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Hybrid HateJews, Blacks, and the Question of Race$

Tudor Parfitt

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780190083335

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190083335.001.0001

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“The Truth of the Origination of the World and Mankind”

“The Truth of the Origination of the World and Mankind”

(p.1) 1 “The Truth of the Origination of the World and Mankind”
Hybrid Hate

Tudor Parfitt

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The Judeo-Christian tradition maintains that humankind derives from the first couple in the Garden of Eden. St. Augustine even included the so-called monstrous races in the overall category of humanity. This consensus started to fragment in the sixteenth century with the work of Paracelsus and later Giordano Bruno, when alternative theories were put forward to account for human diversity. Their work was followed by others, including Julius Caesar Vanini, Isaac La Peyrère, John Atkins, Voltaire, François Bernier, Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, Edward Long, and Lord Kames. For most of them, the black and the Jew were the great obstacles to the unity of mankind.

Keywords:   unity of mankind, Julius Caesar Vanini, Isaac La Peyrère, John Atkins, Voltaire, François Bernier, Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, Edward Long, Lord Kames, monogenism, polygenism, monstrous races

The study of racism is tantamount to a study of the struggle between the theory that humankind had diverse beginnings, which is known as polygenesis, and the theory that there was but one founding event, that which took place in the verdant Garden of Eden. Monogenesis, the traditional and ancient belief of the Abrahamic faiths that the whole of humankind descended from Adam and Eve, obviously implied kinship between all peoples. Acts 17:26 explained that God “made from one, every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth.”

In The City of God Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the theologian and philosopher from what is today Algeria, accepted that the seventy-two nations that were thought to make up the world’s population were descended from Eve and Adam. But he wondered if and under what circumstances other creatures, including the so-called monstrous races, should be considered human. Using the analogy of a child born with an extra finger, he argued that in the same way that such a child was evidently human, so monstrous races were fully part of humankind, notwithstanding the radical differences they displayed.

Augustine was from the ancient Numidian city of Thagaste, today’s Souq Ahras in northeastern Algeria. A great center of Berber culture, Thagaste was also at the crossroads of Roman and African civilizations. He was aware of the many kinds of people who flocked to the markets of Thagaste both from the far-flung Roman Empire and from sub-Saharan Africa, famous in the geographical literature available to him for its monstrous races.

In The City of God (16:8) he noted that there were other such races, some of which were said to have one eye in the middle of the forehead, others had feet pointing backward, others yet a double set of sexual equipment, male and female; some had no mouth and had to breathe only through the nose, others were only a cubit high and were called by the Greeks “Pygmies.” There were also tales of a particular race with two feet but only one leg, who could (p.2) not bend the knee but could run very fast—these were called Skiopodes. On a hot day they would lie on their back and shade themselves with their feet. There were others with no head, but with eyes in their shoulders. According to some widely believed medieval forgeries, Augustine himself had seen such creatures with his own eyes (Boodts.2019).

In fact, Augustine would not be drawn into this polemical area. He believed that whatever differences might theoretically exist between man and monster, “whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that first man, Adam” (Boodts.2019 n.pag). This remarkable passage foreshadows a good deal of the discussion about race for the following fifteen hundred years.

For followers of the Abrahamic faiths, all men and women were descended from Adam and Eve. Jews subscribed to the monogenist principle, on the grounds, according to a Rabbinic source, that the story of Adam was intended to prevent anyone from boasting that “my father is greater than yours.” The Adam story, moreover, testified to the greatness of God, who miraculously was able to bring about the extraordinary diversity of mankind from just one prototype.

According to the Bible, once the Flood had destroyed nearly all the world’s people, it was repopulated through the efforts of the few survivors—Japhet, Ham, and Shem, the sons of Noah. From late medieval times there was a consensus that Noah’s three sons were responsible for founding the populations of the three parts of the world: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Medieval maps such as the orbis terrarum chart, where a T was inserted into the O of the globe, presented the world and the origins of its peoples in this tripartite way. Bishop Isidore of Seville’s famous Etymologiae, which was the most widely used medieval textbook, explained the world’s divisions in a similar way.

According to the succinct account in the influential biblical dictionary of the French Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet (1672–1757)

Ham, son of Noah, brother to Shem and Japheth, is believed to have been Noah’s youngest son. One day when Noah had drank wine, Ham perceived his venerable ancestor lying in his tent, exposed indecently, at which he ridiculed. Noah, when he awoke, said “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren.” From these words it is conjectured, that Canaan gave his father Ham intelligence of Noah’s nakedness. . . . (p.3) It is believed he had Africa for his inheritance, and that he peopled it. (Calmet.1812 n.pag)

This belief was widespread in medieval and early modern Europe and would persist into modern times. The English sailor and explorer George Best (d.1584) explained in A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie (1578) that as a result of Ham’s crime, his descendants through the line of Cush would always be loathsome and black and that all the “blacke Moores” in Africa were descended from the cursed Cush. However, he also added a secular, medical spin by explaining that this “blacknesse proceedeth [from an] infection in the bloud” (Shelford.2013 p.75).

For hundreds of years, barely anyone in the Judeo-Christian world doubted the biblical account of the creation of man in the Garden of Eden. The vast majority of Europeans until the nineteenth century and beyond would have accepted the fervent and beautiful creed of Reverend Samuel Purchas (1577?–1626), the Anglican clergyman and compiler of travelers’ tales. In Purchas His Pilgrimage (1614), the great chronicler declared in ringing tones his conviction that the

incomprehensible unities, which the Angels with covered faces in their Holy, holy, holy-hymns resound, and Lauds in Trinity, hath pleased in this varietie to diversify his works, all serving one humane nature, infinitely multiplied in persons, exceedingly varied in accidents, that wee also might serve that One-most God: tawney Moore, Negro, duskie Libyan, ash-colored Indian, olive-colored American should with the whiter European become one sheep-fold, under one great Sheepheard, till this mortalitie being swallowed up of Life, wee may all be one, as he and the father are one; and (all of this varietie swallowed up into an ineffable unitie) only the language of Canaan be heard, only the father’s name written in their foreheads, the lamb’s song in their mouths, the victorious Palmes in their hands and their long robes, being made white in the blood of the Lamb, where they follow whithersoever hee goeth, filling Heaven and Earth with their everlasting Halleluiah without any more distinction of Color, Nation, Language, Sex, Condition, all may bee One in him that is One. (Purchas.1614 p.656)

The longstanding certainties about the “incomprehensible unities” of mankind started to crumble during the Age of Discovery, as new lands and peoples in Africa and the Americas had to be accounted for. It was not (p.4) obvious how the Americas could fit into the usual tripartite division of the world or how their strange-looking populations could be connected to the sons of Noah, who as far as anyone knew had been fully engaged in the Old World. Out of the growing uncertainties arose new scientific discourses that marked the beginning of modern racism.

As Native Americans, such as the four “Mohawk Kings” who journeyed to London in 1710, and Africans started being seen in Europe, as private citizens or captives or in well-publicized official delegations, this issue was brought back from the colonial frontier to the capitals of Europe and became a matter of interest for thinking people. These newly discovered populations challenged the all-embracing Augustinian model, and questions about the origins of these people provoked a debate between traditional and more progressive interpretations of the Bible and eventually between the Bible and the scientific ideas of the day, as Renaissance anthropologists tried to wrest the study of humanity from theology.

Two of the more influential heterodox, theological arguments to emerge from this debate were pre-Adamism and polygenesis. Both theories were considered at best eccentric, and at worst heretical, until the first half of the nineteenth century. Proponents of these views were often the most radical and contrarian thinkers of their day. They were courageous, often brilliant, and frequently argumentative.

One of the first defenders of polygenesis was the iconoclastic Swiss scholar and physician Paracelsus (Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) (1493–1541), known by his contemporaries as “the Luther of Medicine,” who traveled widely and studied in a number of Italian universities, without taking a degree in any of them. Denounced by one of his students in Basel as an “impious sot,” he was often obscene, “personally unbearable,” and quarrelsome.

His most famous book was Das Buch Paragranum (The Against the Grain Book), and indeed he was against many of the received ideas of his time and was ready to take on anyone, including the ecclesiastical establishment. Between 1480 and 1520 more geographical discoveries had been made about the world and its inhabitants than in the previous thousand years. Contemplating these marvelous new lands in 1520, he invoked Augustine’s concern for people of distant islands, noting skeptically that there was no good reason to believe that the sons of Adam had taken off for distant, out-of-the way islands. He speculated that the populations that descended directly from Adam were to be found only in a very restricted part of the earth (p.5) but that because God did not like the idea of leaving the rest of the world empty He created the negroes,1 native Americans, and other odd people to fill it up.

