Professor Huxley on Political Ethnology

Pall Mall Gazette (January 1870)

Yesterday evening Professor Huxley delivered a lecture on "The Forefathers and Forerunners of the English People," being the second of a series of "Sunday Evenings for the People" provided by the National Sunday League. The Professor's main object appeared to be to combat the notion that any political weight is properly to be attached to the distinction between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon races. He said–

Of late years ethnology, the science which is concerned with the natural history of man, has had a good deal to do with practical politics. A vague though powerful sentiment has become developed in favour of the determination of political by natural relationships. There seems to be a tacit assumption that men ought to associate themselves according to their natural kinships; and that all barriers, natural or artificial, should be broken down which either separate men of one blood from coalescing into a political entity, or, on the other hand, bind together into one nation those who are of different blood.

Panslavism, the aspirations after German unity and Italian unity, the talk about the Latin as contradistiguished from the Germanic or Slavonic nations, are so many practical shapes of this belief; and the advocates of these several views, so far as they are consistent and logical (which perhaps is not very far) appeal to ethnology to bear them out. Among our own people the nationality doctrine takes a shape which is painfully familiar to every one who attends to the course of political events. I mean the antagonism of the Celt and the Teuton, or Anglo-Saxon, most conspicuously represented by the Irish and the English constituents of the population of our islands.

A leading article on the affairs of Ireland in any popular English paper is pretty certain to contain some allusions to the Celt and his assumed peculiarities. If the writer means to be civil, the Celt is taken to be a charming person, full of wit and vivacity and kindliness, but, unfortunately, thoughtless, impetuous, and unstable, and having standards of right and wrong so different from those of the Anglo-Saxon that it would be absurd, not to say cruel, to treat him in the same way; or if the instructor of the public is angry he talks of the Celt as if he were a kind of savage, out of whom no good ever has come or ever will come, and whose proper fate is to be kept as a hewer of wood and a drawer of water for his Anglo-Saxon master.

This is the picture of the lion by the man. Any Irish national paper will supply you with the picture of the man by the lion. Here, again, according to the temper of the moment, the portrait of the Anglo-Saxon varies–from a stolid, good-natured kind of fellow, whose main fault is that he is incapable of comprehending the Celtic nature and aspirations, down to the well-known "bare, brutal, and bloody Saxon" with whose features that great limner, the late Daniel O'Connell, made us all so familiar.

Nor are the ethnological assumptions involved in these views of the antagonism of the Celt and the Teuton confined to mere popular scribblers or demagogues. Grave and able disputants dealing with such a problem as the Irish land question have much to say about the necessity of respecting Celtic peculiarities, and take their countrymen seriously to task for their narrowness in supposing that which is good for Teutonic is good for Celtic races of mankind.

Now this is neither the time nor the place for political discussion. I do not propose to express an opinion, one way or another, about Irish affairs or Celtic nationality.

The subject which I propose to deal with lies much more within my own province. I propose to inquire what foundation there is for those ethnological assumptions of the politician. Who are the Celts? Who are the Teutons? What sort of grounds are afforded by scientific investigation for the belief that these two stocks of mankind are so different as to require different political institutions? And supposing such grounds to exist, are the Celtic and the Teutonic stocks among us so distinctly separate that it is practicable to make such distinctions between them?

Let us deal with these questions in succession.

At the present moment the languages which are spoken by the natives of these islands belong to two very different groups. There is, on the one hand, the English group, represented by a great variety of dialects–the lowland Scotch, the Suffolk, and the Dorset dialects, for example, being so different, that the speakers of each might have a good deal of difficulty in understanding one another. On the other hand, there is the Celtic group–comprising the Cymric spoken in Wales, and formerly in Cornwall, and the Gaelic spoken in the highlands of Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Ireland.

The speakers of Cymric and Gaelic are not intelligible to one another. They are like French and Italian, totally distinct, though allied, languages. We call the people who speak Cymric and Gaelic Celts, while the English-speaking population is roughly called Anglo-Saxon, except so far as we have reason to believe that it comprises people who formerly spoke Celtic tongues.

