Theories of Race

Christoph Meiners

  • Christoph Meiners's portrait

    Christoph Meiners



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A less celebrated but remarkably productive colleague of Blumenbach’s at Göttingen, Christoph Meiners sought to link biology and ethnography, merging racial and historical differences in a way that, while methodologically primitive, proved to be extraordinarily influential in the history of the human sciences.

Devoted to ideas rejected by some of his most distinguished contemporaries including Blumenbach and Kant, Meiners, who may have been the first writer to use the term “Caucasian,” argued that races could be distinguished, characterized, and ranked. This made him less representative of or sympathetic to the period in which he lived and worked but more attractive to some writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when such ideas acquired political sponsorship. Gobineau cited Meiners in Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853), but the real peak of Meiners’s reputation came in the 1930s, when he became known, especially among German thinkers allied with the National Socialists, as the founder of “scientific racism.” His work is included here both because of his contemporary eminence and because of the significance of that connection.

While not himself a traveler, Meiners was an assiduous reader of traveler’s reports, a ferocious accumulator of statistics, and an indefatigable writer. Among his vast list of writings are a history of the female sex, a history of class inequality, and a description of ancient monuments in all parts of the world. His posthumous reputation rests, however, very largely on his Grundriss der Geschichte der Menschheit [Outline of the history of mankind] (1785), in which he attempts to create a “new science” of human difference founded on Blumenbach’s concept of “degeneration,” interpreted not as Blumenbach understood it, as deviation, but as decline and decay. Where Blumenbach allowed that Caucasians were the most beautiful variety “according to our ideas of beauty,” Meiners took Caucasian beauty and non-Caucasian ugliness not as judgments but as facts from which other facts of a different order followed. Meiners’ scholarly approach encompassed a broad range of physical, moral, cultural, and historical factors, but his conclusions tended toward a brutal clarity.

. . . the human species appears to originate from two main divisions, the Tartar or Caucasian, and the Mongol; the latter being not only considerably weaker in body and mind, but also more lacking in virtue than the Caucasian division; for its part, the Caucasian division is divided into two races [Racen], the Celtic and the Slavic, among which the former appears to be more intelligent and richer in virtue. . . . European nations are superior, even in a state of savagery and barbarism, to savages and barbarians from other continents, in their sense of virtue, in their receptivity toward Enlightenment, in their constitution, in their laws, their manner of warring, their comportment toward women, slaves, and vanquished enemies.*

For Meiners, the effects of this primordial racial division of humankind ramified throughout the world, producing observable differences in nearly every aspect of life. While many of Meiners’ contemporaries would have agreed that non-Europeans were defective in various ways, Meiners’ rejection of Kantian universalism and his pugnacious way of stating the case struck many as unacceptable, and he was subjected to severe, even mocking criticism in his own time, becoming known as “Mongol Meiners.”

While Meiners was highly critical of most non-Caucasians and indeed of most non-Germans—even, in his later years, of southern Germans, many of whom were Catholic, unlike the Protestant northern Germans—he was particularly contemptuous of Jews and especially Negroes, who were, in his eyes, marginally human and appropriately subjugated by European Christians. In a 1790 essay “On the Nature of the African Negro and the Liberation or Restriction of Blacks Dependent on that Nature,” he mounted a robust defense of slavery; and in 1793 he published an essay arguing that the abolition of Negro slavery would be harmful to all, even to enslaved Africans, who should consider themselves fortunate to have escaped the forms of servitude and subjugation prevalent in their home countries and pleased by the improvement in their race as a consequence of breeding with white people.** Meiners makes no argument against interbreeding; indeed, unlike Long, he celebrates the power of the “better blood” of the white race with the ability to improve (and eventually to eliminate) the lowest of races in as few as three generations.

In the close collegial relation between Blumenbach and Meiners, we can see how two people of similar background and interests, working together with shared information and using similar terms, could produce radically different understandings of the same idea.

