Theories of Race

Petrus Camper

  • Petrus Camper's portrait

    Petrus Camper



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One of the most distinguished scientists of his day, Petrus Camper was a Dutch polymath recognized for his contributions as a physician, anatomist, obstetrician, inventor, politician, and artist in several mediums. He acquired an international reputation for his work in zoology, paleontology, dike maintenance, and a subject he called “anthropology” to distinguish it from natural history.

At his death, Camper’s stature as a citizen and eminence as an intellectual were uncontested. But a text published several years later by his son effected a radical recalibration of his reputation. In his “Dissertation on the Natural Varieties that Characterize the Physiognomy of Men of Diverse Climates and of Different Ages” (1791) Camper had attempted to represent racial differences geometrically by an elaborate method of three-dimensional skull measurement that became known as craniology or craniometry. His methodological and conceptual innovation was the invention of the “facial angle,” which was formed by representing the cranial form on paper, then drawing two lines, one horizontally from the base of the nostril to the ear and the other perpendicularly from the upper jawbone to the most prominent part of the forehead. Camper had determined that antique Greco-Roman statues presented an angle of 100°-95°, Europeans of 80°, “Orientals” of 70°, Negroes of 70°, and the orangutan of 42-58°.

First presented in 1770 to the Amsterdam Drawing Academy as a way of helping artists make better portraits, Camper’s facial angle became the first widely accepted measurement for comparing heads of different races, and was one of the first attempts to identify precise anatomical characteristics of different racial groups other than skin color. While Blumenbach, Prichard, Lawrence, Topinard and others disputed the value of such measurements, the project of craniometry was to continue for over a century, with strong support from Morton in America and Broca in France. As Nancy Stepan comments, “It is a curious fact of history that differences in skull shapes between peoples that today seem relatively inconsequential, and certainly insufficient for the purposes of categorical racial categorization, were by the end of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries taken to be of prime significance for distinguishing the geographical and local races of man.”*

A creationist, Camper was also a “single-pair” monogenist who believed in the essential unity of the human species. Recalling arguments from Montesquieu, Buffon and anticipating the conclusion of Franz Boas over a century later, Camper argued that many of what were considered “natural variations” were in fact produced by environment, diet, exercise, and cultural habits. He heaped scorn on any who might believe that Negroes were the product of breeding between whites and primates, made no attempt to assess the intelligence or moral character of the races he studied, and dismissed suggestions of racial hierarchies. But his text, and in particular a few of its illustrations, lent themselves readily to very different arguments.

In presenting the facial angle in his “Dissertation,” Camper ranged his profiles from the lowest to the highest, beginning with the “Angolan” and the “Kalmouk” and ending with the European. This sequence may have been seen as a mere consequence of the measurements, but by placing the figures of a monkey and an orangutan (58 degrees) at the very beginning, next to the Angolan, Camper managed to suggest not merely a physical resemblance but a species proximity between Africans and Asians and primates. After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, this proximity would become interpreted by some as an indication of the lesser degree of evolutionary progress achieved by these races. And by placing a figure of Apollo, presented as an apex of human “beauty” attainable only through civilization, at the end, Camper appeared to suggest that Europeans approached a human ideal, either because they were so refined and advanced or because they had degenerated so little from their original form. The use of the profile itself seemed to some later readers evidence of a difference between the “frontal” race of whites, distinguished by their mental faculties, and the more “occipital” races who were given over to their passions and sensations.

In Camper’s “Dissertation,” we can see, then, the unintended emergence of a physical anthropology that, while grounded in practices then considered respectable by the scientific community, was also influenced by culturally-derived ideas of beauty that reflected current social predispositions and biases. According to Miriam Meijer, Camper’s intention was to prove the naturalness of certain non-European features that many Europeans believed to be artificial results of manipulation by midwives or mothers after birth. But by focusing on physical differences, Camper actually undermined the idea of a human continuum and lent support to a later “polygenist” perspective that understood race as a set of unalterable physical characteristics that suggested a species difference.

Camper’s sketchy drawings were republished in several later texts, sometimes improved and refined in an effort to make them appear more authoritative and less provisional. Indeed, Camper’s illustrations became, in the words of one scholar, “the central visual icon of all subsequent racism.”** Among those who claimed authority from Camper were Charles White, Arthur de Gobineau, Paul Broca, Josiah Nott, and Julien-Joseph Virey.

