Theories of Race

Charles White

  • Charles White's portrait

    Charles White



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A peculiar document in many respects, Charles White’s essay on the “regular gradation” in the natural world demonstrates that by the end of the 18th century, a general public discourse on what would become the subject of race had arisen, with established lines of inquiry, agreed-upon terms and distinctions, and accepted authorities. A respected and innovative surgeon, a longtime Vice President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and a founder of a hospital for women, White cites Linnaeus, Buffon, Kames, Hunter, Jefferson, Camper, Long, Blumenbach, Stanhope Smith, and others in support of his argument that the entire realm of nature ranging from man and proceeding downward through orang-outangs, flying squirrels, ostriches, flying fish, creeping fish, eels, snails, pipe-worms, lichens, truffles, slate, semi-metals, water, air, fire, and ending in “More Subtile Matter,” constitutes a single vast and various entity, linked and connected at every point, with no gaps—“an immense chain of beings . . . suited to their stations in the general system” (18, 1). Within this system, each domain had its own principle of gradation; in humans, that principle was provided by the concept of race.

White’s essay also makes clear that it was well understood that the discourse on human difference was beginning to have implications or applications that seemed to complicate or contradict Enlightenment philosophy and liberal politics. It begins with a defensive “advertisement” in which the author, eager to establish his humanitarian values, states that he

has no desire to elevate the brute creation to the rank of humanity, nor to reduce the human species to a level with brutes; and he hopes that nothing advanced will be construed so as to give the smallest countenance to the pernicious practice of enslaving mankind, which he wishes to see abolished throughout the world. Neither is he desirous of assigning to any one a superiority over another. . . . He only wishes to investigate the truth, and to discover what are the established laws of nature respecting his subject (iii).

The continuum White discovered was, however, itself ranked, as were the categories within the continuum, with the lowest member of a given category serving as a transition to the category below, as the freshwater polypus represented “the last of animals and the first of plants” (3). In White’s system, all categories contain some version of this transition from the lower to the higher, even humans. Whites, White said, stood at the apex of creation, while Negroes, though indisputably human, were “nearer to the brute creation than any other of the human species” (42). In this way, White was able to link humanity with apes while sparing white people the indignity of this debasing proximity.

The strength of White’s case lay in the fact that it was grounded in comparative anatomy. Not a specialist himself, White drew his evidence from others such as Camper and the Swiss physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater, both of whom studied the human head; White emphasized in particular Camper’s “facial angle,” which was already being considered a defining marker of racial identity. White combined these results with his own measurements of forearms and legs (of a single skeleton), but in an early demonstration of how inconclusive even the most elaborate measurements could be on the larger questions, White drew the opposite inference from Camper, arguing more forcefully than any previous writer that monogenesis was wrong, that environment could not have produced the manifold differences between the various human groups, and that the only explanation for diversity was that the races had been created separately.

Taking up the issue of “complexion” that Mitchell and Stanhope Smith had also discussed, White treats the occasional appearance of albinos, “pyebalds,” “blotched,” “party-coloured,” “black-and-white people,” and “other anomalous productions” as refutations of the climate theory of diversity (121, 123). He does not credit Buffon’s argument that interbreeding proves that humanity constitutes a single species, pointing out that foxes, wolves, and jackals can interbreed. White insists, finally, that his account of separate creations, which anticipated the polygenesis advocated by a number of Americans in the 1830s and 1840s (but not by any British thinker until about 1850) is not inconsistent with the “allegorical” account given in the Bible. He points to Cain’s wife in particular as evidence of other peoples who simply did not enter the main line of the Biblical narrative (136-37).

While White did not use the category of race (except when referring to the human race), he drew clear distinctions between groups that were already being discussed in racial terms. He focused particularly on African Negroes as a transitional group whose weak powers of intellect, ability to withstand cold, and larger genitals distinguished them from “Europeans,” and whose excellent memories, manner of walking, remarkable ability to withstand pain, and acute sense of smell aligned them with animals such as horses and dogs. White was one of the first to rest his case for the Negro’s lower and intermediate position in the scale of nature on a mass of physiological detail, some of it based on measurements of specimens in his private collection of body parts. This mode of argument was to have considerable appeal for some Americans, including John Augustine Smith, later to become president of the College of William and Mary. Smith, the only American naturalist to argue for the Negro’s inferiority to Europeans without qualification or reservation, cited White and others in arguing that the two groups had been “placed at the opposite extremes of the scale.”* Like Smith, White opposed the institution of slavery, but his lecture was condemned in the liberal Monthly Review [see “Anonymous,” in Further Reading].

White concludes his learned dissertation on an unexpected note of gallantry, with a salute to the women of Europe, followed by a condemnation of the slave trade and a vigorous assertion of the humanity and dignity of all humans, including Negroes.

