Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920

Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920

by James Poskett

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Phrenology was the most popular mental science of the Victorian age. From American senators to Indian social reformers, this new mental science found supporters around the globe. Materials of the Mind tells the story of how phrenology changed the world—and how the world changed phrenology.
This is a story of skulls from the Arctic, plaster casts from Haiti, books from Bengal, and letters from the Pacific. Drawing on far-flung museum and archival collections, and addressing sources in six different languages, Materials of the Mind is an impressively innovative account of science in the nineteenth century as part of global history. It shows how the circulation of material culture underpinned the emergence of a new materialist philosophy of the mind, while also demonstrating how a global approach to history can help us reassess issues such as race, technology, and politics today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226626895
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/26/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

James Poskett is assistant professor in the history of science and technology at the University of Warwick.

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In the clear water between HMS Blonde and O'ahu, two bodies bobbed toward the shore. A few minutes later, Hawaiian chiefs helped British sailors unload a pair of mahogany caskets. The larger coffin bore an inscription. Side by side, in both Hawaiian and English, it read:

Tamehameha II. Elii no nahina o Awaii make i Pelikani 28
Makaiki Kaik i ke mahoe neua o Kemakaihi 1824.
Moa ino no Komakou Elii Iolani.

Tamehameha II., king of the Sandwich Islands,
died, 14th July 1824, in London,
in the 28th year of his age.
May we ever remember our beloved king Iolani.

Ten months earlier in London, Kamehameha II of the Kingdom of Hawaii had died from measles. His wife soon succumbed to the same fate. Back in the Pacific, local leaders lifted the coffins onto two wooden carts, before covering them in black kapa, a Hawaiian cloth woven from plant fibres. A procession soon formed as the deceased king and queen edged closer to their resting place at Pohukaina. Toward the head were twelve Hawaiian warriors cloaked in brightly colored feathers. Behind them were the marines, the chaplain, and the surgeon of HMS Blonde, followed by another forty chiefs. George Byron, commander of the British mission, accompanied the grieving princess Naheinaheina while 100 sailors, each wearing a black handkerchief, completed the funeral gathering.

On the morning of 11 May 1825, the British returned two bodies to the Kingdom of Hawaii, but they did not leave empty-handed. When HMS Blonde left O'hau on 7 June, it still carried human remains. An exchange, of sorts, had occurred. A few days after the burial ceremony, one of the naval officers accosted an islander. This go-between reluctantly climbed a nearby hill, Luhahi, where the locals buried their dead. He returned with a single human skull. This skull, and three others, left the Sandwich Islands, continued south to Malden Island, before traveling another 15,000 miles, around Cape Horn, to the English Channel. They were then sent on a mail coach from Spithead to George Combe in Scotland, where they entered the burgeoning collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. There these "Sandwich Islanders" were joined by "Thugs" from India, "Esquimaux" from the Arctic, and "Hottentots" from the Cape Colony.

This chapter argues that encounters with death and burial acted as a formative site for phrenological understandings of racial character. Across the colonial world, rituals surrounding death represented a moment in which different cosmologies interacted with one another and often conflicted. Burial was an opportunity both to collect skulls and to reflect on the constitution of the dead. By examining three very different imperial contexts — Ceylon, Egypt, and the Arctic — this chapter illustrates how the practice of collecting was bound up with assessments of racial character. It also emphasizes the need to be attentive to the different ways in which imperialism operated. Encounters with death and burial in the Arctic, as the phrenologists themselves lamented, were not straightforwardly comparable to those in Asia. In fact, the acquisition of human skulls was mediated by contrasting physical environments, political ideologies, and forms of colonial violence. Significantly, collecting practices were also shaped and in many cases contested by colonized people. Following the work of Marshall Sahlins, this chapter draws on historical anthropology to reconstruct both sides of the encounter. What to do with the dead was not obvious, and debate raged over appropriate burial practices. Widow burning was outlawed in India, while new garden cemeteries reflected reformist campaigns back in Europe. The Edinburgh Phrenological Society's collection, much of which survives to this day, was ultimately a product of these conflicting attitudes to death, burial, and human remains.

For the phrenologists, the museum embodied what it meant to take part in a global science. In the late 1820s, the Edinburgh Phrenological Society purchased a "Map of the World" for display alongside its collections on Clyde Street. The intention was to use the new map "to mark the places where skulls are from." Some specimens were even assigned an exact latitude and longitude. Visitors were then invited to connect the physical organization of the museum in Edinburgh with the global geography of mankind beyond. There were different cabinets, each with a glass door, for "National Skulls" and "European Skulls." The layout of the specimens had been carefully arranged, and members were kindly reminded to "replace them carefully" after examination. Later phrenological atlases also often featured maps. Samuel George Morton's Crania Americana, discussed further in chapter 3, included a hand-colored chart titled "The World Shewing the Geographical Distribution of the Human Species." Five different races were represented, from the "Caucasian" occupying Europe, North Africa, and India to the "Mongolian" covering Asia and the Arctic. Museum collections also encouraged phrenologists to reflect on the material reach of their science. On receiving an "Ashantee skull" in the 1820s, the Phrenological Journal commented that "it is gratifying to know, from the above donation, that we have active friends, who, personally unknown to us, are exerting themselves in all quarters of the globe." From the very beginning, phrenology was therefore imagined as a science that would chart the history and geography of mankind. An early article in the Phrenological Journal remarked that "when we regard the different quarters of the globe, we are struck with the extreme dissimilarity in the attainments of the varieties of men who inhabit them." The goal of phrenology was to map the "cerebral development of nations."

