Early European Views of African Bodies
Though she was black, that was amply recompenc’d by the Softness of her Skin, the beautiful Proportion and exact Symmetry of each Part of her Body, and the natural, pleasant and inartificial Method of her Behaviours.
—WILLIAM SMITH, A New Voyage in Guinea (1744)
Early modern European travelers in Africa did not consistently generalize about a place called Africa and people called Africans. Neither the place nor the people existed for Europeans prior to the Atlantic slave trade and, especially, European colonialism in Africa in the nineteenth century. Within African imaginations, too, “Africa” came into existence through the slave trade and colonization. Previously, people of the sub-Saharan continent identified as members of kinship, political, and linguistic groups. European travelers to West and Central Africa helped to invent “Africa” (and African Americans) when they purchased people who had been severed from the family relationships and the linguistic and political affiliations that gave them identities as persons. In place of these former selves, slave traders imposed a new identity: enslaved “African” chattel. In time, the identity “slave” would define African Americans just as “African” would define the people of the subcontinent.
But in Africa during the 1600s and 1700s, these identities were very much still in the process of becoming. English involvement in the slave trade produced paradoxical experiences. On the one hand, it gave the mariners, merchants, and sailors who worked in the trade every possible reason to malign the people they bought and sold. And so they did—prolifically. At the same time, the trade gave some Englishmen (and other European men) the opportunity to spend time, sometimes years, in Africa. During that time, they had experiences that challenged what they thought they knew about gender norms, about women, and about Africa. European writers recorded their conflicts over sexual practices in particular, offering evidence of some of the ways that West African definitions of what made bodies beautiful differed significantly from European ideals, as well as from what Europeans knew of Africans. Many Europeans recoiled from these challenges to their worldview, but others, after an initial shock of disgust, found it difficult to sustain their repugnance over time. They came to see African bodies as diverse: black and tawny, female and male, slave and free, rich and poor.
When the traveler Richard Jobson traveled along the Gambia River on “Guinea Company” (the slave trading Royal African Company) business in the 1620s, he met people he called Fulbie (Fulbe). Quickly interpreting them through their bodies, Jobson was pleased to note that they “goe clothed.” He then scoped out the differences between men and women and tried to figure out who, if anyone, was beautiful. Jobson approvingly noted that the Fulbe were “Tawny,” not “blacke,” and “handsome.” The women more so than the men: Fulbe women were “streight, upright, and excellently” well formed. They were blessed with “good features, with a long blacke haire, much more loose then the blacke women have.” They tended to their hair fastidiously, just as they did to their clothes and their dairy work. Being quite “neate and cleane” in their habits, should they be caught in any “nastinesse,” Fulbe women, like good English women at home, blushed with embarrassment. They worked, like Irish women, with cattle, but were much tidier than Irish women. Theirs was a “cleanlinesse [with which] your Irish women hath no acquaintance.” Jobson linked “Tawny” skin, “long [. . .], long” hair and straight bodies with “handsome” women, and he made a point of distinguishing the lighter-colored Fulbe from “blacke women” in general as well as from the “perfectly blacke, both men and women” Mandinka. In Jobson’s view, Africans came in multiple colors: tawny, black, and “perfectly black.” Not only were Africans not all one people, they were not yet all black. And, in Jobson’s estimation, the lighter brown skin of some Africans enhanced their beauty.1 Eur-africans and brown-skinned Africans received much praise for being beautiful.
