[Paleopsych] Nicholas Hudson: 'Hottentots' and the evolution of European racism
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Nicholas Hudson: 'Hottentots' and the evolution of European racism
University of British Columbia
Journal of European Studies 34(4): 308-332
http://jes.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/34/4/308, converted by me to ASCII
Summary from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.10:
In 1497, when Europeans first encountered the Khoikhoi people,
popularly known as "Hottentots," of present-day South Africa, an
important chapter in the cultural history of racism began, says
Nicholas Hudson, a professor of English at the University of
European explorers initially were repulsed by the Hottentots,
who had very different ideas about how to dress, cook, and
conduct courtships than were current in Europe. The Hottentots,
early reports indicated, smeared their light skin with dirt and
oil to appear darker, preferred barely cooked tripe to animal
muscle, and looped greasy cow intestines about their beloveds'
shoulders to celebrate engagements.
By the 18th century, "Hottentot" was a common insult in Europe
for an ill-mannered, filthy, or otherwise uncivilized person.
The Hottentots also became a popular subject for parodies of
European customs. They "provided a classic example that beauty
was in the eye of the beholder and that all fashions could seem
preposterous from a different cultural perspective," Mr. Hudson
But thinking of customs and values as relative made many
Europeans uncomfortable, and a "racial science" developed to
combat that world-view. "From this ideological root," he says,
"grew the distinctive language of modern racism."
By attributing differences between themselves and other peoples
to intrinsic characteristics rather than to cultural variations,
he says, Europeans were able to retain their sense of
superiority and to justify colonizing people they saw as
inferiors in need of control and indoctrination.
The article, "'Hottentots' and the Evolution of European
Racism," is online for a limited time at
Springing from the argument in recent scholarship that 'race' is a
doctrine that emerged only in the post-Enlightenment, this essay
develops a theory concerning the ideological history of 'racism',
understood in its modern Western sense. While it is impossible to
examine all forms of Western racism, the author focuses on evolving
reactions in European travel accounts, belles-lettres and anthropology
to the Khoikhoi, popularly known as 'Hottentots', a people that became
proverbial as the most wretched and degraded of all 'savages'. The
question posed is why the Khoikhoi, a relatively peripheral and
cooperative people, attracted this virulent hatred.
Challenging the assumption of the small body of modern scholarship on
the Khoikhoi, I maintain that this spite derived not simply from a sense
of the Hottentots' 'Otherness', but more accurately from the awareness
that this people upset models of ethnicity that supported the Western
vision of the non-European world. Europeans needed to neutralize the
ideological threat represented by the Khoikhoi, a programme that
culminated in the development of the modern science of 'race'. 'Race',
and its corresponding ideology of 'racism', I conclude, involves not
merely the exclusion, but an approximation and appropriation of the
'Other' into Western systems of thought: the ultimate and fatal destiny
of this highly distinct and independent culture.
Keywords: Hottentot, Khoi, race, racism
Before the rise of racial science, with the work of Buffon, Kant and
Blumenbach in the late eighteenth century, Western hostility to
non-European cultures necessarily took a different and less structured
form. Indeed, 'racism' seems a deceptive term to describe prejudices
that lacked justification in the theory that the human species is
divided into five or six more or less static sub-groups, or that these
'races' can be ranked according to physical differences and innate
capacities.1 This is not to deny that hatred of foreign groups existed
before the invention of race. Yet racism, in a modern sense, is a more
historically specific phenomenon than we are apt to imagine, for
distrust or loathing of the Other has taken different forms in different
eras in accordance with transforming philosophies, world-views and
economic priorities. Racism, that is, has a cultural history. And in
guarding against its insidious influence on human thinking and affairs,
we have some reason to reflect on how that history has unfolded.
We cannot, of course, examine every instance of Western hatred of the
Other throughout history. But our investigation can begin to shed light
on the evolution of racism by focusing on the development of attitudes
towards a particular group that became, quite arguably, the most reviled
people in European thought of the early modern era. These were the
Khoikhoi, popularly known as 'Hottentots', a herding society that lived
near the Cape of Good Hope when Vasco da Gama first touched there in
1497, and that developed a long and troubled cultural and economic
relationship with Europeans over the next four hundred years. By the
eighteenth century Hottentots had become proverbial as the most savage
of all savage peoples, occupying a rung, according to many, elevated
just above the beast. As Sir Joseph Banks commented after his visit to
the Cape on Cook's Endeavour in 1771, Hottentots 'are generally
represented as the outcasts of the human species, a race whose
intellectual faculties are so little superior to those of beasts, that
some have been inclined to suppose them more nearly related to baboons
than to men' (Banks, 1896: 439).2 The very term 'Hottentot' became a
familiar insult exchanged among Europeans themselves for any behaviour
deemed uncivilized, filthy or ill-mannered. The question this hatred
raises is 'why?' Why were the Khoikhoi, a relatively peripheral and
cooperative people in colonial expansion, singled out from all other
non-European peoples for this abuse?
Relatively simple answers spring quickly to mind, such as those
presented in Linda Merians' recent Envisioning the Worst:
Representations of 'Hottentots' in Early Modern England. Focusing almost
exclusively on accounts by English writers, Merians argues that the
English needed to denigrate another people to prove their own
superiority, suggesting later that they wished to 'vent their
frustrations and inscribe their own nightmares' (Merians, 2001: 19-21
and 244). But these answers beg the question of why the distant Khoikhoi
became the special target for this ideological exploitation. In
presenting my own explanation of why the Khoikhoi were so despised, I
will maintain what might appear, at first, a paradoxical position: the
evolution of European attitudes towards the Khoikhoi from contact to the
rise of nineteenth-century raciology is characterized not by increasing
belief in their Otherness or beastliness but rather by the increasing
insistence on the Hottentot's humanness and cultural banality. In the
first phase of contact between this people and Portuguese, Spanish,
French, English and Dutch travellers, reactions to the Khoikhoi
generally reflect the fear and bewilderment of Europeans who, armed only
with their insufficient paradigms of Eden, 'wild men' and monsters,
found their conceptions about the human universe profoundly shaken.
