"Sublime Science: The Rise of Anthropology in the Romantic Antislavery Debate"

by: Stephen Cary, Ana Jara, Scott Lanier, Andy Kolpitcke, Wesley Morton, and Anika Scholz


-------After returning from his expedition in Africa to trace the Niger and an attempt to find Timbuctoo in 1797, Mungo Park began writing Travels in the Interior of Africa, which was published in 1799. As scholars Tim Fulford and Debbie Lee describe in “Mental Travelers: Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and the Romantic Imagination,” Travels became an instant success within both scientific and general audiences: within one year, copies in three editions were produced (129). Because of this popularity, the views and observations recorded by Park reached many people throughout the world. Park’s Travels have been written about through many different lenses; for example, authors such as Fulford and Lee describe Park’s account as extremely Romantic (132) and others such as Scott Jeungel classify Travels as a “cartographic alibi” that describes his encounters with the natives (23). However, the scientific nature of Park’s account led to the development of a Romantic thought, humanizing the natives of Africa and ultimately changing the way Europeans would describe the natives throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Park, along with many other Romantic writers and scientists, would begin to build the framework of the abolition movement in Europe by showing the masses that Africans were worthy of equal treatment.

Science in Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior of Africa

Although Scott Jeungel in “Mungo Park’s Artificial Skin”explains that “Park is hardly an anthropologist, he consistently exhibits a classificatory reflex that leads to meditations on botany, natural resources, animal life” (23), Park’s account is extremely scientific. Mungo Park, who was trained as a surgeon in Scotland, took multiple courses in botany and natural history during his university studies. In Travels, similar to Joseph Banks’ add year account of his voyage while in Tahiti, Park used his scientific expertise to comprehensively observe and meticulously record the culture and language of the native people. In Chapter II, “The Language and Religion of the Natives,” Park describes the four classes of natives with whom he interacts on a daily basis: The Feeloops, the Jaloffs, the Foulahs, and the Mandingoes (21). Through direct observation of the people, Park objectively notes the lifestyle, cultural rituals, language, and town structure that distinguishes one group from another. For example, Park describes the town in each of the cultures, recounting a large stage which he records as being called a “bentang” and notes that this is the place that would function most similarly to a European public hall (22). Furthermore, Park
abolition_terms_graph.jpgprovides an unbiased explanation that the four classes of people that he describes only accounts for one-fourth of the total native population – the other three-fourths are slaves or those not in the “free condition.” However, Park advocates that the slave trade is not a European idea; rather, it existed in Africa long before the Europeans began looking into Africa (298). The fact that Park objectively mentions this specific detail about the slave trade represents the truly scientific approach to his account - this piece of evidence does not promote any view that Park advocated about slavery and abolition during the course of his life. Ultimately, Park could have easily neglected to include this observation in his account; however, he consistently describes everything that he observes.

Through the course of the text, Park remains true to the unbiased observation approaches of the scientific method, humanizing the way European readers viewed the natives of Africa. If Park had constantly inserted opinion
aesthetic_terms_graph.jpginto his description of the natives, the validity of the text could be questioned. According to Fulford and Lee, Park’s narrative is trustworthy because they explain that Park is faithful to the audience by only describing the exact things that he observed (128). Although Park does insert his personal thoughts into some parts of the text, they function as almost a scientific conclusion rather than skewing data and observations. To examine the extent of the scientific nature of Park’s text, graphs of the types of words used by Park throughout Travels were charted, by searching
scientific_words_graph.jpgthe entire text of Travels in the Interior of Africa and recording the number of times Park uses abolition, scientific, and aesthetic terms. It is evident that the account is highly detailed and scientific based on the diction used by Park throughout his account. Therefore, it is necessary to consider the contributions it made to the field of anthropology and how these view affected the attitudes of the day regarding the African continent. Ultimately, the observations are of the highest validity and represent the truly scientific nature of the text.

