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  • Making Races
  • Edward Beasley (bio)

In the mid-1860s, the younger Charles Dilke, the grandson and namesake of the founder of Notes & Queries, set out to circle as much of the globe as he could without leaving the English-speaking world. He had, as he put it, “a conception of the grandeur of our race, already girdling the earth, which it is destined, perhaps, eventually to overspread” (Dilke vii). In 1868, he published the account of his voyage, Greater Britain. The book made his name and helped to launch his political career.

Dilke’s idea of an English “race” spanning the globe was so new that it caught people’s fancy. This idea of a single British race would have made no sense at the beginning of Victoria’s reign, thirty years before. For the word “race” had not yet taken on its modern meaning.

“Othering” was hardly new in Dilke’s time. The Victorians did not invent xenophobia, triumphalism, or other forms of ranking one’s own group above others. But they did invent a new way of understanding “race.” In the eighteenth century, the normal British practice was to judge others not by race but by how closely each group was thought to approach the British in the way they lived. How well-clothed were they? How civilized? How Christian, how energetic, how commercial? Some groups of people—lacking the invigorating influence of the British climate, British Protestantism, and the British constitution—fell far below the mark (see Wheeler).

Races in the modern sense of several large, physically inherited skin-colour groups were not often thought about within Great Britain. It is true that references to the so-called races already proliferated in British discourse when Victoria came to the throne, in 1837. But we need to be careful about reading our modern ideas about what “race” means into how the word was used at the time. In a world without any clear idea about the difference between biological and cultural heritability, people talked of the “race” of London chimney sweeps, and they distinguished separate “races” in the different ridings of Yorkshire. For Henry Mayhew, writing in the 1850s and 1860s, the racial nature of the chimney sweeps or the racial characteristics of London street people qua street people were a set of acquired cultural characteristics (Mayhew 1: 477; 2: 137–38, 364–67). But these cultural characteristics also turned into physical differences—higher cheekbones and more protuberant jaws (Mayhew 1: 1–3).

In some way, physical shape was thought to be quite mutable: people came to fit their environment and climate. The main early Victorian authority on all this, James Cowles Prichard, held for a time that early humans were black because they lived in a hot place and that other skin colours represented later adaptation to cooler climates (Stocking, Introduction li–lviii, lxxi–xc). In the 1820s, various colonial authors had considered—and some had come to accept—the proposition that the English population of sunny Australia or India would turn black (Livingstone). [End Page 48]

Almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, climate still determined race for Dilke. In his view, there remained

the American problem of whether the Englishman can live out of England. Can he thrive except where the mist and damp preserve the juices of his frame? … In Australia and America—hot and dry—the type has already changed. Will it eventually disappear?

(Dilke 391–92)

In South Australia, the climate had left the English settlers tall and thin and sunburned. They spoke from the head and no longer from the chest, Dilke said (367–69). For him, the hot, dry air had lengthened the English body and shortened the English voice. Climate could have its effect on morals as well. In the more humid, semitropical climate of Tasmania, the lack of strong winters led to laziness (358).

Even in the same book, however, Dilke was beginning to express some doubt about how much climate could do in the end. While the New Englanders were coming to resemble “the Indians they expelled … tall, taciturn, and hatchet-faced, the Coloradans of the next age should be flat-faced warriors, five feet high” (84...


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pp. 48-52
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