“Another virtuous Negro”: G. Vassa and J. F. Blumenbach likely met in 1792

February 6, 2020, © John S. Michael, 2020

The following essay was based on documents I reviewed in 2019 while researching a paper on the anthropological writings of J. F. Blumenbach.  Although my findings are not novel enough to warrant publication in a journal, I believe they can be of use to historians interested in Blumenbach or Vassa.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) was a pivotal figure in the early development of what is now called physical anthropology, specifically through his research relating to human biodiversity, commonly known as “race” (Rupke and Lauer 2019: 3–7). Born into a family of academics, Blumenbach received his medical degree from Göttingen University and was appointed as a curator of its natural history museum (Bendyshe 1865: 44). A leading Enlightenment Era biological theorist praised by Immanuel Kant, Blumenbach accumulated natural science specimens shipped to him from throughout the world (Brace 2005: 46). He was also the first western scholar to describe the platypus (Gascoigne 1994: 155). When he died at the age of 88, Blumenbach was internationally venerated for educating a generation of scholars, including the celebrated Alexander von Humboldt (Bendyshe 1865: 23).

Today, Blumenbach is best known for establishing a five part naming system (or typology) to describe what he called “generis humani varietates quinae principes, species vero unica (five principle varieties of human kind, but one species)” (Blumenbach 1795: 284). In was in 1793, that he first wrote about these varieties in English when he described them as “five races of the human species, viz. 1. the Caucasian; 2. the Mongolian; 3. the Malay; 4. the Ethiopian; 5. the American” (Blumenbach 1794: 193).

Blumenbach popularized these five terms in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa, 3rd Edition (henceforth De Generis III), also known as On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (Smith 2015: 253). De Generis III represented the synthesis of 20 years’ worth of research Blumenbach published in the fields of physical anthropology, comparative anatomy, and theoretical biology. The genesis of De Generis III can be traced to 1775, when Blumenbach completed his Göttingen University doctoral dissertation pioneering the use of comparative anatomy to analyze human diversity. In 1776, this dissertation was published in book form as De generis humani varietate nativa liber (henceforth De Generis I). Montague (1942: 369) hailed De Generis I as “marking the birth” of physical anthropology. De Generis I discussed human biodiversity differently from philosophers Henry Hume and Immanuel Kant, whose prior writings on race were more theoretical, with limited references and scant discussions of anatomy (Augstein 1996: 10; Mikkleson 2013: 55, 125, 169).

For Blumenbach, the principal focus of De Generis I was simply to determine whether humans “of all times and of every race” belonged to one species or multiple species (Bendyshe 1865: 98; Blumenbach 1776: 39). His conclusion was:

For although there seems to be so great a difference between widely separate nations (inter remotiores gentes interesse videatur differentia)[…] yet when the matter is thoroughly considered you see that all do so run into one another, and that one variety of mankind does so sensibly [imperceptibly] pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them (ita omnes inter se confluerc quasi et sensim unam in alteram transire hominum varietatem videbis ut vix ac ne vix quidem limites inter eas constituere poteris). (Bendyshe 1865: 98–99; Blumenbach 1776: 40–41).

As this quote indicates, Blumenbach asserted that all forms of humanity sprang from one origin, a theory known as “monogenism.” According to Blumenbach, the human species was a continuum of slightly different, inter-related adjacent populations that would today be called a ‘biological cline’ or ‘racial spectrum’ (Livingstone and Dobzhansky 1962: 279; Brace and Hunt 1990: 341).

In De Generis I, Blumenbach’s typology included only four primary varieties, roughly corresponding to Americans, East Asians, Sub-Saharan Africans, and Indo-European/North African Peoples (Blumenbach 1776: 41–42). However, Blumenbach eventually concluded that Pacific peoples (Polynesians, Micronesians, Papuans, native Australians, and others) constituted a variety that was sufficiently different to warrant being designated as a fifth variety (Blumenbach 1781: 52). In 1795 Blumenbach published a now famous drawing of five skulls representing each of the racial varieties which he proposed were the five major elements of the human racial spectrum (Blumenbach 1795; end plate 2).

Most 19th and early 20th centuries biographical essays on Blumenbach simply describe him as the “father of physical anthropology” and the man who first postulated that humanity could be divided into five classes. This rather simplistic view of Blumenbach was largely derived from the writings of Thomas Bendyshe, a pro-slavery race supremacist from England, who, decades after Blumenbach’s death, translated Blumenbach’s key anthropological texts originally written in Latin and German. However, modern studies have determined that Bendyshe mistranslated and misrepresented Blumenbach’s racial theories (Michael 2017; 281). The corpus of Blumenbach’s writings are now posted in their original languages at the Blumenbach online website, maintained by the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, based at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities (http://www.blumenbach-online.de/).