Despite this rhetoric, acquiring human remains and making sense of them was no easy task. For a start, skulls arrived in an incredible variety of physical conditions. In the Arctic, the freezing conditions ensured that Inuit skulls remained well preserved. Some were even found with remnants of skin and hair still attached. Sand also tended to preserve human remains. When the surgeon Alexander Moffat seized the skull of a New Zealand chief from the Bay of Islands, he reported that "the Integuments were preserved in a dried state upon the bones." By contrast, skulls buried in acidic soil often showed signs of erosion and were almost always devoid of hair and skin. Other skulls, typically those left unburied in the sun or taken straight from the gallows, were smooth and bleached. The phrenologists even possessed mummified remains, the flesh blackened after thousands of years. These material differences mattered. For the phrenologists, the coarseness of a skull was a marker of mental activity. According to the Phrenological Journal the "texture of the Ceylonese and Hindoo skulls is much more delicate and refined than that of the skulls of the natives of New Holland." This apparently explained why "we find the Ceylonese distinguished by refinement, and the New Hollanders by rudeness and harshness of manners."

Ownership proved another headache. In 1828 a number of Yupik skulls were collected from St. Lawrence Island by the surgeon of HMS Blossom. Combe had understood that they would be donated to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, but, on arrival in Britain, the skulls were claimed by the Admiralty. The Phrenological Journal issued a complaint, stating, "We understand that they were taken possession of by Government, along with all other specimens of natural history collected during the voyage." The article went on to explain that "Mr Collie intended them as a donation for the Phrenological Society." Such an announcement certainly cemented the status of skulls as commodities that could be owned and exchanged. But, in an age in which the public and private status of museum collections remained fluid, the phrenologists found themselves on the wrong side of ownership. In an effort to recover the skulls, they attempted to assert their intellectual authority over the specimens, writing that "they must be comparatively useless to all but phrenologists." In making this move, the phrenologists brought together their claim of intellectual ownership with a desire for material possession. This partly explains phrenologists' tendency to write directly on skulls. Inscriptions were certainly used to classify collections, but they also allowed phrenologists to assert ownership by tracing particular skulls to particular collectors (fig. 4).

Even if a skull arrived safely in a museum, its authenticity was by no means assured. Many entries in the manuscript catalogue of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society's collection are annotated with the words "authority unknown." This in part stemmed from the fact that phrenologists relied on such a variety of collectors. This was an age before the professionalization of anthropology, with limited attempts to standardize collecting practices. From naval explorers traversing the Northwest Passage to poets living in the Cape Colony, collectors varied in their interests and expertise. More often than not, human remains were procured as part of a broader colonial project, whether it was Napoleon's invasion of Egypt or British attempts to secure the interior of Ceylon. Many collectors were aware of phrenology thanks to the popularity of Combe's books but, as the Phrenological Journal complained, this did not guarantee that they were "skilful observers and describers of the manifestations of the human mind." Nonetheless, Robert Cox, the conservator at the Edinburgh Phrenological Society's museum, did his best to collate information arriving from across the world. In this instance, the global was both the problem and the solution. Cox suggested that "by comparing ... the details given by different observers, it is possible to discover, with tolerable certainty, the more prominent mental characteristics of the great body of a nation." This strategy is reflected in the pages of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society's catalogue itself. Compiled by hand, the catalogue features hundreds of additions and amendments — crossings out, footnotes, pasted sheets, and cross-references. Cox kept putting off producing a printed copy of the catalogue, which he estimated would extend to "about 200 octavo pages." The phrenologists ultimately relied on a system of collecting that ensured understandings of race were always subject to revision.

Execution in the Tropics

Keppetipola's skull was a war trophy. In November 1818 the British in Ceylon held a court-martial in which the former Kandyan chief was convicted of "levying war, with a view of subverting his Majesty's government, lawfully established." Keppetipola had joined the 1817–18 rebellion in the Kandyan provinces, fighting the British over the course of the monsoons before being captured, tried, and decapitated. After Keppetipola's death, Henry Marshall, senior medical officer for the Kandyan provinces and a graduate of the University of Glasgow, seized the skull and forwarded it to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society. On arrival, the museum conservator etched the number "19" onto Keppetipola's forehead, before placing the skull alongside the other "Ceylonese" specimens in the collection: "Vedahs," "Tom-Tom boys," and "Cingalese."