But dark brown and black Africans were far from unrecognized by European men for their beauty. For instance, during his time in the Cape Verde Islands in the late 1640s, Richard Ligon met the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was “a Negro,” the mistress of a Portuguese settler and a woman “of the greatest beauty and majesty that ever I saw.” In his account, Ligon dreamily detailed her body’s exquisite form (“her stature [was] large, and excellently shap’d, well favour’d, full ey’d, and admirably grac’d”), the cloth and color of her clothing (she wore a head wrap of “green Taffety, strip’d with white and Philiamort,” a “Peticoat of Orange Tawny and Sky color; not done with Strait striped, but wav’d; and upon that a mantle of purple silk”), her jewelry, her boots. And her eyes! A decade had passed since his voyage, but Ligon had never forgotten their exotic allure. “Her eyes were her richest Jewels, for they were the largest, and most oriental that I have ever seen.” Her smile was a paragon—and not, Ligon insisted, simply because all Africans had white teeth. That misconception was a “Common error.” But hers were indeed “exactly white, and clean.” Ligon’s “black Swan” spoke “graceful[ly],” her voice “unit[ing] and confirm[ing] a perfection in all the rest.” Hers was a “perfection” that exceeded the grace and nobility of British royalty. The woman was possessed of “far greater Majesty, and gracefulness, than I have seen [in] Queen Anne.” Ligon’s readers must have been quite surprised to read a favorable comparison between their queen and an African concubine.2 Then again, it was not exactly easy in the middle of the seventeenth century to know what to expect when it came to representations of Africa. It was an age of intense contradictions.
Later in his travels, Ligon surprised his sixty-plus-year-old self with the force of the admiration and desire he felt for some of the “many pretty young Negro Virgins” he met later on his voyage. There were two “Negro” women, in particular, who took Ligon’s breath away. The two women were “Sisters and Twins” and their “shapes,” “Parts,” “motions” and hair were “perfection” itself. Indeed, they were works of art. True, Ligon admitted, their shapes “would have puzzl’d Albert Durer,” the German Renaissance painter known for his mathematical approach to proportion. And Titian, the Italian painter revered for his soft, fleshy representations of the human form and harmonious use of color, would have been perplexed by their muscles and “Colouring.” Still, the women “were excellent,” possessed of a “beauty no Painter can express.” The twins were unlike North Africans, East Africans, or Gambians, “who are thick lipt, short nos’d and [who had] uncommonly low foreheads.” In what ways the twins were different from these others, Ligon did little to clarify; he did not describe their facial features, bodies, or skin color. He did, however, detail their hair and their “motion,” both of which he found irresistible. They wore their hair neither shorn nor cornrowed, but loose in what Ligon deemed “a due proportion of length.” Their “natural Curls [. . .] appear as Wyers [wires],” and the women bedecked their corkscrew curls with ribbons, beads, and flowers. The occasional braid twisted adorably onto their cheeks. Their motions? “The highest.” Grace in movement was “the highest part of beauty,” and the twins had mastered it. Ligon was surprised to find in Africa such living embodiments of “beauty,” “innocence,” and “grace.”3
The emerging stereotype about African women’s rugged reproductive capacity was not wholly devoid of admiration of African women’s stoicism and physical strength, especially when European men (inevitably) compared African women to European women. In light of what they thought they witnessed in (or read about) Africa, some male writers came to see European women as annoyingly weak. Pieter de Marees announced in 1602, for instance: “the women here are of a cruder nature and stronger posture than the Females in our lands in Europe.”4 In this double backhanded compliment, de Marees hitched together African and English women, loading both with the burden of embodying British civility and its constitutive opposite, African savagery.
