Black History Month Post: ‘All Englishmen Were Not Shakespeares’: William Craft’s Attack on Scientific Racism in Britain

Ellen (disguised as a disabled gentleman traveler) and William (as her slave).

Ellen (disguised as a disabled gentleman traveler) and William (as her slave). As imagined by artist Judith Hunt, www.judithhuntillustrations.blogspot.com.

In 1863, scientist and anthropologist Dr James Hunt read a paper entitled ‘On the Negro’s Place in Nature’ to a meeting of the British Association in Newcastle. Hunt quoted skeletal and anatomical data to argue people of African descent were inferior, and claimed black men and women were unintelligent because they had thick skulls. To Hunt’s surprise, formerly enslaved African American William Craft – who was sitting in the audience – swiftly challenged his theories. Craft turned Hunt’s statistical analysis into a joke and claimed God had arranged for these supposed thick skulls otherwise ‘[our] brains would probably have become very much like those of many scientific gentlemen of the present day.’ A horrified and incensed Hunt finished his speech with the laughter of the audience ringing in his ears, frustrated he had been outwitted by someone who represented (to the audience at least) the antithesis of his theories.[1] Craft’s public act of humiliating Hunt was a powerful confirmation of his strength and identity, and he seized this chance and used logic, wit and intelligence to win over his audience and to challenge the foundations of racial science.

william

William and his wife Ellen.

My PhD analyses the influence of African Americans on British society, how they impacted transatlantic reform networks and the myriad ways they fought against British racism. I argue these black men and women enacted a resistance strategy via a medium of performance which exhibited not the scarred black body of abolitionist rhetoric, but the black desire for, and ownership of, self-mastery, identity and their independence. What better way to celebrate Black History Month then remember some of the ways in which African Americans challenged traditional white spaces and humiliated British racists.

In nineteenth century Britain, a racial hierarchy began to crystallise and the Europeans were ranked the highest and most civilised since progress was inextricably linked to racial superiority. The ‘lower races were dismissed as frozen relics of an earlier stage in the upward progress from the apes.’ Cultural and racial inferiority complemented each other: if a race had not advanced itself through technological change, this was regarded as an innate failure to produce a race that would equal the European. His natural inferiority and cultural incompetence became intertwined: his race, poised between savagery and civilisation, was not intelligent enough to advance to the stage of Europeans.[2]

According to Dr James Hunt, people of African descent remained ‘frozen’ in this stage, and he or she was ‘nearer [in] approach to the ape than the European.’ Black men and women’s ‘hips [were] narrow, the thighs laterally compressed, the fingers of hand long and flat, the thumb long and very weak, the teeth hard and the molars usually very large.’ Furthermore, the African brain was smaller and ‘the brain both of negro and ape more resembled that of the European when the latter was in an infant state than when older’ as the brain of the African stopped maturing after puberty. Hence, the growth of intelligence was slow and stunted and there ‘was not a single instance of any pure negro being’ of intelligence as those who had become famous ‘could be proved to have had European blood in their veins.’[3] For example, the exceptional talents of famous African Americans such as Frederick Douglass were explained away because Douglass had European blood in his veins (his father was a white man).

Hunt had no idea he would be challenged by Craft, who had lived in Britain since 1850 after himself and his wife Ellen had fled from slavery. The Crafts had become celebrities, and William lectured in antislavery and social reform meetings across the country. In this meeting of the Association in 1863, Craft was to give a report on his recent visit to Dahomey (modern day Benin) where he believed cotton could be grown by free labour, thereby relinquishing Britain’s dependence on slave-grown cotton from the American South. In the end however, the British press concentrated on Craft’s brilliant speeches, particularly when he fiercely rejected the hierarchy of the races. He wanted to prove to British audiences that black people had ‘made very rapid progress when placed in advantageous circumstances.’ He used the example of Haiti to convey black people’s independence and mental capacity, and argued the white man’s oppression of black people made it harder to prove what they were capable of.[4] Craft argued African Americans had always showed intelligence and progression whenever they were given equal opportunities with whites, and with hard-hitting wit declared ‘all Englishmen were not Shakespeares.’[5] A humiliated Hunt did not rise to defend himself again, and subsequently became wary of publishing his racial theories in the wake of the Association. Craft had successfully dented his confidence and used public opinion to openly mock his beliefs.

For Black History Month and far beyond, we should remember that people of African descent were – and are – very much active agents in controlling their own destinies, and their attempts to publicly exploit or mock racism defiantly challenge the white racial schema. 

References

[1] William Craft, National Anti-Slavery Standard, 26 Sept. 1863, [Online: Black Abolitionist Archive, University of Detroit Mercy], accessed 8 July 2015. http://research.udmercy.edu/find/special_collections/digital/baa/item.php?record_id=2482&collectionCode=baa

[2] Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, pp.285; 299-303.

[3] James Hunt, ‘On the Negro’s Place in Nature,’ Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, vol.2, (1864), pp.xv-xvi.

[4] William Craft, National Anti-Slavery Standard, 26 Sept. 1863.

[5] ‘Anthropology at the British Association,’ Anthropological Review, published by the Royal Anthropological Institute of GB and Ireland, Vol. 1., No. 3 (Nov. 1863), pp.408-410.

About Hannah-Rose Murray

Hannah Rose Murray completed her BA History at University College London in 2011 and the following year, she studied for a Masters in Public History at Royal Holloway University. Hannah started a project on Frederick Douglass in 2012 and after two years research on his impact on Britain, she is due to start a PhD in American Studies at the University of Nottingham in September 2014. Check out her website at - https://sites.google.com/site/frederickdouglassinbritain/
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