Over at the Richard Dawkins Foundation, the great man himself has posted a fascinating and, to say the least, illuminating account of a telephone conversation with a reporter from the Telegraph which speaks volumes for the rather desperate state into which the newspaper has fallen in recent times.
Yesterday evening I was telephoned by a reporter who announced himself as Adam Luscher (I think) from the Sunday Telegraph. At the end of a week of successfully rattling cages, I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take. I obviously can’t repeat what was said word-for-word (my poor recall of long strings of words has this week been highly advertised), and I may get the order of the points wrong, but this is approximately how the conversation went.
A quick check indicates that Dawkins has almost got the name right. It’s actually Adam Lusher, not Luscher*, and according to Journalisted he’s been working for the Telegraph as a general reporter since around May 2007; at least the date of the earliest article on his profile.
*This is has now been corrected in the OP.
As I’ve already linked to Richard’s full account, I’ll did give some thought to just quoting a few of the low-lights from Lusher’s pitch, but the whole thing is just so ridiculous that it deserves the full fisk.
“We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?”
I replied, “Your ancestors probably did too. It’s just that we happen to know who my ancestors were and perhaps we don’t know yours.”
He persisted by reeling off several of my forebears including, I think, Henry Dawkins (b 1698) and his father Colonel Richard Dawkins (d.o.b. unknown to me), giving gruesome (and indeed deplorable) figures about the numbers of slaves they owned, asking me whether I felt any guilt about it.
I replied by quoting Numbers 14:18 (from memory so – oh, calamity – I may not have been quite word-perfect), that charming little verse about the Lord “visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”: a nice example, incidentally, of biblical morality.
When he persisted with his insinuations I made my somewhat peremptory excuses and left (I was in a hurry because I was about to go on stage in London to give a lecture and wanted to prepare for it).
As regards Lusher’s own unknown ancestry, the surname ‘Lusher’ is a variant form of ‘Usher/Ussher’ which is derived from the Anglo-Norman French ‘usser and the Old French ‘ussier’ or ‘hussier’, meaning ‘door’ or ‘gate’. It’s a functional surname and today we still use the term ‘usher’ for people whose job it is to escort people from the entrance of a theatre, cinema or church, to their seat and, somewhat more formally, as the name of the official doorkeeper of a court or legislative chamber. Back in the Middle Ages, where the name originated – probably as a contraction of ‘Le Usher/Ussher’, an usher’s job would have been to introduce visitors as they entered their Lord’s household and walk in front of their Lord on ceremonial occasions.
So, its entirely possible that at least one of Lusher’s ancestors was a professional flunkie.
Now, if we’re going to play ‘sins of the fathers’ then although there’s nothing here to suggest a connection to the African slave trade without further detailed research, Lusher’s surname does suggest that one or more of his ancestors may have held a position in the retinue of an aristocratic land owner in which they would have had supervisory responsibilities over other indentured servants and serfs, people whose situation at the time was, qualitatively speaking, not that much better than than of a slave, and never mind that there’s always the possibility that detailed research into Lusher’s family history might also turn up any number of ancestors with undesirable traits and characteristics. There could be a murderer in there, or maybe a traitor, or who the hell knows what else, so its worth remembering that its unwise to start chucking stones at people’s distant ancestors when you don’t know whether your own genealogical house is made of glass.
Not that this seems to have occurred to Lusher, despite Richard’s quick rebuke.
I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: “Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?” Of course I agreed. “Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins.”
“You obviously need a genetics lesson,” I replied. Henry Dawkins was my great great great great great grandfather, so approximately one in 128 of my genes are inherited from him (that’s the correct figure; in the heat of the moment on the phone, I got it wrong by a couple of powers of two).
Persistent, isn’t he – not to mention ignorant as Richard helpfully goes on to explain.
Setting aside his scientific illiteracy and his frankly defamatory insinuation that I might condone slavery, the point about powers of two is interesting enough to warrant a digression. Following a line of reasoning spelled out in The Ancestor’s Tale, we can calculate that Adam Luscher and I (and you and I and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all) share most of our ancestors and literally all our more distant ancestors. What is a little less obvious is that the ancestor we most recently share probably lived only a few centuries ago. Almost certainly we are all descended from slave owners (and indeed from slaves), if you go back far enough, and you probably don’t have to go back very far. It’s just that only a few of us are saddled with, to quote J B S Haldane, a historically labelled Y-chromosome. As it happens, my ancestry also boasts an unbroken line of six generations of Anglican clergymen, from the Rev William Smythies (b 1635) to his great great great grandson the Rev Edward Smythies (b 1818). I wonder if Adam thinks I’ve inherited a gene for piety too.
Quite. Although as an aside I do sometimes wonder whether it might not be worth taking DNA samples from journalists working for the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express, just on the off-chance that this might take us some way towards identifying the idiot gene.
