Johns Hopkins University Press

Treatment of European and African hair radically differed in the time of slavery: the former sentimentally preserved in mourning jewelry and keepsakes, the latter shaved off in preparation for the slave-ship hold. This essay considers some examples of how hair functioned as a racial marker. While hair texture was used to establish boundaries between races, hair styling emerged a site of racial contamination where these boundaries threatened to dissolve as white people "frizzled" their hair to make it curly, while Black people shaped their Afro hair so as to mimic the aristocratic hairstyles of white Europeans.


Hair Culture, Race, the Middle Passage, William Blake, Edward Long, Scientific Taxonomy

Warning: This essay contains citations of racist ideas and language.

Race is a cultural construct masquerading as a natural fact. hair, on the other hand, is a natural fact that takes on cultural significance when it is being styled or cut off for other uses, be it as private memento, magical fetish, or anonymous padding for a wig or hair-do. "Emerging from the flesh and thus both of, and without the body—at once corporeal and a mere lifeless extension—hair occupies an extraordinary position, mediating between the natural and the cultural," Angela Rosenthal has noted with reference to the role of hair in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European culture.1 Taking its cue from hair's position at the intersection between nature and culture, this essay considers a wide range of examples—drawn from major writers like Frances Burney, Edward Long, and William Blake, as well as satirical prints, travel narratives, and private letters—to indicate how Afro-textured hair functioned as a racial marker in the century 1750–1850, a period that witnessed the height of Romanticism and of the transatlantic slave trade. It demonstrates that, while European hair was put to commemorative or decorative uses, the denigration of African hair was a significant step in an individual's transformation from person to chattel, or from human to scientific specimen.


In a study of eighteenth-century hair jewelry, Christiane Holm has described the moment of cutting off hair for preservation as a rite de passage in which hair's "natural status was transformed into a cultural status."2 In European culture, this status was primarily sentimental. Leigh Hunt, the Romantic era's foremost collector of hair from famous people, claimed that "as we have touched the hair, we have touched the person."3 Whether kept folded up in a locket or mounted in a piece of mourning jewelry, hair has the power to make an absent person present. The memorial preservation of European hair [End Page 79] forms the backdrop against which I propose to read the treatment of African hair in the period. In many of the West African cultures from which slaves were taken, hair was imbued with complex cultural significance. Hair styles were used to indicate personal characteristics such as social and marital status, tribal affiliation, age, profession, or religion. In preparation for the slave-ship hold, captured Africans had their hair shaved off: while the immediate motive was hygiene, the act of shaving anticipated the social and cultural death that awaited at the far end of their passage across the Atlantic. "Arriving without their signature hairstyles, Mandingos, Fulanis, Ibos, and Ashantis entered the New World, just as the Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel," Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps write in their history of African American hair.4 This casting off of black hair serves to curtail and control the richness of African hair cultures and can therefore be interpreted symbolically as a ritual that expunges Africans from the body of history: their hair is biomass that cannot be transformed into cultural artefact. The act of shaving a newly enslaved person's head thus played a crucial role in the attempted eradication of African cultural heritage that accompanied the process of turning human beings into chattel.

Given its position on the boundary between nature and culture, it is perhaps not surprising that hair occupied an important position in debates about race, with some writers insisting that Africans grew wool rather than hair. Edward Long's History of Jamaica (1774) illustrates the political significance of describing Afro-textured hair as wool. The History serves to defend and naturalize the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans to work on Jamaican plantations. "The planters do not want to be told, that their Negroes are human creatures," Long observes and his own account of Africans is calculated to prove this point.5 The first characteristic he singles out is skin color, the second: "A covering of wool, like the bestial fleece, instead of hair."6 The wording is significant—African hair is not curly like wool, it is wool instead of hair. "To call an African man's hair 'wool' because it is curly is to implicitly (or perhaps not just implicitly) insert the African into the order of animal nature, alongside other objects of study such as goats and ibexes," Justin E. H. Smith writes in his historical ontology of racial discourse, adding that such taxonomic classifications arise "from a definitional choice, prior to the observation of physical differences"—the same naturalists who described African hair as wool did not describe European hair as pelt, for instance.7 [End Page 80]

