The book is available for free, here.
Froude is traveling through the West Indies – from Trinidad to Cuba with stops in Jamaica, Santo Domingo, etc. – and reporting on his journey. Along the way, he also comments on how these colonies should be governed.
One could be forgiven for ignoring the political parts of the story and simply enjoying Froude’s wonderful writing. His descriptions of the islands and their inhabitants are entertaining enough to make the book worth reading without the politics. For review purposes however, I will focus on the politics.
Of course, Froude’s concern is that the British colonies in the West Indies will go the route of Haiti – a bad result indeed. In short, Froude believes that democracy is impossible on the islands as the black population will lead the country in the direction of Haiti. He also believes rule by the white colonists is impossible, since there is way too much racial distrust. What is needed is good government administered by someone with everyone’s interests in mind. Of course, he does not see this as likely and his predictions about the future of the islands turn out to be quite accurate.
I can’t resist quoting him heavily, so here goes:
But undoubtedly, wherever it is possible the principle of self-government ought to be applied in our colonies and will be applied, and the danger now is that it will be tried in haste in countries either as yet unripe for it or from the nature of things unfit for it. The liberties which we grant freely to those whom we trust and who do not require to be restrained, we bring into disrepute if we concede them as readily to perversity or disaffection or to those who, like most Asiatics, do not desire liberty, and prosper best when they are led and guided.
To take a gloomy view of things will not mend them, and modern enlightenment may have excellent gifts in store for us which will come by-and-by, but I will not say that they have come as yet. I will not say that public life is improved when party spirit has degenerated into an organised civil war, and a civil war which can never end, for it renews its life like the giant of fable at every fresh election. I will not say that men are more honest and more law-abiding when debts are repudiated and law is defied in half the country, and Mr. Gladstone himself applauds or refuses to condemn acts of open dishonesty. We are to congratulate ourselves that duelling has ceased, but I do not know that men act more honourably because they can be called less sharply to account. ‘ Smuggling,’ we are told, has disappeared also, but the wrecker scuttles his ship or runs it ashore to cheat the insurance office. The Church may perhaps be improved in the arrangement of the services and in the professional demonstrativeness of the clergy, but I am not sure that the clergy have more influence over the minds of men than they had fifty years ago, or that the doctrines which the Church teaches are more powerful over public opinion. One would not gather that our morality was so superior from the reports which we see in the newspaper, and girls now talk over novels which the ladies’ maids of their grandmothers might have read in secret but would have blushed while reading. Each age would do better if it studied its own faults and endeavoured to mend them instead of comparing itself with others to its own advantage.
Froude does lapse into long tirades against orators – the victors of democracy:
This only was clear to me in thinking over what Mr. Gladstone was reported to have said, and in thinking of his own achievements and career, that there are two classes of men who have played and still play a prominent part in the world—those who accomplish great things, and those who talk and make speeches about them. The doers of things are for the most part silent. Those who build up empires or discover secrets of science, those who paint great pictures or write great poems, are not often to be found spouting upon platforms. The silent men do the work. The talking men cry out at what is done because it is not done as they would have had it, and afterwards take possession of it as if it was their own property. Warren Hastings wins India for us; the eloquent Burke desires and passionately tries to hang him for it. At the supreme crisis in our history when America had revolted and Ireland was defiant, when the great powers of Europe had coalesced to crush us, and we were staggering under the disaster at York Town, Rodney struck a blow in the West Indies which sounded over the world and saved for Britain her ocean sceptre. Just in time, for the popular leaders had persuaded the House of Commons that Rodney ought to be recalled and peace made on any terms. Even in politics the names of oratorical statesmen are rarely associated with the organic growth of enduring institutions. The most distinguished of them have been conspicuous only as instruments of destruction. Institutions are the slow growths of centuries. The orator cuts them down in a day. The tree falls, and the hand that wields the axe is admired and applauded. The speeches of Demosthenes and Cicero pass into literature, and are studied as models of language. But Demosthenes and Cicero did not understand the facts of their time; their language might be beautiful, and their sentiments noble, but with their fine words and sentiments they only misled their countrymen. The periods where the orator is supreme are marked always by confusion and disintegration. Goethe could say of Luther that he had thrown back for centuries the spiritual cultivation of mankind, by calling the passions of the multitude to judge of matters which should have been left to the thinkers. We ourselves are just now in one of those uneasy periods, and we have decided that orators are the fittest people to rule over us. The constituencies choose their members according to the fluency of their tongues. Can he make a speech is the one test of competency for a legislator, and the most persuasive of the whole we make prime minister. We admire the man for his gifts, and we accept what he says for the manner in which it is uttered. He may contradict today what he asserted yesterday. No matter. He can persuade others wherever he is persuaded himself. And such is the nature of him that he can convince himself of anything which it is his interest to believe. These are the persons who are now regarded as our wisest. It was not always so.