In 1764, twenty-seven years before the publication of the “Dissertation,” Camper delivered his “Oration on the Origin and Color of Blacks,” apparently in a medical amphitheater at the University of Groningen, with a fetal corpse on the table before him. In this address, which was published eight years later, Camper attempted to refute, through a detailed examination of the skin and skull of the fetus, those thinkers both ancient and modern who would claim that Negroes were a different species from whites. The differences, he argued, were superficial, and no race could claim priority over any other; indeed, he says that “all of us are all black, only more or less.” Camper grounded his argument in religion, making every effort to accommodate his scientific discoveries to a literal understanding of the Biblical account of the creation of man. Interestingly, Camper cited the work of Jean Baptiste Labat—Nouvelle Relation de l’Afrique Occidentale (1728)—from which Kant extracted the anecdote of the Negro carpenter.

*Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), 33. 

**Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 149-50. 

“On the Origin and Color of Blacks”

1764, pub., 1772

Sciences, of any kind whatsoever, should be useful in a general way as well as in a particular field. Anatomy, the knowledge of the human body, would be, in my opinion, a narrow branch of learning if it had no effect on other sciences besides Medicine and Surgery. Anatomy constitutes the most distinguished part of the venerated Natural Sciences, of Natural History, and offers an important basic principle which serves as foundation for rational Religion. It sounds strange, Honored Listeners, when one wants to make a hall intended for medical lessons resound with the praise which the infinite Supreme Being deserves. However, with the exception of the school of Theology, where does one give stronger, more solemn evidence of the great wisdom, providence and unlimited power of God than in this Lecture Hall, where the beauty and perfection of our ingenious and excellent constitution are researched and displayed through the art of Dissection? Particularly because not everyone can be convinced by the bare force of reasoning, but all without exception are convinced by the very sight of this wonderful Masterpiece that the Divine Creator of this Treasure must be an infinitely wise, powerful and merciful Being! . . .

Discussions about the soul must be left to clever Philosophers and to them alone; we will limit ourselves to discussing the coarser part of our being, namely the body, and its mechanical structure, the skin, muscles and entrails! These are parts whose beauty can be observed with the naked eye; yet, they are worthy to be seen, for even in those lesser parts something Divine always shines through.

In the past year, I planned to say something about the color of the skin, in order to have the opportunity to discuss the skin of the Moors, which at first glance appears so different from ours that many people, but wrongly so, imagine that Blacks belonged to some particular kind of species which did not descend from Adam. As an introduction to these Anatomy classes, I intend to deal with this peculiar phenomenon, to see if I can elucidate it here through the revealed truths of our Religion: namely, that God created a single human being in the beginning, Adam, to whom all of us, whatever our shape or color may be, owe our origin. Many, who find pleasure in doubting the most evident things, come up with all kinds of arguments against this principle, arguments that will be brought to naught as soon as I demonstrate that all of us are all black, only more or less, and that this color difference can in no way prove that we do not descend from the same Ancestors.

The subject itself has been treated with great interest for a long time already, and the Ancients expressed their amazement about this strange phenomenon, and judged unanimously that Whites are superior creatures, and that they are of greater intelligence than Blacks! Herodotus at first praises the Blacks, and is amazed that the Ethiopians were such clever people, as Cambyses, King of Persia, discovered. Called the Macrobii, or the long-lived, they even laughed at Cambyses’ envoys and ascribed to their bad habits the fact that the Persians did not become older than eighty years, while they themselves reached the age of at least one hundred and twenty years by eating roasted meat and drinking milk. However, the same Herodotus, who first recounted so many wonderful things about the Ethiopians, disgraces himself by saying in the same third book, dedicated to Thalia, in reference to the Indians: “All the Indians that I described unite in public like animals, their color is as awful as that of their neighbors, the Ethiopians. Their reproductive fluid with which they impregnate the women, is not white like that of all other people, but black, like the color of their skin, a liquid resembling that dirty or noxious seed, which the Ethiopians also eject.” Who does not see that Herodotus, carried away by the prejudices of his time, promoted such a detestable image, and a false one as well! Aristotle himself could not resist from criticizing him: in his Natural History of Animals he first affirms that the semen of all Animals is white, then says that one must not believe Herodotus at all when he relates that the Moors and the Ethiopians have black semen. In contrast, to these same Ethiopians and Indians who according to Herodotus in his Polymnia, differ from each other, not only in language and hair (“In fact the sunrise Ethiopians have flowing hair, Ethiopians from Africa have the frizziest hair of all mankind”), [Aristotle] now ascribes heroic virtues, as well as the praiseworthy custom and manly taste of clothing and adorning their bodies in tiger and lion skins—garments, Listeners, that are more dignified for warriors than the feathers and ermines which are worn and seen perhaps too often nowadays. My indignation about Herodotus will make You understand quite well how much more highly I think of these black peoples, and that I am inclined to describe them as our fellow men. . . .