During the Enlightenment, similarly, it was the absolute Otherness of
Hottentots that seemed most to preoccupy authors, although increasingly
the Khoikhoi came to represent the relativity of all human values and to
demonstrate the comparable absurdity of European claims to absolute
truth. In the final phase of this evolving relationship, however, the
Khoikhoi became increasingly encompassed and 'normalized' in the
paradigms developed by Europeans to fit all peoples in their globalizing
theory of 'human nature' - including, finally, the theory of race. The
scientific notion of race involved a peculiar economy of Otherness and
sameness, for the racial type was simultaneously accepted as 'human'
while also subdivided as inherently (as opposed to culturally) peculiar.
In short, contrary to the assumption embedded in much post-colonial
scholarship about colonization and race, an intellectually respectable
and systematic racism became possible only through a process of
approximating the foreign Other to the European self. While this process
can seem superficially sympathetic to peoples like the Khoikhoi, and
often debunked earlier perceptions of monstrous difference or beastly
estrangement, it was in fact perfectly compatible with the aims and
practices of European racism and imperialism in the nineteenth century
The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century adventurers who first came to the
Cape of Good Hope carried with them a range of ethnological
preconceptions which heavily informed their experience of foreign
peoples. The medieval myth of the wild man portrayed the uncivilized
Other as a hairy, beast-like creature with little or no language, an
unquenchable sexual drive and, very often, an appetite for human flesh
(see Bartra, 1994). While the Khoikhoi lacked the hirsute appearance of
the wild man, their virtual nakedness, feral lifestyle and unusual
language, whose unique vocal 'clicks' sounded to European ears like
'turkeys clucking' or 'farting with their tongues',3 all seemed to
conform roughly to the wild-man stereotype. It was easy to leap to
judgements that lacked empirical evidence - for example, that this
'wild' people 'would not scruple' to 'eate mans fleshe', as one
frightened English traveller recorded in 1608.4 This traveller's
unsupported suspicion of Khoikhoi cannibalism derived, first, from the
undoubted fearsomeness of the Hottentots when the Europeans offended
them: fifty to sixty-five Spaniards were slaughtered during the voyage
of Francisco d'Almeida in 1510, and thereafter pockets of Europeans were
sometimes killed, often for reasons not easy to determine (see
Raven-Hart, 1967: 9-11).5 Nor is there any reason to doubt that the
almost universal astonishment of Europeans at the dietary habits of the
Khoikhoi - they seemed to prefer tripe to animal muscle, making
apparently minimal effort to clean and cook their food - had some
foundation in real observations, however distant and imperfect. For
Europeans, these habits confirmed the 'beastlike' nature of the
Hottentots, especially at a time when cleanliness and strong dietary
values had become the mark of 'civilized' life in the European middle
ranks (see Vigarello, 1988).
These 'wild men' also bore some resemblance to the strange visions of
foreign peoples, especially in Africa, propagated in works such as the
Travels ascribed to Sir John Mandeville, a name probably as fictional as
his fantastical tales. Amidst his menagerie of humanoids who have eyes
on each shoulder or who hiss like snakes, this mysterious
fourteenth-century writer tells us of people in the Andaman Islands
whose 'ears are so big that they hang down to their knees', and of other
'people who have feet like horses, and run so swiftly on them that they
overtake wild beasts and kill them' (Mandeville, 1983: 137). Both these
tales find echoes in early accounts of the Khoikhoi, though notably
among travellers who seem to be relying mostly on hearsay.6
Nevertheless, even for those able to observe the Khoikhoi more closely,
there seemed plenty in their aspect and lifestyle to support
Mandeville's vision of the vast and sometimes monstrous variety of
human-like beings. As Gijsbert Heeck exclaimed in 1655, the Khoikhoi
were 'quite unbelievable' (Raven-Hart, 1971: 1, 38). Here was a people,
it was insisted, who wore the raw and rotting guts of cattle as
ornamentation; though white at birth, they smeared their bodies with
darkened grease to
Fig. 1. From Raven-Hart (1971). By permission of A. A. Balkema Press.
make themselves look blacker; they used foul odours as perfumes; the men
had one testicle removed at birth, which at least one traveller
testified was actually a miniature crystal ball (Anon., 1732: 4, 774);
the women possessed an extra membrane or 'apron' over their pudenda, as
well as breasts so pendulous that they could feed children over their
shoulders (another story recounted in Mandeville's Travels). Among the
most copiously illustrated peoples of the seventeenth century, the
Hottentots were inevitably portrayed in ways that highlighted their
alleged strangeness. In the accompanying illustrations, for example (see
Figures 1 and 2), they are displayed in their grotesque finery or
fighting over a tangle of guts.7
Fig. 2. From Raven-Hart (1971). By permission of A. A. Balkema Press.
Even such strangeness, however, would not be so disruptive to European
preconceptions if the Khoikhoi did not display traits that Europeans
recognized as undeniably human. Prolonged observation convinced many
Europeans that these people, however bizarre or repellent to Western
ideas, belonged to the same Adamic lineage as themselves. Even in the
earliest accounts of the Khoikhoi, a significant minority of sympathetic
observers exerted an important, and often underrated, tug on the
evolution of Western attitudes. During Thomas Best's voyage of 1612, the
crew recorded a variety of perspectives, from the most violent
repugnance to the more sensitive portrait given by the ship's chaplain,
Patrick Copeland: 'The people are loving, afraid at first, by reason of
the unkindnesse of the Dutch, who came there to make traine Oyle, who
killed and stole their Cattell; and at our returning more kind: of
middle size, well limmed, very nimble and active' (Raven-Hart, 1967:
59). Copeland's blaming the Dutch for injustice against the Khoikhoi
reflects, in fact, a very widespread tendency of European nations to
claim that the dirt of colonial adventurism covered only the hands of
other nations, a belief that demonstrated, at least, a European desire
for clean hands: hence the self-justifying tone of the anonymous account
that we have from the Dutch ship Remonstratie in 1649. In a curiously
modern gesture, this writer brushed aside all previous accounts of the
Khoikhoi as 'a sailor's yarn', arguing that any violence by Hottentots
represented their reaction to European oppression, and promising that a
new generation of Khoikhoi, under a 'good commander', would deal fairly
and gladly speak Dutch (Raven-Hart, 1967: 177-8). Beneath their
insalubrious appearance, that is, these people had many moral virtues.
