Recording Race: Huxley

Recording Race: T. H. Huxley’s Photographic Survey of the Races of the British Empire. Research visit to the „Thomas Henry Huxley Papers“, Imperial College London, April 2015.

It is certainly not easy to get an appointment at the archives of Imperial College London, where theThomas Henry Huxley Papers” are kept. This is the only archive I have encountered so far that would make a letter of intent, a project description, as well as a letter from my supervisor and university a prerequisite for consulting the materials. However, after settling all those issues, I am received cordially and a seat and research aids have been prepared for me.

Thomas Henry Huxley was a traveler, biologist and educational reformer, he is however best known as an important advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He shared a circle of friends with Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, with whom he exchanged letters that are kept in the archive. For instance in a letter dated October 16th, 1886, Francis Galton asks Huxley’s opinion on the biographies of Erasmus Darwin and Charles Darwin in relation to a proposal for a monument.

Races of the Empire

I am, however, particularly interested in his project of a visual survey of the ‘races’ of the British Empire, that was launched in 1869,  and for which Huxley developed a anthropometrical photographic standard for the depiction the human body. The plan originated in the Ethnological Society of which Huxley was president, and which sought to improve the quality of data in the field and establish a scientific classification of the ‘races’ of the British Empire.  The project however was administered by the Colonial Office in London that sent out an official request to the colonial administrations and forwarded the material, photographs and letters, to Huxley. Even though the material that he received was never used in his publications or in the work of the Ethnological Society, the portraits represent an important, if problematic, insight into the practices of scientific photographic depiction of the human body and in particular of colonial subjects.

The anthropological photographs are kept in two large boxes.[1] They recently seem to have been glued to white cardboard sheets that can be removed individually. The first page contains a profile view of a nude woman standing in front of a dark background; her palms are joined in front of her bosom, revealing outline of her breast, holding a measuring rod. The floor is covered with a cheap carpet; behind the female figure a stand is partly visible and on the left hand side pieces of folded cloth are laying on the floor, presumably the woman’s dress. Next to the photograph a slip of paper dating from 1898 is pasted, noting that the frontal view of the woman has been stolen, “it is believed by a sapper, who shortly afterwards went abroad and cannot be traced.” Below a frontal photo is pasted, it shows a nude young man, looking straight into the camera, his right arm is extended to the left at right angle, palm facing the camera. The hand is stabilized by a second stand which a measuring rod is attached that is fixed with a cord to the upper arm of the man. The left arm is inclined to the body, the open palm resting on the thigh. The legs are parallel, the inner side of the right foot slightly opened to the camera. This portrait seems to be taken at the same place and probably date as the first one. In both photographs the light comes from above, frontally, slightly from the right hand side. These are the only photographs of ‘white’ people of the collection and seem to have been the blueprints for the procedure to be followed in the colonies. 50 sets of photographs were produced by Mr. Pedroletti under Huxley’s supervision to be sent out, along with the instructions, to the colonial administrations.[2] Ideally a male, a female and a juvenile specimen from the respective ‘races’ in the colonies were to be photographed along the rules of this physical mapping.

The rules for the visual mapping of the human body were apparently designed in relation to anthropometric photography of the American Louis Agasiz in 1850’s and 1860’s, and the system proposed by John Lamprey earlier in 1869[3]. These standards of anthropometric photography were adapted and further developed by Huxley who, in letter to Lord Granville of the colonial Office, argued that:

“Great numbers of ethnological photographs already exist but they lose much of their value from not being taken upon a uniform and well-considered plan. The result is that they are rarely either measurable or comparable with one another and that they fail to give that precise information respecting the proportions and the confirmation of the body which alone are of any considerable worth to the ethnologist.”[4]

Bountiful Harvest

As a response to request by the colonial secretary, a number of series of photographs were send in from South Africa, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, Bermuda Islands, and South America. The most complete series of photographs was received from South Africa; the ethnicities depicted are described as Bushmen, Hottentot, Damara, and Kafir. The photos were taken in 1871 under the supervision of by W.H. Beek, custodian of the Grey Library, Cape Town South Africa by the photographers Lawrence and Selkirk in Breakwater Jail. Along with the ethnicity, names, age, as well as the prison registry numbers are noted.

