Victorian Racism: An Explication of Scientific Knowledge, its Social Character, and its Relation to Victorian Popular Culture
IN THIS ARTICLE
The British Empire of the nineteenth century displayed and embodied racism in its composite. In embodying this idea of racial inequality, the Empire created grounds on which it could justify the imperialist actions that it executed throughout the world during this century. Actions such as extending its power, influence, and domination to continents like Africa and Asia and imposing ‘Britishness’ in such places. Many scholars in the existing scholarly literature have agreed on the point that racism was used as a tool of justification for imperial actions, such as Andrew Aptner and Deborah Spillman. However, the scholars that discuss this role of racism all begin their argument with the presupposition and acknowledgement of racism’s existence within the composite of the Empire. While I do believe in their conclusions, in this paper, I want to trace the development of racism and its solidification as ‘common knowledge’ in the Empire and how it manifested in popular culture, specifically in the nineteenth century.
To begin, I will explicate the development and growth of ‘scientific knowledge’ in the Empire. Next, I will explain how this ‘scientific knowledge’ actuated and allowed for the support and strengthening of racism in the imperial Empire of Britain. From here, I will argue that due to this foundational support that science supplied racism in the Empire that the idea of racial inequality eventually transformed into ‘common knowledge’, which is best demonstrated by its manifestation in the popular culture of the time. Here, I will use the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899 as my focal entity of popular culture. Through analysis, I will present the various ways that racism intertwined itself into this Exhibition, specifically focusing on the ‘Savage South Africa’ show. This show is a phenomenal public display to focus on, as its incorporation in this grand Exhibition, its widespread acceptance, and its popularity signify the interests, ideas, and messages that were prominent in the majority of the Empire during this period.
While racism appears to be an innate quality that existed in ex nihilo fashion within the British Empire during the nineteenth century, science, specifically scientific theories and interpretations, can be seen as the vessel for its growth and acceptance in society. This narrative of progression and development through science could start at several different figures and theories, such as Jean Baptiste Lamarck of France4 or Alfred Russell Wallace of Britain, both of who were advocates of evolutionism.5 So, to pick a definitive starting point for where this viral view, that is racism, had the opportunity to leech onto science as its source of expansion is challenging and even controversial. Nonetheless, for this paper, I will start this narrative at Charles Darwin, a British naturalist and biologist, and his work On the Origin of Species. This is due to the fact that Darwin’s contribution to the world and the realm of science from On the Origin of Species raised the scientific standing of evolutionary theory in society and invigorated the discipline of anthropology.6
When On the Origin of Species was released in 1859, it was an instant scientific classic, as shown in Darwin’s personal journal, which reveals a vast increase in copies and sales from the first edition to the second edition.7 The fact that his work was being bought and printed at an increasing rate signifies that his ideas were influencing and intriguing the public at the time. So, what were these ideas in this instant classic? It does not take an individual long to respond to this question with the answer of the theory of natural selection. The theory of natural selection, also referred to as the theory of descent with modification, is the foundational cornerstone for the growth of, acceptance of, and belief in racism throughout the Empire. Briefly, the theory of natural selection is as follows:
Now, Darwin, in this passage, explains that natural selection, simply put, is the inheritance of advantageous traits over disadvantageous traits for the purpose of survival. In this work, Darwin does not apply this theory to the Homo sapiens species. This being the case, one might question me and ask, why is it then this theory and work is being deemed the cornerstone of Victorian racism? For this answer, let us delve into the theory of the natural selection further.
I am going to focus on two major aspects of the theory of natural selection that are vital for one to understand the importance of this theory in relation to Victorian racism. The first major aspect that will be focused on is the explicit recognition of a hierarchy within nature and species. This hierarchy that is presented by Darwin favors adaptation, development, and progress within a species. The development of adaptations that produce a higher potentiality of survival within a certain population of a specific species, results in that certain population being ranked higher (a.k.a. better) in the hierarchy than other members of that same species.9 The importance of this hierarchical formation is that nature appears to innately favor these qualities of adapting, developing, and progressing. In turn, the theory of natural selection explicitly deems that there is an objective superiority in the fact of evolving and progressing into a more advanced state. Moreover, the second important aspect of this theory is that it was heavily grounded in research and evidence. Darwin, embarking on the Beagle Expedition in 1831, spent seven years researching and observing various species in the Galapagos and by 1838 had a basic blueprint of his theory of natural selection.10 What this means is that when this theory was publicized to the world twenty years later, it was extremely hard to refute and weaken. Now, this does not mean that it did not meet resistance or critique within the scientific community, however, it being fundamentally grounded in evidence and research made its propositions very strong and nearly impenetrable.