The conditions were never likely to arise which would bring back a European population; but a governor who was a sensible man, who would reside and use his natural influence, could manage it with perfect ease. The island belonged to England; we were responsible for what we made of it, and for the blacks’ own sakes we ought not to try experiments upon them. They knew their own deficiencies, and would infinitely prefer a wise English ruler to any constitution which could be offered them. If left entirely to themselves, they would, in a generation or two relapse into savages; there were are two alternatives before not Grenada only, but all the English West Indies—either an English administration pure and simple like the East Indian, or a falling eventually into a state like that of Hayti, where they eat the babies, and no white man can own a yard of land.
On the black population:
I have been often in all the West India Islands, and I have often made my observations on the treatment of the negro slaves, and can aver that I never knew the least cruelty inflicted on them, but that in general they lived better than the honest day-labouring man in England, without doing a fourth part of his work in a day, and I am fully convinced that the negroes in our islands are better provided for and live better than when in Guinea.’ . . .
To the overseer on a plantation the black labourer was a machine out of which the problem was to get the maximum of work with the minimum of pay. In the slavery times the horse and dog relation was a real thing. The master and mistress joked and laughed with their dark bondsmen, know Caesar from Pompey, knew how many children each had, gave them small presents, cared for them when they were sick, and maintained them when they were old and past work. All this ended with emancipation. Between whites and blacks no relations remained save that of employer and employed. They lived apart. They had no longer, save in exceptional instances, any personal communication with each other. The law refusing to recognise a difference, the social line was drawn the harder, which the law was unable to reach. . . .
With the same chances and with the same treatment, I believe that distinguished men would be produced equally from both races . . . But it does not follow that what can be done eventually can be done immediately, and the gulf which divides the colours is no arbitrary prejudice, but has been opened by the centuries of training and discipline which have given us the start in the race. We set it down to slavery. It would be far truer to set it down to freedom. The African blacks have been free enough for thousands, perhaps for tens of thousands of years, and it has been the absence of restraint which has prevented them from becoming civilised. Generation has followed generation, and the children are as like their father as the successive generations of apes. The whites, it is likely enough, succeeded one another with the same similarity for a long series of ages. It is now supposed that the human race has been upon the planet for a hundred thousand years at least, and the first traces of civilisation cannot be thrown back at farthest beyond six thousand. During all those ages mankind went on treading in the same steps, century after century making no more advance than the birds and beasts. In Egypt or in India or one knows not where, accident or natural development quickened into life our moral and intellectual faculties; and these faculties have grown into what we now experience, not in the freedom in which the modern takes delight, but under the sharp rule of the strong over the weak, of the wise over the unwise. Our own Anglo-Norman race has become capable of self-government only after a thousand years of civil and spiritual authority. European government, European instruction, continued steadily till his natural tendencies are superseded by a higher instinct, may shorten the probation period of the negro. Individual blacks of exceptional quality, like Frederick Douglas in America, or the Chief Justice of Barbadoes, will avail themselves of opportunities to rise, and the freest opportunities ought to be offered them. But it is as certain as any future event can be that if we give the negroes as a body the political powers which we claim for ourselves, they will use them only to their own injury. They will slide back into their old condition, and the chance will be gone of lifting them to the level to which we have no right to say that they are incapable of rising.
