Special Issue of HHS: “Knowing savagery: Humanity in the circuits of colonial knowledge”

The October issue of History of the Human Sciences is now online. This special issue is devoted to “Knowing savagery: Humanity in the circuits of colonial knowledge.” Full title, author, and abstract information is provided below.

“Knowing savagery: Humanity in the circuits of colonial knowledge,” by Bruce Buchan, Linda Andersson Burnett. Abstract:

How was ‘savagery’ constituted as a field of colonial knowledge? As Europe’s empires expanded, their reach was marked not only by the colonisation of new territories but by the colonisation of knowledge. Path-breaking scholarship since the 1990s has shown how European knowledge of colonised territories and peoples developed from diverse travel writings, missionary texts, and exploration narratives from the 16th century onwards (Abulafia, 2008; Armitage, 2000; De Campos Françozo, 2017; Pratt, 1992). Of prime importance in this work has been the investigation of the pre-positioning of colonised peoples within categories derived from European traditions of historical, religious, legal, and political thought as either ‘savages’ or ‘barbarians’ (Richardson, 2018; Sebastiani, 2013).

“Iberian missionaries in God’s vineyard: Enlarging humankind and encompassing the globe in the Renaissance,” by Antonella Romano. Abstract:

During the century of colonial expansion by the Iberian monarchies, the presence of the Church alongside the colonizers was not just a logical continuation of the medieval idea of the good prince who was advised and accompanied by men of faith. It also underlined the political dimension of the ‘spiritual conquest’ and the equally political dimension of the cultural practices accompanying it. There are numerous works that have emphasized this with regard to the American continents in particular, where the connection between the forces present, which quickly led to the destruction and subjugation of the local populations, brought about Spanish colonial domination over large swathes of the ‘West Indies’. Those scholars who have concentrated on the ‘East Indies’, and China in particular, have emphasized acculturation or accommodation, highlighting the cultural rather than the political dimension of contact. This article explores the significant asymmetries in the understanding of humankind developed by the missionaries in their analyses of the Americas and the East Indies. These asymmetries stemmed largely from their distinct roles and functions in the process of colonial or imperial contact. I argue that these asymmetries obscure our understanding of what missionaries contributed to the global circulation of knowledge of lands and peoples new to Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, in part by defining ‘savagery’ and locating it mostly in the ‘West Indies’.

“Rethinking savagery: Slavery experiences and the role of emotions in Oldendorp’s mission ethnography,” by Jacqueline Van Gent. Abstract:

By the late 18th century, the Moravian mission project had grown into a global enterprise. Moravian missionaries’ personal and emotional engagements with the people they sought to convert impacted not only on their understanding of Christianity, but also caused them to rethink the nature of civilization and humanity in light of their frontier experiences. In this article I discuss the construction of ‘savagery’ in the mission ethnography of C. G. A. Oldendorp (1721–87). Oldendorp’s journey to slave-holding societies in the Danish West Indies, where Moravian missions had been established in the 1730s, and his own experiences of the violence of these societies had such an impact on him that his proto-ethnographic descriptions of all the inhabitants of the Danish West Indies – from slaves to slaveholders – broke with traditional representations of savagery. He suggested two different paths for emotional transformation: one for slaves, and another for slaveholders. His views aligned with those of the later abolitionists, yet he was writing sixty years before those movements first gained public momentum in Great Britain. In many ways, therefore, this early mission ethnography reshaped contemporary understandings of ‘savagery’. I consider how Oldendorp did this in relation to a Moravian theology of the heart and love of Christ, the emerging Scottish Enlightenment philosophy of ‘love of humanity’ and its use in colonial encounters between missionaries and local people, and especially the emotions that were provoked by the extreme violence of the slavery system in this colonial contact zone.

“Different ways of seeing ‘savagery’: Two Nordic travellers in 18th-century North America,” by Gunlög Fur. Abstract:

Andreas Hesselius and Pehr Kalm both spent time in eastern North America during the first half of the 18th century. Both came with an ardent desire to observe and learn about the natural environment and inhabitants of the region. Both produced writings, in the form of journals that have proved immensely useful to subsequent scholars. Yet their writings also display differences that illuminate the epistemological and sociological underpinnings of their observations, and which had consequences for their encounters with foreign environments. Hesselius, who served as pastor to the Swedish congregation in Philadelphia from 1712 to 1724, described his experiences and observations with what we might call a historical awareness, while Kalm, known as the first of Linnaeus’s students to travel to the New World, primarily offered dehistoricized and denarrativized taxonomic ethnographic descriptions. At first glance, Hesselius and Kalm appear to illustrate perfectly Michel Foucault’s description of the difference between Renaissance and classical epistemologies. Kalm’s disembodied and decontextualized representations fit well with Foucault’s description of natural history in the classical age as consisting ‘of undertaking a meticulous examination of things themselves…and then of transcribing what it has gathered in smooth, neutralized, and faithful words’. This article, however, points out that while Hesselius and Kalm arrive at similar descriptions of plants and other-than-human beings by employing different methodologies, when it comes to describing indigenous peoples their respective methodologies lead to radically different approaches, with Hesselius writing them into history, while Kalm relegates them to ethnology in the sense of savage ‘peoples without histories’.

