An investigation into the emergence of the concept of race from a history of people deemed “prehistoric’’ is the focus of a new research project jointly led by Griffith University historian Associate Professor Bruce Buchan and Dr Linda Andersson Burnett from Linnaeus University, Sweden.
The four-year $900,000 study, “Collecting Mankind: Prehistory, Race and Instructions for ‘Scientific Travellers’, circa 1750-1850”, has been funded by the Swedish Research Council as part of a special call for new research into racism and discrimination.
The project will explain why and how the Enlightenment concept of race hardened into categories of racial hierarchy at the same time as the notion of prehistory also began to take hold in European scientific thought before 1850.
Associate Professor Buchan from the Griffith Centre for Cultural and Social Research, said the project was the first historical investigation of how travelling natural historians linked race with pre-history as the predominant conceptual means to imagine other peoples as static subjects, trapped in the past.
“Given next year’s 250th commemoration of James Cook’s colonial legacy in the Pacific, the timing could not have been better,’’ he said.
“In 1770 Cook, his companions and crew came ashore at various points along the Eastern coast of a landmass he knew only as New Holland or Terra Australis Incognita, but named New South Wales when he took possession of it for King George III.”
He said it had been reported that Cook had been instructed to do so “with the consent of the natives”, and he carried handwritten ‘Hints’ from the President of the Royal Society to consider the peoples he met as “the legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit”.
“Yet Cook’s own journals testify to no such consent being given, and reveal actual violence being committed and goods taken (or ‘collected’) for sale and display in Europe.
“It is this complex and contested history that our project will explore. In doing so, we will gauge the enormous importance of the legacy of Cook’s three Pacific voyages in shaping European ideas about humanity, prehistory and race.”
Associate Professor Buchan noted that the British Government has been called the largest receiver of stolen goods in the world and that calls for apologies, reparations and compensation for slavery and colonial atrocities were mounting.
His work traces European political thought with the experience of empire and colonisation focusing on the Early Modern and Enlightenment periods. His previous work has explored concepts of political corruption, civilisation and savagery and security and insecurity.
The current project is a further development of a long-term collaboration with Linda Andersson Burnett that was previously funded by a Riksbankens Jubileumsfond project grant (2016-19) entitled: ‘The Borders of Humanity: Linnaean Natural Historians and the Colonial Legacies of Enlightenment’. Their work recently culminated in a special issue of History of the Human Sciences (volume 32, issue number 4, 2019). Read their article.