Classics, Colonialism, and 19th Century Social History – A Trio Infernale…

When I started to contemplate the ways in which classical antiquity is mediated to us today through a number of traditional educational and cultural channels, I didn’t fancy it but always inevitably found myself pondering the influence of 19th century ideas, and evaluating the work of 19th century scholars and thinkers. The great museums of classical antiquities, for instance, were developed, expanded and feted in the era, and in the scholarly study of classical texts, reference works of encyclopedic dimensions were launched, such as the Cambridge Ancient HIstory. These works continue to be educational tools in the present day, although mindsets have shifted and the world has changed.

Despite a sense of having a reasonable idea of the 19th century’s historical turning points and of the ideas that accompanied these, its social history often remains outside the view of a classicist’s contemplations. Part of the reason for this is that classical study in the 19th century was, all things considered, a preoccupation reserved to the cream of society, so that few echoes of social diversity would be found in the scholarship itself. The socio-political rhetoric couching classical study in the 19th century is by most accounts one of civilization and its satisfactions, its refinements, British society having reached an all-time peak of cultural efflorescence, prosperity, industrial superiority, and intellectual advancement. The missionary ideology of colonialism, which in the 19th century was in full swing, paints an image of the European home country and its awe-inspiring metropolis as a marvel of luxury and comfort.

Very little is said, by contrast, about the dire struggles of the working class at the same time, the so-called diseases of civilization, child labour in British factories and coal mines.In a recent book, Sarah Butler throws light on how the British working classes in the colonial era fell victim, in the scholarly literature, to an anthropological classification that sought scientifically to define their nature as lower-than-human, un-English, much in the same way as the imperial anthropology sought to conceptualize the people of other continents as sub-civilized in their development.

In a different post, I briefly traced the architecture of British workhouses. That the workhouse was a pillar of Victorian society as much as was the police or the crown court, might have been known to classical scholars, but none the less, its image was perpetually eclipsed from serious reflection. Functioning as a prison-like home for destitute individuals and families, the homeless, the sick poor, the elderly poor, as well as to unmarried pregnant women and many illegitimate children, this institution is estimated to have had a grand total of 14 million residents in Britain over the decades of its existence. But just as the architectural structures have been destroyed in large parts, the workhouse was a place of national embarrassment already in its day, and the moral and socio-political tenets which it embodied are quickly glossed over with a veneer of industrial progress and economical prosperity.

Nonetheless, these social structures and establishments — the workhouse, the tenements of the working class, rampant poverty in the 19th century, child labour, child mortality, and the laws legislating the employment of children which developed in sync with casualties and bouts of public outrage at the time — were a reality visible on a large scale. As such, the thought of it was latent in the cultural perception of scholars, who are the mediators of classical learning to us today. Perhaps this is the case more so now that the digital renaissance is bringing back to life many scholarly works from the Victorian period. Despite their many critics, and despite the re-structured understanding of a modernist sensitivity and beyond, the 19th century roots of many cultural appraisals appear and re-appear in a reflection upon classical antiquity, and it is important to study not only the colonial, but also the domestic social policies and the assumptions which underlie them. I have just finished reading a brand new book sent to me for review, about child labourers in Welsh coalmines in the 19th century. I will post my review here next week.


The image shows a cover of a phrenology journal. Phrenology, a now defunct science, developed and gained momentum in Victorian Britain and beyond (especially in Edinburgh), with the aim to divine a person’s moral disposition, character traits and talents, through the medium of examining their head.