Though 'very dirty and stinking', as F.-T. De Choisy observed, 'they are
good folk' (Raven-Hart, 1971: 2, 269). Early conventional assumptions
that the Hottentots, like all 'savages', were sexually promiscuous gave
way to the very widespread acknowledgement that husbands and wives were
faithful to each other and that they even punished adultery with death.8
While the Khoikhoi are frequently accused of theft in the very earliest
accounts (among the most conventional features of colonial narratives
around the world), Dutch settlers seemed satisfied with their extensive
business dealings with the Khoikhoi, trusting them around their goods
and property. Similarly, if the Khoikhoi looked like the 'nasty,
brutish' savages imagined by Hobbes, they were evidently not in a
Hobbesian state of war. As François Leguat observed, 'their Humanity
towards one another, yields in nothing to that of the Chineses'
(Raven-Hart, 1971: 2, 436). Early assumptions that they had no
government or 'polity' gave way to abundant evidence of social cohesion
and cooperation; the belief that they were a nation of 'atheists',
though it remained part of traditional lore concerning the Hottentot,
was in fact questioned very early on by travellers who observed their
moonlit worship and rituals.
In summary, for reasonably fair and thoughtful Europeans, prolonged
relations with the Khoikhoi threw into doubt many of the assumptions
that had informed European ethnography since Herodotus. How could one
explain a people who seemed so 'brutish' in their dirt and squalor, yet
who clearly possessed qualities of benevolence, honesty and chastity?
Europeans were even willing to admire certain features of Hottentot
culture, such as their sharp blades, herbal remedies and skill with
cattle. The ready explanation for savage degeneracy was environmental,
the hardness and isolation of life outside Europe usually being blamed
for both darkened skin and degraded manners.9 Yet even the environmental
explanation seemed problematic, given that the Cape region seemed
virtually Edenic in the mildness of its climate, its fertility and its
natural beauty. Surely such a paradise, as J. M. Coetzee remarks in
White Writing, should contain beings of Adamic innocence and beauty -
but instead it contained Hottentots, springing alarming puzzles about
the very myth of an innocent garden (Coetzee, 1988: 2-3). Was it, in
fact, even possible that living in the Garden of Eden presented inherent
challenges to the purity prized by Europeans? As one traveller mused,
perhaps the very luxury of this garden had precipitated the supposed
sloth and dirtiness of its inhabitants, who (not unreasonably) laughed
at the Dutch for working hard to obtain what was so easily gathered in
this land of abundance.10 Another explanation was even more challenging
and would set the agenda for discussion of the Hottentots during the
Enlightenment: perhaps the Khoikhoi in fact embodied an alternative to
European values and attitudes, showing the diversity and power of the
'custom' which ruled over all peoples, in Europe as well as elsewhere.
Very early, travellers revealed their nervous amusement that Khoikhoi
customs were, in fact, analogous to European customs, though strangely
inverted. Though born 'white', it was said, they apparently preferred
black, and painted themselves appropriately. Their filthiness and foul
smell, thought travellers, arose not merely from an impoverished life,
but was actually sought and cultivated as a beauty or dignity. It was
the richest Khoikhoi, not the poorest, who were smeared most fulsomely
with fat and dirt, a sign that they had cattle to spare for this
decoration. Even the Khoikhoi taste for precious metals seemed a bizarre
deviation from European ideas: the Khoikhoi valued not gold, but copper,
which they purchased from the colonists at great expense of cattle and
fashioned into elaborate ornamentation. Such details could hardly be
related without drawing detailed comparisons between European and
Hottentot culture, and early descriptions repeatedly portray Hottentots
as a kind of parody of Europeans. Consider, for example, Georg Meister's
observations in 1677 on the 'wonderful ceremonies' surrounding Hottentot
courtship and marriage, which consistently draw from European customs as
their frame of reference. 'The friends of the bridegroom come together',
he tells us, 'and then [the groom] throws a thick, greasy cow-gut around
the neck of his sweetheart instead of lovely pearls and golden chains,
and this is the true bond of love, which is worn until it falls off of
itself' (Raven-Hart, 1971: 1, 349). Elsewhere Meister paints a ludicrous
picture of Hottentot men rising from a meal of barely cooked guts,
bowing 'most humbly' to their hosts, and going off 'two-by-two in their
leather coats like the merchants of the Exchange in Amsterdam or Hamburg
in their silken ones' (Raven-Hart, 1971: 1, 203).
Such descriptions were presumably intended to make the Khoikhoi seem
laughable. Yet parody is a dangerously two-edged sword, threatening to
suggest that the differences between Hottentot and European manners were
not absolute at all, but merely relative. For what, indeed, made gold
better than copper? Were not the richest European men also the ones with
the most fat, though theirs was inside? Did not European women also
smear their faces with grease and dangle shiny objects on their bodies?
The fact that Europeans repeatedly suspected that they glimpsed their
own visage in the unflattering mirror of Khoikhoi life helps to explain
why this people so commonly served as currency of abuse among Europeans
of the eighteenth century. To call someone a 'Hottentot' because they
were ill-mannered or dirty or ignorant or atheistical was, implicitly,
to acknowledge that inhabitants of England, France or Germany could act
very like the natives of the Cape. This reaction, loosely speaking,
represents a kind of 'racism' - but a racism unsupported by scientific
theories of neatly boxed human varieties and innate degeneracy. The
particular viciousness and obsessiveness of the European denigration of
the Hottentots reveals something more complicated than a desire to feel
superior; it suggests an awareness that the loathsome strangeness of
Khoikhoi manners in fact derived from the common absurdity of all human
beings. And it was precisely this anxiety that made the Khoikhoi a
particularly tempting source of satiric commentary on European life and
manners among leading satirists of the age. In 1711, for example, the
English Tory controversist Charles Leslie portrayed his arch-adversary,
the Whig bishop Benjamin Hoadly, losing an argument with a Hottentot
'chief' over the virtues of the new commercial England that the Whigs
were in the process of building (see Leslie, 1711). As the chief
demanded of his befuddled English adversary, was the Hottentot love of
shiny metal or their vicious territorial wars really any more
contemptible than English luxury or imperialism? Here were questions, as
noted by a recent scholar, that may have inspired the Tory satirist
Jonathan Swift in his creation of the Yahoos, a bestial yet disturbingly
humanoid race that piles up shiny stones, has crude hierarchies and
cruel wars, finally plunging Gulliver into a nightmare of self-loathing
(see Eilon, 1983). Similarly, the Dutch-English social philosopher and
satirist Bernard Mandeville wondered in The Fable of the Bees whether
Hottentot 'Pride be more Savage than ours' (Mandeville, 1924: 1, 127).