For colonial officials, Keppetipola's execution was a symbol of British power in Ceylon, particularly over the Kandyan provinces in the interior of the island. While the coastal regions had proved relatively easy for the British to seize from the Dutch in 1796, the Kingdom of Kandy was a different matter. It was only after a number of failed attempts that the British managed to depose King Sri Vickrama Rajasimha and secure the Kandyan Convention of 1815. This treaty effectively brought the region under Crown control while maintaining customary rights for Kandyan chiefs. Even then, British power in the interior was uncertain, and the peace didn't last long. In late 1817 a rebellion broke out that took over a year to put down. In the violence that followed, the British read both the battlefield and the execution block for signs of Kandyan character. Death brought the concerns of phrenologists and colonial officers together.

Marshall, who had served in the Cape Colony and South America, found the rebellion to be unnaturally violent. The Kandyan rebels "showed no mercy, and gave no quarter." One eyewitness gave an account of the massacre of British prisoners near Watapologa, describing how "the executioners, with their large swords, chopped their victims down. ... When this butchery was complete, they began to strip the dead." Marshall, it seems, wasn't the only headhunter on the island. However, he read a very different meaning into the practice when it was conducted by Kandyan rebels. There was "a reward of ten rupees ... for the head of every European, and five for that of every other class of soldiers in the English service." Marshall even remembered seeing the heads of European troops impaled on spikes near British outposts. The tropical environment also contributed to the intensity with which Marshall confronted the conflict. Ceylon was described as possessing "an unwholesome climate, producing disease." The fighting itself took place over the course of the monsoons, Marshall recalling the "low swampy ground" and the "heavy rains in the Kandyan provinces." When the rain stopped, the scene was no less unsettling. Marshall remembered seeing "bones ... whitening in the sun." It was a "sight of horror" with "unburied skulls and thigh bones mixed together." Marshall's attitude toward the conflict was not incidental. For a military man, conduct on the battlefield was ultimately a marker of character. Marshall complained that "the Kandyans were never practically acquainted with the laws of civilized warfare." He pointed to the barbaric practices of former Kandyan kings in which executions consisted of "being killed by elephants, the bodies being exposed, or hung in chains." These assessments fed back into the phrenological accounts. According to an article in the Phrenological Journal, Kandyans were characterized by "cowardice and military ignorance." They "lived in a state of the most abject submission to their king," and, consequently, "fear of punishment was the strongest principle which secured their allegiance."

Whatever Marshall's evaluation of Kandyan military practices, he was also well aware that violence worked both ways. The conflict had been "a partisan warfare, which from its very nature and circumstances, was severe and irregular." The governor of Ceylon, Robert Brownrigg, authorized the troops "to inflict a severe punishment on the inhabitants ... for the purpose of thereby checking the insurrection." Marshall wrote that "the work of devastation commenced; the houses of the inhabitants were forthwith set on fire and burnt to the ground, and all the cattle, grain, &c, belonging to the people, were either carried off by the troops or destroyed." The summary execution of those suspected of helping the rebels also aided in the collection of skulls. John Davy, brother of the chemist Humphry, spent many years in Ceylon as a medical officer and hospital inspector. He was also an avid reader of Johann Spurzheim's phrenological works. Following the fighting, Davy recalled seeing "a human skull that lay by the roadside, under a tree, to which the fatal rope was still attached." A lithograph of the skull of "a Singalese Chief of a secluded part of the Interior" was later featured in Davy's An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (fig. 5). Like Kandyan head-hunting, violence also had a political purpose. Correspondence between British colonial officials emphasized the importance of overt displays of military power. The goal of the campaign was to secure the "general and unlimited submission" of the Kandyan people. According to a House of Commons report, "The only way by which any impression could be made on such an enemy was by burning their villages and laying waste their paddy fields."

Marshall admitted that the strategy seemed to work, explaining that "the inhabitants appeared to be horror-struck at the devastation. ... They ceased to shout at the troops, or to fire upon them." But he was also worried about the relationship between European and Kandyan character. For Marshall, the tropical climate and barbaric warfare pointed to the problem of racial degeneration. The rebellion had been one in which "white and black races, the invaded and the invaders, Christian and Pagan, vied with each other in promoting horrors and barbarities of mutual destruction." Marshall concluded his discussion, asking, "Are there no means by which civilized nations can carry on war with barbarians, but by retrograding into barbarity themselves?" The Kandyans asked a similar question, albeit the other way around. The following Pali song, dating from the rebellion, recalled the violence of the British campaign: "The English commander ... pursued and hanged the rebels on trees, thereby stunning them with terror and dismay." For both sides, conduct in war was a measure of civilization.


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Table of Contents

1. Skulls
2. Casts
3. Books
4. Letters
5. Periodicals
6. Photographs
  List of Figures

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