Part 2: This Book Will Get More Complicated

(You can read the complete pdf of the Part 2 Introduction here: Blumenbach Part2_Intro_vW.)

In the first seven chapters of this book, I have presented the sort of information – some accurate, some not – that Blumenbach might have known about during his lifetime. This survey of antiqued ideas about race and the natural world is needed to understand what Blumenbach was trying to communicate from his perspective as a German anatomist in the late 18th century. Decades later, in the 19th century, scholars would misinterpret Blumenbach’s work, sometimes to justify their own opinions, and other times simply because they did not understand his terms and ideas. Personally, I can forgive them for misreading some of the obtuse archaic terminology that he used. That sort of miscommunication still happens all the time, especially in discussions about race. For example, most of us in the 21st century can easily make sense of the following sentence:

“Slavery was a practice in which Negros were bought and sold by whites who also believed that Aryans were superior to Jews.”

However, this sentence would not have had the same meaning, or even have been be true, back in the 1850s. In those days, Jews were thought to be Aryans, and white slaves were owned by Arabs. This sentence would have had yet another meaning in 1750, when the word Negro did not always refer all black people, just some of them. In 1650, this sentence would be wrong since some Negros owned Negro slaves, even in North America. This sentence would be confusing in 1515, when the word white was not usually applied to people and the term Aryan did not exist. In 1450, this sentence would be unclear and inaccurate at so many levels; it would hardly be worth writing down, even though most of the individual words were used all the time.

When we read Blumenbach today, we are apt to forget that his words and concepts may be quite different from ours. When he says a woman is an Ethiopian, she may be from Ethiopia, or from anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, or just a person who speaks a Bantu-related language. When he talks about the evils of slavery, he may mean the enslavement of Africans by Portuguese or Britons, or the enslavement of Armenians, Georgians or Mongols by Turks or Arabs. Furthermore, Blumenbach was just as likely to make the same sort of errors that we do. When he read a 200 year-old document from 1475 and saw the word Africa, he probably envisioned the continent of Africa, just like we would today. However, in centuries’ old documents Africa could also refer to the small Imperial Roman province that is now the nation of Tunisia.

One of the gravest mistakes that we modern folk can make in reading historic documents about race is to assume we know how the author was defining his terms. Instead, a significant amount of suspicion should be employed. One should always ask (and I mean always); did that word mean the same thing then as it does now? Furthermore, if a word is translated from another language, the suspicion doubles, because the word could be mistranslated. Even if the word is an exact translation, it could be used as part of a phrase that might mean or imply something different from the word alone. Lastly, an author from, say, 1860 might refer to “race” as written down in a French document from 1790. However, that same author may also mention “race” as published in a German document from 1805, not realizing that those two words had somewhat different meanings in those different cultures fifteen years apart. To paraphrase the old cliché; don’t believe everything you read in the papers, especially if the paper is 80-years old, and the article is about race.

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