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The Friends of Hugh Miller


Added on 10 December 2020

"Degraded races, hopelessly lost"


We here examine Hugh Miller's  views on race, presenting us with  difficult truths  about the man we admire. This article first appeared in Hugh's News No 46, November 2020, and has been the subject of BBC media coverage.

By Martin Gostwick (in his personal capacity)


It is a matter of acute disappointment, anguish even, to learn that Hugh Miller, hitherto held in the highest esteem among The Friends, possessed a grievous fault so widespread in his time - racial prejudice.

This facet of his character has long been overlooked, since it did not appear in the vast majority of his work. It has only very recently been brought to our attention by Cromarty-based historian Dr David Alston. Friends supporter Dr Elsa Panciroli suggested looking for background on Miller in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Fellow member Janie Verburg contacted David, who was able to provide this context, as part of his continuing researches into Scottish involvement with slavery.

Thanks largely to him, we have now learned of two very upsetting examples of Miller's views. In the first, Miller came out on the wrong side of a debate in the Free Church of Scotland about accepting cash from slave-holders' churches in the American Deep South. Then, in a public lecture, late in life, he delivered a passage in which he insulted indigenous peoples round the globe.

I had previously been aware of only one misguided comment in an autobiographical memoir of 1829, in which Hugh described a mixed race ("mulatto") boy from the West Indies as having a  "wild, savage disposition which I believe is natural to most of his countryfolks." This boy drew a knife upon him, whereupon Hugh Miller drew his and stabbed the lad in the thigh.

This memoir was never published in Hugh's lifetime, in fact not until 1995 (1). In his official autobiography of 1854 (2) the incident is mentioned but without the prejudicial comment. In the absence of any other obvious evidence, it was therefore possible to deem this comment as a passing remark using language common to the period. Miller admits more than once that his own conduct at this stage in his life was something he wasn't proud of.

In  the last decade research into Scotland's links to slavery has exposed many ignominious aspects hitherto buried in a convenient forgetfulness of the past. One story resurfaced in the public mind only very recently in an exhibition by the National Library of Scotland in 2018/19.. This was the tour of Scotland in 1846 of the great black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The then newly-formed Free Church of Scotland refused to return donations given by slave-holders in the Presbyterian churches of the American Deep South. Douglass led a nationwide campaign calling upon the Free Church to 'Send Back the Money'

Unfortunately, Hugh Miller as Editor of The Witness newspaper, strongly supported the Free Church leaders in their obdurate refusal to do so. His editorials have resurfaced from the depths of The Witness files for 1846, which you need a microscope to read. Their existence re-emerged in a new book by  Glasgow-based scholar, Alasdair Pettinger (3) and in a blog by an American researcher, Rob Leverett of July 2019 (4).

 Rev Thomas Chalmers, the Free Church leader, was in many ways a most admirable figure, a champion of the urban poor, a philosopher, mathematician, and the most celebrated preacher in the land in an age when many clergy spoke to mass gatherings. He was also the Witness editor Hugh Miller's mentor, personal friend, and key supporter.

It should be stated here that Chalmers had earlier expressed his abhorrence of slavery, and Miller too denounced it as "the great evil. " But when it came to the Disruption (the split from the Established Church of Scotland), and the Free Church's formation in May 1843, Chalmers and his partners in the leadership faced a desperate need for funds. Hundreds of ministers had lost their churches, their homes and their livelihoods. They needed stipends, and funds to build new churches, schools and manses.

In 1844, Chalmers dispatched five delegates to the United States to seek backing from Presbyterian ministries over there. Monies soon arrived, mostly from New York; accounts vary as to how much, but possibly around three to four hundred thousand pounds in today's money. Some of the cash had also been donated by Southern slaveholders' churches, which caused an immediate public outcry.

Britain's merchants had ceased trading in slaves decades before, and ownership had been abolished by Act of Parliament in 1833. However, the former British slave-owners and plantation shareholders were being paid millions in compensation by the Government, while the slaves themselves received nothing, an incredible injustice whose extent has also only recently been uncovered.

Readers interested in the legacy of these payments can learn more from research by the University College London at  David Alston has  recently given talks  on slavery connections, and associated compensation, in Highland districts, including Morayshire, Inverness, Easter Ross, the Black Isle and around Miller's Cromarty itself.