These people originated from another being that had been created apart from the creation of Adam. Richard Popkin maintained that Paracelsus cannot truly be counted among polygenesis theorists, since he included in his list of groups not descended from Adam salamanders, nymphs, sirens, and sylphs. Thus, Popkin argued that their distinct creation from that of human beings fails to constitute a polygenenetic theory, as it does not apply to humans. However, the all-embracing Augustinian model, which was at the heart of Christian monogenesis, had included all manner of creatures, at least theoretically, and when Paracelsus set himself against this model, he was attacking the unity of mankind. Unsurprisingly, the controversial scholar got into trouble, for this and other things, and was forced to leave Basel in 1528, eventually dying, either as a result of a drunken excess or having been pushed, perhaps by envious colleagues, down a steep path. In any event Paracelsus mounted a tiger that was destined to roam the world for centuries, bringing untold suffering and genocide in its wake (Popkin.1987; Simmons.2002; Brace.2005; Smith.2015).

The doctrine of multiple creations, which appeared to proffer the answer to some basic questions around human difference, was soon to be taken up by others. Perhaps the most important was the brilliant philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), who was brought up in Nola, a town on the slopes of Vesuvius. At the age of fifteen, Bruno joined the Dominican order in Naples.

This teeming metropolis, the fifth biggest city in the world, was full of fishermen, prostitutes, street vendors, carpenters, blacksmiths, slaves, and water sellers who went barefoot and lived mainly on figs and bread (Rowland.2008). Jews had been forced to leave Naples in 1541 (and would not be allowed to settle there until 1735), but the city was full of slaves, 80 percent of whom were black Africans. Bruno lived just off Via Duomo in the heart of this vibrant, opinionated city, in the wealthy monastery attached to the church of San Domenico Maggiore, the mother church of the Dominican order and former seat of the University of Naples.2 In 1576, shortly after saying his first Mass, tipped off that the Inquisition was after him, he fled Naples and embarked on fifteen years of travel throughout Europe. Awarded a doctorate at the University of Toulouse, he went on to Paris where, on the basis of a few scintillating lectures, he was offered a chair at the Sorbonne. This enabled him to stay in Paris long enough to write De Umbris Idearum (p.6) (On the Shadows of Ideas), in which he broached the topic of the unity of the Universe (Charlton.2012). Everything throughout the universe, he explained, could be reduced to atoms; it was the love of God that bound them together and unified them.3 Having tackled the unity of the universe, in 1591 he went on to address the unity of mankind. He explored the idea of parallel Adams in different parts of the earth, and in different worlds, and developed a theory that is consistent with his larger, astoundingly accurate vision of an infinity of worlds.

As far as the earth was concerned, it was clear to him that its different kinds of humans, which he subdivided on a color scheme, could not be the product of an original man. Directly contradicting Augustine and Christian orthodoxy and including many of the same ideas as Paracelsus, in De innumerabilibus, immenso, et infigurabili (Of the innumerable, the immense and the unfigurable) (1591) he explained that:

There are many different species of men, the black generation

Of Ethiopians, and the tawny ones, such as America produces,

And the wet beings hidden away, living in the caves of the sea,

And the Pygmies passing the ages in ever-inaccessible places

And the citizens of the veins of the Earth, who stand guard

At the Mines, and the giant monsters of the South:

Nor indeed do they hark back to the same origin. (quoted in Smith. 2015 p.97)

As Justin Smith rightly observes: “For Bruno, all of the types of being on this list were equally real, and they were for him all literally ‘races of men.’ The fact that Ethiopians and Americans occur on the same list as pygmies and giants shows the limited extent to which, in the Renaissance, non-European peoples had begun to be incorporated into the European imagination” (Smith.2015 p.97). Finally, echoing Paracelsus and again taking issue with Augustine, Bruno addressed the enigma of populations found on distant inaccessible islands. Augustine had argued that somehow people had reached these remote places on boats. But Bruno thought that imagining such long journeys was to miss the point: Life could be generated, independently, anywhere. He maintained that “every island everywhere can give a beginning to things, although the same form is not preserved everywhere the same, for one species flourishes in one place, another in another.”

(p.7) Then there were the problems inherent in a literal reading of the Hebrew bible. He wrote:

It is said in the Prophets, and is well known among the same people [the Jews] that all races of men are to be traced to one first father, or to three, as I learn and firmly believe from the Hebrew remains, of which some trace the only superior race, that is, the Jews, to one protoplast, and the other races to the two first, which were created two days before.

Bruno was referring to the fact that in the first chapter of Genesis we read: “God created mankind in his own image . . . male and female he created them.” It is not until the second chapter that we hear anything about the particular man, Adam, and his consort Eve, in the Garden of Eden: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Bruno declared that the only race to derive from this man, Adam, formed “from the dust of the ground,” was the Jewish race. The other two races—the white race and the black race—had different origins: “And the three races had three Patriarchs . . . first Enoch, then Leviathan, and the third Adam . . . from whom alone was descended the sacred race” (Bendyshe.1865 p.379). There were, then, three races: whites, blacks, and Jews. This ejected the Jews and blacks from the common European heritage, as understood by Bruno, as surely as the Jews had been ejected from Naples, the tumultuous town in which he had studied.

One seemingly gratuitous line foreshadowed later racist writing. “No one of sound judgment,” he sneered, “can refer the Ethiopian race to that first human being” (Smith.2015 p.97). To publicly attribute a separate origin for Jews, blacks, or, indeed, anyone else, and to deny what Purchas would refer to as the “incomprehensible unitie” of man was still at the end of the sixteenth century both heterodox and hazardous. After years of inquisitorial interrogation Bruno was accused of being an “impenitent, pertinacious, and obstinate heretic.”

Bruno was never inhibited by discretion. One of the witnesses at his lengthy trial denounced the excitable little Neapolitan for bragging, as he was lolling in a Venetian gondola, that he had figured out how Jesus had performed his miracles and was all set to perform them himself. It was too (p.8) much for the Holy Office. On Ash Wednesday, 1600, he was taken to Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, close to where his imposing statue stands today. He was naked, his tongue in a gag (or spiked) to prevent him from addressing the vast crowd, which included many pilgrims who had flocked to Rome for the jubilee of the pope, Clement VIII. He was burned alive at the stake (not specifically for his polygenism but, among other things, for the crime of positing the notion of an infinite cosmos and claiming that the Holy Spirit was the soul of the world). Three years later his works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.4

Sixteen years after the burning of Bruno, Julius Caesar Vanini, otherwise known as Lucilio Vanini (1585–1619),5 another southern Italian (he was born in Apulia and studied in Naples), got into the kind of trouble he had spent a lifetime trying to avoid. In De Admirandis Naturae Reginae Deaeque Mortalium Arcanis (On the Wonderful Secrets of Nature, the Queen and Goddess of Mortals) (Paris, 1616), very cautiously, but not cautiously enough, Vanini used the risky but widespread literary conceit of putting dangerous ideas into the mouth of a random speaker in a dialogue:

Others have dreamed that the first man has taken his origin from mud, putrified by the corruption of certain monkeys, swine, and frogs, and thence (they say) proceeds the great resemblance there is betwixt our flesh and propensions, and that of those creatures. Other atheists, more mild, have thought that none but the Ethiopians are produced from a race of monkeys, because the same degree of heat is found in both . . . Atheists cry out to us continually, that the first men went upon all four as other beasts, and ’tis by education only they have changed this custom, which, nevertheless, in their old age, returns to them. (Bendyshe.1865 p.355)

This tentative Renaissance evolutionary theory, foreshadowing Darwin, perhaps shows that Vanini’s out-and-out serious “atheists” assumed not only that black Africans but everyone descended from apes.6 However, “mild” or “gentle” atheists, less problematically, explained that the only section of humanity that descended from apes was the blacks. In this way, Vanini, like Bruno, singled out blacks for special comment. It was blacks whom Vanini had his character associate with monkeys, and it was blacks that Bruno declared very specifically could have nothing to do with the first two humans in the Garden of Eden.

(p.9) Bruno’s cruel fate befell Vanini. His punishment was meted out in Toulouse, a self-satisfied city then and now, never partial to heresy. His tormentors tied a placard around his neck: Atéiste et blasphémateur du nom de Dieu (atheist and blasphemer of the name of God) and he was taken to the Place du Salin, where his blaspheming tongue was pulled out with pincers. He was garroted and his corpse burned. A nondescript little plaque, set into a cracked pavement, now records the event (Levy.1995; Smith.2015).

