Annie Wood Besant.

Annie Besant An Autobiography online

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subjects, or amongst intimate acquaintances, that community of thought
upon the question is discovered. But let any one inquire amongst those
who have sufficient education and ability to think for themselves, and
who do not idly float, slaves to the current of conventional opinion,
and he will discover that numbers of men and women of purest lives, of
noblest aspirations, pious, cultivated, and refined, see no wrong in
teaching the ignorant that it is wrong to bring into the world
children to whom they cannot do justice, and who think it folly to
stop short in telling them simply and plainly how to prevent it. A
more robust view of morals teaches that it is puerile to ignore human
passions and human physiology. A clearer perception of truth and the
safety of trusting to it teaches that in law, as in religion, it is
useless trying to limit the knowledge of mankind by any inquisitorial
attempts to place upon a judicial Index Expurgatorius works written
with an earnest purpose, and commending themselves to thinkers of
well-balanced minds. I will be no party to any such attempt. I do not
believe that it was ever meant that the Obscene Publication Act should
apply to cases of this kind, but only to the publication of such
matter as all good men would regard as lewd and filthy, to lewd and
bawdy novels, pictures and exhibitions, evidently published and given
for lucre's sake. It could never have been intended to stifle the
expression of thought by the earnest-minded on a subject of
transcendent national importance like the present, and I will not
strain it for that purpose. As pointed out by Lord Cockburn in the
case of the Queen v. Bradlaugh and Besant, all prosecutions of this
kind should be regarded as mischievous, even by those who disapprove
the opinions sought to be stifled, inasmuch as they only tend more
widely to diffuse the teaching objected to. To those, on the other
hand, who desire its promulgation, it must be a matter of
congratulation that this, like all attempted persecutions of thinkers,
will defeat its own object, and that truth, like a torch, 'the more
it's shook it shines.'"

The argument of Mr. Justice Windmeyer for the Neo-Malthusian position
was (as any one may see who reads the full text of the judgment) one
of the most luminous and cogent I have ever read. The judgment was
spoken of at the time in the English press as a "brilliant triumph for
Mrs. Besant," and so I suppose it was; but no legal judgment could
undo the harm wrought on the public mind in England by malignant and
persistent misrepresentation. What that trial and its results cost me
in pain no one but myself will ever know; on the other hand, there was
the passionate gratitude evidenced by letters from thousands of poor
married women - many from the wives of country clergymen and
curates - thanking and blessing me for showing them how to escape from
the veritable hell in which they lived. The "upper classes" of society
know nothing about the way in which the poor live; how their
overcrowding destroys all sense of personal dignity, of modesty, of
outward decency, till human life, as Bishop Fraser justly said, is
"degraded below the level of the swine." To such, and among such I
went, and I could not grudge the price that then seemed to me as the
ransom for their redemption. To me, indeed, it meant the losing of all
that made life dear, but for them it seemed to be the gaining of all
that gave hope of a better future. So how could I hesitate - I whose
heart had been fired by devotion to an ideal Humanity, inspired by
that Materialism that is of love and not of hate?

And now, in August, 1893, we find the _Christian World,_ the
representative organ of orthodox Christian Protestantism, proclaiming
the right and the duty of voluntary limitation of the family. In a
leading article, after a number of letters had been inserted, it
said: -

"The conditions are assuredly wrong which bring one member of the
married partnership into a bondage so cruel. It is no less evident
that the cause of the bondage in such cases lies in the too rapid
multiplication of the family. There was a time when any idea of
voluntary limitation was regarded by pious people as interfering with
Providence. We are beyond that now, and have become capable of
recognising that Providence works through the common sense of
individual brains. We limit population just as much by deferring
marriage from prudential motives as by any action that may be taken
after it.... Apart from certain methods of limitation, the morality of
which is gravely questioned by many, there are certain
easily-understood physiological laws of the subject, the failure to
know and to observe which is inexcusable on the part either of men or
women in these circumstances. It is worth noting in this connection
that Dr. Billings, in his article in this month's _Forum_, on the
diminishing birth-rate of the United States, gives as one of the
reasons the greater diffusion of intelligence, by means of popular and
school treatises on physiology, than formerly prevailed."