Joking aside, Lusher’s next desperate gambit is one that does deserve a thorough going over.
Our piercing investigative journalist then challenged me to deny that William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery campaigner, was a Christian. (So, presumably, were the slave-owners. Just about everyone in England was Christian at the time and Henry and Colonel Richard surely were.) This provoked me to give him yet another lecture, this time expounding Steven Pinker’s brilliant book, The Better Angels of our Nature, about how we are getting steadily gentler and more civilised as the generations go by, whether or not we are religious. Our changing moral values carry a strong statistical signal of the century and even the decade in which we live, but virtually no signal at all of whether we are religious.
Ah yes, the unquiet shade of William Wilberforce, yet again.
I don’t know if you’ve notice, but any time the Christian, and especially Anglican, establishment finds itself on the wrong end of bit of criticism for having done, or said, something really stupid then pretty much the first thing they do is drag out Wilberforce as a human shield. for all that he actually died in 1833.
Yes, Wilberforce was a Christian, in fact an Evangelical Christian which, by the standards of his own time made him an object of some suspicion amongst both progressives, who saw his deeply conservative personal outlook as an obstacle to progress, and amongst political conservatives. who considered his evangelical beliefs to be unconscionably disruptive and radical. The real William Wilberforce was, by both the standards of his own time and by modern standards, something of a contradictory figure; progressive on some matters, deeply conservative on others. He may have championed the abolition of the slave trade and, somewhat later, slavery itself and he also an active supporter of prison reform and of limited parliamentary reforms aimed at getting rid of rotten boroughs but he was also deeply, and religiously, conservative on others. Of the organised women’s abolitionist groups that emerged in the 1820s Wilberforce said “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”
Wilberforce was even condemned as – effectively – a hypocrite by the essayist William Hazlitt who described him as being one “who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”, and with good reason. Wilberforce supported, amongst other things, the suspension of habeas corpus in 1795, Pitt’s ‘gagging bills’ and approved of the Six Acts passed in 1819 in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre – he also opposed an inquiry into the massacre and was unflinching in his opposition to organised labour, calling trade unions “a general disease in our society”.
The most trenchant criticism Wilberforce faced in his own lifetime came from the Engish radical William Cobbett who, in a polemic published in August 1823, addressed Wilberforce with the words “Never have you done one single act, in favour of the labourers of this country”. This is not entirely accurate, inasmuch as Wilberforce had advocated legislation to improve the working conditions of chimney sweeps and textile workers, but neither is it entirely without merit given Wilberforce’s views on trade unions and wholehearted support for the Combination Act of 1799, for all that Cobbett’s own efforts to contrast the lot of British workers with that of the slaves that Wilberforce was championing seems, to oue modern eyes, to be both spectacularly ignorant and nakedly racist. Towards the end of his polemic, Cobbett even addresses Wilberforce as follows:
“‘You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing negroes; they it is for whom you feel compassion: I feel for the care-worn, the ragged, the hard-pinched, the ill-treated, and beaten-down and trampled upon labouring classes of England, Scotland and Ireland, to whom, as I said before, you do all the mischief that it is in your power to do, because you describe their situation as being good, and because you do, in some degree, at any rate, draw the public attention from their sufferings.”
If you thought that ‘whataboutery’ is a modern phenomenon, then I think that quotation should nicely prove otherwise.
Both Wilberforce and Cobbett were men of their own time and, as such, we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find both espousing positions that seem incongruous and contradictory when viewed at a distance of almost two centuries, anymore than we should be surprised by the fact that Thomas Jefferson, one the great political figures of the Enlightenment, was a slave owner.
Nevertheless, what I find particular interesting in relation to Cobbett’s polemic is that, in researching it and running down the original source of these quotations, I ran across a couple of Christian-authored commentaries extolling the virtues of Wilberforce in which Cobbett’s polemic is referenced in a curiously dishonest manner, as in this ‘quotation’ – and no, I won’t try to embarrass the author by linking to them directly but I will annotate their version of Cobbett’s words in italics and it should be noted that
a) in the ‘original’ this is all run together into a single paragraph, and
b) in the edition of Cobbett I’m working from, his polemic begins on page 351:
‘You seem to have a great affection for the fat and lazy and laughing and singing and dancing Negroes. . . .
[This statement appears on page 365 and has already been given, in context, a little earlier]
[But] Never have you done one single act in favour of the labourers of this country [a blatant lie as Cobett knew]. . . .
[Not only does this ‘quotation’ appear much earlier that the one preceding it, on page 352 to be exact, and the author – writing in 2007 – could of course have no way of knowing exactly what Cobbett may or may not have known of Wilberforce’s track record at the time of writing his polemic. At the time of writing, Cobbett had spent ten of the preceding 30 years overseas, in either France or the United States, including two years, 1817-19, in voluntary exile in the the US in order to avoid a charge of seditious libel. He had also spent two years in Newgate Prison, 1810-12, after publishing his objections to the flogging of members of the local militia in Ely by Hanoverian troops.]
