In the 1723 Journal of a Voyage up the Gambia, an
English narrator describes the native translators vital to the
expedition's success as being "Black as Coal." Such a description
of dark skin color was not unusual for eighteenth-century
Britons-but neither was the statement that followed: "here, thro'
Custom, (being Christians) they account themselves White Men."
The Complexion of Race asks how such categories would have
been possible, when and how such statements came to seem illogical,
and how our understanding of the eighteenth century has been
distorted by the imposition of nineteenth and twentieth century
notions of race on an earlier period.
Wheeler traces the emergence of skin color as a predominant marker
of identity in British thought and juxtaposes the Enlightenment's
scientific speculation on the biology of race with accounts in
travel literature, fiction, and other documents that remain
grounded in different models of human variety. As a consequence of
a burgeoning empire in the second half of the eighteenth century,
English writers were increasingly preoccupied with differentiating
the British nation from its imperial outposts by naming traits that
set off the rulers from the ruled; although race was one of these
traits, it was by no means the distinguishing one. In the fiction
of the time, non-European characters could still be "redeemed" by
baptism or conversion and the British nation could embrace its
mixed-race progeny. In Wheeler's eighteenth century we see the
coexistence of two systems of racialization and to detect a moment
when an older order, based on the division between Christian and
heathen, gives way to a new one based on the assertion of
difference between black and white.
Subjects: Language & Literature
Table of Contents
You are viewing the table of contents
You do not have access to this
on JSTOR. Try logging in through your institution for access.