Perhaps the fullest use of Hottentots as a commentary on European life
was an essay appearing in 1754 in the journal The Connoisseur, raising
laughter of various kinds - self-indulgent, nervous, knowing
- throughout Europe, especially Germany, where it became a locus
classicus of relativist aesthetics. Probably composed by this journal's
chief editor, Lord Chesterfield (the same who once called Samuel Johnson
a 'respectable Hottentot'),11 this essay portrays the courtship of two
Hottentot lovers with unpronounceable names, Tquassouw and Knonmquaiha.
The strangeness of these names, like the clumps of consonants that
abound in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, typifies eighteenth-century
representations of Hottentots, underscoring, of course, their cultural
alienation from Europe. At the same time, however, both the possession
of language and the essay's theme of courtship confirm the Hottentots'
basic humanity, and it is this interplay between alienation and
proximity that generates this essay's unsettling ironies. For a literary
critic, these ironies are marked by the essay's generic instability.
Should we call this piece a racist and self-satisfied polemic against
the Hottentots, an 'oriental tale', a parody of European culture, or
even a work of serious anthropology? A superficial reading, apparently
like that of Lessing in his Laocoön, noticed only the ludicrous satire
of the Hottentots: 'We know how the Hottentots are and how many things
that awaken disgust and loathing in us are beautiful, comely, and sacred
to them', wrote Lessing; 'think of all this expressed in the noble
language of sincerity and admiration, and try to keep from laughing'
(Lessing, 1989: 132-3). But a more careful reading found less
justification in assuming that the joke was entirely on the side of
Europeans. At one point, for example, we see how a Dutchman looks
through the eyes of the Hottentots:
Upon his skin the sun darted his scorching rays in vain, and the colour
of it was as pale and wan as the watery beams of the moon. His hair,
which he could put on and take off at pleasure, was white as the
blossoms of the almond tree, and bushy as the fleece of the ram ... His
lips and cheeks resembled the red oker, and his nose was sharpened like
the beak of an eagle. His language, which was rough and inarticulate,
was as the language of beasts; nor could TQUASSOUW discover his meaning,
till an Hottentot ... interpreted between them. This interpreter
informed the prince, that the stranger was sent from his countrymen to
treat about the enlargement of their territories, and that he was
called, among them, MYNHEER VAN SNICKERSNEE (The Connoisseur, 1754: 1,
For a line of German commentators - including Friedrich Riedel,
Christoph Wieland and Marcus Herz - the Connoisseur essay pointed to the
absence of any rational measure of beauty, a view that militated against
the universalizing aesthetics of the Aufklärung, as formulated by
Lessing and Mendelssohn (see Mielke, 1988). In Britain, similarly, the
Hottentots provided a classic example that beauty was in the eye of the
beholder and that all fashions could seem preposterous from a different
cultural perspective. Lovably cantankerous spokesmen of the British
middle orders, like Mr Wildgoose in Robert Graves' popular novel The
Spiritual Quixote, found Hottentots a useful metaphor for the inanities
of polite fashion: 'if an inhabitant of the Cape of Good Hope were to
behold the stiff horse-hair buckles, or the tied wigs, of our Lawyers,
Physicians, Tradesmen, or Divines, they would appear as barbarous and
extraordinary to them, as sheep tripes and chitterlins about the neck of
a Hottentot do for us' (Graves, 1773: 242).
Thus, whereas early explorers to the Cape reacted variously with fear
and loathing in the face of the Hottentots' apparent alienation from all
that was called 'civilized' or even 'human', eighteenth-century authors
became more willing to acknowledge their humanness, making possible the
often self-reflective proposition that 'Otherness' lies mostly in
cultural difference not in 'nature'. And this change made possible as
well the foundation of a genuinely anthropological approach to the
Khoikhoi, as pioneered by the German scientist, Peter Kolb. Kolb's Reise
nach dem Vorgebürge der guten Hoffnung (1727), was quickly translated
into several languages, including Guido Medley's abridged English
translation of 1731, The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope. For
some modern historians, such as Mary Louise Pratt in her well-known
Imperial Eyes, Kolb had produced a quintessentially high-Enlightenment
exercise in the subjection of an alien people to the restrictive
categories of Western anthropology (Pratt, 1992: 41-9). Kolb, originally
an astronomer who had come to the Cape to study the southern
constellations, attempted to assess the Khoikhoi with the cold
objectivity of a star-gazer, surveying their culture through the
rational lens of religion, government, law, manners and so forth. While
this method, as argued by Pratt, may well represent the conceptual
colonization of a non-Western society by means of Western cultural
categories, it also led Kolb to reject, again and again, the governing
assumptions of the first travellers to the Cape - particularly their
assumption that the dirt and squalor of the Hottentots represented a
degeneration of humans to the level of 'beasts'. Rather, Kolb discerned
complex patterns of social organization (see Figure 3): his Hottentots
possessed a developed idea of government, sophisticated religious
beliefs, and a deep veneration for ritual and tradition in every facet
of their culture. Kolb even claimed
Fig. 3. Hottentot trades. From Kolb (1731).
that these traditional exemplars of grossness and filth actually
possessed a real, though non-European, idea of manners and cleanliness,
wrinkling their noses at Dutchmen who passed wind or alluded openly to
fornication (see Kolb, 1731: 1, 163).
