Theories of Race

John Pinkerton

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    John Pinkerton



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John Pinkerton was a poet, an antiquarian, an industrious but idiosyncratic scholar, a geographer, and an Anglophile Scotsman. Controversial and even dismissed in his time and subsequently, Pinkerton still commands interest for the way in which he united three emerging subjects: language, race, and, to a lesser extent, national identity.

In the late eighteenth century the historical study of language was becoming an exceptionally ambitious intellectual project as scholars sought to recover traces of the primordial ur-language of the human species by positing earlier languages that had left traces or deposits in subsequent languages. The recovery of “Proto-Indo-European”—the language presumably spoken by a hypothetical Neolithic group of Eurasians—became the ultimate goal of linguistic scholars, who became masters of erudite inference.

Pinkerton’s second major concern, race, was beginning to draw the attention of serious thinkers who sought to understand human diversity as part of the project of coming to grips with the deepest mysteries of the human condition in scientific, rational, and non-theological terms.

And nations, whose modern form was emerging with the post-revolutionary governments of the United States and then France, were poised to become a dominant political form in Europe and North America. With a bewildering and often misguided attention to the details of languages and the texts of ancient authorities, Pinkerton managed to combine all three inquiries in his Dissertation.

Pinkerton rejects “family of man” conceptions in favor of hard racial divisions and even for separate creations, evidence for which was, he asserted, provided by ancient languages. “So far from all nations being descended of one man,” Pinkerton had written in an “Essay on the Origin of Scottish Poetry” published the year before his Dissertation, “there are many races of men of quite different form and attribute”; moreover, “to suppose all races of men descended from one parent is as absurd as to suppose that an ass may become a horse, or an ouran-outan.”*

Pinkerton’s primary task in the Dissertation is to marshal linguistic and historical evidence in support of the theory that the authentic population and culture of Scotland was Scythian or Gothic with no Celtic elements. Secondarily, but just as consequentially, he seeks to characterize the differences between groups as racial differences owing nothing to geography, climate, or culture. At the core of his argument is the assertion that the famous Celtic Gaels or Highlanders are a degenerate imposter race comparable to “negroes,” the lore surrounding them “a tissue of visions,” and the very word “Celtic” itself a “mere fall of letters.” [On Celts, see also Knox, Meiners, and Renan.] He supports his claims with ingenious philological scholarship and, as he later admitted, forged documents that had appeared to prove that what had been thought to be Celtic place names in Scotland were in fact Germanic remnants.

The positive arguments Pinkerton makes rest on the premise that most modern Europeans are descended from Asian Goths, or Scythians. There is, he argues, no difference between these groups, for as he puts it at the conclusion to Chapter I, “it is Historic Truth that the Scythians, Getae, Goths, are one and the same people” (14). On the authority of ancient authors, Pinkerton traces the movements of the Goths through ancient Greece and Rome and from thence into Europe, where they spawned four “Grand Races of Men,” biologically determined groups that included the Celts, the Iberi of Spain, the Sarmatae of Russia and Poland, and the Goth-Scythians, a tribe of nomadic horsemen mentioned by Herotodus. Because the homeland of the Scythians was in the Caucasus, where some writers had claimed the Biblical Flood had receded, a “racial” identity for Europe that conformed with that part, at least, of the Bible could be asserted. At the same time, however, Pinkerton makes this identity the result of migrating Asians rather than natives, since the despised Celts are the only race indigenous to Europe. All European conflicts become, in this account, intra-racial struggles between various groups of Goth-Scythians.

The article by Paul Stock in Further Reading is an informed and insightful guide to the various complexities, contradictions, and confusions of Pinkerton’s historical claims.

*John Pinkerton, “An Essay on the Origin of Scottish Poetry,” Ancient Scottish Poems, Never Before in Print, vol. 1 of 2 (Edinburgh and London, 1786), xxi-lxxiv, xxv-xxvi. 

A Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths, Being an Introduction to the Ancient and Modern History of Europe



The learned have on no subject fallen into so numerous, and gross, errors as with regard to the Scythians. They have been confounded with the Celts, tho all the ancient writers oppose this; and distinguish no two races of men more widely than Scythians and Celts. They have been taken for Sarmatians, tho all the ancients also oppose this; and, from the days of Herodotus, especially distinguish the Scythians from the Sarmatians. They have been, by late authors of the first fame, confounded with Tartars, an error of all others the most ridiculous: for the Tartars were absolutely unknown to the ancients, till the Huns, who were indeed strictly speaking Monguls not Tartars, appeared and seized on the countries of the eastern Scythae. These points are discussed in this essay. But, that the reader may proceed to it with clear and precise ideas, he may be here told, what he will find fully displayed in it, namely, that the Scythians were neither Celts, Sarmatians, nor Tartars, no more than a horse is an elephant, a lion or a tiger, but a horse; so the Scythians were Scythians, a distinct, peculiar, and marked people, first called Scythians by the Greeks, who retained that name for them till the destruction of Constantinople in the 15th century; while the Latins, upon forming a disagreeable acquaintance with them, called them Goths, as they also called themselves.

Now, tho almost all Europe be possessed by the descendents of the Goths, a people from whom, as shall be shewn, the Greeks and Romans also sprung; and the Goths transcended, even when barbarians, all nations in wisdom and war: yet such is our ignorance, who are at present but slowly eloping from barbarism, that the name of Goth, the sacred name of our fathers, is an object of destestation! This school-boy idea prevails to this hour in the first writers; so true is the remark of Dryden,

Men are but children of a larger growth.