Thus has opinion changed in sixteen years, and all the obloquy poured
on us is seen to have been the outcome of ignorance and bigotry.

As for the children, what was gained by their separation from me? The
moment they were old enough to free themselves, they came back to me,
my little girl's too brief stay with me being ended by her happy
marriage, and I fancy the fears expressed for her eternal future will
prove as groundless as the fears for her temporal ruin have proved to
be! Not only so, but both are treading in my steps as regards their
views of the nature and destiny of man, and have joined in their
bright youth the Theosophical Society to which, after so many
struggles, I won my way.

The struggle on the right to discuss the prudential restraint of
population did not, however, conclude without a martyr. Mr. Edward
Truelove, alluded to above, was prosecuted for selling a treatise by
Robert Dale Owen on "Moral Physiology," and a pamphlet entitled,
"Individual, Family, and National Poverty." He was tried on February
1, 1878, before the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Queen's Bench,
and was most ably defended by Professor W.A. Hunter. The jury spent
two hours in considering their verdict, and returned into court and
stated that they were unable to agree. The majority of the jury were
ready to convict, if they felt sure that Mr. Truelove would not be
punished, but one of them boldly declared in court: "As to the book,
it is written in plain language for plain people, and I think that
many more persons ought to know what the contents of the book are."
The jury was discharged, in consequence of this one man's courage, but
Mr. Truelove's persecutors - the Vice Society - were determined not to
let their victim free. They proceeded to trial a second time, and
wisely endeavoured to secure a special jury, feeling that as
prudential restraint would raise wages by limiting the supply of
labour, they would be more likely to obtain a verdict from a jury of
"gentlemen" than from one composed of workers. This attempt was
circumvented by Mr. Truelove's legal advisers, who let a _procedendo_
go which sent back the trial to the Old Bailey. The second trial was
held on May 16th at the Central Criminal Court before Baron Pollock
and a common jury, Professor Hunter and Mr. J.M. Davidson appearing
for the defence. The jury convicted, and the brave old man,
sixty-eight years of age, was condemned to four months' imprisonment
and £50 fine for selling a pamphlet which had been sold unchallenged,
during a period of forty-five years, by James Watson, George Jacob
Holyoake, Austin Holyoake, and Charles Watts. Mr. Grain, the counsel
employed by the Vice Society, most unfairly used against Mr. Truelove
my "Law of Population," a pamphlet which contained, Baron Pollock
said, "the head and front of the offence in the other [the Knowlton]
case." I find an indignant protest against this odious unfairness in
the _National Reformer_ for May 19th: "My 'Law of Population' was used
against Mr. Truelove as an aggravation of his offence, passing over
the utter meanness - worthy only of Collette - of using against a
prisoner a book whose author has never been attacked for writing
it - does Mr. Collette, or do the authorities, imagine that the
severity shown to Mr. Truelove will in any fashion deter me from
continuing the Malthusian propaganda? Let me here assure them, one and
all, that it will do nothing of the kind; I shall continue to sell the
'Law of Population' and to advocate scientific checks to population,
just as though Mr. Collette and his Vice Society were all dead and
buried. In commonest justice they are bound to prosecute me, and if
they get, and keep, a verdict against me, and succeed in sending me to
prison, they will only make people more anxious to read my book, and
make me more personally powerful as a teacher of the views which they

A persistent attempt was made to obtain a writ of error in Mr.
Truelove's case, but the Tory Attorney-General, Sir John Holker,
refused it, although the ground on which it was asked was one of the
grounds on which a similar writ had been granted to Mr. Bradlaugh and
myself. Mr. Truelove was therefore compelled to suffer his sentence,
but memorials, signed by 11,000 persons, asking for his release, were
sent to the Home Secretary from every part of the country, and a
crowded meeting in St. James's Hall, London, demanded his liberation
with only six dissentients. The whole agitation did not shorten Mr.
Truelove's sentence by a single day, and he was not released from
Coldbath Fields Prison until September 5th. On the 12th of the same
month the Hall of Science was crowded with enthusiastic friends, who
assembled to do him honour, and he was presented with a
beautifully-illuminated address and a purse containing £177
(subsequent subscriptions raised the amount to £197 16s. 6d.).