The ‘bushman’ Coos Toontjes, aged 52, just like some of his fellow inmates, is depicted as proposed by Huxley, standing on a carpet in front of a neutral light background, naked, full face and profile, as well as seated up to the waist and in a mug-shot style close-up. He is obliged to hold measuring devices; in the close-up a measuring tape, drawn from above, entwines around his armpit. He looks into the camera critically but submissive – no wonder taking into consideration the circumstances of this photo shooting, presumably on the prison grounds. In this case group portraits, presumably taken in the prison yard, are added as well as longer letters on the customs and language of the respective ethnicities.

Also other photographs of the collection were taken in penitentiary institutions, such as a series entitled “Natives from India, China, Ceylon, and the Malayan Peninsula” that Huxley received in 1871. Here in many photographs the subjects still wear iron manacles and heaps of discarded prison clothes are visible in the margins. The prisoners, male and female, are bent into shape according to Huxley’s instructions along the stands and measuring sticks and tapes. But sometimes the disciplinary access to the convicts’ bodies through leg irons collides with the typological gaze of the anthropometric photographic endeavor when the postures expected for the photographs are not possible due to the physical confinement. However, in the prisons Huxley’s instructions are most thoroughly followed, while in many of the others the photographs do often not comply with nakedness or the anthropometric instructions. Many colonial officers chose to send in commercial studio photographs as a replacement or refused the request altogether. With the collection also the letters declining the request are kept, here decency and Victorian Christian morals as well as the lack of photographic equipment and money are mentioned as explanations. Some even went so far as to note that there was nothing special to see in their territories; needless to say that they were referring to distinct physiognomies of the native population, not that of the British colonizers. It seems that the officers understood Huxley’s request very well.

Collecting Dust?

After such an effort and material investments, it must seem strange that the photographic material seems not to have been used for publications of Huxley or the Ethnological Society. While some portraits were sent on to the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Pitt Rivers Museum, the majority remained in Huxley’s personal collection.[5] Was it, as it was suggested, that Huxley lost interest in the subject, or was it due to the obvious failure to comply with the strict rules of anthropometric photographic depiction of many of the photographs. In the Huxley papers well over 50 pages of notes are preserved on the racial photographs, together with notes and photographs on cranial structures of archeological findings of the time. It seems that Huxley, at least for some time, worked intensively on the material and probably envisioned a publication.

Photography continued to be used as a central medium in the production of knowledge in anthropology, but the more casual, classical mode of depiction in front of a grid proposed by Lamprey eventually prevailed in anthropological practice[6]. The positivist impetus and worldview of however was not forgotten. And the racial photography of Huxley represents an anthropometric and statistical method of visual recording of the human frame that resonates throughout the scientific work of the nineteenth century; in Alphonse Bertillon’s biometric photography and anthropometric identification, as well as in Galton’s work, who would have cherished Huxley’s collection as a source for his experiments with composite photography.

[1] Imperial College London Archives, T.H. Huxley Papers, A.10.2 Box 1+2.

[2] See: Maxwell, Ann: Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1870-1940. Brighton/Portland: Sussex, 2008, 30.

[3] See: Edwards, Elizabeth: Raw Histories: Photography, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford/New York: Berg, 2001, 135.

[4] Imperial College London Archives: HP.30.f.75. Quoted in: Edwards, Elizabeth: Raw Histories: Photography, Anthropology and Museums. Oxford/New York: Berg, 2001, 135.

[5] See: Maxwell, Ann: Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1870-1940. Brighton/Portland: Sussex, 2008, 32.

[6] See: Maxwell, Ann: Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1870-1940. Brighton/Portland: Sussex, 2008, 34-35.