Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Darwin, Slavery, the HMS Black Joke, and Seaman Morgan.

I decided to repeat this story each year in honor of Darwin.
HMS Beagle

During the same stay in Brazil that brought Darwin face to face with the horrors of slavery, he was for a time left behind in Rio while Captain Fitz-Roy and the HMS Beagle retraced the previous months voyage down the Brazilian coast. Capt. Fitz-Roy wanted to confirm that Bahia was to the east of Rio and remap that portion of the Brazilian coast. Upon the return of the HMS Beagle, Darwin was so overjoyed that he later wrote an unusually long entry in his Diary. The night before, he met one of his shipmates, King, who had come ahead. Darwin learned from King
"...the calamitous news of the death of three of our ship-mates. — They were the three of the Macacù party who were ill with fever when the Beagle sailed from Rio. — 1st Morgan, an extra-ordinary powerful man & excellent seaman; he was a very brave man & had performed some curious feats, he put a whole party of Portugeese to flight, who had molested the party; he pitched an armed sentinel into the sea at St Jago; & formerly he was one of the boarders in that most gallant action against the Slaver the Black Joke. — 2nd Boy Jones one of the most promising boys in the ship & had been promised but the day before his illness, promotion. — These were the only two of the sailors who were with the Cutter, & picked for their excellence. — And lastly, poor little Musters; who three days before his illness heard of his Mothers death. Morgan was taken ill 4 days after arriving on board & died near the Abrolhos, where he was lowered into the sea after divisions on Sunday — for several days he was violently delirious & talked about the party. — Boy Jones died two days after arriving at Bahia, & Musters two days after that.— They were both for a long time insensible or nearly so.— They were both buried in the English burial ground at Bahia; where in the lonely spot are also two other midshipmen" (1).
Darwin was obviously taken with this Morgan, especially given the contrast with Captain Fitz-Roy's support for slavery as a "civilizing" institution. The story of the HMS Black Joke is a little different, though. The British navy's frigates could not match the speed of the average slaver, and "the smaller ships were mostly "Sepping brigs (2), which everyone agreed sailed like haystacks, compared with the clean lines of the slaving schooners." So said Christopher Lloyd in his The Navy and the Slave Trade (1949). When it happened that the slaver Henriquetta was captured, it was bought by the Royal Navy in 1828 and renamed the HMS Black Joke. Until it was scrapped in 1832, with a crew of 34 and just one 18-pound gun, the HMS Black Joke, whose name can not help but make possible all sorts of puns itself, captured nine slavers, including the 18 gun El Almirante after a 31 hour chase and battle. In their 16 months of active duty against the slave trade, the crew of the HMS Black Joke freed 466 enslaved Africans from those nine ships.

Later, Darwin relates the discovery of a Mate on another ship, the Unicorn:
May 28th & 29th Captain FitzRoy hired a small Schooner to go to the Rio Negro to bring Mr Wickham in order that he might take command of our Schooner. She arrived yesterday, & to day Mr King, who came with Mr Wickham paid me a visit. — They are heartily tired of their little vessels & are again as glad to see the Beagle as every one in her is to see them. —

30th, July 1st & 2nd Have been employed in arranging & writing notes about all my treasures from Maldonado. — The Captain informs me that he hopes next summer to double the Horn. — My heart exults whenever I think of all the glorious prospects of the future.

3rd–7th All hands of the Beagle continue to be employed in working at the Schooner (for the future the Unicorn). My occupations likewise are the same & I do not stir out of the Ship.

