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  • Companions, Servants, or Slaves?Considering Animals in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Ingrid H. Tague (bio)

Eighteenth-century considerations of animals were inseparable from concepts of power and subordination. In a society committed to hierarchy, with servitude embedded in its social and economic fabric, it made sense that animals should also be discussed in terms of power relations. The clearest manifestation of this natural hierarchy was the great chain of being, even if the precise placement of animals was subject to debate.1 The Christian tradition also emphasized that animals existed to serve humans, with Adam and his descendants given dominion over the natural world. Humans could be seen as the absolute monarchs, or even the despots, of the earth. "You see how we have tamed and reduced to slavery, several species of animals which we chain down to our service, or slaughter for our sustenance," announced a natural history aimed at children. "Is this not to be king?"

Yet the same writer went on to warn of the dangers of indulging in self-satisfaction because of human superiority to animals: "But this empire is not that of a sluggard, who[,] reclined on a sopha, thinks it sufficient to will and to command; it is the empire of vigour, of address, of wisdom, of industry, of persevering indefatigable labour. All this is necessary, not to be a beast."2 Humanity's distinction from beasts implied domination, but with this authority came responsibility, without which humans risked slipping [End Page 111] back into animality. Being human required both rule over animals and care of them. Just as with relationships between humans, however, hierarchy could be complicated by emotional bonds. Many people considered domesticated animals—particularly pets—to be their friends, and the language of friendship, service, and slavery coexisted in eighteenth-century discussions of animals.

As many scholars have recognized, there was a longstanding tradition by the eighteenth century of using comparisons between animals and slaves to consider power relations in human society.3 Historians have also noted similarities between the roles of slaves and animals in eighteenth-century Britain; the relationship between master and slave could embody, in Yi-Fu Tuan's words, the paradox of "dominance and affection" inherent in pet-keeping.4 Like pets, slaves were kept for the amusement of their owners, used as status symbols in portraiture, and satirized in critiques of fashionable culture.5 Rather than addressing such portrayals of human slavery, this essay will explore the ways in which animals were presented as slaves in eighteenth-century discourse.6 Animal slavery was seen as essential to human survival, but the language of slavery also created unease in a period when Britons increasingly saw "liberty" as one of the hallmarks of their national character. The discourse of animal slavery raised the question of whether it was ever acceptable to subordinate another sentient being, human or beast, to one's will. Considerations of animals as slaves thus brought up issues that were also important to debates over human slavery: If slavery corrupted both slave and master, how could the practice be rationalized? Was resistance to slavery understandable or justifiable?

In order to explore these problems in eighteenth-century discussions of animals, this essay will focus on three types of sources: natural histories, animal rights treatises, and literature for children. Despite their obvious differences, writers in all three genres were deeply concerned with the dynamic of domination and servitude at work in human-animal relations. Natural histories used the identification and classification of animals as an opportunity to ponder human control over the "lower orders" of life. And the ideas they presented greatly informed both the political polemic of the animal rights theorists and the moralizing agenda of children's literature. The diversity of these genres, moreover, illustrates the extent to which questions raised by animal servitude pervaded eighteenth-century thought.

The first section of this essay examines the language of animal slavery in natural histories, and explores some of the anxieties visible in such language. The remainder of the essay discusses the implications of these ideas for views on two seemingly disparate aspects of human-animal relations: animal abuse and pet-keeping. The second section turns to the...


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