But here, to begin with, is a plain source of confusion. Physical, mental, and moral peculiarities go with blood; and not with language. In the United States the negroes have spoken English for generations, but no one on that ground would call them Englishmen, or expect them to differ physically, mentally, or morally from other negroes. And hence, assuming in the first place that we are justified in calling all speakers of Celtic dialects Celts; and assuming, in the second place, that these Celts are a different stock from the Anglo-Saxon; our first business before these assumptions can bear any practical fruit is to ascertain what part of the present population of these islands is Celtic by blood in addition to that part which still speaks Cymric or Gaelic.

This is a very difficult inquiry and has resulted, as yet in more uncertainties than certainties. I will put before you those results which, to the best of my knowledge and belief, may be depended upon.

At the time of Cæsar's invasion, now nearly 2,000 years ago, there is every reason to believe that the population of Britain, from Land's End to John o'Groat's House, spoke Cymric dialects, while the inhabitants of Ireland all spoke Gaelic. The whole population of these islands, therefore, so far as their language is concerned, was Celtic, but the Britons belonged to the Cymric division, and the Hibernians to the Gaelic division. The English language did not exist, and there is no evidence that any Teutonic dialect was spoken within our coasts.

The Romans, as you know, never entered Ireland, but they held Britain for four centuries. England is full of the remains of their wonderful works, and has much more to show as the result of the Roman occupation than India would exhibit of ours if we left that country. Nevertheless, the Roman blood and Roman language seem to have made no more impression on the ancient British people than the English blood and language have on the Hindoos. For my present purpose, therefore, their influence may be neglected. When the Romans evacuated Britain the Cymric Celts were attacked on two sides–on the north by the Scots and the Picts, on the east and south by the Angles and Saxons.

The Scots were Gaelic-speaking Irish, who speedily won a foothold in the highlands, and have remained there ever since. But though they subjugated and probably in great measure destroyed the Cymri, who were their predecessors, they only substituted one Celtic population for another. Who the Picts were, and whence they came, no one knows with certainty; but the balance of evidence to my mind is in favour of their being a Teutonic population derived either from Scandinavia or North Germany.

If they were a Teutonic population, they harried and ravaged all Scotland north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde so effectually, in conjunction with their allies, the Scots, that the Celtic element in Caithness, Sutherland, and the east coast of Scotland must have been practically abolished.

Leaving the Picts aside, however, it is certain that for something like five hundred years these islands were encircled by a sort of fiery girdle of Teutonic invaders, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and Norsemen–who sometimes entered into alliance with the Celts; but more frequently made war upon them with indescribable ferocity, and eventually gained fixed possession in all parts of Britain and Ireland.

Upon the eastern and south-eastern coast of Britain, which was most exposed to the invaders, the Celts seem to have been absolutely exterminated over vast districts, a Celtic name of a river or a hill being all that is left to show that they once existed. But, as in the slow progress of centuries, the Teutonic conquests were pushed farther and farther westward, the antagonism of savagery and civilization, of Paganism and Christianity, ceased to exist. The Teuton was content to dominate instead of exterminating, and in the western parts of England and Lowland Scotland, as well as in Wales and the Highlands, the change of blood effected by the Saxon and Danish conquests has been, on the whole, insignificant. One is apt to forget that a couple of centuries ago there was as little English spoken in Cornwall as there now is in Wales, and that not only Cornish men but Devonshire men are as little Anglo-Saxon as Northumbrians are Welsh. The Norman Conquest is hardly worth mentioning from an ethnological point of view. What new blood the Normans introduced was Celtic as well as Teutonic. They and their language have alike been smothered in the English nationality, which, from the facts which have been stated, it is simply absurd to call Anglo-Saxon.

Let us now turn to Ireland. The study of the so-called history of that country before the Norman invasion in the twelfth century is not a hopeful undertaking for the searcher after fact, but some points are clear. It is certain, for example, that the Norsemen and the Danes had an immense deal of intercourse–sometimes friendly, sometimes very much the reverse, with Ireland. Burnt Njal the hero of the wonderful Icelandic Saga, which Dr. Dasent has made accessible to all of us, bears like many of his compatriots an Irish name. It is in fact the Norse representative of the Irish O'Neil. And Dr. Dasent tells me that a lively slave trade was carried on for centuries between Scandinavia and Ireland.

