Henry Salt (1851-1939)

Henry Salt (1851-1939)

On April 19th the world lost its greatest humanitarian, and I shall not see again him I loved and admired best of all men. I would extend the former claim to that of being one of the half-dozen foremost humanitarians of all times, and best exemplify the latter statement by illustrating that despite his having been fifty-odd years my senior I felt more at one with him than with any of my own generation.

Henry Stephens Salt was born in India (Nynee Tal) on September 21st, 1851, the son of Colonel T. S. Salt. He was educated at Blackheath, Eton (where he was a King’s Scholar) and Cambridge (where he won the Browne Medal for Greek epigram). On leaving Cambridge, he returned to Eton as Master .It was while he was a master at Eton that he began to question and then challenge the “orthodox” and “conventional” opinions in which he had bought up. This needed both moral and social courage, as Eton, though it has produced such revolutionaries as Swinburne and Shelley, and in later years a “crop of splendid rebels,” has never been progressive, and at that time was under the most reactionary of its phases. Already as Eton master he criticized and held to ridicule the Eton College Hunt (“beagles”), and one after another embraced vegetarianism, socialist theory and freethinking ideas. In regard to the latter, Salt was a Freethinker in the truest sense of the word—though he never pretended to believe in orthodox religion, he would never confuse mere disbelief with freedom of thought and strongly mistrusted the somewhat arid rationalism, which does so—and particularly when it made a new “fetish” of “Science.”

“... Yes, ‘Freethinker’ is a far better name than ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic.’ Why should we label ourselves as dissenters from other people’s creeds? It is doing them too much honour!”

he wrote characteristically in a letter, which I cherish, on New Year Eve, 1930.

In 1886, at the age of thirty-four, he gave up his Eton mastership, unable any longer to approve of the “public-school system,” whose rulers he described as “cannibals in cap and gown.” During his Eton days he had married Miss Joynes, the sister of a colleague, who also held the dangerous “advanced” opinions. On his retirement they settled in Surrey, living very simply, and he proceeded to write. During this time he made the acquaintance of all the great literary figures of the day—Ruskin, Swinburne, Meredith, W. H. Hudson and Thomas Hardy—and began writing the series of biographies, which were to include those of Shelley, De Quincey, Jefferies and Thoreau. It is to be noticed that all these were humanitarians and nature-lovers, and seven out of these nine have been prominent by their intense sympathy with the animal world, in their writings and often (as in the case of Hudson) in their practical lives. Salt’s other friends included Edward Carpenter, Sir George Greenwood; Lord Olivier and Bernard Shaw—who scarcely need introduction as champions of animals’ rights.

In 1891 Henry Salt founded the Humanitarian League to combat “all the inhumanities”—those especially concerning humanity like the death penalty, flogging, and the exploitation of backward races; and those inflicted on the “other animals” likes vivisection, vaccination, blood-sports, plumage, the circus performances and the cruelties of the slaughterhouse. He became its honorary secretary, inflexible yet genial, and remained so till its dissolution in 1920. His inflexibility is shown by his refusal to have any truck with half-measures; just as he threw up his post at Eton rather than be a silent accomplice to a system of which he disapproved, so he resigned with Ramsay Macdonald from the Fabian Society, because they would not give an opinion “one way or another” on the Boer War, which he unequivocally condemned. In the same way he had no patience with the so-called “humanitarian,” who stopped at Man in his benevolent aspirations.

His genial side is well illustrated by the title of his book Seventy Years among Savages, the “savages” being contemporary “civilized” society, and by his comment that they were, after all, lovable savages, and again by a passage from a pamphlet he wrote on blood-sports in which he portrays those who “would rather follow the hounds than follow an argument. . . .” He had not only this great fund of humour, but the greatest facility in “getting on” with those with whose views he fundamentally disagreed. Salt’s other works include translations of Lucretius and Virgil, exemplifying his profound classical scholarship, and Lucretius, one of the first to ever plead our kinship with the beast, was an author particularly dear to him: The Call of the Wildflower and Our Vanishing Wildflowers, which show that plants are not forgotten in his love for all sentient beings; Animals’ Rights, which no animal-lover should be without; The Logic of Vegetarianism, combining shafts of satire, lucid argument and intense humane feeling, and finally The Creed of Kinship, which he wrote five years before he passed away and which epitomizes his life work and teaching.

In his book Animals’ Rights specific chapters are devoted to the slaughterhouse, “sport,” “murderous millinery” and “experimental torture.” In this last he wrote:

“I have already said that it is idle to speculate which is the worst form of cruelty to animals. . . . Vivisection, if there be any truth at all in the principle for which I am contending, is not the root, but the flower and consummation of barbarity and injustice—the ne plus ultra of iniquity in man’s dealings with the lower races. The root of the evil lies . . . in that detestable assumption . . .  that there is a gulf, an impassable barrier, between man and the animals, and that the moral instincts of compassion, justice, and love, are to be as sedulously repressed and thwarted in the one direction as they are to be fostered and extended in the other.”

On the question of vivisection Salt, like the true freethinker he was, would not bow down to the authority of the “scientist” (though of course the TRUE scientist would be the first to condemn anything so thoroughly “un-scientific” as vivisection). He saw that Pseudo-Science could be an inquisitorial as Pseudo-Religion, and true religion meant to him the Creed of Kinship—man and man, nation and nation, human and sub-human. In the following fine words, a passage from the Creed of Kinship he states the case against all these arbitrary “dogmatisms”:—

“ . . . What the churches have believed in the past, or what the scientists may discover in the future, is of infinitely less moment than what the human heart shall ultimately approve as beautiful and gracious.”

In this sentence lies the message of the noble and beautiful poetry of Shelley, who too in his day felt the kinship of all men with each other and with beast and bird and plant, and who was a source of constant inspiration to the author of the Creed of Kinship, which concludes with a chapter on Shelley entitled “One who Understood.”

And whatever beside the human heart “shall ultimately approve,” it will have found the life of Henry Salt—beautiful and gracious.

Basil M. Harvey-James

The Animals' Champion, 1939