Inhabitant of Manaus

Date: 1865
Owner: Peabody Museum, Harvard University
Source Type: Images


This photograph was taken by Louis Agassiz, a professor of geology at Harvard University, whose 1865 expedition to Brazil compiled a collection of "scientific" anthropological photographs meant to indicate that racial mixing caused degeneracy. Agassiz was the United States' leading anti-Darwinist, and his project was meant to show how "tropical" peoples, namely Africans and Indians, were biologically inferior to whites, not a Darwinian variant of similar ancestors. The ideas that a tropical climate caused degeneration and that darker races were racially inferior were bound together in the burgeoning field of anthropology. In the nineteenth century, anthropology was inextricably tied to the European imperial project, and the study of "savage" races served to legitimize their subjugation, and photography became the most important new technology in this enterprise.

In this same series, Agassiz photographed this subject and many others without clothing. As Nancy Leys Stepan pointed out, photographing naked "natives" was at once dehumanizing and a form of acceptable pornography in an era of asexual Victorian standards. Although such issues were rarely raised at the time, the assertions based on such photographic "evidence" were even more shocking to modern sensibilities. Agassiz, who collected photographs of fifty individuals, used this minute sample of the Brazilian population to make dramatic claims about the inherent failings of tropical peoples, especially those "hybrid-types" with mixed blood (who were, then as now, a huge portion of the Brazilian population). An Indian crossed with a white, for example, was supposedly lazy, weak, and rude. Racism was endemic to European and U.S. approaches to tropical medicine.

Reference: Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Pres, 2001.

CITATION: Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. pg. 101. Photograph by Walter Hunnewell for Louis Agassiz, 1865. Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.