There is, indeed, plenty of ludicrous mockery of Hottentots in Kolb's
book. Nevertheless, as in some of the earlier travellers' accounts, this
mockery is seldom far removed from the satire of Europeans. If Reise
nach dem Vorgebürge der guten Hoffnung is a work of the Enlightenment in
its attempt at rational objectivity, it also strongly anticipated and
influenced later works that stressed the relativity of all social
conventions and fashions, European and non-European. In their alien
notions of beauty or propriety, exemplified by their penchant for grease
and filth, the Hottentots showed Kolb 'the Force, the Witchcraft of
Custom' (Kolb, 1731: 1, 316). For Europeans who wished to maintain their
superiority or a belief in absolute standards, this was a threatening
thesis. As the English Methodist leader John Wesley observed of the
Hottentots in a sermon on 'The Imperfection of Human Knowledge', 'A late
writer has taken much pains to represent them as a respectable people:
But from what motive it is not easy to say' (Wesley, 1829: 6, 345). In
Wesley's mind, there was no question of the essential degradation and
immorality of the Hottentots: the very exemplification of what happens
to people ignorant of the Bible and abandoned to original sin by God.
Such was the attitude of many Europeans who continued to use the term
'Hottentot' as an epithet of ridicule or debasement.
But there was another, more subtle way of rejecting Kolb's book and the
cultural relativism it implied. And this rejection corresponded with the
rise of racial science and the emergence of a genuinely modern form of
'racism'. It is an initially surprising, yet finally logical,
characteristic of this phase in the evolution of European racism that it
was bent, in important respects, on the normalization of colonized
peoples. Although Kolb had insisted strongly on the need to subject all
stories about the Khoikhoi to first-hand scrutiny, a procedure that led
him to dismiss many legends as 'Excesses of the Imagination' (Kolb,
1731: 1, 37), he also confirmed many reports that marked their profound
cultural and even physical difference from Europeans: he testified, for
example, to witnessing the 'Hottentot apron', the excision of one
testicle from the men, and the practice of spreading darkened grease
over their bodies. Later travellers rejected even these claims, accusing
Kolb of precisely that reliance on hearsay that he professed to disdain.
In the words of François Le Vaillant, writing in 1790, 'It is ... not to
be questioned, but that after ten years residence ... [Kolb] thought it
easier to associate with the good fellows of the colony, who, while they
drunk his wine, laughed in their sleeves, and vied with each other in
recounting those ridiculous anecdotes which compose the bulk of his
memoirs' (Le Vaillant, 1790: 109).12 Taking his lead from Rousseau, who
had grouped Hottentots with other noble savages (Rousseau, 1986: 147),
Le Vaillant inveighed sentimentally against the supposed abuse of this
people by Kolb and previous travellers: 'Worthy injured people! ...
Peaceful Hottentots! behold with disdain those harsh invaders who first
reduced to slavery, then basely traduced and placed ye on a level with
the brutes' (Le Vaillant, 1790: 160-1). In sharp contrast with the
depiction of Hottentots as haughtily independent, alone and proud in
their alien customs, Le Vaillant portrayed 'Klaas', a noble-hearted
guide who selflessly defends the French traveller from the hoofs of a
charging elephant. 'Klaas pupil of nature!' exclaims Le Vaillant,
'artless soul, uncorrupted by the false tinsel of superficial
politeness, continue to cherish the remembrance of that friendship to
whom thy idea must ever be dear!' (Le Vaillant, 1790: 249-50).
What high-mindedness, we might like to echo, to rescue the Khoikhoi from
the guts and grease that filled previous accounts. Yet behind Le
Vaillant's much more palatable and conventional portrait of the
Hottentots may indeed lie the crushing of this people's unique culture
under prolonged European influence. For the Khoikhoi were dying a slow
cultural death. Its population thinned drastically by smallpox, its
binding forms of social order mocked and humiliated, this nation of
wandering herdsmen increasingly abandoned its traditional ways, donned
Western livery, and entered European houses as domestics or guides. When
Joseph Banks arrived in the Endeavour in 1771, he heard only rumours
that Hottentots existed in an aboriginal state far beyond Table
Mountain.13 The Khoikhoi he witnessed, as they tied his horse or brought
his food, seemed so banal that he wondered why anyone thought they were
extraordinary or particularly disgusting. Eager to witness cultural
difference, he ordered Hottentots to dance for him. What he saw
convinced him of the total falsehood of stories describing a people
that, covered with grease, streaming in copper, and loosely clothed in
animal skins, wildly danced as they shouted what Dutch witnesses heard
as 'Hottentot! Hottentot!', the apparent origin of their European name.
Instead, he watched dances 'as dull and spiritless as can be imagined',
consisting 'entirely of beating the earth with one foot and then with
the other' (Banks, 1896: 440).
What Banks interpreted as the visible demonstration that the dance of
Hottentot culture was unremarkable, and always had been, we might well
reinterpret as a dance of cultural death. Others of this time, such as
the popular travel writer William MacIntosh, similarly praised the
Khoikhoi as a people of 'mild and tractable disposition' who had been
'very much misrepresented in Europe' (MacIntosh, 1782: 1, 217-18). But
this praise came with a proviso aimed at Khoikhoi who insisting on
remaining on the outskirts of European acculturation. Such 'wild
Hottentots', as MacIntosh went on to insist, 'are untameable and
unmanageable by any means that have yet been tried'. Indeed, MacIntosh's
assertion that these uncooperative Khoikhoi 'scarcely deserve to be
ranked among the human species' (1782: 1, 220) is, arguably, chilling in
a way that the earlier accounts of Hottentot beastliness are not. For
exclusion from the human race now meant, as never before, an
unwillingness to submit to European authority, imposing a simultaneously
geographical and ideological boundary between 'in' and 'out', 'human'
and 'non-human'. In insidious ways, the ideological boundary has been
reaffirmed even in the most 'politically correct' commentary on the
Khoikhoi to the present day. Linda Merians, for example, congratulates
the many commentators on the Khoikhoi in the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries who make Hottentots 'full members of the human
family', praise that reflects her approval that these authors
'unambiguously articulate their awareness that the long-standing
tradition of negative description of Hottentots was misleading or
inaccurate' (Merians, 2001: 199 and 208). In fact, these late visitors
to the Cape had no real basis to judge whether the previous accounts
were accurate or not. And what Merians calls 'negative description'
often indicates resistance to customs and forms of behaviour that merely
differed from what Europeans considered meet, palatable and salubrious
according to a certain evolving code of middle-class mores.
