Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Cristina Malcolmson


“The Explication of Whiteness and Blackness”

Skin Color and the Physics of Color in the Works
of Robert Boyle and Margaret Cavendish

During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, studies of the physics of color were frequently conjoined with speculations about skin color. 1. This conjunction was motivated in part by a skeptical rejection of Aristotelian science and the rise of experiment as the basic methodology of the Royal Society. However, these accounts also appeared at the same time that British colonization and the slave trade developed, and experimental science as an institution constructed its distinction between “trustworthy” and “untrustworthy” witnesses. Eventually, this institution would produce the nineteenth-century notion of biologically differentiated “races.” I suspect that the “scientific outlook” of the Royal Society included a new kind of racialized thinking that contributed

____________________
1.
I have many to thank for their help on this article. My first debt is to the 1998 —1999 seminar at Bates College “Women and Scientific Literacy, particularly Rebecca Herzig and Bonnie Shulman. The seminar made this essay possible. I also thank the Wesleyan Renaissance Colloquium, especially Natasha Korda, and the useful comments received there. The question session and the readers for the conference “Faultlines in the Field” significantly improved the essay. Anna Battigelli, Lillian Nayder, and William Pope.L provided crucial advice. I thank the president and board of the Royal Society of London for permission to quote from the Boyle Papers, and I am also grateful to Dr. Stephen Clucas and Harriet Knight of Birkbeck College, University of London, for their advice on the subject. Finally, I thank my colleagues Christina Brinkley, Elizabeth Eames, and Leslie Hill, who have encouraged me to recognize the links between early modern England, Africa, and slavery in the Americas.

As far as I can tell, no one has previously discussed this odd conjunction between studies of the physics of color and speculations about skin color. Kim Hall does note Robert Boyle's chapter on skin color in Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 94 95. Margo Hendricks pointed out to me the links between Margaret Cavendish and Boyle, and suggested that, in this material, color differences mystify power differences (private communication, conference of the Shakespeare Association of America, April 1999).

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