Negroes by Albany Poyntz

Two important questions present themselves with regard to negroes: first, the lawfulness or expediency of slavery; and secondly, the comparative equality of the whites and blacks. The History of the World teaches us that slavery is independent of colour, and existed every where of old, under every form of Government. But the abolition of slavery was the work of the Christian religion, of which it is one of the noblest mercies; and let us never forget the saying of Montesquieu, “that it is our business to prove the negroes less than men, lest they prove us to be less than Christians.”

The celebrated Abbé Grégoire was one of the most zealous and persevering advocates of the negroes. So enthusiastic was he in their cause, that he might have been supposed to have undertaken it as a reproach to their white brethren.

With regard to the question of innate equality between the two races, we cannot conceive a more apt illustration than that made by a Creole child, on hearing at his father’s table, a discussion upon negroes, a subject on which most colonists differ entirely from the Abbé Grégoire.

In the course of dessert, a gentleman, who had been loudest in opprobriating the negroes, desired to be helped to grapes. The child pertinaciously insisted on giving him white grapes instead of the black, to which he had pointed. “One kind is as good as the other,” said the gentleman, “the only difference is in the colour of the skin.” “And why then,” cried the child, “do you persist in refusing the same concession to the poor negroes?”

The scholiasts have written much which has tended only to render more obscure the origin of the negro race; some deriving it from Cain, and attributing its blackness to Divine wrath after the murder of Abel; others from Shem, the son of Noah, which is the opinion of Dr. Hanneman, as is seen in his Latin Treatise upon the colour of “the Descendants of Shem.” The learned German quotes numerous proofs of the culpable conduct of Shem towards his father; adding that Shem had long practised the art of magic, and being unable to transport into the ark all his works of witchcraft and magic, had them engraved upon brass and stone, so as to find them after the deluge. Hanneman cites the authority of Luther, who formally asserts that the skin of Shem was blackened as a punishment for his irreverence; and quotes a passage from the learned Ulricius, who in his treaty De Tacticis, established that the sons of Ham had white skins, those of Japhet a brownish complexion, while those of Shem were black as ebony.

The anatomist, Meiners, adopting the theory of the facial angle, excluded the negroes from the human race, and placed them in the family of apes and ourang-outangs.

According to the Abbé Grégoire, all black skinned races descend from the Ethiopian. He founds his opinion upon the works of Herodotus, Theophrastes, Pausanias, Athenœus, Eusebius, Heliodorus, Josephus, Pliny, and Terence; all of whom, in speaking of negroes, call them Ethiopians. As regards their origin, all we know is, that the Ethiopians are from the interior of Africa, and that their ancestors had short and woolly hair, black skins, and thick lips.

How are we to conciliate these pretensions with the assertions of Diodorus, the Sicilian, supported by those of the learned Hearne? Some affirm, on the other hand, that the Egyptians descend direct from the Ethiopians; the pure Egyptian race existing only in the Copts, who have woolly hair, round heads, flattened noses, and protruding cheek-bones. Similar signs certainly characterize both negroes and Ethiopians. Egypt was the cradle of civilization, and if inhabited by the Ethiopian race, with the negroes originated sciences, arts, and institutions. In that case, the problem of equality of intelligence becomes painfully solved; and if we now possess a vast superiority of intellect over the negroes, we owe it to their ancestors, who were our masters in almost every branch of polite knowledge.

With regard to colour, Virgil has said, “nimium ne crede colori.” Dr. Beddoes, moreover, completely overcame the difficulty; for by frequently immersing the hand of a negro in a solution of muriatic acid, he rendered it as white as ivory. In these speculative times, we should not be much surprised to see a company established for washing the black population white. This might furnish matter for reflection to Mr. Williams, of Vermont, who in his History of that State, requires four thousand years for effecting the transition from black to white, through the sole influence of climate.

Meiners, as we have seen, classes the negroes in the monkey tribe. How are we to reconcile this sacrilegious classification with the dogmas of the church, which canonize two blacks, viz. St. Elesbaan, patron of the Portuguese and Spaniards, and the Queen of Sheba, the wife of Solomon? Another great writer affirms, that black was the original colour of the human race; and that the white race is in a state of degeneration. Monsieur de Pauw shows the question of the negroes in another light, refusing them an aptitude for civilization equal to the whites; but attributing their colour to the scorching heat of the sun, which, by wasting the brain, diminishes the faculties and organs of intelligence that distinguish Europeans. Dr. Gall goes further, and pronounces the negroes to be wholly deficient in the organs of music and mathematics.