Now, these important aspects come into play in the potential applications of the theory by other scientists. A theory that recognizes taxonomic superiority in natural substances allows for other individuals to narrow the scope and apply such a theorem to humans. While this is not what Darwin intended or agreed with, the fact is that his theory’s scope had the easy potential to be narrowly focused on and applied to the Homo sapiens species. Once applied to humans, easy analogous comparisons could be made between different humans, specifically different races of humans, and the conclusions (taxonomic superiority) derived from observing the animals in the Galapagos. This act of connecting this new application of Darwin’s theory, which comes to be known as Social Darwinism, to the original application found in On the Origin of Species strengthens its credibility. Its credibility is strengthened, because Social Darwinism takes the form of being an extension of the theory’s original application. In turn, Social Darwinism does not make any absurd logical leaps that could be deemed untenable at the time. Rather, it simply just replaces the objects of study with humans and highlights analogous variables or traits (i.e. instead of different beaks, the scientists use cranium size) that result in the same hierarchal conclusions that explain differences in societal progression and development.11
Continuing this narrative of Victorian racist progression, let us look at the agents that adopted Darwin’s theory and applied it to humans in a racist light. The first important agent we will look at is Francis Galton, the father of eugenics. Galton developed his theory of eugenics in the year 1865, only seven years after the first edition of On the Origin of Species. Now, Galton, did not birth his theory of eugenics without intellectual help and encouragement. Galton himself admitted that On the Origin of Species helped stimulate his thinking to the road of eugenics.12 However, it is a tremendous leap, as one can see, from what Darwin stated about natural selection to concluding that the humans should practice controlled breeding to increase the genetic quality of the human race. Briefly, just to highlight, this theory of eugenics can be deemed a tremendous leap due to the fact that the process of natural selection, in Galton’s theory, is no longer natural. What Galton proposed removed the agent of nature as the determiner of what traits would be descended down through generations and made humans the new determiner of this process of generational inheritance.
Nonetheless, Galton made this intellectual leap and birthed his theory through the inspiration supplied by Darwin’s work. Galton used Darwin’s work as a stepping-stone to discover the ultimate end, which he saw as the discovery of the origins of success in lines of descent. In the words of Dr. Daniel J. Kelves, a professor of History at Yale University, “From Darwin, Galton wanted to argue that man did not fall from a high estate (Grace), but rather, was rapidly rising from a low one.”13 He believed that by discovering the knowledge of the origins of success in lines of descent would allow humans to efficiently eradicate the inferior races, specifically any race not white and European, and disadvantageous members of the humans race from existence. This is best seen in a quote from Galton, himself, when he says, “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.”14
The importance of Francis Galton and his radical theory is that it illuminates the way that Darwin’s theory gave rise to racist interpretations and applications. Galton, being very radical in nature, highlights the extreme theories that could arise. Furthermore, Galton’s eugenics, even though radical, did not meet resounding backlash. Actually, Charles Darwin, himself, praised Galton for his theory and saw it as great scientific accomplishment.15 However, Galton’s theory of eugenics did not only receive praise but also, a variety of negative responses. The intriguing aspect of the responses is that none disagreed with him on the fact that he believed that there was innately an inferiority to races in the human race. Many disagreed on the premise that biologically you can manipulate and predict certain qualities through selective breeding, because it meant that God was not responsible for implanting such qualities. Others disagreed simply for the fact that there was no need to impose such policies of selective breeding since natural selection says that nature will always favor the strong and prey on the weak.16
