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The monkey question: an appeal to common sense

Hilaire Belloc, On something (collection of essays, 1910)

A privileged body slips so easily into regarding its privileges as common rights that I fear the plea which the SIMIAN LEAGUE repeats in this pamphlet will still sound strange in the ears of many, though the work of the League has been increasingly successful and has reached yearly a wider circle of the educated public since its foundation by Lady Wayne in 1902. We desire to place before our fellow-citizens the claims of Monkeys, and we hope once more that nothing we say may seem extreme or violent, for we know full well what poor weapons violence and passion are in the debate of a practical political matter.

Perhaps it is best to begin by pointing out how rarely even the best of us pause in our fevered race for wealth to consider the disabilities of any of our fellow-creatures: when that truth is grasped it will be easier to plead the special cause of the Simian.

Were English men and women to realize the wrongs of the Race, or at any rate the illogical and therefore unjust position in which we have placed them; were the just and thoughtful men, the refined and golden-hearted ladies who are ready in this country to support every good cause when it is properly presented; were they to realize the disabilities of the Monkey, I do not say as vividly they realize the tragedies and misfortunes of London life, they could not, I think, avoid an ill-ease, a pricking of conscience, which would lead at last to some hearty and English effort for the relief of the cousin and forerunner of man.

The attitude adopted towards Monkeys by the mass of those who, after all, live in the same world, and have much the same appetites and necessities and sufferings as they, is an attitude I am persuaded, not of heartlessness, but of ignorance. To disturb that ignorance, and in some to awake a consciousness which, perhaps, they fear, is not a grateful task, but it is our duty, and we will pursue it.

Let the reader consider for one moment the aspect not only of formal law but of the whole community, and of what is called “public opinion” towards this section of sentient beings.

As things now are —aye! and have been for centuries in this green England of ours— a Monkey may not marry; he may not own land; he may not fill any salaried post under the Crown. The Papists themselves are debarred from no honour (outside Ireland) save the Lord Chancellorship. Monkeys, who are responsible for no persecutions in the past, whose religion presents no insult or outrage to our common reason, and who differ little from ourselves in their general practice of life and thought, are debarred from all!

A Monkey may not be a Member of Parliament, a Civil Servant, an officer in either Service, no, not even in the Territorial Army. It is doubtful whether he may hold a commission for the peace. True, there is no statute upon the subject, and the rural magistracy is perhaps the freest and most open of all our offices, and the least restricted by artificial barriers of examination or test; nevertheless, it is the considered opinion of the best legal authorities that no Monkey could sit upon the Bench, and in any case the discussion is purely academic, for it is difficult to believe that any Lord-Lieutenant, under the ridiculous anachronism of our present Constitution, would nominate a Monkey to such a position —unless (which is by law impossible) he should be heir to an owner of an estate in land.

Nor is this all. The mention of unpaid posts recalls the damning truth that all honorary positions in the Diplomatic Service, including even the purely formal stage in the Foreign Office, are closed to the Monkey; the very Court sinecures, which admittedly require no talents, are denied to our Simian fellow-creatures, if not by law at least by custom and in practice.

There have been employed by the League in the British Museum the services of two ladies who feel most keenly upon this subject. They are (to the honour of their sex) as amply qualified as any person in this kingdom for the task which they have undertaken, and they report to the Executive Commission after two months of minute research that (with one doubtful exception occurring during the reign of Her late Majesty) no Monkey has held any position whatever at Court.