“From Eden to savagery and civilization: British colonialism and humanity in the development of natural history, ca. 1600–1840,” by Sarah Irving-Stonebraker. Abstract:

This article is concerned with the relationship between British colonization and the intellectual underpinnings of natural history writing between the 17th and the early 19th centuries. During this period, I argue, a significant discursive shift reframed both natural history and the concept of humanity. In the early modern period, compiling natural histories was often conceived as an endeavour to understand God’s creation. Many of the natural historians involved in the early Royal Society of London were driven by a theological conviction that the New World contained the natural knowledge once possessed by Adam, but lost in the Fall from Eden. By the early 19th century, however, this theological framework for natural history had been superseded by an avowedly progressive vision of the relationship between humanity and nature. No longer ontologically distinct from the rest of creation, the human became a subject of natural history writing in a new way. Encounters between colonizers and colonized thus became a touchstone for tensions between divine and natural historical knowledge. The resolution of these tensions lay in the emergence of a concept of savagery that imbibed both a rational account of historical progress towards civilization and a religious conviction that savage humanity needed rescue from its animal nature.

“A ‘monster with human visage’: The orangutan, savagery, and the borders of humanity in the global Enlightenment,” by Silvia Sebastiani. Abstract:

To what extent did the debate on the orangutan contribute to the global Enlightenment? This article focuses on the first 150 years of the introduction, dissection, and public exposition of the so-called ‘orangutan’ in Europe, between the 1630s, when the first specimens arrived in the Netherlands, and the 1770s, when the British debate about slavery and abolitionism reframed the boundaries between the human and animal kingdoms. Physicians, natural historians, antiquarians, philosophers, geographers, lawyers, and merchants all contributed to the knowledge of the orangutan, while also reshaping the boundaries of humanity: when the human/animal divide narrowed, the divide between ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ peoples crystallized, becoming wider than in any previous period.

“Globalizing the savage: From stadial theory to a theory of luxury in late-18th-century Swedish discussions of Africa,” by Hanna Hodacs, Mathias Persson. Abstract:

This article examines the effects of globalization on changing notions of the ‘savage’. We compare discussions taking place in different contexts in the late 18th century concerning two Swedish scholars and travellers to Africa: Anders Sparrman (1748–1820), a naturalist and Linnaean disciple, and Carl Bernhard Wadström (1746–99), an engineer and economist. Both moved in Swedish Swedenborgian circles, and both became involved in the British abolitionist movement. Nevertheless, their images of African ‘Others’ diverged in crucial respects, reflecting differences in their ideological outlooks, institutional affiliations, and understandings of how the world was changing. More specifically, we argue that the perception of global change brought about by a new economic framework of production and consumption provides a key for reading and comparing Wadström’s and Sparrman’s texts. Comparing their divergent uses of ‘savagery’, the article also highlights the versatility of the savage as a tool for presenting distant parts of the world to a domestic audience.

“Knowing savagery: Australia and the anatomy of race,” by Bruce Buchan, Linda Andersson Burnett. Abstract:

When Australia was circumnavigated by Europeans in 1801–02, French and British natural historians were unsure how to describe the Indigenous peoples who inhabited the land they charted and catalogued. Ideas of race and of savagery were freely deployed by both British and French, but a discursive shift was underway. While the concept of savagery had long been understood to apply to categories of human populations deemed to be in want of more historically advanced ‘civilisation’, the application of this term in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was increasingly being correlated with the emerging terminology of racial characteristics. The terminology of race was still remarkably fluid, and did not always imply fixed physical or mental endowments or racial hierarchies. Nonetheless, by means of this concept, natural historians began to conceptualise humanity as subject not only to historical gradations, but also to the environmental and climatic variations thought to determine race. This in turn meant that the degree of savagery or civilisation of different peoples could be understood through new criteria that enabled physical classification, in particular by reference to skin colour, hair, facial characteristics, skull morphology, or physical stature: the archetypal criteria of race. While race did not replace the language of savagery, in the early years of the 19th century savagery was re-inscribed by race.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.