Yet, there were no objections to this claim of inferiority. While there could be a variety of different answers to explain such a phenomena, I am not concerned with its causality. Rather, my point is to highlight the fact that the objections that arose in the scientific community failed to object to the fact that inferior races exist. Implicitly, the scientific community, by lack of objection in the various rebuttals, accepted such a premise. This implicit acceptance turned explicit, when other prominent members of the scientific community developed their own scientific theories and methods, which incorporated the idea of inferior races. One such member was Thomas Huxley, a leader of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
The next agent that will construct this narrative is Thomas Huxley. Huxley, being an advocate of Darwin’s theory, used, like Francis Galton, the theory of natural selection as a stepping stone to develop his own theory concerning the human race. First, Huxley’s focus was mainly in the field of physical anthropology. He used physical anthropology as the means to seek the answer for man’s place in nature. Huxley, specifically, studied the brains and bone structure of various different races of humans and compared them to apes, which, in turn, led him to conclude that man evolved from apes.17 Now, this discovery that Huxley made is not racist in nature, and rather, is quite ground breaking. Why mention it then? The importance of this mention is that Huxley to reach such a conclusion needed to complete extensive research of a multiplicity of human brains and bones that ranged from all races. As a result, Huxley deemed fundamental anatomical differences between races, specifically, between white-Europeans and Africans.18 From these differences, Huxley attached the idea of racial inequality to these physical anthropological discoveries, in turn, fueling the idea of white racial superiority. Huxley explicitly exclaims this, when he says:
Huxley does not hide the fact that he believes that the white race is superior to the Negro race. The point that I want to highlight is the fact that Huxley, in this quote, uses his acquired scientific knowledge as rhetorical support to his racist claims. Here, the actualization of racism infecting and intertwining itself into science is demonstrated. Racism leeched onto the back of a revolutionary anthropological discovery, in turn, growing in strength and credibility.
One might ask, well, what about Francis Galton? Did he not actualize the blending of racism and science? Galton, as shown, did in fact blend racism and science together. However, it is particularly important that a man such as Thomas Huxley fulfilled this actualization process. The reason for this is Galton was a dreamer. He dreamed of conceiving this perfect race, but, when practicality and the reality of society entered the discussion, the dream slowly crumbled and met criticism.20 Huxley, on the other hand, proposed his theory with a plethora amount of evidence. When the theory met criticism, as every scientific theory does, no one could refute it. Actually, one of Huxley’s main intellectual opponents, Richard Owens, conceded some of his own conceptions and agreed with some of the conclusions made in Man’s Place in Nature (i.e. apes had a hippocampus minor).21
The significance that I am illuminating here is that racism, unlike in the case of Galton, manifested itself into a developed theory and developed conclusions that were fundamentally strong in their composite. This, in turn, makes the process to refute such racist claims daunting, and the process to make such racist claims into ‘common knowledge’ easy. Yet, there is still another important fact that makes Thomas Huxley a particularly vital figure in this growth and development of racism in the British Empire. The fact is that he was a leader of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. This brings us to the next chapter of this narrative of the progression and development of racism through science, the institutionalization and professionalization of scientific knowledge.
The Institutionalization of Scientific Knowledge
For this next chapter of this narrative, I will delve into the development of the institutionalization and professionalization of knowledge, and its importance in relation to the development and manifestation of racism in Victorian Britain. For the sake of this paper, I am going to discuss two important institutions (agents), which consist of The Anthropological Society of London and the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Let us delve right into the first institution that will be analyzed, The Anthropological Society of London.
