Edward Bruce Hamley.

Our poor relations. A philozoic essay online

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Man surrounded by his Poor Relations.








what this world would be like if inhabited by no
other animal but man ? the earth without its


6 Our Poor Relations.

four-footed and its creeping things, the sea and
the river vacant of their shy silvery gleams and
far-darting shadows, the air void of the choral
hum of insects and the song of birds ? What
a dismal hush in creation ! what a multitudi-
nous charm and delight wanting to the woods,
the fields, the shallows, and the deeps ! What
glory lost to the grass with the spotted lady-
birds, the mail-clad beetles, and the slender
grasshoppers ! What splendor gone from the
flower with the bronzed and fire-tipped bee that
fed on its heart, and the painted butterfly that
hovered above its petals ! How dull had been
Eden for Adam with nothing breathing but
Eve, and all the rest of creation inanimate
no voice but that of the wind or the thunder
no motion but the flow of the stream, the float-
ing of the clouds, the waving of the trees !
The earth would have been silent as a picture ;
the forest and the plain, the mountain and the
lake, forlorn, tremendous, insupportable soli-
tudes solitudes that none would have sought,
since there could have been neither hunters nor
fishers, herdsmen nor shepherds.

In far other measure has the gift of life been
poured forth upon the earth. All the genera-

Our Poor Relations. 7

tions of all the tribes of men are but a handful
to the myriads of creatures which to-day, to-
morrow, and every day, haunt land, air, and
water, till inanimate nature teems with the sen-
tient vitality that lends it all its interest and all
its significance. A leaf holds a family, a clod
a community, and there is material for the spec-
ulations of a lifetime in the tenants of the
neighboring meadow, and of the brook that
waters it. The unclouded heavens would be
oppressive in their vastness and loneliness but
for those frequent travellers high in air, the
rook, the raven, or rarer heron, that flap their
untiring way onwards till they melt again into
the blue depths out of which they grew upon
the sight. The bare white cliffs are no longer
barren when their clangorous population of
chough and kittiwake and daw are abroad in
the sunshine ; and the black storm-cloud, com-
ing up on the blast behind its veil of rain, gains
a beauty which before it had not, as it throws
into relief the white wing of the sea-gull. Nay,
in some countries where calm and sunshine are
more permanent conditions of the atmosphere
than here, we learn that the regions of air are
not only a highway, but a home. Sir Samuel

8 Our Poor Relations.

Baker observes that when an animal is slain in
the Nubian wilderness, within a few seconds a
succession of birds, hitherto invisible, descend
on the prey, and always in the same order.
First the black-and-white crow arrives, then the
buzzard, then the small vulture, then the large
vulture, lastly the marabout stork. " I believe,"
says Sir Samuel, " that every species keeps to
its own particular elevation, and that the atmos-
phere contains regular strata of birds of prey,
who, invisible to the human eye at their enor-
mous height, are constantly resting upon their
widespread wings and soaring in circles, watch-
ing with telescopic sight the world beneath."
It is like a tale born of Persian or Arabian fan-
tasy to hear that above the traveller in the
desert hangs a huge mansion, " impalpable to
feeling as to sight," with its basement, its first
and second floors, its attics, and its turrets ; or
(to vary the image) that the social system of the
atmosphere comprises its lower orders, its mid-
dle classes, and its upper ten thousand.

It is a pleasant, if somewhat extravagant,
fancy, to figure to one's self man dwelling amid
his fellow-tenants of the earth in completest
harmony, the friend and companion of some,

Our Poor Relations. 9

the protector of others, the harmer of none, the
intelligent observer of all. Who shall say what
new unforeseen relations might not have been
established between us and our humble friends
on this basis of confidence and affection ? Who
shall say that they might not have revealed to
us that secret which they have guarded since
the creation the secret of their instincts and
their ways ; what their notions are of the
world, of each other, and of man ; and how far
they look before and after ? It was one of
Hawthorne's prettiest wild fancies, that Dona-
tello, the descendant of the old Fauns, and the
partial inheritor of their sylvan nature, still
held kinship with the untamed creatures of the
woods, and could draw them into communion
with him by the peculiar charm of his voice.
Every one who has domesticated some strange,
shy creature can testify to the wealth of char-
acter which it came to display in the ripening
warmth of intimacy ; and several naturalists
(by which term we are far from intending to
signify the dissectors of frogs, the scientific ex-
perimenters on the nerves and muscles of dogs,
or the impalers of beetles and butterflies) have
recorded their pleasant experiences of these