Charles Wheeler, an English trader who lived in Guinea for a decade in the employ of the Royal African Company in the 1710s and 1720s, shared Marees’s perception of the ease with which African women produced children, as well as his regard for it. “One Happiness, which those of this Part of the World enjoy before those of Europe,” Wheeler told William Smith, who later wrote about his travels, “is their Labours. These are Times with them so easy, so kind, so natural and so good, that they have no Need of Midwives, Doctors, Nurses, &c. and I have known Women go to Bed over Night, bring forth a Child and be abroad the next Day by Noon.” Wheeler admiringly attributed the good times that African women enjoyed during pregnancy and childbirth to their “natural” state of being. Citing the “Black Lady” with whom he lived during his decade on the coast, he (and she) credited above all women’s “Chastity” during pregnancy and menstruation. “You White People,” Wheeler’s Black Lady told him, “do not observe this Rule, [and] there are among you, Lepers, Sickly, Diseased, Ricketty, Frantick, Enthusiastic, Paralytic, Apopletic, &c.” European clothing made matters worse. English women’s “Stays, and Multiplicity of Garments [. . . as well as] the Multitude of other Distempers and damnable Inconveniences, [which they] through Pride and Luxury, had brought upon themselves” produced the “hard Labours” they suffered so terribly loudly. In Wheeler’s and his lady’s interpretation, civility and its sartorial demands distorted women’s bodies and led to painful parturition. African women’s lighter, looser clothing, “so contriv’d as to confine no one Part of the Body,” rewarded them with easier pregnancies and more dignified birth experiences. The natural manner in which African women gave birth extended to the care of newborns—with beautifully healthful results. No special “Provision [. . .] of any Necessaries” were made for newborns, and “yet all its Limbs grow vigorous and proportionate.” William Smith had lifted this last sentence from Willem Bosman’s influential 1705 book, but with an important addition: Smith thought that it was the coddling of infants in Europe that “makes so many crooked People.” The “vigorous and proportionate” limbs of African infants were born of unconstrained, natural female bodies. African women’s natural state rewarded them with ease in childbirth and straight-limbed children. African women, from Bosman’s, Wheeler’s, and Smith’s points of view, were innocents unscarred by the curse of Eve.5
The same slave trade that pricked English interest in Africa and contempt for Africans also elicited its seeming opposite: a need to engage with Africans and to know something about them. In order to make their purchases, male travelers simultaneously recognized, fantasized, and reshaped local identities. They perceived, as we have seen, differences among Africans—differences of culture, of skill, and in their bodies. European travelers were not incapable of recognizing human beauty in Africa. Even slave traders were capable of recognizing it, but with a twist. Slave traders interpreted bodies through a merchant’s mindset: set to turn some African people into property, they perceived beauty with the slave market in mind. In the mid-seventeenth century, Richard Ligon knew that the buyers of slaves in Barbados saw Africans as more than simply monstrous or hardy. Barbadian planters chose slaves “as they do Horses in a Market; the strongest, youthfullest, and most beautiful yield the greatest prices.”
The naval doctor John Atkins agreed. “Slaves differ in their Goodness,” Atkins opined in 1735. Based on his travels in “Negro-land” (West Africa), he found “those from the Gold Coast are accounted best, being cleanest limbed, and more docible” (though he thought they were also “more prompt to Revenge, and murder”). Slave sellers in Africa and in the Americas embellished Africans’ bodies in order to make them appear healthier, stronger, more beautiful. The reality of starved, exhausted, and likely ill bodies had no place in the market. Sellers washed the stain of urine, feces, and blood from the slaves’ skin, shaved and deloused their hair, and rubbed them with “Negro Oyle” (palm oil) or lard to make their skin glisten and hide the effects of the captives’ traumatic forced migrations. Improving slaves’ appearance of vitality was an essential part of getting them sold “to Advantage.” Indeed, the historian of the slave trade Stephanie E. Smallwood has called the aesthetic preparation of the slaves’ bodies for sale the part that “would matter most in the captives’ upcoming performance” in the market.6 It was to no slave trader’s advantage to insist that Africans were a uniformly revolting people. The irony, of course, is that slavery’s logic of commodification evacuated beauty of the power it often held. Commodified and enslaved beauty was anything but powerful.