It is scarcely necessary to say that one of the results of the
prosecution was a great agitation throughout the country, and a wide
popularisation of Malthusian views. Some huge demonstrations were held
in favour of free discussion; on one occasion the Free Trade Hall,
Manchester, was crowded to the doors; on another the Star Music Hall,
Bradford, was crammed in every corner; on another the Town Hall,
Birmingham, had not a seat or a bit of standing-room unoccupied.
Wherever we went, separately or together, it was the same story, and
not only were Malthusian lectures eagerly attended, and Malthusian
literature eagerly bought, but curiosity brought many to listen to our
Radical and Freethought lectures, and thousands heard for the first
time what Secularism really meant. The Press, both London and
provincial, agreed in branding the prosecution as foolish, and it was
generally remarked that it resulted only in the wider circulation of
the indicted book, and the increased popularity of those who had stood
for the right of publication. The furious attacks since made upon us
have been made chiefly by those who differ from us in theological
creed, and who have found a misrepresentation of our prosecution
served them as a convenient weapon of attack. During the last few
years public opinion has been gradually coming round to our side, in
consequence of the pressure of poverty resulting from widespread
depression of trade, and during the sensation caused in 1884 by "The
Bitter Cry of Outcast London," many writers in the _Daily
News_ - notably Mr. G.R. Sims - boldly alleged that the distress was to
a great extent due to the large families of the poor, and mentioned
that we had been prosecuted for giving the very knowledge which would
bring salvation to the sufferers in our great cities.

Among the useful results of the prosecution was the establishment of
the Malthusian League, "to agitate for the abolition of all penalties
on the public discussion of the population question," and "to spread
among the people, by all practicable means, a knowledge of the law of
population, of its consequences, and of its bearing upon human conduct
and morals." The first general meeting of the League was held at the
Hall of Science on July 26, 1877, and a council of twenty persons was
elected, and this council on August 2nd elected Dr. C.R. Drysdale,
M.D., President; Mr. Swaagman, Treasurer; Mrs. Besant, Secretary; Mr.
Shearer, Assistant-Secretary; and Mr. Hember, Financial Secretary.
Since 1877 the League, under the same indefatigable president, has
worked hard to carry out its objects; it has issued a large number of
leaflets and tracts; it supports a monthly journal, the _Malthusian;_
numerous lectures have been delivered under its auspices in all parts
of the country; and it has now a medical branch, into which none but
duly qualified medical men and women are admitted, with members in all
European countries.

Another result of the prosecution was the accession of "D." to the
staff of the _National Reformer_. This able and thoughtful writer came
forward and joined our ranks as soon as he heard of the attack on us,
and he further volunteered to conduct the journal during our expected
imprisonment. From that time to this - a period of fifteen
years - articles from his pen appeared in its columns week by week, and
during all that time not one solitary difficulty arose between editors
and contributor. In public a trustworthy colleague, in private a warm
and sincere friend, "D." proved an unmixed benefit bestowed upon us by
the prosecution.

Nor was "D." the only friend brought to us by our foes. I cannot ever
think of that time without remembering that the prosecution brought me
first into close intimacy with Mrs. Annie Parris - the wife of Mr.
Touzeau Parris, the Secretary of the Defence Committee throughout all
the fight - a lady who, during that long struggle, and during the, for
me, far worse struggle that succeeded it, over the custody of my
daughter, proved to me the most loving and sisterly of friends. One or
two other friendships which will, I hope, last my life, date from that
same time of strife and anxiety.