Despite the warning provided by these gruesome spectacles, throughout the seventeenth century occasional doubts about the Genesis story continued to surface. However, in general, barely anyone dared publicly to proclaim any kind of pre-Adamite theory or any form of polygenesis. An important exception was the eccentric French Calvinist theologian Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676). Born in Bordeaux to wealthy Calvinist parents of Portuguese Jewish origins, La Peyrère, like Bruno and Vanini, dared to go down forbidden paths. Driven by a desire to explain the origins of humankind within a scriptural framework, he contrived to publish some of the most outrageous and scandalous views imaginable for his time and place.

The first sixty years of the seventeenth century had been marked by a deepening interest in Judeo-centric Christian eschatology, particularly in England and the Dutch Republic, and some of La Peyrère’s theological musings can be viewed as an extension of this body of writing. In Rapell des Juifs (1643) he had explained that with the imminent End of Days the Jews would be “recalled” to France. From France they would be led by le roi universel—the king of France—to Jerusalem. From the rebuilt Holy City, the French king would rule over the entire earth. Jews and Christians would unite in a worldwide, Judeo-Christian church and with the return of Jesus, the king of France, along with the son of God and the Christian Jews, would administer the glorious Messianic age. First of all, he urged the French, who were not fond of Jews, to desist from all anti-Jewish discrimination, “even though Christians may find Jews repulsive” as Stephen Greenblatt put it, and immediately readmit Jews into the kingdom.

Despite his Jewish origins, La Peyrère did not find Jews very appealing either, although he dedicated his most famous book to “all the Synagogues of the Jews dispersed over the face of the EARTH.” Any unpleasant characteristics Jews might have would disappear once they converted to Christianity. Jews, it had to be recognized, were black and smelly. But the blackness of their skin and their disagreeable smell would vanish the moment they embraced the Christian faith. On this happy day their previously black faces would shine (p.10) like “the breast of a pigeon (an exceeding white one at that)” and they would smell like “musk and amber.”

La Peyrère’s views on the origins of man were unusual for the time. In his day it took a brave man to pin his flag either to the mast of pre-Adamism or polygenesis, or indeed to state that the Bible was wrong. With the publication of Prae-Adamitae (1655) La Peyrère did all three. Prudently published in the more tolerant Dutch Republic, in Latin, in its first year Prae-Adamitae was reissued three times; it came out in English as Men Before Adam the following year in two editions, and in 1661 in Dutch. In this famous book he set out his belief in the creation of Adam, as described in Genesis, but refused to accept that Genesis could account for all peoples.

Like Bruno, he thought that Adam should be considered the progenitor not of the human race, but only of the Jews. Moreover, it was only Jews who were drowned in the Flood; the rest of humankind was unaffected. Undoubtedly La Peyrère was a sort of reluctant philo-Semite, conceivably proud of his Jewish heritage, and his underlying desire may have been in some way to acknowledge the major role Jews occupied in the sacred history of the West.

However, there were unintended consequences. Jews were not, according to La Peyrère, “made of the same stuff as everybody else” as Popkin claims. They originated from clay, whereas the rest of humankind was created in a different way, in the image of God. Livingstone rightly stresses La Peyrère’s “concern to separate out the Jewish experience from the rest of world history . . . the pre-Adamite theory was designed to cut a deep gorge between the Jews and the gentiles” (Livingstone.2008 p.35). La Peyrère’s thinking was affected by his long-lived fascination with the Genesis story. In the first chapter of Genesis, he pointed out, as had Bruno sixty years before, there was one creation of men and women, created in the likeness of God, followed in the second chapter by the creation of Adam of the dust of the ground. Instead of granting a little poetic license and taking these two narratives as differing accounts of the same event, La Peyrère, like Bruno, understood them as distinct chapters of human history. In defense of his reading of the text he pointed to various biblical hints that there must have been humans in the vicinity of the Garden of Eden long before Adam.

Paul’s letter to the Romans asserted that there was already sin (and therefore presumably sinners) in the world when Adam was created. In addition, the Bible tells us that “Abel was a keeper of sheep” and “Cain was a tiller of the ground.” Why would Abel bother to keep sheep if there were no other people around to buy them? Did Cain’s calling as a farmer not imply that there were (p.11) other people, such as “artificers,” already well established in the world who could sell him agricultural implements such as plowshares? Without such craftsmen he would have been impossibly busy, digging mines for ore and making furnaces and forges in order to be able to fashion the tools he needed. Moreover, the fact that Adam and Eve covered themselves with garments once they were made aware of their nakedness similarly suggested that shoemakers, skinners, and others were already laboring in their respective trades long before Adam came on the scene (Greenblatt.2017).

This was all very well, but to propose that Adam was the biological father not of humankind, but only of the Jews, created a major theological problem. Orthodox Christian doctrine from the time of Augustine had maintained that original sin was transmitted biologically by Adam to the whole of humankind. La Peyrère argued that sin, as well as technology, must have existed before Adam, and if Adam transmitted sin biologically, it was only to the Jews. Gentiles acquired biologically transmitted sin from pre-Adamic men and women (Morrow.2016).

A few brave spirits, such as the famous and influential Dutch-Portuguese writer, mystic, publisher, and rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel (1604–1657), admitted to being quite intrigued by this scandalous thesis. Indeed, for Jews, La Peyrère’s treatment of the Christian doctrine of original sin was less explosive. Outside Jewish circles, however, it was soon clear which way the wind was blowing, and the attacks against Prae-Adamitae started to proliferate. True, the book came out anonymously, but its authorship was almost immediately detected, and book and author were swiftly denounced. Nobody liked it.

Shortly after its publication it was decreed a godless work against the public interest by the President and Council of Holland and Zeeland in The Hague. Copies of the unwelcome book were burned. In Paris the burning was carried out by the public hangman. The Paris parlement weighed in against it. One of the first to denounce him, the bishop of Namur, in the Spanish Netherlands, in which town La Peyrère was living at the time, used the Christmas Mass of 1655 to attack him from the beautifully ornate carved wooden pulpit of Namur cathedral “as a Calvinist and as a Jew.”7 La Peyrère was no doubt alarmed. However, his powerful patron, the prince of Condé, Louis II de Bourbon (1621–1686), the famous French general, was only thirty- five miles away, in Brussels, and it was to Brussels, therefore, that he took himself in haste.

(p.12) The prince does not appear to have stirred himself for his faithful secretary, and in 1656, on the order of the Archbishop of Mechelen, a town a little to the north of Brussels, thirty armed men stormed into La Peyrère’s Brussels lodgings and hauled him to prison, charged with being “un hérétique détestable.” Under interrogation, at first he stuck to his guns, but it soon dawned on him that he was in mortal danger.

It was suggested that were he to convert to Catholicism, apologize to the pope, and publicly recant, all would be forgiven. However, he persisted in pointing out that his theory served some useful purposes for everyone, including the Catholic Church, and in fact could and should be viewed as a godsend. As he obsessively put it: “By this hypothesis all the disputes which have raged about the origin of the peoples discovered over the last two centuries by our forebears have been resolved.”

Pope Alexander VII chuckled when he met the eccentric theologian in Rome: “[L]et us embrace this man who is before Adam,” he said, good-naturedly patting him on the back, and later he had a good laugh with the general of the Jesuits over La Peyrère’s ridiculous book. The Pope invited him to stay on in Rome, but after a discreet interval he slipped away and returned to Paris, where he was again taken under the wing of the prince of Condé, this time as a librarian. Any shame he might have felt as a result of his opportunistic conversion was deflected by the publication in 1658 of his Lettre à Philotine. Always labile in his loyalty, La Peyrère tried to explain that his sudden conversion was simply part of a cunning plan, a much bigger project—the unification of the faiths that was now to be brought about, not by the king of France, as he had originally proposed, but by Pope Alexander VII.

Ten years after the publication of Prae-Adamitae La Peyrère retired, as a lay brother, to the Oratorian seminary in Aubervilliers, now a scruffy suburb of Paris, where he stayed, entirely convinced of the truth of his theory, until his death in 1676. If he was convinced, few others were, and dozens of refutations of Prae-Adamitae came out, including a book by the German theologian Antonius Hulsius (1615–1685) with the irresistible title Non-existent pre-Adamite, or, a confutation of a certain somebody’s vain and Socinianizing dream, by which an anonymous author, using the Holy Scriptures as a pretext, endeavored not long ago to expound to the imprudent that there were men in the world before the first Adam.

