Chapter 6: The “National Races” of Robert Knox

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch6vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

The University of Edinburgh was, and still is, one of the finest universities in the world. It is one of the three premier centers of learning in the United Kingdom, along with Oxford and Cambridge. Edinburgh was founded in 1582, by King James I (1566-1625), the Scot who took the throne of England after Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) died childless. In time, Edinburgh became the capitol of Scottish Enlightenment, serving as the intellectual home for such luminaries as the economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) and the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776).

Hume regarded black Africans as being mentally and moral inferior to whites. He wrote, “You may obtain anything of Negroes by offering them strong drink; and may easily prevail with them to sell, not only their children, but their wives and mistresses for a cask of brandy.” He wrote:

“I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe (sic) slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

And yet Hume, like the French racist Virey, opposed slavery, and expresses his disgust at slave owners who, “exercise so great authority over their fellow creatures, and… trample upon human nature.” Clearly a man can be a white supremacist, and yet oppose slavery. This apparent contradiction may seem strange to modern eyes, but was nonetheless the case with Hume.

The scholarly reach of Edinburgh even extended across the Atlantic to the University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin. Edinburgh alumni like Philip Syng Physick (1768 – 1837), the father of American Surgery, taught at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, the organization of the University’s medical school was specifically patterned on Edinburgh’s. Edinburgh University was also a hotbed for the study of human race, and the general buzz on campus regarding the origins of human kind was leaving an impact on a whole generation of students. One such student, who later dropped out, was the young Charles Darwin who, like his abolitionist grandparents, opposed slavery.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 6: The “National Races” of Robert Knox

  1. Everyone is a hybrid, prabobly no “race” of today is what existed 20k years ago.That is not how it works. Races of a specific time are defined based on the contemporary genetic and phenotypic variation, not the past variations. Additionally, an individual or population with a small level of total admixture from other races is not considered hybrid.

    • Races are not defined by anything, let alone “contemporary genetic and phenotypic variation.” There is no one set definition for what constituents a “race.” Similarly, “hybrid” is a loosely defined term.

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