Sublime Thoughts Arise as a Result of Mungo Park's Travels

The age of Romanticism, a reaction against the scientific approach to nature and natural beauty, and the exploration into Africa in the 18th century, may seem unrelated or even at odds at first glance. However, further investigation into the origin and purpose of the Romantic era yields parallels and connections with the explorations of Africa’s interior, particularly to the extent to which these adventures revolved around self-discovery as much as they did exploration. The ccounts of the explorations lead to the Romantic ideas of that time, one of those ideas being the sublime thinking of abolition and a changed view of the slave trade.
-------------In the article, “Mental Travelers: Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and the Romantic Imagination,” Fulford and Lee pinned the opening of the Romantic era on an event in Samuel T. Coleridge’s life that spawned more intuitive, self-reflective, and worldly thinking. After a dose of “anodyne”, also known as opium, he transcended into a state that bore his inspiration for the poem “Kubla Khan.” Fulford and Lee write in “Mental Travelers” that “ ‘Kubla Khan’ is the epitome of the Romantic imagination. It makes material spaces into mental ones” (118). Lines 52-54 are extremely representative of the sort of “mental travelling” that Fulford and Lee often referenced.

And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise The aim for explorer Mungo Park as well as the fictional “Kubla Khan” is not only to reach a physical paradise (such as Timbuctoo in Park’s case), but also an inner paradise, or in other words, a state of contentment. These lines allude to this mental destination often searched for by many.

The experience of Mungo Park, when he was raided by Moors during his travels and was left without resources, is well documented from a historical standpoint. This event is even reinterpreted into a work by Georgina Cavendish in the “The Negro Song.” Additionally, the incident has implications on imperialistic and Romantic thought, as highlighted in “Mental Travelers.” On page 129 it reads, “[i]t was the discovery that a ‘civilized’ man could be alone, abandoned, destitute in the heart of overwhelming otherness of a ‘savage’ country, without losing his faith, his self-command, his resourcefulness. Park is no Kurtz, no Marlow either: [Park] is infected by what he calls the fanaticism of the Moors nor the ‘superstitious’ fatalism of the Negroes.” The argument is made that Mungo Park does not simply travel to explore uncharted lands, but also to also explore the uncharted regions within himself. This theme of self-exploration became a staple for later explorers who followed in Park’s footsteps.
Fulford and Lee write,
“Keats’s presentation of Africa mirrors Park’s, for Mungo seems the most romantic and the least imperialist of explorers. He offers travel as a realistic romance, an exotic quest that actually happened as he described it, a journey of self-discovery rather than conquest. He neither kills Africans, nor takes their land. He represents Banks’s network at its most benign, shows it, in Keats’s terms, as a system giving people paths to travel ‘inward’ as they go” (132). Park’s journey parallels with the description in “Kubla Khan.” The ultimate goal is to travel inwardly, and discover the Africans as people, not items of European conquest.

The Romantic Paradox: Conflicting Messages in Romantic Antislavery Art and Literature

By the end of the 18th century, science was beginning to take its place in the debate over the abolition of slavery. The discourse was slowly changing from a purely emotional and philanthropic debate to one that took into account both reason and science. According to Robert Young in Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, the majority of people believed that all races came from the same origin or single ancestor (6). Young goes on to say that this idea was primarily Biblical, and was easily observable through science. However, this widely held view did not go uncontested. This view of all races as having come from a single ancestor seemed to be problematic for those who advocated slavery and thus began to try to either prove that the Negro was a different species from whites or that they were of a lesser taxonomy. In this way, science begins to be used to further the preexisting views of individuals. In “Bales of Living Anguish: Representations of Race and the Slave in Romantic Writing,” Peter Kitson argues that this view was furthered by the surgeon Charles White, who published his Account of the Regular Gradation of Men in 1799 (519). Today, science would never be used to back up such racist views.