IO Our Poor Relations.

connections. Thus one of them, in spite of
ancient prejudice and proverbial adjectives, has
elicited fine social qualities in a bear ; another
has owned a beaver of such intelligence that it
might almost have been persuaded to become a
Christian ; while Caroline Bowles, whose taste
in this particular we respect rather than like,
kept a toad (a practice which we had thought
to be peculiar to old ladies who are in league
with the devil), and grew so fond of the un-
promising associate as to celebrate its virtues
in verse. What diversity and distinctness of
character in the poet Cowper's three hares !
Could any amount of hare-soup, civet de lievre,
jugged hare, or roast hare, that ever figured at
a century of city feasts, have made amends to
the world for the want of the affectionate record
of their social qualities ? Yet many a Puss,
Tiney, and Bess, as full of whim and play and
individuality as they, perishes unappreciated in
every day of cover-shooting, or is run into, in
the open, by heartless and undiscriminating
beagles. Especially in their early youth are
the four-footed peoples lovely and of good re-
port : not to mention such obvious examples as
the soft graces of kittens, the pretty, stiff frisk-

Our Poor Relations. 1 1

ings of lambs, like toys in motion (all the lamb
family are as full of quaint fun as Charles him-
self), and the clumsy geniality of puppies, the
rule will be found elsewhere of pretty general
application. Young pigs are delightful their
gambols, and squeaky grunts, and pokings in
the straw, and relations with their mother and
brethren, are marked with a grave facetiousness
all their own, though the spectator who would
enjoy them must be careful to ignore the sensual
aldermanic life of the mature porker. Young
donkeys, on the other hand, are by so much the
more charming, as being invested with the pa-
thos (quite awanting to the pigling) of the fu-
ture hard existence that is pretty certain to
await each member of the race as a poor man's
drudge. Foxes, in private life, and apart from
their public merits as main supporters of a great
national institution, are full of estimable quali-
ties, as many a poacher who, watching for other
game, has noted Mrs. Reynard unbending in
the moonlight with her young family, might tes-
tify ; and a little fox, with his face full of a
grave, sweet intelligence, which is as yet unde-
based by the look of worldly astuteness con-
spicuous in after life, is one of the prettiest

12 Our Poor Relations.

sights in the world. Domesticated, they de-
velop, in addition to their native sagacity, a
most affectionate attachment to those who are
kind to them ; and though, owing to personal
peculiarities, their society is most agreeable
when the visitor approaches them from wind-
ward, yet acquaintance with a fox will always
repay cultivation. Going further afield for ex-
amples of unobtrusive merit, what a wealth of
humor is comprised in the phrase, " a wilderness
of monkeys ! " What endless fun, what fresh
comedy, what brilliant farce, what infinity of
by-play and private jesting, quite beyond the
reach of our most popular comedians, is being
forever enacted in those leafy .theatres where
they hold their untiring revels ! How little are
they dependent on the stimulus of a sympa-
thetic audience, how free from the vulgarity of
playing at the gallery, how careless about split-
ting the ears of the groundlings, how careful
always to hold the mirror up to nature and to
man ! Hamlet could have given them no ad-
vice that would have been of service ; on the
contrary, they would have been spoiled by being
" sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,"
a metaphysical monkey, mooning over his bar-

Our Poor Relations. 13

ren philosophy, would sit in dismal discord with
the surrounding fun. Even in captivity the
merry race cultivate the drama, and the audi-
ences about the great cages in the Jardin des
Plantes or our own Zoological, are never disap-
pointed in the performance.

It was on a Sunday last summer, that we
witnessed, in the monkey-house in the Regent's
Park, a piece, the serious cast of which was, on
Shakespearean principles, relieved by passages
of lighter matter. Perched on their poles en-
gaged in mutual friendly investigation, or swing-
ing airily on ropes, the community was unusu-
ally quiet, while a female monkey, not the least
of whose attractions was a roseate flush which
spread itself over part of her else russet-gray
person, was engaged in deep flirtation with a
cavalier whose nether-monkey was of a tender
green shading into gold. The impassioned Ro-
meo, chattering voluble protestations, followed
the coy but loquacious Juliet, while that lasciva
puella pelted him in retiring with orange-peel,
nutshells, and straws, till they arrived beneath a
branch along which lay extended another mon-
key, who watched the pair attentively. He may
have been a rival, like the County Paris, or a