In the year 1863, The Anthropological Society of London was founded by Dr. James Hunt and entered the realm of England’s scientific institutions. When founded, it was deemed in the institutions Statement of Objectives that the society was founded “with the object of promoting the study of Anthropology in a strictly scientific manner.”22 However, Hunt, being extreme in his anthropological and scientific perspective, had other ideas. Hunt believed that discoveries in science were not purely of scientific importance but also, had significant political and social ramifications.23 Hence, when Hunt deemed that physical anthropology clearly showed human physical differences and permanent racial inequalities, he explicitly vocalized the incorporation of such discoveries in the creation of political and social policy. This is best expressed in the fact that Hunt and the Anthropological Society entered into many controversial non-scientific debates with the initiative to impose their scientific views into the political and social realm.24
However, Hunt was not very successful as he met vast criticism from all communities, such as the scientific community, the political community, and the societal community. He had very contradicting views with other prominent scientists at the time, the main being he believed in Polygenism25 and stoutly rejected Darwinism. Through this Polygenetic perspective, Hunt conjured and justified immensely racist views. Such views are best expressed in Hunt’s work, On the Negro’s Place in Nature when he mentions, “The best social situation is seen in those parts of the world in which the Negro is in his natural subordination to the European.”26 Meeting heavy criticism for such views, Hunt used all of his power, influence, and money granted to him by the Anthropological Society to strengthen and defend his cause. In turn, Hunt created a variety amount of publications, such as The Journal of Anthropological Society of London, The Anthropological Review, and the Popular Magazine of Anthropology.27 This aggressive publication program allowed Hunt to be at the forefront of political and scientific debates in Victorian Society. Even though many disagreed with his propositions and theories, his extensive publications and literary aims provided the support needed for his ideas to circulate and be discussed within society.
Now, James Hunt is important for this narrative as his story provides context to the growth of this institutionalization process that occurred in the scientific realm in Victorian Britain. His story reveals the factors that were necessary to make Victorian racism and the idea of racial inequality ‘common knowledge’. There are three major factors that I want to extract from the brief story that I have told on Hunt.
The first is the creation of an institution. Hunt created an establishment, in which scientists could congregate together under one ideology, conduct scientific research, and develop theories. The very existence of institutions is seen as a respected force by society due to the fact that it is a formal organization of prominent figures from the respective field. Thus, institutionalizing scientific knowledge is important as it creates this societal relationship of respect and value to the theories proposed by the members of these institutions.
The second major factor is the manifestation of racism within such institutions. This link is extremely important to highlight, because racism, just like scientific knowledge, was institutionalized. Institutional racism, in the words of Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton, “operates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation that individual racism.”28 Racism manifesting itself into such scientific institutions did not only receive validation from science, but now, from a respected force of society. Hence, racisms influential reach grew stronger within Victorian society and received another coat of armor due to its institutionalization.
Finally, the third major factor is the institution’s involvement in the print culture of Victorian Society. By producing journals and reviews, the scientific institutions were able to broadcast their racist scientific theories to the public.29 Besides the obvious fact of more publicity and societal spotlight that arises due to print publication initiatives, there is also the innate quality that is associated with journals and reviews, which is the integration of scientists. This integration of scientists is important to mention as the creation of these scientific journals allowed for a single piece of literature to contain multiple literary pieces by a multitude of different prominent scientist within the particular scientific field. The journal, in a sense, unified ideas, but more importantly attracted new members to the societies.30 More and more scientists were attracted to this professionalization and opportunity to be actively published. In turn, as more scientists joined scientific institutions, like the Anthropological Society, and their numbers grew, the credibility and trustworthiness of these institutions grew in society as well.
Yet, as shown, James Hunt, being so radical in his ideas and opposed to the majority of the scientific communities’ stances (Darwinist perspective), was not the right leader to utilize these three factors and transform racism into ‘common knowledge’. The man who was the right leader was Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley, in the years of 1869-70, held the Presidential Chair of the Anthropological Society. It was from this position of power and influence that Huxley played a major part in and succeeded in unifying the Ethnological Society and Anthropological Society, which was financially failing in these years, into the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.31 Huxley created a fundamentally stronger institution as a result of his peacemaking role, and more importantly, created an institution that operated in the traditional British pattern of scientific societies that deal only with scientific issues.32 As Joel S. Shwartz, a professor at John Hopkins University writes, “Huxley used his work and power to advance the cause of science and replace the Old Victorian Order.”33 Now, not only did the new Anthropological institute invigorate more scientific research and rebrand the image of the organization within society, but it also invigorated new publications and influenced other public institutions.
