Theories of Race

François Bernier

  • François Bernier's portrait

    François Bernier



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François Bernier was a well-traveled French physician and libertine who wrote extensively about his many voyages. The reputation he acquired through his efforts gave him access to several celebrated literary salons in Paris, and he enjoyed wide acquaintance with some of the notable people of his era. But two centuries after his death, he acquired a reputation of an altogether different kind, coming to be considered by some as the founder of modern racial thought and even of the “scientific racism” that led, ultimately, to the Third Reich.

The basis of this reputation is not Bernier’s scientific or literary work, but a brief note composed as a postscript to a text given as a gift to Madame de la Sablière, whose salon he had frequented, and published anonymously in 1684 as “Nouvelle Division de la Terre, par les differentes Especes ou Races d’hommes qui l’habite, envoyée par un fameux Voyageur” (The division of the earth according to the different types or races of men who inhabit it, sent by a famous traveler). In this brief work, Bernier uses the term race loosely, equating it with species, but his concept is decidedly modern in that it applies to people whose visible affinity with each other and differentiation from others is biological and genetic rather than circumstantial or environmental in origin. Bernier’s effort might be the first attempt at an orderly description and classification of all human races, one based not on mere geography but on, as he puts it, “my own observations” of the faces and bodies of various peoples.

Bernier proposes “four or five Types of Race.”

Among the first type, I include France, Spain, England, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Poland, and the whole of Europe in general except for part of Muscovy. To these can be added a small part of Africa, namely that between the kingdoms of Fez and Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli as far as the Nile, and likewise a large part of Asia, that is, the Empire of the Great Khan with the three Arabias, the whole of Persia, the realms of the Great Mogul, the Kingdom of Golconda, that of Bijapur, the Maldives, and part of the Kingdoms of Arakan, Pegu, Siam, Sumatra, Bantam and Borneo.

The second type consists of the peoples of Africa.

Among the second type, I place the whole of Africa, except for the Coastal areas just mentioned. The following features justify considering the Africans a distinct type: (i) their thick lips and their snub noses, for very few of them have aquiline noses and medium-sized lips (ii) the blackness that is their essential trait and whose cause is not, as people think, the heat of the Sun—for if you transport a Black man and a Black woman to a cold country, their children will continue to be black and so will all their descendants until they intermarry with white women. The explanation for their distinct type must therefore be sought in their sperm and their blood, both of which are, however, the same colour as in all the other types (iii) their skin is quite oily, supple and polished, except for the areas roasted by the Sun (iv) their beards consist of only three or four strands (v) their hair is not truly hair but instead a sort of wool similar to the coat of one of our hunting-spaniels and (vi) their teeth are whiter than the finest ivory and the whole inside of their mouths, like their lips, is red as Coral.

Bernier does not equate all Africans, and notes in particular the “the Blacks of the Cape of Good Hope,” who “are usually smaller, thinner, with uglier faces” than other Africans, with peculiar and distinctive habits. They are “swift hunters, passionately fond of carrion-meat, which they eat raw, and they wind bits of the guts around their arms and necks, just as you can sometimes see our Butchers' dogs do, so as to eat them later as need arises. . . . and they speak a language which is very strange and almost impossible for Europeans to imitate. Some Dutchmen say they speak Turkey-Cock.”

In the third group Bernier places the peoples of the “Kingdoms of Arakan and Siam, part of the Islands of Sumatra and Borneo, the Philippines, Japan, the Kingdom of Pegu, Tonkin, Cochin-China, China, Tartary between China, the Ganges and Muscovy, Usbekistan, Turkestan, Tashkent, a small part of Muscovy, the little Tartars and the Turkomans who live along the upper Euphrates near Aleppo.” These peoples, although “really white,” do not belong in the first race because of their flat faces, snub noses, and eyes.

On the basis of two individuals he had seen in Danzig, Bernier creates a fourth, numerically tiny but strikingly ugly race of the diminutive, “nasty,” and “terrifying” Lapps or Sámi living in the arctic north of several Scandinavian countries. These are “little short men with fat legs, big shoulders, short necks and faces somehow elongated, terrifying-looking, resembling a bear's. I only ever saw two of them at Danzig. But according to pictures I have seen and reports given to me by a number of people who visited that Country, they are nasty creatures, nasty drinkers of fish-oil which they think better than all the nicest liquors in the world.”

American Indians are represented as a puzzling outlier possibly related to or derived from the first race, which Bernier refers to as “our own.” The “Americans,” as they came to be called, had been the subject of Isaac de la Peyrère’s Prae-Adamitae (1655), in which the then-scandalous possibility of multiple creations—which would subsequently be called polygenesis—had been proposed.

Bernier bases his classifications in part on his evaluations of the women of the world, some of whom could be closely observed in slave markets.

