Theories of Race

Oliver Goldsmith

  • Oliver Goldsmith's portrait

    Oliver Goldsmith



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At the very end of his difficult but celebrated life, Oliver Goldsmith, an Anglo-Irish novelist, poet, and playwright, and an acquaintance if not an intimate of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and others in London’s literary society, published an immense multi-volume work entitled A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature in which he undertook a complete account of the planet and all the living things that inhabited it. In the second volume, on animals, following discourses on sleep, hunger, seeing, and hearing, and before taking up such subjects as monsters, mummies, zebras, roe-bucks, and “quadrupeds of the hog kind,” Goldsmith placed an essay assessing “the advantages which men have over men, and the various kinds with which our earth is inhabited.” This twenty-five-page essay, “Of the Varieties in the Human Race,” represents the first extended treatment of race—a term he uses interchangeably with “variety”—by a major English literary figure.

Noting that the differences among human beings are much more subtly marked than among other animals, Goldsmith attributes this to the fact that humans are all descended from “one common parent,” so that such differences as there are must be the consequences of diet, climate, “custom, accident, or fashion” rather than expressions of some fundamental ontological distinction. “There is,” Goldsmith notes, “nothing in the shape, nothing in the faculties, that shows their coming from different originals,” which is why in areas where trade is common, distinctions become blurred and “the inhabitants appear to be a mixture of all the nations upon the earth.” For this reason, he says racial distinctions must be studied in regions whose populations have been more or less stable for long periods.

Goldsmith identifies six races, each associated with a particular region:

  1. The polar regions, including Laplanders, Esquimaux, Samoeid Tartars, and Greenlanders, all of whom are short, “equally rude, superstitious, and stupid.” Excellent hunters and exceptionally hardy, these people are absurdly proud, and “fitted by nature to endure the rigours of their situation.”
  2. The Tartar race, found in Asia, including China and Japan. These are known by their general ugliness, and especially their flat noses, enormous teeth, and small eyes, placed “in some of them . . . five or six inches asunder.” Tartars have no decency and are “chiefly robbers.”
  3. Southern Asiatics, including Indians. They come to physical maturity early, with eight-year old girls conceiving children with their ten-year old husbands. Indians have “long been remarkable for their cowardice and effeminacy,” as proven by the fact that every attempted invasion of their land has succeeded.
  4. Africans. “This gloomy race of mankind is found to blacken all the southern parts of Africa, from eighteen degrees north of the line, to its extreme termination at the Cape of Good Hope.” Goldsmith focuses on women’s breasts, which, “after bearing one child, hang down below the navel; and it is customary with them to suckle the child at their backs, by throwing the breast over the shoulder. As their persons are thus naturally deformed, at least to our imaginations, their minds are equally incapable of strong exertions. The climate seems to relax their mental powers still more than those of the body; they are, therefore, in general, found to be stupid, indolent, and mischievous.”
  5. Americans, who, surprisingly, are nearly all of the same color regardless of where they live. “All these savages seem to be cowardly,” Goldsmith says; “they seldom are known to face their enemies in the field, but fall upon them at an advantage; and the greatness of their fears serves to increase the rigours of their cruelty.” Also, “they all have a serious air, although they seldom think.” Goldsmith concludes with a generalization that savages in every country are “almost the same; a wild, independent, and precarious life, produces a peculiar train of virtues and vices: and patience and hospitality, indolence and rapacity, content and sincerity, are found not less among the natives of American, than all the various nations of the globe.”
  6. Europeans, including Asia Minor and northern Africa, who “generally agree in the colour of their bodies, the beauty of their complexions, the largeness of their limbs, and the vigour of their understandings. Those arts which might have had their invention among the other races of mankind, have come to perfection there.”

A man known for ugliness and social ineptitude, Goldsmith was particularly sensitive to the relative grace and beauty of the various races, noting that “Europeans” were favored in these respects. “Of all the colours by which mankind is diversified,” he writes, “it is easy to perceive, that ours is not only the most beautiful to the eye, but the most advantageous. The fair complexion seems, if I may so express it, as a transparent covering to the soul; all the variations of the passions every expression of joy or sorrow, flows to the cheek, and, without language, marks the mind.” Regarding white as “the color to which mankind naturally tends,” Goldsmith still made no argument against racial mixing, and, having begun life as an ill-favored Irish vagabond, he was also aware that the races that seemed to the European so deprived had their own standards, their own claims, and their own pride.

“Of the Varieties in the Human Race”


In this slight survey, therefore, I think we may see that all the variations in the human figure, as far as they differ from our own, are produced either by the rigour of the climate, the bad quality or the scantiness of the provisions, or by the savage customs of the country. They are actual marks of the degeneracy in the human form; and we may consider the European figure and colour as standards to which refer all other varieties, and with which to compare them. In proportion as the Tartar or American approaches nearer to European beauty, we consider the face as less degenerated; in proportion as he differs more widely, he had made great deviation from his original form.

That we have all sprung from one common parent, we are taught, both by reason and religion, to believe; and we have good reason, also to think that the Europeans resemble him more than any of the rest of his children. However, it must not be concealed that the olive-coloured Asiatic, and even the jet-black negro, claim this honour of hereditary resemblance; and assert that white men are mere deviations from original perfection. Odd as this opinion may seem, they have Linnaeus, the celebrated naturalist, on their side; who supposes man a native of the tropical climates, and only a sojourner more to the north. But, not to enter into a controversy upon a matter of very remote speculation, I think one argument alone will suffice to prove the contrary, and show that the white man is the original source from when the other varieties have sprung. We have frequently seen white children produced from black parents, but have never seen a black offspring the production of two whites. From hence we may conclude that whiteness is the colour to which mankind naturally tends; for, as in the tulip, the parent stock is known, by all the artificial varieties breaking into it; so in man, that colour must be original which never alters, and to which all the rest are accidentally seen to change. . . . From this then, we see that the variations of the Negro colour is into whiteness, whereas the white are never found to have a race of Negro children. Upon the whole, all those changes which the African, the Asiatic, or the American undergo, are but accidental deformities, which a kinder climate, better nourishment, or more civilized manners, would, in a course of centuries, very probably, remove. (92-94).