This blog is based on text from Chapter 21 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.
Throughout my book I have stressed how in 1865, Thomas Bendyshe published a racist mistranslation of Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings led 20th century authors such as Bruce Dain to assume that Blumenbach harbored a white supremacist racial bias, at least early in his career. My initial suspicion that Blumenbach was mistranslated by Bendyshe led me to seek out the services of a professional Latin translator. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to hire a professional translation firm, Shillenn LLC, whom I will henceforth refer to as my 2014 Translator.
My 2014 Translator translated a number of passages from Blumenbach’s works that I suspected were mistranslated by Bendyshe. Before I discuss them, I need to briefly explain that within Blumenbach’s original text a “§” symbol was used to denote a chapter, thus § 62 refers to Chapter 62. Most of the chapters in De Generis of 1795 are just a few paragraphs long. In modern terms, they would be called sections. The image below is taken from Blumenbach’s original text which was bound into a book about the size of a small paperback you might buy in an airport. The left side of this image presents one entire page.
When my 2014 Translator provided me with his translations, he also included notes which you can read in the pdf of Chapter 20. I found the 2014 Translator’s comments to be fascinating because they illustrate the complexities of translating the Latin used in Enlightenment Era Germany. My 2014 Translator’s rendering of Chapter 62 reads (with my bold):
“§ 62. Ethnic varieties of skulls
It seems that all the diversity of the skull of the various ethnic groups and that of the ethnic groups which we have surveyed (§ 56) can also be reduced to five prime varieties; plate II shows examples of these [varieties] (selected from many).
1. The middle place is held by an excellently symmetric, somewhat rounded specimen, whose forehead is moderately flattened out; the cheek bones are rather narrow, nowhere protruding, running down from the malar process of the frontal bone; the alveolar ridge [is] somewhat round; the front teeth of each jaw are positioned perpendicularly. The most elegant skull of a Georgian woman is shown as the example in plate II, figure 3. This charming shape of the skull is midway between the two extremes; of which one of the two…” [At this point Blumenbach goes on to describe Mongolians and Ethiopians.]
Bendyshe’s 1865 translation is presented below. This image is taken from the original text, which has a much more modern look than Blumenbach’s 18th century version. As you read Bendyshe’s translation, you will notice that Bendyshe used the words beautifully and beautiful.
“§ 85. A) The Caucasian variety
The name for this variety is from the Caucasus mountains, because the surrounding area, especially its southern region, nurtures the most beautiful race of humans, i.e. the Georgian, and since all the physiological measures point in the same direction, [i.e.] that the “original types” of the human species most likely ought to be located, if anywhere, in this same region.
In the first place, as we have seen (§ 62), this stock exhibits the most beautiful shape of the skull, from which, as from a mediate and original shaping, the other [varieties] very gradually diverge in both directions toward to the two furthest extremes (in one direction the Mongolian and in the other the Ethiopian).
Moreover since this same [variety] is white in color, which we may consider to be the original [color] of the human species since, as we have shown above [§ 45], it is easy for [white] to degenerate into dark, while it is far more difficult [to move] from dark into white (namely when the secretion and precipitation of carbonaceous pigment (§ 44) over a long time has taken root).”
Bendyshe’s translation of 1865, as seen below, also indicated Blumenbach’s perception of the Georgians as being beautiful.
And so we are left with two translators who agree that Blumenbach did indeed think that the Georgians were the most beautiful of branch of humanity (pucherrimam homien stirpum). Both Behndyshe and the 2013 translations agreed that the Georgians had the most beautiful shape of skulls (venustissuam ut videmus cranai formam).
One could argue that Bendyshe’s mistranslations were due to his inability to read Blumenbach’s arcane form of Latin. However, Bendyshe also mistranslated Blumenbach’s German writings in a way that fraudulently made it appear the Blumenbach held whites to be not just beautiful, but the most beautiful, while and blacks were not just ugly, but the ugliest. For example, Bendyshe also mistranslated Blumenbach’s 1806 German publication Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte. In this book, Blumenbach describes meeting the charming and beautiful African-born Haitian midwife who he met in Yverdun, Switzerland. The following passage regarding this black African woman was translated into English by my 2014 Translator. Based on his translation, Blumenbach’s describe the Haitian midwife as having (with my bold):
“A face, which absolutely – even in the nose and the somewhat thick lips – did not even have anything striking – let alone unpleasant, that the same traits with white skin, would have certainly had to be generally pleasing, just as Le Maire says in his journey to Senegal and Gambia: there are Negresses, who, abstracting from the color, are allegedly as well formed as our European ladies. Also Adanson, the meticulous naturalist, confirms this about the Senegal-Gambian Negresses: “they have,” he says, “beautiful eyes, a small mouth and lips and well-proportioned facial traits: some are found having perfect beauty *): they are full of vivacity and eminently have a light, free and pleasing decorum.”
