Some notes in response to Toby Harper’s article ‘Fish Pain and Human Sport in Victorian Britain’[1]



Isn’t it funny: some themes seem to be just in the air. All of a sudden Cholmondeley-Pennell gains prominence like never before. Toby Harper resurrects and discusses Cholmondeley-Pennell just as I do in my Fish-Feel-Pain book.


What’s it all about? In 1870 Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell published Can Fish Feel Pain? In it he argues that fish do not feel pain. A reprint of this key document is in Fish Feel Pain! Scrutiny of a dogma (published 2023).


Leitmotif: Racism, denialism and imperialism


Toby Harper is a historian and by all appearances believes in the fish-feel-pain dogma. In his article he explores the fish-feel-pain issue in Victorian Britain, and he links it to racism. He claims that Cholmondeley-Pennell ‘racialized pain’ and saw native people in a state of ‘insensitivity’ categorically similar to fish.


‘Race’ is the most stupid and malign concept ever invented. Invoking it is to confirm that there are human races. The race family of words (racist, racism, racial) carries willy-nilly the message that there are in fact human ‘races’. Even if you say something like ‘racial discrimination must disappear’ or ‘racism towards animals is wrong’, you’re perpetuating the idea of ‘race’. The plain fact is that there are no human races – there are only human beings.


Put a motley bunch of 5-year-olds together in a playground: it doesn’t for a second enter their minds that there are races, classes, languages, colour or anything else that matters. We are all the same: human. If 5-year-olds understand that, what does that tell us about adults?


Harper uses ‘race’ in two ways: on the one hand he explains the attitudes of Victorian anglers, which is perfectly OK because many people then believed in human ‘races’. On the other hand he seems to use ‘race’ (racism etc.) in a censorious if not moralising way (his reference to Peter Singer points that way).


Why mention this? What was true about fish pain qua fish pain then is true now (e.g. fish feel pain or fish do not feel pain) and what in Victorian times was true about anglers is true today. If angling was cruel (‘racist’) then, it is now, and the same goes for denialism: ‘The denial of fish pain promoted unrestrained sport without guilt for Anglo-American anglers’ (catch and release).


‘Pain, Civilization, and Empire’


Harper claims that ‘denying pain’ of the ‘other’, be they human or nonhuman, was and is instrumental in creating paternalistic claims to supremacy. Fish pain becomes one kind of pain among many other ‘pains’ (including human pain) that are used to create and secure ‘imperial hierarchies’.


Harper sees Cholmondeley-Pennell and others’ reasoning along the following lines:

  • ‘Elite British anglers’ feel pain.
  • Native people do not feel pain.
  • Fish do not feel pain because native people do not feel pain.
  • Fish and native people are, if not the same, almost the same.

The consequence: the guys on the top of the pain ladder are the ones who govern fishery management. I don’t think any of the actors were in the know about this, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.


To my mind Harper’s take on Cholmondeley-Pennell overindulges in poetic licence. Here are but three examples:

  • Cholmondeley-Pennell supposedly says that sympathy with animals under duress is ‘misguided’. Cholmondeley-Pennell says no such thing at all. He merely states that restrained animals react but that escape reaction is not related to pain qua pain.

  •  Harper claims in a general way that Cholmondeley-Pennell says that ‘non-European humans were insensitive to pain’. Cholmondeley-Pennell says no such thing at all. True: Cholmondeley-Pennell mentions examples of seemingly pain-insensitive humans, but his argument is based on the ‘wide gradations’ of the capacity to suffer.

  • According to Harper, Cholmondeley-Pennell holds that the ‘insensitivity’ of native people made it ‘impossible for them to be anglers’. At least in the source quoted by Harper, Cholmondeley-Pennell says no such thing at all.

Liberal interpretation is one thing, theory-laden explanatory concepts another. I already mentioned racism, denialism and imperialism. Add to that ‘paternalism’ and the ‘working-class’ and you have quite a handful to deal with in Harper’s bizarre.


By presenting the Victorian fish-feel-pain debate as he does, Harper picks up the dynamism of the age but smothers a potentially fruitful line of enquiry with the blanket concepts of racism, denialism and imperialism. Worse than that: his take on Cholmondeley-Pennell is as perfect a misrepresentation as you’ll ever get. Just one more example adding to those above:




The voracity of the pike was further evidence for the insensibility of fish because they fought so aggressively and were willing to strike at further bait even when they had broken off a prior hook, “showing no symptoms of distress, but feeding with undiminished appetite” (9–10). Citing another similar example of fish fighting on while being gruesomely mauled, Cholmondeley-Pennell asked what “would have been the feelings of a human being similarly circumstanced?” (10).


According to Cholmondeley-Pennell, the answer to this question depended on the race of the human involved. [italics added]




What would be the effect upon the human subject, of, say, a couple of meat hooks being firmly imbedded in his jaws? Certainly the last thing he would feel any inclination to do, under such circumstances, would be to eat. [italics added]


The argument regarding the ‘wide gradations’ in the capacity to suffer among humans follows later in Cholmondeley-Pennell’s text and is an autonomous, additional argument for his case.


Finally, it may be just me not getting the message, but I don’t see a shred of real evidence for Harper’s central claim that ‘Elite British anglers increasingly understood their relationship with fish and their own capacity to feel pain (and to judge others’ pain) as a justification of their place as the managers and stewards of all fisheries, not just those of Britain.’ Was this written by AI?


Lads, Lords and Alison Locker


The Victorian ‘elite British anglers’ get practically all of Harper’s attention. They are the ‘racists’ in power. He is coy about working-class fishing, and there is no information whether working-class thinking on fish pain was different from the ideas of the elite anglers. Were the lads on the canal of the same imperialistic and paternalistic ilk as the lords on the chalk streams?


Alison Locker doesn’t have a ready answer to that, but her essay ‘The social history of coarse angling AD 1750–1950’ and her masterpiece Freshwater Fish in England – A Social and Cultural History of Coarse Fish from Prehistory to the Present Day certainly throw light on how and why the lads progressed through the centuries. There are worlds between the approach and style of Harper and Locker. Harper celebrates a high-flown top-down approach. His essay is a hybrid fact-fiction narrative peppered with hip concepts. Alison Locker, on the other hand, excels in the hard graft of the historian by establishing facts first. Locker’s piece is of outstanding quality – not only a pleasure to read but a valuable source of information, insight and inspiration. Brilliant: thank you Alison Locker.


This is a link  to Alison Locker's essay


[1] Harper, T. (2023). Fish pain and human sport in Victorian Britain. Victorian Studies65(2), 247–273.