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.