In this quote, Blumenbach notes that the Haitian midwife had thick lips and a wide nose. Furthermore, he suggests that those very African-looking facial features were nonetheless attractive, and would have been attractive if they occurred on a woman with white skin. Blumenbach then gives two more examples of respected naturalists who also agree that black African women can be just as pretty as whites. However, when Bendyshe translated this text, he rendered it to imply that Blumenbach regarded black skin as being “disagreeable.” Bendyshe’s translation reads (with my bold):
“Such a countenance – even in the nose and the somewhat thick lips – was so far from being surprising, that if one could have set aside the disagreeable skin, the same features with a white skin must have universally pleased, just as Le Maire says in his travels through Senegal and Gambia, that there are negresses, who, abstraction being made of the colour, are as well formed as our European ladies. So also Adanson, that accurate naturalist, asserts the same of the Senegambia negresses; they have beautiful eyes small mouth and lips and well-proportioned features; some, too, are found of perfect beauty; they are full of vivacity, and have especially an easy, free and agreeable presence.”
In 2002, Bendyshe’s version of this text was used by American historian Bruce Dain to argue that Blumenbach “found black skin repugnant,” yet he “could see fineness in relative terms. Round-headed, black, full-featured people could be beautifully, finely made, hence highly intelligent.” Dain’s statement was mistaken in a number of respects. First, Dain uncritically accepted Bendyshe’s warped translation as being an accurate reflection of Blumenbach’s views. Then Dain used this mistranslation to suggest that Blumenbach equated physical beauty with intelligence, an idea that would have sat well with Blumenbach’s intellectual arch rival Christophe Meiners, but not Blumenbach. Lastly, Dain assumed that Blumenbach, writing in 18th century Germany, defined the word beautiful (or its German equivalent,) the same way that we do in 21st Century America. And that leads to the question, how exactly did Blumenbach define beauty way back then?
When Blumenbach said that the Georgians were the most beautiful people on earth, did he mean that they were like the kind of ravishingly gorgeous women and brutally handsome men who grace the magazines that I see while in line at the grocery store? Or was Blumenbach referring to another form of beauty? After all, other things that can be beautiful, like a sunset, an insect’s diaphanous wing, the interior of a cathedral, or a screaming newborn child. Perhaps Blumenbach, the biologist and anatomist, was impressed by the structure of the Georgian’s physiology, just as he might be impressed by the tail feathers of a peacock.
In Figure 6, I have listed all of the instances that I was able to find in which Bendyshe used the word beautiful when translating passages from De Generis of 1776. As the figure shows, Bendyshe translated two Latin words, elegans and exellentem, as beautiful.
Figure 7 lists instances where Bendyshe used the words beautiful, handsome, or becoming when translating De Generis of 1795. In these passages, the Latin word pulcher is translated as beautiful in three places. The words venustus is rendered as beautiful in two instances, but appears as handsome only once. Adding these three words to the two words noted (above elegans and exellentem), we now have five words that Bendyshe translated as beautiful. Unfortunately, I have no way to determine exactly what these five Latin words meant in the form of Latin used by German scholars in the 18th century. However, I am wary enough to suggest that they may not have the exact same meaning they do today.
There is currently no way to know what English words Blumenbach would have used to describe all the different Latin terms describing beauty or attractiveness. However, Blumenbach did published one paper in English, in which he used but one word that related to aesthetics. Blumenbach had proficiency in English but was not totally fluent in it. Thus, the following quote represents Blumenbach’s direct un-translated writing, a rare occurrence in this or any of the other English-language books that discuss him (with my bold):
“The maxilla were sensibly prominent, but by no means so much as in a true Guinea face; and not more so than is often seen on handsome negroes, and not seldom on European countenances.”