Appended to White’s published text was a translation of “detached passages” from a text originally published in 1785 by Samuel Thomas Soemmering as “Essay on the Comparative Anatomy of the Negro and European” [Über die körperliche Verschiedenheit des Negers vom Europäer]. This essay was also reproduced in Julien-Joseph Virey’s Natural History of the Negro Race, and is discussed in that entry.

*John Augustine Smith, “A Lecture,” New-York Medical and Philosophical Journal and Review, 1 (1809): 32-48. 

An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables; and From the Former to the Latter

1795; pub., 1799

Skulls to animals compared
Plate II. “This plate is intended to shew the facial line in Man, and in different Animals, from the perpendicular line in the European Man, to the horizontal one in the Snipe or Woodcock, and likewise the angle of 95 degrees, to which the Roman painters were very partial, and that of 100 degrees, the model of the Græcian Antiques”

Sketches of ape-like creatures and skulls
Plate III: “copies of the best authenticated engravings that have yet been published of four different kinds of Apes, which approach nearest to Man; likewise the skull of Dr. Tyson’s Pigmy—the skull of a Monkey from Lavatar—the profiles of a native of Botany Bay and an European—and the profiles of an African and an European.”

I SHALL now endeavour to prove the general gradation in man, the chief and lord of the creation. The hint that suggested this investigation, was taken, as has been observed, from Mr. John Hunter, who had a number of skulls, which he placed upon a table in a regular series, first shewing the human skull, with its varieties, in the European, the Asiatic, the American, the African; then proceeding to the skull of a monkey, and so on to that of a dog; in order to demonstrate the gradation both in the skulls, and in the upper and lower jaws. On viewing this range, the steps were so exceedingly gradual and regular, that it could not be said that the first differed from the second more than the second from the third, and so on to the end. Upon considering what Mr. Hunter thus demonstrated respecting skulls, it occurred to me that Nature would not employ gradation in one instance only, but would adopt it as a general principle. I had observed that the arms were longer, and the feet flatter in apes than in the human species; and, having the skeleton of a negro amongst others in my museum, I measured the radius and ulna, and found them nearly an inch longer than in the European skeleton of the same stature. The foot of the negro I perceived to be much flatter: the os calcis also differed from that of the European both in length, breadth, shape, and position, not forming an arch with the tarsal bones, but making with them nearly a straight horizontal line. . . . I did not carry my enquiries into provincial or national varieties or features, but confined them chiefly to the extremes of the human race: to the European, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the African, who seems to approach nearer to the brute creation than any other of the human species. I was persuaded, that if I could prove a specific distinction betwixt these two, the intermediate gradations would be mor easily allowed.

I next examined the skull, and found the frontal and occipital bones narrower in the negro than in the European; the foramen magnum of the occipital bone situated more backward, and the occipital bone itself pointing upwards, and forming a more obtuse angle with the spine in the former, than in the latter. The internal capacity of the skull was less in the former; and the fore parts of the upper and lower jaw, where they meet, were considerably more prominent. In the negro, the depth of the lower jaw, betwixt the teeth and the chin, was less; and that of the upper, betwixt the nose and the teeth, was greater . . . . The fore teeth were larger, not placed so perpendicularly in their sockets, and projecting more at their points than in Europeans: the angle of the lower jaw was nearer to a right angle, and the whole apparatus for mastication was stronger. . . . In all these points it differed from the European, and approached to the ape.

I wish it to be particular understood that I consider the chin of the negro as deserving peculiar attention. This part has either not been properly characterized, or the account has been much understood. It is said by some that the chin of the negro projects: the reverse, however, is the fact: for, beside that the distance of the foreteeth from the bottom of the chin is less than in the European, the lower part of the chin, instead of projecting outward, retreats, or falls back, as in the ape. (41-43).

[Following reports on various attempts, including his own, to measure the forearms, upper arms, eye sockets, skulls, and feet of negroes and Europeans both living and dead, White concludes.]

Upon the whole, therefore, I think it cannot be doubted, that, from whatever cause it may arise, there actually subsists a characteristic difference in the bony system, betwixt the European and the African. . . .

Professor Camper was decidedly of opinion, that the whole human race descended from a single pair, and that all the varieties were occasioned by climate, nutrition, air, &c. “But (says he) how these operate, and why the upper maxilla of a negro and the cheek bones of a Calmuck project, and why the socket of the eye is lower and more oblique in a Chinese and a Moluccan, cannot be fully explained.” But what would he have said, if he had known that the lower arm of the African was considerably longer than that of the European, though there seems to be no difference in the length of the upper arm, the leg, or the thigh? . . .

