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____________________
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).