All judicial positions are equally inaccessible to them; for though, perhaps, in theory a Monkey could be promoted to the Bench if he had served his party sufficiently long and faithfully in the House of Commons (to which body he is admissible —at least I can find no rule or custom, let alone a statute, against it), yet he is cut off from such an ambition at the very outset by his inadmissibility to a legal career. The Inns of Court are monopolist, and, like all monopolists, hopelessly conservative. They have admitted first one class and then another —though reluctantly— to their privileges, but it will be twenty or thirty years at least before they will give way in the matter of Monkeys. To be a physician, a solicitor, an engineer, or a Commissioner for Oaths is denied them as effectually as though they did not exist. Indeed, no occupation is left them save that of manual labour, and on this I would say a word. It is fashionable to jeer at the Monkey's disinclination to sustained physical effort and to concentrated toil; but it is remarkable that those who affect such a contempt for the Monkey's powers are the first to deny him access to the liberal professions in which they know (though they dare not confess it) he would be a serious rival to the European. As it is, in the few places open to Monkeys —the somewhat parasitical domestic occupation of “companions” and the more manly, but still humiliating, task of acting as assistants to organ-grinders, the Monkey has won universal if grudging praise.

Latterly, since progress cannot be indefinitely delayed, the Monkey has indeed advanced by one poor step towards the civic equality which is his right, and has appeared as an actor upon the boards of our music-halls. It should surely be a sufficient rebuke for those who continue to sneer at the Simian League and such devoted pioneers as Miss Greeley and Lady Wayne that the Monkey has been honourably admitted and has done first-rate work in a profession which His late Gracious Majesty and His late Majesty's late revered mother, Queen Victoria, have seen fit to honour by the bestowal of knighthoods, and in one case (where the recipient was childless) of a baronetcy.

The disabilities I have enumerated are by no means exhaustive. A Monkey may not sign or deliver a deed; he may not serve on a jury; he may be ill-treated, forsooth, and even killed by some cruel master, and the law will refuse to protect him or to punish his oppressor. He may be subjected to all the by-laws of a tyrannical or fanatical administration, but in preventing such abuses he has no voice. He may not enter our older Universities, at least as the member of a college; that is, he can only take a degree at Oxford or Cambridge under the implied and wholly unmerited stigma applying to the non-collegiate student. And these iniquities apply not only to the great anthropoids whose strength and grossness we might legitimately fear, but to the most delicately organized types —to the Barbary Ape, the Lemur, and the Ring-tailed Baboon. Finally —and this is the worst feature in the whole matter— a Monkey, by a legal fiction at least as old as the fourteenth century, is not a person in the eye of the law.

We call England a free country, yet at the present day and as you read these lines, any Monkey found at large may be summarily arrested. He has no remedy; no action for assault will lie. He is not even allowed to call witnesses in his own defence, or to establish an alibi.

It may be pleaded that these disabilities attach also to the Irish, but we must remember that the Irish are allowed a certain though modified freedom of the Press, and have extended to them the incalculable advantage of sending representatives to Westminster. The Monkey has no such remedies. He may be incarcerated, nay chained, yet he cannot sue out a writ for habeas corpus any more than can a British subject in time of war, and worst of all, through the connivance or impotence of the police, cases have been brought forward and approved in which Monkeys have been openly bought and sold!

We boast our sense of delicacy, and perhaps rightly, in view of our superiority over other nations in this particular; yet we permit the Monkey to exhibit revolting nakedness, and we hardly heed the omission! It is true that some Monkeys are covered from time to time with little blue coats. A cap is occasionally disdainfully permitted them, and not infrequently they are permitted a pair of leather breeches, through a hole in which the tail is permitted to protrude; but no reasonable man will deny that these garments are regarded in the light of mere ornaments, and rarely fulfil those functions which every decent Englishman requires of clothing.

And now we come to the most important section of our appeal. What can be done?

We are a kindly people and we are a just people, but we are also a very conservative people. The fate of all pioneers besets those who attempt to move in this matter. They are jeered at, or, what is worse, neglected. One of the most prominent of the League's workers has been certified a lunatic by an authority whose bitter prejudice is well known, and against whom we have as yet had no grant of a mandamus, and we have all noticed the quiet contempt, the sort of organized boycott or conspiracy of silence with which a company at dinner will receive the subject when it is brought forward.