It creates a bleak contrast to envisage campaigners for freedom raising their voices across the land, while the former slave-owners all over Britain sat quietly getting even richer.


Chalmers in a Witness article reaffirmed his stand against slavery, but sought to draw a distinction between "the character of the system, and the characters of persons implicit in that system." He maintained slave-holding was not inherently sinful. "Oh, the artful dodger!" exclaimed Frederick Douglass in reply. How could slavery be a "heinous sin," but the slave-owner could somehow be a good Christian?

Douglass had arrived from Ireland for his tour of Scotland in January 1846, (5) and immediately the whole controversy came to the boil, as anti-slavery leagues, emancipation societies, and congregations (including some in the Free Church) all rose to add their voices to the campaign to send the money back.

Douglass himself had made a fraught escape from slavery in 1838, having personally suffered extreme cruelty.  He had a commanding presence, and had by his own efforts acquired considerable erudition. He was powerfully built, with a voice to match, making him a moving, passionate orator.

Songs were composed around his mass meetings all over Scotland, and cartoons published mocking Chalmers ("Tammy") for his perceived hypocrisy. Earlier, in Ireland, Douglass had declared: "In America, Bibles and slaveholders go hand in hand. The Church and the slave prison stand together, and while you hear the chanting of psalms in one, you hear the clanking of chains in the other; the man who wields the cowhide during the week, fills the pulpit on Sunday."

To give just one further example of his stirring eloquence, Douglass described the slave-holder as "a man-stealing, cradle-robbing, woman-whipping monster." He brought manacles with him, and even invited one audience to imagine a slave collar round the necks of Chalmers' own daughters.

Hugh Miller in a stream of articles in 1846 did his best to counter the Send Back the Money campaign. He pointed out that other churches had sent money, asserted that attempts were being made to impose "impossible standards of moral purity," and deplored the personal attacks on the Free Church leaders. Other voices argued that it was justified because slavery was legal in the US at the time. Slavery's defenders in the Deep South even used Chalmers' and Miller's views to justify its continuation.

Miller wrote that the attacks on Chalmers and his allies sought to "damage and destroy the influence of the most venerable of living Scotchmen." "The lowest buffoonery, the most ribald jests, the most impudent perversions of language, the vilest innuendoes and insinuations were being pressed into service." The reverends were being held up as more contemptible than the slave-holder himself, and, he claimed, these "ultra abolitionists" were actually responsible for "postponing indefinitely the day when his (the slave's) fetters shall be loosed."

In one editorial, Miller also taunted two Quaker women who joined Douglass in his campaign. The three activists were caught trying to carve 'Send Back the Money' into the hillside below Arthur's Seat. Douglass, by the editor's account, was forced to apologise to a magistrate (bailie) for breaking the law.

The editorial also mocked the ambition of women's rights advocates, inviting readers to imagine "armed regiments of equalized women charging in petticoat breeches some male anti-equal-right enemy...;" and "squadrons of female dragoons emancipated from matrimonial thrall and the side-saddle, trampling all horrid into dust, broken cohorts of imperative husbands and despotic lovers."

Chalmers, and his principal allies, Reverends Robert Candlish and William Cunningham, succeeded at the Free Church General Assembly in May 1846 in negating all calls upon them to review their position, and that more or less put an end to debate within the Free Church. Douglass left Scotland a few weeks later, and the controversy died down.

The sudden death on May 31, 1847, of Thomas Chalmers probably played a part in defusing the whole row. He is buried in the Grange Cemetery, where Miller would follow him ten years later.

The donations were never returned. Douglass must have known it was a very big ask to expect the church to give the money straight back. He has been criticised for the intensity of his sometimes personal invective. However, he made the cause of enslaved people in America the Scottish people's own, albeit briefly. He seemingly bore no ill-will against Miller for his hostile editorials; he later praised him as "a grand example of devotion to learning."

He lived to see President Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and give the keynote speech at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington in 1876.


Finally, we come to the worst example of Miller's views, the public lecture in which he racially abused indigenous peoples on every continent. It seems to have been given to  the Edinburgh Philosophical Institute in 1855, the year before he died.

It is Lecture VI (6), one of 12 incorporated in his final book, Testimony of the Rocks, completed just before his death and published posthumously. Its heavyweight title is Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies (Part II), and the fact that theology forms its philosophical basis is the very reason why I had never read it (as beyond my comprehension), until David Alston's information required me to do so.

