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Dark Vanishings

Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930

Patrick Brantlinger
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    Dark Vanishings
    Book Description:

    Patrick Brantlinger here examines the commonly held nineteenth-century view that all "primitive" or "savage" races around the world were doomed sooner or later to extinction. Warlike propensities and presumed cannibalism were regarded as simultaneously noble and suicidal, accelerants of the downfall of other races after contact with white civilization. Brantlinger finds at the heart of this belief the stereotype of the self-exterminating savage, or the view that "savagery" is a sufficient explanation for the ultimate disappearance of "savages" from the grand theater of world history.

    Humanitarians, according to Brantlinger, saw the problem in the same terms of inevitability (or doom) as did scientists such as Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley as well as propagandists for empire such as Charles Wentworth Dilke and James Anthony Froude. Brantlinger analyzes the Irish Famine in the context of ideas and theories about primitive races in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. He shows that by the end of the nineteenth century, especially through the influence of the eugenics movement, extinction discourse was ironically applied to "the great white race" in various apocalyptic formulations. With the rise of fascism and Nazism, and with the gradual renewal of aboriginal populations in some parts of the world, by the 1930s the stereotypic idea of "fatal impact" began to unravel, as did also various more general forms of race-based thinking and of social Darwinism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6868-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1. Introduction: Aboriginal Matters
    (pp. 1-16)

    “When civilised nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race.” So writes Darwin in the section on “the extinction of races” inThe Descent of Man(190). His account is one of many: from the late 1700s on, an enormous literature has been devoted to the “doom” of “primitive races” caused by “fatal impact” with white, Western civilization. WhileDark Vanishingsincludes evidence about populations of indigenous peoples around the world and about the tragic histories of their decimations, its primary focus is on the assumptions...

  5. 2. Pre-Darwinian Theories on the Extinction of Primitive Races
    (pp. 17-44)

    Before the publication of Darwin’sOrigin of Species(1859), three types of supposedly scientific discourse dealt with the extinction of primitive races. The first was “natural history,” a broad rubric that embraced both geology and biology. The taxonomies of organisms offered by Carl von Linneaus, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Georges Cuvier included hierarchizing accounts of the human races, with the white or “Caucasian” race leading the parade. Further, through the geological “record of the rocks,” massive evidence of the extinction of numerous nonhuman species was being unearthed, though Linnaeus, Thomas Jefferson, and many others resisted it...

  6. 3. Vanishing Americans
    (pp. 45-67)

    Toward the beginning ofThe Maine Woods(1864), his posthumously published account of treks that he made in 1846 and again in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau describes a “woebegone” Indian disembarking from his canoe near Oldtown with “a bundle of skins … and an empty keg” to fill with whiskey. “This picture will do to put before [the reader] the Indian’s history,” Thoreau declares; “that is, the history of his extinction” (6). On a later trip, the killing and butchering of a moose by his Indian guide suggests to Thoreau “how base or coarse are the motives which commonly...

  7. 4. Humanitarian Causes: Antislavery and Saving Aboriginals
    (pp. 68-93)

    Until the American Civil War in the 1860s, humanitarianism concerning other races focused on slavery. But that issue could not be disentangled from questions of imperialism, economic exploitation, and the impact of white colonization on indigenous populations in Mrica, the Americas, and elsewhere. Within the British Empire, the abolitionist struggle culminated in the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807 and then of slavery itself in 1833. The condition of the ex-slaves and the continuation of slavery in the southern United States, Brazil, Cuba, and parts of Mrica and the Middle East meant that much remained to be done long...

  8. 5. The Irish Famine
    (pp. 94-116)

    In South Africa and elsewhere, accusations of cannibalism were usually reserved for the indigenous groups who were most warlike and resistant to colonization. Within Britain itself, the “wild Irish” had, from the 1500s on, been tarred with that and virtually every other stereotypic accusation about savages that their English adversaries could think of. The bloody, frustrating attempts of sixteenth-century Englishmen to subdue the Irish paralleled, and in some measure influenced, the earliest encounters between the English and Native Americans. “The doctrine that the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” writes Howard Mumford Jones, “first took shape … in the...

  9. 6. The Dusk of the Dreamtime
    (pp. 117-140)

    InThe Road to Botany BayPaul Carter declares that Australian aboriginals and convicts “enter white history in much the same role … fused into the figure of unreason” (320).¹ The convicts viewed the aboriginals as beneath them, mere beasts of the field or the outback. But what did the first Australians think of the convicts? Robert Hughes notes that, when offered leftover “convict slops,” the aboriginals rejected them as “‘No good—all same like croppy,’ [their] disdainful term for an Irish convict” (279). And the missionary James Günther reported that when presented with clothes the aboriginals removed the stitches...

  10. 7. Islands of Death and the Devil
    (pp. 141-163)

    From the time of Captain James Cook’s momentous voyages between 1768 and 1779, the advent of Europeans spelled the transformation of South Pacific island paradises—as Diderot, Rousseau, and Cook himself at first viewed them—into tropical mortuaries. On his second voyage Cook perceived the inroads that venereal and other diseases had made on several populations, and opined that the natives of those places would have been much better off if Europeans had never discovered them. About the Maoris of New Zealand, he wrote:

    We debauch their Morals already too prone to vice and we interduce [sic] among them wants...

  11. 8. Darwin and After
    (pp. 164-188)

    Although the “Darwinian revolution” produced new ideas about human races, societies, and cultures, it did not much alter and in several ways strengthened extinction discourse. Starting with Thomas Henry Huxley’sMan’s Place in Nature(1863), evolutionists offered what quickly became the dominant view, accepted by most scientists and intellectuals, concerning racial variation.¹Homo sapienswas one species, not several; the separate races had a single origin; they evolved through the same processes and stages; and the differences among them were insignificant compared to the similarities. Nevertheless, some races—the Australians, for example—had been isolated for millennia, and hence occupied...

  12. 9. Conclusion: White Twilights
    (pp. 189-200)

    InGone PrimitiveMarianna Torgovnick points out that modernist artists and intellectuals often placed a positive, even fetishistic premium on “savage” art and customs, but also that “ideas about primitive societies” have continued to support much less benign projects and politics: “Many events in this [twentieth] century would have been less possible without operative notions of how groups or societies deemed primitive become available to ‘higher’ cultures for conquest, exploitation, or extermination: the partition of Africa, the invasion of Ethiopia, the Nazi ‘final solution’ for Gypsies and Jews” (13). Torgovnick goes on to mention Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Western...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 201-222)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 223-242)
  15. Index
    (pp. 243-248)