On England’s goal in the colonies:
Our world-wide dominion will not be of any long endurance if we consider that we have discharged our full duty to our fellow-subjects when we have set them free to follow their own devices. If that is to be all, the sooner it vanishes into history the better for us and for the world. . . . The question to be asked in every colony is, what sort of men is it rearing? If that cannot be answered satisfactorily, the rest is not worth caring for. The blacks do not deserve the ill that is spoken of them. The Colonel’s house is twelve miles from Kingston. He told me that a woman would walk in with a load for him, and return on the same day with another, for a shilling. With such material of labour wisely directed, whites and blacks might live and prosper together; but even the poor negro will not work when he is regarded only as a machine to bring grist to his master’s mill.
For myself, I would rather be the slave of a Shakespeare or a Burghley than the slave of a majority in the House of Commons or the slave of my own folly. Slavery is gone, with all that belonged to it; but it will be an ill day for mankind if no one is to be compelled any more to obey those who are wiser than himself, and each of us is to do only what is right in our own eyes. There may be authority, yet not slavery: a soldier is not a slave, a sailor is not a slave, a child is not a slave, a wife is not a slave; yet they may not live by their own wills or emancipate themselves at their own pleasure from positions in which nature has placed them, or into which they have themselves voluntarily entered.
On constitutional government:
The theory of constitutional government is that the majority shall rule the minority, and as long as the qualities, moral and mental, of the parties are not grossly dissimilar, such an arrangement forms a tolerable modus vivendi. Where in character, in mental force, in energy, in cultivation, there is no equality at all, but an inequality which has existed for thousands of years, and is as plain today as it was in the Egypt of the Pharaohs, to expect that the intelligent few will submit to the unintelligent many is to expect what has never been found and what never ought to be found. The whites cannot be trusted to rule the blacks, but for the blacks to rule the whites is a yet grosser anomaly. Were England out of the way, there would be a war of extermination between them. England prohibits it, and holds the balance in forced equality. England, therefore, so long as the West Indies are English, must herself rule, and rule impartially, and so acquit herself of her self-chosen responsibilities.
On good men and popular government:
The prospects of Jamaica, the prospects of all countries, depend not on sugar or on any form or degree of material wealth, but on the characters of the men and women whom they are breeding and rearing. Where there are men and women of a noble nature, the rest will go well of itself; where these are not, there will be no true prosperity though the sugar hogsheads be raised from thousands into millions. . . . Here are opportunities for innocent industrious families, where children can be brought up to be manly and simple and true and brave as their fathers were brought up, as their fathers expressed it ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,’ while such neighbours as their dark brothers-in-law might have a chance of a rise in life, in the only sense in which a ‘rise’ can be of real benefit to them. These are the objects which statesmen who have the care and conduct of a nation’s welfare ought to set before themselves, and unfortunately they are the last which are remembered in countries which are popularly governed.
. . .
Government cannot do everything, but it can do something, and there is a difference between governors against whom there is nothing to object, and men of special and marked capacity. There is a difference between governors whose hands are tied by local councils and whose feet are tied by instructions from home, and a governor with a free hand and a wise head left to take his own measures on the spot. I presume that no one can seriously expect that an orderly organised nation can be made out of the blacks, when, in spite of your schools and missionaries, seventy per cent of the children now born among them are illegitimate. You can do for the West Indies, I repeat over and over again, what you do for the East; you can establish a firm authoritative government which will protect the blacks in their civil lights and protect the whites in theirs.
. . .
Communities, however, have existed where people have thought more of their obligations than of their ‘rights,’ more of the welfare of their country, or of the success of a cause to which they have devoted themselves, than of their personal pleasure or interest—have preferred the wise leading of superior men to their own wills or wishes. Nay, perhaps no community has ever continued long, or has made a mark in the world of serious significance, where society has not been graduated in degrees, and there have not been deeper and stronger bands of coherence than the fluctuating votes of majorities.