Some English travelers thought they discerned a difference between African women and men, a difference in the aesthetic value of their bodies. Of those who compared men and women, most insisted that the men were far better made, smoother, and above all more symmetrical than the women. With some exceptions, African women, who challenged European gender norms so profoundly, were viewed as more unevenly made than men were.7 Their physiques, it was frequently claimed, had been disfigured by field work, pregnancy, and breast-feeding. The traveler Francis Moore claimed that the women he saw during his travels along the River Gambia in the 1720s were asymmetrically made with “one Breast [. . .] generally larger than the other.” The surgeon John Atkins, who had denounced the women of “Negro-land” for their distended breasts, nonetheless admired the male bodies he encountered. The men were “well-limbed, clean Fellows, flattish nosed, [. . .] seldom distorted.” The women were simply “not nigh so well shaped as the Men.” “Childing, and their Breasts always pendulous, stretches them so unseemly a Length and Bigness,” he wrote, seemingly with nose wrinkled.8
Richard Ligon also perceived distinctions between African men and women. For all that he admired the beauty of many of the women he met in Africa, his tone changed dramatically once he reached Barbados. During the late 1640s when he lived in that slave colony, Ligon made a point of being “very strict” with himself “in observing the shapes of these people.” Enslaved men were choice, like cuts of meat: “the men, they are very well timber’d, that is broad between the shoulders, full breasted, well filleted, and clean leg’d.” The women, on the other hand, were decidedly “not” on same order of beauty. According to Ligon, African men’s bodies were symmetrical, but women’s bodies were irregular. Enslaved men’s bodies “h[e]ld good” with the rules laid out by the “Master of Proportions,” the artist Albrecht Dürer, in his 1522 study of geometry, Four Books on Measurement. Ligon applied his interpretation of Dürer’s study to his “observation” of enslaved men in Barbados and concluded that their shoulders, chests, and legs were placed and sized in balanced proportion to one another. In sharp contrast to African men’s elegant proportionality, enslaved African women’s bodies were out of whack. According to Ligon’s reading of Dürer’s work, women should have “twice the length of the face to the breadth of the shoulders, and twice the length of her own head to the breadth of her hips.” By these measures of corporeal harmony, Barbadian slave women were “faulty; for I have seen very few of them, whose hips have been broader than their shoulders, unless they have been very fat.” Young women’s breasts were “very large” and unnaturally pert, “strutting out so hard and firm, as no leaping, jumping, or stirring, will cause them to shake any more.” Older women had borne children, nursed them, and carried them with “cloaths [. . .] which come upon their breasts” and pressed them “very hard.” Formerly firm breasts aged and drooped. They “hang down below their Navels, so that when they stoop at their common work of weeding, they hang almost down to the ground.” Drawing on centuries of European fantasies of monstrous races in Africa, Ligon perceived “that at a distance, you would think they had six legs.”9 African men, in Ligon’s account, were paragons of proportionality, but African women were distorted almost beyond human form.
Ligon’s change of mind came about just as the English were becoming increasingly involved in the African trade in people. Indeed, Ligon’s transformation happened on a journey along a slave trade route ending in the slave society of Barbados. His perceptions of black bodies there must have been deeply stained by their debasement. Just as Ligon’s attitudes changed with exposure to the trade in people, the tone of English discussions of Africa changed in the middle of the seventeenth century. Scholars of racial difference in the early modern Atlantic world have detected a decline in the contradictions after about the mid-seventeenth century, and a rise of more uniformly negative appraisals of Africa and Africans.10
Despite the general shift in tone, however, there remained a good deal of inconsistency on the specific question of beauty well into the eighteenth century, the era of deep English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. The inconsistency extended even to African women, who continued to be seen in contradictory ways. Even during a time when contempt for dark skin was extremely widespread, it was not universal. There was no consensus among Englishmen that blackness was uniformly the very antithesis of beauty. Until a trip to East Africa in the 1760s and 1770s, the traveler James Bruce “had always connected the idea of perfect beauty with a fair complexion.” But upon seeing East African women, he had to think again. The women there were so lovely to him. One in particular was “a woman of the most beautiful form, the most delicate skin, and the most lovely composition of features” he had ever seen. The sight of her was an epiphany. “At once” Bruce became “convinced that almost the all of beauty consists in elegance of figure, in the fineness and polish of the skin, in grace of movement, and the expression of the countenance.”11 Based on what he observed during a trip he made to Camp Palmas (the coasts of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Benin) in 1786 and 1800, the ship captain John Adams told his readers that “Fantee women are well-formed, and many of them are not wanting in personal beauty.” What “beauty” meant to Adams was fairly specific: “their features are small, their limbs finely rounded, their hands and feet small, and their teeth uniformly white and even.” Fantee women had an elaborate daily toilette. Adams got the impression that they “often” took “an hour or two” and used “no inconsiderable degree of skill” to wash their bodies (“from head to foot every day”) and teeth, moisturize and perfume their skin, dress, and style their hair. These gorgeous and fastidious women were, Adams pointedly noted, dark skinned. The men weren’t too shabby, either. Adams thought they were “black as jet, muscular, and well-formed.” Elsewhere in West Africa, he encountered others who were “very black” or “extremely black” and also “good-looking” or “a fine race of people.” Indeed, when he compared another group of people, a group who were “not of so deep a black as those of the Fantee,” he found them merely “inoffensive.” They were nothing to compare to the beautiful Fantee, whose skin was a “deep” black.12