It springs solely from our love for Rome, (itself a Gothic state,) which we draw from Roman writers at school; and our knowlege that the other Goths destroyed the Roman empire. Instead of turning our admiration to that great people, who could annihilate so potent an empire; instead of blessing the period that delivered all kingdoms from the dominion of one; we execrate our progenitors, to whom we are indebted for all our present happiness! (vi-viii)

Part I, Chapter II. Whether the Scythians or Goths proceeded from Scandinavia into Asia; or from Asia into Europe

It must here be premised, that the term Scythians is often, by modern writers, used in a most lax and indefinite sense; but is never so employed by the ancients, whose ideas upon the subject were accurate and distinct. Herodotus carefully distinguishes between the Scythians and the Sarmatae. In Book IV. c. 57, he says, that beyond the Tanais to the north “are not Scythae, but Sarmatae:” c. 101. he mentions that the Melanchlaeni (a Sarmatic nation) are beyond the Scythae twenty days journey, having said c. 20. that the Melanchlaeni are not Scythae: and lib. IV. c. 117, he tells that some of the Sarmatae were taught the SCYTHIC tongue by the Amazons. He also distinguishes the Scythians from the Celts; and places the later far to the west. The Tartars were unknown to the ancients, till the Fifth century, when the Huns, who were Tartars, burst into Europe: and Jornandes sufficiently marks the great difference between the Scythians and the Huns; as we can at this day by comparing the large shape, blue eyes, and fair hair, of a German, with the small stature, small black eyes, and black hair of a Tartar. (15-16)

The reader, to obtain a clear and precise view of our subject, must bear in mind that there were in ancient Europe only four Grand Races of men; namely, 1. The Celts, the most ancient inhabitants that can be traced; and who were to the other races what the savages of American are to the European settlers there. 2. The Iberi of Spain and Aquitania, who were Mauri and had past from Africa. These Two Races were few in number; the Celts being mostly destroyed by the Sarmatae and Scythae; and few of the Iberi having come into Europe. 3. The Sarmatae, who were in all appearance originally possessors of south-west Tartary, but expelled by the Tartars. For their speech, the Sarmatic or Slavonic is remote from the Tartaric; and their persons, full of grace and majesty, are different from those of Tartars: so that they are not of Tartaric origin. 4. The Scythians, who originated, as shall presently be seen, from present Persia; and spred from thence to the Euxine, and almost over all Europe.

In the ancient authors these grand races of men are marked and clear; and that chief distinction of the four languages still remains to certify them. The Celtic is spoken by the Irish and Welch. The Iberian still partly survives in the Gascunian or Basque, and Mauritanic. The Sarmatic is in the vast Slavonic tongue. The Scythic comprehends the other nations; but especially the Germans and Scandinavians, whose speech is less mixt. No divisions can be more accurate and precise, from present proofs, as well as from ancient writers. . . . the antients distinguish more widely between the Scythians and Celts than between any other Grand Races of men; for, from the days of Herodotus to the latest voice of antiquity, the Scythians are marked as proceeding from Asia, and the Celts as confined to the utmost west of Europe. Nor can any tongues be of more different form than the Celtic and Gothic. (17-19)

Perhaps it may be thought that these ecclesiastic authorities prove too much, as they mark the whole immediate descendents of Noah as Scythians; and of course might prove all the nations of the globe Scythians, as by Scripture account they all sprung from Noah. But it is the line of Shem down to Serug, and not of Ham or Japhet, who are marked as Scythians; and Shem was reputed the father of Asia, as Ham of Africa, and Japhet of Europe. The flood is now generally reputed a local event; but accept these authorities any way, and they shew that the Scythians originated in Asia. (26)

Part I, Chapter III. The real origin, and first progress, of the Scythians or Goths: and their Eastern Settlements

It is a self-evident proposition, that the author of nature, as he formed great varieties in the same species of plants, and of animals, so he also gave various races of men as inhabitants of several countries. A Tartar, a Negro, an American, &c. &c. differ as much from a German, as a bull-dog, or lap-dog, or shepherd’s cur, from a pointer. The differences are radical; and such as no climate or chance could produce: and it may be expected that as science advances, able writers will give us a complete system of the many different races of men. (33-34)

Part II, Chapter III, The Germans were Scythæ.

The old Irish grammarians, as Mr. O’Connor tells, call their Gallic, or Irish tongue, Berla Tebide, or a mixt language. The Welsh, as all know, is, even in it’s most ancient remains, full of Danish and English words. . . . So that in fact, the Celtic, far from being a pure speech, is the most mixt and corrupt in the world. For the Celts were so inferior a people, being to the Scythæ as a negro to an European, that, as all history shews, to see them, was to conquer them; and as they had no arts, or inventions, of their own, they of course received innumerable words from other tongues. . . . We naturally reverence what we do not know; and this may be called the Celtic century, for all Europe has been inundated with nonsense about the Celts. When we come to the truth about them, and Time always draws truth out of the well, the Celtic mist will vanish, or become a mere cloud. (122-23)

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, “Roots, Races, and the Return to Philology,” in The Humanities and the Dream of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 47-79. 

Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion and Philology in the Nineteenth-Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992). (On the quest for Proto-Indo-European and the linguistic origins of mankind.) 

John Pinkerton, Modern Geography. A Description of the Empires, Kingdoms, States, and Colonies, two vols. (London: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, 1802). 

Paul Stock: “‘Almost a Separate Race’: Racial Thought and the Idea of Europe in British Encyclopedias and Histories, 1771-1830), Modern Intellectual History 8 (April 2011) 1: 3-29.