14 Our Poor Relations.

dissatisfied relative, like Tybalt, or possibly he
may have resented as an injury and a slight any
preference of other attractions to his own, for
he presented to the curious eye some embellish-
ments of brilliant azure. Be that as it may,
without the slightest warning he dropped like
a plummet on the enamoured pair, and, seizing
Romeo, bit him in his gorgeous hinder parts.
The injured swain, turning with an appalling
grin, grappled his assailant ; Juliet fled shriek-
ing, and her outcries, mingling with the noise
of combat, conveyed the tidings of the strife to
all the cage, and " spread the truth from pole to
pole." Thereupon all the other monkeys, leav-
ing their own private concerns, vaulted from
rope and perch towards the scene of action,
where, with shrill clamor, they precipitated
themselves on the combatants, and joined in a
general fray ; while an elderly and morose ba-
boon, delayed by age and infirmity, arrived
rather later, and, armed with a stick, belabored
all indiscriminately who came within his reach.
Shortly after, we beheld, in a neighboring cage,
a monkey, of dark, attenuated figure, clinging
with hands and feet, like a gigantic hairy spider,
to the wire roof, apparently absorbed in medita-

Our Poor Relations. 15

tion, while his tail hung perpendicularly down
to the length of about a yard. This, appendage
offered irresistible attractions to a friend upon
a neighboring rope, who, after long and earnest-
ly surveying it as he swung, reached it in one
wild leap, and, grasping it with both hands, pro-
ceeded to use it as the vehicle of an animated
gymnastic performance. The sage above, no-
ways discomposed, slowly turned his head, and,
after a patronizing glance at the pendent acro-
bat, resumed the thread of his meditations.
Possibly this was intended as a practical illus-
tration of the feat known to logicians as " jump-
ing at a conclusion." But whether grave or
gay, the charm of undomesticated animals is,
that they show us their nature fresh from the
fashioner, unmodified by education, or the opin-
ion of others, or any influence which might
make them wish to seem other than they are ;
and they follow their sports, their matings, the
shaping of their abodes, their parental cares,
the purveying of their food, their slumbers, and
flights and perambulations, their relations to
their fellows, whether gregarious or solitary,
with absolute independence of all impulses ex-
cept those which inspired the first of their race.


Our Poor Relations.

The idea of a paradise of animals who move
without fear round the central figure of man, is
not altogether fanciful, for something like it has
been witnessed from time to time by lost crews,
or storm-driven mariners, who reach, Crusoe-
like, a haven in some hitherto unexplored prov-
ince of Ocean. Birds of strange plumage come
out to welcome the solitary figure in the boat, to
perch on the prow, and to herald its progress ;
it nears the shore of the far antarctic region,

amid a crowd of gamesome seals, like the car
of Amphitrite conducted by a procession of

Our Poor Relations. 17

Tritons. On the sands sit sea-lions, gazing
with their solemn eyes at man, like conscript
fathers receiving a foreign envoy ; penguins
waddle in his path ; the greater and lesser alba-
tross come floating by, turning a bright, fearless
glance on him. Or, in warmer regions, dolphins
are his avant couriers ; at his approach, turtles
broad of back scarce quit their eggs in the sand
to crawl into the water ; the gaudy parrots, and
creamy, crested cockatoos, scream inquiry, not
indignation, from the branches ; the woodpeck-
er scarce pauses in his tapping ; the shining
dove . ceases not to woo his mate ; the apes
chatter a welcome, and grin not less affably
than many a host and hostess who desire to
give the guest a hospitable reception. We
have ourselves, in the depths of Canadian for-
ests, amid pines " hidden to the knees " in
snow, seen the white hare pause to look at us,
as she hopped past a few yards off ; the tree-
grouse, glancing downward from a branch close
by with an air of courteous inquiry ; and the
spruce-partridges never disturbing the order in
which they sat on the boughs, as our snow-
shoes crunched the crisp surface underneath
a confidence but ill requited ; for an Indian,

1 8 Our Poor Relations.

who guided us in those trackless woods, ascend-
ing the tree, and beginning with the bird that
sat lowest, plucked off, by means of a stick and
a noose, several in succession, passing the fatal
loop round their necks with a skill worthy of
Calcraft. Not to us does this kind of tameness
seem " shocking," as Cowper thought it must
have seemed to lonely Crusoe, but rather de-
lightful, because proof of the innocence that
imagines no evil ; and very touching, because
it betrays the simple creature which one might
think it ought to protect.