8th It was discovered to day that one of the Mates, belonging to the Unicorn, had formerly been in the President, a vessel supposed to be piratical & which brought the English man of war, the Black Joke, to action. It has, since the Trial, been suspected that this same ship took & murdered every soul on board the Packet Redpole. — Captain Fitz-Roy has determined to take the man a prisoner, to the Consul at M. Video. I have just been astonished to hear the order, "to reeve the running rigging, & bend sails". And we now a little before 12 at night have weighed anchor & are under sail (3).
According to Nora Barlow's note: “The 'Black Joke' was sent out by the Admiralty in 1829 to intercept slavers in West Africa” (4). There are a couple of explanations for why Darwin would get elements of the story reversed or wrong. It is clear that he enjoyed some familiarity with the crew of the Beagle. He mentions in his accounts arguing with Fit-Roy over slavery and as a result being banished by him from the cabin, only to be invited to eat with the crew. Perfect opportunities to hear tales told by an experienced crew like the Beagle's, who knew him well enough to nickname him “Philosopher.” Darwin does seem to have the story correct by the time of the incident with the Mate of the Unicorn, though. A painting of the Black Joke attacking the slaver El Almirante comes from the Royal Naval Museum.

It is little wonder that someone who hated slavery as much as Darwin would mention the passing of Morgan. It says something about History that all we have of Morgan is this brief mention. Perhaps, too, it was people such as Morgan who prompted Darwin to write that contrary to the claims of some Darwinists and followers of Spencer:
“I felt that I was walking on a path unknown to me and full of pitfalls; but I had the advantage of previous discussions by able men. I tried to say most emphatically that a great philosopher, law-giver, etc., did far more for the progress of mankind by his writings or his example than by leaving a numerous offspring. I have endeavored to show how the struggle for existence between tribe and tribe depends on an advance in the moral and intellectual qualities of the members, and not merely on their capacity of obtaining food”(5).
In the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin brought into the open all of the events he witnessed in the slave countries, but also reveals how he still continued to suffered from the horrors of what he had seen there. His son's statement that even decades later his father endured nightmares of Brazil has a more than adequate foundation in Darwin's own writings. Here is a writer who noted every detail, who centered his work upon his own observations and those of others, who even notes the sound of the sands near Rio Madre when trodden upon by his horse, but who at times leaves out details of his own experiences because the memory so easily enrages and horrifies him. The contrast between the Brazil of infinite tangled banks and the horrific land of slavery found its way into Darwin's work. Even if he could never leave behind the Brazil of his nightmares, he was glad to sail away, never to return.
On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of; -- nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master's ears.
In this final passage, Darwin refers not very approvingly to Malthus and Spencer while reaffirming his own repudiation of slavery. The final sentence is often quoted, but it is rarely rendered in its full context. The possible reasons for this omission are numerous, and like similar omissions, it is not often noticed. History is made of omissions and the fragments of everyday human life.
“It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children -- those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own -- being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin”(6).
Darwin writes of witnessing just such events as the selling off of family members while in Brazil. It was Darwin's own blow that the slave mentioned in the previous passage was afraid to defend himself against, but Darwin said he had not raised his hand to hit the person, but in frustration because of their arguing about passage across the river. The encounter profoundly effected Darwin. He was shocked to find himself in the position of being seen as a slaver in the eyes of an actual slave. Slavery, he notes, can quickly make anyone, no matter how civilized or progressive, into the most brutal and inhuman master. Moreover, no matter one's personal view of slavery, the institution itself taints everyone in such a society, slaver and abolitionist alike.

During the voyage, Darwin also gave up hunting, which had been a favorite past time before the expedition.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. He and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day, February 12, 1809. November will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin's Origin of Species sold only 50,000 copies during his life. In comparison, George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1827), a phrenological guide to life and conduct, sold 350,000 copies and remained in print from 1828 until 1899.