First, the Institute led to the development of the publication called Notes and Queries on Anthropology for the Use of Travellers and Residents in Uncivilized Lands. This publication’s purpose was “to promote accurate anthropological observation on the part of the travellers, and to enable those who were not anthropologists themselves to supply the information which was wanted for the scientific study of anthropology at home.”34 Here, the Anthropological Institute has taken a major step in and revolutionized the relationship between society and science. Through the means of publication, the Anthropological Institute directly connected the general public to the research that was being conducted in the realm of science.35 In turn, the anthropologists that were writing these instructions ‘to promote accurate anthropological observation’ were able to dictate how the studies should be conducted. In essence, the anthropologists through the instructions transform the general person into the scientist.
Through this transformation, the Anthropological Institute makes the general travellers concern themselves with and study the differences between the white race and the other ‘uncivilized’ races. This is crucial, because when members travelled abroad and followed such instructions, they viewed the native individuals as objects of study. This type of relationship between a European foreigner and native was not a relationship of equality, but rather, one of inequality. The native from immediate contact, in their composite, is seen as a source of information that could help further European scientific discovery and theory. Analogously, the native was similar to the birds that Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands; the only difference was the natives were believed to be the key to the evolutionary process and genealogy of humans.
Ultimately, the anthropologists desired answers that would explain their linear idea of progress from the uncivilized native race to the civilized European race. One does not have to look far to see that this was the question that they were concerned with, as on page two of the preface of the Notes and Queries, the author states, “History has confined itself chiefly with the achievements of special races; but the anthropologist regards all races as equally worthy of a place in the records of human development.”36 Hence, the anthropologist translated this conception of other races being inferior in development (to the European) to the general traveller through the very nature and objective of the desired research job. Thus, for the first time in this narrative, there is a direct link of scientific racist ideologies and the general public. What this institutional publication and its objective demonstrates is that the idea of other races being of a lower status of development in the evolutionary process has exited its isolated state of being discussed in the scientific realm and has entered the societal realm. This meant that racism had advanced one step closer to being solidified as ‘common knowledge’ in Victorian society.
Continuing, the Anthropological Institute extended their influential reach not only through the development of new publications, but also, through involvement in other public institutions, such as the British Museum. The British Museum, in the mid-nineteenth century, started to incorporate objects of anthropological relevance in its collections. Prominent figures that were prominent in the Anthropological Institute, such as John Lubbock37, were bestowed with the responsibility to supervise such collections.38 These anthropologists that undertook this responsibility to manage such exhibits were hired for their expertise. Thus, their scientific knowledge and skills were professionalized. This professional connection between science and museum transformed the museum from a place that was “intended only for the amusement of the curious and rich” into “the largest and most popular educational centers in the Kingdom.”39 Therefore, when the public visited such places and was informed on these evolutionary theories that claimed Europeans developed culturally and physically from inferior races, racism spread to the masses and infected the Victorian citizen’s mind.
Here, my tracing of the pathology of racism through scientific knowledge comes to an end. From this point, racism had all the necessary factors needed to grow and develop in society and transform into ‘common knowledge’. It had the support and empowerment from scientific theories; it had the protection and security from the institutionalization and professionalization of these scientific theories and scientific knowledge; and it had the platform to broadcast throughout society due to its manifestation in different publications and public establishments that were influential on the public. Yet, the question that arises is, did racism actually become ‘common knowledge’ in Victorian Britain in the nineteenth century? Just because racism had the means to develop into ‘common knowledge’ does not necessarily mean that it in fact did develop into ‘common knowledge’. To finish this narrative on the development and growth of racism, I will examine the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899 in this next chapter and show how racism indeed did become ‘common knowledge’ in Victorian Britain.
The Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899
In 1899, Britain decided to fund and open up a colonial exhibition in the Earls Court located in London that went by the name of The Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899. The goal of this Exhibition was to collect, represent, and display all of the staple products of Victoria to the general public. Yet, the Committee’s responsible for the Exhibition had a slightly different perspective on the role that the Exhibition would fulfill. Rather than just displaying the variety of products from the Motherlands colonial ventures and successes, the “Exhibition was to bring the colonies, with all of their advantages and possibilities, under the notice of the English people.”40 The goal of the Exhibition, in this sense, was to be more than just a center of display, but rather, to also act as a place of knowledge and information for the general public. Now, as one would expect, most of the products that were displayed came from the categories of agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. However, these were not the only ‘products’ put on display at the Exhibition.