In fact, the relations between man and his co-
tenants of the globe would have been altogether
delightful but for one unlucky circumstance, a
circumstance which, far from being inevitable or
natural, is one of the insoluble problems of the
earth, and has caused a terrible jar and discord
in creation, namely, the fact that one animal
is food for another. No doubt, as matters stand,
beasts and birds of prey must follow their na-
ture ; the tearing of flesh and the picking of
bones are the correlatives of fangs and grinders,
beaks and talons ; and the comparative anato-
mist is compelled to coincide with that practical
Yankee, who, being told that in the days of the

Our Poor Relations. 19

millennium the lion and the lamb will lie down
together, said, " He expected the lamb would
lie down inside the lion." Nor is there any
sign of relaxation in the vigor with which man
continues to devour fish, flesh, and fowl ; and
no individual human stomach reaches maturity
without sacrificing whole hecatombs of victims
by the way. If we (the present writer) were to
make any pretence to a virtuous distaste for
flesh, we should justly be rebuked by the
thought of all the slayings and cookings that
our presence in the world has caused and will
yet cause. All the yet unborn, unlittered, and
unhatched creatures that will be trussed and
jointed, skewered, basted, roasted, boiled, grilled,
and served up, to keep our single soul and body
together, might very properly low, bleat, grunt,
gobble, quack, cackle, and chirp us the lie in
our throat. In particular might we be haunted
and humbled by the memory of our carnivo-
rous desires on that evening when, having
toiled all day on foot from Martigny up the
Great St. Bernard, we sat, hungry and weary,
a solitary guest, with one sad monk for host, in
the huge dining-hall of the Hospice. We were
hungry with the hunger of those snow-clad

2O Our Poor Relations.

altitudes ; succulent visions of stew and cutlet
floated before our fancy ; and when an attend-
ant bore into the twilight-shadowed hall a tray
with many dishes, we blessed the pious mem-
ory of the sainted Bernard. Our gratitude
cooled a little with the soup, which seemed
to be compounded of grass and warm water :
the remains of some cold pudding, of a kind
suitable for infants, followed ; then some slices
of potato fried in oil ; then a ragout of the
green products of the Italian ditches ; till at
length, in the growing darkness, a plate was
placed before us, on which glimmered some
small brown patches which might be diminu-
tive cutlets, or sliced- kidneys, or possibly bits
of baked meat. Into the nearest we plunged
our fork shade of Dalgetty, it was a stewed
prune ! A dried apple, we believe, concluded
the repast, but we did not eat it. As to grace,
Amen stuck in our throat ; and we had rather
not repeat the epithets which we breathed to
our pillow that night in honor of the canonized
founder of the feast. Nor among our gastro-
nomic recollections should we omit the time
when, on a foreign strand, where we had sub-
sisted for some days chiefly on the cabbages of

Our Poor Relations. 21

the country, and were lying sick and jaundiced
and void of all desire for food, in our tent, we
were driven by some strange perverse impulse
to devise an infinite number of bills of fare, com-
posed of the choicest viands, to be partaken by
the choicest guests, whenever we should again
sit in the cheerful warmth of a certain club in
Pall Mall ; visions since in great part realized..
When, therefore, we argue that the juxtaposi-
tion of the words " animal food " expresses a
disastrous condition of our existence, the can-
did reader will understand that we make no pre-
tence to have discovered an alternative, or to
be exempt from the common misfortune.

To a race of vegetarian men surrounded by
vegetarian animals herds from which they
demanded only milk, flocks whose sole tribute
was their fleece, and poultry which supplied
nothing but eggs to the board the idea of de-
priving creatures of life in order to eat them
would probably seem monstrous and repulsive.
But custom will reconcile us to anything ; the
Fans (an unprejudiced African tribe) feast on
their nearest relatives with as little disgust as
we on a haunch or a sirloin ; and if bills of fare
prevailed among that interesting people, a rot