---------Despite being used as support for these racist views of Negros, science was also integral in the arguments made by those who opposed slavery. Kitson credits J. F. Blumenbach with providing scientific justification for the view that all people came from a common ancestor (518). He states that Blumenbach’s view was that man started as white, but due to climate and other factors, changed to a multitude of other colors. Blumenbach's argument is based on the idea that it is much easier for white to degenerate to a darker color, than for a darker color to move to white. Furthermore, in his Anthropological Treatises, Blumenbach does not see the Negro as being inferior to whites. However, like many Romantic abolitionist works, Blumenbach’s theories of race were also used by pro-slavery imperialists. Similar to Park’s Travels, this text was immediately used by both sides to support their claims (Austen and Smith 76). This is problematic because Park was, by all accounts, an abolitionist. In The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the year 1805, it is recorded that Mungo Park was a supporter of the abolition of slavery, yet never made it publically known (22). This paradoxical nature of Romantic race theory permeated into the 18th and 19th century writing.
Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave. 1796. William Blake.
Paradox tended to rule the Romantic antislavery movement. The works of Blake and Cowper—both opposed to the slave trade—seemed to simultaneously build support for the African’s plight and reinforce the European stereotype of African inferiority. In Blake’s ‘Little Black Boy’, the black boy’s heart is said to be white. By pairing purity with the color white, Blake allows readers to interpret the poem as saying that white is a more preferable color than black. In another antislavery work,Family of Negro Slaves from Loango, Blake depicts a family of Negro slaves at work. Contrary to what would be expected of Blake, such as in his illustration Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave which is a depressing representation of slavery, Family of Negro Slaves from Loangos hows the slaves to be incredibly cheerful. Like Blake, Cowper reinforces some of the racist stereotypes that were prevalent in Romantic Europe. In Cowper’s ‘The Negro’s Complaint’, he describes the Negro as having ‘fleecy hair’, comparing him to an animal. While this feature stands out so seriously to the modern reader, the Romantic may not have seen it as problematic. Cowper was writing to evoke compassion for enslaved blacks yet managed to allow cultural stereotypes of inequality to creep into the poem. Another paradox can be found in the life of Robert Burns. As a known opponent to slavery, he wrote “The Slave’s Lament,” in which he described the difficult voyage that many slaves had to make crossing the Atlantic. However, contrary to his beliefs, Robert Burns accepted a job as bookkeeper on a Jamaican plantation.
Family of Slaves from Loango. 1796. William Blake.

Furthermore, at one point in Travels, Park describes how he is mistaken by the native people to be a Moor and how it makes him feel happy stating, I was happy to find that all the Negro inhabitants took me for a Moor; (...) a Moorish woman absolutely swore that she had kept my house three years at Gallam, on the river Senegal. It was plain they mistook me for some other person (202).This evidence indicates that Park had been in Africa so long that his physical condition had deteriorated to such an extent that he had lost the identity of his skin color. However, included within Travels is a painting by WC Wilson entitled A View of Kamalia. In this painting, Wilson portrays Park as extremely white and noble looking in comparison to the natives. Because of the validity of Park’s account, the painting juxtaposes the views expressed in the text. The editor of Travels, Mr. Bryan Edwards who, according to The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa, in the Year 1805, was a profound opponent of abolition (22), influenced the views expressed within the account; thus, exemplifying another source of paradox.

-------These paradoxes among the Romantic poets point out the problems of deeply embedded stereotypes. When a figure like Cowper—who wrote ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ as abolitionist propaganda—allows such strong racist imagery in his writing, a deeper look has to be taken to understand its significance. While the origins of these paradoxes are most likely found in cultural biases of the writers, it is impossible to know just how much the presence of these paradoxes influenced perceptions of race, slavery and inequality.


A View of Kamalia. 1799. This image is depicting Park underneath a tree in a white robe. The contrasts him from the blacks surrounding him.