Although Blumenbach was not a vocal abolitionist, he was opposed to slavery. The German polymath Johann Gottfried Gruber, writing in the introduction to the German translation of De Generis III, credited Blumenbach with defending “the unity of mankind (die Einheit Menschengeschlechtes)” at a time when “slave traders (Sklavenhändler)” needed to be wakened from “their slumber” (Gruber 1798: viii-ix). The German physiologist Friedrich Tiedemann described his “venerable friend Blumenbach” as a defender of “the intellectual powers of Negroes” (1836: 524). The French physiologist Jean Pierre Flourens wrote that for Blumenbach “all men are born or might have been born from the same man. He calls the negroes our black brothers (Il appelle les nègres nos frères noirs)” (Bendyshe 1865: 60; Flourens 1847: 17, emphasis in the original). The German anatomist K. F. H. Marx noted that:

At a period when negroes and savages were regarded as half animals, and when the idea of the emancipation of slaves had not begun to excite interest, Blumenbach raised his voice in order to shew [sic] that their psychical [sic] qualities were not inferior to those of Europeans (Marx 1841a: 226-227, 1840: 10).

In 1787, Blumenbach published a paper, which was later published in English with the title “Observations on the Bodily Conformation and Mental Capacities of the Negroes” (Blumenbach 1799b: 141). Blumenbach’s conclusion was that “The negroes, in regards to their mental facilities and capacity (natürlichen Geistesanlangen und Fähigkeiten), are not inferior to the rest of the human race” (Blumenbach 1799b: 143; Blumenbach 1787: 4). Blumenbach (1806: 88–91) also collected books written by West African-born authors – like the Boston poet Phillis Wheatley and the Maryland author of almanacs, Benjamin Banneker – to document the high mental capabilities inherent in people of West African ancestry. When the French abolitionist Jesuit abbot, Henri Grégoire was preparing his classic ‘pro-Negro’ treatise, De la Littérature des nègres (On the Literature of Negros), Blumenbach lent him a book of Wheatley’s poems (Shields 2008: 52; Curtin 1964: 241).

Blumenbach’s book collection also included the autobiography of Gustavus Vassa (1745–1797), also known Olaudah Equiano, (Blumenbach Online, 2019). Enslaved as a child in Nigeria, he was shipped to Virginia where he was purchased by a British naval officer. Vassa spent much of his youth at sea, where he learned to read and became a skilled mariner. He eventually purchased his freedom. Vassa served as a crewman on ships traveling the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the coasts of northern Canada. He finally settled in England, married an English woman, and became active in the abolitionist movement. He wrote a detailed account of his own enslavement and travels entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. He is credited with being the founder of the slave narrative (Carretta 1997: 259–260).

In 1790, Blumenbach published a review of Vassa’s book in a scholarly journal. Blumenbach described Vassa as “[Yet] another virtuous Negro, who shows himself to be a useful and pleasant writer (Weider ein braver Neger, der sich als nützlicher und angenehmer Schriftsteller zeigt).” Blumenbach noted that Vassa’s book detailed the harsh experiences of his life, but also included remarkable observations from his “travels in four parts of the world (auf seinen Reisen in vier Welttheile).” According to Blumenbach, Vassa was able to make such observations due to “his natural curiosity and attention, and the lessons and knowledge he had acquired, especially in naval matters (bey seiner natürlichen Wißbegierde und Aufmerksamkeit und dem genossenen Unterricht und den Kenntnissen, die er sich, zumal im Seewesen, erworben)” (Blumenbach, 1790: 674–675).

Also in 1790, Blumenbach discussed Vassa in his book Beyträge zur Naturgeschichte. Blumenbach described Vassa and the ex-slave author Ignatius Sancho as “two distinguished Negros who had become famous as writers in England (zwey vortrefliche Neger in England als Schritsteller (sic) berühmt worden).” Blumenbach noted that unlike Sancho, Vassa’s writings had “more seriousness, almost bordering on gloominess (mehr gesetzter Ernst der fast an Trübsinn grenzt). Blumenbach then went on to quote two large passages from Vassa’s book: 1) Vassa’s story of trying to convert a Miskito tribal elder to Christianity, and 2) Vassa’s recollection of a naval battle, in which he had to quickly pour water on gunpowder which had spilled on the floor of the ship during active combat. Blumenbach presented these examples of Vassa’s piety and quick witted courage under fire as proof that Negros had just as much mental ability and religious zeal as “many of their white brothers (viele ihrer weissen Brüder)” (Blumenbach 1790: 102, 108, 111–118).