We cannot, however, expect to find the organ of music prominent in the organization of man in a state of nature. As to the organ of mathematics, were the negroes completely deficient in this, Meiners would be correct in his assimilation; for the higher order of mathematics is not here implied, but the simplest acts of calculation. No operation of the mind, however, is possible without the aid of a certain kind of calculation. Moreover, experience tends to confute the system of Dr. Gall. It is well known that in Africa, there are nations far advanced in civilization; a false kind of civilization, perhaps, and tainted with barbarism. They have no opera, for instance, nor a jockey club, nor the excitement of breaking their necks at steeple-chases. But they have cities, tribunals, laws, judges, institutions, and armies; they declare war and make peace; discuss the interests of the State, raise taxes, and regulate the public expenditure. Denyan, who resided thirteen years in the kingdom of Juida, was astonished by their wonderful policy; affirming that their diplomatists were capable of competing with the most wary European cabinets.

The Daccas, who occupy the fertile point of Cape Verd, are organized into a Republic, under directors, lieutenants, and a hierarchy, analagous to the different States existing in Europe. Bornou is governed by a monarchy; but the throne is both hereditary and elective at the death of the reigning Prince. His successors being selected from among his children without respect to primogeniture. The most worthy is nominated to reign. The funeral discourse is a panegyric or a censure, according to the tenor of the reign of the deceased.

This is stronger evidence of civilization than to possess a tenor equal to Rubini, or a dancer comparable with Taglioni.

The cities of Africa are not mere encampments. The capital of the Foulans has seven thousand inhabitants. Mungo Park mentions that they are fond of instruction, and read the books permitted by the Mahomedan religion with great assiduity. In his expedition to the interior of Africa, this celebrated traveller expresses his surprise at meeting with so much unexpected magnificence. The city of Sego had thirty thousand inhabitants; her population being less than those of Jenna, Timbuctoo, and Haussa.

Barrow extols the character and pleasing manners of the Boushouannas. Their capital, Litah, has from twelve to fifteen thousand souls; ruled by a patriarchal government. The chief executes the will of the people, emanating from a council composed of elders. Is such a council characteristic of barbarism? Or a proof that the moral organization of the negroes is inferior to that of the whites?

Judging from the narratives of travellers, the maritime populations are generally inferior to those of the interior. If this opinion be well founded, there is every reason to infer that the circumstance arises from the access of Europeans being less frequent with the interior than the littoral. Often have we to deplore the demoralization we have conveyed to distant countries. Is it just, therefore, to speak of the brutal barbarity of the negroes, when all we see of it is partly our own work?

If we proceed from nations to individuals, a whole catalogue of eminent black men and mulattos presents itself. The name of Henry Diaz, demands a prominent place on the list. From a common slave, he became Colonel of a Portuguese regiment, which by his able tactics and daring courage often defeated experienced Generals. In an engagement, in which, overpowered by numbers, he perceived some troops on the point of giving way, he rushed among them exclaiming: “Are these the brave companions of Henry Diaz?” On hearing which, his men returned to the charge, and drove the enemy from the field. In 1645, in the heat of battle, a ball penetrated his left hand which he was about to have amputated, when he exclaimed: “Every finger of my right hand shall learn to grasp the sword!”

The famous St. George was a mulatto. His skill in fencing won him an European reputation, and no one could surpass him in the art of equitation. Moreover, Dr. Gall would have been forced to admit his prodigious talent for music. Fifty years ago, the compositions of St. George were eminently the fashion in the Parisian drawing-rooms.

The republican armies boasted among the bravest of the brave, General Alexander Dumas, who, though a mulatto, was surnamed by his companions in arms, the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol. Before Lille, accompanied only by four of his men, he attacked a post of fifty Austrians, of whom he killed six, and made sixteen prisoners. With the Army of the Alps, he scaled Mount St. Bernard, stormed a redoubt, and turned the guns against the enemy. He was the father of the French dramatist, Alexander Dumas, who has immolated as many victims in his dramas, as his father destroyed in the enemies of his country.

Job-Ben-Solomon, son of the Mahomedan King of Banda, on the Gambia, was taken prisoner in 1750, conducted to America, and sold as a slave. He had a superior order of mind, understood Arabic, and was distinguished for his talents. He enjoyed the friendship of Sir Hans Sloane, for whom he translated several Arabic manuscripts; and was treated with distinction by the Court of London, till the African Company had him reconducted to his States. At the death of his father, he assumed the sceptre, and after being the slave of Europeans, became the idol of his subjects. The history of Job-Ben-Solomon presents a victorious argument against the prejudice concerning negroes, for in him there existed not only courage but intellect. A son of the King of Nimbana, who was educated in England, died soon after his return to his native land; but during his stay in England, he manifested great proofs of ability. He cultivated several sciences with success, learnt several languages, and read the Bible in the original.

Ramsay, who passed twenty years of his life among the negroes, mentions their impressive eloquence when excited, as well as their talent for mimicry and acting, in which they were not inferior to some of the best performers then known in England. In Africa, they have various national musical instruments, of which sixteen are stringed; without counting their famous balafon, resembling the once famed spinet. Vocal music is as familiar to them as instrumental; and their composers have been known to produce melodies replete with grace. We may here quote Gossec, whose opinion on the subject of music is preferable to that of Dr. Gall, as being one of the greatest musical composers of his time; and in his famous opera of the “Camp de Grand Pré,” he introduced a negro melody from St. Domingo, which met with immense success. The Abbé Grégoire also speaks of certain itinerant negro minstrels, who sang, played, and narrated like the minstrels of old.

