Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

White Negroes, Black Hebrews, and the Anti-Imperialist Narratives of Theophilus Scholes

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

White Negroes, Black Hebrews, and the Anti-Imperialist Narratives of Theophilus Scholes

Article excerpt

Introduction

Representations of the black body within the discourses of nineteenthcentury imperialist science, did not go unchallenged by black intellectuals operating within a Caribbean frame. One such intellectual, the Jamaican Theophilus Scholes, had done the unthinkable by educating himself within the bastions of white European science, and then utilizing the knowledge acquired thusly to interrogate those very scientific discourses. Such a move belied the dominant imperialist narratives that linked, for example, skin colour, brain size, race, and intelligence, and which therefore foreclosed on the possibility of a black counterdiscourse on the basis that no black colonial subject could possess the intellectual wherewithal to mount a successful assault against these narratives. As Edward Said puts it, "European ethnography presumed the natives' incapacity to intervene in scientific discourse about them."1

In spite of this, black thinkers from the Caribbean understood the political function of the body in marking off distinctions between the governed and the governors, and understood how black bodies, in order to perform this ascribed political role, were constituted as subjects of knowledge within said European scientific discourses. Knowledge produced about the black body, which circulated within Europe and its colonies, was therefore perceived as an ideological accompaniment to imperialist practices. This understanding was as evident in Scholes's ethnological revisionism which made use of "white Negroes" as a trope of his monogenist rejection of theories of black inferiority, as it was in his rhetorical questioning of the "blackness" of the ancient Hebrews. This essay offers the view that in contesting both the political and moral boundaries signified by the black body, and the scientific arguments lending support to this, Theophilus Scholes was therefore challenging the entire imperialist social system and the hierarchical configurations of power on which it rested.

In order to demonstrate how Scholes's work intervened in the circulation of these racist biological and physiological theories, this essay undertakes a close examination of texts produced by Scholes himself. In particular, the essay focuses on the first volume of his monumental two volume set, Glimpses of the Ages. The essay also examines select texts produced by his antagonists, largely because these texts are the ones to which Scholes responded most pointedly. The focus on texts, discourse and representation here, however, is not meant to suggest that discourse is somehow of greater importance than social and economic processes. At the same time, neither is discourse simply derivative. Discourse, economics, and politics are inextricably linked and, in a sense, constitute each other. Scholes understood this well. He understood, for example, the manner in which racism existed at the level of discourse, but he clearly did not ignore its significance as a set of institutionalized socio-political and economic practices.2 He was well aware, for instance, of how Africans, Chinese, and Indians, were constituted as colonial subjects via the mechanisms of state controlled education and legaleconomic structures and practices.3 But he was also cognizant of how they were constituted by a range of ideological formulations based on pseudo-scientific rhetoric and by a discursive denial of any positive ontological status as material subjects of their own history.4 The texts analysed here, therefore, are significant for how they are situated within certain institutions (for example, the science-education system), and for the critical function they consequently perform in the construction of European cultural authority.

Theophilus Samuel E. Scholes was a Jamaican scholar, medical practitioner, and Baptist missionary who was born in Stewart Town in the parish of Trelawney, sometime between 1854 and 1856. 5 He studied at schools in Jamaica6 before emigrating in 1873 and spending the next several years travelling to South America, Central America, and parts of North America and the Sandwich Islands. …

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