Exhibiting Degeneracy: The Aztec Children and the Ruins of Race
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Exhibiting Degeneracy: The Aztec Children and the Ruins of Race Robert D. Alguirre Eighteen fifty-three was a banner year for London shows: the nation's first public aquarium opened in Regent's Park; a pair of massive winged bulls from Assyria arrived in the British Museum; Robert Burford's 1826 panorama of Mexico City was re-exhibited in Leicester Square (Burford); and Maximo and Bartola, two children from El Salvador , appeared on the London stage as the "Aztec Children" (fig. 1). Queen Victoria received the children in chambers; scientists measured their small heads (they were microcephalics); daguerreotypists burned their image into a still-novel medium. The public thronged to glimpse "The only Aztecs yet introduced to civilized white people!" (The Aztecs!); those unable to attend the live flgure 1 _ ndon (TosgerLibrary of Harvard College Library, Harvara University) examination performed shortly after the children's arrival in London, Richard Owen measured the children's limbs, teeth, and heads; he concluded that the children were "hemi-cephalic monsters" (134), a point he sealed by appending an engraving comparing Maximo's profile to the skull of an idiot preserved in St. Bartholomew's Hospital (fig. 4). This distorted image mirrors those used in nineteenth-century racial atlases. Stephen Jay Gould points out that in Samuel Morton's CraniaAmericana (1839), R. Aguirre the lithographer tilted back a Native American skull to suggest that it was less "vaulted" and therefore "smaller and more 'primitive'" than the skull of a white male to which it was contrasted ("Human" 189).9 An apparendy "objective" image thus reinforces Morton's thesis that Indians "for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects" (81). The Native American skull, however, only appears less vaulted when placed next to the European skull, which is oriented conventionally. Race, as Nancy Stepan puts it, was a "contrastive concept" (95); just as the abnormal body was measured against its healthy counterpar—figured by Henry Gray's Anatomy (1858)—any one race could only be understood by contrast to another. Yet Owen's illustration, like a stereoscopic image, also draws Maximo and the idiot boy together. By placing him next to a drawing of a skull, grossly enlarged to emphasize his microcephaly, Owen's image transforms him into a specimen case, mere data. He has been reduced, quite literally, to an illustration. The grinning skull mocks, prophesying Maximo's physical death and the symbolic annihilation of his subject-hood. Robert Knox's "Some Remarks on the Aztecque [sic] and Bosjieman Children" (1855), which appeared in the prestigious medical journal, The Uzncet, transforms Owen's conclusions into a set of generalized traits applicable to all Latin Americans.10 Philip D. Curtin describes Knox, who received his medical training in Edinburgh and Paris, as one of the "key figures in the general Western movement towards a dogmatic pseudo-scientific racism" (377; cf. Richards "Moral"). The Races of Men (1850) insists, famously, that "Race is everything: literature, science, art—in a word, civilization, depends on it" (v). These views accorded with the school of polygenist anthropology that rose to prominence in the 1850s and found its institutional base in the Anthropological Society of London, founded by Knox's disciple, James Hunt. Like J. B. Davis, Knox emphasized the value of archaeological research, especially in proving the pertinacity of racial traits. Accordingly, his examination of the children points up the "unmistakable resemblance" between their profiles and images of ancient Central American peoples inscribed on monuments (358). 54volume 29 number 2 Exhibiting Degeneracy Were it not for the "rude" sculptures and paintings archaeologists have brought to light, he argues, the "existence of a race, with such a configuration of features and head, would have been questioned and the possibility denied" (358). For Knox, archaeological evidence suggests that the ancient Central Americans "bear a marked resemblance to the form of idiotic head, which occasionally appears in all the races of men; it consists in a remarkably convex outline of face, small cranium, and retreating chin" (358). These conclusions comport with the European denigration of American indigenes from the eighteenth century forward, but Knox breaks new ground in his theory of "interrupted descent," whereby...