On May 8, 1899, in the Empress Theatre at the Greater Exhibition, a show by the name of ‘Savage South Africa’ was performed for the first time for the masses to watch.41 Besides the name of the show being innately racist, racism intertwined itself into the entire production, formation, and display of the show. To begin, this show required the transportation of 200 natives from South Africa. An individual might ask the question, how does one obtain such a large number of individuals? Frank Fillis, the show’s creator, answered this question by publishing an advertisement in a variety of different newspapers in South Africa. Specifically, there was one advertisement in a Cape Town Newspaper that read, “Savage South Africa in London: Wanted, horned animals, baboons, zebras, giraffes, koodos, springbucks, hartebeests, and young Afrikaner girls (good looking and to be slightly colored).”42
This advertisement clearly demonstrates how the scientific racist ideologies are intertwined in its composite. This is best seen in the fact that it incorporates African natives in a list of exotic animals. Fillis wanted to bring exoticism back to the Europe and display the fascinating and extraordinary things that are found in a place like South Africa. Animals such as the giraffes and horned animals are appealing for their pure physical differences. The African, on the other hand, while intriguing to the Europeans for their physical differences, took on another appeal to the audience. This appeal was the idea created by pseudo-scientific notions that the African was the ‘missing link’ between men and apes.43 Hence, South Africa was seen as an imperial-controlled territory that was inhabited by these ‘missing links’, and the African’s classification as this ‘evolutionary answer’ was a ‘product’ of British science.
In turn, Fillis wanted to present the Africans in an entertaining and showbiz fashion, but, also, wanted to be informative by accurately and vividly portraying the cultural and historical aspects of the natives for the public. He obviously thought that the best way to accomplish this goal was through as Neil Parsons, a History professor at the University of Botswana, calls ethnological show business or, in other words, to take Africans from their homes and ‘put them on display’.44 Thus, in the recruitment process for the participants45 for such a show, the presupposition of the African race being an inferior race, which had historical significance in explaining the development of the white European race, was present. By 1899, this racist conception was seen as ‘accepted fact’ rather than ‘proposed theory’.
Now, the very act of ‘putting a savage on display’ highlights this manifestation of racism as ‘common knowledge’. The act in itself displays the belief that there is an inequality between the two parties. For example, in a zoo, the act of caging animals innately displays the power and superiority humans have over other animals. The same concept applies to the ‘Savage South Africa’ show. The White European by making the Africans a spectacle due to the fact that they are different in race and culture is a display that the white European race has superiority and domination over the African race. The important aspect to highlight is that the conception of racial inequality and a racial hierarchy is a tacit presumption made by a non-scientist. Frank Fillis was a native Londoner that was involved in the entertainment industry. He was not a prominent scientist, anthropologist, nor ethnologist. Continuing, the same goes for the vast majority of the ever-changing four thousand citizens that visited and supported the show every day during its existence.46 The very act of ‘putting savages on display’ being carried out by a non-scientist and this act receiving support from the majority of the public highly supports the argument that racism had become innate in the Victorian mindset.
Additionally, the marketing for the show clearly depicts that this transformation of racism into an accepted fact or ‘common knowledge’ had taken place. The ‘Savage South Africa’ show brought the public “a sight never previously presented in Europe, a horde of savages direct from their kraals…”47 The show was presented to the public as a platform where citizens could see the ‘savages’ for themselves. The producers and the managers imagined the show as more than just a form of entertainment, which is clear in the rhetoric used to promote the show. The rhetoric demonstrates that the show was to be a source of ethnographic knowledge and an experience of savage exoticism for the public.