The passage reproduced below is from a 1790 article published in a scholarly journal.

*Christoph Meiners, Grundriss der Geschichte der Menscheit (Outline of the history of mankind, 1793), quoted and translated in Britta Rupp-Eisenreich, “Christoph Meiners’ ‘New Science’ (1747-1810),” in Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race; Scientific and Popular Representations (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 68-83. 

**Christoph Meiners, “Forgesetzte Betrachtungen über den Sclavenhandel, und die Freylassung der Neger” (Other considerations on the slave trade and the liberation of Negroes), Göttingisches historisches Magazin (1793) 2: 1-58. 

“Of the Varieties and Deviate Forms of Negroes”


After having explained the nature of the Negro proper in the preceding article, I turn now to an investigation of the phenomena that have been produced by the interbreeding of this lower human race with better peoples and its displacement to other climates. The more we survey in general the effects of the origin, or blood, from which peoples and individuals arise, the more we recognize the importance of descent, and the more we will be convinced that infinitely more depends on which peoples and parents bear us than in which land and climatic zone we are born, however great the influence of the climate might be upon individual human beings and their generations.

The ugly, stupid, and unruly Negroes certainly make up the greatest number of the original inhabitants of Africa. For many centuries, however, or as we can say with confidence, for several millennia, many other peoples of different origin than that of these oldest and most numerous occupants of Africa have settled in this part of the earth. Their descendants do not only live among and next to the Negroes, they also—and have from time immemorial—interbreed with them. . . .

Among the Negroes of the Gold Coast, the most dreadful of them all, the so-called Coromantee, distinguish themselves in particular by means of their formation as well as by their temperament. These Coromantee are not nearly as ugly in face and bodily formation as the other Negroes. They approach more closely the European form. They are not as fat and spongy as the true Negro; they are more lively in their speech and movements; and they are incomparably more daring. They are, therefore, almost always the instigators and leaders of conspiracies and uprisings. . . . Some of the Negroes who are not so ugly even have the same exaggeratedly ludicrous horror of certain comforts of the body peculiar to the Bedouins in Arabia and Syria, of which we find no trace among the true—equally so swinish as shameless—Negroes. . . .

After these remarks, we are in a position to understand the true foundations of certain rules and perceptions of travelers, slave traders, and West Indian planters, which have all been verified by the experiences of several centuries. Among all slave traders and planters, it is accepted as a settled article of experience that the Negroes on the east coast are uglier, stupider, and more savage than those on the coast of Guinea and, furthermore, that ugliness, stupidity, and indomitability generally increases the deeper Negroes live in the interior of Africa or have been brought out from the interior. The Negroes from innermost Africa are almost without exception cannibals. They have a horrible tiger-like, hardly human look and pointed or jagged teeth that close together like pinking shears, or the teeth of foxes. Many of them are so unruly and desirous of human flesh that they bite off large pieces of flesh from the arms or legs of their neighbors and fellow slaves and gulp them down. Slave traders from ships either do not buy such cannibals at all or they buy them at a much lower price than other Negroes. One specimen from the remote nations comprised of creatures that Römer said can hardly be called humans was so mistrusted by European buyers that he was sold from one ship to another for half a year despite the fact that the other Negroes had broken off his teeth, as if he were a beast of prey. When a certain captain had the misfortune of getting this monster among other slaves for the second time, he had some cannon balls tied to his neck and had him thrown overboard. —We see, then, that in the interior of the Africa that produced this beast, the nature of the Negro has not been softened either by better blood or through association with more human peoples. Consequently, it is here that the complete original form [Gestalt] of this nature reveals itself. Indeed, because the Arabs have interbred less with the Negroes on the east coast of Africa than they have with the Negroes on the west coast, the former are worth less than the latter. . . .

All credible writers testify unanimously that the Negroes are improved by their removal to the Sugar Islands, or to the American mainland, and that the Creole Negroes, or the Negroes born outside Africa, are less stupid and less unruly, and, for that very reason, much more useful than the original Africans. . . .

