HOW THE TERMS “CAUCASIAN” AND “MONGOLIAN”BECAME POPULARIZED: Blumenbach Presented Slaves as Case Studies to Illustrate his “Environmentalist” Theory of Human Polytypic Variation. (Part 2 of 3)

Blumenbach’s case studies of enslaved Mongolians

By designating Yusuf Agah as his case study for the Caucasian racial variety, Blumenbach chose a successful man who may well have had slave ancestry. Similarly, when providing a case study for the Mongolian racial variety, Blumenbach (1796, (14)) chose Iwanowitsch, a former slave born in Asian Russia. Iwanowitsch came from the Calmuck people, now known as the Oirats, who are the western-most population of Mongols. It was reported that as a child, Iwanowtisch was enslaved by Cossacks. He then became the property of a family of means in European Russia. His Russian mistress freed and adopted him (Lieber 1857, 79). A talented professional artist, Iwanowtisch studied in Rome and travelled to Greece with the Earl of Elgin, famous for shipping the Elgin Marbles to England (Ackermann 1824, 70).

When choosing his Mongolian skull holotype, Blumenbach (1795, 324) selected a “Reindeer Tungus” from Russian Asia named Chevin Amureyev [or “Tschewin Amureew”], which is “Чевин Амуреев” in Russian. As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection – as excellently illustrated in Decades I-III – included five East Asian adult skulls with jaws, three of which had few or no teeth (Decades ID 1-5 a “Calmuck [Calmucci]”, ID 2-15 a “Yakut [Iacutae]”, and ID 3-23 a “Chinese [Sinensis]”). The two jawed skulls with most of their teeth were a Calmuck (ID 2-14, a Calmuck) which was chipped around the nose, and the skull of Amurevey (ID 2-16, a Tungus “[Tungusae]”), which was largely undamaged. Blumenbach (1795, 324) wrote that Amureyev died after hanging himself, which Bendyshe (1865, 162) incorrectly translated as “cut his own throat”. Reports by Georgi (1780, 70 and 88) noted that the Tungus called themselves “Euveuinikis”, and were divided into “Dog Tungus” who hunted or fished, and “Reindeer Tungus” who herded reindeer. Georgi wrote that Tungus children have “an air altogether Kalmouk” (Georgi 1780, 77). It would reason that Blumenbach selected Amureyev as a skull holotype because his skull was in good condition. Because the Tungus were reportedly similar in form to Calmucks, Blumenbach chose the Calmuck Iwanowitsch as his case study.

Although records indicate that individual Tungus were enslaved (Gentes 2010, 174), they were never known to be a commonly enslaved people (Georgi 1780, 70-117). However, Georgi (1780, 294) noted that Calmucks were famously “valued as harem girls, and even wives”, by neighboring nations like the Kyrgyz who believed that Calmuck women retained “the marks of youth”. Thus, when selecting a case study for his Mongolian racial variety, Blumenbach chose Iwanowitsch, a former slave from a community (Calmuck Mongols) whose women were harem slaves, just like the Woman of Georgia.

Blumenbach accepted as valid the reports that that Calmuck Mongols, like Caucasus Mountaineers, were known for their beauty. In De Generis I, Blumenbach (1776, 62) noted Calmucks were attractive according to first-hand observations of Pallas, who twice explored central Asia (Vermeulen 2015, 335; Demel 2012, 71). Furthermore, Blumenbach (1776, 62) refuted de Fisher’s (143, 24) claim that Calmucks were ugly.

Within De Generis I, Blumenbach (1776, 62) referenced an anatomy textbook written by de Fischer which included an image (Figure 4) of a Calmuck skull with unrealistically square jaws (de Fischer 1743, Fig. 1).

De Fischer’s (143, 24) described this drawing as a “calvaria horrida [ugly skull]” that was “approaching a square shape [quadratam prope specicm (sic) accedit]”, and “testified itself to barbarity [barbariam ipsam testator]”. In De Generis I, Blumenbach (1776, 62) states (with my bold) that, J. B. de Fischer’s drawing showed a Calmuck, which “J. B. de Fischer said” was “ugly, nearly square, and indicative of barbarity [eamque horridam et ad quandratam prope speciem accedentem, imo multis modis barbariam ipsam testantem, dixit I. B. de Fischer]”. Blumenbach then refutes what de Fischer’s “said [dixit]”, and instead asserts that this single example of a Calmuck skull:

“…shows how unfair it is to draw conclusions as to the conformation of a whole race from one or two specimens. For Pallas describes the Calmucks as men of a symmetrical, beautiful [symmetricae et elegantis imo rotundae], and even round appearance, so that he says their girls would find admirers in cultivated Europe” (Bendyshe 1865, 116-117; Blumenbach 1776, 62).

