fair play for bull-baiters

In 1800, a bill was proposed in the House of Commons to ban bull-baiting. In bull-baiting, a bull was tied to a stake and dogs, often bull dogs, were set upon it. Sometimes, the dogs succeeded in killing the bull, sometimes the bull succeeded in killing the dogs, and most often, the bull and the dogs came off wounded.

The bill was defeated. Even so, it produced enough of a stir that a French academy asked a prize question about whether animals had a right to not being treated barbarously.

Another animal cruelty bill was introduced in the Parliament seven years later by Erksine, the well known defender of Tom Paine. It too was defeated.

Both defeats were mainly due to the eloquence of William Windham. Windham was one of Burke’s Whigs. He served as a minister in Pitt’s war government. He was, evidently, out of sympathy with the French Revolution. Yet the speech he made against banning bull-baiting is a document that defends the pleasures of the rural poor in explicitly class conscious terms; in almost the same terms, Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son in law, denounced the anti-vivisection movement in Britain in the 1890s.

Windham begins by dismissing the argument that bull-baiting has a corrupting influence on the character of the spectators by using himself as an instance: he saw two bull-baitings in his youth, he claims, and has not, since, seen any signs of cruelty or corruption. He then gets to the heart of what he thinks is wrong with the legislation by making it an issue of the culture of the common people:

“A great deal has lately been said respecting the state of the poor, and the hardships which they are suffering. But if they are really in the condition which is described, why should we set about to deprive them of the few enjoyments which are left to them? If we look back to the state of the common people in those countries with which our youthful studies make us acquainted, we find, that what with games, shews, festivals and the institutions of their religion, their sources of amusement and relaxation were so numerous as to make them appear to have enjoyed a perpetual holiday… “ Then he imagines what the poor in the country might say to the reformers: “Why interfere with the few sports we have, while you leave yourself and the rich so great a variety? You have your carriage, and your country houses; your balls, your plays, your operas, your masquerades, your card-parties, your books, your dogs, and your horses to amuse you – On yourselves you lay no restraint. – But from us you wish to take the little we have?”

Windham is objecting, as becomes apparent, not just to interference with bull baiting, but to the tendency to regulate the amusements of the poor for their own good. And in so opposing the bill, he speaks up for that countryside culture:

“In the exercise of those sports they may, indeed, sometimes hurt themselves, but could never hurt the nation. If a set of poor men, for vigorous recreation, prefer a game of cudgels, instead of interrupting them, it should be more our business to let them have fair play.”

This is the note of Hazlitt and Cobbett – and not what one might expect from a reactionary. Nor this: ‘The advocates of this bill, Sir, proposed to abolish bull-baiting on the score of cruelty. It is strange enough that such an argument should be employed by a set of persons who have a most vexatious code of laws for the protection of their own amusements. I do not mean at present to condemn the game laws; but when Gentlemen talk of cruelty, I must remind them, that it belongs as much to shooting, as to the sport of bull-baiting; nay more so, as it frequently happens, that where one bird is shot, a great many others go off much wounded. When, therefore, I hear humane Gentlemen even make a boast of having wounded a number of birds in this way, it only affords me a further proof that savage sports do not make savage people. Has not the butcher as much right to demand the exercise of his sport, as the man of fortune to demand that of hunting?”

Move forward, now, to Lafargue, who begins: “The bourgeois have the tenderness of angels in regard to animals: they feel a closer relationship to the animals than they do to the workers.”

Lafargue is not only following, unconsciously, in the path of the Burkian Windham, but in the path of Marx, who, in his list of the paragons of bourgeois humanism in the Communist Manifesto, includes societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals. Lafargue finds it infuriating that an English law allows the police to interfere with a scientist experimenting on an animal, and while allowing companies to experiment on their human clients with products mixed dangerous impurities or the like, all to save a bit of money in production:

“John Simon is an English factory inspector. He has studied the tortures to which the tender hearted bourgeois submits children, women and proletarian men in the capitalist prisons, in order to steal the fruits of their labor. He denounced them with a courage never known to the radicals. In his discourse [to a recent congress], he established that there exists two categories of experiment. One practiced by the physiologist on certain animals. The other practiced on thousands of men by speculators. For an example, he cits the classic experiments of Professor Tiersch on mice in order to discover the mode by which Asiatic cholera propagates, and the popular and well known experiment which was practiced during two cholera epidemics, of 1848-49 and 1853-54 on a half million inhabitants of South London by a certain commercial company who supplied these districts with polluted water.”

However, Lafargue is not only concerned with science – although it is interesting that the a defense of the amusements of the common people has transformed, in the course of the century, into a defense of science. He also uses Windham’s example of bird shooting to indict the bourgeoisie for committing acts of cruelty for their own amusement whilst banning acts that repulsed them among the lower orders.

Only by seeing that the dispute over animals and their treatment has deep roots in the common life, a life that was being transformed all over Europe, can one make one’s way, here. There is a delusion that we can get a clear political guide from understanding the pattern of our semantic binaries. They seem to group themselves before our eyes. We look at the history of the word, person, we see a sort of semiotic equivalent of the theodicy here, we think that we can make sense of the civil wars hidden in the word. We say, look at these oppositions deriving from this word that is originally a simulacra of the face, the face as an exchangeable object. Look at the number of semiotic transformations we can touch upon: of the relationship between the face and the body, the clothed and the naked, the man and the woman,, the elite and the common, the man and the beast. But when we look at how these things are imminently constituted and experienced, we find that things are not as we imagined them to be.

Maurice Angulhon, in “Le sang des bêtes. Le problème de la protection des animaux en France au XIXème siècle”, claimed that, unlike the 20th century, the entire onus of the movement to protect animals from cruelty, especially domestic animals, was aimed at preventing human cruelty. Windham, in fact, is responding to a similar claim in England – the spectacle or practice of cruelty to animals among the working classes will lead to either crime or a dangerous propensity to political rebellion. Surely this is true, to some extent, that the chief organizers for the protection of animals were animated by a “curious mixture of profound humanism and social fear.” For instance, under Napoleon, the traditional way of butchering an animal, which was done in the full view of whoever wanted to watch in Paris, was regulated so that it occurred in special abbatoirs. Just as the ladies wore red sewn into their necklines as a memorial of the guillotine, so, too, this prohibition could be seen as another, more fearful homage to the guillotine: “in dissimulating the blade of the butcher one contributed perhaps to avoiding the blade of the street jury.” (85) Industry and animal husbandry were much more visible, nonetheless, in cities where the flow of traffic was measured by the horse, and where the knacker’s trade in sick and dying horses, which were often sold off and starved to death, flourished.

It is easy to read this whole history as one to which we find the master key in the struggle of class with class. But Windham’s politics should be a caution that more than class advantage, or class projection, is at play here.


P.M.Lawrence said…
"The bourgeois have the tenderness of angels in regard to animals: they feel a closer relationship to the animals than they do to the workers".

There is a story about a little old lady in England during the Spanish Civil War who made significant contributions towards relieving the suffering of Spanish workers, which seemed odd to many in Britain. Their puzzlement abated when it turned out that she had misunderstood the term Labrador.
roger said…
Funny, Mr. Lawrence!
Happy Easter/Passover to you, sir.