In his doctoral thesis Johann Andreas Fabricius (1696–1769), who went on to be a philosopher at the University of Jena, and spent his life looking for new proofs of Christian revelation, noted another thirty-seven works attacking (p.13) the idea of polygenism that had appeared in the meantime. But the ripples made by Prae-Adamitae were not restricted to Europe. Just four years after La Peyrère’s death Morgan Grenfell, an Anglican clergyman from Gloucestershire who worked as a vicar in the colonial town of Middle Plantation8 in British Virginia, gave a telling example of how useful pre-Adamism could be in the modern racist business of justifying slavery and the segregation of blacks.

An opponent of slavery and colonial arrogance, Grenfell wrote an explosive book, The Negro’s and Indians Advocate,9 which explained that slaveowners, eager to assert that Africans were outside the family of man, were very taken with La Peyrère’s idea, which they preferred to the older slur connecting blacks with the curse of Ham: “The Pre-Adamite whimsey,” he wrote laconically, “is preferred above the Curse.” The slaveowners preferred the doctrine of pre-Adamism, according to him, because it was “exceedingly useful to undermine the Bible and Religion” and because they considered it “invincible” (Grenfell.1680).

Within a few years other contrarian voices swelled the polygenist chorus. One belonged to Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron La Hontan (1666–1716), who was born in southwestern France in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques village of La Hontan, in the province of Béarn, between Pau and Bayonne. When Louis-Armand was eight years old, his father died, leaving debts, a multitude of enemies, including the local church authorities, bitterness, and court cases, one of which would go on for a century.10 With few choices Louis-Armand opted for a military career, was admitted to the smart Bourbon Cavalerie regiment, which had been founded by the son of le Grand Condé, La Peyrère’s patron and employer. However, believing he would have better chances for rapid promotion elsewhere, he grittily opted for the marine corps and embarked for Québec to fight the Iroquois.

Seeing in their lives the ideal of the “noble savage,” he left a minutely described albeit problematic ethnography of native American life as well as a detailed description of the fauna and flora of North America. He started writing his travel accounts immediately. Les Nouveaux Voyages de Mr. le Baron de La Hontan dans l’Amérique Septentrionale (1703), a classic of eighteenth-century travel writing, was published in Amsterdam. It was not a commercial success, although it was translated into many languages, went through a dozen editions, and made its author famous.

Lehontan put forward a polygenist argument, similar to Bruno’s, that it was impossible that Africans and native Americans could both derive from Adam as they were so different from each other: Africans were “black and pug-nosed with (p.14) monstrous lips” while Indians “have neither body hair nor beards.” However, like Vanini, he prudently distanced himself from this still dangerous view by attributing it to someone else—a no doubt fictitious “Portuguese doctor” who on his travels had become familiar with the Congo coast and South America.

Disingenuously, he declared that as far as he himself was concerned good sense dictated that “Adam was the lone father of all men.” He wrote:

I replied straightaway that when faith failed to persuade me that all men are generally descended from this first man, his reasoning would not be strong enough to prove the opposite, since the difference which exists between the peoples of America and those of Africa arise from no other cause, than the different quality of air and climate that they respectively enjoy. The médecin denied this, recalling that the offspring of a negro and a negress if they were born in temperate climes would be just as black as if they had been born in Guinea . . . and he added that descendants of the Portuguese who live in Angola, Cape Verde and so on more than a hundred years ago, were no less pale than the real Portuguese.

Faced with the differences between the peoples of the New and Old World the médecin suggests—against traditional Catholic teachings—that

the peoples of the continents of America, Asia and Africa, were the product of three different fathers. This is how he proved it. The Americans are different from the Asiatics, as they have neither body hair nor beards; their facial features, their color and their customs are different . . . He thought it impossible that these two sorts of people could be descended from Adam. (Roy.1895; Ouellet, Beaulieu.1990; Sayre.2000)

Another contrarian spirit was John Atkins (1685–1757), a British naval surgeon and son of a swashbuckling and bad-tempered naval officer and traveler, Charles (who may have been one of the authors of the justly famous General history of the Pyrates [1724] and may also have been the model for Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Swift’s masterpiece). Charles had been disowned by his father, one-time governor of Barbados, perhaps because he once surrendered his sloop to Barbary pirates without firing a shot, thus provoking a small Mediterranean war of retaliation.

John Atkins is best known for his books, Naval Surgeon (1732) and A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil and the West Indies (1735). In his closely observed (p.15) Voyage to Guinea he noted the difficulty he had in accounting for the black skin of negroes in Guinea. He wrote:

By Guinea here I mean all Negro-land, from about the River Senega North-ward, to within a few Degrees of Cape Bon Esperance because Ships bound to any part of this extent, are said to be bound to Guinea: and because the people, without these lines, alter to a dark color seen as the Moors at this, and the Hottentots at the other Extremity. . . The black color, and woolly Tegument of these Guineans, is what first obtrudes itself on our Observation, and distinguishes them from the rest of Mankind, who nowhere else, in the warmest Latitudes, are seen thus totally changed nor removing, will they ever alter, without mixing in Generation. I have taken notice in my Navy-Surgeon how difficultly the color is accounted for and tho’ it be a little Heterodox, I am persuaded the black and white Race have, ab origine, sprung from different-colored first Parents. (Atkins.1737 p.38)

Atkins’ thoughts about polygenism were part of a wider reflection about what he thought constituted race. Both his concept of racial constitution and his conviction that different races are subject to different diseases contributed to a more scientific or medical way of understanding racial difference11 (Ernst, Harris.1999).

The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) had something in common with a number of his polygenist predecessors in terms of how he viewed human difference.12 In 1734 he wrote his Traité de la Métaphysique (1734), which remained discreetly unpublished until its appearance in 1785, seven years after his death. As the publisher correctly noted, its importance lay precisely in the fact that “its author was able to say exactly what was on his mind.” It was in the Traité that his views on human difference were expressed most unambiguously. In the Traité Voltaire joined the polygenists by clearly stating his belief that white people, the yellow “races,” and negroes were not descended from the same original parent. Cleverly presenting himself as an extraterrestrial visitor endeavoring to understand the planet

and having no greater notion of man than man has of the inhabitants of Mars and Jupiter, I land on the coasts of the ocean, in the Land of the Kaffirs and to start with I set out to find a man. I see monkeys, elephants, negroes who all seem to have some glimmer of imperfect reason. . . . At Goa I met an even odder type than all the rest; it is a man dressed in a long black (p.16) cassock who claims to be there to instruct others. All these different men, he tells me, who you see, are all born of the same father; and then he told me a long story. But what this animal tells me is very suspect . . . It seems to me that there is every reason to believe that what goes for trees goes for men; that pear trees, fir trees, oaks and apricots, do not come from the same tree and that white people with beards, negroes with wool on their head, yellow folk with horsehair on their heads, and men without beards do not come from the same man. Indeed, I see men who seem superior to these negroes, as these negroes are to monkeys, and as the monkeys are to oysters. (Voltaire.1734 p.35)

Negroes apart, the other human group Voltaire singled out for special treatment was the Jews. Christians could be eventually cured of their errors and their innate European essence would be apparent once the filth of the Judaic excrescence that Christianity contained had been washed away. Jews were so different and so debased that they could never hope to be assimilated to European society (Hertzberg.1968). Underlying Voltaire’s views on human difference was his contempt for Christian monogenism and the myth that God created every human in His own image. He could not see how the book of Genesis could possibly be taken seriously as the basis for any informed enquiry into human origins.

The sheer pointlessness of Genesis as a guide to the early history of life was a frequent topic in the salons of Europe. In the 1720s Benoît De Maillet (1656–1738), a well-traveled and studious French aristocrat who for ten years had been French consul-general in Cairo, wrote his major work, Telliamed, ou entretiens d’un philosophe indien avec un missionnaire français (Telliamed, or Conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary). Telliamed (his own name written backwards) directly sought to undermine the overall credibility of Genesis by presenting the creation of the world, and its inhabitants, as the result of natural causes. To protect himself against accusations of heresy he followed the usual practice of disguising his work, thinly, as a kind of orientalist, literary fantasy.

In England, too, the credibility of Genesis was being questioned. One of Voltaire’s closest English friends, Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke (1678–1751), the erudite and acerbic English politician and man of letters, knew Voltaire both before his exile in England and afterwards. Bolingbroke had a tumultuous career that included a period of exile of his own, in France, in the 1720s, at which time he acquired the magnificent estate of La Source, near Orléans. Voltaire was a regular visitor. It was in the gardens of La Source (p.17) that Bolingbroke wrote his famous essay “The Study and Uses of History,” in which he endeavored to show that the compilers of Genesis were only trying to write a limited history, one that set out to prove the Jews’ title to the land, and explain something of its and their history, rather than write a universal chronicle of humankind.