The children of African Negroes improve themselves with every generation, and the Creole Negroes are, therefore, justly proud of their birth in the European colonies—all the more so the longer their ancestors have lived among whites. To be sure, according to the experiences that we have had up to now, the Creole Negroes have never achieved the productive genius, the sense of beauty, and the moral feeling of healthy and well-organized Europeans, but many of them surely already have impulses from shame and enough tractability that they can be impelled to do their work and be kept from mischief through close supervision, reprimands, small rewards, or with abusive comments, without use of the whip. This is why Long [Edward Long] believed that mulattoes and the best of the Creole Negroes could be given their freedom without danger. . . .

More striking still, and more certain, are the effects of interbreeding Negroes with humans of better blood and nobler substance. Male and female mulattoes, the first offspring of European fathers and Negro women, have at least half the skin color, the formation, the abilities, and the virtues of their fathers, and the better blood usually predominates so that the children of white men [Blanken] and Negro women resemble the fathers more than the mothers. The skin color of the mulattoes is yellow, and many of them look not unlike Spaniards. Mulattoes whose fathers were blond become whiter than those whose fathers had black eyes and brown hair. Their hair curls in the Negro way, but it is long, as in the beautiful peoples living along the Senegal. The shape of the face and the formation [Bildung] of the rest of their bodies are more European than African, just as mulattoes are much more like Europeans than Negroes with respect to their ability, cleanliness, industriousness, and mettle. To be sure, male and female mulattoes are, according to the law, slaves of the master to whom their mothers belong. They are, however, given due justice for their better blood and their inborn merits over Negroes and are used in the house, but not for field work, or as male and female overseers. . . .

The children of European men and mestizo women cannot be distinguished from whites with respect to their color and build, but at least in Jamaica they do not receive all of the rights and freedoms of Europeans or white Creoles because too much Negro blood—even if it is not visible— remains in them. The mixture of Negro blood that the so-called mestizo of both sexes have in them makes it evident that these descendants of Negroes, who have already become completely white, nevertheless retain very often the revolting bad smell of their black great grandmothers. Only those descendants of Negroes who are more than three degrees removed from Negro blood become completely equal in build, color, abilities, and rights to the Europeans and their children of unmixed blood. The progressive improvement [Verbesserung] of African blood through constant, new mixing with European blood, which is evident as well in all similar cases in the rest of the world, affords the pleasant prospect that the Europeans can and will contribute to the perfection and happiness of other, less noble peoples, not only through their rule and enlightenment, but even especially by means of interbreeding with them.

Just as the Negro race is ennobled by European blood and becomes correspondingly more beautiful, more intelligent, and more well tempered, so, on the other hand, is it depraved still more if it interbreeds with the indigenous [ursprünglichen] Americans. . . .

If the reports and drawings of the various deviate forms that have originated from the interbreeding of whites, Negroes, Americans, and their offspring that Twiss found in the Spanish seaports were accurate, then nature seems now and then to make a strange leap backwards. First, the so-called Albino male is supposed to produce with a Spanish woman, a perfect Negro. An Albino is the son of a Spanish mother and a Morisco, who, I turn, is produced by a Spanish male and a mulatto woman. . . . When we reflect, then, only upon the mongrel races I have mentioned, we will be inclined to believe that all world travelers confirm: that we encounter in Spanish America and on the large East-Indian islands every conceivable difference of human skin, color, formations [Bildungen], and temperament.

Bruce David Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2006). 

Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, trans. Martin Brady (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006). 

Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, trans. E. Howard (New York: Basic Books, 1971). 

Britta Rupp-Eisenreich, “Christoph Meiners’ ‘New Science’ (1747-1810),” in Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), 68-83. 

Suzanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies: Conquest, Family, and Nation in Precolonial Germany1770-1870 (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1997)