You make your appeal in Piccadilly, London, amongst those who are wallowing in luxuries, proceeding from the labour of the people. You should have gone to the gravel-pits, and made your appeal to the wretched creatures with bits of sacks around their shoulders, and with hay-bands round their legs; you should have gone to the roadside, and made your appeal to the emaciated, half-dead things who are there cracking stones to make the roads as level as a die for the tax eaters to ride on. What an insult it is, and what an unfeeling, what a cold-blooded hypocrite must he be that can send it forth; what an insult to call upon people under the name of free British labourers; to appeal to them in behalf of Black slaves, when these free British labourers; these poor, mocked, degraded wretches, would be happy to lick the dishes and bowls, out of which the Black slaves have breakfasted, dined, or supped’.
[We’ve now jumped ahead to the latter part of page 353, skipping over passages in which Cobbett admonishes Wilberforce not only for his position on the Peterloo Massacre but also for his alleged lack of interest in the outcome of coroner’s inquest in Yorkshire, the previous year, in which it was found that a soldier has died ‘as a consequence of being overflogged’, an incident for which no one was held accountable. The author also skips over Cobbett’s introductory remarks in which he indicates that the ‘poor, mocked, degrade wretches’ he refers to here are ‘free British labourers’ of the Northern cotton mill and a comment in which Cobbett acknowledges that the issues that Wilberforce is campaigning on are ‘certainly the most odious, the most tyrannical, the most terrible part of the Colonial Code’.
I’ve singled this out for attention because it seems fairly typical of the somewhat ahistorical view of Wilberforce one gets whenever he called up in defence of Christianity – in this case the author has cited Cobbett in a manner which openly, and rather dishonestly, seeks to delegitimise his criticisms of Wilberforce by way of quote-mining and giving quotations out of context – and ‘out of context’ describes rather well the manner in which Wilberforce and his role in the abolition of the slave trade is commonly presented whenever he’s called up to serve as a human shield in defence of Christianity and the ‘influence’ of the Judeo-Christian tradition on British society and culture.
Indeed, the standard account of the abolitionist movement given by erstwhile defenders of the faith is no less ahistorical than their treatment of Wilberforce. It ignores the important philosophical influence of John Locke, who argued against slavery in his Second Treatise on Government. It ignores the fact that it was from amongst freethinkers, Quakers and religious non-conformists played that the earliest voices were raised against slavery and the slave trade whether in the Britain and that Wilberforce, as an Evangelical Anglian was both deeply influenced by nonconformist Christianity and generally considered to belong to a what was then very much the fringes of the Anglican communion.
To understand how far Wilberforce was from the Anglican mainstream of the period, consider the fate of Granville Sharp, another pivotal figure in the abolitionist movement, a prolific theological author. son of an Archdeacon of Northumberland and grandson of an Archbishop of York. Sharp, and a man who is perhaps best know for his efforts to secure the effective abolition of slavery in England via the courts, culminating in the case of R v Knowles, ex parte Somersett (1772), was refused a funeral sermon, following his death in 1813 because he had been involved, for a time, with the nonconformist British and Foreign Bible Society. The inscription on Sharp’s tomb, in the churchyard of All Saints, Fulham, strikes me as particularly telling in terms of both his own motives and those of others who argued for the abolition of slavery at that time:
“Here by the Remains of the Brother and Sister whom he tenderly loved lie those of GRANVILLE SHARP Esqr. at the age of 79 this venerable Philanthropist terminated his Career of almost unparalleled activity and usefulness July 6th 1813 Leaving behind him a name That will be Cherished with Affection and Gratitude as long as any homage shall be paid to those principles of JUSTICE HUMANITY and RELIGION which for nearly half a Century He promoted by his Exertions and adorned by his Example”
Yes, it mentions religion, but only after justice and humanity. Ideas were emerging out the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, humanistic ideas, that were influencing some Christians sufficiently for them to actively reinterpret Christianity, discarding numerous scriptural passages – including those relating to slavery – that were out of keeping with the philosophical spirit of the age.
As for the Anglican establishment, well that’s a very different story.
In 1829, 22 years after the abolition of the slave trade and only four year before the abolition of slavery in the colonies, the Rev G W Bridges was brought before the court of St Ann’s in Jamaica and charged with mistreating a female slave. The slave had made a trivial mistake for which she was punished by Bridges who stripped her naked, tied her to the ceiling by her hands so that her toes only just reached the floor and proceeded to flog her with a bamboo cane until, the court was told, she was a “mass of lacerated flesh and gore” from her shoulders to her calves. Bridges was, of course, acquitted.