There are also to be met the violent prejudices with which the mass of the population is still filled in this regard. These prejudices are, of course, more common among the uneducated poor than in the upper classes, who in various relations come more often in contact with Monkeys, and who also have a wider and more tolerant, because a better cultivated, spirit. But the prejudice is discernible in every class of society, even in the very highest. We have also arrayed against us in our crusade for right and justice the dying but still formidable power of clericalism. Society is but half emancipated from its medieval trammels, and the priest, that Eternal Enemy of Liberty, can still put in his evil word against the rights of the Simian.

Let us not despair! We can hope for nothing, it is true, until we have effected a profound change in public opinion, and that change cannot be effected by laws. It can only be brought about by a slow and almost imperceptible effort, unsleeping, tireless, and convinced: something of the same sort as has destroyed the power of militarism upon the Continent of Europe; something of the same sort as has scotched landlordism at home; something of the same sort as has freed the unhappy natives of the Congo from the misrule of depraved foreigners; something of the same sort as has produced the great wave in favour of temperance through the length and breadth of this land.

We must not attempt extremes or demand full justice to the exclusion of excellent half-measures. No one condemns more strongly than do we the militant pro-Simians who have twice assaulted and once blinded for life a keeper in the Zoological Gardens. We do not even approve of those ardent but in our opinion misguided spirits of the Simian Freedom Society who publish side by side the photographs of Pongo the learned Ape from the Gaboons and that of a certain Cabinet Minister, accompanied by the legend “Which is Which?” It is not by actions of this kind that we shall win the good fight; but rather by a perseverance in reason combined with courtesy shall we attain our end, until at long last our Brother shall be free! As for the excellent but somewhat provincial reactionaries who still object to us that the Monkey differs fundamentally from the human race; that he is not possessed of human speech, and so forth, we can afford to smile at their waning authority. Modern science has sufficiently dealt with them; and if any one bring out against the Monkey the obscurantist insult that His Hide is Covered with Hair, we can at once point to innumerable human beings, fully recognized and endowed with civic rights, who, were they carefully examined, would prove in no better case. As to speech, the Monkey communicates in his own way as well or better than do we, and for that matter, if speech is to be the criterion, are we to deny civic rights to the Dumb?

We have it upon the authority of all our greatest scientific men, that there is no substantial difference between the Ape and Man. One of the greatest has said that between himself and his poorer fellow-citizens there was a wider difference than that which separated them from the Monkey. Hackel has testified that while there is a boundary, there is no gulf between the corps of professors to which he belongs and the Chimpanzee. The Gorilla is universally accepted, and if we have won the battle for the Gorilla, the rest will follow.

Tolstoy is with us, Webb is with us, Gorky is with us, Zola and Ferrer were with us and fight for us from their graves. The whole current of modern thought is with us. WE CANNOT FAIL!

Questions submitted at the last Election by the Simian League

1. Are you in favour of removing the present disabilities of Monkeys?

2. Are you in favour of a short Statute which should put adult Monkeys upon the same footing as other subjects of His Majesty as from the 1st of January, 1912? And would you, if necessary, vote against your party in favour of such a measure?

3. Are you in favour of the inclusion of Monkeys under the Wild Birds Act?

(A plain reply “Yes” or “No” was to be written by the candidate under each of these questions and forwarded to the Secretary, Mr. Consul, 73 Purbeck Street, W. before the 14th January, 1910. No replies received after that date were admitted. The Simian League, which has agents in every constituency, acted according to the replies received, and treated the lack of reply as a negative. Of 1375 circulars sent, 309 remained unanswered, 264 were answered in the negative, 201 gave a qualified affirmative, all the rest (no less than 799) a clear and, in some cases, an enthusiastic adherence to our principles. It is a sufficient proof of the power of the League and the growth of the cause of justice that in these 799 no less than 515 are members of the present House of Commons.)


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