22 Our Poor Relations.

of aged grandfather, an entr&e of curried aunt,
or sucking-nephew's head en tortue, would be as
much matters of course as our ordinary dishes.
.But notwithstanding the omnivorous conforma-
tion of the human teeth, and the all-assimila-
tive faculty of the human stomach, it is scarcely
to be imagined that man, placed in a paradise
of roots and fruits, herbs and grain, honey and
spices, milk and wine, would have originated of
himself the idea of killing and eating animals.
He may have been first corrupted by the bad
example of the carnivora. The spectacle of a
tiger rending a kid, or an eagle a pigeon, may
have habituated him to connect the ideas of
slaughter and food ; next, his imitative propen-
sities may have kindled the desire to perform
the process himself ; and, the imagination thus
depraved, any remaining scruples would speed-
ily vanish, in time of dearth, before the impulse
of a craving stomach. But however the cus-
tom may have arisen, we are not left in any
doubt as to the dietary habits of our primeval
ancestors. The earliest trace of man on the
earth is the flint weapon with which he slew
the bear, the deer, and the beaver, whose bones
strew the site of his dwellings. His first gar-

Our Poor Relations. 23

ments were torn from the backs they grew
on. His first business was the chase. Natural
philosophers tell us that a habit, accidental at
first, grows, in the course of transmission, into
the nature, and becomes a characteristic. It was
perhaps in this way that the germ of destruc-
tiveness, implanted by instant and ever-pressing
necessity in the aboriginal breast, struck such
deep root, that, in all succeeding ages, every
corner of the inhabited earth has been a sham-
bles, and the rest of animated creation has been
compelled to accept from man either subjection
or persecution persecution often pushed even
to extermination. In the pride of that power
which, through the faculty of speech, man pos-
sesses, of combining forces and transmitting
knowledge, he has exercised ruthlessly his do-
minion over the beast of the field and the fowl
of the air. Wherever he has held sway, there
have all other creatures drawn their painful
breath in subjection, unchampioned and unpit-
ied. If in that imaginary paradise of animals
which we have already sketched, we simply in-
troduce the figure of a NATIVE, the whole scene
changes. That lean, low-browed, flat-nosed car-
icature of humanity, more like a painter's lay

24 Our Poor Relations.

figure than a sculptor's model full of propensi-
ties much viler than those of the animals around
him selfish, remorseless, faithless, treacherous
is monarch of all he surveys. The birds have
learnt the power of the poisoned arrow the
beasts have a wholesome dread of the ambush
and the snare. That bronze-colored being, dis-
tinguished from the ape chiefly by superior ma-
levolence and articulate speech, walks surround-
ed by a wide circle of fear. The creatures
around him have learnt, and taught their young,
the lesson that he is as malignant as he is pow-
erful. Only give him time, and he will depopu-
late whole regions of their animals. The gigan-
tic Moa no longer stalks over the hills of New
Zealand. The moose disappears from the east
of the American continent as the buffalo from
the west. South Africa, that used to teem with
wild herds, crowding the wide landscape up to
the horizon, and astounding the traveller with
the magnificent spectacle of tribes of antelopes,
zebras, and giraffes hiding the plain, elephants
and rhinoceroses browsing securely amid the
clumps of trees, and hippopotamuses swarming
in the rivers, has, since the negroes were sup-
plied with guns, been almost swept of its game,

Our Poor Relations. 25

and in some parts not only have the birds dis-
appeared, but the very moles and mice are grow-
ing scarce. In fact, in all lands the savage gluts
himself with slaughter. Nor is his civilized
brother behind him in the propensity to destroy,
which nothing but the interest of proprietorship
avails to check. Everywhere it is absolutely a
capital crime to be an unowned creature. Dar-
win tells us that " when the Falkland Islands
were first visited by man, the large wolf-like
dog (Canis antarcticus} fearlessly came to meet
Byron's sailors, who, mistaking their ignorant
curiosity for ferocity, ran into the water to
avoid them ; even recently, a man, by holding a
piece of meat in one hand and a knife in the
other, could sometimes stick them at night."
Beautiful attitude of humanity ! In those parts
of America where game-laws do not exist, the
game has almost disappeared ; in France the
small birds have been destroyed, to the great joy
and prosperity of the insects and caterpillars ; in
England the interests of game-preserving have
proscribed the owl, the falcon, the eagle, the
weasel, and a host of other tenants of the woods.
Generations ago the bustard had vanished from

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Online LibraryEdward Bruce HamleyOur poor relations. A philozoic essay → online text (page 1 of 4)