Sarcastically, he joined the post–La Peyrère conversation, accusing those who wrote on the history of Adam and Eve of being themselves “pre-Adamites” as they spoke of Adam’s great knowledge as if they had conversed with him, of his beauty as if they had been there and gazed upon it, of his great height as if they had measured it themselves. Genesis, Bolingbroke concluded, provided no material to help explain the origins of humankind (Delumeau, O’Connell.2000).

A year before Voltaire wrote the Traité, in 1733, the influential Jesuit Journal de Trévoux contributed to the debate over the origin of man with another prudently unsigned article entitled Mémoire sur l’origine des Nègres et des Américains (Note on the Origin of the Negroes and Americans). The author of this essay has been identified as Auguste Malfert, a priest of the Brothers of Charity order, who served in the Caribbean and had first-hand knowledge of African slaves. His purpose was to join the ranks of the many who had refuted the polygenist thesis of La Peyrère while at the same time accounting for what he saw as the radical differences between peoples.

Malfert, whose personal experience set him at odds with the majority of metropolitan commentators on blacks, followed many earlier exegetes by explaining the blackness of negroes not through polygenesis, but through the theologically more acceptable hypothesis that the black races were fathered by Cain. Malfert argued that Cain was the progenitor of negroes whose color represented the “mark of Cain,” a view that would be repeated time and again over the following two centuries, and that at least had the effect of including Africans in Western sacred history, while also connecting them with the ancestors of the Jews. However, the invocation of Cain was not intended to have too many positives attached to it. Malfert’s purpose was to validate the slavery he saw all around him in the Caribbean and to provide a way of framing the origin and status of blacks within the wider human family—but only just.

According to Malfert, man was originally white. It took miraculous, divine intervention to transform white into black. God “changed Cain from the white he originally was to black” in an instant, and from that moment on, wherever in the world they lived “from a negro and a negress only negroes and negresses would be born” and they would all wear their color as a badge of shame. A more substantial figure in the form of the great German naturalist (p.18) Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) fully agreed some decades later that white was the original color of man on the grounds that while white can easily degenerate into brown, it is well-nigh impossible for dark ever to be transformed into white. As we shall see, this would soon become a critical issue (Blumenbach.1865).

There were other attempts to explain the degeneration of white to black. In 1799, the committed abolitionist Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, claimed that Africans’ black skin was not natural and had been caused by a disease, something like leprosy, that had become hereditary but that could perhaps be “cured,” and he suggested some ways in which this could be done. His 1799 article “Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from the Leprosy” was published in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (Volume 4) and echoed medieval and Renaissance convictions that the Jews’ dark color was the product of a leprous condition. He argued that all blacks suffered from this form of leprosy and white women who lived with blacks would themselves become black and develop negroid features.

Malfert was also familiar with the color of native Americans. Their color he attributed to the relatively obscure biblical figure of Lamekh, son of Methushael, a descendant of Cain, whose sin (he killed someone and boasted about it) “was greater than that of Cain,” so God exacted an even greater punishment by giving him, Lamekh, a new and vividly different color. Worse, he forced him to flee so far away from the known world that his descendants were deprived of the salvation of Christ until the arrival of the Conquistadors a few millennia later in the fifteenth century.

Before Lamekh’s ancestors crossed the Atlantic, having now departed from the biblical narrative never to return, they had sexual relations with the descendants of Cain, thus forming another race—the “Caffres.”13 A few years later another French theologian, Jean-Baptiste Margat de Tilly (d.1747), responded to this in a testy article in Mémoires de Trévoux wanting to know why on earth people kept on attributing African blackness to diverse divine punishments and obscure biblical figures (Harvey.2012).

The great secularization of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had an undoubted impact upon the way in which educated people viewed human origins, but it would take a long time before lip service to the Bible disappeared entirely. Moreover, tortured arguments trying to account for human diversity while respecting both religion and natural philosophy, (p.19) sacred text and science, did not do much to turn ordinary people against the biblical account. Throughout Europe, superstition, an imagined world of ghosts, goblins, and fairies, was still the chief mode of explanation of disasters and misfortunes, and the demystification of religion and folk belief by European elites was still not part of the general discourse. Educated people in Western Europe, on the other hand, no doubt had misgivings about the Genesis account even before the Enlightenment. In The Primitive Origination of Mankind Sir Mathew Hale (1609–1676), the English Puritan jurist, observed gently:

The generality of Christians, among whom I write, do generally believe this Truth of the Origination of the World and Mankind, as it is delivered in the Holy Scriptures. . . . Again, though the Creation of Man be generally acknowledged by Jews and Christians, yet we must likewise consider that many take it up only as a part of their Education, and not upon any serious, deep Conviction of the truth of it.

He himself tried to find natural ways of explaining diversity, and in particular he floated the idea, while ostensibly rejecting it, that some animals and black peoples “in some places, and at some times, especially between the Tropicks” might have been generated from the earth, in much the way that frogs were, according to Augustine, in a “pullulation of men and beasts” (Hale.1677 p.257).

A perplexed, but safely anonymous, Oxford graduate known only as L.P. (who would be fêted by nineteenth-century polygenists) took a more critical line in an essay published in London in 1695 as Two Essays sent in a Letter from Oxford to a Nobleman in London. The First Concerning Some Errors about the Creation, General Flood, and the Peopling of the World. The Second Concerning the Rise, Progress and Destruction of Fables and Romances.14 L.P. set out a polygenist theory based largely on the irreconcilable difference between negroes and all the other races of humankind. He wrote:

The origin of Negroes lies obscure; for time out of mind there hath been blacks, with a woolly substance on their bodies instead of hair, because they are mentioned in the most ancient records now extant in the world. ’Tis plain their colour and wool are innate, or seminal, from their first beginning, and seems to be a specifick character which neither the sun, nor any curse from Cham could imprint upon them. Not the first, because many (p.20) other nations living under the same climates and heats, are never black, as the Abyssines, the Siamites, the Brasílians, Peruvians, etc.; neither will any white ever become a black in Guinea, Congo, or Angola, though born there; neither will any Negroes produce whites in Virginia, or New England. The textures of their skins, and blood, differ from those of whites.

He argued, moreover, that there was no longer any possibility of accounting for human difference through “old Arguments fetch’d from Eastern rubbish, or Rabbinical Weeds” (L.P.1695 p.164).

Even though “old arguments” persisted for some time to come, the biblical explanation of the beginnings of humankind was not adequate for many thinkers, and all kinds of alternatives were starting to be offered up in its stead. However, liberation from the old dogmas brought with it new complexities. The Enlightenment’s demolition of the myth of the Garden of Eden was destined to have a number of unintended consequences and to be replaced by a number of other myths, none of them helpful for the onward march of humankind.

The struggle to account for human difference in the early modern period formed unstable categories of peoples and races that remained essentially malleable. Nonetheless, from these shifting sands certain anthropological assumptions emerged around which the great naturalists of the time navigated. However, few of the naturalists devoted themselves exclusively to the study of man. They came at the problem of human origins from different perspectives. Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) was essentially a botanist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) a naturalist, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) a philosopher, Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) a paleontologist and comparative anatomist, Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751–1819) a moral philosopher. Warriors in the battle to demystify the understanding of the world and its peoples, what Max Weber called the “disenchantment (Entzauberung) of the world,” boldly forced their way into the “iron cage” of rationalism with respect to human difference. The gentle vision of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humanity was increasingly challenged by a hard-edged scientific approach that sought to delineate the differences between peoples according to objective scientific principles and a variety of metrics.

Most natural scientists from the Enlightenment on, despite their different approaches, accepted that there was a fundamental distinction to be drawn between “varieties” and “species.” “Species” were considered as more or less permanent, created perhaps by divine dispensation. On the other (p.21) hand, “varieties” were a side effect of “sporting nature,” as Linnaeus put it. As the study of anthropology unfolded, a good deal hung on whether particular human groups were separate “species” or simply “varieties.” If they were different species, this could only be viewed by those still operating within a Christian framework as the result of original divine design. If, however, they were different “racial” varieties of one species, there were questions to be asked about what caused the differences between them, and this was to preoccupy naturalists and scientists from the Enlightenment to our own day (Greene.1954).