Bruce and Adams were but two examples. Plenty of other Englishmen came to the same conclusion: black could be beautiful. The entrepreneur Joseph Hawkins lived among and traded with the Igbo people in the late eighteenth century. He perceived them as “considerably blacker than the natives of the lower CONGO country” who had “a yellowish tinge [. . .] owing, I suppose, to their greater intercourse with the whites.” Mixture with whites may have lightened black skin, but it did not brighten it; rather, it cast a “yellowish tinge” into the skin. The dark skin of the Igbo, on the other hand, was one element of their overall “well formed, [. . .] upright” bodies, along with their “strait” limbs.13 And when Alexander Falconbridge, a doctor who worked on slave ships, met the young wife of a Sierra Leonean “King” during a voyage in the 1790s, his reaction was conflicted. Though he contemptuously referred to her as a “Peginee” (picaninny), he also found her to be “most beautiful.” He also met an African “Queen” who, he thought, must have “been a good looking woman in her youthful days.”14 In his 1791 account of his travels in Sierra Leone, John Matthews described a number of the peoples he met there (the “Bullams, Timmaneys, and Bagoes”) as having “a good black [color], straight limbs, and pleasing features.” Noting the aesthetics of the female bodies he saw, Matthews professed, “many of their women are really handsome” as well as “exceedingly clean.” Gray-bearded elders made “a most venerable appearance.”15
Likewise, while “tawny” Africans garnered their share of admiration from European men, not everyone agreed that light-colored (but nonwhite) skin was so very comely. In 1726 the Royal African Company sent the mapmaker William Smith to survey a portion of the West African coast. Once there, he had a very strong reaction against the “MULLATOES” of coastal Sierra Leone. A treacherous “Bastard Brood” in general, they were also “frightfully ugly, when they grow in Years, especially the women.” In 1705, Willem Bosman wrote that “the whole brood” of mixed-race Africans were “far from handsome” when young, and they only got uglier with age. “When old, [they] are only fit to fright children in their beds.” Time “speckled” their bodies with “white, brown, and yellow spots, like the tigers, which they also resemble in their barbarous nature.”16 To the long list of animals that Africans of all shades were supposed to resemble—toads, wolves, goats, apes—we may now add tigers.
Clashing interpretations of African bodies also persisted in continental travel writing. Take, for example, the work of the French traveler and physician François Bernier, a pioneer in the field of racial classification. In 1684, Bernier broke with past European practices of sorting humanity by country or region, and proposed, instead, a “new division of the earth” which divided the world’s people into “four or five Types of Race among men whose distinctive traits are so obvious.” And by “obvious,” Bernier meant visible in the form of the body. Bernier has been credited with originating a modern idea of race (i.e., the idea that race is rooted in biological classifications).
Yet, despite his rather absolute take on racial difference, when it came to the question of “the beauty of women” in Africa, Bernier reminded his readers, “there are lovely ones and ugly ones to be found everywhere.” There were African women who were black and beautiful. “Among the Blacks of Africa I have also seen some very beautiful women who did not have thick lips and snub noses,” the latter being two of the essential features of Bernier’s African “type.” These women were “of such an astonishing beauty that they put in the shade” the goddess Venus—but only when they had an “aquiline nose, small mouth, coral lips, ivory teeth, large bright eyes, gentle features, and a bosom and everything else of utter perfection.” These dark-skinned women were, in Bernier’s eyes, undeniably lovely. At one point in his travels, Bernier claimed, he witnessed a number of Africa’s beauties “completely naked, waiting to be sold” in a slave market. “I can tell you,” Bernier informed his reader, “there could be nothing lovelier in the world to see—but they were extremely expensive because they were being sold at three times the price of the others.” The black women in Bernier’s description were “lovely”—“nothing lovelier”—in a very different way than were Ligon’s “black Swan,” Jobson’s “Tawny” Fulbe women, or even the free women that Bernier had seen. These women possessed “perfect” features (the aforementioned “aquiline nose, small mouth, coral lips, ivory teeth, large bright eyes, gentle features, and a bosom and everything else of utter perfection”), and they were slaves, a fact that subjected them to being stripped nude and put up for sale. Their commodified beauty was a rare and valuable combination. Consequently, they were “extremely expensive.”17
Bernier thought “brown ones,” such as the women “in the Indies” could also be “lovely.” Despite the tendency in France for yellow skin to be seen as sickly, the “yellow” and “very light tallow” of South Asian women was “highly valued” among them, and Bernier “found them very much to my liking too.” The distinction was that “this slight yellowishness if bright and sparkling, [was] quite different from the nasty livid pallor of someone with jaundice.” Bernier asked his reader to “imagine a beautiful young daughter of France contracted jaundice—but instead of her sick, pallid face, and her yellowish, faded, listless eyes, think of her having a healthy, soft and smiling face with beautiful bright eyes full of love: that is something like the idea I want to give you.”18 The man who divided humanity into a handful of biologically distinct races was the same man who insisted that feminine beauty could be found everywhere around the globe, at times offering comparisons that favored “brown ones” over French beauties.