Burnt Njal's Saga tells of Icelanders who took an active share in Irish wars. We know that Norse chiefs long ruled one part of the country, and that Danes occupied all the chief maritime towns. It is inconceivable that all these conquests should have taken place without a large infusion of Teutonic blood among the Irish people.

Then came the Norman conquest, and the spread of Normans with Englishmen among the landholders of the country by intermarriage, force, or fraud. The English policy of those days was to set up an England in Ireland which should be strong enough to keep the native Irish in check, but weak enough to depend on the support and execute the will of the English Government. The practical result was, firstly, a constant condition of civil war and anarchy, and, secondly, the forcing of all the Normans and English who had intermarried with the Irish into identifying themselves with the Celts in name and language, and becoming the leaders of every so-called national movement.

From these causes the state of Ireland was bad enough under the Plantagenets, but when the Reformation came, the Irish as a body, and without distinction of Teutonic or Celtic elements, declined to have anything to do with it; and the antagonism of religion was added to other antagonisms. From the time of Elizabeth to that of Cromwell the country was devastated by the most ferocious and savage warfare, until, in the middle of the seventeenth century, it is probably that the population of Ireland was reduced to less than a million.

Ireland was a terrible thorn in the sides of the men of the Commonwealth. They sent Cromwell over, and he dealt with the Irish at Drogheda and elsewhere in such fashion that to this day his name remains the symbol of ruthless cruelty in the mind of the Irish peasant. If you see an old ruin, it is Cromwell who destroyed it; and his heaviest malediction is the curse of Cromwell. I believe this is rather hard upon the Lord Protector, who was a merciful man enough when he had his own way; but whosesoever the responsibility may be, it is certain that Ireland was dealt with by the Puritans as no country has been dealt with in civilized times. If you look into the records of that period you will find that they "sought the Lord" a good deal about it, and the result of their seeking was this.

They formed what we should now call a joint-stock company with limited liability for the conquest of Ireland–who were called the "Adventurers." Every adventurer was to receive land, proportioned to the stock invested, when Ireland was conquered. Well, Cromwell and Ireton between them not only conquered, but crushed Ireland, as far as she was Catholic. Then the Government divided the land–all Ireland except Connaught–into parcels, which were alloted partly to the adventurers and partly to the army, and offered the pre-existing Catholic population, no matter whether it was Teutonic or Celtic in blood, the choice of two alternatives–emigration into Connaught or beyond seas. It is computed that some forty-thousand able-bodied men were drafted off into the armies of foreign sovereigns, who rejoiced to have their services, and inflicted many a blow on England by their help. Those who remained–old, young, rich, and poor–were ordered in the late autumn to leave their homes and their crops, and betake themselves to the wilds and wastes of Connaught. Suppose the first Napoleon had successfully invaded England, and that about August he had ordered all the Protestants in England east of the Severn and north of the Dee to give up their land to French Catholics, and take themselves off to Cornwall and Wales, he would have performed a feat exactly comparable to the so-called Cromwellian settlement of Ireland. It is true that the laws of nature, more merciful than those of man, prevented the complete carrying out of the orders of Parliament. The English superseders of the old proprietors found that land without labourers was almost as valueless a present as a steam-engine without coal. Hence many of the peasantry were allowed to remain, and many were brought back from Connaught. But the invaders remained as the dominant caste, and in the north as the bulk of the population. And a large part of Ireland has thus been as completely Teutonized by the Lowland Scotch and the eastern English as those people were themselves Teutonized by the Saxon and Norse invasions.

If one wishes to think of a representative Irishman, the image of the "Tipperary Boy," with all his merits and all his faults, involuntarily presents itself to those who have known Irishmen. But I believe that I am affirming no more than there is warranty for if I declare that a native of Tipperary is just as much or as little an Anglo-Saxon as a native of Devonshire.

And if you want to know why a Tipperary man occasionally "tumbles" his landlord, and a Devonshire man does not, you must seek the cause of the difference in something else than in the presence of Celtic blood in the one and not in the other.