To wash away all that had made Hottentots fearful and threatening to
European values became, indeed, the preoccupying aim of accounts of this
people in the late eighteenth century. Moreover, this tendency
corresponded in significant ways with the inauguration of a science of
race during precisely the same era. Buffon, who was instrumental in
introducing the term 'race' into scientific discourse, acknowledged that
the Hottentots were 'fort extraordinaires', but he dismissed most of the
stories about these people as apocryphal, denying, for example, the
existence of 'le tablier Hottentot', and insisting that 'ce peuple n'est
pas si excessivement laid que la plupart des voyageurs veulent le faire
croire' (Buffon, 1854: 4, 600-1). His departures from Kolb tended
instead to make the Khoikhoi seem more like conventional 'savages' whose
lives were brutal, nasty and short: they beat their wives, crawled in
the dirt, and seldom lived past forty years old. In a different way, the
goal of reintegrating Hottentots within the reigning paradigms of
European thought was sought by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the most
influential figure in the theorizing of race in the late eighteenth
century. Blumenbach introduced the practice of bunching the Hottentots
with all the neighbouring peoples of southern Africa (including,
prominently, the 'Bushmen' and 'Caffres'), whom he classified together
as 'woolly-haired African nations' differing in their somewhat lighter
skin colour from the 'Negroes' further north (Blumenbach, 1865: 306 and
351-2). It was the light skin, predictably, that presented the greatest
threat to the direct relation between skin colour and racial capacity
that became a typical thesis of nineteenth-century ethnography.14 In
innumerable works of anthropology from the nineteenth to the twentieth
centuries, therefore, the Hottentots were interpreted as a hybrid of
so-called 'Negro' and other racial traits, an anomalous touching of one
stem on others to produce an errant, southward-pointing twig. In the
words of A. L. Kroeber in a popular anthropological textbook first
published in 1928, the Hottentots were a 'very specialized race' with
some 'Caucasian or Mongoloid' features modifying their basic 'Negroid'
stem (Kroeber, 1948: 769).15
Kroeber's relatively modern definition (similar, for example, to the
definition of 'Hottentot' in the most recent edition of the Oxford
English Dictionary)16 reveals the effort not to excise but to reattach
Hottentots to the branching network of human development. Such efforts,
however, needed to explain all that allegedly made Hottentots non-human
and alien, such as the 'Hottentot apron' and the pendulous breasts noted
by early travellers to the Cape. While these anomalies were not totally
denied, nineteenth-century anthropologists tended increasingly to
question their authenticity and to find natural explanations for what
had previously seemed inexplicable and prodigious. Such was the
self-consciously rational orientation of Sir William Lawrence's Lectures
on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man (1822).
Lawrence's presentation of the Cape 'tribes' before the Royal Society of
Physicians was based heavily on the study of the Hottentot Venus, dubbed
Saartje Baartman, whose naked body, minutely measured by teams of
scientists, was carefully dissected, catalogued and displayed once she
was dead. The stripping and bodily inspection of Baartman are strongly
indicative of the new methodology of race science, for what was stripped
away - the clothes and customs so fascinating to previous authors like
Kolb - meant little to nineteenth-century professors except as showing
the deficient mental capacities of 'savages'. Contrary to what might be
thought, moreover, this scrutiny of Baartman's body was intended to
diminish rather than intensify the sense of difference between the
Hottentots and other peoples. Relying on scientific reports on the
Hottentot Venus in the Mémoires du Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, Lawrence
pondered one by one each of the supposed physical monstrosities of 'the
tribes in the south of Africa', drawing each within the ambit of
observed phenomena in natural history. The 'Hottentot apron' was in fact
only elongated nymphae or labiae minorae, present not only in certain
Hottentot individuals but in 'Negroes, Moors, and Copts', as well as
some European women. Reports of the pendulous breasts of Hottentot women
bore 'an evident air of exaggeration' and were, in any event, common to
many savage peoples. The protuberant buttocks of Hottentot women -
steatopygia, a characteristic almost never reported before the
nineteenth century - was only the kind of variation equally observed in
'fatbuttocked sheep'. Indeed, as Lawrence summarized, 'the development
of the nymphae, and the other varieties enumerated in this chapter, are
merely analogous to the variations observed in corresponding points
among many domestic animals'. The repeated analogies between savages and
animals, along with that peculiarly nineteenth-century fascination with
the details of female genitalia and buttocks, should indeed alert us to
a significant constellation of racist and sexist ideologies
characteristic of Western raciology. Yet Lawrence was also being
consciously high-minded, reflecting paternally on the need to rebut
suggestions of the 'monstrous' difference between Hottentots and the
rest of the human species: 'In proportion as distant regions become well
known', he concluded, 'such monstrosities disappear, and the progress of
natural knowledge will gradually consign all these marvellous tales to
oblivion' (Lawrence, 1822: 360-72).
In an insightful essay on monstrosity in eighteenth-century thought,
Andrew Curran and Patrick Graille describe how the 'monster' loomed
threateningly over efforts in the Enlightenment to build a coherent and
all-inclusive grid of taxonomies (see Curran and Graille, 1997). Yet it
was really in the nineteenth century that efforts to drive the monster
from the precincts of natural history became the single-minded
preoccupation of science. As we have seen, the Enlightenment
anthropology of Kolb and those he influenced accepted and even endorsed
many of the observations of previous travellers to the Cape with regard
to the stark alterity of Khoikhoi culture. They ratified these stories
even at the expense of destabilizing assurance in the universality of
European norms, the 'enlightened' (and partly satirical) goal being to
expose the tyrannical reign of arbitrary 'custom'. The racial science
being developed from Buffon to Lawrence was designed precisely to halt
this slide into relativity and self-mockery. And from this ideological
root grew the distinctive language of modern racism.
