Blackness, Science, and Circulation of Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century Luso-Brazilian World and the United States

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Europe, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-11-26 21:54Z by Steven

Blackness, Science, and Circulation of Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century Luso-Brazilian World and the United States

The Eighteenth Century
Volume 57, Number 3, Fall 2016
pages 303-324
DOI: 10.1353/ecy.2016.0020

Bruno Carvalho, Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese
Princeton University

It has become increasingly common for scholars to locate the eighteenth century as a turning point in what Nell Irvin Painter calls the “now familiar equation that converts race to black and black to slave.” Recent studies explore how scientific racism, which flourished in the nineteenth century, emerges in debates involving Enlightenment savants like Voltaire, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and several less prominent authors. European anatomists, natural historians, and philosophers devised racial classification schemata, frequently relying on erroneous travel narratives as their main source of knowledge. The voices of “non-whites” are predictably muted in debates that took place almost exclusively among Europeans, but that also included well-connected North Americans, chief among them Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Although “race”—by no means a stable concept in the eighteenth century—included myriad categories besides “blackness,” this article will discuss how intellectuals in the Americas wrote about black Africans and their descendants in the context of Enlightenment-era science.

Given how the Portuguese and British Americas received the majority of Africans taken to the New World as slaves, it is not surprising that there is a longstanding tradition of comparative approaches to racial relations in Brazil and the United States. Sparse attention, however, has been paid to how the transatlantic circulation of eighteenth-century scientific discourses, especially in natural history, might have impacted the later development of different forms of racism across the hemisphere. This study brings to the fore texts from the Luso-Brazilian world that have been largely overlooked, and aims to add to the vast literature on Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1781). Although the analysis here does not pretend to be comprehensive or exhaustive, by investigating connections between a group of would-be revolutionaries in the Brazilian captaincy of Minas Gerais and the United States independence movement, it attempts to be connective as much as comparative. This hemispheric approach evinces the disparate roles and station of Luso-Brazilian and United States lettered elites in transatlantic circulation of knowledge, while seeking to contribute to an understanding of how they produced divergent texts about blackness in the period preceding the French and Haitian revolutions.

The Luso-Brazilian eighteenth century has generated an outstanding body of scholarship, but it does not often appear prominently in panoramic studies of the period—despite the fact that the Portuguese empire remained one of Europe’s most extensive, and that gold from its Minas Gerais possessions had a significant impact on the global economy. Perhaps it is so because Brazil does not easily fit within the Age of Revolutions paradigm: in 1822, it was the Portuguese monarch’s son, rather than a republican revolutionary, who declared independence. Brazil was an empire through most of the nineteenth century, and became a republic in 1889, later than its Spanish-speaking neighbors. Eighteenth-century movements that might have become comparable to the United States and Haitian Revolutions were thwarted by the Crown. Likewise, although by some estimates mining in the Portuguese Americas alone propelled about ten percent of all slave trade in the eighteenth century, the Luso-Brazilian world remains largely absent from scholarship on the connections between slavery and the “Sciences of Man” during the Enlightenment: one aspect of what Charles Withers calls “geographies of human difference.”

While the historiography on slavery and race relations in the Portuguese empire has for some time been vibrant, studies on Luso-Brazilian scientific representations of race in the eighteenth century are still lacking. This might be attributed to the perception that scientific racism was a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, or that Portugal remained mired in religious obscurantism, its writers therefore not attuned to Enlightenment-era debates. Through a transatlantic lens, Brazil’s place in eighteenth-century geographies of knowledge is usually further diminished by how, unlike the British and Spanish Americas, it had neither universities nor a printing press. Nonetheless, as we well know, central books and ideas of the Enlightenment circulated among lettered elites.

In Brazil and Portugal…

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Kant’s Race Theory, Forster’s Counter, and the Metaphysics of Color

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2012-12-06 00:23Z by Steven

Kant’s Race Theory, Forster’s Counter, and the Metaphysics of Color

The Eighteenth Century
Volume 53, Number 4, Winter 2012
pages 393-412
DOI: 10.1353/ecy.2012.0032

Sally Hatch Gray, Assistant Professor of German
Mississippi State University

This article argues for an understanding of Kant’s race theory as an integral part of his idea of nature and of humans in nature as presented in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790). It places an examination of Kant and Forster’s debate over race, which was ignited in 1785 upon the publication of Kant’s second essay on race, “Definition of a Concept of a Human Race” (“Bestimmung des Begriffs einer Menschenrace”), in the context of an illumination of the connections between aesthetics and anthropology in Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Beobachtungen ĂĽber das GefĂĽhl des Schönen und Erhabenen, 1764) and Forster’s Voyage round the World (Reise um die Welt 1777). Forster responded to Kant’s new “race” classifications, which were based essentially on skin color, with “Still More about the Human Races” (“Noch etwas ĂĽber MenschenraĂźen,” 1786). This article shows that Kant then developed his scientific theory and his idea of a teleological nature as presented in his Critique of the Power of Judgment, at least in part, in order to provide a unifying theoretical basis for his race theory so that it could withstand the scrutiny of an empirical scientific method based on deductive logic, such as that advanced by Forster. While Forster’s strict empiricism, perspectivism, and rejection of “race” as a scientific classification reflect an underlying, distinctly modern, concept of the natural world, Kant’s nature, as presented in his third Critique, reveals a metaphysically-based structure supporting a universal cosmopolitanism, but veils a particular European perspective that allows a damaging global authority on difference.

At a key moment in his 1777 travelogue A Voyage Round the World (Reise um die Welt) describing his adventures aboard Captain Cook’s second exploratory journey into the Antarctic, the narrative of the young German naturalist Georg Forster (1754-94), takes on a decidedly more excited tone. In August 1773, he and his traveling companions were enjoying the charms of the Society Islands, when, during a banquet featuring traditional dancing, the atmosphere became sexually charged. The sailors bribed the women with bits of meat to continue making seemingly indiscreet dance movements, while the hosts treated the British officers and Prussian naturalists to a peek into the dancers’ dressing room. Forster writes:

To complete our entertainment this day, the chief gave orders for performing another heeva, and we were admitted (behind the scenes} to see the ladies dressing for that purpose.  They obtained some string of beads on this occasion, with which we took it into our heads to improve upon their ornaments, much to their own satisfaction. Among the spectators we observed several of the prettiest women of this country, and one of them was remarkable for the whitest complexion we had ever seen in all these islands. Her colour resembled that of white wax a little sullied, without having the least appearance of sickness, which that hue commonly conveys; and her fine black eyes and hair contrasted so well with it, that she was admired by us all.

Forster’s excitement helps to relay the intense experience of a special event which “perfects the joys of the day” as he writes in German, “Um die Freuden dieses Tages volkommen zu machen.” In this moment, they have not only been released from the physical hardship of months at sea aboard an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, but they are taken with “einstimmige Bewunderung” a kind of “unanimous wonderment.” beyond their immediate reality in their response…

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