Racism, in the form of classifying peoples according to perceived inferiority/superiority and ascribing immutable characteristics to a ‘group’ of people, has had a long history in European thought. New ideas about racial difference emerged in the Enlightenment and proliferated in the nineteenth century. A form of so-called racial science developed, built upon pre-existing assumptions and prejudices, but given a new systematic form.

The earliest extract included  in this section of Deviance, Disorder and the Self, is from Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica, (1774) (Document 1). This was published at the peak of British involvement in slavery. Long was a Jamaican slave owner and planter. His aforementioned book ‘published the most extensive racially grounded argument in defense of slavery written before the age of abolition’ (Seymour Drescher, ‘The Ending of the Slave Trade and the Evolution of European Scientific Racism’ – see bibliography). This account can be seen as a precursor to the racial science of the nineteenth century. Historians have debated how widespread Long’s views were amongst the general public. The parliamentary abolitionist William Wilberforce certainly felt they would react ‘with astonishment, as well as with disgust’ (cited inDrescher, ibid). Drescher claims, however, that ‘Long was widely read and accepted as an empirical authority by naturalists and anthropologists for generations.’

Long’s ideas accord with a race theory known as polygenesis. This view was propagated by several thinkers, but was still the minority opinion at the time Long’s text was produced, because it contravened the Christian doctrine of creation and the accompanying theory of monogenesis. The historian, Nancy Stepan, observes that racial science in the first half of the nineteenth century ‘is the story of desperate efforts to rebut polygenism and the eventual acceptance of popular quasi-polygenist prejudices in the language of science.’ (See: The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/history/race/Racism.html).

Document 2 is an extract from James Cowles Prichard’s Researches into the Physical History of Man (1826). Prichard was an important anthropologist of the period and a defender of monogenetic ideas. He believed individual characteristics were distributed through different ‘nations’ in varying amounts. As we see in this extract, colonial policy in India was drawn into racial thinking. Ideas about caste and tribal systems were also to feature in emerging European racial science.

Such ideas informed abolitionist thinking, as exemplified in Richard Watson's 1824 sermon entitled ‘Religious Instruction of Slaves in the West India Colonies Advocated and Defended’,  Document 3. Watson was certainly racially paternalistic in stereotyping African people and in his belief that European cultures were more advanced due to Christianity, but importantly he also strongly rejected the emerging racist inferiority/superiority thinking of the time. Interestingly he uses history to do this and offers intriguing reflections on Africa’s past civilisations from ancient Egypt onwards.

People of African heritage published a range of material throughout this period, from the works of Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano to Robert Wedderburn’s radical pamphlets of the early nineteenth century and the autobiography of Mary Prince in 1831. As we see from Document 4, Robert Wedderburn’s ‘The horrors of slavery and other writings’, some of these works explicitly refuted theories of racial inferiority/superiority.

Around the middle years of the nineteenth century, however, such theories took firmer hold, developing in the period of colonial exploration and expansion. Document 5 is an extract from Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850). Knox’s racist work describes how ‘races’ and ‘racial characteristics’ have been fixed throughout history.  Partly relying on the pseudo science of phrenology, he ‘demonstrated’ how the Irish were inferior to Anglo-Saxons, and went on to advocate a kind of ‘ethnic cleansing’ to ‘purify’ the nation of the Celts.

In the same period, the French writer Arthur de Gobineau, published his Essai sur l'inigaliti des races humaines [Document 6]. This large-scale work was published between 1853 and 1855. He believed in the inherent superiority of certain races and argued that Western civilization was in a state of degeneration due to the mixing of ‘races’. The ‘Aryan race’, he claimed, had been diluted.  There was, however, a reaction in some quarters against these views. The Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole, who was herself of mixed heritage, was prominent amongst them. In Document 7 – an extract from her autobiography – we see her challenging forms of racism she found in the USA.

