The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment
Baltimore, MD, John Hopkins University Press, 2011, ISBN: 9781421401508; 328pp.; Price: £15.00
University of Liverpool
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
In his first book, Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot's Universe (1), Andrew Curran focused on the different means by which corporeal and moral monstrosity were figured and evoked in the celebrated Enlightenment thinker's work. Curran continues to explore the role of bodies in the epistemic cultures of a long 18th century, the formation of conceptual criteria, and markers of identity in The Anatomy of Blackness, where his admirable skills of translation, close-reading, contextualization, and comparative analysis are applied to the question of how black African bodies became the primary scientific basis for race-making in the French Atlantic world.
While Curran’s study is largely concerned with the representation of black Africans in French Enlightenment thought, his approach and findings make significant contributions to historical debates on ‘othering’, the invention of race, the association between slavery and race in different colonial contexts, as well as a more recent, related, and rapidly developing line of inquiry that examines the role of colonial anatomies in making race and legitimizing slavery. The invention of race in the Americas, or the so-called ‘origins debate’ – over whether slavery resulted from white racism, or racism produced slavery – was very active in the 1970s and 1980s. Eminent historians such as Winthrop Jordan, George Fredrickson, Edmund Morgan, and Barbara Fields argued productively about both the precise date at which slavery might be identified as an institution based on white racial prejudice and also definitions of race and racism. Jordan’s work on the negative framing of blackness in early-modern English culture was particularly inspiring to historians of the Iberian Atlantic, who subsequently managed to find evidence of European racism deep in the Middle-Ages. Curran positions The Anatomy of Blackness directly in relation to this debate and argues that blackness played many roles in the Enlightenment-era: allowing ‘Europeans to produce new definitions of whiteness’; providing a ‘coherent concept around which the first ”scientifically based” human classification schemes were organized’; and replacing ‘theological and even economic justifications as the most compelling rationale for African chattel slavery’ (p. 168). Indeed, a core aim of Curran’s work is to highlight the interplay between anatomy’s investigation of African bodies and other ways of knowing blackness, a messy process his overlapping narrative style tries to recapture, and one that gradually crystallized into biologically-grounded concepts of blackness and whiteness (p. 6).
'Tissue samples in the land of conjecture' serves as Curran's broad ‘Introduction’ and sets the scene with a few lowlights in Western anatomy’s dismal history of dissecting black bodies in pursuit of racial essence. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that early-modern European anatomists had an abiding curiosity in discovering the causes of racial difference, Curran argues that from the 1730s the question of ‘the nègre’s‘ origin began to be ‘debated much more intensely and from a [wider] variety of perspectives’. The previously little known Académie royale des sciences de Bordeaux’s 1739 essay competition - offering a prize for the best explanation of the physical cause of ‘nègres’ color’ – is identified by Curran as a key moment in the Atlantic world’s intensification of interest in the origins of blackness (p. 2). One of the 16 submissions, by Perpignan physician Pierre Barrère, stood out as it moved away from theological and environmentalist explanations of blackness. With reference to dissection studies conducted on African slaves in French Guyana (which became the basis of his influential 1741 Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des negres ...), Barrère offered an anatomically focused explanation – claiming that blackness ‘was derived from a dark bile that tainted the skin and blood alike’ (pp. 2, 122).
In the decades that followed, theories of racial difference became ever more dependent on biological arguments, with a new generation of European anatomists – including Germany’s Johann Friedrich Meckel, France’s Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, and Dutch geographer Cornelius de Pauw – all using dissection studies to evoke ever ‘deeper, organ-based differences’ (p. 125). By the late 18th century, anatomically-oriented explorations of African skin, blood, brains and sperm metastasized – or, perhaps more accurately, materialized – into full-blown human classification projects offering justifications for slavery and the legitimation of colonial hierarchies – the genesis of new racial science that viewed blacks not only as lesser beings, but also as a separately created species. Joining the important work of Londa Schiebinger on science and the making of race and gender in the colonial Atlantic world (2), Curran highlights the awful irony and perverse contradiction of a natural history knowledge produced in an era of supposed natural rights, inventing ‘natural’ differences, and leading to very unnatural inequalities.
Charting the black African’s gradual reduction to biology through anatomical discourse, Curran’s study foregrounds the importance of the shifting influences of genre and geo-political context in understanding this process. Thus the first chapter, 'Paper trails: writing the African, 1450–1750', chronicles the representation of Africa and Africans in various sorts of travel accounts produced by the early modern Atlantic world's major colonial powers – with Portuguese, Dutch, and English authors especially prominent – before examining closely related and re-circulated compilations of this growing body of literature, as a means of exploring how Europeans came to know and ‘textualize the black African’. In an effort to replicate 18th-century reading practices, Curran suggests travel accounts are where most 18th-century white European thinkers began their consideration of black Africans, emphasizing important distinctions between the type of information available from ’properly Africa-oriented‘ texts and those produced by an ’increasingly authoritative Caribbean “ethnography”’. Travel accounts written from Africa were replete with stereotypes of blackness and other misinformation, but, compared to texts produced in the plantation colonies, they were more typically concerned with the social and cultural lives of Africans, while Caribbean writers were “more generally interested in the utility of particular ethnicities, and how to get the most work out of their labor force” (pp. 19, 52). Jacques Savary’s Parfait negociant (1675) is cited as one widely translated example of these Caribbean travel accounts, in which black Africans were also increasingly seen through a mercantilist lens – associating black bodies with other forms of tradable goods and commodities. Alongside the various travel accounts, Curran notes that 18th-century thinkers had access to legal codifications of colonial slave regimes, such as the Code Noir, and the first-hand accounts of slave owners, such as Jean-Baptiste Labat’s best-selling Nouveau voyages aux isles de l’Amerique (1722) and that these texts also performed important cultural work in transforming the overall image of the black African and justifying the system of slavery.