The library of a Victorian gentleman with an interest in raciology might
well, for example, have contained J. S. Wood's heavy and
Fig. 4. Nineteenth-century depiction of Hottentots. From Wood (1878).
lavishly illustrated volume, The Uncivilized Races of the World (1878).
In a substantial section on the Hottentots, Wood cited Le Vaillant's
authority in dismissing Kolb as 'utterly unworthy of belief' (Wood,
1878: 218), following the French explorer in the intention of sanitizing
the Khoikhoi into picturesquely banal 'savages', as reflected by the
illustrations that accompany his description (Figure 4). Sans grease,
sans guts, Wood's amused portrait of the Hottentots relies heavily on a
more recent work, Francis Galton's Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical
South Africa. This is significant, for Galton is remembered by us now as
the scientist who coined the term 'eugenics' and did much to popularize
the idea of controlling inheritance for the supposed good of humanity,
the vision so infamously pursued by the Nazis. The anthropological
thinking that led Galton to these theories began when he was a young man
exploring the Cape region in 1851, employing and occasionally
'thrashing' Hottentot servants and guides. Like racial scientists whose
views clearly oriented his observations, he disregarded previous stories
of the supposed physical and cultural idiosyncrasies of the Hottentots
and the neighbouring peoples of this area, whom he grouped together as a
single biological group characterized by their particular shade of
'olive' skin colour and low state of social development. Since
Hottentots and Bushmen, Namaqua or Oerlam, were all the same race, he
when I say Oerlam, Hottentot, or Bushman, the identical same yellow,
flat-nosed, woolly-haired, clicking individual must be conjured up
before the mind of my kind reader, but differing in dirt, squalor, and
nakedness, according to the actual term employed; the highest point of
the scale being a creature who has means of dressing himself respectably
on Sundays and gala-days, and who knows something of reading and
writing; the lowest point, a regular savage (Galton, 1889: 42).
Galton thus banalized the famously exotic dirtiness of Cape people into
a mere sign of poverty and 'regular' savagery. And in other respects, as
well, he viewed all south African 'tribes' through well-worn cultural
stereotypes that relate solely to their degree of cooperation with or
resistance to European occupation. On the one hand, there is the
faithful noble savage, like 'Barmen', 'a respectable old gentleman, who
spoke Dutch perfectly, and every now and then earned something by doing
odd jobs for the missionaries' (1889: 50). At the other extreme is
'Jonker', the impudent and barbaric despot whom Galton variously
flatters and cajoles into allowing him access to his territories. As
suggested by the Europeanized names given to all these Khoikhoi -
Jonker, Barmen, Captain Frederick, Johannis - Galton's aim is to absorb
these people back into a universe that can be easily articulated by
European tongues and minds. His Hottentots all behave in perfectly
understandable but 'savage' ways, the point being that they are human
beings of a sort familiar to Europeans, though of a lower 'scale', to
borrow Galton's expression in the quote above.
Galton's book, that is, develops a verbal adjustment between distance
and approximation, a linguistic habit given literal and spatial form in
his account's most famous episode. Galton shared the Victorian male's
peculiar fetish for the 'Hottentot Venus', a fascination with enlarged
buttocks barely disguised beneath shows of gentlemanly modesty and cold
scientific calculation. Inflamed by a Cape woman whom he describes as 'a
Venus among Hottentots', but too discreet to fulfil his desire of
measuring her steatopygia with a pocket-ruler, Galton stands at a
distance with his sextant, measuring her curves and then calculating
their width and breadth by means of trigonometry (1889: 53-4). This
episode makes obvious the tendency of nineteenth-century anthropologists
to reduce non-European peoples to specimens for their strangely
interrelated scientific and sexual projects. But Galton's lust also
points explicitly to his recognition of this woman's conformity with
European ideas of female beauty. As he writes, 'I gazed at ... that gift
of bounteous nature to this favoured race, which no mantua-maker, with
all her crinoline and stuffing, can do otherwise than humbly imitate'.
This reference to the clothing fashions of women in Victorian England
leads to other comparisons between Caucasian ladies and his Hottentot
Venus, who 'was turning herself about to all points of the compass, as
ladies who wish to be admired usually do' (1889: 54).
Francis Galton thought that Hottentots were racially inferior, but he
also wished to copulate with Hottentot women. This reaction surely marks
an important difference between Europeans of the seventeenth and
nineteenth centuries, for the sexual proclivities of these travellers
themselves form a revealing social history. The sailors who first came
to the Cape admitted, in the style of naughty boys, to paying Hottentot
women with brandy and trinkets to obtain a fleeting, and dramatically
repulsed, glimpse of the 'Hottentot apron'.17 Galton, on the contrary,
portrays himself extending his sextant in the direction of a flirtatious
Hottentot Venus in a winking display of colonial lust. The fact that
Galton does not deny the humanity of a people he wished to colonize and
abuse essentially underprops the logical economy of nineteenth-century
imperialism and its supporting racist ideology. In an essay entitled 'Of
Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse', Homi Bhabha
observes that what the imperialist mentality really desired was 'a
reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is
almost the same, but not quite' (Bhabha, 1994: 86). That is, the very
logic of imperialism, with its paternalistic attitude towards occupied
peoples, required that Sambo or Gunga be perfectly 'human' in all their
dark-eyed and dependent childishness, for it was that humanity which
made them appropriate subjects of colonial control and indoctrination.
Hence, the most notorious racists of the imperial era openly admitted,
like Gobineau in The Inequality of Human Races (1853-4), that 'even the
lowest tribes are not absolutely stupid'. It meant nothing at all, he
insisted, that a particular Hottentot might be a 'good servant'. Indeed,
I actually go further than my opponents, as I have no doubt that
a fair number of negro chiefs are superior, in the wealth of their
ideas, the synthetic power of their minds, and the strength of their
capacity for actions, to the level usually reached by our
peasants, or even by the average specimens of our half-educated
middle classes (Gobineau, 1967: 180).
Such an admission not only cost Gobineau nothing, it even contributed to
his pose of 'scientific' accuracy and his dual goals of imperialism
abroad and aristocratic hegemony at home.