Miller scholar, Dr Mike Taylor, in an introduction to a facsimile edition published around the 2002 Bicentenary (6) says Miller could be described as "the last of the scriptural geologists for mixing science and religion."

As in just about all his geological writing, Miller here brings us his customary magnificent eloquence, describing the ingenious, exceptional "contrivances" of each organism in turn, supported by his own glowing illustrations.

 He marvels over the strength and lightness of the ammonite, the armour and defensive coil of the trilobite, the wrinkled scales and solid plates of his Devonian fishes, and each are compared, often favourably, to some later human designs.

All these wonders of nature are cited in praise of a Divine Creator, and he finds a "certain identity of mind" between this "Creator-worker" and man, whom he made in his image and as "the deputed lord of creation," ruled over all the animals around him.

He then turns to discourse on the world's races. He maintains that "all the old seats of civilisation are spread out around the Caucasus region." In this centre were to be found people "fundamentally typical of the highest races of the globe."

The Caucasian features and figure, he maintained, were "developed to a remarkable degree among the old Greeks," and were still evident in the various peoples of Europe, who he claims to be the "type of Adamic man." "The Redeemer (God the son), the second Adam, like the first, exemplified... the perfect type of Caucasian man."

Then he embarks upon the offensive assertion of all the other races' supposed inferiority: "Let me next remark, that the further we remove from the original (Caucasian), (Adamic) centre of the race, the more degraded and sunk do we find the several varieties of humanity."

He notes that "in the backwoods of America, in southern Africa, in Australia, and in the Polynesian Islands, the old Adamic type has been asserting its superiority, and annihilating before it the degraded races."

He proceeds to denigrate the physical appearance, and alleged backwardness respectively of Laplanders, Kamchatkans, aboriginal African tribes, Mongolians, aboriginal Australians, aboriginal (First Nation) Americans, Caribbean peoples and Fuegians, among others.

These peoples, in Miller's view, were  "palpably not what the Creator originally made." Degraded man "has been made what he is by man himself," says Miller, meaning apparently that the degradation is their own doing.

He allows that the Irish peasants have been downtrodden as a result of the British Ulster Plantation of 1611, and the Gaelic Highlanders were ruined by their landlords outrageous abuses, but the rest of his list are not seen as victims of oppressors' greed, but of their own imagined indolence, or lack of ability.

Let us translate the actions of the "old Adamic type" whom Miller refers to. He is talking about European empire-builders and colonisers, destroying the lives of indigenous peoples  by seizing their lands through force of arms, wholesale plunder, and the infliction of starvation and disease.

It is best not to repeat Miller's insults. Every one of them is a repellent, defamatory stereotype. Anyone interested can read them online, where Testimony is offered as a free e-book in a digital reprint. Lecture VI appears, ps 219-266.

Miller was not alone among naturalists in this imperial presumption, which was prevalent well into the 20th Century. He may well have derived his impressions of Fuegians, for example, from Darwin's account in The Voyage of the Beagle which he reviewed in his paper, The Witness. The great Sir Charles Lyell, wrote home about "happy slaves" as a guest of plantation owners in the American Deep South. John Muir, a great admirer of Miller's, wanted the aboriginal American peoples removed from his pristine wildernesses (their land) in the American West.

The idea that the origin (or Biblical Eden) of humankind lay in Europe, which was perceived as inherently noble, was widespread until the 20th Century. The discovery of Neanderthals in France, and later Piltdown man in England, seemed to support it. These were heralded as the earliest humans for many years. However, Piltdown man proved to be a hoax, and Neanderthals were later understood to be one of our many human relatives. The notion of European human origins was based on Victorian racism, not scientific evidence. Darwin was among the first to suggest our origins lay in Africa, a theory now widely accepted based on the overwhelming fossil evidence.

Sad and painful as it is to do so, it is the duty of The Friends of Hugh Miller to highlight and acknowledge the history of our namesake. While his record as a genius of science, and  one of Scotland's greatest writers, still stands, we must all learn the truth about some of his beliefs.


Footnote: The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) marked Black History Month in October by announcing 'Facing Our Past', a year-long project to be led by historian Jennifer Melville which will explore the role of the slave trade in the histories of Scotland and some of its properties. Ms Melville has also made a YouTube video Addressing the Legacy of Slavery and Empire in the NTS. We will be sending her a copy of this article for information.