Around the same time in Britain the Victorian polymath, Herbert Spencer, wrote an influential essay casting society as an organism. Spencer famously coined the idea of the ‘the survival of the fittest’ in ‘Progress: Its Law and Causes’, The Westminster Review, Vol 67 (April 1857) [Document 8]. This idea also resonated with Charles Darwin’s emerging work on evolution and his theory of ‘natural selection’. ‘Social Darwinism’ was elaborated from the ideas of Darwin which found their most famous expression  in The Origin of Species (1859) [Document 9]. Darwin was not, at this stage, talking about immutable racial characteristics.

During the nineteenth century racial thinking often went hand in hand with empire building and imperialism. Imperial travellers such as Richard Burton popularised particular ideas about other nations and peoples, as we see in his Lake Regions of Central Africa published in 1861 [Document 10].

Commentators on race also explored the local regions of Britain, trying to categorise and scientifically classify the nation’s population, according to pseudo-scientific criteria. Typical of this trend was Races of Britain (1862) by John Beddoe, who later became President of the Anthropological Institute. In the last decades of the nineteenth century a range of ideas focusing on racial inferiority/superiority were to come together in the movement known as ‘eugenics’ (the term was coined in 1883 by Galton). Galton, a cousin of Darwin, advanced the view that human conditions such as poverty might be better understood in terms of biological inheritance than social circumstance.  His belief in the catastrophic socio-political effects of a biological free-for-all led him to advocate the racial engineering of society: government, he argued, should intervene to control who had the most children. Document 11 is an extract from his article ‘Hereditary Talent and Character’, Macmillan's Magazine, 18 (June and August 1865).

Insistence on the innate moral qualities  - and inferiority  - of other ‘races’ can be seen in the thought of Governor Richard Eyre in Jamaica. He put famine and poverty in his dominion down to what he considered the black population’s laziness. The Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 was fuelled by Eyre’s policies and eventually led to calls for his impeachment. [Document 12 – to follow] Hundreds of people were executed with their bodies publicly displayed, including the leaders of the protests Paul Bogle and George Gordon. The reaction in England was divided. Supporters of Governor Eyre included Charles Dickens, but other intellectual figures took the opposite view.

By the 1870s, social Darwinism had come to influence Charles Darwin, himself. In Descent of Man (1871) we see him referring to the inferiority of people of African descent. Document 13. Neither did these pejorative attitudes and theories end with the nineteenth century: Houston Stewart Chamberlain was to give a new lease of life to this kind of racial theory in the new century. His Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts 1899) (translated into English in 1910 as The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1910). He  argued that ‘racial degradation’ was the result of ‘miscegenation’. This, he insisted, must be stopped. The main communities he focused on in his work were Jewish (he was indeed notoriously anti-Semitic) [Document 14].

The British journalist Arnold White deployed similar rhetoric against European Jews in London. Document 15 is an extract from his book The Modern Jew (1899).Chinese migrants to London’s East End were also greeted with vitriol and racial stereotypes of the Chinese have been widely circulated in popular literature. Caricatures of Chinese people in Limehouse can be found in popular novels by authors such as Agatha Christie and Sax Rohmer (see his ‘Fu Manchu’ novels).

In conclusion, this section illuminates several influential attitudes to racial thought during the long nineteenth century. Far from being neutral, scientific or value free, the so-called ‘racial science’ advanced in the nineteenth century was shot through with racist attitudes. Beliefs about race cannot be divorced from their political, economic, and social environment.

Links to related biographical information:
Mary Seacole http://www.maryseacole.com/maryseacole/pages/aboutmary.html
Robert Wedderburn http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/SLAwedderburn.htm

Select bibliography for further reading

Seymour Drescher, ‘The Ending of the Slave Trade and the Evolution of European Scientific Racism’ Social Science History, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Autumn, 1990), pp. 415-450.

Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830-1867 ((Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

Peter Kitson, ‘‘Candid Reflections’: The Idea of Race in the Debate over the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century’, in Brycchan Carey, Markman Ellis, and Sara Salih (eds.) Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain (Archon, 1982)

Roxann Wheeler, The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000)

Anthony S. Wohl, Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England, The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/history/race/Racism.html

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