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The Complexion of Race

Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture

By Roxann Wheeler

Publication Year: 2000

In the 1723 Journal of a Voyage up the Gambia, an English narrator describes the native translators vital to the expedition's success as being "Black as Coal." Such a description of dark skin color was not unusual for eighteenth-century Britons—but neither was the statement that followed: "here, thro' Custom, (being Christians) they account themselves White Men." The Complexion of Race asks how such categories would have been possible, when and how such statements came to seem illogical, and how our understanding of the eighteenth century has been distorted by the imposition of nineteenth and twentieth century notions of race on an earlier period.

Wheeler traces the emergence of skin color as a predominant marker of identity in British thought and juxtaposes the Enlightenment's scientific speculation on the biology of race with accounts in travel literature, fiction, and other documents that remain grounded in different models of human variety. As a consequence of a burgeoning empire in the second half of the eighteenth century, English writers were increasingly preoccupied with differentiating the British nation from its imperial outposts by naming traits that set off the rulers from the ruled; although race was one of these traits, it was by no means the distinguishing one. In the fiction of the time, non-European characters could still be "redeemed" by baptism or conversion and the British nation could embrace its mixed-race progeny. In Wheeler's eighteenth century we see the coexistence of two systems of racialization and to detect a moment when an older order, based on the division between Christian and heathen, gives way to a new one based on the assertion of difference between black and white.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: New Cultural Studies


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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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Introduction. The Empire of Climate: Categories of Race in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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pp. 1-48

WHEN present-day North Americans and Britons think about race, we are likely to default automatically to skin color. Preconceptions about skin color and about other differences between what we now call races are so ingrained in our contemporary culture that many of us hardly think twice about the complexity of the...

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1. Christians, Savages, and Slaves: From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic

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pp. 49-89

AN analysis of Daniel Defoe's Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and its critical tradition exemplifies the way that a theory of multiplicity helps to recover the emergent character of race in the early eighteenth century. Because skin color became a more important racial category to the British only later...

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2. Racializing Civility: Violence and Trade in Africa

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pp. 90-136

UNTIL the mid-1990s, critics and theorists alike tended to equate the analysis of race with the study of the European representation of Africans and black skin color; accordingly, most previous studies of race during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries investigated European writing about black Africans or privileged...

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3. Romanticizing Racial Difference: Benevolent Subordination and the Midcentury Novel

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pp. 137-175

DEFOE's Robinson Crusoe and Captain Singleton, as well as many other early eighteenth-century narratives, punctuate their tales of colonial encounters and imperial adventure with interracial sex. The numerous sexual liaisons between European men and Other women allow us to see it as constitutive of European...

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4. Consuming Englishness: On the Margins of Civil Society

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pp. 176-233

IN publications of the 1770s and later, it was not unusual for Englishmen writing about colonial policy to refer to theories of human variety in making their recommendations, especially in the ongoing discussions about the East Indies. References...

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5. The Politicization of Race: The Specter of the Colonies in Britain

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pp. 234-287

THROUGH criticism of the trend, the epigraphs convey the significance Britons placed on the body's exterior, an attention that was especially remarkable in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. The epigraphs also indicate how natural history categories helped in the enumeration of minute differences among...

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Epilogue. Theorizing Race and Racism in the Eighteenth Century

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pp. 288-302

IN eighteenth-century Britain, the ideology of human variety broadly changed from being articulated primarily through religious difference, which included such things as political governance and civil life, to being articulated primarily through scientific categories derived from natural history that featured external characteristics of the human body—color, facial features, and hair texture....


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pp. 303-361


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pp. 363-368

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pp. 369-371

THIS book bears the traces of the teachers, mentors, and friends whose ways of thinking profoundly influenced my own. Without the theoretically informed and politically motivated feminists at Syracuse University in the late 19805 and early 19905,...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200140
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812217223

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2000

Series Title: New Cultural Studies
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OCLC Number: 759158231
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Complexion of Race

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Race awareness -- Great Britain -- History -- 18th century.
  • English fiction -- 18th century -- History and criticism.
  • Difference (Psychology) -- History -- 18th century.
  • Great Britain -- Social conditions -- 18th century.
  • Great Britain -- Race relations -- History -- 18th century.
  • Great Britain -- Civilization -- 18th century.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
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