Any scientific attempt to establish a taxonomy of Homo Sapiens was haunted by the existence of racialized slavery within European empires: if naturalists could prove that the enslaved belonged to a slightly less human species than their enslavers, then they would have less of a claim to humane treatment. The nature of African hair remained a key point of contention in these debates. Three-quarters of a century after Long's History, in the same year that W. M. Thackeray introduced "Miss Swartz, the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt's" as a minor character in Vanity Fair (1848),8 James Cowles Prichard published a two-volume Natural History of Man (1848) in which he sought to investigate the "nature of the crisp, and, so termed, woolly appearance of the hair in the Negro."9 Here, too, the wording is significant: Afro-textured hair is of an appearance that is "so termed, woolly"—it is not wool. By demonstrating that Africans have hair and not wool on their heads, Prichard sought to prove that they have the same "race and origin" as white Europeans. He describes his empirical method as follows:

A careful observation, with the aid of the microscope, will convince every body who makes it, if I am not much mistaken, that the hair of the African is not wool, but merely a curled and twisted hair. I have seen and examined the filaments of hair belonging to different races of men, and have compared them with filaments of wool from the Southdown sheep with the assistance of Mr. Eatlin, who is skilful and long practised in the use of the microscope, with the aid of glasses magnifying about 400 times…. From these observations I am convinced that the Negro has hair properly so termed, and not wool.10

The following year, Peter A. Browne delivered a lecture before the American Ethnological Society with a title whose scare quotes take aim at the most provocative part of Prichard's argument: The Classification of Mankind, by the Hair and Wool of their Heads, with an Answer to Dr. Prichard's Assertion, that "The Covering of the Head of the Negro is Hair, properly so termed, and not Wool." Browne likewise summarizes the results of his microscopic investigation of cross-sections of hair, but he reaches the opposite conclusion to Prichard: "And since the white man has hair upon his head, and the negro has wool, we have no hesitancy in pronouncing that they belong to two different species."11 [End Page 81] The unstated implication is of course that if Africans belong to a woolly sheep-like species, it is morally justifiable to use them like cattle.


According to Christian iconography, Jesus is the Lamb of God. Although this symbolism is rarely, if ever, evoked by the naturalists who claim that African hair is wool, it does have the potential to disrupt the dehumanizing aspect of this designation. One may, for instance, think of William Blake's racially ambiguous chimney sweepers: "my father sold me" says the narrator of "The Chimney Sweeper" in the Songs of Innocence, before telling us of his friend "little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head / That curl'd like a lambs back was shav'd."12 Sold and shaved, these two chimney sweepers could be read as stand-ins for the thousands of "woolly-haired" Africans who were likewise sold and shaved—yet the analogy breaks down when the narrator comforts Tom with the words "Hush Tom never mind it, for when your head's bare / You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair." Being bald, Tom can be assured that his lamb-like locks will not become sooty black. As the poem goes on, the blackness of soot becomes legible as the visible expression of evil: "that very night" Tom has a dream in which an Angel comes and releases him and "thousands of sweepers" from the "coffins of black" where they have been locked up. Now the little chimney sweepers can "run / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun" ensuring that they are all "naked & white" before ascending to Heaven. Blackness must be purged to gain access to Paradise.

The association of blackness with moral pollution also holds true for "The little black boy" in Blake's poem of that name. This African boy has the misfortune of being born to a mother who teaches him that "White as an angel is the English child," while his own black body and "sun-burnt face / Is but a cloud" that will vanish once he has tempered his soul in preparation for God's calling. The poem closes with the little black boy's vision of future redemption when he and the "little English boy" (Tom Dacre, perhaps?) will rejoice "like lambs" in front of God's "golden tent." But the poem's redemptive ending is undercut by the African boy's servile relation to his English playmate. "Ill shade him from the heat," he says. "And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair, / And be like him and he will then love me."13 Even in his own Paradise, the little black boy only [End Page 82] wishes to serve and ape his white "friend" so as to gain the latter's condescending affection.14