Whether dark or yellow, speckled or spotted, dull skin was the antithesis of beautiful skin. It was important to male writers that skin be smooth, even-colored, transparent, and glowing. “Liveliness” was the word many Englishmen used to express this ideal of feminine skin. Dull, dingy skin (whether light or dark) was unattractive, whereas bright skin (sometimes even if it was dark) was lovely, the implied difference being the life that shone through. The light brown or “tawny” skin that some European men found so pretty struck others as dingy, perhaps a little sickly. John Adams, who esteemed black-skinned women and men so highly, thought that some Africans had a “yellow, bilious cast” to their skin. He did not come right out and say it was unappealing, but his comparison of their skin to bile clearly was not complimentary.19 “The natives of the lower CONGO country” had what Joseph Hawkins, a sailor, could only describe as a “yellowish tinge” to their skin. And when the slave trader William Snelgrave met a very light-skinned African woman, one “so white, [she was] equal to our English Women,” he was puzzled by her appearance. Her hair was “wooly, [. . .] like the blackest of the Natives.” Her features were “the same” color as her hair: black. But her skin—it seemed so white. He searched and searched for the thing that set her skin apart from English skin, the thing that would reveal its non-whiteness. Then he found it: its dull tone. It was “not so lively a Colour” as that of English roses.20
The eighteenth-century French naturalist Georges Louis Buffon, whose writings on race were enormously influential in Europe and the United States (historians have dubbed him the father of modern racism), saw more than color when he looked at Africans’ skin. He saw tone and texture, and in these he could see beauty. Buffon admired the beauty of the people he called Jaloff, referring to those who lived in southern Senegal within the Jolof empire. They were, he said, one of Africa’s darker people and among the world’s beautiful people. “They are all very black, well-proportioned” and tall. “Their features are less harsh than those of the other Negroes; and some of them there are, especially among the female sex, whose features are far from irregular.” It was easy for Buffon to admire these women and men for “with respect to beauty, they have the same ideas as ourselves.” Which was to say that “they consider fine eyes, a well-made nose and mouth, and lips of a proportional smallness.” Really, the only difference between the Senegalese and “us” was the “exceedingly black, and exceedingly glossy” color and tone of the former’s skin. Lively, dark, and glossy Senegalese skin was admirably “delicate” and “soft.”21
But he also made a point of excluding dark skin color from his summary of overall Senegalese beauty: “colour alone excepted, we find among them women as handsome as in any other country of the world.” Buffon was just as contradictory about other West African peoples who, “like those of Senegal,” were “well made, and very black.” Like the “Jaloff,” “the negroes of the island of Gorée, and of the Cape de Verde coast” were “glossy” and prideful of their color, which they “prized” far above the skin of those “who are not the same as much as white men despise the tawny.” Indeed, these were the very “negroes” that he found to be “more beautiful” than, for instance, the Aboriginal people of Australia precisely because of the healthy look of their “exceedingly black” skin. “Copper-colour” was, Buffon believed, a sure sign of sickness. Buffon seemed to be amused by West Africans’ belief “that, because they are the blackest, they are the most beautiful of men.” But he did not exactly contradict the idea, either.22
Liveliness and glossiness were visible in the skin and evident in personalities as charm. Like liveliness, charm helped beautify female bodies in English minds. Both animated personalities, especially women’s, and had the power to make women of any color into beauties. Charles Wheeler, who worked for the Royal African Company in Guinea for ten years in the early 1700s, adored his African lover for “the natural, pleasant and inartificial Method of her behaviours. She was not forward, nor yet coy.”23 John Matthews shared the feeling in his 1791 account of a voyage to Sierra Leone. In his view, comeliness was linked to personality. Describing a number of the people he met during his voyage in terms that mixed descriptions of their bodies with descriptions of their character, Matthews considered some of them to be “a stout, active, and personable race; of a good black, straight limbs, and pleasing features; and rather above the middle size.” One group, the “Timmaneys,” he found to be particularly “remarkable for an open, ingenuous countenance; and many of their women are really handsome.”24 Charm, sincerity, hospitality all could beautify African bodies, making them “pleasing” and “really handsome.”