Thus, Blumenbach rejected de Fischer’s claims, while endorsing Pallas’ observation that Calmucks were attractive, even by European standards. However, Bendyshe’s 1865 translation contained a small error which made it incorrectly appear that Blumenbach agreed with de Fischer. Bendyshe’s rendering reads:

“J. B. de Fischer has published a drawing of a Calmuck’s skull, and it is ugly, and nearly approaches a square in shape, and in many ways testifies to barbarism” (Bendyshe 1865, 116-117).

Citing Bendyshe’s mistranslation, Bindman (2002, 161) and Zammitto (2006, 48) argued that Blumenbach harbored an ethnocentric bias which held Calmucks to be ugly. But to paraphrase Blumenbach, it is incautious to draw conclusions as to the conformation of a man’s view from but one publication. An examination of the whole corpus of Blumenbach’s writings indicates that he named his Far East Asian racial variety after the reportedly beautiful enslaved Calmuck Mongols, employing the same rationale he used to name whites/Europeans after the Caucasus Mountaineers. For Blumenbach, the lowly enslaved Caucasus Mountaineers had the same innate potential as their high achieving Romans relatives. Likewise, the Calmuck Mongols slaves had the same innate potential as the imperial Chinese, whose physical form they shared.

 Blumenbach’s case studies of enslaved West Africans

Just as Blumenbach chose Iwanowitsch, a successful former child slave, as his case study for his Mongolian racial variety case study, so he selected Jacobus Capitein as a parallel case study for the Ethiopian Racial variety. Capitein was Ghanaian-born slave shipped to the Netherlands as a child and adopted by his master (Blumenbach 1796, (23)). Capitein excelled at school and became the first native African to graduate from a Dutch university. He became a missionary in Ghana, but was unsuccessful because he was so culturally Dutch that his ancestral people could not relate to him. In the late 18th century, his scholarly talents were cited by those who supported racial equality. However, his failures late in life were cited by those who opposed it (Finkleman 2006, 236-237; Appiah and Gates 2010, 241).

Although Capitein was not a sex slave, the skull holotype which Blumenbach used to illustrate his Ethiopian racial variety came from a Guinean-born female “concubine of a Dutchman [Batavi cujusdam concubinae]” (Blumenbach 1769, 326; Bendyshe 1865, 162). Blumenbach’s use of the word “concubine” to describe the Woman of Guinea – who died in Amsterdam – suggests that she may have been a prostitute. However, it was not uncommon for Dutch sailors to marry former prostitutes they met overseas (Boxer 1957, 128-130). The fact that a Dutchman had paid to sail this Guinean woman to his homeland suggests that she had become his wife. As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included six adult skulls with jaws that he regarded as belonging to his Ethiopian racial variety. Four of them, as drawn in detail in Decades I-III, were missing multiple teeth (Decades IDs 1-6, 1-7, 2-17, and 2-18 all generically described as “Ethiopian [Aethiopum or Aethiopis]”.)  Blumenbach had two remaining skulls in good condition, and instead of choosing a male skull (ID 1-8, an “Ethiopian [Aethiopum]”), he selected the Woman of Guinea (ID 2-19, a “Guinean [Guineensis]”). She, like the Woman of Georgia, was reportedly a sex slave displaced from her native land.

There is no evidence that Blumenbach regarded either Ghanaians or Guineans as nationalities that were traditionally celebrated for their beauty, like Caucasus Mountaineers and Calmuck Mongols. Nonetheless, Blumenbach was of the opinion that West Africans could be beautiful, even by European standards. Thus, there is the possibility that he regarded the concubine Woman of Guinea as possessing a beauty that paralleled the harem girls from the Caucasus Mountains or Mongolia.

Blumenbach was quite open in stating that West African women had the same potential for beauty as European women. In 1787, he published a paper describing a visit to Yverdun, Switzerland, in which he detailed (with my bold) how he entered the courtyard of a friend’s house and:

“I saw only a woman, standing with her back towards me, whose elegant form attracted my notice. But how much was I surprised, when on accosting her she turned round, to find a Negress… Her face was such, that even the nose, and somewhat thicker lips, had nothing peculiar, certainly nothing unpleasant in their appearance; and had the same features occurred in a white skin, they would have excited very general admiration. [doch sogar nichts auffallendes, geschweige denn unangenehmes hatte, dass die gleichen Züge bey einer weissen Haut gewiss allgemein gefallen haben müssten.] To this were added, the most sprightly and cheerful vivacity, a sound judgment, and as I afterwards discovered, peculiar knowledge and skill in midwifery. The pretty Negress of Yverdun [lieben hübsche Negresse von Yverdun] is widely celebrated as the best midwife in that part of Switzerland” (Blumenbach/Trans. Anonymous 1799, 141; Blumenbach 1787, 3).