In the eighteenth century, lamb's wool was sometimes used in the dressing of white hair: in order to achieve the high styles in vogue in the 1760s and 1770s, a cushion made of wool was pinned to the top of the head and then covered by the person's own hair as well as extensions (usually the hair of poor women from across Europe). Heather v. Vermeulen puts Long's insistence on African hair being wool alongside his condemnation of "the late preposterous mode of dressing female hair in London, half a yard perpendicular height, fastened with some score of heavy iron pins, on a bundle of wool large enough to stuff a chair bottom."15 She notes that "Long's disdainful account of Englishwomen piling their hair upon 'wool' prompts recollection of this other 'wool'—his designation for the hair of African persons. That which creeps into Long's account … is a sense of (racialized) contamination."16

The danger of such contamination also resonates in another term used in eighteenth-century hairdressing: frizzing or frizzling, a process whereby volume was added to straight hair to enable it to be combed up and over the wool cushion, either through back-combing or by curling the hair into "small crisp curls."17 Frances Burney's Evelina describes how she was prepared for her first evening assembly in London:

I have just had my hair dressed. You can't think how oddly my head feels; full of powder and black pins, and a great cushion on top of it…. When I shall be able to make use of a comb for myself I cannot tell, for my hair is so much entangled, frizled they call it, that I fear it will be very difficult.18 [End Page 83]

"Frizly" is also the word that Robert Kerr chose to translate contortuplicatis, the term that Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné) had used to designate African hair, in his 1792 translation of Linnaeus's Systema Naturæ 10th ed. (1758–59).19 The tenth edition of Systema Naturæ had ignited debates on whether Homo Sapiens consisted of one or several separate sub-species, characterized by their differing skin tones, hair textures, and intellectual abilities. The association of frizzling with Afro-textured hair gave some of the moralizing tirades about vanity a racial undertone: in making European hair resemble the natural textures of African hair, artificial frizzling might inadvertently endow the fashionista with some of the savage temperament as well. Take, for instance, Elizabeth Montagu's scornful depiction of the hair fashions at Bath in the winter of 1764: "A friseur [to curl the hair] is employ'd three hours in a morning to make a young Lady look like a virgin Hottentot or Squaw, all art ends in giving them the ferocious air of uncomb'd savages."20 Frizzling makes ferocious. Kate Haulman has highlighted a similar complaint published on the other side of the Atlantic, where a 1767 letter to the editor of the New York Journal complained that "the 'frizzled' style" worn by fashionable ladies "resembled the 'shock head of a Negro.'"21

This racial contamination cuts both ways: if frizzling made straight hair resemble Afro-textured hair, Black people could shape their natural hair into fashionable styles without needing to use cushions, wigs or extensions. Shane White and Graham White, who have attempted to reconstruct African American hairstyles by studying runaway slave advertisements, list some examples of this practice: "Pompey, a Maryland runaway, was said to wear 'his wool combed back on the top of his head, forming a toupee [a form of wig].'" Then there is "Frank, a South Carolina 'waiting lad,'" who "'would feign dress, the wool of his head in the maccaroni taste, the which being that of a mustee, he has teased into side locks, and a queue'" as well as "the Maryland runaway James who had 'the top of his head … cut short, and all the other part of the wool [End Page 84] … left pretty long, [and] turned up before in the fashion.'"22 The term maccaroni or Macaroni was invented to describe British aristocrats who had returned from their Grand Tours with affected Continental manners, a flamboyant style as well as excessively high wigs. That "woolly-haired" African Americans were able to shape their hair into forms associated with the worst of European aristocratic excess may well have discomfited some white Americans. Frizzly hairstyles were an interface in which white and Black racial characteristics converged and, in so doing, undermined some of the rigidly policed boundaries between races.


Hair texture also informed ideas about racial mixing. In 1817–20, two German scientists, Johann Baptist von Spix and Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, were sent by the Royal Academy of Sciences in Munich on a tour of Brazil. Their aim was to describe and classify the animals, plants, geology, as well as the myths, languages and cultures of the Brazilian population. In addition to more strictly scientific outputs, they published a travelogue, Reise in Brasilien (Travels in Brazil), in which they turn their taxonomic gaze on the human races they encounter on the continent. One of these are the Cafusos whom they believe to be an intermediate race (their words are Mittelraçe or Mischlinge) sprung from mixing between indigenous South American tribes and Africans:

