The Complexion of Race

The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture

Roxann Wheeler
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 384
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    The Complexion of Race
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0014-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction. The Empire of Climate: Categories of Race in Eighteenth-Century Britain
    (pp. 1-48)

    When present-day North Americans and Britons think about race, we are likely to default automatically to skin color. Preconceptions about skin color and about other differences between what we now call races are so ingrained in our contemporary culture that many of us hardly think twice about the complexity of the terms black and white. This association between color and race first became commonplace during the eighteenth century and obtained particular currency in the new discipline of natural history. Even today, however, black and white are simplifying, though powerful, cover stories for a dense matrix of ideas as closely associated...

  5. Chapter 1 Christians, Savages, and Slaves: From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic
    (pp. 49-89)

    An analysis of Daniel Defoe’s Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and its critical tradition exemplifies the way that a theory of multiplicity helps to recover the emergent character of race in the early eighteenth century. Because skin color became a more important racial category to the British only later in the eighteenth century, a color binary of black and white does not help to elucidate British reactions to other Europeans, Moors, West Africans, or native Caribbeans or, indeed, their representation of them. Of course, Robinson Crusoe does not perfectly reflect English culture or economic investment in the first...

  6. Chapter 2 Racializing Civility: Violence and Trade in Africa
    (pp. 90-136)

    Until the mid-1990s, critics and theorists alike tended to equate the analysis of race with the study of the European representation of Africans and black skin color; accordingly, most previous studies of race during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries investigated European writing about black Africans or privileged this material. Certainly, a focus on color difference seems warranted given that England escalated its participation in the slave trade between 1660 and 1720 and given that the current study of race was initially a by-product of the civil rights movement in the United States. Two of the most influential historians of black...

  7. Chapter 3 Romanticizing Racial Difference: Benevolent Subordination and the Midcentury Novel
    (pp. 137-175)

    Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton, as well as many other early eighteenth-century narratives, punctuate their tales of colonial encounters and imperial adventure with interracial sex. The numerous sexual liaisons between European men and Other women allow us to see it as constitutive of European masculinity in forging an empire. To be sure, interracial sex is an unsurprising by-product of the colonial enterprise or vast networks of trade. Reproduction is absolutely necessary to the project of colonization. In the final pages of Robinson Crusoe, for example, Crusoe records the fate of his new colony. The Europeans, he tells us, invade...

  8. Chapter 4 Consuming Englishness: On the Margins of Civil Society
    (pp. 176-233)

    In publications of the 1770s and later, it was not unusual for Englishmen writing about colonial policy to refer to theories of human variety in making their recommendations, especially in the ongoing discussions about the East Indies. References to their own character and Others’ also inflected historical discourse, which is apparent in the many histories of England and the empire published after midcentury. This chapter analyzes two texts with substantial truth claims that typify the range of contemporary racial ideology in the 1770s: Edward Long’s History of Jamaica (1774) and Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775)....

  9. Chapter 5 The Politicization of Race: The Specter of the Colonies in Britain
    (pp. 234-287)

    Through criticism of the trend, the epigraphs convey the significance Britons placed on the body’s exterior, an attention that was especially remarkable in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. The epigraphs also indicate how natural history categories helped in the enumeration of minute differences among groups of people, a phenomenon that made claims about the irrelevance of exterior features difficult to reconcile with the increased propensity to note them. Commonplaces about judging appearance abounded, and even though many scientists tried to distance themselves from the more dubious forms of judgment, such as physiognomy, their own findings, of course,...

  10. Epilogue. Theorizing Race and Racism in the Eighteenth Century
    (pp. 288-302)

    In eighteenth-century Britain, the ideology of human variety broadly changed from being articulated primarily through religious difference, which included such things as political governance and civil life, to being articulated primarily through scientific categories derived from natural history that featured external characteristics of the human body—color, facial features, and hair texture. At the end of the century, the contours of racial ideology were more established than a century before, a solidification that accompanied the more important role of race and racism in the intellectual pursuits and structures of everyday life in Britain. The transference from a cultural emphasis to...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 303-362)
  12. Index
    (pp. 363-368)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 369-371)