- "The Fairest Lady": Gender and Race in William Byrd's "Account of a Negro-Boy that is dappel'd in several Places of his Body with White Spots" (1697)
- Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies
- University of Pennsylvania Press
- Volume 18, Number 1, Winter 2018
- pp. 159-179
- View Citation
- Additional Information
William Byrd II grew up on his father's slave plantation in Virginia, secured his place in the Royal Society through publishing an "Account of a Negro-Boy" in the Philosophical Transactions in 1697, and inherited the plantations in 1704. The "Account" and his later diaries provide evidence that natural philosophy was one means by which Byrd established his authority as a colonist. The earlier "Account" displays Byrd's unstable but determined efforts to distinguish between white and black, even though his analysis seems to call this distinction into question. Byrd apparently supports the climate theory when he describes the nameless young man's "White Spots" as "equal to the Skin of the fairest Lady," and when he predicts that "he may in time become all over white." His comparison to the "fairest Lady" also differentiates the young man from Byrd, a distinction Byrd affirms through his subsequent satire targeting the vanity of this stock upper-class figure. His later diary presents the science of skin color as a cultural ritual that reinforced the power of the slave owner. This article reveals, in the case of Byrd's "Account," a striking example of how the gathering of knowledge by European scientists in the colonies was also an effort to establish their right to rule over subjugated people.