Moreover, the public newspapers used the pronouns of ‘superior race’ to describe the white Europeans and ‘specimens of a lower race’ to describe the African natives.48 The rhetoric that is displayed to describe and promote the show directly derives from the scientific theories presented in the decades before the Exhibition took place. This linguistic similarity again illuminates the influence that the scientific theories had on the public’s conception of the other races that were not white European. Specifically, the newspapers describing the native as a ‘specimen’ is very scientific in nature. It creates this image of the African as an object of study, which was seen in Notes and Queries on Anthropology for the Use of Travellers and Residents in Uncivilized Lands twenty-five years before. In the end, society, during the ‘Savage South Africa’ show, already wholeheartedly believed in this racist conception of Africans as an inferior evolutionary species that embodied the characteristics of being ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’. Therefore, when these ‘primitive savages’ were put on display, they could be observed by the public to reflect on how much more advanced and developed the white European race was in the stages of evolution.
Conclusively, scientific knowledge gave rise to a new conception of racism that eventually transformed into ‘common knowledge’ within the Empire. Charles Darwin’s development of the theory of natural selection revolutionized the scientific community and laid the foundations necessary for this new conception of racism to grow and develop. In turn, other scientists, such as Francis Galton and Thomas Huxley, worked from the premises presented by Darwin and developed their own scientific theories. Throughout this developmental process, they imposed and intertwined their own racist views into the theories. As a result, scientific knowledge and the scientific community supported racism. With such support, racism and racial inequality came to be conceived as fact and knowledge. This alone though was not enough to transform racism and the idea of racial inequality into ‘common knowledge’ in Victorian Society.
What was needed was the institutionalization and professionalization of scientific knowledge. This institutionalization and professionalization of scientific knowledge took place due to figures like James Hunt and Thomas Huxley. Through this process of professionalization and institutionalization, racism was able to gain more credibility and protection from scrutiny. On top of these gained benefits, racism extended its influential reach through the means of various publications and public institutions that were made available due to the scientific institutions that it manifested itself into. From this point forward, racism had the necessary power, credibility, support, and influence to manifest in the minds of the Victorian public and transform into ‘common knowledge’.
Now, this transformation into ‘common knowledge’ was displayed in the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899, specifically, in the show called ‘Savage South Africa’. The very nature of the show centered on the idea that the African natives were an inferior race, which is clearly expressed in the rhetoric used to describe and promote the show. It was meant to be entertaining, yet, act as a primary source to the public concerning the cultural and physical aspects of such natives. In turn, the public would be able to see exactly what being ‘primitive’ and being ‘savage’ looked like, acted like, and lived like. By ‘putting the savages on display’, the public was observing ‘inferior specimens’, and from their observations, they could reinforce the idea that the white European race was evolutionarily superior to the African race. The show, in essence, was fulfilling popular desire to see the ‘evolutionary discrepancies’ between white Europeans and Africans. It was not arguing for the existence of these evolutionary discrepancies or the idea of racial inequality; rather, it was presenting physical evidence (in the form of Africans) in an entertaining fashion for the already accepted and popularly held conception of racial inequality. Thus, this shows that racism and racial inequality did indeed transform into ‘common knowledge’ in Victorian society in the late nineteenth century.
Ultimately, I would like to end with this paper’s contemporary importance. As the events, people, and ideologies in this paper occurred in the recent past, I believe that this paper can be useful for contemporary society. As Niall Ferguson states, in his book Empire: The Rise and Decline of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, the United States is the only power capable of playing the imperial role in world.49 Being in such a powerful position, the United States influences the lives of hundreds of millions, arguably even billions, of people across the world. Moreover, prominent members of the United States with a single ideology could impact the way the world operates, specifically members of the scientific community.
While today’s society has realized the ludicrous and immoral nature of using science to support explicit racist claims, this does not mean that science has lost the potential to give rise to other dangerous ideologies and methods. In the words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” With that being said, as science becomes more complex and scientific ideologies and discoveries more detailed, there must be a conscious effort for such discoveries and ideas not to infringe on the rights of people and all humans.50 Thus, while this paper presents a historical narrative, I believe that it also demonstrates the inherent dangerous potential that comes with science being such a respected, powerful, and societal force in the world.
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