By Darla Sue Dollman,
Blessed Little Creatures
Henry Stephens Salt, the man who introduced Mahatma Gandhi to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, was also the first writer to argue for animal rights.
Henry Stephens Salt was a prolific English writer, biographer, and literary critic, the author of nearly 40 books. He was also an avid campaigner for social reform. He is believed to be the first published writer to argue for the rights of animals. In his essays and books, he clearly distinguished between the need for better treatment of animals and his belief that animals have rights.
The Early Years and Influences of Henry Stephens Salt
Henry S. Salt was born Henry Shakespeare Stephens Salt on September 20, 1851 in Nynee Tal, India, to Colonel Thomas Henry Salt and Ellen Matilda (Allnatts) Salt. Shortly after his birth, his mother returned to England and he was raised in his grandparents' home in Shrewsbury. He began his formal education at Eton, graduated from Cambridge University in 1875, then returned to Eton to teach.
Salt was known as a quiet, yet sociable man who enjoyed spending time with his friends. He spent much of his free time with his brother-in-law, J.L. Joynes, who also taught at Eton. Joynes introduced Salt to many of his own influential friends, including American writer and social reformer Henry George; Irish journalist, playwright, and social reformer George Bernard Shaw; and British Socialist poet and gay activist Edward Carpenter.
While at Eton, Salt also studied the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who influenced the French Revolution; and the writings of the American author, poet and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau.
Through his participation in this social circle and his exposure to the writings of others, Salt gradually began to focus his personal philosophy connecting humanism with animal rights. He developed deep convictions on vegetarianism and revulsion toward a lifestyle he referred to as "cannibalism," where the educated and powerful devoured the flesh of animals and lived off the sweat of the working classes.
In 1879, Henry S. Salt married Catherine (Kate) Joynes. In 1884, he abandoned his teaching position, refused any continued service from his servants and moved with his wife into a laborer's cottage in Surrey with the goal of dedicating his life to writing and reform activities.
The Humanitarian League and Killing for Sport
In 1891, Henry Stephens Salt joined with a group of like-minded friends to form the Humanitarian League. Salt was the League's General Secretary. He was also the Editor of the League's two journals--Humanity, later renamed The Humanitarian, which was published from 1895 to 1919; and Humane Review, which was published from 1900 to 1910.
The basic belief of the Humanitarian League was opposition to all "avoidable suffering of any sentient being," and in keeping with this belief, Salt established departments within the organization to deal with aspects of society deemed unacceptable, such as cruel sports; reformation of criminal law and prisons; humane dietary practices (vegetarianism); the proper education of children; and war opposition.
According to the Henry S. Salt Archive, The Humanitarian League had some admirable achievements with their goals, including the Prison Act of 1898, brought about by the League's "agitation" and through the guidance of criminologist Dr. W. Douglas Morrison; and the Court of Criminal Appeal and revision of imprisonment for Debt Law with the guidance of W.S. Monck.
The League also attempted to defend the rights of animals against cruel sport activities, which they referred to as "blood-sports." According to the Henry S. Salt Archive, the Humanitarian League wrote numerous letters to Queen Victoria regarding the cruelty of stag and rabbit hunting, and the sport of shooting birds released from traps.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the League reveled the contents of her letters to the public, including her "strong opposition to stag hunting for many years past." Nevertheless, hunting deer, rabbits and foxes with dogs continued until The Hunting Act 2004.
The Humanitarian League was disbanded in September of 1919. The controversy over hunting with dogs in England continues to this day.
The Creed of Kinship
The publication of the Creed of Kinship in 1935 was, of course, greeted with mixed reviews. Salt was not trying to win friends with his treatise on animal rights and humanitarianism, but he was attempting to persuade his reading audience to view their world from a different perspective.
Salt's primary argument in the Creed of Kinship is that humans are not civilized, though they pretend to be so, and they argue that their civilized manners give them rights to treat animals and other humans in ways that Salt considered to be inhumane. According to Salt, blood sports, such as fox and stag hunting, and the consumption of animal flesh were acts of cannibalism, and that living on the labors of others is also cannibalistic in a metaphorical way.
Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress
It is interesting to note that although Salt is attributed with the honor of being the first writer to argue for animal rights, Salt believed Jeremy Bentham was the first animal rights activist writer due to Bentham's arguments against everything from Roman Gladiators to cockfighting.
Salt quotes from Bentham's Principles of Penal Law, published in 1843, where Bentham states, "We have begun by attending to the condition of slaves; we shall finish by softening that of all the animals which assist our labours or supply our wants."
Salt, however, takes his argument one step further than Bentham, who campaigned for the protection and better treatment of animals. Salt argues that animals and humans have equal rights to freedom.
"To live one's own life—to realize one's true self—is the highest moral purpose of man and animal alike; and that animals possess their due measure of this sense of individuality is scarcely open to doubt," Salt explains in Animals Rights.
It is apparent that Salt had expressed his views on animal rights prior to the book's publication, and it is likely that his opinions were met with derision and scorn. In the book's Prefatory Note, Salt states, " It is a conflict of opinion, wherein in time alone can adjudicate: but already there are not a few signs that the laugh will rest ultimately with the humanitarians."
Salt and Mohandas Gandhi
Although Salt's contemporaries may have considered his views extreme, humanitarians were fascinated by Salt's support for the rights of animals. Salt's A Plea for Vegetarianism was published in 1886. According to the Henry S. Salt Archives, Mohandas Gandhi read Salt's book when he was a student in London, sometime between 1888 and 1891 and was profoundly influenced by the book.
On November 20, 1931, Gandhi made an appearance at the meeting of the Vegetarian Society. When addressing the members of this organization, Gandhi said, "It was Mr. Salt's book, A Plea for Vegetarianism, which showed me why, apart from my adherence to a vow administered to me by my mother, it was right to be a vegetarian. He showed me why it was a moral duty incumbent on vegetarians not to live upon fellow-animals."
In an 1890 letter to Gandhi, Salt summarized his feelings on the connection between vegetarianism and humanitarianism. "I cannot see how there can be any real and full recognition of Kinship as long as men continue either to cheat or to eat their fellow beings," he said.
The Philosophy of Henry S. Salt
One of the more interesting aspects of the writings of Henry S. Salt is the skillful way he formulated arguments to include every undesirable aspect of living in England in his times and connect the solution to vegetarianism. In his essay "Vegetarianism and Social Reform," Salt details the plight of the poor, overpopulation, and issues with immigration, among others, then deftly guides the reader to conclude that the only solution to each of these problems is a vegetarian diet.
"Though Vegetarianism may not be the only reform that is needed, it is none the less true that no other reform, without it, can be really and permanently successful," Salt explains. "A nation that does not appreciate the value of food-thrift can never be really prosperous. The unjust influence of the wealthy classes may be curtailed by legislation, but the life of the poor will never be really happy unless they have learned to practise frugality and simplicity of diet."
Salt died on April 19, 1939, shortly after completing the last of his forty books. In spite of his progressive and enlightened views, he died in near obscurity.
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