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Sensing Race in the Pacific World

Post contributed by Chris Blakley, Visiting Assistant Professor, Occidental College and History of Medicine Travel Grant Recipient, 2023-2024

Handwritten document on white paper with text in brown ink. Across the top is written the title "Joint Committee on the Library of Congress, June 14, 1850" with one paragraph of text below.
14 June 1850 resolution of the Joint Committee of the Library of Congress, Box 15, Wilkes Papers

 

Upon successfully passing the motion at their meeting in June 1850, the Joint Committee of the Library of Congress resolved to compel Charles Wilkes to “notify Mr. Pickering that the Committee think he was not authorized to devote his time” as a member of the United States Exploring Expedition between 1838 and 1842 to jotting notes for his book The Races of Man.[1] Nevertheless, Pickering published The Races of Man as the ninth volume of the multi-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1848, six years after returning from their voyage under the command of Lieutenant Wilkes. The committee’s resolution to Wilkes and Pickering is among the Wilkes Papers held by the David M. Rubenstein Manuscript and Rare Book Library, which generously funded my research at the library in the summer of 2023.

During their time in the Pacific Ocean––including stopovers in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Tuvalu, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Hawaii, and the Philippines––Pickering resolved to produce a classificatory schema of “all eleven races of man.”[2] At the start, he found “difficulty arose, in fixing in the mind, while passing from place to place, the relative shades of complexion” of the people the Exploring Expedition, or Ex. Ex., encountered during their voyage.

Fijian skin, for instance, upset English-speaker’s reliance on vision to discern race in the early nineteenth century. In May, 1840, Pickering looked through a spyglass from the deck of the Vincennes, the squadron’s flagship, toward a cluster of people gathered on the shore of Levuka, a town on the eastern coast of Ovalu, to obtain “evidence of the lightness of the Feejeean complexion.” Ovalu is one of the more than three hundred volcanic islands that make up the Fiji archipelago in the South Pacific.

At first, Pickering incorrectly hypothesized the group contained a mixture of “Malayan”, “Polynesian”, and “Negro” peoples rather than Fijians. Seeing people from afar thus proved to be inadequate for the purposes of collecting scientific facts concerning skin color in the Pacific Rim. Pickering improvised by terming them “purple men” on closer inspection. Ocularity and visibility, then, proved to be incomplete methods for knowing race.[3] So, Pickering concluded, his racial scientific program required collecting “more obvious distinctive characters” to serve as an evidentiary basis for his racial taxonomy. Some of these characters included notes on Papuan skin as “harsh to the touch, and the hair crisped or frizzed”, hearing Pa‘umotus “making a kind of purring noise”, and wincing at “the strong ill odour” of Fijians that “make them thoroughly disgusting to persons newly arrived.”[4]

Handwritten document on yellowed paper with text in black ink. At the top of the document is the title "Organization for the Exploring Expedition" with several paragraphs of text below.
“Organization for the Exploring Expedition”, Box 3, Folder 1, Wilkes Papers

 

Pickering’s inability to fully rely on vision matters for historians of science and the senses. Relying on prior analyses of race as a phenomenological apparatus, in particular the scholarship of philosophers including Sachi Sekimoto and Christopher Brown, I am investigating how the Ex. Ex. produced scientific ideas about race via the sensorium. What is at stake here is the place of vision and visibility in histories of science in the Enlightenment as hallmarks of modern scientific epistemology. Forms of visualization equipped what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison term the disciplinary eye that lay at the ethico-epistemic foundations of contemporary science.[5] Yet, scientists like Pickering used hearing and ideas about noise, smell and notions of cleanliness, and mores around touch and taste, to articulate race as a scientific fact through the itinerary of the Ex. Ex. Put simply, ocularcentrism was too brittle an epistemological basis for the Ex. Ex. to taxonomize the various groups they “discovered” through their transpacific itinerary. Rather, the Ex Ex used olfactory disgust, sonic boundaries, and norms surrounding touch and gustation to classify Pacific Islanders as racialized others through the body and the senses.

Before the Ex. Ex. departed from Hampton Roads in 1838, Wilkes argued that the operation would prove to be “useful to the Navy, honorable to this Country, and highly advantageous to the Commercial interest of the Country” and to “Science generally.”[6] In his “Organization for the Exploring Expedition”, Wilkes did not propose sending a race scientist like Charles Pickering––who joined the Ex. Ex. as the scientific corps’s zoologist––along with the other “Scientifics” like the geologist James Dwight Dana, the botanist William Rich, or the artists Alfred Thomas Agate and Joseph Drayton.[7] The Wilkes Papers at the Rubenstein contain material on these figures, as well as the John Torrey Papers, which pertain to the Ex. Ex. Torrey––a botanist who did not travel with Wilkes––later classified the plant collections made by the scientific corps and prepared specimen catalogues as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, and his papers contain letters with people associated with the SI like Spencer F. Barid, Joseph Henry, and Louis Agassiz. Torrey’s correspondence also contains letters from the phrenologist Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, and Josiah Nott, a leading race scientist of the antebellum era.

Moving forward, my aim is to produce a phenomenological account of the Ex. Ex. that provides insight into the formation of the racist ideas that undergirded Indian removal and Manifest Destiny via the senses. Like Sachi Sekimoto––who argues that “race constantly renews its material presence through latching onto our bodily felt, sensorial experiences, making itself feel-able and sensible and therefore ‘natural.’”––I claim that the narratives produced by the scientific corps and the naval personnel of the Ex Ex justified beliefs in American Indian and Polynesian “savagery” in Jacksonian America.[8]

[1] Wilkes Papers, Box 15.

[2] Charles Pickering, The Races of Man: And Their Geographical Distribution (London: H. G. Bohn, 1850) 2nd edition, 2.

[3] Charles Pickering, The Races of Man: And Their Geographical Distribution (United Kingdom: John Chapman, 1849), 146-147.

[4] Pickering, The Races of Man, 3; Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, vol.1, 324;  Walter Lawry, Friendly and Feejee Islands: A Missionary Visit to Various Stations in the South Seas in the Year MDCCCXLVII, (United Kingdom: C. Gilpin, 1850), 79-80.

[5] Lorraine Daston, and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Princeton: Zone Books, 2007), 48, 148

[6] Wilkes Papers, Box 3, “Organization for the Exploring Expedition”

[7] William Reynolds, Voyage to the Southern Ocean: The Letters of Lieutenant William Reynolds from the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (United States: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 3.

[8] Sekimoto, “Race and the senses”, 83.

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