This woman was Pauline Hippolyte Buisson, who was born in West Africa. After being enslaved on Santa Domingo, she eventually lived as a free resident of Switzerland (Debrunner 1979, 142-143). According to Armistead (1848, 44), Blumenbach described Buisson (with my bold) as having “countenance, of which no part, not even the nose, and rather strongly marked lips, were very striking, much less, displeasing: the same features, with an European complexion would certainly have been generally agreeable”. Bachman (1850, 165-166) also concluded that Blumenbach’s report of meeting Buisson was evidence that Blumenbach found West Africans to be aesthetically pleasing people. Unfortunately, Bendyshe (1865, 307) mistranslated Blumenbach’s description of Buisson so that it read “if one could have set aside the disagreeable skin, the same features with a white skin would have been universally pleased (sic)”. Citing Bendyshe’s poor translation, Dain (2002, 61) wrote that Blumenbach “found black skin repugnant”. Yet again, Bendyshe errors have proved to be problematic.

Blumenbach presented displaced slaves as key illustrations when discussing his Ethiopian racial variety, just as he did when discussing his Caucasian and Mongolian racial varieties. Thus, there is a pattern in which Blumenbach repeatedly presents the practice of slavery as in-the-field evidence supporting his theory of environmentalism. His message is that West African slaves, individually and as a group, possess an inherent potential to be intellectually advanced, just like lowly Caucasus Mountaineer and Calmuck Mongol slaves. Far from ranking one racial variety above all others, Blumenbach was demonstrating that they all possessed naturally engendered similarities and an equal potential for achievement.

Case studies of culturally displaced Americans and Pacific Islanders

Blumenbach’s case studies for his American and Malay racial varieties continued his pattern of highlighting individuals who found success in cultures into which they were not born. His Malay case study was Omia, also called Mia or O’Mia (Blumenbach 1796, (22)). Omia found fame in Europe after sailing from his native Tahiti to Britain with Captain Cook’s flotilla. Omia charmed King George III and London society with his exotic ways, his politeness, and his intelligent, inquisitive manner. He later returned to Tahiti, but died before the age of thirty of an infectious disease (Connaughton 2007, xv-xvii). Omia was not a slave. Although Tahitian society was highly stratified by class, it was not a slave culture. Nor were the Tahitians an enslaved people (Rodriguez 1997, 645).

As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included only two skulls that he regarded as members of his Malay racial variety. As the detailed drawings in Decades I-III indicate, both Malay skulls were missing many teeth. Blumenbach (1795, (14)) selected an anonymous Tahitian (Decades ID 3-26, a “Tahitian [Otaheitae]”) thus matching Omia’s ethnicity. The skull that Blumenbach did not select was a native Australian (ID 3-27, a “New Hollander [Novo-Hollandi]”).

The case study Blumenbach used for his American racial variety was Thayendanegea [or “Tayadaneega”], also called Joseph Brant. He was born in Ohio to Christian Mohawk parents, and educated in Connecticut at a school later known as Dartmouth College (Kelsay 1984, 40 and 72). In 1775, he travelled to England and met with King George III (Kelsay 1984, 165). Thayendanegea fought for the Crown against Gen. Washington’s Army, and in 1780 became a commissioned officer in the British Army (Kelsay 1984, 290). Decades later, Thayendanegea met with President Washington to discuss U. S. relations with native nations (Kelsay 1984, 470).

As of 1795, Blumenbach’s collection included only one Native American adult skull with a jaw (ID 1-10, a “Carib [Caribaei]”), and he used it as his American skull holotype. Blumenbach (1795, 325) described the specimen as a “ducis Caribaei [Carib chief]” from the small island nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Although records indicate that individual Caribs were enslaved (Forbes, 54-55), they were never known to be a commonly enslaved people like their neighbors the Aarawak (Henke 2001, 1). Rather, the Caribs were known for violently resisting European colonists beginning in the 1490s. Caribs famously engaged in a protracted military conflict with French and English forces lasting from the 1620s until the 1790s (Lafleur 1993, 3-4). Thus, Blumenbach’s Carib “chief” had some parallels to Thayendanegea, a commander of indigenous troops who fought against European colonists.

The ancillary role of aesthetics in Blumenbach’s overall research program.

As noted above, a number of modern scholars have asserted that Blumenbach’s research was substantially compromised by his Eurocentric aesthetic bias. Thus, it has been argued that aesthetics was a driving factor in his decision to use the word “Caucasian” to describe white/Europeans as a racial variety. However, the examination of the whole corpus of Blumenbach’s work presented herein indicates that aesthetics had only an ancillary influence on his research.

