A PhD student’s research at Cambridge’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science has revealed how racist ideas and images circulated between the United States and Europe in the 19th century.

In the course of advocating for the freedom of African slaves, men like Prichard and Combe allowed scientific racism to flourish.

James Poskett

A mummified corpse. An embalmed head. A neat bullet hole in the side of a skull. These are just some of the 78 disturbing illustrations which make up Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana, undoubtedly the most important work in the history of scientific racism.

Published in Philadelphia in 1839, Morton divided mankind into five races before linking the character of each race to skull configuration. In a claim typical of the developing racial sciences, Morton wrote of Native Americans that “the structure of his mind appears to be different from that of the white man”.

Within a few years Crania Americana had been read in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and India. James Cowles Prichard, the founding father of British anthropology, described it as “exemplary” whilst Charles Darwin considered Morton an “authority” on the subject of race. Later in the nineteenth century, other European scholars produced imitations with titles including Crania Britannica and Crania Germanica.

James Poskett, from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, is working to uncover how Crania Americana became so influential, not only in the United States, but in Europe and beyond. He has also curated a new exhibition for readers at the Whipple Library charting this history. The showpiece is undoubtedly a copy of Crania Americana itself. The book is extremely rare. Only 500 copies were ever printed with no more than 60 being sent outside of the United States.

“This research is crucial for understanding how racist theories gain credibility,” said Poskett. “Particularly in the early nineteenth century, European scholars tended to treat American science with suspicion. Morton had to work hard to convince his peers across the Atlantic that Crania Americana should be taken seriously.”

The illustrations, now on display at the Whipple Library helped Morton establish his reputation in Europe. Reviewers in Britain were astounded by the eerie, life-like quality of the skulls. To create such an effect, Morton’s artist, John Collins, used a new technique called lithography. He first drew each image onto a limestone block in wax before fixing, inking and printing. The limestone allowed Collins to create fine-grained textures, reproducing the subtle contours of each skull in Morton’s collection.

Previously, such impressive images could only be found in European scientific metropolises such as Paris and Edinburgh. “Crania Americana was the first example of American scientific lithography to gain widespread acclaim in Europe,” said Poskett. “The textured effect also allowed men like Prichard to make the perverse claim that Native American skulls were actually of a different consistency to Europeans.”

The Whipple Library exhibition also features a series of recently-discovered loose plates, printed to promote Crania Americana in Britain. “These images are unique,” added Poskett. “I was amazed when I discovered them, just tucked into the back of the book.”

Morton sent early copies of his illustrations to men of science in Europe. This allowed him to garner support prior to the arrival of the finished volume. Prichard himself first displayed Morton’s cranial illustrations to a European audience in Birmingham in 1839. Darwin was there in the crowd. “I had read about Prichard’s use of these plates in letters, but never imagined I would find copies,” said Poskett. By putting these images on display for the first time, visitors can get a sense of how European scholars must have felt on initially seeing Morton’s work.

Whilst men like Prichard and Darwin found it easy to access Crania Americana, not everyone was so fortunate. The book was expensive, costing Morton $2175 to print. That’s at least $50,000 in today’s money. And to buy a copy, you’d need $20, equivalent to about two months’ wages for an average farm labourer. Particularly in Europe, where import duties inflated the price even further, Crania Americana could only be found in the most prestigious institutions. The Royal Society owned a copy, whereas the London Mechanics’ Institute did not.

Despite these limits to access, Morton’s ideas and images did penetrate beyond the scientific elite with working-class readers certainly aware of Morton and his skulls according to Poskett. In Britain, phrenologists such as George Combe promoted Crania Americana in cheap periodicals, some of which were available for just a couple of pence. A full page notice of the work appeared in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal in 1840, a magazine with a circulation of at least 60,000 at the time. Copies of Morton’s illustrations were also reproduced in cheap formats. The Phrenological Journal in Edinburgh, on display at the Whipple Library, features small woodcut copies of “Ancient Peruvian” skulls from Crania Americana.

Women too were excluded from most of the libraries in which Morton’s work was held. Still, periodicals aimed at female readers once again ensured his ideas reached a wider audience. In 1840 the Ladies’ Repository, a magazine for Methodist women in Ohio, quoted Morton in an article entitled “Man”. The author described Native Americans as “adverse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge.” For white settlers living to the west, this was exactly what they wanted to hear. Crania Americana was published just as the remaining Shawnee peoples of Ohio were forcibly relocated west of the Mississippi River.

“The idea that Native Americans could not integrate into modern industrial society was central to both Morton’s argument and Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal,” said Poskett.

People often associate Crania Americana with slavery. But, according to Poskett, this is a mistake. It wasn’t until later in the century that southern slave owners really started to take up Morton’s ideas in earnest. And in Europe, the majority of readers were abolitionists. The phrenologist Combe was an antislavery man, as was Prichard. It was an odd logic: according to these men, if non-European races were inferior, that meant they deserved protection, not enslavement.

“Anti-slavery and scientific racism were not mutually exclusive in the nineteenth century,” explained Poskett. In Quentin Tarantino’s recent film, Django Unchained, it is the slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio who takes up phrenology. In real life it was just as likely to be an abolitionist.

“This research shows just how alert we must be to the variety of places in which racist theories can take hold,” added Poskett. “It can seem counterintuitive at first but, in the course of advocating for the freedom of African slaves, men like Prichard and Combe allowed scientific racism to flourish. The Crania Americana exhibition at the Whipple is a stark reminder of this unsettling history.”

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