouxakis (eds.), Utilitarianism and Empire (Lexington Books, 2005), for a more complete summary of the case.

61 Though both could sound astoundingly naïve, as when Mill claimed that the ‘conduct of the United States towards the Indian tribes has been throughout not only just, but noble’ (quoted in Miller, ‘Chairing the Jamaica Committee’, p. 178).

62 Sidgwick, , The Elements of Politics, 2nd edn. (London, 1897), pp. 327–8.

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63 Sidgwick, The Elements of Politics, p. 327.

64 Quoted in Geoffrey Dutton, The Hero as Murderer: The Life of Edward John Eyre, Australian Explorer and Governor of Jamaica, 1815–1901 (Sydney and Melbourne, 1967), p. 250; Dutton's biography is frighteningly sympathetic to Eyre and Carlyle, bringing out how the Carlyleans cast the Governor as a ‘hero’.

65 Sidgwick to Mary Sidgwick, 21 Jan. 1867 (Sidgwick Papers, Trinity College Library, Cambridge University).

66 Mill, John Stuart, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, II (Toronto, 1965), pp. 104–5.

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67 Indeed, many of Mill's remarks about ‘the state of mind of the negroes’ betray (much) weaker versions of the same Carlylean stereotypes of blacks as ‘lazy’, ‘docile’ and ‘sensuous’, etc. In an 1839 letter to D'Eichthal, he remarked ‘I have long been convinced that not only the East as compared to the West, but the black race as compared with the European, is distinguished by characteristics something like those which you assign to them; that the improvement which may be looked for, from a more intimate & sympathetic familiarity between the two, will not be solely on their side, but greatly also on ours; that if our intelligence is more developed & our activity more intense, they possess exactly what is most needful to us as a qualifying counterpoise, in their love of repose & in the superior capacity of animal enjoyment & consequently of sympathetic sensibility, which is characteristic of the negro race’ (Collected Works, XIII, p. 404).

68 Hall, Civilizing Subjects, p. 31.

69 Hall (Cultures of Empire) also gives a helpful conceptual clarification: ‘I use “colonialism” to describe the European pattern of exploration and “discovery”, of settlement, of dominance over geographically separate “others”, which resulted in the uneven development of forms of capitalism across the world and the destruction and/or transformation of other forms of social organization and life. I use “imperialism” to refer to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century moment when European empires reached their formal apogee’ (p. 5). Sidgwick was very much within this trajectory from colonialism to imperialism. Hall also rightly stresses the importance of Sidgwick's friend and colleague, Sir John Seeley, a ‘founding father’ of imperialism: ‘Empires, forgotten in the wake of decolonization as an embarrassment and source of guilt, re-emerge as it becomes clear that neo-colonialism is alive and well, and that imperial histories are playing a part in postcolonial politics. . .. Seeley's categories – race, nation and empire – remain central to reconfiguring those histories in postcolonial terms’ (p. 3).

70 Schultz, Henry Sidgwick, p. 317.

71 Fredrickson, Racism, p. 91.

72 And here Sidgwick's deep indebtedness to the Kantian tradition (as well as to the utilitarian one) might also raise troubling questions; Kant's views were extremely racist (see The Idea of Race, ed. Bernasconi and Lott), and the colonialist and imperialist thinking inspired by them was capable of producing such figures as Alfred Milner. More broadly, Mandler (‘“Race” and “Nation” in Mid-Victorian Thought’) highlights some of the (alarming) features of mid-Victorian ‘Teutonism’.

73 An early version of this paper was presented at the John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference at University College London, April 5, 2006. I am grateful to David Weinstein and John Skorupski, for their sharply critical remarks, which convinced me that I had to make my argument even more forcefully, so that it did not get lost in my review of the literature. Thanks also to Anthony Skelton, Graham Finlay, Georgios Varouxakis, Katherine Smits, Todd Campbell, Roger Crisp, Donald Winch, Anne Norton, Thomas Holt, Jennifer Pitts, and Peter Singer for their most helpful comments. And thanks, as always, to Jerry Schneewind.

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