Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

A Humanitarian

Times Literary Supplement, January 20, 1921

SEVENTY YEARS AMONG SAVAGES. By Henry S. Salt (Allen and Unwin.)

Mr. Salt, for nearly thirty years the directing spirit of the recently defunct Humanitarian League, has hit upon an excellent title for his reminiscences; direct and downright, and yet with a good humour in its alliteration; and if a man is determined to oppose modern civilization almost at every point, it is better for him and his cause that he should be able to laugh occasionally with his adversaries as well as against them. Whatever he is—and he is a through-paced faddist—he is not a bore; on the contrary, he has known what it is to suffer from that tribe when he sat in his office in Chancery-land and was mistaken, wilfully or accidentally, for something far other than he then was. He utters no unmanly lament over the decease of his League, and he neither is, nor ever was, under any illusions about the unpopularity of his principles. Where he might have been embittered he is merely resigned; he calls himself a faddist, and his aspirations a forlorn hope; his fellow-men are savages, but mostly kindly ones; and one gathers that, controversialist as he has been, he has made few or no enemies. Much that he says is probably more widely accepted than he admits, though the yoke of custom is still heavy.

Mr. Salt was brought up amid scenes of the most exclusive “savagery.” He went to Eton and King’s, where Latin verse and literæ inhumaniores, as he calls them, were pursued unquestionably; he was bracketed fifth classic with Mr. Gerald Balfour, and he returned to Eton as a master and remained there some ten years. But there disintegrating influences were at work from within and without. The Eton master had become acquainted with persons and doctrines, particularly vegetarianism, utterly foreign to the circle in which Dr. Hornby and Dr. Warre moved; he felt cut off from his neighbours “by interminable leagues of misunderstanding.”

The conviction had been forced on me that we Eton masters, however irreproachable our surroundings, were but cannibals in cap and gown—almost literally cannibals, as devouring the flesh and blood of the higher non-human animals so closely akin to us, and indirectly cannibals, as living by the sweat and toil of the classes who do the hard work of the world. . . . I was living in partibus infidelium. It became necessary to leave a place where there could be no sympathetic exchange of thought upon matters which were felt to be a vastly more importance than the accepted religion and routine.

The reader will quit these early chapters with regret, for the personal anecdotes are many and diverting; and with regret, too, that the full process of the change within Mr. Salt is not more fully explained. Perhaps he was never quite as savage at heart as he fellows. He at once settled in a cottage in Surrey, and learnt to do without servants, top-tails, and other tattoo-marks of gentility. Mr. Bernard Shaw used to visit him, and was exemplary in washing-up and bed-making. He became associated with many like-minded reformers of note; and literary work brought him into touch with Meredith, among others, and with Swinburne, a small picture of who he gives which bears out Mr. Beerbohm’s recent essay. He read, and speaks highly of, much contemporary poetry of a revolutionary order; and he attended diligently the doings of the Shelley Society, of which Dr. Furnivall was the founder and confounder—Dr. Furnivall, who became for health’s sake a vegetarian, but relapsed into cannibalism on being presented with a turkey; for, said he, why should this fine bird be wasted? In 1891 the Humanitarian League was founded so as to link together a number of disconnected efforts; it was to be a fighting body; and it took all fads, or at least all of Mr. Salt’s, under its wing. Several of its more special campaigners are described by Mr. Salt, who must have made a patient, courteous, and yet unrelenting strategist. With general good-humour and with no little cunning, assaults were made on many of our less creditable institutions and practises; and even when direct attack failed there was often a good-tempered laugh to be got, as when a tiger’s den was observed to bear the inscription “Beware of pickpockets,” and the eagle’s cage “To the refreshment rooms,” of when an Eton boy was converted to humanitarian principles by being coughed upon, with disastrous results to his attire, by a resentful elk.

We fancy that Mr. Salt owes, after all, more than he might be disposed to admit to his early training; for, besides giving him a lifelong love of Lucretius, it has saved him from approaching reform from the point of view of the self-educated, in whom usually there is no sense of humour. It takes education to make people see two sides of a case; if Mr. Salt’s opponents could see their own doings as Mr. Salt sometimes sees his won, much that is stupid and cruel would disappear. “It is strange,” he writes of the desecration of natural scenery,

that the incongruity—the lack of humour—in these outrages on the sanctitude of a great mountain does not make itself felt. What could be more ridiculous, apart from the gross vandalism of the act, than to put a railway station on Snowdon? A friend who knows the Welsh mountains intimately told me that that on his first visit to the peak, after the building of the Summit Hotel, he remarked to a companion: “We shall be expected to have a green chartreuse after lunch here.” A waiter, overhearing him, said: “We ain’t got no green chartreuse, sir; but we have cherry brandy and curacao, if you like.”

The same chapter, headed “The Hoofmarks of the Vandal,” had the following:—

The flight of the buzzard is one of the greatest glories of the hills of Cumberland and Carnarvonshire, and it is deeply to be regretted that so beautiful and harmless a bird should be wantonly destroyed. The worse—or should we say the best?—that can be said of the buzzard is that in very rare instances he has been known to “stoop” at persons who approach his eyrie. . . . A tourist absurdly complained that he had been attacked on a mountain near Windermere by a “huge bird”—evidently a buzzard—and urged that “it would be to the advantage of the public if some good shot were to free the mountain of this foul-fiend usurper.” The buzzard defending its nest is a “foul-fiend usurper”! Such is the amount of sympathy which the average tourist has with the wild mountain bird! And as for ornithological knowledge, this may be judged from the fact that a similar incident on the same mountain was actually described in the papers under the head “Bustard attacks a clergyman.”

But it must not be imagined that Mr. Salt is too easy-going; his chapter on the re-emergence of the Caveman is indignant enough; it has been called forth by the war, and nearly approaches pessimism. Man, we are told, “has not learnt the A B C of civilization,” and no League of Nations, or of individuals, can avail, without a change of heart. Mr. Salt has little comfort to offer either to the individual or to society: Christianity he regards as a failure; its practice ineffectual, and its hopes a delusion. He speaks solemnly and without cant of death, as Lucretius spoke of it; and as a guidance to the living he concludes with one of the nobler sentiments of Schopenhauer. The upshot of his philosophy is that humanitarians must expect little, but claim much. His book ought to be read for its serious purpose, as well as for its lighter parts.