This history of evolving attitudes helps to answer the questions that
opened this essay: why then did the Khoikhoi become so singularly
notorious as a degraded or obnoxious people? And what does this
reputation reveal about the nature of European racism? At an early
stage, as we have considered, the Khoikhoi came closer than most peoples
to materializing a European vision of humanoid strangeness at the
borders of the world. Ultimately, however, it was how much the
Hottentots were like Europeans that caused the deepest anxiety, along
with a loathing that was simultaneously projected onto 'Hottentots' and
reflected back onto Europeans themselves. It is important to keep in
mind that the Khoikhoi were a highly sophisticated people of a form that
Europeans soon recognized. Fiercely independent and self-sufficient,
unsympathetic and even mocking towards Europeans, militarily formidable,
culturally rich and complex, sharp though honest traders who drove a
hard bargain for products the Europeans needed, Hottentots challenged at
its roots European confidence in being the natural guardians of
universal truth. At the same time, however, Europeans genuinely found
the Khoikhoi deeply distressing, and to deny this fact of ethnographic
history is simply to refuse to consider the evidence. Early travellers'
accounts reflect a degree of disgust with the dress, customs and manners
of the Khoikhoi that corresponds in no logical way with the needs of
European egotism or colonialism. The disgust appears, indeed, to have
been more or less mutual, revealing the extent to which Khoikhoi and
European cultures had developed in conflicting ways. For Europeans, at
least, the Khoikhoi presented a problem of categorization. They confused
a European vision of the world and humanity, forcing the painful process
of readjustment that lies behind virtually all the commentary -
repulsed, satiric or scientific - that we have considered.
At the end of this rather dismal rainbow lay the scientific concept of
'race', a powerful and lasting paradigm because it achieved the goal of
both amalgamating and subordinating other cultures so efficiently.
Backed by the authority of most of the eminent cultural leaders of the
nineteenth century, racial science gave an apparent coherence and
intellectual legitimacy to the scattered prejudices and fears that had
existed before, creating what can be called a genuine modern racism.
This racism, as I have maintained, involves a crucial approximation of
the Other; its psychological seduction derives from its apparent ability
to explain and to make what seems physically or culturally strange a
'normal' category in an overarching global outlook. The moral lesson of
this ethnographic history may not be what we expect, for thwarting
racism evidently involves more subtle guards than avoiding or condemning
expressions of dislike or discomfort with respect to another group
(which may in fact represent an ineluctable and even 'healthy' phase of
cultural interaction). Racism may, in fact, find its most nourishing
psychological sources in the consciously high-minded effort to reduce or
erase the sense of difference. To be alarmed by the difference of
cultural Others represents something close to a human norm; to deny the
legitimacy of this cultural difference has been the peculiarly poisonous
inclination of modern European ideology.
Many thanks to Titi Adepitan, Andrew Curran, Daniel O'Leary and Claude
Rawson for their sensitive and learned comments on previous versions of
1. On the evolution of 'race', see Hudson (1996), Stocking (1968),
Popkin (1973), Banton (1977 and 1987), Honegger (1991), Todorov (1993)
and Smedley (1993: 36-40).
2. Hottentots were widely believed to occupy a position between humans
and apes in the Great Chain of Being. See Voltaire (1877-85: 22, 210),
Long (1774: 2, 364), Smith (1788: 144). Linneaus (1758: 14) placed the
Hottentots in the class 'homo monstrosus'. But 'homo monstrosus'
differed from 'homo sapiens' by artificially induced rather than natural
3. Johan Jacob Saar (1662) and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1649), cited in
Raven-Hart (1971: 1, 63 and 67).
4. John Jourdain (1608), cited in Raven-Hart (1967: 42).
5. See also the 1670 voyage of William Hore (Raven-Hart, 1967). The
Icelandic traveller Jón Olofson assumed, without evidence, that these
were cannibalistic attacks (Raven-Hart , 1967: 111).
6. See the 1610 account of Pyrard de Laval (1610), who relied entirely
on hearsay, cited in Raven-Hart (1967: 47).
7. To what extent do these early accounts provide accurate information
on the cultural practices of the Khoikhoi during this period? This
question seems virtually unanswerable, as this culture is now extinct
and later accounts portray them in a highly Europeanized form. Richard
Elphick claims that many of the stories, like the wearing of guts, were
at least partially accurate (1985: 194). He also maintains, however,
that the Hottentots were found by the Europeans already in a state of
severe cultural decline (1985: xvii).
8. See, for example, the account of Frederick Andersen Bolling (1670),
in Raven-Hart, (1971: 1, 147).
9. On environmental theories of human modification, see Glacken (1967).
10. See, for example, the comments of Johann Wilhelm Vogel (1679) and
Guy Tachard (1685) in Raven-Hart (1971: 1, 218 and 289).
11. See Chesterfield (1892: 1, 407), letter 160 (28 February 1751, OS).
The editor of James Boswell's Life of Johnson, G. B. Hill, maintained
that Chesterfield was actually referring to Lord Lyttleton, though the
description seems far more applicable to the famously uncouth and
uncleanly Johnson. See Boswell (1934-50: 1, 266-7).
12. Le Vaillant was not alone in romanticizing the Khoikhoi during the
late eighteenth century. See also Raynal (1783: 309).
13. The virtual disappearance of 'wild' Hottentots in the vicinity of
European settlement is widely confirmed by other travellers. See De Mist
(1954: 28) and Barrow (1806: 98-100).
14. In 1813, for example, Pritchard (1973: 44) made a direct correlation
between skin colour and level of civilization, yet felt obliged to admit
that the Hottentots were both light-skinned and racially regressive.
15. Kroeber reviews the similar arguments of previous anthropologists
(1948: 155 and 215).
16. Hottentots are defined as a people 'of mixed Bushman-Hamite descent,
with some Bantu admixture'.
17. See, for example, the accounts of Wouter Shouter (1665), Georg
Meister (1677) and David Tapen (1682) in Raven-Hart (1971: 1, 85, 204,
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Nicholas Hudson is Professor of English at the University of British
Columbia. Address: Department of English, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z1, Canada [email:
nhudson at interchange.ubc.ca]
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