Thursday 17 September 2009

The Foundations of English Racism

Continental-style racial theories made their way into England from about 1840 onwards. One of the earliest exponents was none other than Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School, and a leading historian. He advanced a universal theory of world history, in which he assigned a special role to the Aryans, specifically the Germanic races, which included, of course, the Anglo-Saxons. Race theories in general made their way into the oddest corners of British intellectual life. Consider the following;

You never observe a great intellectual movement in Europe in which the Jews do not greatly participate. The first Jesuits were Jews; that mysterious Russian diplomacy which so alarms Western Europe is organised and principally carried on by Jews; that mighty revolution which is at this moment preparing in Germany, and which will be, in fact, a second and greater Reformation, and of which so little is as yet known in England, is entirely developing under the auspices of Jews, who almost monopolise the professional chairs in Germany...

Who wrote that? Why, none other than Benjamin Disraeli in his 1844 novel Coningsby, and himself of Jewish origin.. His view, for all its fancy, was benign: it was, nevertheless, to find a malign echo in the coming development of European anti-Semitism.

But we have to go further north, to Edinburgh, in fact, to discover the man who has been described as the "real founder of British racism." His name was Robert Knox, a leading anatomist and an anthropologist, best known now as the chief client of the Edinburgh body-snatchers, Burke and Hare. His published work included The Races of Men, in which he described the Jewish race as 'sterile parasites.'

For Knox, race was the key to all human activity-"...that the race in human affairs is everything, is simply a fact, the most comprehensive, which philosophy has ever announced. Race is everything: literature, science, art-in a word, civilization depends on it." The highest races were the Germans, the Saxons, and the Celts; the lowest were Black Africans. Though now Knox's work is almost completely forgotten, it was widely admired at the time, by Charles Darwin, among others


  1. You're blaming English racism on a Scot? Figures :)

  2. And Darwin also had a thing about blondes, Ana.

  3. Good morning, Ana,

    I have no problem with the concept of race ; in fact, I think race is a beautiful thing. The notion that one belongs to a stream of people which emerges out of the remote past is an attractive description of what actually happens, and a major part of that attraction is the realization that the stream is composed of individuals, real people who led real lives and performed real deeds that stemmed from real thoughts and ideas. In a sense I know these people, even though they might have lived many centuries ago and are nameless to me.

    I have little time for people who try to explain race away. Typically they do this by appealing to the common roots of all humanity. But the common roots, while uniting all humanity in their humanness, do not indicate sameness in the branches and fruits of the tree of life. If they did, then there would be no differences between a person and a platypus, or a cat and a cow.

    Similarly, attempts have been made to point to the substantially identical dna of all humanity ; because our dna is substantially the same, then we are all the same. But, again, there is a fault in the logic here. One might as well say that, because an iron pot has the same molecular structure as an iron kettle, then there are no differences between pots and kettles. Indeed, there would be no differences between pots, kettles and iron bridges.

    It seems to me that the error in these attempts explain away race stem from selecting a particular level of analysis to the exclusion of all others. Such attempts are frightfully rational, analytical and scientific. But they are also wrong-headed and, like much science, are really rather dull. They miss most of the magic and the mystery of the world by reducing our thinking to simplicities. In fact, these simple levels of analysis are chosen precisely because they can be understood by simple people.

    I must here enter the obligatory caveat, so that the simple-minded do not become confused, and I do so without reservation. There is no necessary connection between loving the concept of race and the hating of particular races. It is a fine thing to admire the history and accomplishments of one's own race, where such admiration is justified ; it is a fine thing to take a modest pride in one's own ancestry and to believe it better than others'. But it is a paltry thing to fail to justify the admiration and pride that people of other races feel ; and a disgusting thing to hate people merely on grounds of race. In fact, hatred of anything except evil is abhorrent.

  4. Well, not quite, Quiet Man. :-)

    Yes, blondes do have more fun, Toque!

    Thanks for that interesting and thoughtful response, Jamie. I also like the idea of ‘belonging’, of being part of a people, of a culture and of a tradition going back for centuries. I just wonder if ‘race’ is at all meaningful as an explanatory concept, even as a form of shorthand; it’s just so hopelessly vague. It’s possible to talk in grand terms of the ‘human race’ or the ‘white race’ or that ‘black race’ without any sense of precision. It’s all…and it’s nothing.

    But let’s try to reduce this to concrete terms. Can we talk of a British race? I would have though not, at least not in biological terms, as Britain, modern Britain, is really an artificial political creation; it unites certain traditions, yes, but it did not and could not create a new ethnic identity.

    I suppose we move on to more solid grounds if we start talking about, to take but two examples, the Scottish or the English race. But the former seems to me to be highly problematic for the simple reason that ‘Scottishness’ is such an elusive concept when it comes to ethnicity. The Scots have a clear political and cultural identity, there is no mistake about that, but do they have a racial identity, or, better expressed, an identity of themselves as a race? Even the English are an amalgam of different biological streams, Germanic, Celtic and French. Yes, I suppose it is possible to say that a new race, just as a new language, emerged out of this process of transformation and change. It would seem to me to be erroneous, though, to assume, that a state of ‘purity’ has been attained because evolution, and adaptation, is a continuous process. Is it possible, do you think, to define what it is to be English beyond a community of people living in a given space and speaking a common language? If one introduces the migrants from the old Commonwealth and the new Europe the whole thing just becomes too horribly problematic.

    Let me give you one example of an individual who took an entirely sceptical view of race. In responding the Nazi Aryan theory Mussolini said that it was all so much nonsense as ‘races’ and nations are made up of several elements. In his estimation the only ‘pure’ race in Europe was the Laps. Not far wrong, I think.

    I think I might blog on the subject of race on the MyT site later this week, someting along the lines of my response to you. So, keep looking!