Chapter two, 'Sameness and science, 1730–1750', fully unleashes Curran’s methodological strategy of overlapping narratives as a means of unpacking intellectual genealogies and exploring the rich intertextuality of Enlightenment culture (p. ix), layering sustained critical commentaries of the Bordeaux academie royale des sciences essays on the question of blackness, Maupertuis’s Venus Physique (1745), Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749), and the role of the ‘category-defying’ African albino. Here Curran argues that while a troubling presence in a society increasingly anxious about the prospect of race-mixing, the albino (or ‘nègre blanc’) was a useful servant of natural science, providing a key concept for the crafting of a monogentic, but ultimately white-centric theory of humankind (p. 22, 87–105). As living examples of human beings evading neat categorization, black albinos were subject to intense scientific curiosity, often invasive physiological scrutiny, and extensive public display. Curran’s book features the example of Genevieve, the so-called young white nègresse that a 70-year old Buffon physically examined in 1777 and framed as a ‘fluke’ in his Histoire naturelle - an early ‘unusual human’ forerunner of the African females fashioned into exoticized cultural spectacles for the West’s 19th-century freak-shows and human zoos.
In focusing on anatomy’s cultural influence, Curran’s work adroitly highlights that the ownership, inspection, dissection, analysis, exchange, and display of black bodies, body fragments, and specimens of blackness became the fundamental evidential base of the new Enlightenment/colonial science of human difference, as well as a key raw material resource through which individual, professional, and collective European social identities were crafted and advanced. As Ruth Richardson, Elizabeth Hurren, Michael Sappol, Ann Fabian, Alexander Butchart, Helen MacDonald, and Marieke Hendriksen have all shown, for different colonial contexts in the same long 18th century, anatomical practices and performances, as well as the production and dissemination of anatomical narratives (in various genres), granted authority and status to bourgeois individuals and the disciplines of science and medicine in which they worked. Sappol’s work on the cultural history of anatomy in late 18th- and early 19th-century North America highlights the rise of anatomy as a project of professional and bourgeois self-making, a process that was crucially dependent on the bodies of ‘subaltern or subordinate’ groups: ‘black people, the poor, criminals, prostitutes, Indians, the Irish, and members of other immigrant groups’ who until recently ‘made up a greatly disproportionate number of anatomical subjects’.(3) From Curran’s evidence, a very similar process was at work in Enlightenment-era France through the circulation and increasing influence of anatomical discourse about black Africans. ‘Textualization’ of the black African through anatomical discourse was both a way of making race more material, more real, but also a way of making scientific reputations for white European intellectuals.
After such an intensive fine-grained analysis of natural histories, anatomical treatises, and travel narratives, and an extensive excavation of the intellectual networks within which these texts emerged, mutually influenced and circulated, there still remains the important issue of how anatomy was practiced in the French colonial context, the exact source and supply of the corpses dissected – the elusive human specifics of the colonial anatomical economy – as well as the question of how these anatomy texts were produced and their broader reception and influence. Ruth Richardson’s The Making of Mr. Gray’s Anatomy (2008) provides one model of answering such questions, offering a micro-historical analysis of circumstances underlying production of the modern era’s most famous textbook and could also be applied to anatomical practices in the French colonial context. The question of influence is answered to a large extent in Curran’s Anatomy by some very impressive intertextual analysis, but another approach might be to explore the library borrowing and subscription records of Enlightenment-era intellectuals and those of professionals working in colonial contexts, while marginal notes and annotations made in personal library collections could also be of value in both understanding the formation of racial thought and 18th-century reading practices.
The Anatomy of Blackness is an intense and challenging reading experience, but one that certainly repays the effort. Andrew Curran takes the reader deep inside the white racial framing mechanism of Enlightenment France and underscores the value of a narratological approach for understanding the formation of identities – especially those of elite white intellectuals. Further, outlining the creation of racialised anatomical knowledge in the early modern era, Curran’s work draws attention to the many intersections between slavery and the science of anatomy – in many ways indicating that they were mutually constitutive colonial projects with a profound legacy for the black African.
- Andrew Curran, Sublime Disorder: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot's Universe (Oxford, 2001).Back to (1)
- Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Sexual Politics and the Making of Modern Science (London, 1994).Back to (2)
- Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodies Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ and Oxford, 2002), p. 17.Back to (3)
I am deeply grateful for the time and effort that Professor Stephen Kenny of the University of Liverpool has taken to engage with my book. In addition to providing a meticulous reading of The Anatomy of Blackness, Professor Kenny fruitfully situates the book within a number of historiographical debates, including the ‘origins of racism debate’ and the role of anatomy within the colonial laboratory. This is an impressively erudite review.