The first postclassical attempt to divide humanity into distinct “races” is thought to have been made by François Bernier (1620–1688), the French traveler and one-time physician at the court of the Mughal emperor. While being credited, rightly or wrongly, with the “invention” of race, he was in fact not particularly racist for his time and place. He was influenced by his friend and mentor Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), the skeptical French empiricist and astronomer, who instructed him in physiology and prepared him for his medical examinations at the ancient University of Montpellier. There he followed a three-month accelerated course that qualified him to practice as a doctor anywhere in the world (except France). With this dubious medical license and an eagerness to see other countries, he set off for the East. Upon his return, Bernier, in a lighthearted way, attempted to establish a new foundation for the understanding of human variety that was based not on readings of sacred history but on his close observation of men and women—particularly of women.

His influential but brief Nouvelle division de la terre par les différentes espèces ou races qui l’habitent (New Division of the Earth by the Different Species that Inhabit it) was published anonymously in the Journal des Scavans (Europe’s first academic journal) on Monday, April 24, 1684. Whereas the journal was undoubtedly forward looking, the extrication of scientific and anthropological issues from the biblical narrative was still a work in progress: One article in the same volume, dedicated to the history of shoes, was uncertain whether footwear formed part of Adam and Eve’s wardrobe, even though it could be asserted that shoes were worn by the patriarch Abraham, if not by God.

As camouflage for Bernier’s heretical analysis, Nouvelle division purported to have been sent to the Abbé of some unspecified ecclesiastical establishment “more or less along these lines” (à peu près en ces termes). Content to (p.22) identify himself, for good reason, simply as “un fameux voyageur,” the well-traveled Frenchman introduced his revolutionary thesis like this:

Geographers up to this time have only divided the earth according to its different countries or regions. The remarks which I have made upon men during all my long and numerous travels, have given me the idea of dividing it in a different way. Although in the exterior form of their bodies, and especially in their faces, men are almost all different one from the other, according to the different districts of the earth which they inhabit, so that those who have been great travelers are never often mistaken in distinguishing each nation in that way; still I have remarked that there are four or five species or races of men in particular whose difference is so remarkable that it may be properly made use of as the foundation for a new division of the earth.

The first such division consisted of Europeans, North Africans, South Asians, Middle Easterners, and Native Americans. The second consisted of East Asians, Southeast Asians, and Central Asians. The third consisted of sub-Saharan Africans, and the fourth consisted solely of Lapps.

Bernier’s short essay presented a taxonomic scheme that was based in part on color, like Bruno’s, but also on the idea of the permanent racial imprint of physiognomy, which would become important toward the end of the eighteenth century and would remain a critical taxonomic tool until the time of the Third Reich. One example of this may be seen in his description of the people of Kashmir, whom he believed to be of Jewish origin. This belief was based on their Jewish “look”—“their countenance and manner and that indescribable peculiarity which enables a traveller to distinguish the inhabitants of different nations.” However, a good part of the essay was devoted to the relative beauty of the women in the countries he had visited. We are told that the most beautiful of all were from Circassia, but that in the slave markets of Constantinople Jews and Christians were not allowed to buy them, as they were reserved for Turks. He admired the naked female slaves he saw being sold for three times the usual price at the market of Mocha. “There could be nothing in the world lovelier to see,” he wrote. Further afield, in Lahore, he considered the women to be “the finest brunettes in all the Indies,” while the faces of the women of Kashmir he deemed as handsome as any in Europe. His fourth great human category, as we have seen, consisted solely of Lapps. This category was arrived at on the fragile basis of seeing (p.23) two Laplanders during a visit to Danzig. He considered them “wretched animals . . . very ugly and partaking much of the bear” (Bernier.1684; Stuurman.2000).

Bernier’s essay was read by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), the German mathematician and philosopher. It cannot have made a great impression on Leibniz, however, for when he mentioned the supposedly revolutionary text in a letter to the Swedish diplomat and lexicographer Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld (1655–1727), he forgot the name of its author, where it was published, and much of the detail of its argument. His letter to Sparwenfeld indeed was arguing for the monogenist project of tracing back the various languages of the world to an original language, perhaps Hebrew, which would thus prove the unity of humankind (Eigen, Larrimore.2012 p.17).

However, the German physician, naturalist, and physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), who himself, while a monogenist, perceived significant differences between groups of populations, saw in Leibniz’s brief, disapproving comment an endorsement of racial divisions. When he listed the twelve divisions of humankind that had been proposed, starting with Bernier in 1684 and finishing with his own proposal, he placed Leibniz in second place. In fact Leibniz, following Augustine, proposed the universality of “human nature,” followed a traditional genealogical understanding of human groups as a “series of generations,” and, overall, considered difference simply as part of the multiplicity of things that, while unconnected, rested on a firm bed of synchronicity, order, and unity (Smith.2013).

The kinds of divisions proposed by Bernier, with manifold modifications, would be reproduced for the next couple of hundred years. Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) split humankind into five categories following the four major geographical divisions of the world: African, Asian, European and American, adding a further category of “wild.” He argued that they were all one species, simply showing variations due to differences of geography and climate. He was followed by Blumenbach, who also opted for a fivefold division: Caucasian, Malay, Mongolian, Ethiopian, and American. Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier (1769–1832), known as Georges Cuvier, the French zoologist and naturalist, enumerated three races, Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian (Cuvier believed Adam and Eve were Caucasian); James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848), the British ethnologist and physician, who will play an important part in this book, seven main “stocks”; (p.24) Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807–1873), the Swiss-American naturalist, twelve races; and Charles Pickering (1805–1878), the American naturalist, eleven. No consensus on the number of races was ever to be achieved.

As the 1858 issue of The American Phrenological Journal reported,

“Buffon tells us man is made up of six varieties, Kant says four, Hunter seven, Blumenbach five; but Desmoulins says of sixteen species, and Jacquinot of three species—the Caucasian, Mongolian and Negro—a division in which Nott and Giddon apparently coincide; while Morton classes humanity in twenty-two families, and Luke Burke in sixty-three races, twenty-eight of which are intellectual; and thirty-five physical types or tribes.

This confusion was to continue until the time of the Third Reich (The American Phrenological Journal.1858).

Within fifty years of the publication of Nouvelle division de la terre, taxonomy became the spirit of the age. The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), taxonomy’s so-called father and perhaps the most famous naturalist of all time, would also address the issue of human variety and taxonomies. The eldest son of a country parson of limited means, Linnaeus was driven by a burning ambition to be the world’s leading botanist. After a protracted tenure battle, he was eventually appointed to a chair in medicine at the University of Uppsala. One of his tasks was to remodel the university’s botanical gardens, in a corner of which stood the Botanical House, the professorial lodgings where he would spend most of his working life.

His most celebrated work, Systema Naturae, first appeared in 1735 as a slim volume, barely more than a pamphlet. Over his lifetime he brought out eleven further volumes, the total oeuvre constituting a compilation of the botanical and zoological knowledge of his day. In addition he threw himself into a variety of bizarre schemes: He dreamed of trying to turn Lapland into the local equivalent of the West Indies, with “plantations of nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon” or “teaching” tea or saffron to grow in the freezing Swedish tundra or introducing buffaloes, elks, or guinea pigs as domesticated Swedish farm animals.

In the 1758 edition of Systema Naturae he subdivided humankind into Homo sapiens, thus coining the term, and Homo troglodytes, which, on the basis of some travel reports, was a cave-dwelling wild man of the forest, somewhat akin to the more famous pongo of the West African rainforest. Man, overall, was in the class of mammal and in the order of primates. Humankind was classified into four varieties, depending on his (p.25) physical and moral characteristics: American, European, Asiatic, and African. Linnaeus was what today would be called a spiritual man, and like Blumenbach, was unable to completely extract the Bible and God from his attempts to classify the world. As Marta Paterlini put it: “Linnaeus tried to describe all the things that had been ‘put on Earth by God,’ and therefore approached taxonomy with the tacit assumption that this task was finite. Whatever new species might have arisen from the original inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, he reasoned, they were still a part of God’s design for creation, because they had always potentially been present.” In a similar way, as far as human origins were concerned, he therefore stuck to the essential biblical proposition that humankind was derived from the same original source. Linnaeus, as we have seen, may have drawn a distinction between Homo sapiens and the anthropoid creatures that travelers in Loango in West Africa and Malaya had described, but as far as native Americans, Africans, Asiatics, and Europeans were concerned, Linnaeus did not doubt that they formed a single species (Blunt.2004; Paterlini.2007; Koerner.2009; Skott.2014).