In this passage, Blumenbach is describing the face of a mummy which he had examined while visiting England. He is saying that its face was prognathic, with a mouth and teeth that jutted out. However, this mummy’s face was not as prognathic as is common in black Africans from Guinea. Blumenbach’s conclusion was that this mummy had a mouth that was like the mouths found in some Europeans and in “handsome negros,” a term which requires some investigation. I cannot determine if Blumenbach was using the term negro to mean all blacks everywhere, or only West Africans who were not from Guinea. It is also possible that he was referring to only people from Negroland, which in this context would likely be Senegambia. Regardless, Blumenbach stated that these “negros” were handsome, a word that is currently used to describe an attractive man, rather than an infant or a sunset. However, handsome had a somewhat different meaning in Blumenbach’s day. In 1802, Samuel Johnsons’ dictionary defined it this way:
“HANDSOME. Adj. [handsaem, Dutch, ready, dexterous.] 1. Ready; gainly; convenient… 2. Beautiful with dignity; graceful… 3. Elegant; graceful… 4 Ample; liberal, as a handsome fortune… 5. Generous; noble as a handsome action.”
In 1825, Richard Thomas Gore translated Blumenbach’s A Manual of the Elements of Natural History, which was originally written in German. Gore was a British surgeon and anatomist who I regard as the most qualified translator of Blumenbach, of any century. Gore’s translation of A Manual of the Elements of Natural History provides an excellent summary of Blumenbach’s world view during the latter part of his career. I was able to find the word beauty twelve times this document, but only once did it refer to humans, as shown below (with my bold):
“1 THE CAUCASIAN RACE
(Abbild. Nat. Hist. Gegenst. Tab. 3 and 51)
Colour more or less white; with florid cheeks, hair long, soft, and brown (running on the one hand into white, on the other into black); according to the European ideas of beauty, the form of the face and skull most perfect. It includes all the Europeans, with the exception of the Laplanders; the western Asiatics on this side of the Ob, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; lastly, the northern Africans; altogether the inhabitants of the world known by the ancient Grecians and Romans.”
To double check Gore, I had my 2014 Translator translate the same text that Gore did. My 2014 Translator came up with a similar rendering, although he more closely followed Blumenbach’s sentence structure:
“The Europeans, with the exception of the Lapps and other actual Finns and the West Asians, on this side of the Ob, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges, together with the North Africans. In a word, approximately the inhabitants of the world known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They are more or less white in color, with red cheeks, and, according to the European concepts of beauty, they are the best formed humans in the shape of their face and skull.
Both of these translations include the key phrase “according to the European ideas/concepts of beauty,” which in the original German is “der nach den europaischen Begriffen von schonheit.” This text suggests that when Blumenbach wrote that Europeans were beautiful, he was qualifying it by noting that such beauty was based on the arbitrary standards set by Europeans. In 1810, Blumenbach also emphasized the arbitrary nature of beauty. At that time, he published the German text shown in Figure 8, which is not a translation from Latin.
I provided this text and the paragraph that followed it to my 2014 Translator. His translation reads (with Blumenbach’s italics and my bold):
“Jusuf Aguiah Efendi: As a representative of the Caucasian race, to which the best formed humans – according to our concepts of beauty – belong, I could have therefore just as properly cited any other particularly regularly formed European, a MILTON or a RAPHAEL and the like; however, I have selected this respected man who, as is well known, is now in London as an envoy from the Ottoman Port, because his homeland is located nearer to the Caucasus, from which this whole race takes its name, and in the vicinity of which it was likewise originally at home.”
What is striking about the sentence shown in Figure 8 is that Blumenbach emphasized the word unsern which means our by placing it in italics. It appears that he is indicating that beauty is subjective and not a quantifiable fact. Perhaps Blumenbach’s discussion of the arbitrary nature of beauty was a back-handed insult of his fellow professors who assumed their own race was the most beautiful. This jibe may have even been focused on his intellectual arch foe, Christophe Meiners, who regarded all of humanity as divided into either ugly races or beautiful races. Such a subtle dig at blithely bigoted intellectuals would be consistent with Blumenbach’s oft quoted satire of race chauvinists: “If a toad could speak, and were asked which was the loveliest creature upon God’s earth, it would say simpering, that modesty forbade it to give a real opinion on that point.”
In summary, Blumenbach was not obsessed by beauty, but his translator, Thomas Bendyshe sure was.