But what gives these mestizos [Mischlinge] a peculiarly striking appearance is the excessively long hair of the head, which, especially at the end, is half curled, and rises almost perpendicularly from the forehead to the height of a foot or a foot and a half, thus forming a prodigious and very ugly kind of peruke [i.e. wig]. This strange head of hair, which at first sight seems more artificial than natural, and almost puts one in mind of the plica Polonica, is not a disease, but merely a consequence of their mixed descent, and the mean between the wool [Haarwolle] of the negro and the long stiff hair of the Americans.23

So strange is the hair of the Cafusos that Spix and Martius choose to include a Cafuso woman smoking a pipe in one of the plates accompanying their volume (Fig. 1). [End Page 85]

Figure 1. Phillip Schmid, "Eine Cafusa aus der Provinz St. Paolo," in Spix and Martius, Reise in Brasilien: Atlas (Munich: Lindauer, 1823), Plate 4. A copy of this plate is reproduced in Lloyd's English translation, Travels in Brazil, 1:316–17, and a cropped version (featuring only the head) is reproduced by Prichard, Natural History of Man, 1:19. Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Library.
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Figure 1.

Phillip Schmid, "Eine Cafusa aus der Provinz St. Paolo," in Spix and Martius, Reise in Brasilien: Atlas (Munich: Lindauer, 1823), Plate 4. A copy of this plate is reproduced in Lloyd's English translation, Travels in Brazil, 1:316–17, and a cropped version (featuring only the head) is reproduced by Prichard, Natural History of Man, 1:19. Reproduced with the permission of Cambridge University Library.

While the phallic symbolism of the pipe undercuts the feminine softness suggested by the flowing fabric of her Grecian dress and low-cut décolletage, her hair is the primary marker of her otherness—that which sets her apart from, say, a pipe-smoking Ottoman belle. [End Page 86]

Yet when Spix and Martius go on to state that the Cafusos' "natural peruke is often so high that the wearers must stoop low to go in and out of the usual doors of their huts"24 they conjure a mental picture that resembles the many jokes about the high wigs worn by the Macaroni and their female counterparts, for instance, Matthew Darly's satirical print "The vis-à-vis bisected, or the ladies coop" (1776) which represents two ladies, stooped low to fit their wigs into a carriage, their high coiffeurs topped with exotic feathers that would be quite at home in the Brazilian jungle.25 Lloyd's translation, moreover, in describing Cafuso hair as "so entangled that all idea of combing it is out of the question"26 echoes Evelina's description of her dressed hair ("When I shall be able to make use of a comb for myself I cannot tell, for my hair is so much entangled, frizled they call it, that I fear it will be very difficult"). The representation of a Cafuso woman (both in Spix and Martius's original German and in Lloyd's English translation) thus combines tropes associated with African 'hairwool' as well as with European femininity and, in so doing, demonstrates the intimate connections between cultural and racial mixing.

For this present-day reader, the Cafuso woman's hairstyle also looks like an anticipation of the Black Power Afro of the 1960s. This serendipitous similarity opens up a reverse perspective from which eighteenth-century European hair fashion can be read as an early instance of the kind of cultural appropriation that characterizes the likes of Bo Derek, David Beckham, and Kim Kardashian: white people who go to great lengths to mimic Black hair textures and styles. While much European hair from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has survived in the form of keepsakes and mourning jewelry, African hair was not subject to such sentimental treatment. Nonetheless, the written record testifies to the compulsive fixation that white observers felt in the face of its distinctive curls and perpendicular heights.

Mathelinda Nabugodi
University of Cambridge
Mathelinda Nabugodi

Mathelinda Nabugodi is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge and a Post-Doctoral Affiliate at Newnham College. Her current research project traces the relations between British Romanticism and the Black Atlantic, with a focus on things found in literary archives.


