Django’s phrenologist: science, slavery and material culture, 1791-1861
The first HSMT seminar of Trinity Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 24th April (1st Week) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street. It will be delivered by James Poskett.
Poskett is the Adrian Research Fellow at Darwin College, Univesity of Cambridge. His research engages broadly with the global and imperial history of science from 1750, with particular research interests in the history of slavery and the history of the book. Currently, he is working on two projects: firstly, a book on the global history of phrenology, based on his doctoral research, and secondly, a new project on the global history of science and print, with a particular focus on the useful knowledge movement in the nineteenth century. He is also an advocate of public engagement, writing for national newspapers, websites and magazines. In 2013, Poskett was shortlisted for the BBC New Generation Thinker Award.
Eustache Belin saw the violence of slavery and revolution first hand. Born a slave on the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1773, Eustache spent his youth toiling in the sugar mills. But amidst the Haitian Revolution of 1791, he escaped to Paris. Incredibly, in the 1830s, a French phrenologist took a cast of Eustache’s head. Over the next thirty years, Eustache became a focal point for discussion of African character. Phrenologists wanted to understand the relationship between the African mind, slavery and revolution. In this talk, Poskett follows the bust of Eustache as it travelled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. In doing so, he shows how a single phrenological bust was deployed by both supporters and opponents of abolition. More broadly, this talk suggests that the history of science and race needs to be understood as part of a history of material exchange.
Relevant titles in the Wellcome Unit Library:
A system of phrenology by George Combe (BF885.E7 C7 COM 1836)
One of the most detailed and authoritative popular phrenology texts, Combe’s seminal work covers the majority of subjects touched by phrenology, from mesmerism to racism
Franz Joseph Gall, inventor of phrenology and his collection by Erwin Ackerknecht and Henri Vallois (BF869.G3 ACK 1956)
A short pamphlet on Gall’s work and his collection of phrenology-related items – 221 skulls, 102 casts of heads and 31 casts of brains.
Conquest of mind : phrenology and Victorian social thought by David de Giustino (BF868.D36 DEG 1975)
A work examining the reception and diffusion of phrenology in Britain, its uses to various professions and its challenges to traditional religion. Phrenology’s kinship with Rationalist ideas is explored for its appeal.
The cultural meaning of popular science : phrenology and the organization of consent in nineteenth-century Britain by Roger Cooter (Q127.G4 COO 1984)
Cooter studies the popularity of phrenology and the impact of science on Victorian society, in particular its social and ideological functions.
Phrenology and the origins of Victorian scientific naturalism by John Van Wyhe (BF879.V36 VAN 2004)
A detailed history of phrenology as one of the most influential ideological and cultural developments in Victorian Britain, in which Van Wyhe argues that naturalism can be attributed to phrenology’s diffusion.
Phrenology in the British Isles : an annotated historical biobibliography and index by Roger Cooter (Z7204.P47 COO 1989)
An annotated bibliography of phrenological sources.
Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post.