1 Darwin, Diary, June 4, 1832.
2 “Sir Robert's important improvement in giving to line-of-battle ships a circular bow, we have already slightly touched upon his ingenuity has since produced a more surprising, and an equally important, change at the opposite extremity of the ship, a circular instead of a square stern. ... It having occurred to the philosophic mind of this ingenious architect, that, by not removing the solid bow in the wake of the second deck, in order to substitute the usual flimsy fabric, called the beak-head, the ship would acquire additional strength. in that part of her frame, as well as afford some protection to her crew when going end-on upon an enemy, the circular bow of the Namur was allowed to remain. The advantages of this important alteration struck every one who saw the ship when finished ; and subsequently, as we shall hereafter have occasion more fully to relate, every ship in the British navy was ordered to be constructed with a solid circular bow instead of a beak-head.” James, William. 1837. The Naval History of Great Britain. Apparently, though, this improvement made the ships slower than the slave schooners, who had to deliver their “cargos” before too many of them died. The best that one could hope for in terms of the self-interest of the slavers moderating their treatment of their captives was to be delivered into the hands of the master quickly before dying at sea. It was no doubt unclear to many below decks which alternative was preferable.

3 Keynes, R. D. ed. 2001. Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4 Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Edited from the MS by Nora Barlow. 1933. New York: MacMillan Company.
5 Letter 241. To John Morley. Down, March 24th, 1871.
6 Darwin, Charles R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832-1836. London: Henry Colburn.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Josiah Nott

Josiah Nott (March 31, 1804 - March 31, 1873) was a leading exponent of polygenism and figure in the American School of Ethnology, which dominated the scientific understanding of race in the decades before Charles Darwin. Josiah Nott investigated yellow fever, edited the first translated Arthur de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of Races, and with George Gliddon published Types of Mankind, a tribute to their mentor Samuel G. Morton and summation of their evidence that the races were separate species of Homo sapiens.

Nott was born in Columbia, South Carolina. His father served in the U.S. Congress and on the South Carolina Court of Appeals. He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and traveled widely in Europe studying Natural History and furthering his medical knowledge. Returning to the United States, he settled in Mobile and into a flourishing practice and a social life noted for its indulgences in horses and dalliances.

Nott argued against the theory that yellow fever, the most serious health threat of his day, was caused by a miasma, suggesting instead that an insect such as the mosquito was the cause. Nott did not, however, venture into the question of human variety until the deeply flawed Census of 1840 suggested that slavery was a protective and civilizing institution.

George Cuvier, who dominated Natural History during Nott's time, argued that inter-fertility, or the ability to produce viable offspring, marked the boundary between a variety and a species. The existence of the mulatto seemed to undermined the notion of separate species. In Nott's first venture into the species question he argued that mulatto were the product of the crossing of “two distinct species --- as a mule from the horse and ass.” Later, Nott added that mulattos proved the polygenist theory by demonstrating the permanence of racial characteristics and were a subject to a morbid “Law of Hybridity” leaving them weak and degenerate.

Nott had good company in pursuing the polygenist theory: Samuel G. Morton, George Squire, John De Bow, and later Louis Agassiz also championed the fixity of species and the multiple origins of human races. They argued for fixity from the evidence derived from the study of hybrids, crania, Egyptology, and philology; they differed only over the origins of the races. Some like Agassiz argued that the fixity of racial types was evidence of Design, while others like Nott were stanch atheists, but all agreed with Nott that scientific inquiry should be freed from the constraints of religious dogma and based solely upon evidence, direct experience, and experiment.

Nott and George R. Gliddon published their summation of polygenist theory in Types of Mankind in 1850. Intended as a memorial to Morton, and with an introductory essay by Agassiz, Types of Mankind was recognized as a definitive statement of current scientific knowledge of human variety, and established race as the explanation for human variety. Nott and Gliddon, whom he had always considered more of a showman than a serious scholar and scientist, then parted ways. Nott later made a limited contribution to a second volume Indigenous Races, but without his full participation, it did not carry the weight of the first. Nott had, however, established polygenism as the generally agreed scientific understanding of human variety.

Nott now turned to scientific debates, lectures, and articles. The only scientific opponent of polygenism ---the abolitionist churches were certainly united against the theory --- was Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, friend and co-author of James Audubon. Nott dismissed Bachman's scientific objections as disguised religious positions from a hypocritical “parson.” After all, Bachman supported slavery as well as he, and did not question the moral superiority of the European type. The proponents of monogenism and polygenism did not question the scientific validity of race, and following from that, the scientific validity of racial hierarchies. Tellingly, Nott published the first translation of Gorbineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Races.