The amount of money subscribed by the public during the Knowlton and
succeeding prosecutions gives some idea of the interest felt in the
struggle. The Defence Fund Committee in March, 1878, presented a
balance-sheet, showing subscriptions amounting to £1,292 5s. 4d., and
total expenditure in the Queen v. Bradlaugh and Besant, the Queen v.
Truelove, and the appeal against Mr. Vaughan's order (the last two up
to date) of £1,274 10s. This account was then closed and the balance
of £17 15s. 4d. passed on to a new fund for the defence of Mr.
Truelove, the carrying on of the appeal against the destruction of the
Knowlton pamphlet, and the bearing of the costs incident on the
petition lodged against myself. In July this new fund had reached £196
16s. 7d., and after paying the remainder of the costs in Mr.
Truelove's case, a balance of £26 15s. 2d. was carried on. This again
rose to £247 15s. 2-1/2d., and the fund bore the expenses of Mr.
Bradlaugh's successful appeal on the Knowlton pamphlet, the petition
and subsequent proceedings in which I was concerned in the Court of
Chancery, and an appeal on Mr. Truelove's behalf, unfortunately
unsuccessful, against an order for the destruction of the Dale Owen
pamphlet. This last decision was given on February 21, 1880, and on
this the Defence Fund was closed. On Mr. Truelove's release, as
mentioned above, a testimonial to the amount of £197 16s. 6d. was
presented to him, and after the close of the struggle some anonymous
friend sent to me personally £200 as "thanks for the courage and
ability shown." In addition to all this, the Malthusian League
received no less than £455 11s. 9d. during the first year of its life,
and started on its second year with a balance in hand of £77 5s. 8d.

A somewhat similar prosecution in America, in which the bookseller,
Mr. D.M. Bennett, sold a book with which he did not agree, and was
imprisoned, led to our giving him a warm welcome when, after his
release, he visited England. We entertained him at the Hall of Science
at a crowded gathering, and I was deputed as spokesman to present him
with a testimonial. This I did in the following speech, quoted here in
order to show the spirit then animating me: -

"Friends, Mr. Bradlaugh has spoken of the duty that calls us here
to-night. It is pleasant to think that in our work that duty is one to
which we are not unaccustomed. In our army there are more true
soldiers than traitors, more that are faithful to the trust of keeping
the truth than those who shrink when the hour of danger comes. And I
would ask Mr. Bennett to-night not to measure English feeling towards
him by the mere number of those present. They that are here are
representatives of many thousands of our fellow-countrymen. Glance
down this middle table, and you will see that it is not without some
right that we claim to welcome you in the name of multitudes of the
citizens of England. There are those who taunt us with want of
loyalty, and with the name of infidels. In what church will they find
men and women more loyal to truth and conscience? The name infidel is
not for us so long as we are faithful to the truth we know. If I
speak, as I have done, of national representation in this hall this
evening, tell me, you who know those who sit here, who have watched
some of them for years, others of them but for a brief time, do I not
speak truth? Take them one by one. Your President but a little while
ago in circumstances similar to those wherein our guest himself was
placed, with the true lover's keenness that recognises the mistress
under all disguise, beholding his mistress Liberty in danger, under
circumstances that would have blinded less sure eyes, leapt to her
rescue. He risked the ambition of his life rather than be disloyal to
liberty. And next is seated a woman, who, student of a noble
profession, thought that liberty had greater claim upon her than even
her work. When we stood in worse peril than even loss of liberty, she
risked her own good name for the truth's sake. One also is here who,
eminent in his own profession, came with the weight of his position
and his right to speak, and gave a kindred testimony. One step
further, and you see one who, soldier to liberty, throughout a long
and spotless life, when the task was far harder than it is to-day,
when there were no greetings, no welcomes, when to serve was to peril
name as well as liberty, never flinched from the first until now. He
is crowned with the glory of the jail, that was his for no crime but
for claiming the right to publish that wherein the noblest thought is
uttered in the bravest words. And next to him is another who speaks
for liberty, who has brought culture, university degree, position in
men's sight, and many friends, and cast them all at her beloved feet.
Sir, not alone the past and the present greet you to-night. The future
also greets you with us. We have here also those who are training
themselves to walk in the footsteps of the one most dear to them, who
shall carry on, when we have passed away, the work which we shall have
dropped from our hands. But he whom we delight to honour at this hour
in truth honours us, in that he allows us to offer him the welcome
that it is our glory and our pleasure to give. He has fought bravely.
The Christian creed had in its beginning more traitors and less true
hearts than the creed of to-day. We are happy to-day not only in the
thought of what manner of men we have for leaders, but in the thought
of what manner of men we have as soldiers in our army. Jesus had
twelve apostles. One betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver; a
second denied Him. They all forsook Him and fled. We can scarcely
point to one who has thus deserted our sacred cause. The traditions of
our party tell us of many who went to jail because they claimed for
all that right of free speech which is the heritage of all. One of the
most famous members of our body in England, Richard Carlile, turned
bookseller to sell books that were prosecuted. This man became
Free-thinker, driven thereto by the bigotry and wickedness of the
Churches. He sold the books of Hone not because he agreed with them,
but because Hone was prosecuted. He saw that the book in whose
prosecution freedom was attacked was the book for the freeman to sell;
and the story of our guest shows that in all this England and America
are one. Those who gave Milton to the world can yet bring forth men of
the same stamp in continents leagues asunder. Because our friend was
loyal and true, prison had to him no dread. It was far, far less of
dishonour to wear the garb of the convict than to wear that of the
hypocrite. The society we represent, like his society in America,
pleads for free thought, speaks for free speech, claims for every one,
however antagonistic, the right to speak the thought he feels. It is
better that this should be, even though the thought be wrong, for thus
the sooner will its error be discovered - better if the thought be
right, for then the sooner does the gladness of a new truth find place
in the heart of man. As the mouthpiece, Sir, of our National Secular
Society, and of its thousands of members, I speak to you now: -