So much for the Ancients, who had little experience in the natural sciences which now seem to have reached great heights. But, how can one not be astounded that the world renowned Meckel, a man famous for his great merits, for whom I have always shown the highest respect in my Anatomy papers and classes, who moreover studied under the supervision of the great Haller, dares to write in the year 1757 in Berlin, “that Negroes seem to be a completely different kind of species!” because their brains and their blood are black, which causes their skin to turn black? The strangeness of seeing a Moor must have surely inspired him with hatred and fear for their color—it was [only] the second one that he had dissected. He probably would have thought in a friendlier and more reasonable way if he, as we do in our Country, had seen Blacks every day and had seen that whites, men and women, however superior they may feel to those colored people, do not judge them unworthy of their love. Santorinus, a dissector of great fame, is preoccupied with another theory, namely that the liver secretes a black substance under the Epidermis, as he explains in the beginning of his book.

In the year 1758 in Amsterdam I had the opportunity to dissect a black Angolese boy and I found his blood very much like ours and his brains as white, if not whiter. When I dissected this body in public, I examined it in a totally objective way and compared all the parts with the famous description of the Bushman or “Orang-Outang” of the renowned Tyson. I must confess that I found nothing that had more in common with this animal than with a white man; on the contrary, everything was the same as for a white man. You ask, and rightly so, why indeed the comparison with the Bush-man? That is simply, Gentlemen, because there are Philosophers to be found who want to show with some rhetorical flourish that Negroes and Blacks descended from the mingling in olden times of white people with great Apes or Orang-Outangs, which were called Satyrs by the Ancients. Dr. Tyson's Dissection is very incomplete since the genitals are treated in a superficial way, and that is where indeed the greatest difference should be, if one may rely on Galen, who dissected Apes or animals of the Monkey Species only.

Meanwhile you remain in uncertainty and wonder whether the black color might not come from a kind of soot, a certain vitriol, or burnt fat, as Brownius believed. He does not accept burning of the skin at all as a cause, however probable it may be. Today we do not lack for people who believe that we have natural mercury in our blood as well as sulphur, both getting mixed in our body as in a mortar, thus making a black dye and imparting that to the skin. I do not dare reveal the discoverer of this miracle, for fear that you would lose respect for his good name, which he otherwise rightly deserves.

Most likely you will prefer those conjectures which have direct connections to the Holy Scripture. Labat, in his new description of Africa thinks that Adam was dark brown or reddish and that the color, blanched in Eve, consequently became whiter. Or that Cain, after killing Abel, was made black on the spot by the incensed Supreme Being so that he would be marked. But the great Flood and the single surviving household of Noah, all of Seth's tribe, does not allow us to believe this hypothesis. It has been said occasionally that Cham, because he was cursed by his father Noah, changed in color and became black. Whatever the case may be, it seems quite obvious that all scholars, through their association of a very hateful image with the color black, acted as if a certain well-deserved curse, or wrath of the Divine Supreme Being, were the origin of the unfavorable color: and usually, if not always, this one-sided and absurd account worked in favor of the Whites, because they had devised it themselves and thus had accorded themselves superiority over others of a different color. What kind of an image must the poor Americans have conceived of white people, after being treated by them in such an undeserved, such a cruel and barbaric manner? Will they not believe that the God of heaven and earth changed those brutes, as a permanent sign of his righteous wrath, into white people? This digression causes you to blush, and not without cause. All of us, not only as human beings but as Christians, would wish to be black if we could wash off this sin through such a change in color.

I will now proceed in an orderly way to pinpoint the source of blackness in the Moors, and first demonstrate to you: this child, which, although a foetus, is born of a Angolese Negro woman, whose husband was just as black. You see that the skin is white over the entire body, and therefore that the children are not black in the womb as Strabo believed. You also see that the nose, lips, the whole being are of the same form as that of adult Blacks. Be convinced therefore that the nose is not pushed in at birth, but that such a prematurely born creature already has all the features of his race. Buffon noticed rightly, that the children of Negroes are born white or rather reddish, like ours, and that they become brown a few days later and then black. However, it is to be noted that very soon after birth they have black skin around their nails and also on the circle around the nipples. But the genital area only becomes black on the third day and not at birth. I saw this in Amsterdam. A boy was born to a Negro woman who was very black; the third day the genitals were coal black and the nail-edges, and the circles around the nipples also. The fifth and sixth day the blackness spread over the whole body, and the boy, who had not been in the sun, but had been born in the winter in a closed room, and had been swaddled tightly according to local practice, still changed color and became black over his entire body, except for the balls of his feet and the palms of his hands, which are always paler and stay quite white among working Negroes.

