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The secret photos of professor Agassiz

Exhibition and book shed light on the controversial images made by a rival of Darwin

divulgacãoThree poses typical of the photos taken by Agassizdivulgacão

“People who question the pernicious effects of racial miscegenation and are misled by the false philanthropy that seeks to break down all the barriers between them should come to Brazil,” wrote Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in his book A journey to Brazil (1867), written with his wife, Elizabeth Cary. The book was the result of his visit to Brazil as the leader of the Thayer Expedition, in 1865 and 1866. Future philosopher William James (1842-1910) and geologist Charles Frederick Hartt were also members of the expedition. The journey took them from Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon Region. Agassiz was a professor at Harvard University’s Lawrence School and founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He was also the most famous and popular scientist in North America. He advocated creationism, polygenism and the theory of the degeneration of races and was a fierce opponent of evolutionism. However, after Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, his prestige was questioned by young American nature scientists, who rejected his theological and racist interpretations. So Agassiz enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to come to Brazil, in order to do research on fish from the Amazon River basin to prove the ‘fallacy’ of Darwin’s theories.

No less important was the fact that the trip was an opportunity to visit a ‘racial paradise.’ Agassiz took this opportunity to collect material evidence of ‘racial degeneration’ provoked by the ‘mulatto characteristic’ of the strongly miscegenated Brazilian population. The result was a series of 200 images, stored at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Most of these images had never been shown before, because of their controversial content: naked photographs of Rio’s African population and the Mestizo types from Manaus. Forty of these photographs are now being exhibited for the first time at the Rastros e raças de Louis Agassiz: fotografia, corpo e ciência, ontem e hoje exhibition, which is part of the 29th São Paulo Art Biennale and will be open until the end of the month. A catalogue of the exhibition has just been launched by the curator of the exhibition, Maria Helena Machado, a professor at the History Department of the University of São Paulo (USP). The researcher also organized the book O Brasil no olhar de William James (published by Edusp, and scheduled for launch at the end of the year). The book includes letters, diaries and drawings by the American philosopher, brother of the writer Henry James; the philosopher was a member of the Thayer Expedition. At that time, William James was a young, 23-year old medical student at Harvard. He was a fan of Agassiz, but changed his opinion of the ‘Professor’ (as he referred to Agassiz) after his trip to Brazil. This trip was also a turning point in the life of William James, says Maria Helena, because this was when the philosopher of pragmatism decided to dedicate his life to philosophy. “Swimming against the tide of the time, his impressions of Brazil are peculiarly emphatic, even though he contracted smallpox, which blinded him temporarily. His impressions collided with the vision of Agassiz, the mentor of the expedition. The political and ideological stance of Agassiz linked him to those who defended racism and the theories of degeneration through hybridism,” says the professor.

“Travelling through the Amazon Paradise, the Thayer Expedition, with the support of the American and Brazilian governments, would explore the Amazon Region, appropriating the fish, the rocks, and capturing images of the region’s mestizo men and women, photographed naked in dubious poses, frozen as examples of racial degeneration, for the purpose of building up an inventory of the dangers of miscegenation,” Maria Helena adds. Agassiz had become the main promoter of an idealist, Christian science, which supported creationism while at the same time using avant-garde language, full of technical expressions and references to scientific procedures. “On one hand, Agassiz was aligned with those who believed that empirical science was the key to knowledge. At the same time, he was reconciled with the metaphysical and religious images that sought to interpret divine designs in the book of nature.” The zoologist had been a disciple of French natural scientist Georges Cuvier, who denied the genetic inter-connection of the different species, and whose analysis presupposed a detailed empirical description of the beings under observation, as each species was unique in itself. In addition, Cuvier believed that the world had undergone countless catastrophes that had destroyed the species that had populated the world; this was followed by the appearance of new species created by the divine hand. Thus, the animals that we are familiar with had allegedly originated from divine creation, a hypothesis that would deal with the great problem faced by non-evolutionists: the difference between fossil animals and existing animals.

divulgacãoImages were to be used to support racist argumentsdivulgacão

“Agassiz also advocated that all organized beings were created to belong to a specific ‘native land’; that is, he believed in the existence of a connection between beings and their habitats. The climate-related differences were not enough to explain the distribution of the species. The logic behind populating a region came directly from God,” explains historian Lorelai Kury, a researcher at the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz foundation and a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Agassiz advocated the existence of “zoological provinces,” as God, after having created new species at different times, had designated a ‘native land’ for each species.