I was intrigued that Kenny begins his account of my book with an allusion to my earlier work on human monstrosity; no one has done this in previous reviews and I would like to open my response to him by addressing what is a very important (but perhaps not immediately obvious) link within my work.
Kenny correctly assumes that I am fascinated by the early modern study of the body in general, in both its deviant and racialised forms. Some scholars, however, have assumed (unlike Kenny) that my study of the Black African is actually part of a wider examination of the monstrous body and the category of monstrosity. The implication is that there is a rubric known as the African monster – a category of extreme moral and corporeal alterity – that was part and parcel of a massive politics of othering that begins with Herodotus and the monstrous races of Antiquity and finishes with 19th-century pseudo-science, e.g., phrenology and race classification.
This is not at all what I have argued in The Anatomy of Blackness. On the contrary, I have attempted to demonstrate that the scientific practices of the early-modern era were not (initially) marshaled to de-humanize Africans, but in order to reconcile Blacks' perceived differences with the presupposed essential and genealogical sameness of humankind, which was a scriptural construct. Likewise, I have maintained that some of the most dehumanizing thought-structures regarding the African paradoxically emerged from a belief in a shared origin, not from an a priori conviction that Africans and Europeans were different races or species. This aspect of my work has proved challenging for some scholars, particularly those who have assumed that rise of race science can be charted in a linear fashion, as it often is in anthologies such as Emmanuel Eze's Race and the Enlightenment.
There are, however, a number of fascinating linkages between monstrosity and the 18th-century study of human ‘varieties’. These points of contact, however, are actually quite different from what is generally assumed, and have less to do with a thematic link than they do with shifts within scientific practices. Regarding monstrosity, by the 1740s, the birth of a monstrous fetus or baby was increasingly ‘de-sacralized’ by the era’s naturalists (an earlier generation had debated the divine meaning of such events). Maupertuis and Buffon in particular believed that monsters were simply the result of the failure of some mechanical process (be it a faulty egg, sperm, or maternal imagination). Curiously enough, this made monsters much less foreign, less other, less monstrous in a sense. Monstrosity as an absolute category, as a lapse or exception to nature, ceased to exist for naturalists. The era of purely physical explanations had begun.
The study of monstrosity and the study of the human underwent the same basic shifts in epistemology. As metaphysical explanations for humankind's genesis (based on scripture) also lost their lustre, natural historians increasingly looked to material accounts. Like explanations for human monstrosity, new theories of human origins were based (although without being stated as such) on the idea of the accident. This began with Maupertuis, whose speculative understanding of monstrosity (among other things) allowed him to put forward an entirely material explanation according to which an original white race produced chance human phenotypes (Blacks, for example) that eventually became numerous enough to constitute a particular group or variety. Although Buffon retold this story using climate theory, the basic paradigm he used was the same: he attributed different types of humans to a chance alignment of causal forces that had acted upon and changed the white prototype over time. Africans, according to these new materialist explanations of humankind, were certainly not monstrous. And yet, like monsters, Black Africans were somehow both close to and different from the original model. This is an interesting tension: like human anomalies, Blacks were seen as a contiguous and yet inferior branch of the human species that was always in dialogue with the ur-category.
What does this mean for the potential link between monstrosity and non-Europeans? In my opinion, there are four main points: 1) the sameness-difference dialectic that underpins early race science clearly echoes the sameness-difference tension that one finds in the era's new explanation of human monstrosity; 2) the same thinkers who ushered in the naturalisation of monstrosity had an active role in explaining human phenotypes, and this is no accident; 3) non-Europeans were not seen as monsters, yet the basic understanding of the accident that came to define monstrosity c. 1740 was used to explain non-Whites as well; 4) a rhetoric of monstrosity, extreme alterity, and dehumanisation for Blacks began to be employed more often after 1770 when antislavery thinkers began putting pressure on the proslavery lobby.
Not unexpectedly, I was gratified to see that Kenny's painstaking review of my book did not unearth any glaring errors of content or method. And yet, Kenny does make two astute remarks that might be best characterized as hidden desiderata. The first comes when Kenny points out something that I had not thought about: the fact that the production of seductive categories of humankind – the making of race – enhanced the careers of certain European men. This intriguing observation dovetails with a second remark regarding the circulation of books and borrowing records among natural historians in the colonies and/or proponents of race. Both observations speak to a desire to move beyond strictly textual history and to understand the construction of race on a micro-historical, network, or institutional level. These are indeed very useful avenues of research and I will take them to heart as I inch toward my next project. I might add that, while it is too late for The Anatomy of Blackness, I have recently been studying the interplay between travel writing and natural history by looking at the libraries of various Enlightenment intellectuals. In short, I agree with Kenny that fleshing out the study of race on the level of networks and institutions can provide us with new insights into this fraught question.
I once again thank Stephen Kenny for his wonderful colleagueship and thoughtful reply.