"'_We seek for Truth_.'

"'To D.M. Bennett.

"'In asking you to accept at the hands of the National Secular Society
of England this symbol of cordial sympathy and brotherly welcome, we
are but putting into act the motto of our Society. "We seek for Truth"
is our badge, and it is as Truthseeker that we do you homage to-night.
Without free speech no search for Truth is possible; without free
speech no discovery of Truth is useful; without free speech progress
is checked, and the nations no longer march forward towards the nobler
life which the future holds for man. Better a thousandfold abuse of
free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day; the
denial slays the life of the people and entombs the hope of the race.

"'In your own country you have pleaded for free speech, and when,
under a wicked and an odious law, one of your fellow-citizens was
imprisoned for the publication of his opinions, you, not sharing the
opinions but faithful to liberty, sprang forward to defend in him the
principle of free speech which you claimed for yourself, and sold his
book while he lay in prison. For this act you were in turn arrested
and sent to jail, and the country which won its freedom by the aid of
Paine in the eighteenth century disgraced itself in the nineteenth by
the imprisonment of a heretic. The Republic of the United States
dishonoured herself, and not you, in Albany penitentiary. Two hundred
thousand of your countrymen pleaded for your release, but bigotry was
too strong. We sent you greeting in your captivity; we rejoiced when
the time came for your release. We offer you to-night our thanks and
our hope - thanks for the heroism which never flinched in the hour of
battle, hope for a more peaceful future, in which the memory of a past
pain may be a sacred heritage and not a regret.

"'Charles Bradlaugh, _President_.'

"Soldier of liberty, we give you this. Do in the future the same good
service that you have done in the past, and your reward shall be in
the love that true men shall bear to you."

That, however, which no force could compel me to do, which I refused
to threats of fine and prison, to separation from my children, to
social ostracism, and to insults and ignominy worse to bear than
death, I surrendered freely when all the struggle was over, and a
great part of society and of public opinion had adopted the view that
cost Mr. Bradlaugh and myself so dear. I may as well complete the
story here, so as not to have to refer to it again. I gave up
Neo-Malthusianism in April, 1891, its renunciation being part of the
outcome of two years' instruction from Mdme. H.P. Blavatsky, who
showed me that however justifiable Neo-Malthusianism might be while
man was regarded only as the most perfect outcome of physical
evolution, it was wholly incompatible with the view of man as a
spiritual being, whose material form and environment were the results
of his own mental activity. Why and how I embraced Theosophy, and
accepted H.P. Blavatsky as teacher, will soon be told in its proper
place. Here I am concerned only with the why and how of my
renunciation of the Neo-Malthusian teaching, for which I had fought so
hard and suffered so much.

When I built my life on the basis of Materialism I judged all actions
by their effect on human happiness in this world now and in future

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Online LibraryAnnie Wood BesantAnnie Besant An Autobiography → online text (page 14 of 23)