The negro race, therefore, have produced both heroes and artists, as well as figured with distinction in the sciences. Derrham, once a slave at Philadelphia, was made over to a physician, who employed him in the compounding of his medicines. But soon ambition laid hold of the soul of the slave, he acquired French, English, Spanish, and Latin; and perfected himself in the hygienic and therapeutic sciences with such success, that, in 1788, he was esteemed the most eminent practitioner in New Orleans, and consulted from all parts of America.

Another negro, named Amo, claims attention as distinguished in the annals of science. A native of Guinea, he was brought to Amsterdam in 1707, and presented to the Duke Augustus of Wolfenbüttel, who sent him to study at Halle and Wittenberg. After distinguishing himself at both those Universities, he publicly sustained a thesis upon the rights of the negroes, “de Jure Manorum.” Amo was versed in astronomy; spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew French, Dutch, and German, there were, indeed, few better linguists. Some years ago, a Swedish professor having addressed one of our academies in Latin, the different members, perplexed by their insufficient acquaintance with that tongue, sent in great haste for one of their absent members, the only one qualified to answer the learned foreigner. This was the late Andrieux; but had the negro, Amo, been in the way, he might have supplied his place. Amo was not only a man of universal information, but had the art of imparting it to others. Differing from his white colleagues, he preferred instructing his scholars to the ambition of acquiring personal renown. His lectures, from the able manner in which he combined the advantages of the ancient and modern systems, attracted numerous auditors. He was invested with a diploma in 1744; the first instance of a negro arriving at that distinction. Amo left a Dissertation upon Sensation considered as distinct from the Soul, and present to the body. Frederick the Great, who then reigned in Prussia, conferred the dignity of Councillor of State upon Amo. But these honours, unprecedented for a man of his colour, did not dazzle him so as to render him insensible to the land of his birth. Pining for his native air, he resolved, after the death of his patron, the Duke of Brunswick, to return, after thirty years’ absence, to his birth-place, Axim, on the Gold Coast; nor was anything further heard of him in Europe after his departure for that obscure place.

Buffon, who was the contemporary of Amo, did not distinguish himself by his definition of the negro race. “Negroes,” said he, “are tall, fat, well-made, but devoid of mind and genius.” The great naturalist looked no deeper than the epidermis, and was greatly mistaken in asserting negroes to be tall and fat; as in general their stature scarcely equals our own.

Father Charleroy, goes farther than Buffon, by stating that, the negroes of Guinea have but limited capacities, some being quite imbecile, and few being able to count beyond three; that they possess no memory, the past being as unknown to them as the future. “On the other hand,” he observes, “they are docile, simple, humane, credulous, superstitious.” This definition of Father Charleroy may apply to a certain number of negroes; but it also applies to a certain number of whites. Buffon maintains that the negroes colonized at Sierra Leone had only the occupations of women, and a disgust for all useful employment. Their dwellings he states to be miserable hovels; declaring that they prefer sterile and wild spots to beautiful valleys clothed with trees, and watered by the clearest streams. Their roads, he adds, are twice as long as necessary; yet they always follow the beaten track, insensible to the waste of time, which they never calculate. M. Descourtils, who resided at St. Domingo, and closely observed the negroes, declares them to be ignorant, superstitious, and barbarous; their music being detestable and unmeaning. But though such asseverations may be founded to a certain degree on fact—after having shown the difference that exists between the maritime and fluvial tribes of Africa, and those settled in the interior—we are inclined to inquire whether the negroes of America, more particularly those of St. Domingo, ought to be selected as the standard of the negro race? Are not disabilities attributed to colour which are, in truth, caused by slavery? Had not the Spartan Helots the same skin as Agis and Epaminondas? Yet what could be more marked than their distinction of nature? Would it even be fair to judge the inhabitants of Paris and London by the swarms of footmen in those cities?

Nevertheless, we are bound to agree with the most experienced physiologists, that, independent of colour, independent of cerebral conformation, independent of facial angularity, the most perfect specimens of the human race are to be found in the temperate regions. The History of the World bears out the fact; and upon this point, the best intentions of philanthropy fall to the ground. Religion and humanity call aloud for the abolition of slavery; while the massacres of St. Domingo prove the necessity of its being prudent and progressive. At some still remote period, posterity will probably abjure the prejudice of the white race against the blacks. But this great revolution of popular feeling will not be effected without long-established previous proof on the part of the negro population, that the blessings of freedom have brought forth all the fruits anticipated by the advocates of abolition. To decide upon their equality of nature, in their present unequal condition, would be rash and premature.