Theories of Race

John Mitchell

  • John Mitchell



00:00 / 03:32

As a young physician in Urbana, Virginia, with serious interests in exotic botany and human anatomy, John Mitchell undertook an independent but intensive study of geography, eventually creating the most comprehensive map of eastern North America then in existence, the “Mitchell Map.”

Mitchell produced the essay from which these selections are taken in response to a contest that had been announced in 1739 by the Royal Academy of Sciences, Belles Lettres, and Arts at Bordeaux on the question “Quelle est la cause physique de la couleur des nègres, de la qualité de leur cheveux, et de la dégénération de l’un et de l’autre?” (What is the physical cause of the Negro’s color, the quality of their hair, and the degeneration of both [Negro hair and skin]?). The mysterious source of skin color, and black skin color in particular, was becoming widely discussed in the learned societies of England and France, and the Bordeaux contest received sixteen submissions venturing a wide range of explanations, none of which seem at all plausible today.* Mitchell’s essay is less speculative and more empirical than most of the Bordeaux entries, but it was also written well after the deadline for submissions had passed, so he sent it to Peter Collinson, a friend and a member of the Royal Society in London, which published it.

In his essay, Mitchell describes in remarkable detail a series of experiments performed on human skin that demonstrate that white epidermis is transparent and transmits the color that lies beneath it, while black skin (which he examines on living people rather than risk altering it—and the person—by removing it) is thicker and tougher, and transmits no color, effecting a virtual “Suffocation of the Rays of Light” (123). Exposure to sunlight causes, in addition, “a peculiar Necrosis of the Epidermis, occasioned by the forcible Vibrations, Contractions, and Exsiccations of its Fibres by the Sunbeams, which cause [the skin] to turn black, as these, or the other Parts, do by the Heat of an Inflammation or a Fever, in Gangrenes, black Tongues, etc. From whence only the nervous Parts of the Skin Come to be black, and more hard and callous, and less pellucid, than the rest, and the Skins of Negroes, besides their Callosity, become more insensible than those of Whites” (135).

Mitchell’s essay is a good source of information regarding the terms and concepts used by medical science in the mid-18th century. But as he approaches the end of his discourse, he departs from the clinical to venture speculations about the origin of humanity. In the passage reproduced below, he concludes that the Biblical account of an original pair can be confirmed by science, whereas the “Curse of Ham”—the theory that Africans were black because they were descended from Ham, who was punished for having beheld his father Noah naked—was frivolous and false. The Bordeaux essay contest had asked for speculations about the reasons for the “degeneration” of black skin and hair, but Mitchell argued that blackness was not a curse but a blessing in a torrid climate and that whiteness had to be accounted a degeneration from the original “tawny” complexion of our first ancestors from whom we are all descended. At the very end, Mitchell, the village American with an uncertain grasp of sentence structure, addressing the Royal Society in London, speaks of the “luxurious Customs, or soft and effeminate lives” led by Europeans, who are as a consequence greatly affected by the sun in a way that black people are not (148).

For subsequent discussions of “degeneration,” see Mitchell, Buffon, Kant, Goldsmith, Long, Blumenbach, Stanhope Smith, Charles Hamilton Smith, Kneeland, Gobineau, and Huxley.

*The submissions have recently been translated and published in Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew S. Curran, eds., Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022).

“An Essay upon the Causes of the different Colours of People in different Climates”


From what has been said about the Cause of the Colour of black and white People, we may justly conclude, that they might very naturally be both descended from one and the same Parents, as we are otherwise better assured from Scripture, that they are; which may remove the Scruples of some nice Philosophers on this Matter, who cannot or will not believe even the Scriptures, unless it be so far as they can be made agreeable to their Philosophy: For the different Colours of People have been demonstrated to be only the necessary Effects, and natural Consequences, of their respective Climes, and Ways of Life; as we may further learn from Experience, that they are the most suitable for the Preservation of Health, and the Ease and Convenience of Mankind in these Climes, and Ways of Living: So that the black Colour of the Negroes of Africa, instead of being a Curse denounced on them, on account of their Forefather Ham, as some have idly imagined, is rather a Blessing, rendering their Lives, in that intemperate Region, more tolerable, and less painful: Whereas, on the other hand the white People, who look on themselves as the primitive Race of Men, from a certain Superiority of Worth, either supposed or assumed, seem to have the least Pretentions to it of any, either from History or Philosophy; for they seem to have degenerated more from the primitive and original Complexion of Mankind, in Noah and his Sons, than even the Indians and Negroes; and that to the worst Extreme, the most delicate, tender, and sickly.—For there is no Doubt, but that Noah and his Sons were of a Complexion suitable to the Climate where they resided, as well as all the rest of Mankind; which is the Colour of the southern Tartars of Asia, or northern Chinese at this Day perhaps, which is a dark swarthy, a Medium betwixt Black and White: From which primitive Colour the Europeans degenerated as much on one hand, as the Africans did on the other; the Asiatics (unless, perhaps, where mixed with the whiter Europeans) with most of the Americans, retaining the primitive and original Complexion.—The grand Obstacle to the Belief of this Relation between white and black People is, that, on comparing them together, their Colours seem to be so opposite and contrary, that it seems impossible that one should ever have been descended from the other. But, besides the Falsity of this supposed direct Contrariety of their Colours, they being only different, altho’ extreme, Degrees of the same Sort of Colour, as we have above proved; besides this, I say, that is not a right State of the Question; we do not affirm, that either Blacks or Whites were originally descended from one another, but that both were descended from People of an intermediate tawny Colour; whose Posterity became more and more tawny, i.e., black, in the southern Regions, and less so, or white, in the northern Climes: Whilst those who remained in the middle Regions, where the first Men resided, continued of their primitive tawny Complexions; which we see confirmed by Matter of Fact, in all the different People in the World. (145-47).

Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600 – 2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)