Cristina Malcolmson, Studies of Skin Color in the Early Royal Society

Cristina Malcolmson, Studies of Skin Color in the Early Royal Society: Boyle, Cavendish, Swift (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), xii + 233pp. £54.00. ISBN: 978-0-7546-3778-3.

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This absorbing monograph seeks to re-locate the origins of scientific racism to the late seventeenth century, showing how the burgeoning Royal Society made skin colour a significant object of observation and experiment, and arguing that this institutional endeavour was crucial to the formation and imagination of contemporary ideas about racial difference. Early on, Malcolmson points out that in a one-month period at the latter end of 1660, the Royal Society, the Council for Foreign Plantations, and the slave-trading Royal Adventurers into Africa were each established, and shared several members. Not only did the Society utilize these collective enterprises for knowledge-making purposes, by accumulating travel reports and specimens from across the growing empire, but also, as Malcolmson argues, these associated schemes sought validation through connections to the scientific project. The triumph of this book is that it reveals the fluidity of these correspondences between institutions and disciplines, and across genre and mode: travel accounts, anatomical reports, satiric and utopian fictions, and natural philosophical treatises all contribute to a new understanding of perceptions of race in early modern England and its colonies.

The first chapter outlines usefully how the new experimental method championed by the Royal Society was applied by some of its chief proponents to the topic of skin colour. Robert Boyle, for instance, in his Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664), not only contributed to the development of British empiricism and optics, but also to theories of race. Malcolmson argues convincingly that Boyle’s work on the origin of black skin demonstrated how ‘collecting matters of fact can disrupt traditional theories and open up the possibility for better ones’ (36-37) because it challenged ideas of polygenesis, seeming to affirm that all humans are the descendants of Adam and Eve. Boyle is again the focus in Chapter Three, which argues that his research led him to support attempts to pass a law requiring plantation owners to provide their slaves with civil rights and access to Christian conversion. Perhaps most significantly, Chapters One and Three highlight that biblical monogenesis was not the ‘compassionate opposite of polygenesis’ (112), but authorized a belief in European superiority (through its assumption that Adam was white), and justified slavery as a method of Christian salvation. Malcolmson’s work therefore contests the argument that the beginnings of scientific racism can be found within the intellectual shift away from monogenesis.

The intense debates regarding racial difference within and around the early Royal Society are highlighted in Chapter Two. The most revealing of the episodes recalled is perhaps in relation to theories of blood colour. In 1675 the future Vice-President of the Society, Martin Lister, published in the Philosophical Transactions a letter from Thomas Townes, a Barbados physician and naturalist, reporting that ‘the blood of Negroes is almost as black as their skin’, suggesting to him that skin colour was inherent and not influenced by climate (66). Partly prompted by this account, the Society’s secretary, Henry Oldenburg, requested the Dutch pioneer in microscopy Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to ‘closely examine the skin of Moors’ (67). Leeuwenhoek reported that his investigations showed skin colour is determined ‘only’ by ‘scales’ in the deeper levels of the skin, rather than an intrinsic difference, and concluded (in the words of Malcolmson) that ‘whiteness is as much a matter of growth or development as blackness’ (68). Malcolmson shows, however, that the Society seemed to suppress Leeuwenhoek’s work in favour of the blood theory supported by Lister. The reasons for this silencing were probably various – including that Lister was a respected physician, Leeuwenhoek a mere draper – but Malcolmson suggests that some Society members may have preferred to believe in an innate difference between Europeans and Africans because it reinforced colonial control, and particularly the slave trade in which they were investing.

Chapter Four turns to Margaret Cavendish’s satirical Blazing World (1666) and the moon voyage narratives which influenced it. Cavendish, Malcolmson argues, uses the idea of polygenesis to populate the ‘blazing world’ with hybrid animal-humans, ultimately ‘expos[ing] the cultural bias of English scientists in their observations of non-Europeans’ (p. 114). The chapter is strong in showing how Cavendish satirizes the Royal Society’s ‘cultural narcissism’ in its attempt to master nature through experiment (p. 123), and conducts fascinating analysis of how the narrative interweaves racial and gendered cultural differences as concerns.

The focus on gender continues in Chapter Five, which reveals how the interest of Society members (such as Hans Sloane) in birth processes contributed to emerging ideas about racial difference. Offering some excellent close readings of articles in the Transactions, the chapter highlights how continued belief in the power of the mother’s imagination upon the unborn child contributed to the policing of European women’s sexuality. Malcolmson explains how accounts normally depicted European women in states of painful pregnancy and birth, and with children’s development vulnerable to the maternal imagination. In contrast, pregnancies amongst non-European women were almost always described as painless and insensitive to mental influences. The myth of ‘easy labour’ for African women was therefore used as evidence that Africans were excluded from original sin because they were not daughters of Eve, and hence should be classified as a different race.

The final chapter considers the place of Gulliver’s Travels in relation to the Society’s debates about skin colour. Focusing on Book 4, the ‘Voyage to Houyhnhnmland’, Malcolmson argues that by satirizing Society members fixated on skin pigment ‘Swift’s work makes visible a transitional period in which travel narratives […] began to be accompanied by longer and more complex considerations’ of colour (169). Whilst the general thrust of this argument is persuasive, the precise intertextual correspondences and parodic strategies Malcolmson identifies are harder to pin down, and are sometimes based on assumptions about Swift’s reading that cannot be proven categorically.

Perhaps the one notable absence from this generally thorough and authoritative book is a sense of perceptions of race and skin colour within English culture more broadly. Discussion of works such as Aphra Behn’s influential slave narrative Oroonoko (1688), for instance, might have shed light on the dissemination of scientific ideas about race in literary writing beyond the satirical and by authors more sympathetic to institutionalized science. Nevertheless, Studies of Skin Color is an impressive addition to Ashgate’s excellent ‘Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity’ series, demonstrating in depth for the first time the significant connections between seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science, commerce, colonialism, and slavery; and, perhaps more importantly, the unique capacity of literary works to interrogate such bonds.

Greg Lynall, University of Liverpool