---------Overall, the diction of Park’s account indicates that Travels in the Interior of Africa was a highly scientific text. Therefore, the effects of his writings humanized the natives, giving way to a different way of viewing and understanding African tribes, their cultures, and their lifestyles. Just as in “Timbuctoo” by Alfred Tennyson, “The narrow seas, whose rapid interval Parts Africa from green Europe,” the rift between Europeans and Africans was aided by Mungo Park’s scientific and Romantic writings. This idea that science could aid the abolitionist cause fueled a new form of science--epitomized by Blumenbach--that analyzed both the origins and the qualities of race. Regardless of the paradox between the sides of the abolition debate, the scientific nature of Park’s account aided the notion that Africans were indeed worthy of equal treatment. However, this paradox would help us understand the seriousness of cultural stereotypes that had been instilled in all Europeans for centuries, and that would go on to feed the racial tensions that are still experienced today. Although abolition of slavery did not occur for centuries later after Mungo Park’s expedition into Africa, the writings helped to change the mentality in Europe regarding the treatment of African tribes and people.

Further Readings

Mungo Park
Juengel, Scott J. "Mungo Park's Artificial Skin." The Eighteenth Century 47.1 (2006): 19-38. Print.

In this article, Juengel highlights how through Mungo Park’s journey, he begins to lose the meaning of his skin color. That is to say, his white skin compared to the African’s dark skin started to physically, due to the acquiring of filth, as well as mentally started to seem more and more like the natives. It speaks to the common-knowledge idea that white represents pure items and black represents tainted ones.
Lupton, Kenneth. Mungo Park, the African Traveler. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.

This book, Mungo Park, the African Traveler. approaches Mungo Park's journey through the interior of uncharted Africa from a geographical, historical and political view of of the people that lived along the Niger River. Similar to the way Park documented his observations in Travels in the Interior of Africa, this work attempts the define the people and culture of lesser known groups in Africa.

St. John James Augustus. The Lives of Celebrated Travelers. New York: J. and J. Harper, 1832. Print.
The Lives of Celebrated Travelers is a biography about the travellers during the 18th and 19th century that contributed to the exploration of foreign lands. Especially important was the role of Mungo Park in returning a lot of information for the British empire to digest and consider when continuing on with their imperialistic intentions.
Park, Mungo, and Isaaco. The Life and Travels of Mungo Park;. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1847. Print.

This work is and in depth description of Mungo Park’s motives for taking on this expedition, the many tribes of Africans he encounters, his ups and downs throughout his journey, his many villages he stops by, and most importantly his personal feelings about the state of Africans and himself being in a foreign land.
Park, Mungo, John Whishaw, and Isaaco. The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the Year 1805.++++London: Printed for John Murray, by W. Bulmer, 1815. Print
Just as in Mungo Park’s Travels to the Interior of Africa, The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the Year 1805 was a firsthand account of the sights and sounds of inner Africa, a region seldom seen before Mungo’s historic journey. He describes Romantically and scientifically the ways of life of the natives while being as objective as possible.

Abolition Price, Richard. Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-century Africa.
+++++Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

This book by Richard Price is a historical account of British imperialism in Africa during the nineteenth century. It focuses on the culture and class differences that clearly pervaded throughout the entire era. In the end, it looks back on the lasting legacy is left on the British empire and its worldly implications.

Kitson, Peter. "Bales of Living Anguish": Representations of Race and the Slave in Romantic Writing." ELH 67.2
--------(2000): 515-37. Print.

This work focuses mostly on the views of notable Romanticists on racial differences and slavery. As noted by its striking title, most authors hold the view of abolition. Thus, many wrote poems and articles graphically expressing the harshness and oppressive nature of the actions of slave owners and other dissenters.

Harris, John. “The Fall of Slavery.” 1838. Web. 28 April 2011.
“The Fall of Slavery” is a poem that perpetuates the mistreatment of slaves during the early 19th century. Some its main idea are freedom and practice of spirituality. It is interesting to note that its uplifting nature is similar to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

More, Hannah. “Slavery, A Poem.” 1788. Web. 28 April 2011.
Similar to John Harris’s “The Fall of Slavery”, “Slavery, A Poem” has its message deeply rooted in support freedom of the oppressed slaves using very powerful and touching imagery and diction. Its language is very graphic but powerful due to its detailed description of the against the many oppressors in that time.