Having endeavoured to establish and illustrate the fact of a gradation from the European man to the brute, in respect to the bones, being that part of the system allowed to be least affected by climate, diet, customs, &c. we will now proceed to shew that a similar gradation takes place in the cartilages, muscles, tendons, skin, hair, sweat, catamenia, rank smell and heat of the body, duration of life, testes, scrotum, and fraenum praeputii, clitoris, nymphae and mammae, size of the brain, reason, speech and language, sense of feeling, parturition, diseases, and manner of walking; and likewise that a gradation takes place in the senses of hearing, seeing, and smelling; in memory, and the powers of mastication: but in these last particulars the order is changed, the European being the lowest, the African higher, and the brute creation still higher in the scale. . . .

The SKIN, including the epidermis and rete mucosum, is well known to be thicker in the African than in the European, and still thicker in monkeys.

The HAIR of the head, chin, &c. is shorter and more woolly in the African than in the European, and still more so in monkeys.

The SWEAT.—Captains and Surgeons of Guinea ships, and the West India planters, unanimously concur in their accounts, that negroes sweat much less than Europeans; a drop of sweat being scarcely ever seen upon them. Simiae sweat still less, and dogs not at all. . . .

CATAMENIA.—It is the general opinion of physiologists, that females menstruate in larger quantities in warm climates than in cold; twenty-four ounces being the quantity in the warmest climates, eighteen ounces in Greece, from ten to four in this country, and two ounces in the coldest, as Lapland. This may be true in Europeans, and in Creoles born of European parents, but I believe it is much otherwise in negresses.—Dr. Spaarman, the Swedish naturalist, who went to make discoveries in Africa, informs us, that those periods are much less troublesome to the female sex in Africa than in Europe. . . . Apes and baboons menstruate less than negresses, monkeys still less, and sapajous and sagouins not at all.

The RANK SMELL emitted from the bodies of many negroes is well known; but it is much stronger in some tribes or nations than in others, and the strongest in apes. . . .

DURATION OF LIFE.—Negroes are shorter lived than Europeans. All observations confirm the fact, that the children of negroes are more early and forward in walking than those of Europeans; likewise that they arrive at maturity sooner. The males are often ripe for marriage at ten, and the females at eight years of age. . . .

That the PENIS of an African is larger than that of an European, has, I believe, been shewn in every anatomical school in London. Preparations of them are preserved in most anatomical museums; and I have one in mine. I have examined several living negroes, and found it invariably to be the case. . . .

I found with some surprise, that, the TESTES and SCROTUM are less in the African than in the European. They are still less, proportionally, in the ape. That the penis should be larger, and the scrotum smaller, in the order thus stated is another remarkable instance of gradation. . . .

CLITORIS and NYMPHAE.—Dr. Spaarman, speaking of the then prevalent opinion that the Hottentot women have a kind of natural veil which covers the sexual parts, says, “The women have no parts uncommon to the rest of the sex; but the clitoris and nymphae, particularly of those who are past their youth, are much elongated.” . . . In the females of the ape and the dog, the clitoris is still longer.

MAMMAE.—We are informed by Drs. Thunberg and Spaarman, that the Hottentot women have long flabby breasts; and that they can suckle their children upon their backs, by throwing the breast over their shoulders. . . . No European white woman, however, in any age or climate, was ever known to have a breast of such description. The African, therefore, in this particular approaches to the simia.—Long, in his History of Jamaica, says, “Negresses have larger nipples than Europeans.”—Brutes have still larger nipples.

SIZE OF THE BRAIN. REASON.—The cavity of the skull, which contains both cerebrum and cerebellum, is less capacious in the African than in the European, and still less in the brute species. . . . It has been observed already, that man has the largest brain of any animal; and, of all men, the European has the largest . . . .

It has been customary to distinguish, by the name of instinct, the ruling principle in animals, from reason in man: but it is much more probable that instinct and reason are only different degrees of the same principle. . . . Whether it proceeds from a difference in the quantity of brain, or from any other source, there seems a difference in the original capacity of the different tribes of mankind. . . .

Dr. Thunberg says, “It may indeed be alleged, that the inhabitants of the warmer climates have a dull torpid brain, and are less keen and sharp than the Europeans. They have a power of thinking, but not profoundly, and consequently conversation among them is rather trifling.—They are, in general, idle, sleepy, heavy, and lascivious. To these qualities, the heat of the climate itself inclines them: and, without insulting the dark brown inhabitants of the East Indies, one may truly say that there is a greater difference between them and the Europeans, than between the monkeys and them.” [Then follows a series of quotations from authorities on the distinct characteristics of Negroes, including an extended citation from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia on the mental capacities of Negroes.] (55-64)

We have now shewn that there exist material differences in the organization and constitution of various tribes of the human species; and not only so, but that those differences, generally, mark a regular gradation, from the white European down through the human species to the brute creation. From which it appears, that in those particulars wherein mankind excel brutes, the European excels the African.