To sum up, there is full evidence to prove that in Ireland as well as in Britain, the present population is made up of two parties, the one primitive, so far as history goes, and speaking a Celtic tongue; the other, secondary and intrusive, and speaking a Teutonic tongue.

We have absolutely no knowledge of the relative proportion of these two parties in England and in Ireland; but it is quite possible and I think probable, that Ireland as a whole contains less Teutonic blood than the eastern half of England, and more than the western half. Thus assuming that Celtic speech and Teutonic speech are making two separate groups or races of mankind, I absolutely deny that the past affords any reason for dealing with the people of Ireland differently from that which may be found to answer with the people of Devonshire, or vice versa. And if this is true I think that the sooner we leave off drawing political distinctions between Celts and Saxons the better.

But, as an ethnologist, I go further than this. I deny that there is sufficient proof of the existence of any difference whatever, except that of language, between Celt and Teuton. And my reason for this seeming paradox is the following:–

All the accounts which have been handed down to us by the Romans and the Greeks of the physical character of the Celtic peoples known to them, and whom they called Gauls or Kelts, agree in ascribing to these terrible enemies of theirs–a tall stature, fair hair of a reddish or yellow tinge, blue eyes and fair skins. Such were the Gauls whom Cæsar conquered. Such were the Gauls who settled in Asia Minor, to whom the Epistle to the Galatians was written; such again were the Britons with whom Cæsar fought in North Eastern Britain. But all the ancient authors give exactly the same account of the physical character of the ancient Germans. There is not a doubt that they also were tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired, and fair-skinned; so, without doubt, were all the other Teutonic speaking people–whether Angles, Saxons, Danes, or Norsemen. So close was the physical resemblance of the Celts and the Teutons who, in the early days of the Roman Empire inhabited the right and the left banks of the Rhine, that it was and is a matter of discussion whether particular rights belonged to the one division or the other–and we hear of Celtic tribes who tried to pass themselves off as of German origin–an imposture which could not have been attempted had any clear physical difference existed between the two stocks. I am unaware of any evidence of the existence of a dark-complexioned people speaking a Celtic dialect outside of Britannia (Ireland). But, it is quite certain, that in the time of Tacitus, the Silures, who inhabited South Wales and Shropshire, were a dark-complexioned people; and if Irish tradition is to be trusted for anything, we must credit its invariable assertion that only the chief Irish tribes–that of the Milesians–consisted of dark-haired, black-eyed people. And the commonest observation will convince you of the existence of a dark and a light stock, and of all the shades produced by their intermixture in Ireland and Britain at the present day. In Ireland, as in Britain, the dark stock predominates in the west and south, the fair in the east and north.

The same fact was observed in France long ago by William Milne Edwards. The population of Eastern and Northern France is, on the whole, fair–that of Western and Southern France is, on the whole, dark. Turn to Cæsar and you will find the reason of this singular distribution of complexion. To the south of the Garonne, he tells us, the population consisted of the Aquilani, who spoke a language which was not Celtic. This language is that which is now spoken by the people who inhabit the shores of the Bay of Biscay, and who are called Basques by foreigners. Hence the language is termed Basque, but they themselves call it Euskaldunac. It is a language which is the despair of philologers, inasmuch as it presents not a trace of affinity with any other European or Asiatic tongue. People speaking this language were the primitive inhabitants, not only of the south of France, but of Spain, whence they are called Iberians, and they have been traced as far west as Sicily. But in all directions they have been broken up by Celtic and other invasion, and wherever the Celts have penetrated, they have substituted their own language for the Euskaldunac, the mixed population–a Celtiberian–everywhere, so far as I know, speaking Celtic, and not Euskarian dialects. But just as the Celtic language has been lost in Cornwall, while the proportion of Celtic blood remains unchanged, so the Iberian blood has remained, although all trace of the language may have been obliterated. I believe it is this Iberian blood which is the source of the so-called black Celts in Ireland and in Britain; and I may mention these circumstances, upon which I do not wish to lay too much weight, but which, so far as they go, are in favour of my hypothesis. The first is that all Irish tradition derives the Milesians from Spain; the second is that the termination uri, in the name of the Siluri, is characteristically Euskarian; the third is, that Tacitus expressly compared the Silures with the Aquitani. When the genealogy of the English people is thoroughly worked out, we find that our forefathers are related to two stocks–the one, a lightly made, short, dark-complexioned people, the Iberians, who, as far they can be traced back, talked Euskaldunac, a language which has not the least resemblance to any other spoken in Europe; the other, a tall big-limbed, fair people, who as far as we can trace them, have always talked some form or other of the language of that great Aryan family to which German, Latin, Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit belong, and of which the Celtic tongues are outlying members. In everything which constitutes a race, these Aryan or Celtic and Teutonic nations are of one race. In every particular by which races of mankind differ, the Iberians and the Aryans are of different races.