Englishmen who read French travel writing would have found a similar pattern of thought. It did not hurt West African women’s depiction in French writings that they were seen as possessing a gay temperament and a sexual predilection for European men. The Jaloff were, according to Georges Buffon, usually very gay, lively, and amorous. They “are very fond of white men whom they exert every assiduity to please, both to gratify themselves, and to obtain presents which may flatter their vanity,” Buffon explained.25 Likewise, François Leguat’s seventeenth-century report on his travels described Senegalese women in flattering tones. The “female negroes there,” were, by Leguat’s description, “some of them perfect beauties” possessed of “fine and soft” skin, “black and open” eyes and an “easy, free air, that is highly agreeable.”26
So, for more than a few European writers, African women were sweet, easygoing, and delightful. These attributes were embodied in their legendarily soft skin. It was so silky, it sometimes even compensated, in English descriptions, for other African failings. Some Englishmen in Africa, especially those who lived there for some time, learned to view female beauty as a complex of bodily attributes, as something not easily reducible to the light / dark dichotomy. During his decade’s residence in Guinea, Charles Wheeler got to know a woman who cut “no despicable Figure” even “though she was black.” She possessed other qualities: “softness of her Skin, the Beautiful Proportion and exact Symmetry of each Part of her Body, and the natural, pleasant and inartificial Method of her Behaviors.” These made up for, in Wheeler’s heart, her skin color. Like other male travelers, Wheeler had a few additional words for her “lovely Breasts, whose Softness to the Touch nothing can exceed.” In even more sensual tones, the poet Thomas Gray, back in the seventeenth century, had asked in his commonplace book “whether White or Black [skin] be best?” He answered his own question. “The Black in softness doth excel.” More precisely, black women’s “Lovely Breasts” were graced with a “Softness to the Touch [that] nothing can exceed.”27 So much talk of soft African skin. Which raises the question: how did he, and the others, know that African women’s skin and bosoms felt so very soft?
The open secret among European men traveling to or settling in the slave trading regions of West and Central Africa was the fact of sexual relationships between many European men and African women. Whatever contradictory messages about African bodies they published once home in Europe, many, many male travelers to Africa had sexual relationships with local women during their sojourns. European men found their preconceptions about African family formations and sexual practices challenged by their experiences in Africa. The Royal African Company trader Charles Wheeler admitted that, when he first arrived in Guinea, he was ignorant of “the local people and their social & cultural practices.” He “soon” learned to appreciate the people’s culture and their comeliness. While Wheeler listened to his companion’s explanation of the reasons for sexual companionship to be provided to guests, he was distracted by her beauty. “During this Conversation,” he later recalled, “and whilst we were at Supper, I could not forbear viewing my Fair with an amorous Eye, her Hair was done up in a Ringlet, set with precious Stones, from whence divers Locks of Hair beset with Diamonds descended from behind, and loosely play’d upon her jetty Breasts and Shoulders.”28
Being the first Europeans to arrive, the Portuguese were the first to make themselves at home in West Africa. Richard Jobson reported on the “Molatoes” he saw during his 1620–21 voyage along the River Gambia, where the Portuguese had been exploring since about 1450. They were the offspring of Portuguese settlers and the “countrey blacke women” to whom they were married (according to local custom, if not Portuguese law) or with whom they lived. Richard Ligon made a similar observation at the Cape Verde Islands, where he found a Portuguese man living with “his family consisting” of “three negroes” and “a Mollatto of his own getting.” By the late seventeenth century, the English had muscled their way into the Africa trade and therefore into relationships with African people, including sexual relationships with women. A 1682 dispatch from a Royal African Company officer reported from an English settlement in Sierra Leone that “Every man hath his whore ffor whom they steal &c.” There were “whores” who lived with their lovers and prostitutes who didn’t, though the latter could become the former. Francis