Look here at the skin of this black boy, whose skull I show you also. You clearly see that the skin is, in itself, perfectly white, that it is covered by a second layer, which is called the Reticulum, and that this layer is actually black, brown, red-copperish or tanned. On top of this is another layer, which is the outer layer of the skin, which the renowned W. Hunter in London quite rightly compared to a thin glazing covering the colored layer, or to a varnish preserving it. This colored layer is manufactured by the vessels of the skin and one can see the fibers very clearly in the hand and foot when one removes the outer layer of the skin carefully after a long decay or when one soaks the skin in hot water. Never ever have blood-vessels been found there that could be filled artificially, contrary to what some have professed. Ruysch has denied seeing them, Hunter never saw them, but he did see the fibers, which run from the skin to the epidermis like a spiderweb, which he depicts, and which I have often shown to my Students.

Judge now, Listeners! If this white skin from the Moor is a proof of black blood, of sulphur, mercury or soot, flowing in their veins! You see that the epidermis can be divided into two membranes, into more even, and the one that lies directly on the skin, is black, and that the outer one is transparent; so that it seems more or less colored by the same blackness. See here! A big piece of skin taken by me in Amsterdam from the arm of an Italian sailor. You see that the name and skull was branded in blue upon the true skin, and not the Cuticula or outer layer of skin. You clearly see the brown membrane quite similar to that of Blacks and the totally removed outer membrane that is transparent and hardly colored! . . .

It is not merely the sun which is the cause of the darkness of our skin, although it has more to do with it than anything else. Our privy parts, which modesty teaches us to cover, have a second layer in their skin which is quite brown, even among the whitest people. Many women see the lower part of their body and the circles around the nipples become completely black whenever they are pregnant When we become thin and waste away, our skin becomes sufficiently black to bring about a proverb, “to be black from emaciation”; and indeed one often sees this happen. In contrast, the skin becomes whiter when it is made smoother and stretched by plumpness.

I deem it sufficient to have shown through physical examination of our body and especially of our skin that there is not any reason why we should not consider the race of the Moors to be descended like ours from Adam. Be Adam created black, brown, tanned or white, his descendants, as soon as they spread out over the wide surface of the earth, necessarily had to change in color and shape according to how the country, the particular foods and illnesses differed. . . .

Read, in case you may want to know more about it and make the examples that I showed you of Moors become clear in your mind, the excellent discourse of the great Albinus on the cause and origin of the color of Blacks and other people. Read what Littre, that renowned Member of the Royal French Academy, left us in writing in the proceedings of the year 1702; leaf through the quoted work of the incomparable Maupertuis, and in particular the Natural History of Mankind by the immortal Buffon, published in his third Volume of the Royal Natural History Collection. Add to that the Observations of the talented Le Cat; and You will no longer raise any objections to joining me in holding out the hand of brotherhood to Negroes and Blacks, and in recognizing them as true descendants of the first man whom we all recognize as our Father!

I have spoken.

1In Groningen on 16 April 1766, I dissected in public an elderly Negro and demonstrated that the white or marrow of the brains was whiter, and the cortex or gray matter lighter than in Europeans: to show this more obviously I dissected at the same time the brains of a white man. On 17 April 1768 I demonstrated the same fact in a young Negro and also that his blood was similar to ours, although with a somewhat purplish black tinge, like the sap of mulberries. The same color was also seen in the first case, and also in a Mulatto, whom I dissected in November of that same year. I can not deny, however, to have often seen and also to have shown in white bodies the presence of such a tint, as painters call it.

Dissertation sur les variétés naturelles qui caractérisent la physionomie des hommes des divers climats et des différens âges ... ouvrage posthume


Illustrations from Petrus Camper

Dissertation on the natural varieties that characterize the physiognomy of men of diverse climates and of different ages

Paris: H. Jansen, 1791

Skull shape sketchesSkull shape sketches

Martial Guédron, “Nature, ideal and caricature. The perception of physical types among the first anthropologists,” Musée de quai Branly:

Miriam C. Meijer, Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper (1722-1789), Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Miriam Claude Meijer, “Cranial Varieties in the Human and Orangutan Species,” in Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations (London and New York: Routledge, 2014). 33-47.