“In Agassiz’ opinion, scientists were privileged beings who were able to unravel the divine plan by means of the scientific observation of nature, and who took up the place traditionally reserved for theologians. His view was linked to the Platonic and static perspective of life and science, whose guidelines were linked to such certainties as the existence of ideal types of beings and, above all, to the affirmation of the divine plan’s precedence over the reality of the natural world,” says Maria Helena. Still according to the zoologist, there was a natural hierarchy in the scale of beings, from animals to humans, as well as among human races, the result of the divine intention of imposing an order upon the world. “It was up to human beings to understand and respect this. Negroes, created by God expressly to populate the tropical regions, descended from an inferior human race, whose virtue was physical strength and the skill to serve. Under white people, the superior race, Negroes abdicated their autonomy in the name of the safety and protection provided by their masters. These ideas were shared by those who favored slavery and by abolitionists like Agassiz.” This view of the world was broadly accepted, especially by Americans, as this soothed their fears in a rapidly changing world. “At that time, Agassiz was more interested in addressing the concerns of the population in general rather than those of the scientific community. He solemnly ignored the growing number of intellectuals who had lost interest in the idea of separate creations, and continued to give open lectures during which he defended polygenism and pluralism,” says anthropologist Gwyniera Isaac, curator of American ethnology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and author of the article “Louis Agassiz’s Photographs in Brazil.”

divulgacãoPhoto of Negro: attempt to create pure racial typesdivulgacão

So the trip to Brazil was a necessity because Agassiz believed that the publicity given to the expedition would provide him with allies to counter-attack evolutionism and defend the permanence of species and successive creations. “In the Amazon Region, Agassiz dedicated his time to looking for evidence of a recent ice age that had allegedly provoked a rupture between existing species and extinct ones (which led Hartt to draw away from him), in line with the theory that natural catastrophes had been responsible for generating new isolated species with no connection to other species. In relation to fish, he believed that the species found in the Amazon Region differed along the Amazon River and were different in each tributary,” says Lorelai. Unlike Darwin, Agassiz believed that the variability of each species was invalid and what nowadays is considered as a variety was believed by Agassiz to be a new species.

Agassiz also had other, less scientific interests. Ever since his arrival in the United States in 1840, he had become involved in the on-going debate in the United States on race and advocated the degeneration theory, which stated that miscegenation or hybridism were the quickest way to social degeneration. After all, he believed, if God had created fauna, flora and human beings in specific niches, how could human beings challenge these designs by mixing climates and races and – worse – making them interact? “In the opinion of some of the abolitionists and racialist thinkers of the 19th century, the evil caused by the displacement of Negroes, due to slave traffic was enhanced by an even worse mistake, which was the existence of mestizos, the result of ethnic mixes. The solution would be collective emigration, or at least the segregation of Afro-Americans inside a warm climate belt in the South, where they would live as far away as possible under the guardianship of white people,” says Maria Helena. “In this way, those who believed that it was impossible for the Negro race to live side by side with civilization also believed that the Negroes would be prevented from causing irreparable damage to the core of the nation.” During the Civil War, many proposals were made, both in the North and the South, advocating the repatriation of former slaves, even to Brazil (see “The day Brazil said no to the United States“, in number 156 of Pesquisa FAPESP). Agassiz’ arguments in favor of zoological provinces, which established separate tropical regions for the Negro race, provided such proposals with an aura of philanthropy. This is why, says the researcher, the interests of the Thayer Expedition went beyond science. “Behind the public discourse of the traveler-scientist, there was another discourse that linked Agassiz to U.S interests in the Amazon Region, connected to two lines of diplomatic action: the opening of the Amazon River to international navigation and the project to resettle Afro-Americans, as settler or apprentices, in settlements along the Amazon River lowlands, as these lowlands were viewed as the natural extension of the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States.” The U.S. Government was aware of the connection between Agassiz and Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, as both men had corresponded with each other since 1863. Agassiz had come to Brazil to pressure the emperor to open up the Amazon River for navigation, an endeavor in which he succeeded, and to help promote the immigration of Afro-Americans.

“In this sense, Brazil was seen as the ideal place to collect proof of the dangers of degeneration; this evidence would be publicized upon his return to the United States. To this end, Agassiz decided to start a major collection of photographs, that would document the misfortune of mixing pure and hybrid races – all of which was of an openly racist nature,” Maria Helena points out. “The natural consequence of alliances between people of different ethnic backgrounds is a class of individuals in which the pure racial type disappears, as do all the physical and moral qualities of primitive races, producing mestizos that are as repulsive as mongrel dogs,” Agassiz wrote. Hence Darwin’s accurate opinion of his rival: “He collects data to prove a theory instead of observing data to produce a theory.” This is the principle that explains the Brazilian photographs. “To demonstrate his thesis, he collected images of the ‘hybrid’ class of people who, he believed, were so apparent in Brazil. Human beings, like any other species, required an analysis conducted by means of empirical methods and ‘cold’ methods, such as photography,” Gwyniera Isaac points out.

