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An essay by Charles Lever

Of Our Brothers Beyond The Border

Title:     Of Our Brothers Beyond The Border
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

There is a story current of a certain very eminent French naturalist, who is so profoundly impressed by the truth of the Darwinian theory, that he never passes the cage where the larger apes are confined in the Jardin des Plantes without taking off his hat, making a profound obeisance, and wishing them a _bon jour_.

This recognition is touching and graceful. The homage of the witches to him who should be king hereafter, had in it a sort of mockery that made it horrible; but here we have an act of generous courtesy, based alike on the highest discoveries of science and the rules of the truest good-breeding.

The learned professor, with all the instincts of great acquirements and much self-knowledge united, admits them at once to equality and fraternity--the liberty, perhaps, they will have to wait some time for; but in that they are no worse off than some millions of their fellow-countrymen.

One might speculate long--I don't know exactly how profitably--on the sense of gratitude these creatures must feel for this touching kindness, how they must long for the good man's visit, how they must wonder by what steps he arrived at this astonishing knowledge, how surprised they must feel that he does not make more converts; and, last of all, what pains they must take to exhibit in their outward bearing and behaviour that they are not unworthy of the high consideration he bestows on them! Before him no monkey-tricks, no apish indecorums--none even of those passing levities which young gorillas will indulge in just like other youths. No; all must be staid, orderly, and respectful--heads held well up--hands at rest--tails nowhere; in fact, a port and bearing that would defy the most scrutinising observer to say that they were less eligible company than that he had just quitted at the cafe.

I own I have not seen them during the moment of the Professor's passage. I am unable to state authentically whether all this be as I surmise, but I have a strong impression it must be. Indeed, reflecting on the habits and modes of the species, I should be rather disposed to believe them given to an exuberant show of gratitude than to anything like indifference, and expect to witness demonstrations of delight more natural possibly than graceful.

Now, I have not the most remote intention of impugning the Professor's honesty. I give him credit--full credit--for high purpose, and for high courage. "These poor brothers of ours," says he, "have tails, it is true, and they have not the hypocampus major; but let me ask you, Monsieur le Duc, or you, Monseigneur the Archbishop, will you dare to affirm on oath that you yourself are endowed with a hypocampus major or minor? Are you prepared to stand forward and declare that the convolutions of your brain are of the regulation standard--that the medullary part is not disproportioned to the cineritious--that your falx is not thicker or thinner than it ought--and that your optic thalami are not too prominent? And if you are not ready to do this, what avails all your assumption of superiority? In these--they are not many--lie the alleged differences between you and your caged cousins yonder." Thus speaks, or might speak, the Professor; and, I repeat, I respect his candour; but still I would venture to submit one small, perhaps ungenerous doubt, and ask, Would he, acting on the noble instincts that move him, vote these creatures an immediate and entire emancipation, or would he not rather wait a while--a few years, say--till the habit of sitting on chairs had worn off some of the tail, and a greater familiarity with society suggested not to store up their dinner in their jaws? Would he like to see them at once take their places in public life, become public functionaries, and ministers, and grand cordons?

Would he not rather, with that philosophy his country eminently teaches, say, "I will do the pity and the compassion. To me be the sympathetic part of a graceful sorrow. To posterity I bequeath the recognition of these poor captives. Let them be liberated, by all means; but let it be when I shall be no longer here to witness it. Let others face that glorious millennium of gorilla greatness."

I am afraid he would reason in this fashion; it is one thing to have an opinion, and to have what Frenchmen call the "courage of your opinion." He would say, "If Nature work surely, she works slowly; her changes are measured, regular, and progressive. With her there are no paroxysms; all is orderly--all is gradual It took centuries of centuries to advance these poor creatures to the point they occupy; their next stage on the journey is perhaps countless years away. I will not attempt to forestall what I cannot assist. I will let Time do its work. They are not ill-treated, besides; that large creature with the yellow eyebrows grinned at me very pleasantly this morning, and the she-ourang-outang was whipping her infant most naturally as I came by."

"What a cold-blooded philanthropy is this!" cries another. "You say these are our brothers and our kinsmen; you declare that anatomy only can detect some small and insignificant discrepancies between us, and that even in these there are some of whose functions we know nothing, and others, such as the prehensile power, where the ape has the best of it. What do you mean by keeping them there 'cribbed, cabined, and confined'? Is a slight frontal inclination to disqualify a person from being a prefect? Is an additional joint in the coccyx to prevent a man sitting on the woolsack, or an extra inch in the astragalus to interfere with his wearing spurs? If there be minute differences between us, intercourse will abolish them. It will be of inestimable service to yourselves to come into contact with these fresh, fine, generous natures, uncontaminated by the vices of an effete and worn-out civilisation. Great as are the benefits you extend to them, they will repay you tenfold in the advantages to yourselves. Away with your unworthy prejudices about a 'black pigment' and long heels! Take them to your hearts and your hearths. You will find them brave--ay, braver than your own race. Their teeth are whiter and their nails longer; there is not a relation in life in which you will dare to call yourself their better."

I will go no farther, not merely because I have no liking for my theme, but because I am pilfering. All these arguments--the very words themselves--I have stolen from an American writer, who, in Horace Greeley fashion, is addressing his countrymen on the subject of negro equality. He not alone professes to show the humanity of the project, but its policy--its even necessity. He declares to the whites, "You want these people; without them you will sink lower and lower into that effete degeneracy into which years of licentiousness have sunk you. These gorillas--black men, I mean--are virtuous; they are abstemious; they have a little smell, but no sensuality; they will make admirable wives for your warriors; and who knows but one may be the mother of a President as strikingly handsome as Ape Lincoln himself!" There is no doubt much to be said for our long-heeled friends, whether with or without a hypocampus major. I am not very certain that we compliment them in the best taste when the handsomest thing we can say of them is, that they are very like ourselves! It is our human mode, however, of expressing admiration, and resembles the exclamation of the Oberland peasant on seeing a pretty girl, "How handsome she'd be if she only had a _goitre!_"

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Charles Lever's essay: Of Our Brothers Beyond The Border