Modern Intellectual History

Articles

“ALMOST A SEPARATE RACE”: RACIAL THOUGHT AND THE IDEA OF EUROPE IN BRITISH ENCYCLOPEDIAS AND HISTORIES, 1771–1830

PAUL STOCKa1

a1 Department of International History, London School of Economics E-mail: p.stock@lse.ac.uk

Abstract

This article explores the association between racial thought and the idea of Europe in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. It begins by noting the complexities surrounding the word “race” in this period, before considering whether—and on what grounds—contemporary race thinkers identify a “European race” or “races”. This reveals important ambiguities and correlations between anatomical, genealogical and cultural understandings of human difference. The essay then discusses how some of these ideas find expression in British encyclopedias, histories and geographical books. In this way, it shows how racial ideas are disseminated, not just in dedicated volumes on anatomy and biological classification, but also in general works which purport to summarize and transmit contemporary received knowledge. The article draws upon entries on “Europe” in every British encyclopedia completed between 1771 and 1830, as well as named source texts for those articles, tracing how the word “Europe” was used and what racial connotations it carried. Some entries imply that “European” is either a separate race entirely, or a subcategory of a single human race. Others, however, reject the idea of a distinctive European people to identify competing racial groups in Europe. These complexities reveal increasing interest in the delineation of European identities, an interest which emerges partly from long-standing eighteenth-century debates about the categorization and comprehension of human difference. In addition, they show the diffusion of (contending) racial ideas in non-specialist media, foreshadowing the growing prominence of racial thought in the later nineteenth century.

(Online publication March 03 2011)