Thus English political ethnology offers two problems–1. Is there any evidence to show that the Dorians and the Aryans differ in their capacity for civilization, or in their intellectual and moral powers? All I can say is, that of I know of none. Whether in Greece or Rome, in modern Italy, France, Germany, or England, the dark stock and the light have run neck and neck together.

2. Is there any evidence to show that there is what may be called a political difference between the Celtic Aryan and the Germanic Aryan? I must say once more that I can find none. And one of the keenest observers who ever lived, and who had the opportunity of comparing the Celt and the German side by side–I mean Julius Cæsar–tells us especially that the Gauls in former days were better men than the Germans–that they had been corrupted by contact with civilization, and that even in his day the races who held the Black Forest in possession were the equals of the Germans in frugality, hardiness, and every virtue of man or warrior. Put side by side with this the picture of the Saxon when, England fairly won, he sank into the slothful enjoyment of his possessions, and after the Conquest fell so low that the invective of Giraldus Cambrensis against the Saxons of his day, as idle, worthless fellows, cowards, and liars, fit only to be drudges and menials reads just like an extract from an English or American leading article against the low Irish. Do not let what I have said mislead you into the notion that I disbelieve in the importance of race. I am a firm believer in blood, as every naturalist must be, and I entertain no doubt that our Iberic forefathers have contributed a something to the making of the modern Englishman totally distinct from the elements which he has inherited from his Aryan forefathers. But which is the Aryan element and which the Iberian I believe no man can tell, and he who affirms that any quality needful for this, that, or the other form of political organization is present in the one and absent in the other, makes a statement which I believe to be as baseless in natural science as it is mischievous in politics. I say again that I believe in the immense influence of that fixed hereditary transmission which constitutes a race. I believe it just as I believe in the influence of ancestors upon children. But the character of a man depends in part upon the tendencies he brought with him into the world, and in part upon the circumstances to which he is subjected–sometimes one group of influence predominates, sometimes the other. And there is this further truth which lies within every one's observation–that by diligent and careful education you may help a child to be good and wise and keep it out of evil and folly. But the wisest education cannot ensure its being either good or wise, while, on the other hand, a few years of perverted ingenuity would suffice to convert the best child that ever lived into a monster of vice and wickedness. The like applies to those great children, nations and their rulers, who are their educators. The most a good government can do is to help its people to be wise and noble, and that mainly by clearing obstacles out of their way. But a thoroughly bad government can debauch and demoralize a people for generations, discouraging all that is good, cherishing all that is evil, until it is as impossible to discover the original nobleness of the stock, as it is to find truthfulness and self-restraint in a spoiled and demoralized child. Let Englishmen ponder these things. If what I have to say in a matter of science weighs with any man who has political power, I ask him to believe that the arguments about the difference between Anglo-Saxons and Celts are a mere sham and delusion. And the next time the Irish difficulty rises before him I ask him, in the first place, questions:–Firstly, Are the essentially Celtic people of Devonshire and Cornwall orderly, contented, industrious Englishmen, or are they not? And secondly, is there the smallest probability that the folk who sang "And shall Trelawney die?" would have been what they are if they had been dealt with as the people of Tipperary were by our pious Puritan ancestors? And if he answers the first question in the affirmative, as he certainly will, he will have fulfilled Dr. Johnson's condition for dealing with all great questions–"Sir, first clear your mind of cant."


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University