Blake, William. Songs of Innocence. London: William Blake, 1789. The William Blake Archive,
Browne, Peter A. The Classification of Mankind, by the Hair and Wool of their Heads, with an Answer to Dr. Prichard's Assertion, that "The Covering of the Head of the Negro is Hair, properly so termed, and not Wool." Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1850.
Burney, Frances. Evelina. Edited by Edward A. Bloom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Byrd, Ayana D., and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St Martin's Griffin, 2001.
Darly, Matthew. "The vis-a-vis bisected, or the ladies coop." London, 1776. The British Museum, Accessed May 3, 2021.
Gurton-Wachter, Lily. "Blake's 'Little Black Thing': Happiness and Injury in the Age of Slavery." ELH 87, no. 2 (2020): 519–52.
Haulman, Kate. "A Short History of the High Roll." Common Place: The Journal of Early American Life. Accessed Jan 15, 2021.
Holm, Christiane. "Sentimental Cuts: Eighteenth-Century Mourning Jewelry with Hair." Eighteenth-Century Studies 38, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 139–43.
Hunt, Leigh. "The Wishing-Cap. No 1." Tait's Edinburgh Magazine x, vol. II (January 1833): 435–42.
Keats, John. The Complete Poems. Edited by John Barnard, 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books, 1976.
Linnaeus, Carl (Carl von Linné). Systema Naturæ, 10th ed. Stockholm: Lars Salvius, 1758.
———. The animal kingdom, or zoological system, of the celebrated Sir Charles Linnæus. Translated by Robert Kerr. Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792.
Long, Edward. The History of Jamaica, or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island, with Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Nussbaum, Felicity. Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Prichard, James Cowles. The Natural History of Man. London, H. Baillière, 1855.
Rosenthal, Angela. "Raising Hair." Eighteenth-Century Studies 38, no. 1 (2004): 1–16.
Smith, Justin E. H. Nature, Human Nature and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Spix, Johann Baptist von, and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius. Reise in Brasilien: auf Befehl Sr. Majestät Maximilian Joseph I., Königs von Baiern, in den Jahren 1817 bis 1820 gemacht und beschrieben. Munich: Lindauer, 1823.
———. Travels in Brazil, in the Years 1817–1820: Undertaken by Command of His Majesty the King of Bavaria. Translated by H. E. Lloyd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Vermeulen, Heather v. "Race and Ethnicity: Mortal Coils and Hair-Raising Revolutions: Styling 'Race' in the Age of Enlightenment." In A Cultural History of Hair in the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Margaret K. Powell and Joseph Roach, 135–54. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.
White, Shane, and Graham White. "Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 1. (February 1995): 45–76.


The preparation of this essay was funded by an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust.

12. Blake, Songs of Innocence (London: William Blake, 1789), The William Blake Archive, accessed Jan 15, 2021, All citations from "The Chimney Sweeper" and "The Little Black Boy" are from this edition.

13. This interpretation hinges on the assumption of a typo, reading Ill as I'll. If we read it as ill then the black boy's blissful vision turns out to be something of a curse: "Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear, / To lean in joy upon our father's knee" would have to be read as casting a shadow of ill-boding blackness on the angelically white boy (remember: this is a poem that represents black skin as "a cloud, and like a shady grove") until the English boy is so blackened, which is to say corrupted, that he can bear and even begin to take joy in regarding the African boy's father as his own. Given that, according to some Christian traditions, the Devil is an Ethiopian, the scene begins to look like a dark parody in which the lamb of God turns out to be the Anti-Christ in sheep's clothing.

17. OED, s.v. frizzle, v,, accessed Jan 15, 2021.

19. Linnaeus, Systema Naturæ, 10th ed. (Stockholm: Lars Salvius, 1758), 1:22,; translated into English as The animal kingdom, or zoological system, of the celebrated Sir Charles Linnæus, trans. Robert Kerr (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792), 45,

20. Montagu to Elizabeth Carter, [Nov. 25], 1764 [Bath] [Somerset], MO3137. Transcription of the original letter at the Huntington Library in Felicity Nussbaum, Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 141. Cited in Rosenthal, "Raising Hair," 5.

23. Spix and Martius, Reise in Brasilien: auf Befehl Sr. Majestät Maximilian Joseph I., Königs von Baiern, in den Jahren 1817 bis 1820 gemacht und beschrieben, 3 vols. (Munich: Lindauer, 1823), 1:216. Translated into English as Travels in Brazil, in the Years 1817–1820: Undertaken by Command of His Majesty the King of Bavaria, trans. H. E. Lloyd, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1:324; cited in Prichard, Natural History of Man, 1:20.