Linnaeus boastfully said about himself, “God created, Linnaeus classified,” but the life project of a contemporary Frenchman was even more ambitious. The encyclopedic Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière of the famous polymath Comte Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707–1788) was intended to include everything that was known about every aspect of the natural world. Buffon derided his Swedish colleague as a dull classifier. Working as tirelessly in a tower of his half-ruined château in Montbard, Burgundy, as Linnaeus did in his garden house in Uppsala, Buffon completed thirty-six volumes of his Natural History before his death. Mathematician, comparative anatomist, biologist, and cosmologist, Buffon argued for the unity of the human race, not on biblical grounds, but because all known human types were capable of fertile interbreeding, which implied that they formed a single species.

He proposed that all the species of animals descended from a few spontaneously generated types. The ability to interbreed was one of the great differences between real humans and different species of animals, and “monsters,” both human and nonhuman, who were generally considered to be incapable of reproduction. Buffon’s ideas about the age of the world and specifically his contentions that seas created mountains, that the sun would eventually burn out, and that the planets were once part of the sun got him into trouble with the Catholic Church.

(p.26) In January 1751, the deputies and syndics of the Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne informed Buffon that various statements in the first three volumes of Natural History, which had already had a great publishing success, were at variance with Holy Scripture. He was forced to recant. He declared, perhaps truthfully, that he had no desire to deny Scripture and, as his printed recantation explained, he believed “most firmly” in everything the Bible had to say about the creation. However, in an unguarded moment, sitting in front of his fireplace in Montbard, he confessed to a young politician from Paris: “I have always written ‘God,’ but all that is to be done, is to substitute for this word, ‘the power of nature.’ ” Iconoclast he undoubtedly was, but Buffon, like Linnaeus, attended church regularly. Outwardly he clung to the bare essentials of the Genesis account while claiming that man was not unique but formed part of the wider “animal kingdom” not far distant from the ape, from whom he could be distinguished by such slender criteria as speech and reason. But still, for him, too, Homo sapiens was but one all-inclusive species.

In 1783 The European Magazine and London Review quoted Buffon as having admitted that “the origin of black men has, at all times, been a subject of enquiry.” However, he believed that

Upon the whole every circumstance concurs in proving, that mankind is not composed of species essentially different from each other; that, on the contrary, there was originally but one species who after multiplying and spreading over the whole surface of the earth, have undergone various changes by the influence of climate, food, mode of living, epidemic diseases and the mixture of dissimilar individuals; that at first these changes were not so conspicuous, and produced only individual varieties . . . transmitted from generation to generation, as deformities or diseases pass from parents to children. (European Magazine and London Review.1783 p.117)

In Über die verschiedenen Rassen der Menschen (Of the Different Races) (1775), Kant similarly said that blacks and whites “are not distinct types of people, for they belong to one tribe, and yet to two different races” and agreed with Buffon that the manifest success different races of men had in breeding with each other proved that humankind was one, although he also thought that the darker races were doomed to racial extinction through natural design. Kant initially believed that there was a rigid racial hierarchy, with negroes close to the bottom, although his insistence on this diminished toward the end of his life. He believed that all people belonged to “a single (p.27) phylum, from which, notwithstanding their differences, they originated, or at least could have originated.” Humankind was an undivided one but was nonetheless split into a number of distinct subcategories (Kant.2007).

Kant’s elaborate armchair view of human divisions was mocked by the well-traveled German botanist, revolutionary, and outstanding travel writer Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754–1794), who had more experience than most of the different varieties of mankind and womankind, and who perceived the commonalities of different peoples more clearly than many of his contemporaries. Along with his cantankerous father, Johann Reinhold Forster, Georg went on a number of journeys, first to Russia and then with Captain James Cook (1728–1779) on the latter’s second voyage to the Pacific (1772–1775). In 1789 he scornfully rejected earlier models of difference: “Most of the old divisions of the human species have long been rejected anyhow,” he wrote. “Noah’s sons, the four parts of the world, the four colours, white, black, yellow, copper red—who still thinks of these outdated fashions today?” (Georg Forsters Werke.1958 p.193). Well, of course, many people still did.

One such was Edward Long (1734–1813), the British planter, slaveowner, and colonial administrator, who was one of the leading champions of these “outdated fashions” and of the disunity of humanity. In 1774 he published his notorious History of Jamaica, which set out to prove that blacks were barely part of humankind and had as much in common, if not more, with orangutans—which, according to him, were capable of having sexual relations with women and of dressing like men and were able to eat, in a civilized manner, at a table with knives and forks.

We have seen how Linnaeus had drawn a distinction between Homo sapiens and certain anthropoid creatures in the jungles of Malaya, which travelers had also spotted in the West African kingdom of Loango, which for centuries had been the favored locus of Western speculation about monstrous races. Like his contemporary the polygenist German naturalist Christoph Meiners (1747–1810), Long was obsessed with African monstrosity and savagery. He was particularly obsessed by the thought of “amorous intercourse” between negro women and apes and devoted a good deal of his book to the subject. Indeed, in Western literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth century there was often a drooling interest in the idea of sex between primates and humans, which confirmed the lechery of African women as well as pointing to the allegedly slender dividing line separating negroes from animals.

(p.28) The widespread interest in ape–human sex in Africa, and monstrous part-human brutes, was matched by a prurient interest in sex between whites and blacks. The product of such unions, known as mulattos (like the mule, from which the name mulatto is perhaps derived), were widely and critically deemed to be infertile. This singular thought, which was destined to have a long life, seemed to Edward Long to provide “an opinion, which several have entertained, that the White and the Negro had not one common origin. . . . For my own part, I think there are extremely potent reasons for believing, that the White and the Negroe are two distinct species” (Long.1774, ii p.336; Seth.2014).

A contemporary of Long’s, Lord Kames (1696–1782), the son of an impecunious Scottish laird, had some difficulty in acquiring a formal education and was not able to attend a university. However, he was an avid reader and went on to study law. He became a judge in the Court of Session, Scotland’s highest civil court, and a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. His wife Agatha inherited the estate of Blair Drummond, near Stirling (now home to a safari park), and for the last sixteen years of his long life he could take literary potshots from his Scottish castle at Buffon, who was nestled comfortably on the other side of the Channel in his feudal tower in Burgundy. Kames, like Buffon and Linnaeus, devoted his life to his main book: Sketches on the History of Man (1774). He labored on it for thirty years and was very optimistic of its chances of success.

Incapable of believing that climate or environment or any other natural cause could possibly account for what he saw to be the radical diversity of human varieties, his book constituted a spirited defense of the polygenist theory. As he explained:

Thus, upon an extensive survey of the inhabited parts of our globe many nations are found differing so widely from each other, not only in complexion, features, shape, and other external circumstances, but in temper and disposition, particularly in two capital articles, courage, and behavior to strangers, that even the certainty of different races could not make one expect more striking varieties. Doth M. Buffon think it sufficient to say dryly, that such varieties may possibly be the effect of climate, or of other accidental causes? The presumption is, that the varieties subsisting at present have always subsisted; which ought to be held as true till positive evidence be brought of the contrary: instead of which we are put off with mere suppositions and possibilities.

(p.29) A typical product of the autodidact, Sketches, in the words of Allegra de Laurentiis, consisted of “a peculiar mixture of venomous resentment against French and German science, a strong aptitude for non sequitur, and fearless appeals to common sense from a dog breeder’s point of view . . . Unimpressed by conceptual distinctions among class, order, species, variety or race, Kames derides Linnaeus’ common grouping of men and bats as mammals and concludes: ‘What will a plain man think of a method of classing that denies a whale to be a fish?’ ” (Laurentiis.2014 p.624).

In a couple of instances, Kames did accept the basic argument of the monogenists, that the differences between peoples could be explained by recent natural causes and that climate could change physical characteristics. His belief was that a number of races of man had been created to settle in specific environments, and that in the event that such a race was moved to another kind of environment it could only be affected negatively. One of such “variations” Kames mentioned was an intriguing case along the coast of the Congo in West Africa, a critically important area rich in examples of perceived hybridity and difference that had fascinated European thinkers for centuries. According to Kames, “some Portuguese, who have been for ages settled on the sea-coast of Congo, retain scarce the appearance of men.” His assumption was that as a result of the tropics these white Portuguese had reverted into some half-human animalistic figure, of which the travel reports were full.

Such mixture, it was thought, could only bring about racial degeneration. However, in general, in terms of the long-running debate between the claims of heredity or climate on the varieties of man, Kames was clear: He rejected the notion that climate would ever have much effect on racial types. If people were different, it was because they constituted different species. If all men had been of just one species, “there never could have existed, without a miracle, different kinds, such as exist at present.”

