The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

18. (ii) The ideas involved with the word race

The opening remarks of Professor Keane's article leave little room for doubt concerning the tone we can expect to follow.
NEGRO (Spanish and Italian Negro, from Latin Niger, black) in anthropology designates the distinctly dark as opposed to the fair, yellow, and brown varieties of mankind.

There follow several paragraphs going into particular detail to define in exactly which part of Africa the 'true' negro may be found. Having settled on his region, Mr Keane gets straight to business.

...[T]he African aborigines present almost a greater uniformity of physical and moral type than any of the other great divisions of mankind.

A convenient finding to suit the sweeping generalisations that follow: they all look and act alike.

By the nearly unanimous consent of anthropologists this type occupies at the same time the lowest position in the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for comparitive study of the highest anthropoids and the human species.
One immediately pictures bearded anthropologists ensconced in the high-backed chairs of some pipe smoke filled Mayfair club, arguing over the merits of the yellow races as opposed to the brown. The wider cultural context ought to borne in mind here.

There are no corresponding articles in the Ninth edition for other races, but there is an article ANTHROPOLOGY where comparitive treatment is given. We ought not forget, reading these, that Anthropology was an extremely young discipline of learning, and founded on the startlingly bold and modern ideas put forward by Charles Darwin. The Origin of the Species was printed in 1859. Darwin's Descent of Man was printed in 1871, and is referenced, along with the work of other naturalists, in Volume 2's 1875 article on this new and controversial science. In ANTHROPOLOGY, Richard Garnet, LL. D., says that the classification of the 'Races of Mankind'

rests on grounds which are within limits not only obvious but definite. Whether from a popular or a scientific point of view, it would be admitted that a Negro, a Chinese and an Australian, belong to three such permanent varieties of men, all plainly distinguishable from one another and from any European. Moreover, such a division takes for granted the idea which is involved in the word race, that each of these varieties is due to special ancestry, each race thus representing an ancient breed or stock, however these breeds or stocks may have had their origin. The anthropological classification of mankind is thus zoological in its nature, like that of the variety of species of any other animal group, and the characters on which it is based are in great measure physical, though intellectual and traditional peculiarities, such as moral habit and language, furnish important aid.

There is considerably more of interest in this article, which I may work my way back to at some future date. I would like at this stage to rest by drawing attention to the reasonable intent to make the study of man an equal project to the study of other animals, but also the peculiar fixed notion of "permanent varieties of men." Later in the article, the author raises the question as to whether the different races of man "can unite to produce fertile offspring." He informs us that for the most part scientific study has supported this hypothesis. The author then addresses the question as to whether these "permanent races" originated from common ancestors, or from separate species.

Scientific study at the time provided good grounds to believe that different races of man originated in different species. In modern times this theory has finally been reserved solely for cranks, thanks largely to the discovery of DNA and the subsequent study of our genetic ancestry. In the 19th Century, however, the weight of consensus generally leaned the other way, with the "polygenists", taking fairly reasonable proofs such as the relative youth of homo sapiens considered against what were seen as the distinctness in human variety. The "monogenists", on the other hand, were reliant on unquantifiable faith - the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.

To return to Professor Keane's study, he now elucidates by listing fourteen characteristics which distinguish the Negro race. In a spirit, one might generously suppose, of cold scientific detachment, Keane succeeds in giving the reader a written mirror of the most cartoonish of racial stereotypes.

[...] (8) exceedingly thick cranium, enabling the Negro to butt with the head and resist blows which would inevitably break any ordinary European's skull ; (9) correspondingly weak lower limbs, terminating in a broad flat foot with low instep, divergent and somewhat prehensile great toe, and heel projecting backwards ("lark heel")[...] (11) short, black hair, eccentrically elliptical or almost flat in section, and distinctly woolly, not merely frizzly, as Pritchard supposed on insufficient evidence [...]

Whoever Pritchard was, his reputation is done considerable good by this cattish swipe from Keane.

The professor's fourteenth observation needs yet further prefacing and caution. It is not unimaginable that some bigot or other would delight in these 19th century remarks, and much as I regret that, it cannot be avoided without losing the greater insight into the foundation of their bigotry that more balanced readers will hopefully gain. The core fallacies of this scientific study are exposed here, to my reading : if somebody else reads and choses to agree with the original author, I would suggest that they cherished such prejudices in the first place. The words are chilling, however, and make for uncomfortable reading. That these observations are supposedly the result of impartial scientific study, is difficult to credit; one assumes, however, that to the educated majority who read these words one hundred and thirty years ago (and for many years that followed), that is exactly how this was read.

(14) the cranial sutures, which close much earlier in the Negro than in other races. To this premature ossification of the skull, preventing all further development of the brain, many pathologists have attributed the inherent mental inferiority of the blacks, an inferiority which is even more marked than their physical differences. Nearly all observers admit that the Negro child is on the whole quite as intelligent as those of other human varieties, but that on arriving at puberty all further progress seems to be arrested. No one has more carefully studied this point than Filippo Manetta, who during a long residence on the plantations of the Southern States of America noted that "the Negro children were sharp, intelligent and full of vivacity, but on approaching the adult period a gradual change set in. The intellect seemed to become clouded, animation giving place to a sort of lethargy, briskness yielding to indolence. We must necessarily suppose that the development of the Negro and the White proceeds on different lines. [...]"

It is curious how a scientific observer could watch carefree young children develop into listless adults in the Southern U.S., and ascribe that change to closing cranial sutures, rather than living under the abject conditions of the lash and grinding labour on the cotton plantations. Had they never observed a degree of sullenness in the white mining races or mill-factorying races of the Northern States and of Europe? The descriptions we have of those peoples is hardly a picture of vivacity and contentment in adulthood.

That the Southern States in the middle if the 19th century might not be the best place for dispassionate study does not seem to have occurred to Professor Keane. In a footnote he gives us his evidence of the flawed moral character of blacks, by quoting substantially from a presumably unbiased source, notably, however, describing the findings of the Reverend Dr Tucker as casting "a lurid light" on the matter:

"I know of whole neighbourhoods," he tells us, "where there is not one single Negro couple, whether legally married or not, who are faithful to each other beyond a few weeks. [...] The most pious Negro that I know is confined in a penitentiary for an atrocious murder, and he persists in saying he can see no offence against God in his crime, though he acknowledges an offence against man."

It is from observations of this calibre that Keane is able to draw his conclusions for his final remarks.

It is more correct to say of the Negro that he is non-moral than immoral.[...] No full-blood Negro has ever been distinguished as a man of science, a poet, or an artist, and the fundamental equality claimed for him by ignorant philanthropists is belied by the whole history of the race throughout the historic period.

Speaking as an ignorant philanthropist, I might hope after reading this that, were Professor Keane able to reverse our process, and look out from the pages of Britannica and see the historic period from our perspective, he would find cause to rethink the merits of some of his presumptions and findings.

* * *

It might be of interest to Accoringianists to read what the current edition of Britannica has to say on the subject of Anthropology, in particular the evolution of that field of study. Well now, thanks to a very generous promotion allowing Webographers to link to articles (in full) from the pages of their blogs, I can offer you the opportunity to do just that.

Read the Britannica Online ANTHROPOLOGY article here!

However, you will be failing to serve your best interests if you do not give your full attention to the original ANTHROPOLOGY article, which can be found at According to the Ninth's good friend Rule Britannica!

Read Richard Garnet's 1875 ANTHROPOLOGY article at here!

No comments: