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  • “Raising up Dark Englishmen”: Thomas Perronet Thompson, Colonies, Race, and the Indian Mutiny
  • Michael J. Turner

A well-known political economist, writer, platform speaker, and radical MP in his heyday, Thomas Perronet Thompson (1783–1869) has since descended into relative obscurity. This is particularly surprising with respect to the historiography of nineteenth-century British imperialism, for Thompson — himself a former colonial governor — was a relentless critic of empire throughout his public career and, perhaps most notably, an outspoken defender of the natives at the time of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (a role for which he has never been properly recognized). In contemplating the apparent evils of empire, Thompson suggested various remedies. In different contexts he thought that a new political economy, or cultural exchange and miscegenation, or self-government might have salutary effects. So his contribution to debates on empire was constructive as well as destructive, and his ideas and activities are highly significant because they reveal that alternatives were available to the policies that were pursued and to the metropolitan perspectives and belief in racial hierarchy that shaped British colonial rule.

One of the key points about Thompson’s outlook was his positive attitude toward interracial relations. Historians have been analyzing the growth of racial prejudice in mid nineteenth-century Britain for many years. As the protective, benevolent, and humanitarian attitudes associated with the antislavery movement of the early nineteenth century began to fade, more negative racial stereotypes and overt assertions about white Anglo-Saxon superiority over other peoples quickly gained ground. In a seminal account of this shift in outlook, Douglas Lorimer points to a greater awareness of hierarchy as its chief cause. There were obvious status differences within British society and inequalities of “class” at home reinforced the belief in inequalities of race in the world beyond. Mid nineteenth-century trends in historical and scientific study — especially in archaeology, biology, anatomy, ethnology, linguistics, physiognomy, and anthropology — meant that racist arguments were sustained by what appeared to be reasonable and respectable scholarship, philosophy, and public discourse. The inferiority of non-whites therefore accorded with “habits of thought ingrained within the intellectual and social fabric of the age.”[1] For Christine Bolt, the increasingly hostile view of colored peoples was mainly the result of two key developments: greater contact with them, and the cumulative impact of the Indian Mutiny, wars in the empire (especially in New Zealand and southern Africa), and the Jamaican insurrection of 1865. To this list could be added the revived debates about slavery that influenced British opinion on the American Civil War.[2] The representation of fixed racial characteristics in novels, pictures, and newspapers also had an effect, as Tim Barringer has demonstrated, and although Peter Mandler suggests that biological racism and organic nationalism were “inhibited” in high intellectual circles by the “social-evolutionary tradition” (which held that all peoples were capable of advancing, albeit at different speeds), Paul Rich detects a “heightened racial awareness” in Victorian concepts of “Englishness” and the “imperial mission.”[3]

This article will show that Thompson did not subscribe to the dominant ideology. In fact, he argued against it, and his anti-colonial and anti-racist mindset offers a useful point of access into wider controversies about Britain’s place in the world during the mid-nineteenth century. It is the basic premise of this article that we can learn much more about opinion on empire if we examine the ways in which radicals of Thompson’s ilk regarded colonial affairs and questions of race.

What influenced Thompson’s words and deeds? Why did he emerge as a critic of empire and a champion of the natives at the time of the Indian Mutiny? After describing his personal and political background, this article will explore some nineteenth-century ideas on empire and establish Thompson’s position vis-à-vis that of other informed observers. The next section will examine Thompson’s interest in land reform, transportation and emigration, and the treatment of non-white peoples, focusing on Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony, and there will be an account of Thompson’s disputes on these matters with other commentators, especially other radical writers and politicians. All this will provide the...

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