divulgacãoMestizos from the Amazon Regiondivulgacão

With the objective of illustrating the profile of the Brazilians, Agassiz asked professional photographer Augusto Stahl to provide him with daguerreotypes of Africans, which he classified as “pure racial types.” This request generated two series of photographs – one in the form of portraits and another, of a scientific and physionomical nature, in the form of the ethnic types of black men and women in Rio de Janeiro; the photographs included some Chinese who lived in the city. The photographs are of naked people in three fixed positions: front, back, and profile. Agassiz went even further in Manaus, where he created a Bureau d’Antropologie to document the differences between the pure and mixed races. To this end, he relied on the help of amateur photographer Walter Hunnewell to photograph hybrid types from the Amazon Region. In 1850, Agassiz had already produced a similar series of photographs, portraying American slaves from South Caroline. He stated that this experience had strengthened his racist ideas. ‘New technical resources such as photography, gave rise to theories on new forms of capturing the human body, seen as a vehicle of racial features to be revealed by the natural scientist’s ability to “read bodies.” He inaugurated a somatological and phrenological representation of the African that would become generalized in the following decades and would populate the newly emerging anthropological museums,” says Maria Helena.

“At that time, anthropology had been transformed into the science of the visible, of the physical body with its distinct racial features and therefore the visual representations were a crucial element. In the United States, this was obtained by means of the contraposition of the color of the skin, which resulted in a concept of skin color based on contrast. An image of a Negro next to an image of a white man would immediately provoke in the viewer the idea of an alleged ‘inherent’ difference between races. To reinforce this, Agassiz mixed his photographs of Negroes with images of classical Greek statues, the idealized version of white people,” explains anthropologist Nancy Stepan, from Columbia University, who wrote the book “Picturing tropical nature.” “The photograph, instead of a drawing, was viewed as the undeniable truth for scientists who were viewed as being constraining. This concept was used in psychiatry, in medicine, in the categorizing of criminals and, at the end of the 19th century, was an essential part of the administration of the modern State.”

Agassiz, who was not trained in the complicated anthropometric measurements, viewed photography as a solution and attributed to photography the ‘importance of an era.’ “However, he sought the stable type that would prove his notion of the permanence of the species. This search for a racial type to which individuals could theoretically be reduced, which went against the notion of the continuous flow of beings, blinded Agassiz to the evidence that had led Darwin and Wallace to propose the theory of evolution. The same fallacy led his photographs to be so confusing and unexpected for him,” the anthropologist states. The photographs were also controversial. “I went to the establishment and was cautiously admitted by Hunnewell and his black hands. The Professor was in the room, busy persuading three young women – who he referred to as pure natives, but, as confirmed later on, had white blood. They were very well dressed and apparently refined; anyway, they were not libertines. They agreed to be photographed and were induced to take off their clothes and pose naked. Then Mr Tavares Bastos arrived and asked me ironically whether I was linked to the Bureau d’Antropologie”, as William James described it. “In the European tradition, which Agassiz was part of, being dressed was a sign of civilization and clothes were a symbol of status and gender. Making people undress robbed them of their dignity and humanity. In his opinion, this was possible because many of those women were slaves,” Nancy points out.

divulgacãoMestizo from the Amazon Regiondivulgacão

“Many of the photographed women, however, were members of the traditional society of Manaus and the ambiance at the Bureau was not very respectful. The photos were in an uncomfortable zone between the scientific and the erotic, genres that were often transversal in the 19th century. James’ comments reveal an environment of secrecy which is in contrast with Agassiz’ statements on the openly scientific nature of the photos. In addition, James’ reference to Hunnewell’s “black hands” has a double meaning that goes beyond the dirt caused by chemical products,” analyzes anthropologist John Monteiro, from the State University of Campinas. At the same time, the photos fit into the ethnographic convention of introducing the comfortable white spectator to things that were not only exotic – seen from a safe distance – but also invisible. The result of the collected images however was not the one expected by Agassiz. “The book produced by the couple and the diaries written by James are full of frustrated examples of finding ‘pure’ types. Brazil confused Agassiz, who believed that he was in a country with defined examples of three ‘pure’ races. However, he found ‘hybrids,’ which in turn had mated with other – hybrids,” and so on, generating a complex reality that could not be captured in his photographs,” says Nancy. “This was impossible without resorting to other resources, such as subtitles, which was in line with his scientific method where ‘races spoke for themselves.’ Paradoxically, when unclothing his models, Agassiz removed some of the few signs that he could have used to ensure the racial identities of the types.”

The Brazilian collection was never shown and only a few photographs were included in “A journey to Brazil,” some of which were used as a basis for engravings. “This was due to a number of political and academic reasons that had made it unfeasible to continue his studies of human races. Another point to be taken into consideration is the rigid moral environment in New England and the fact that Agassiz had lost his scientific credibility. The photographs, however, have a contemporary air, as they evoke the faces and lives of people that had been wiped out not only because of the “object-making” of science, but also because of memory-erasing policies,” says Maria Helena. William James summarizes this issue very appropriately: “I benefitted by having listened to Agassiz’ words, not so much for what he says, because I have never heard anybody say so many foolish things, but because I learned how to operate the vast and practical machine that he is made of.”