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In focus

Skin and understanding difference: race in the Royal Society archives

by Meleisa Ono-George

Examining the records of marginalised peoples within the archives, Meleisa Ono-George explores the pivotal role the Royal Society played in the development of the conception of 'race' and the formulation of knowledge about human difference and variety in the eighteenth century. 

The Royal Society’s ties to British colonialism and expansion are well documented in the historical literature. Also well documented is the pivotal role the Society played in the development of modern conceptions of ‘race’, that is an understanding of human difference in which skin colour and the body more generally became a central organizing measure. As Cristina Malcolmson’s work on the early decades of the Royal Society reveals, from 1661 onward, requests for information sent to governors, colonial agents, and seamen about areas colonized by the British or where trade had been established included questions about the ‘natives’ and skin colour.

The travel narratives documenting perceptions and interactions with colonized peoples and responses to queries collected by the Royal Society contributed to what Martiniquan psychiatrist and Pan-Africanist thinker, Frantz Fanon, describes as the ‘thousand details, anecdotes, and stories’ that were central in generating discourses or stereotypes of people of colour from around the world. Among those reported upon were people of African ancestry with various skin conditions, disabilities and disorders, those whose bodies presented 'a phenomenon which was not understood' and on which the Society could 'speculate and philosophize on the causes of curiosities', as Katie Whitaker stated in her contribution, 'The culture of curiosity' to Jardine, Second and Spary's Cultures of Natural History (1996).

In a seminal chapter on black skin, Robert Boyle speculated that all people were born white and their skin darkened as they aged, an idea that both affirmed the naturalness and originality of European and white skin, but also confirmed his belief that all peoples descended from a single origin. Boyle was not alone in his interest. In 1661 Thomas Povey sent a list of queries 'concerning the naturall products of Virginia [and the Bermudas] in behalf of the Royall Society‘ (now preserved in BL Egerton MS 2395) that addressed the question specifically; namely whether brown and black-skinned people were born white.

However, this was not the only instance when the Fellows expressed their interest in black skin. One perceived phenomenon was of particular interest was in the change in the colour of skin, especially among people of darker complexions. Perhaps the first report of this nature given to the Royal Society was in 1697. William Byrd reported on a ‘spotted negro boy’ he encountered in Virginia, a child who likely had what we now know as vitiligo.

In 1758, another letter was read before the Society describing the transformation of a women named Frank, an enslaved cook in Virginia, whose skin began to turn white.

We can imagine the kind of concern this would raise within slave societies in the Americas, in which the colour of skin was the central defining feature of one's status. The Royal Society could provide no explanation for the cause of Frank’s transformation, from a ‘swarthy African’ to a woman with skin ‘as fair as European’, nor could they recommend to the physician in Maryland tasked with her care 'any experiments…to be examining of this matter'.

Colonial agents did not just provide the Royal Society with observations and anecdotes of the inhabitants they encountered, but brought people home to London in order to be seen by the Society. A ‘white negro boy’ was brought before the Society on 31 January 1765 when he was about ten years old. Dr James Parsons's report, prepared ‘at the request of the society’ presented information in order to confirm the credibility of the child’s condition, namely that he was indeed ‘white negro’, a person born to Black parents. A piece of the child's hair, what was described as "white wool", had previously been brought to the Society for inspection.

Dr Parsons reported to the Society that the child was born in 1755 to enslaved parents in Virginia, both of whom were indeed black and from Africa. Parsons noted that the mother had been pregnant before she had been captured and enslaved, had never seen a white man, assuring the Society  that they boy was not of partial European ancestry. Parsons’s reference to the mother’s condition may also speak to a then-current belief that if a woman witnessed something that made a strong impression on her while she was pregnant, it could impact the physical appearance of the child in the womb.

Published in the Philosophical Transactions in January of 1765, Parsons's report outlines several other instances of unexpected and 'contrary complexions' of people of African ancestry. Among the others listed was a young enslaved girl with albinism brought to London, supposedly to be shown before the Royal Society. En route to London from Virginia, the young girl was raped by a sailor and infected with the ‘pox’, a term that was used to describe venereal diseases, such as syphilis. The violence this young girl endured, miles from home and her family, is replicated in other examples found beyond the papers of the Royal Society. On Sunday 12 May 1765, the body of a ‘white negro’ child, this time a little boy, was dug up near Island Bridge in Dublin. According to the report, the boy had been exhibited in the city and from the marks on his body, ‘it is imagined he was murdered’. Could this child have been the same little boy only months before exhibited before the Society? Another one of the people with albinism listed by Parsons was a young woman that is better documented in the archival records, a woman named Amelia Newsham.

Known throughout her life and across the country as the “the white negro woman” of London, Amelia, like the young boy and girl from Virginia, was taken at an early age from her family in Jamaica. She was born sometime around 1744 in or near Spanish Town but brought to England in 1753. Amelia was sold at least twice after her arrival in England before she was first shown as a curiosity beginning around 1758. She spent most of her life exhibited throughout Britain. Parson’s reference to Amelia suggests that she was never shown to the Royal Society in the same way as the young boy. However, several Fellows of the Society, including Carl Linnaeus, Simon Peter Pallas and John Hunter, took a scientific interest in Amelia independent of the Society.

Amelia Newsham’s lifetime as a curiosity and spectacle mostly in London allowed, relatively speaking, a hypervisibility in the archives and a corpus of archival materials that I am now using to stitch together her history and her world. Amelia Newsham’s life is both exceptional but also emblematic of the number of other children and young people of African ancestry with disabilities and bodily differences brought to the metropolitan centres of Europe to be seen and to be studied. 

The reports and exhibition of people of African ancestry with albinism and other skin conditions by the Royal Society in the eighteenth century reveal how important the bodies of the marginalized were in the formulation of knowledge about human difference and variety. The archives provide us with no answers to who most of these people were, nor their fate. Instead of fuller pictures of their lives, we catch only glimpses at moments of exploitation when their bodies were exposed and made available for consumption and the extraction of knowledge. Their names, lives, and stories have been lost to the past, forgotten and ignored in most of the histories that were written about Britain, science, and the Enlightenment.

Fellows of the Royal Society mentioned in this article

About the Author

Meleisa Ono-George is an Associate Professor and Brittenden Fellow in Modern British History at the Queen’s College, Oxford. She is a social-cultural historian of race and gender, with a focus on Black women’s histories in Britain and the Anglo-Caribbean. Her current research focuses on the life and world of Amelia Newsham, an enslaved woman with albinism in Georgian Britain, and the archival remnants of her life.