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William Winwood Reade

William Winwood Reade British historian

British historian
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro British historian
A.K.A. William Reade
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Philosopher Explorer Anthropologist Historian
Type Philosophy Social science
Gender male
Birth 26 December 1838
Death 24 April 1875 (aged 36 years)
The details

William Winwood Reade (26 December 1838 – 24 April 1875) was a British historian, explorer, and philosopher. His two best-known books, The Martyrdom of Man (1872) and The Outcast (1875), were included in the Thinker's Library.


Early life

Born in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1838, William Winwood Reade was a "scion of a wealthy landed family". Having failed at Oxford University and, despite having composed two novels, "failed in any conventional sense as a novelist", Reade decided to take up geographical exploration.

Travels to Africa

Thus, at age 25, using his private funds and with sponsorship from the Royal Geographical Society, he departed for Africa, arriving in Cape Town by paddle steamer in 1862. After several months of observing gorillas and travelling through Angola, Reade returned home and published his first travel account, Savage Africa. Although criticised for its juvenile tone, the book is notable for its anthropological inquiries, as well as for its exculpatory passages on the slave trade and its prophecy of an Africa divided between Britain and France in which black Africans have become extinct.

In 1868 Reade secured the patronage of London-based Gold Coast trader Andrew Swanzy to journey to West Africa. After failing to get permission to enter the Ashanti Confederacy, Reade set out north from Freetown to explore the areas past the Solimana capital of Falaba. He was detained in Falaba by the local King Seedwa, who imprisoned him for three months under conditions of extreme physical and very little mental hardship. Legend has it that King Seedwa set four gruelling tasks for Reade each day of his captivity, all of which Reade completed with aplomb. Consequently, Reade's indomitable spirit prevailed and he refused to wilt under the caprices of the King and the heat of the sun.

Though Reade travelled over some unexplored territory, his findings excited little interest among geographers, due mostly to his failure to take accurate measurements of his journey as his sextant and other instruments had been left behind at Port Loko. However, his experiences of West Africa were not entirely lost to science, thanks to his correspondence with Charles Darwin. Darwin subsequently drew on information given by Reade in The Descent of Man (1871). These letters, which discussed subjects such as the expression of emotion and sexual characteristics, are being made available through the Darwin Correspondence Project.

On his return, Reade published his The African Sketch-Book (1873), an account of his travels that also called for greater British involvement in West Africa. Reade returned to Africa in 1873 to serve as a correspondent in the Ashanti War, but died not long after. He was buried in Ipsden churchyard, Oxfordshire, close to the family home.

The Martyrdom of Man (1872)

The Martyrdom of Man (1872)—whose summary running head reads "From Nebula to Nation"—is a secular, "universal" history of the Western world. Structurally, it is divided into four "chapters" of approximately 150 pages each: the first chapter, "War", discusses the imprisonment of men's bodies, the second, "Religion", that of their minds, the third, "Liberty", is the closest thing to a conventional European political and intellectual history, and the fourth, "Intellect", which discusses the cosmogony characteristic of a "universal history".


According to one historian, the book became a kind of "substitute bible for secularists" in which Reade attempts to trace the development of Western civilisation in terms analogous to those used in the natural sciences. He uses it to advance the philosophy of political liberalism and social Darwinism. The final section of the book provoked enormous controversy due to Reade's "outspoken attack on Christian dogma" and the book was condemned by several magazines. In 1872 William Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, denounced The Martyrdom of Man as one of several "irreligious works" (the others included work by Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and David Friedrich Strauss).

Reade was not an atheist, as some of his critics maintained; he had a "presumptive belief in a Creator, but one ineffable and unapproachable, far beyond the grasp of the human intellect or the reach of petty human prayers". He was a social Darwinist who believed in the survival of the fittest and wanted to create a new civilisation, contending that "while war, slavery, and religion had once been necessary, they would not always be so; in the future only science could guarantee human progress". Nevertheless, the book "drew attention to the immense tale of suffering and waste involved in the theory of evolution".

Reception and influence

V. S. Pritchett lauded The Martyrdom of Man as "the one, the outstanding, dramatic, imaginative historical picture of life, to be inspired by Victorian science". Since The Martyrdom of Man had, by Victorian standards, a relatively sympathetic account of African history, it was approvingly cited by W. E. B. Du Bois in his books The Negro (1915) and The World and Africa (1947).

Cecil Rhodes, an English-born South African politician and businessman, said that the book "made me what I am". Other admirers of The Martyrdom of Man included H. G. Wells, Winston Churchill, Harry Johnston, George Orwell, Susan Isaacs, A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin, and Michael Foot.

The Outcast (1875)

Reade's other secularist work, The Outcast (1875), is a short novel about a young man who must deal with being rejected by his religious father and the death of his wife.

References in literature

Reade is quoted in one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures, The Sign of the Four. In the second chapter Holmes recommends The Martyrdom of Man to Dr. Watson as 'one of the most remarkable [books] ever penned.' He subsequently remarks:

"Winwood Reade is good upon the subject," said Holmes. "He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician".

This concept is elaborated somewhat in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, where "psychohistory" is used to predict and manipulate social and political developments.


  • (1859). Charlotte and Myra: A Puzzle in Six Bits.
  • (1860). Liberty Hall, Oxon. (A Novel)
  • (1861). The Veil of Isis or Mysteries of the Druids.
    • The Druids.
    • Druidism in Rustic Folklore.
    • Druidism in the Emblems of Freemasonry.
    • Druidism in the Ceremonies of the Church Of Rome.
    • Rites And Ceremonies Of The Druids.
    • Vestiges Of Druidism.
    • The Destruction Of The Druids.
    • Priestesses Of The Druids – Pamphlet.
  • (1864). Savage Africa.
  • (1865). See-Saw: A Novel (Written under the pseudonym Francesco Abati).
  • (1872). The Martyrdom of Man.
  • (1873). African Sketch-Book.
  • (1874). The Story of the Ashantee Campaign.
  • (1875). The Outcast.
  • (1972). Religion in History.
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