Herder’s “Negro Idylls”: The Right Hand (1797)

As a philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder is best known for his critique of the universalist conventions within prevailing Enlightenment thought, and Kant‘s in particular. His quest to understand and explain difference led him to focus instead on the diversity of peoples and cultures, most notably through his interest in the “Volk” (“people”) as a corporate entity with its own distinctive culture. Although his ideas were shaped by many contemporary eurocentric and racist prejudices, his project was profoundly cosmopolitan and insisted on the fundamental unity and equality of the entire human race. But in the nineteenth century, his ideas on the distinctiveness of different “peoples” were transformed into fixed laws of “race” that were used to explain and legitimate an exploitative social order, both within Europe and around the globe.

In this text, one of a series of critical poems, Herder uses the sacrifice of an enslaved African nobleman to highlight the inhumanity of New World slavery. Fetu bears his suffering bravely, comforting those who had similarly been stolen from their homes. When Fetu questions an unfair death sentence meted out by his master, the “white devil” responds by ordering Fetu to carry out the execution himself. In protest at being asked to do something unjust, Fetu cuts off his own right hand and dies on the spot. But the tragedy of the slave system is that someone else will always be willing to do what is asked in order to save themselves, only to delay the moment when they too fall under the executioner’s blade.

Herder highlights the impossible struggles that define slaves’ lives, but he seems reluctant to endorse an attack on the slaveholders. His protagonists choose to renounce such violence, preferring to die a martyr or to protect whites in danger of being murdered by rebellious slaves. It seems that for Herder salvation will have to come from appeals to the sentiments of white audiences rather than from the enslaved themselves.

Jeff Bowersox


Die rechte Hand

Ein edler Neger, ſeinem Lande frech-
Entraubet, blieb auch in der Sklaverei
Ein Koͤnigsſohn, that edel ſeinen Dienſt,
Und ward der Mitgefangnen Troſt und Rath.
Einſt als ſein Herr, der weiße Teufel,
Im Zorn der Sklaven Einem ſchnellen Tod
Ausſprach, trat Fetu bittend vor ihn hin,
Und zeigte ſeine Unſchuld: „Widerſprichſt
Du Mir? Du ſelbſt, Du ſollſt ſe
in Henker
„Sogleich! antwortet Fetu, nur noch
Noch einen Augenblick!“ Er flog hinweg,
Und kam zuruͤck, in ſeiner linken Hand
Die abgehau’ne Rechte haltend, die
Den Henkersdienſt vollfuͤhren ſollte. Tief
Gebuͤckt legt’ er ſie vor den Herren: „Fodre,
Gebieter, von mir was du willſt; nur nichts
Er ſtarb an ſeiner Wunde,
Und ſeine Hand ward auf ſein Grab gepflanzt.


„Wie manche Arme laͤgen! – – Nein doch,
Gar viele laͤgen nicht; die Willkuͤhr wird
Ohnmaͤchtig, wenn es ihr am Werkzeug fehlt.
Sprichſt du hingegen: „wie der Herr
Und „thu’ ichs nicht, ſo thuts ein Anderer;
„Lieb iſt ja jedem ſeine rechte Hand!“
So henken Sklaven, (das Gefuͤhl des Unrechts
In ihrem Herzen,) andre Sklaven frech
Und ſcheu und ſtolz, bis ſie ein Dritter henkt.

Source: Johann Gottfried von Herder, “Neger-Idyllen,” in Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, Bd. 10 (Riga, 1797), 18-20.

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Herder’s “Negro Idylls”: The Right Hand (1797) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.