Kipling and Carlyle

Reading Faramerz Dabhoiwala‘s review of three books on British imperial history, I saw this quote from 1911 concerning West Indians of color:

…lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement, or of work except under compulsion. In such a climate a few bananas will sustain the life of a negro quite sufficiently; why should he work to get more than this? He is quite happy and quite useless.

At once, I thought of Thomas Carlyle and his Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question (1849). Carlyle spoke of “pumpkins” rather than bananas but his rhetoric and imagery was almost the same:

…where a Black man by working about half an hour a-day… can supply himself, by aid of sun and soil, with as much pumpkin as will suffice, he is likely to be a little stiff to raise into hard work!

Speaking on behalf of the gods, Carlyle claims to communicate their desire that

manful industrious men occupy their West Indies, not indolent two-legged cattle, however ‘happy’ over their abundant pumpkins!

The similarity between the 1849 and 1911 passages is striking. The 1911 bit comes from A School History of England by Charles Robert Leslie Fletcher, an academic historian, and Rudyard Kipling, the poet and prose writer awarded the Nobel Prize in 1907.

Kipling’s direct contribution was twenty-three poems: the lines above are most likely Fletcher’s own and not Kipling’s. However the poet’s cooperation in the joint effort signified a considerable degree of sympathy for his co-author’s views.

Both Thomas Carlyle and C.R.L. Fletcher were unhappy with the shortage of cheap labor for the sugar plantations of Jamaica and other islands after the abolition of slavery. As a solution, Carlyle had suggested that freed blacks be coerced into working for white planters while Fletcher merely complained that “the prosperity of the West Indies, once our richest possession, has very largely declined since slavery was abolished in 1833.” Both had loads of empathy for the supposedly impoverished planters; both questioned the ex-slaves’ basic humanity.

As Indian indentured workers had started arriving to the West Indies even before Carlyle’s rant, eventually “the market” – writ large – found its solution in the “labor shortage.”


  1. Thanks for these incisive observations. These are writers whose reputations as thinkers have been sustained by aged, tendentious textbooks. Relying on conventional wisdom and “famous quotations”, I have cited these writers without actually having read any of their work in the original. Your observations make it clear. If I had ever actually read them, I would never have cited them.

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