It remains yet to notice, that in those particular respects in which the brutes excel mankind, the African excels the European: these are chiefly the senses of SEEING, —HEARING, —and SMELLING, —the faculty of MEMORY, —and the power of MASTICATION. (80)

Upon the whole, therefore, when we survey the various classes of mankind, scattered over the surface of the globe, the white European, the copper-coloured American, the black African, and people of various other less distinguished shades; and when we consider the several facts and observations above adduced, which the experience of two centuries has afforded, it must be evident, that the opinion that all people descended from one pair at first cannot be maintained, unless we find some other causes of the diversity of colour besides those which have been usually assigned for it. (124)

A gradation in the human race, supposing all to have descended from one pair, could only be the temporary result of accidental causes, and would scarcely merit a minute investigation. But as a contemplation of the facts produced, leads to the conclusion, that various species of men were originally created and separated, by marks sufficiently discriminative, it becomes an important object, in general physiology, to trace the lines of distinction. Previously to discussing the question of species, it seems necessary to consider the significance of the term as used by naturalists.

It has been found convenient for the purposes of science, to divide the three kingdoms into classes, orders, genera, and species, each superior denomination comprehending one or more of the inferior. With respect to the three first divisions, Nature herself does not seem to define, or even to recognize them, but leaves it for the sagacity of the naturalist to seize the leading characteristics, and to arrange her productions accordingly . . . We find the fact to be, that where Nature is left to herself, and not interrupted by the artifice of man, as in wild animals, all kinds maintain their respective specific distinctions, through a series of generations; and that anomalous productions are rarely met with. This leaves us to infer, as most naturalists have done, that species were originally so created and constituted, as to be kept apart from each other. (125-26)

What the number of species may be, is not perhaps easy to determine. The four quarters of the globe will each, probably, furnish us with at least one. In Africa, however, there seems to be more than one species: and perhaps the lowest degree of the human race resides there. I am inclined to think that hair, rather than colour, ought to guide us in that quarter; and that it is not the blackest inhabitants, but those with extremely short hair, and a most ungracious appearance, as the Hottentots, who may be reckoned the lowest on the scale of humanity. The Negro, the American, some of the Asiatic tribes, and the European, seem evidently to be different species.

Ascending the line of gradation, we come at last to the white European; who being most removed from the brute creation, may, on that account, be considered as the most beautiful of the human race. No one will doubt his superiority in intellectual powers; and I believe it will be found that his capacity is naturally superior also to that of every other man. Where shall we find, unless in the European, that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain, and supported by a hollow conical pillar, entering its centre? Where the perpendicular face, the prominent nose, and round projecting chin? Where that variety of features, and fulness of expression; those long, flowing, graceful ringlets; that majestic beard, those rosy cheeks and coral lips? Where that erect posture of the body and noble gait? In what other quarter of the globe shall we find the blush that overspreads the soft features of the beautiful women of Europe, that emblem of modesty, of delicate feelings, and of sense? Where that nice expression of the amiable and softer passions in the countenance; and that general elegance of features and complexion? Where, except on the bosom of the European woman, two such plump and snowy white hemispheres, tipt with vermilion?

BEFORE we conclude, it may be proper to attend a little to those who may object to the doctrine herein contained upon other than philosophical principles. . . .

Respect and deference are due to another description of persons; those whose happiness is involved in the abolition of the Slave Trade. — Some of these may say, that at present the agitation of a question of this nature, tending to establish an opinion, that the Africans are of an inferior species, whatever truth there may be in the opinion, is peculiarly ill-timed. When such strenuous and repeated, but hitherto too fruitless efforts, have been made to induce the legislature to abolish this infamous traffic, every opinion disadvantageous to the Africans ought to have been repressed, until its publicity could not have influenced the question of abolition.

To such it may be replied, that the Author had not the Slave Trade at all in view in this Enquiry; his object was simply to investigate a proposition in natural history. He is fully persuaded the Slave Trade is indefensible on any hypothesis, and he would rejoice at its abolition. The negroes are, at least, equal to thousands of Europeans, in capacity and responsibility; and ought, therefore, to be equally entitled to freedom and protection. Laws ought not to allow greater freedom to a Shakespear or a Milton, a Locke or a Newton, than to men of inferior capacities; nor shew more respect to a General Johnstone, or a Duchess of Argyle than the most unshapely and ill formed.

Respecting the opinion that negroes have no souls, the Author utterly disclaims it : — he conceives that all mankind, of whatever description, are alike entitled to the hope of a future state. (134-38)

Anonymous, “An Account of The Regular Gradation in Man,” Monthly Review 33 (1800), in Hannah Franziska Augstein, ed., Race: The Origins of an Idea, 1760-1850 (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996): 50-55.