The scientific ideology of race was established in the years before Darwin intervened to finally put an end to the dominance of polygenism (Canguilhem, 1988). Nott immediately recognized Darwin's Origins as finally giving monogenesis an unshakable scientific basis, and he gracefully admitted that Darwin's answer to the species question had settled the matter. He took what solace he could in Darwin's Origins being “a capital dig at the parsons.” Nott did not abandon his views on race even as he acknowledged that, had he had the evidence available to him that Darwin had amassed, he would not have published Types of Mankind.

Having lost two sons in the war, one from wounds at Gettysburg, Nott could not endure a South transformed, he said, into “Negroland.” He settled in New York City, drawn he said to a place “without morals, without scruples, without religion, & without niggers.” There he rebuilt his practice, joined Squire's Anthropological Institute, and flourished until age and health forced his final return to Mobile.

Nott's importance in developing and promoting the theory of polygenism left an enduring legacy of race as a scientific ideology. Darwin believed natural selection would cause polygenism “to die a silent and unobserved death” (Darwin, 188), but its supporters continued to justify using race as a explanation for human variety. Nott and the American School's legacy is not entirely negative. They sought to science to exist within a spirit of free inquiry. That this inquiry would from 1830-1859 give slavery the stamp of scientific approval is more than ironic. Nott's work demonstrates how scientific disciplines constantly produce regimes of truth, and that these are never separate from the social relations of the time and space. Nott and his fellow polygenists constructed a regime of truth around slavery which would reemerge most obviously in the middle of the 20th Century, and endure to the present in our everyday administrative and technical understanding of race. That it has continued down to today as both a scientific ideology and a common sense notion owes much to the work of Josiah Nott.

Canguilhem, Georges. 1988. Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press

Darwin, Charles. 1998 [1874]. The Descent of Man. New York: Prometheus Books.
Nott, Josiah. 1846. “Unity of the Human Race,” Southern Quarterly Review, IX (17): 1-57.

Nott, Josiah. 1848. “Yellow Fever Contrasted with Billious Fever --- Reason for Believing it a Disease of Sui Generis... Probably Insect or Animalcular Origin,” New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, 4, 563-601.

Nott, Josiah. 1850. “Ancient and Scripture Chronology” Southern Quarterly Review II ( 4): 385-426.

Nott, Josiah. 1851. An Essay on the Natural History of Mankind, Viewed in Connection with Negro Slavery delivered before the Southern Rights Association, 14th December, 1850. Mobile: Dade, Thompson, 1851.

Nott, Josiah. 1852. “Geographical Distributions of Animals and the Races of Man” New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, IX.

Nott, Josiah. 1853. “Aboriginal Races of America” Southern Quarterly Review, VIII (3).

Nott, Josiah and George R. Gliddon, 1855. Types of Mankind: or Ethnological Researches, based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical history: illustrated by selections from the unedited papers of Samuel George Morton and by additional contributions from Prof. L. Agassiz, LL.D., W. Usher, M.D., and Prof. H. S. Patterson, M.D. Philadelphia, London: Lippincott Gramoo & co., Trubner & co., 1855.

Stanton, William. 1960. The Leopards Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-1859. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man, revised and expanded. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute
New York

A version of this appeared in The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Macmillan Press, 2007.

See also:

Related posts from this blog:

A Short Biography of John Bachman (1790-1874)


Diversity, Culture, Theory, and Data: Science on Human Variety.

B. Ricardo Brown and Christopher X J. Jensen
SLAS Faculty Research Seminar

Maria Martin Bachman's sketches and paintings for Audubon: On-line Exhibition from the Charleston County Public Library


Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History


Podcast - Charleston's Women Naturalists: Jennifer Scheetz, Archivist, Charleston Museum


Comment II on “Gould versus Morton”: Morton’s Crania Collection in the Context of the Final Decades of Natural History, Part One.