In 1806, Blumenbach reported that had previously met with Vassa in person (Blumenbach 1806: 89–90; Bendyshe 1865: 310). There are no primary source documents that indicate when or where they met or what they discussed. This meeting almost certainly had to have occurred from December 1791 through March 1792, when Blumenbach was visiting England. During this tour – Blumenbach’s only trip to England – he met with King George III and other luminaries including the South Sea explorer, Sir Joseph Banks (Klatt 2012: 23–26). At this time, Vassa was also in London. Vassa wrote that he visited Greenock, Scotland in late January of 1792, and soon after “returned to London, where I found persons of note from Germany and Holland, who requested of me to go there” (Vassa 1794: 359). It is possible that Blumenbach was one of the aforementioned persons of note, because Vassa reported that one of those persons had informed him “that an edition of my Narrative had been printed in both places, also in New York.” The translator of the German edition of Vassa’s book was Blumenbach’s Göttingen colleague, the philologist and librarian Georg Friedrich Benecke. This translation was still being prepared when Blumenbach left Göttingen for London. It was published in 1792. There is a real possibility that Blumenbach personally informed Vassa about this German edition (Klatt 2012, 41).

It is entirely plausible that Blumenbach wished to meet Vassa in order to observe the anatomical features of a native-born West African. Blumenbach had habit of seizing the opportunity to observe exotic peoples spending time in Europe, be they Chinese visiting Amsterdam, Guinean servants in Yverdun, Switzerland, or Persian and Moroccan ambassadors at the court of Emperor Napoleon (Blumenbach 1799: 143, Flourens 1847: 18; Blumenbach 1794: 193). Blumenbach also corresponded extensively with world travelers to gather information on the various plants, animals, and ethnic groups they personally observed. Thus, Blumenbach may have sought to interview Vassa about his travels to the Arctic and his interactions with Native Americans, native West African, and Turks (Vassa 1794: 11–14, 243–244; 303–304). For Blumenbach, Vassa may have been both an anatomical exemplar and a highly knowledgeable informant.

It is also likely that Blumenbach was interested in Vassa as an example of how the environment could improve the intellect of a person regardless of race. In 1796, Blumenbach published Abbildungen naturhistorischer Gegenstände (Illustrations of Natural History Specimens), in which he presented brief biographical sketches of three well-educated and successful non-Europeans. All three were born into non-literate cultures. Yet they excelled when provided schooling in Europe or British America. These men were: Thayendanega, also called Joseph Brant, an Ohio Valley Mohawk educated in Connecticut at Dartmouth College; Jacobus Elisa Joannes Capitein, a Ghanaian-born former slave from Amsterdam, who was the first West African to graduate from a Dutch university; and Feodor Iwanowitsch, an Oirat Mongol of Siberia, who was enslaved by Russians as a child, but was freed and became a successful fine artist after studying in Rome (Blumenbach 1796: [9–11, 14, 25–27]; Lieber, et al. 1857: 78–79; Eigen 2007: 285; Blumenbach 1795: 602). Similar to these three men, Vassa’s ability to read and do math led him to succeed according to the standards of 18th century European society.

Furthermore, Blumenbach may have been interested in Vassa’s talent for mercantile success, a trade which Vassa learned informally as a slave observing his masters as they pursued their careers as maritime traders. In 1808, Grégoire, the ardent Jesuit abolitionist, noted that Blumenbach had mailed him material indicating that in Islamic cultures, commerce was largely run by slaves such that  merchants would “gladly purchase black children, to whom they teach writing and arithmetic (achètent volontiers des enfans noirs, auxquels ils font apprendre l’écriture et l’arithmétique)’ (Grégoire 1808: 114–115). The parallels between this report and Vassa’s autobiography are striking.

It is also possible that Vassa was the one who sought out Blumenbach. Vassa could easily have known that Blumenbach had written a positive review of his book. After all, the two men had mutual acquaintances. Blumenbach assisted the explorer Joseph Banks in planning and finding crewmen for British voyages of discovery throughout the globe (Biskup 2007: 148–150). Blumenbach even dedicated De Generis III to Banks (Blumenbach 1795: iii). The notion that Vassa and Banks may have been acquainted with each other is plausible. Banks was a childhood friend of, and later shipmate with, Constantine Phipps (Lord Mulgrave), an explorer of some renown who was the captain of the same ship upon which Vassa sailed to the Arctic (Gascoigne 1994: 8; Carretta 2005: 144; Vassa 1794: 253).

To date, Blumenbach’s relationship to Vassa has not been studied in detail. But it could be a rich vein of inquiry. Vassa was the only non-European-born explorer with whom Blumenbach is known to have interacted. It is possible that previously undiscovered records documenting their interaction may still be present in archival libraries in Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Literature Cited

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