We shouldn’t assume from that that the Anglican establishment was wholly unconcerned by issues relating to slavery. It did raise important issues that the Church debated at some length, issues such as the extent to which slave owners had a right to flog or burn their human property, split up their families and use their female slaves for ‘sexual gratification’. Abolition was, however, rather low on the agenda, so much such that when abolition of slavery in the colonies was finally put to Parliament in 1833, the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against the bill. This was, of course, only to be expected as the overwhelming view of the mainstream church at the time was that slavery was ordained by God, a view that some clergymen continued to express long after abolition – in 1845, 12 years after the abolition bill was passed, the Rev Richard Fuller summed up the Church’s view of slavery as follows:
“What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin”
Were Adam Lusher just that little bit more aware of the actual events of the period, he might have realised that pursuing the slavery angle would take into dodgy territory, but as Richard notes, his grasp of history seems to no better than his understanding of science.
His next volley was the suggestion that I should make financial reparation for the sins of my ancestors.
Reparation to whom? Should I make a pilgrimage to Jamaica and seek out the descendants of the slaves whom my ancestors wronged? But why the descendants of people who were oppressed by my ancestors 300 years ago rather than to people who are oppressed today? It’s that “sins of the fathers” fallacy all over again, taken a good couple of generations further than even Yahweh had in mind.
His parting shot (actually it was I who did the parting) was to suggest that Henry’s ill-gotten gains might have been used to purchase the English “estate”, a small fraction of which my family still owns. I told him that far from being an estate, it is a small working farm, struggling to make ends meet in a bad time for farming. I added that such wealth and land as the Dawkins family once owned was squandered in the nineteenth century by Colonel William Gregory Dawkins (not my direct ancestor, I’m happy to say) on futile lawsuits. Whatever I possess is hardly at all inherited from past centuries but earned by me in my own lifetime. I am happy to give to charity, and I do so in quite large quantities, but my choice of charity would not be influenced by whatever sins my seventeenth and eighteenth century ancestors committed. It was when he asked me exactly how many acres the modern small farm possesses that I told him to mind his own business and put the phone down on him for the second time.
Time, it seems, to give Adam another history lesson.
When slavery was finally abolished outright, Parliament set aside £20 million to compensate slave owners for their loss of ‘property’, a sum which amounted to around 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure which was paid over either in cash or in 3½% government annuities. The Anglican Church, itself, received the sum of £8,823. 8s. 9d in compensation for 411 slaves owned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts at its Codrington estate in Barbados which might not sound too bad until you realise that the Church was only compensated for its institutional slaveholdings, not for those of its clergy who were compensated individually for their losses. Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter at the time of abolition, and three business partners received £12,729.5s.2d in compensation for the loss of 665 slaves at a plantation in Jamaica although its not know how much of that sum, equivalent to more than £! million today, actually went to Phillpotts or how it might have been used, although Exeter Cathedral does record that Phillpotts did manage to restore the Bishop’s Palace in a ‘most creditable manner’.
For the record, the Anglican Church did eventually get around to apologising for its involvement in the African slave trade… in 2006, just in time for the bicentenary of Wilberforce’s 1807 Act, and there was even some discussion of the possibility of paying reparations:
Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4’s Trade Roots programme organisations that received compensation in the 1830s were still “living off the historical legacy” of slavery.
However, he added: “While it sounds simple to say … we should pass on the reparation that was received, exactly to whom?
“Exactly where does it go? And exactly how does it differ from the various ways in which we try to interact now with the effects of that in terms of aid and development and so forth?
“So I haven’t got a quick solution to that. I think we need to be asking the question and working at it. That, I think, we’re beginning to do.”
So that’s the Archbishop of Canterbury giving much the same response as Richard gave to Lusher’s idiot question, a point to bear in mind should any of Lusher’s research even see the light of day.
There is, in the final analysis, something altogether ironic in the manner in which Wilberforce is used as a human shield by some Christians.
Not only is it an extremely rare example of an insitution relying on the ‘One Good Apple’ defence to cover its embarrassment over its past conduct but it is also often the case that the Christians who seem most eager to call on Wilberforce in their own defence are also the ones who are the least-willing to learn from the example he set more than two centuries ago.
In pursuing the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce and others chose to disregard numerous passages in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, that advocated and supported the practice of slavery, far more passages, in fact, than relate to homosexuality and as we’ve seen only recently in the debate surrounding the legalisation of same-sex marriage, its the non-conformist Christians, the Quakers and Unitarians, that are taking forward enlighted and rational position in the face of outright opposition from the Anglican Church which seems altogether more concerned with preserving the unity of the Anglican communion by appeasing its homophobic elements, particularly amongst the African churches, than it is with affording everyone the same basic rights and respect as human beings.