For example, Painter (2010, 43) aptly documented how the image of a beautiful, chained, and naked Caucasian slave girl – known to art historians as an “odalisque” – gained popularity in the orientalist art movement of 19th century Europe. As Painter (2010, 83-84) presented it, the beautiful yet helpless female slave imagery of the odalisque should be considered when examining Blumenbach’s choice of a captured Georgian harem girl to represent his Caucasian racial variety.

However, Blumenbach’s writings do not address odalisque works of art. Rather, Blumenbach specifically focused his attention on a famous white marble bust of a clothed Roman matron known as “Townley’s Clytie” (Blumenbach 1789-1828, III-5). This statue was the favorite possession of Charles Townley, a British “gentlemen of large fortune” who collected ancient Roman marbles (Channing 1851, 148; Delon 2013, 82; Dyson 2008, 136). While visiting London, Blumenbach viewed Townley’s collection. Thereafter, Blumenbach (1789-1828, III-5) reported that the “proportion and beauty symmetrical [symmetrica proportio et venustas]” that was found in the skull of the Woman of Georgia was comparable to “another female figure of the divine works of ancient Greek art… the marble bust of Clytie of inexpressible conspicuous beauty [Clyties ineffabili pulcritudine conspicuae]”.

Furthermore, trying to accurately assess Blumenbach’s aesthetics can be especially problematic because Blumenbach may well have defined the word “beauty” (or its Latin and German equivalents) differently from its modern English definition. In Blumenbach’s era, “beauty” could have an anatomical application such as when Burmeister (1849, 42) described “der schöne Schädel von Mastodonsaurus [the beautiful skull of a mastodonsaurus]”, which is an amphibian whose face looks like that of a crocodile. Burmeister’s use of the German word schön to indicate high quality structure or condition is similar to the late 18th century English definition of beauty which was: “That assemblage of graces, which pleases the eye” (Johnson 1768, BED/BED). By the early 20th century, “beauty” had evolved into its current more emotive meaning: “That quality of objects that gratifies the aesthetic nature” (Fernald 1921, 59).

Blumenbach’s colleague Goethe (1909, 57) once described a “very beautiful elephant skull [ein sehr schöner Elefantenschädel]”. In a 1794 letter to Blumenbach, Goethe described the skull of artist Raphael as “bildschön” which means “marvelously beautiful” or “picture perfect” (Dougherty 2012, 303). Similarly, Blumenbach described the skull of the Woman of Georgia as “bildschön-proportionirter [marvellously beautifully proportioned]” (Dougherty 2012, 257). Blumenbach also wrote a letter to Asch which mentioned a “schön-proportionirter Schedel [beautifully proportioned skull]” of a Turk (Dougherty 2012, 303). In one letter, Blumenbach even described the Woman of Georgia’s skull using the mixed German and English phrase “unberührte Beauty”, or “untouched beauty” (Dougherty 2012, 256).

It is difficult to determine if Blumenbach viewed the Woman of Georgia as an attractive person, or her skull as a picture-perfect object (or both!). Nonetheless, he was clear in his assertion that beauty was subjective and culturally based. Blumenbach (1796, (18)) explained (with his italics) that he chose Yusuf Agah as a “representative of the Caucasian race, to which the best formed humans – according to our concepts of beauty [nach unser Begriffen von Schönheit] – belong”, even though he could have chosen some other well-formed European, like “a Milton or a Raphael”. Blumenbach (1799, 62) later described Caucasians as having a “most exemplary [musterhaftesten]” face and skull, but only “according to the European concepts of beauty, [nach den europäischen Begriffen von Schönheit]”.

Conclusion: Slavery had a significant influence on Blumenbach’s research

The above evaluation of Blumenbach’s publications reveals a discernible pattern in which Blumenbach used slaves as examples to illustrate his environmentalist biological theories. As he saw it, human intelligence was not inherited; rather it developed based on environmental conditions. Thus, slaves and other displaced persons who found success outside their ancestral homelands were ideal case studies for his argument. Similarly, when he sought to label his five primary racial varieties, Blumenbach selected two names – Caucasian and Mongolian – which were associated with enslaved nationalities. In doing so, he was making a statement that whites/Europeans, whose history was largely dominated by the culture Greco-Roman civilization, were physically the same as commonly enslaved Caucasus Mountaineers. Likewise, he chose the enslaved Mongols to describe Far East Asians, rather than the Chinese, whose civilization dominated that part of the world. This interpretation of Blumenbach’s research program diverges from the notion initially proposed by Schiebinger that aesthetics was a key driver in his work. However, the “environmentalist” interpretation presented herein is founded on a wide sample of primary source publications by Blumenbach, Georgi and de Fischer, most of which were not examined Schiebinger (1993, 270-274).

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