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  • Mining the TropicsBurton’s Brazil and the History of Empire
  • Betina González-Azcárate (bio) and Joshua Lund (bio)

Anthropos and his works are to the land he holds, what life is to the body; without them Nature lies a corpse or in a swoon.

Richard F. Burton, 1869

. . . the mines are referred to as the place of cannibals.

Rosalind Morris, 2008

Burton’s Anthropology

Captain Richard Francis Burton, in collaboration with the scholar Dr. James Hunt, inaugurated the Anthropological Society of London in 1863. Decades later, Burton would describe the project as a forum for the frank discussion of the sexual practices of savages, free from the obscenity laws that could regulate more popular media.1 A review of the Society’s own scholarly papers, however, shows a slightly different founding concern. With few studies on sexuality, the Society was an organization more explicitly dedicated to contemplating the question of human origins.2 Both the antiquity and the future of the human race, and the question of its role in nature’s plot, were mysteries addressed by the Society.3 But its guiding agenda was to advance the polygenist thesis, the idea that human beings are the result of multiple, local creations and [End Page 249] that the descendants of these local families can be divided up into contemporary species. In short, polygenesis proposed that African man and European man are different animals altogether.

Several political conclusions easily flow from the academic project of proving polygenesis. In a nutshell, however, it made a scientific case for the white man’s burden, his domination over world affairs, and, especially, his exploitation of natural resources around the globe.4 This, of course, also involved his exploitation of other men. Slavery as a natural form of civilization and the dangers of miscegenation (race-mixing) were topics high on the Society’s agenda. Polygenesis equated racial segregation with natural law, a position indicated by Rev. Frederic William Farrar in his essay “On Hybridity” when he concludes that “[it is] yet premature to assert that the union of all varieties of the human race produces an offspring continuously fertile.”5 As vice-president and local celebrity, Burton was an important spokesman for the platform that governed the Society’s scholarly profile. It was in this setting that imperial duty called, and he was appointed British consul at the port of Santos, in those years “little more than a glorified man-grove swamp” close to São Paulo, Brazil.6

Between its historical commitment to slavery7 and the social fact of its incalculable racial heterogeneity, Brazil is both fertile ground and dangerous territory for race scientists. The most famous polygenist of the day, Louis Agassiz, had already lost his good reputation there. But while Agassiz (whom Burton called “a man of pure science”)8 set out explicitly to refute Darwin, with the express intention of collecting evidence to support polygenesis, Burton’s own purely scientific interest in the anthropology of the human races collides with a related concern during his travels in Brazil: the imperial project itself, and what he perceives as its potential exhaustion. In thinking about these (and an array of other) problems, the indefatigable Burton plowed his energies into a narrative version of his experiences. The result was Explorations of the Highlands of the Brazil (1869), two fat volumes that stand alongside Letters from the Battle-Fields of Paraguay (1870) as his only books on South America.

The objective focus of Explorations is the mining industry, but [End Page 250] its larger concern is the health of the empire. Or, perhaps better, he is interested in Brazil’s mining industry insofar as it can teach us something about imperial practices. As he states in a prefatory letter of dedication to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Right Hon. Lord Stanley (Edward Stanley, an aristocrat-statesman who would eventually ascend to the Earl of Darby), the Empire has suffered from an ongoing case of bad management, and he speaks to the need for “the broad measures and solidly based policy which during the last third century have shared the fate of other good intentions” (EHB, 1:v). Solidly...


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