Race and Victorian Science

In The Control of the Tropics (1898), the social evolutionist Benjamin Kidd asserts that the indigenous inhabitants of the tropics "represent the same stage in the history of the development of the race that the child does in the history of the development of the individual." Thus Africa, India, and so on simply could not be economically developed by their own populations; instead, "the white man" must improve and govern the tropics "as a trust for civilization." Victorian imperialism received ample confirmation of its own justness from the nineteenth-century human sciences, which were concerned with quantifying and accurately describing racial and cultural difference among the world's people. Beliefs about the intrinsic inferiority of subject peoples inevitably shaped ethnological studies like Edward Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871), which in turn could be used as proof of that inferiority.

Influenced by Darwinian ideas about the mutability of species, Tylor is interested in the development of human culture from simple to complex, primitive to advanced. Modern-day races can be measured along the same continuum, and deemed "savage" or "civilized" depending on how far they have progressed toward the high state of culture enjoyed by the "educated world of Europe and America." Charles Darwin also wrote of the "struggle for existence" whereby some species came to prevail over others (NAEL 8, 2.1539), and social evolutionists like Kidd and Herbert Spencer argued similarly that some races were destined to be the losers in the global struggle for predominance, or might even be eliminated through natural selection.

The Royal Geographical Society's Hints to Travellers (1883) included an article on field anthropology by Tylor, urging the naturalists, sportsmen, and tourists who visited the tropics to gather scientific data about native physiognomy and exotic customs. In other words, any educated European man was fit to make confident pronouncements about the nature of the "lesser" races. For instance, the historian J. A. Froude argued in The English in the West Indies (1888) that the black descendants of slaves were a congenitally lazy and shiftless lot who "would in a generation or two relapse into savages," and thus were not fit to govern themselves. The black Trinidadian intellectual J. J. Thomas wrote Froudacity (1889) as a riposte to such "miserable skin and race doctrine." Thomas defends the "soundness and nobility" of the African character, and suggests that exploitation by Europeans has interrupted the natural progress of subject peoples, not their own inherent limitations. Moreover, the British Empire hardly represents the triumphant climax of human development, for history teaches us that many great empires rose and fell in centuries past. Turning the arguments of social evolutionism to his own purposes, Thomas speculates that the scattered populations of the African diaspora, with their transcultural and global perspective, may be uniquely suited to form the next great world civilization.


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