What I have observed as regards the beauty of women is no less differentiated. Certainly, there are lovely ones and ugly ones to be found everywhere. I have seen some real beauties in Egypt, which put me in mind of the fair and famed Cleopatra. Among the Blacks of Africa I have also seen some very beautiful women who did not have thick lips and snub noses. . . . At Moka I saw several of them completely naked, waiting to be sold, and I can tell you, there could be nothing lovelier in the world to see—but they were extremely expensive because they were being sold at three times the price of the others.

I have also seen some very beautiful women in the Indies: they could be termed lovely Brown ones. Among them are some whose colouring inclines only to very light yellow: these women are highly valued and I found them very much to my liking too. For this slight yellowishness is bright and sparkling, quite different from the nasty livid pallor of someone with jaundice. Imagine a beautiful young daughter of France who has just contracted jaundice—but instead of her sick, pallid face, and her yellowish, faded, listless eyes, think of her having a healthy, soft and smiling face with beautiful, bright eyes full of love: that is something like the idea I want to give you.

The Indians rightly aver that there are no beautiful women in Countries where the water is bad and where the land is not plentiful and fertile. There can be no doubt that high quality of water and of foodstuffs contributes a great deal to beauty. . . .

The women on the Ganges at Benares and downriver towards Bengal are generally highly rated. The women of the Kingdom of Kashmir are still more so, for not only are they white like women in Europe but they have a sweetness of face and are of admirable height, and from Kashmir come the women at the Court of the Mogul and those whom all the Great Khans have about them. . . .

The women who are natives of Persia could not be called beautiful; but that does not mean that the City of Istvahan is not full of an infinite number of lovely women, and also of handsome men, thanks to the great numbers of beautiful slave-women brought there from Georgia and Circassia.

The Turks also have many very beautiful women, because apart from those who are natives of the country, who are not ugly, they have those Greek beauties of whom you have so often heard tell, and in addition a prodigious quantity of Slaves who reach them from Mingrelia, Georgia and Circassia, where, in the opinion of all the men from the Levant and of all Travellers, the loveliest women in the world are to be found. Moreover, at Constantinople, it is forbidden for Christians and Jews to buy a slave from Circassia: They are reserved only for Turks. When our friend M. le Chevalier Chardin talks about them—and he travelled in their Country—he is enchanted, and he asserts that, generally speaking, all of them are beautiful, and that in all his travels he has never seen anything so lovely. I will not say anything to you about the beauties of Europe, since you doubtless know as much about them as I do, or more.

Although Bernier does not call the authority of the Bible into question, his “new division” of peoples into distinct and natural groupings represents a very different way of conceiving of human difference than those implied by the stories of Adam and Eve, the Flood and the dispersal of the sons of Noah, or the Tower of Babel, in all of which the will of God was determinative. One of the first to propose an alternative to Biblical explanations, Bernier notes differences but does not account for them; nor does he explicitly rank races, much less depict any race as the consequence of God’s pleasure or displeasure, his distaste for the appearance of the Lapps notwithstanding.

While Bernier’s account is naturalistic, materialistic, secular, and empirical, it does include a number of striking judgments and evaluations. The salon provenance of his essay is evident in the minute attention he pays to the appearance of the women, many of whom he could observe at close range because they were available for examination in slave markets all over the world. Gallantly defending and evaluating the beauty of the women of the world (except for the Lapps) against prejudiced European detractors, he supports his evaluations with the objective evidence provided by the market. Bernier’s “new division” thus represents an early instance of a connection between race-consciousness and slavery. The Code Noir, which regulated the trade and treatment of slaves, was published just one year after Bernier’s essay, in 1685.

If Bernier’s account was compatible with the slave trade and with the natural history of man that developed over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it represented an incipient challenge to the philosophical movement that was just about to emerge. John Locke’s account, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), of the mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, anticipated and prepared the way for the Enlightenment movement of the following century, which posited universal access to reason as the basis for a belief in social, moral, and intellectual progress. Harmless though they may have seemed, Bernier’s categories represented a difficulty for those who wished to believe in universals. The threat was registered in a letter written in 1697 by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who objected to the entire concept of division: “I recollect reading somewhere . . . that a certain traveler had divided man into certain tribes, races, or classes.” Acknowledging superficial differences, Leibniz insisted that “that . . . is no reason why all men who inhabit the earth should not be of the same race, which has been altered by different climates.”*

*Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, “Lettre de Mr. Leibniz à Mr. Sparvenfeld” (1697), Otium Hanoveranum sive Miscellanes ex ore . . ., ed. Joachim Friedrich Feller (Leipzig: Johann Christiani Martini, 1718), 32-39, 37-38.

Pierre H. Boulle, “François Bernier and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race,” from The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, ed. Sue Peabody, Tyler Stovall (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003): 11-27. 

Joan-Pau Rubiés, “Race, Climate and Civilization in the Works of François Bernier,” Open Edition Books:

Siep Stuurman, “François Bernier and the Invention of Racial Classification,” History Workshop Journal 50 (2000): 2.