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Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question

The essay "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" was written by Thomas Carlyle about the acceptability of using black slaves and indentured servants. It was first anonymously published as an article in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country of London in December, 1849,[1] and was reprinted as a pamphlet four years later with the title Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question.[2] The essay was the spark of a debate between Carlyle and John Stuart Mill.[3]

It was in this essay that Carlyle first introduced the phrase "the dismal science" to characterize the field of economics.[4]


The article began as a devil's advocate work with the aim of challenging what Carlyle perceived to be a hypocritical philanthropic movement for the emancipation of West Indian slaves. It is important to note that in this context, devil's advocate refers not to a sarcastic overtone but to an alternate view than the continually accepted immorality of slavery. Although the slave trade had been abolished in the British colonies by 1807, and in the British Empire by 1833, Cuba and Brazil continued to use slaves for economic advantage after 1838. In its original publication, Carlyle presented it as a speech "delivered by we know not whom" written down by an unreliable reporter by the name of "Phelin M'Quirk" (the fictitious "Absconded Reporter"). The manuscript was supposedly sold to the publisher by M'Quirk's landlady in lieu of unpaid rent - she found it lying in his room after he ran off.

The bigger question is what the Negro Question is really about: work for works sake as a form of pleasure, and the inherent joy the people of colour hold in working under white folk. It is not about the freedom of black people but focuses on economic stability and, in Carlyle's mind, the faulty decision to abolish slavery from an economic perspective. The Negro Question was published in 1849, when the infant mortality rate for working-class people living in Manchester, England was around 50% for children under five years old. Carlyle stated that "British whites are rather badly off--several millions of them hanging on the verge of continual famine" (as with the Great Famine in Ireland in 1849). His point focused heavily on the assumption that people of colour are naturally inclined to work only when put under pressure. He frequently talked about their laziness, especially in the West Indies where they were no longer enslaved, and the waning sugar crops as more people of colour refuse to work and 'gorge themselves on pumpkins' instead of harvesting crops.

The infant mortality rate recorded for southern slaves in mainland America was 48%. The infant mortality rate among slaves in the West Indies is difficult to determine. Although black people in the West Indies were classed as slaves, many poor white people in England lived the lives of slaves but were classified as free. Poor white children worked in mills from the age of six and huge numbers of white people lived in desperate poverty, which was viewed as an economical catastrophe. In this time especially, many citizens were putting the government under fire for supposedly caring more about black people in the West Indies than their own impoverished citizens. While the British ruling class did little to address the poverty on their doorstep, they turned en masse against the slavery of black Africans in the West Indies. It was against this background that Carlyle wrote The Negro Question.

In its 1849 publication, Carlyle makes various controversial points ranging from insults about the appearance and intelligence of black Africans to radical alternative solutions to the slavery problem. In addition to his deep-seated racism, which continues to be famous in its intensity, Carlyle possibly has gathered his opinions from the British under-class and upper-class, plantation owners, such as his friend John Stirling, and some of the remaining pro-slavery elite he met in London, all fused into one. It brings the contemporary reader into the feelings and controversies of the time. The present day reader might find some of the facts and figures incredible. Carlyle suggests that the conditions on most slave ships are not nearly as awful as the worst reported, and that many countries aside from Britain are involved in the slave trade, so that trying to stop it would be impossible. Especially for the economic sake of the country, it would be ill-advised to continue dispensing of valuable slaves who cost little to the state and increase economic stability so quickly. English sugar would quickly devalue itself when slaves are paid. Additionally, rather than simply setting slaves free into a (capitalist) world of which they have little understanding, slave owners should be obliged to look after their slaves like a (lesser) member of their family, by caring for them into old age.

Throughout the (imaginary) delivery of the speech to the public, Carlyle reports that members of the audience got up and left in disgust, suggesting how Carlyle expected the essay would be received. Just as he had expected, the work met with widespread disapproval, and in the minds of many people, Carlyle's reputation was forever tarnished. Carlyle's closest friends criticized him for his stand but, rather than back down, he grew contrary and isolated. In later publications, the M'Quirk framework was entirely omitted, and Carlyle continued to express his opinions on the matter.

Debate with John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill's reply, in the next issue of Fraser's Magazine under the title "The Negro question", was also published anonymously.[5]


  1. Carlyle, Thomas (1849). "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XL, pp. 670–679.
  2. Carlyle, Thomas (1853). Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question. London: Thomas Bosworth.
  3. Goldberg, David Theo (2008). "Liberalism's Limits: Carlyle and Mill on "the Negro Question'," Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Vol. XX, No. 2, pp. 203–216.
  4. Carlyle (1849), p. 672.
  5. Mill, John Stuart (1850). "The Negro Question," Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XLI, pp. 25–31.


  • The Carlyle-Mill "Negro Question" Debate.
  • Christianson, Aileen (1980). "On the Writing of the Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question", Carlyle Newsletter, Vol. II, pp. 13–19.
  • Neff, Emery (1924). Carlyle and Mill. New York: Columbia University Press.

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