Henry Salt and 100 Years of Animal Rights

Henry Salt and 100 Years of Animal Rights

Henry Salt was bam in India in 1851, the son of an Indian Army officer. He was only one year old when his mother left Colonel Salt and brought him to England, where he lived for remainder of his life. Salt excelled as a student at Eton and Cambridge. After he completed his education, Eton invited him to return there as a master. It was while he was at Eton that Salt read some of the works of the American naturalist-philosopher Henry David Thoreau. The writings of Thoreau and those of British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley inspired Salt to make drastic changes in his life.

Salt’s introduction to humanitarianism and social economic reform convinced him that he should end his career as a schoolmaster. He was determined to live a more simple existence while pursing his philosophical ideals. In 1884 Salt and his wife Kate left Eton and moved into a modest country cottage in the village of Surrey. Salt gave up the eating of flesh food[1] and began a lifelong hobby of gardening from his own vegetables. During this time he read a great deal and met other men with similar interests.

In 1886 Salt wrote a magazine article on Henry David Thoreau and four years later completed a full-length biography of Thoreau. In spite of limited access to Thoreau’s essays and journals and having never visited America, Salt wrote what is still considered the best early biography of the author of Walden. Salt later wrote biographies of Shelley, James Thomson, Richard Jefferies, and Lord Tennyson, and provided literary criticisms of several other British authors. He also edited English editions of two of Herman Melville’s works and translated poems of the Latin poet Lucretius.

Salt and a group of his friends founded the Humanitarian League in 1891. He served as the organization’s director until 1920, leading its campaigns against flesh-eating, blood sports, and the captivity of wild animals. As a reformer, his opponents knew him to be good-tempered and understanding yet persistent and resourceful. He further advanced the humanitarian cause by editing two journals: Humanity, renamed The Humanitarian (1895-1919) and The Humane Review (1890-1910). The journals featured many of his own articles.

Animals’ Rights was published in 1892. In it, Salt laid the philosophical foundation of the case for animal rights and anticipated many of the opposing arguments that are still promoted today. He also presented many examples from contemporary British life of violations of the rights of “our fellow creatures.”

The book included essays on: “The Principles of Animal Rights,” “The Case of Domestic Animals,” “The Case of Wild Animals,” “The Slaughter of Animals for Food,” “Sport, or Amateur Butchery,” “Murderous Millinery,” “Experimental Torture,” and “Lines of Reform.”

Salt did not limit his work as a humanitarian to animals. Because he believed “it is iniquitous to inflict unnecessary suffering on any sentient being,” he fought for reforms in prisons, hospitals, schools, and the military. His view of humanitarianism also extended to man’s treatment of the earth. He called for the protection of his native land, suggesting that England set aside national parks as the United States had recently done.

In spite of publishing over 40 books and working tirelessly for humanitarian reforms, Salt was never well-known. Salt counted among his friends many powerful political and literary figures, however, and it was these men and women that his influence was most felt. During his lifetime he enjoyed the friendship and admiration of such people as Clarence Darrow, Havelock Ellis, John Galsworthy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Thomas Hardy, Ramsay MacDonald, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and George Bernard Shaw. It was Shaw who wrote the preface to the first biography on Henry Salt. In it, he acknowledged the influence of Salt on his own work.

“My pastime has been writing sermons in plays, sermons preaching what Salt practised,” he wrote. “Salt was original and in his way unique.”

In one of his autobiographical works, Company I Have Kept, Salt described how through one of his books on vegetarianism he became acquainted with Mahatma Gandhi. As followers of the Hindu faith, Gandhi’s family was vegetarian. Before leaving India to study in England, Gandhi had promised his mother that he would not let others tempt him into abandoning his religious restriction on food. In London, he did find it difficult to maintain his no-meat diet. Fortunately, he happened upon a vegetarian restaurant that was selling Salt’s Plea for Vegetarianism. Gandhi bought the book and later wrote about the effect reading it had upon him: “I read Salt’s book from cover to cover, and was very much impressed by it. From the date of reading I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice. I blessed the day on which I had taken the vow before my mother.... The choice was now made in favour of vegetarianism, the spread of which hence-forward became my mission.”

Gandhi also read Salt’s biography of Thoreau and credited Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience with influencing his struggle of passive resistance.

Henry Salt died in Brighton, England on April 19, 1939. In the burial address that he wrote, he described himself as “a rationalist socialist pacifist and humanitarian.” Those who disagreed with his views characterized him as a zealot or faddist, and even as a crank. Like the animal liberators of today, he was disliked and distrusted by people who were threatened by the strength of his convictions. In a letter he wrote to Gandhi, Salt accepted this fate. “Someone must at times speak out, or the truth is never heard,” he wrote. “But there is no doubt that truth telling is a most unpopular business.”

Much of the mistreatment of animals that concerned Salt in Animals’ Rights continues today. Although reforms have been accomplished in some instances, abuses in other areas have greatly increased. The millinery trade no longer slaughters birds for ladies hats, but the fur trade continues as a multi-billion dollar business. Slaughterhouse reforms have been enacted while factory-style farms allow greater numbers of animals to be raised in inhumane conditions. Mechanized transportation has released horses from their role as “beasts of burden,” but countless animals are tortured to tests products ranging from cosmetics to automobiles. That we find Animals’ Rights still relevant today is testimony both to Salt’s keen perception and to the slow rate of moral progress.

1 Salt gave up eating flesh-foods long before 1884. In 1882, for example, he wrote promoting the benefits of vegetarianism in the Food Reform Mazagine.

Dena Jones Jolma

The Animals' Agenda, Vol. 12 No. 8, November-December 1992