Academic journal article New Formations

British Eugenics and 'Race Crossing': A Study of an Interwar Investigation

Academic journal article New Formations

British Eugenics and 'Race Crossing': A Study of an Interwar Investigation

Article excerpt

In 1937 a polemic entitled Half-Caste was published, heralding 'the richness of hybrid potentiality'. Written by a self-defined Eurasian called Cedric Dover (1) its opening pages indicated the extent of prejudice facing those of mixed race:

   The 'half-caste' appears in a prodigal literature. It presents him
   ... mostly as an undersized, scheming and entirely degenerate
   bastard. His father is a blackguard, his mother a whore ... But more
   than all this, he is a potential menace to Western Civilisation, to
   everything that is White and Sacred ... (2)

This 'prodigal literature' included novels and 'a vast mass of pseudo-science' developed by 'eugenists, anthropologists, sociologists and politicians'. (3) In the book's Preface, written by British scientist Lancelot Hogben, it was eugenics that was singled out for condemnation: 'An influential current of superstition (called National Socialism in Hitler's Germany and Eugenics in England) claims the authority of science for sentiments which are the negation of civilised society'. (4) Yet despite the negative tone of the Preface, and the reference to 'pseudo-science', Dover was clearly not uninfluenced by eugenics. He cited a number of British eugenists in his 'Acknowledgements', (5) and he dedicated his book to Ursula Lubbock (Mrs Grant Duff) an active member of Britain's Eugenics Society. He also admitted: 'I subscribe without qualification to the prevention of undeniably dysgenic matings ... but not to the conceit that colour and economic success are indices of desirability'. (6) His invocation of a different index of 'desirability' other than economic success was reminiscent of other socialists who espoused eugenics on their own terms. Eugenics was sufficiently protean to be harnessed to different ideological beliefs, ranging from the ultra conservative to the social-reformist and socialist. (7) What was new and unique about Dover's particular take on eugenics was the centrality of the 'half-caste', who 'must be regarded ... as a portent of a new humanity--a portent to be encouraged by the stimulation of eugenical mixture ...' (8)

In contrast to his own positive eugenical reading, Dover recognised that most other exponents of eugenics in interwar Britain took a very different view of the 'half-caste', namely, as 'potential menace to Western Civilisation'. Why did these eugenists (and indeed many of the British establishment) hold such a view? What did they think were the implications of the presence of the 'half-caste'? What or who was unsettled by the presence of mixed race people? One way of exploring these concerns is through an analysis of a project set up by the British Eugenics Society to investigate what they called 'race crossing'. An examination of this project not only throws light on the prevailing discourses on race differences and their measurement, whiteness, and Englishness, but it also enables us to test historian Barbara Bush's claim that eugenics was 'a strong element of inter-war racism', (9) and to get a clearer sense of the role played by British eugenics in the discussion and regulation of race.


At the Eugenics Society's annual general meeting in 1919, the Society's President, Major Leonard Darwin (youngest son of Charles Darwin), announced that 'what is urgently needed is a thorough scientific study of the mental and physical characteristics of mixed races'. (10) Mrs Sybil Gotto, the Society's general secretary at the time, concurred, adding that 'although I am quite ready to look upon the Coloured races as our brothers, I do not want to look upon them as our brothers-in-law'. (11) Four years later, Major Darwin conveyed his concern to the national leaders attending the Imperial Conference (about to be held in London), warning them that 'interbreeding between widely divergent races may result in the production of types inferior to both parent stocks'. (12) From the eighteenth century into the twentieth, these 'divergent races', known as 'primary races', were thought to be between three and five in number, and were differently positioned on an evolutionary hierarchy. …

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