- The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population by Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin
By Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
For historians of population and demography, Thomas Malthus remains a seminal figure. Alison Bashford and Joyce Chaplin have written an intriguing study of Malthus which provides us with new insights into his life and work. While not a biography, it spans his life and ends with a consideration of his place in modern issues of environment and population. Shaped by his upbringing in a liberal, Nonconformist home, Malthus pursued an interest in political economy and current events that resulted in his first essay on population in 1798. The authors, who each wrote four of the eight chapters, range widely, linking Malthus’s ideas back to the work of earlier thinkers like Hume and Condorcet as well as contemporary debates about slavery, reform and inequality. The book seeks to reshape our understanding of Malthus the man and the origins of his ideas about population by focusing on his writings on the “new worlds” of the Americas and the Pacific. Malthus, by turns timid and bold, is portrayed not as an ogre but rather a humanitarian interested in the improvement of the condition of poor through better governance as well as the fate of Indigenous peoples being swept aside by European colonization. These new worlds provided Malthus the material for his work. Malthus based his argument that populations grew geometrically on accounts of North American settler populations, accepting Benjamin Franklin’s assertions that they doubled in size every twenty-five years. While many saw these lands as an answer to the subsistence problems of Europe, Malthus held fast to his belief that in the long run populations would outstrip the resources they provided. Malthus examined a variety of human societies, both past and present, to demonstrate the limits to human populations imposed by nature. A student of stadial theory, Malthus nevertheless believed that the commercial societies of Europe could only delay the emergence of limits to subsistence through trade and manufacture. In his survey of new world societies, he argued that all relied to some degree on limits to reproduction through infanticide or other “vices.” European populations, however, could rely on moral restraint and thus avoid the checks imposed by famine, disease and war, if states pursed policies to reduce ignorance and inequality.
The first half of the book uses the often-neglected later editions of Malthus’ essay that became lengthy explorations of contemporary and historical populations. Chaplin and Bashford focus on his account of the Indigenous societies of the Americas and the southwest Pacific to detail how Malthus used first-hand accounts to explain why their populations remained small and how their backwardness allowed European settlers to displace them. They then examine Malthus’ views of slavery and abolition, colonization through emigration and the reception of Malthus in the Americas and Australia and in contemporary fiction. The chapter on slavery demonstrates that despite his own belief in abolition, Malthus remained muted in his criticism of slavery, perhaps in part due to his family’s ownership of a Jamaican plantation. The authors also demonstrate the complexity of Malthus’ view on sponsored emigration, especially from Ireland. While in theory opposed to such schemes as stopgaps, Malthus came round to a limited acceptance of colonization. This view coexisted with a surprisingly sympathetic view of Ireland, which he saw as a victim of English colonization that required fundamental improvements in government to achieve stability.
Chaplin and Bashford undertake a careful dissection of Malthus’ work, noting his failure to address how slavery in the Americas related to his theory and or even discuss the West Indies. They also note the elisions and shortcomings of his work on Africa and Indigenous peoples in the Americas, where he appears to have ignored or missed evidence of sedentary populations and agricultural societies that contradicted his depiction of these people as primitive hunter gathers incapable of progress. Such omissions and his unwillingness to confront the impact of slavery call into question some of the...