Wordsworth, William. “To Thomas Clarkson. On the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.” ----------1807. Web. 28 April 2011. <http://www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/wordpoems.htm>

William Wordsworth is not known for venturing into opinionated works in support of abolition of slaves, but in “To Thomas Clarkson. On the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” he clearly demonstrates these view using his normal Romantic imagery scattered throughout the work of poetry.

Romanticism and Sublimity
Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

This work focuses on the effects of Romantic thought and its physical causes originating in the brain. Ideas such as sensory effects, electricity in nerves and other cranial issues. The blurring of states of consciousness is a key idea because many poets and writers admitted to not being completeley aware when constructing their famous works of literature, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s inspiration for “Kubla Khan” coming from an opium-induced state.

Fulford, Tim, and Peter J. Kitson. Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830. Cambridge, United
-------Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

This article by Fulford and Kitson helps establish the connections between Romantic ideas and imperial motives. Many Romantic authors and poets are cited in creating relationships between the views of Africans and fellow Europeans and their social and political associations. The heavier topics covered include slavery, race, culture and religion.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London: -----====Routledge and Paul, 1756. Print.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was an attempt to define the sublime by citing metaphysical ideas, which would eventually lead to an era of Romanticism. For example, Burke explains the cause of beauty as the passion of love as opposed to the tradition definitions of proportion, fitness, or perfection. The sublime also has a causal structure that originates from the passion of fear.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1790. Print.
Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement asthetically attempts to define ideas such liberty. Due to Kant renounded knowledge in the areas of political theory, this work held major implications in the creation of political structures as it attempts to define people’s mental behaviors and naturally-caused actions. These instincts helped determine the correct judgement of a certain society.
Longinus, Benedict Einarson, and Joshua Reynolds. Longinus On the Sublime,. London: Longman, 1836. Print.

This work attempts to judge works of literature with respect to its sublimity and aesthetics. Longinus and Reynold write “the first and most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions" and this ability to form conceptions is what they reason to define all great literary works of this time period.

Works Cited

Austen, Ralph and Smith, Woodruff. “Images of Africa and British Slave-Trade Abolition: The Transition to an----------------Imperialist Ideology, 1787-1807.” African Historical Studies 2.1 (1969): 69-83. Print

Blake, William. Family of Negro Slaves from Loango. 1806. Paper

Blake, William. Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave. 1806. Paper.

Blake, William. “The Little Black Boy.” 1789. Songs of Innocence. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, and Thomas Bendyshe. The Anthropological Treatises
-------of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Boston: Milford House, 1973. Print.

Burns, Robert. "The Slave's Lament." 1792. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Cavendish, Georgiana. “A Negro Song.” 1799. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” 1816. Representative Poetry On-line: Version 3.0. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Cowper, William. “A Negro’s Complaint.” 1788. The Gentleman’s Magazine. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Fulford, Tim, and Debbie Lee. "Mental Travelers: Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and the Romantic Imagination."
-------Nineteenth-Century Contexts 24.2 (2002): 117-37. Web.

Juengel, Scott J. "Mungo Park's Artificial Skin; Or, the Year the White Man Passed." The Eighteenth Century 47.1
-------(2006): 19-38. Print.

Kitson, Peter. "‘Bales of Living Anguish’: Representations of Race and the Slave in Romantic Writing." ELH 67.2
-------(2000): 515-37. Print.

Park, Mungo. The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the Year 1805. London, 1815. Print.

Park, Mungo. Travels in the Interior of Africa. 1799. Print.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “Timbuctoo.” 1829. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Wilson, W.C. A View of Kamalia. 1799. Paper.

Young, Robert. “Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race.” Colonial Desire (1995): 6.