For Kames, an important proof of the persistence of racial types over time was the existence in southern India of an ancient community of white Jews, who, according to him, had shown remarkable resilience to the effects of the hot climate of Kerala: “In the suburbs of Cochin,” he wrote, “a town in Malabar, there is a colony of industrious Jews of the same complexion they have in Europe.” As we shall see later, this community would be regularly invoked in the future as a proof of the fixity of human races, and perhaps Kames was the first to see Cochin’s white Jews’ usefulness for the polygenist argument15 (Kames.1774; Kames.1807).

(p.30) However, there were staunch and rational defenders of traditional monotheism. One such was the Reverend Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751–1819), a naturalist and the seventh president of the College of New Jersey in Princeton. In his Essay on the causes of the variety of complexion and figure in the human species etc. (New Brunswick, NJ.1810), which was, in part, an attack on polygenists and particularly Lord Kames, and the more scholarly Charles White (1728–1813), he judiciously summed up the situation. “The conclusion to be drawn from all this variety of opinions,” he declared, “is, perhaps, that it is impossible to draw the line precisely between the various races of men, or even to enumerate them with certainty; and that it is in itself a useless labor to attempt it.”

For some late eighteenth-century thinkers, even the most radical differences between peoples could be easily explained. John Walker (1731–1803), meteorologist, hydrologist, zoologist, economist, and geologist, as well as Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh (and one of Lord Kames’s polymath friends), observed:

I know not of any two varieties in the human race more widely different than the fair-haired European and the Angola Negro. But I am certain that, upon the principle of Hippocrates, I can account for all the peculiarities in the aspect of the African. That the difference in his hair proceeds from the climate; his splay-feet from the soil; and his color, his flat face and features, and prominent belly, from his manner of life. (Kames.1807 p.33)

But for many others, from Paracelsus to Kames, the African and Jew were the chief obstacle to the concept of the unity of humankind. (p.31)


(1.) The term “negro” was commonly and neutrally used in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries in English, Spanish, French, and German and it is thus used in this book where required. “Negro” is uncapitalized throughout. So are “black” and “white” where these words apply to groups of people. There is a good argument for capitalization in contemporary America (Robert S. Wachal. 2000. “The Capitalization of Black and Native American.” American Speech 75.4. pp. 364-365). However the capitalized “Black” conveys a political sense of community and identity in the present time, which would be inappropriate, say, in eighteenth-century Africa or Europe and capitalized “White” strikes an even more stridently contemporary note. This book is about an earlier period and it would be anomalous to project contemporary sensitivities on to a different landscape.

(2.) Like Paracelsus, Bruno was a difficult man. Before long he threw out the images of the Virgin and saints that adorned his cell, was discovered with a closely annotated copy of a forbidden book—Erasmus’s Commentaries—hidden in his latrine, and rebelled against his teachers, whom he accused of trying to make him “the slave of a foolish system of deceit.”

(3.) In 1583, Bruno went to England; enjoyed a brief but close friendship with Queen Elizabeth I; was driven from Oxford after a controversial lecture, where his excitable manner, accent, and Neapolitan fashion of talking with his hands were ridiculed; and, according to recent research, perhaps became a spy (at the time the government was spending the fabulous sum of £12,000 a year on spies); and, as such, was instrumental in the execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Bossy.2002). Much of his teaching and writing attacked Catholic dogma. But during his wanderings he also got into serious trouble with the Calvinists (in Geneva) and the Lutherans (in their stronghold in Helmstedt in the duchy of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel).

(4.) See also: McIntyre.1903; Levy.1995.

(5.) The names “Julius Caesar” had been given to him by his soldier father along with Lucilio. He used Julius Caesar as his authorial style.

(6.) Commentary noting the similarity of apes to human beings had been around for a while. Comparisons between aged humans and apes are common in early Jewish sources—for example, Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 3):

In the seventh stage he resembles a monkey, who is different from all other creatures. He asks about everything; he eats and drinks like a youngster and laughs like a child. He returns to his childish ways in discernment but not in other things. Even his children and the men of his household mock him, curse him, and hate him. When he offers an opinion, they say: “Ignore him, for he is an old fool.” He behaves like an ape in all situations and in whatever he says. Even the children laugh at him and mock him, and the wild birds can awaken him from his sleep.

(7.) “Come Calviniste et come Juif.”

(8.) It became Williamsburg in 1699.

(9.) The full title was The Negro’s and Indians Advocate suing for their admission to the church, or, A persuasive to the instructing and baptizing of the Negro’s and Indians in our plantations shewing that as the compliance therewith can prejudice no man’s just interest, so the willful neglecting and opposing of it, is no less than a manifest apostacy from the Christian faith: to which is added, a brief account of religion in Virginia. London: Printed for the author, by J.D. and are to be sold by most booksellers.

(10.) Some of the original debts were the result of a massive infrastructure project Baron Lahontan père had obsessively undertaken, trying to make the local river (the Gave de Pau) navigable from Pau down to the Atlantic at Bayonne, which often involved infringing on ancient fishing and other rights and the forced acquisition of land. The baron had to pay out greater and greater sums in compensation and the rest of the money went to the lawyers. In 1677 the family lost the château and lands.

(11.) Shortly afterwards, in A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels (1745), Thomas Astley (d.1759) the London publisher, commented on the implications of Atkins’ theory:

He has taken Notice in his Navy Surgeon how difficultly the color is accounted for, and elsewhere declares, that although it be a little heterodox, he is persuaded the black and white Race have originally sprung from different colored first parents. With Mr. Atkins’ leave, this is not to be a little heterodox but in a great Degree so; since that doctrine cannot subsist but by the Destruction of the Mosaiacal Account, which derives Mankind from one common Stock. And by the same rule that the Blacks had their peculiar Parents, every other Nation of a different colour must have had a particular father and Mother; and thus instead of confining the origin of the human Race to one single pair of Sexes, there will be introduced a great Number of original Creations. Indeed the Negroes themselves account for their Blackness in this Manner, if their Opinion may be of any Authority in the Case: For the Marabouts (as Labat observes) have a Tradition, that of Noah’s three Sons, one was White, the other tawny, and the (p.231) third black; and that each of them had a Wife of his own colour, from whence proceeds the Difference among Nations in this Respect. (Atkins.1735; Ernst, Harris.999)

(12.) Voltaire’s ready wit, waspish tongue, and willingness to take risks meant that he would have difficulties with the French and later other political and ecclesiastical authorities. In 1726, he was imprisoned in the grim fortress of the Bastille but shortly afterwards was offered the alternative of exile in England. After two and a half years he returned and wrote Lettres Philosophiques, which was published in Paris in 1734. Its distinctly pro-English tone, the fact that it had not been passed by the censor, and its criticism of the French court resulted in the book’s being publicly burnt. Voltaire fled Paris to Cirey, in Champagne, where the Marquise du Châtelet, Voltaire’s mistress, offered him asylum in her husband’s partly derelict château. There he wrote Traité de la Métaphysique.

(13.) Caffre is the French form of English Kaffir, which is derived from the Arabic kāfir (“non-believer” or non-Muslim). It was used in English and other European languages to denote black Africans and by the twentieth century became a term of abuse, particularly in South Africa.

(14.) It is possible that M.L. was the physician and naturalist Martin Lister (1639–February 2, 1712) (Malcolmson.2016).

(15.) There have been Jews in India for well over a thousand years, and perhaps longer. There were four main Jewish communities in India in the early modern period: Jews living in the interior and particularly in the Mughal Empire; the so-called Baghdadi community, which was chiefly associated with the coastal trading towns of Surat, Calcutta, and Bombay; the Bene Israel of the Konkan coast in western India and Bombay; and the ancient community in and around the port town in Kerala. The existence of Jews in Cochin had been known among scholars in Europe since at least the sixteenth century, when Jesuit sources, such as the works of Alexander Valignano, referred to Cochin’s Jews. As we have seen, there was even scholarly knowledge of the fact that some of these Jews were black, but this did not provoke any particular discussion. The community achieved greater visibility in 1665 when Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel of Amsterdam cited the community in his famous petition to Oliver Cromwell. The Jews of Cochin would become vitally important in discussions about race over the last couple of decades of the eighteenth century but even more so after the publications of Memoirs of the life and writings of the Rev. Claudius Buchanan, DD (1817). (Wolf.1901; Fischel.1962; Katz, Goldberg.2005; Katz.2013; Parfitt.2017).