Moore, who traveled in Gambia in the early 1720s, knew the prices that prostitutes charged there to be “a little Coral, or a Silk Handkerchief”—both were handy for trade or body ornamentation. But if “any White Man has a Fancy to any of them, and is able to maintain them,” he could live with her “in the Nature of a Wife,” even “without the Ceremony of Matrimony.” Well into the nineteenth century, European and white American men who traveled to Africa connected with local women. During his trip to West Africa in the 1850s, the American Methodist minister Charles W. Thomas disapproved of the “concubinage, and other vices indulged in by a majority of the white residents here.” He thought their decadence undermined the good work Christian missionaries tried to do.29
From West African points of view, sexual relationships between African women and European men were highly structured and very purposeful. European male travelers entered West African societies with deep convictions that men’s sexual desires were important to satisfy. As European men arrived in West Africa, they participated in all of the sexual institutions available to them as visitors: public prostitution, private prostitution, and concubinage. Public prostitutes were disparaged as “whores” by many European men, but in fact they were (at least in Ghana and the Ivory Coast but probably in other parts of West Africa, too) enslaved women who had been assigned sex work. As slaves, they did not choose their work. The women were initiated into their roles in public ceremonies, received small gifts for their services from their clients, kept a portion of their pay (enough “to subsist them in cloathes and necessaries”; the rest went to their masters or mistresses), and received pensions when they retired. They commonly suffered from sexually transmitted diseases as a result of “prostituting themselves to the unsound as well as the sound.” In each of the towns that had public prostitutes—not all did—there might be “two or three of these miserable wretches.” These victims of “institutionalized rape” (as one historian has called them) were also “conscripted public servants” (as the historian Emmanuel Akyeampong argues) who helped stabilize intergenerational tensions by providing younger, unmarried men with something they demanded. “As long as they are sound, and in flower, they are in very great esteem.” Their high value to African men rendered public prostitutes pawns between European and African traders. There was, according to Bosman, no better way for a European trader in a “dispute with his subordinate negroes” to “bring them to reason than by taking one of these whores into custody, and confining her in the fort.” Not only would the bachelors quickly be brought into line, so would the married men who worried about “the danger” of the bachelors “lying with men’s wives.”30
Some early modern West African societies also tolerated the existence of private prostitution among free women. There was nothing desirable about the work or the low status it conferred on the prostitute, but it provided a livelihood to poor women and assertive women who had lost the protection of their families. “Handsome” women without other resources were “permitted to earn what money they please with their bodies,” Bosman said of the Rice Coast. It also provided the same outlet for male sexuality that public prostitutes did. Some European men hired prostitutes to work for them during their stays or used domestic servants as if they were prostitutes. During a visit to the slave trading center on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone in the early 1720s, the British naval surgeon John Atkins eyeballed the thirty or so “private Traders” who had settled there. “They all keep Gromettas (Negro Servants),” he later reported. Female servants, he noted, did more than “keep House” and tend to the traders’ slaves. They also were “obedient to any Prostitutions their Masters command.” The recognized social place of prostitution in some West African societies suggests, Akyeam-pong points out, that “male sexual needs, as opposed to female sexual needs, have always been recognized in Akan society.”31 This accommodation of male sexual needs extended to visitors, guests, and trading partners from abroad.
Ordinary European sailors probably hired prostitutes, but elite male travelers (ships’ captains, prosperous traders) were, in all likelihood, less inclined to do so—if only because they did not have to. Hospitable West African leaders greeted European traders as hosts. They greeted strangers with cool drinks, snacks, and a moment to rest. They allowed their visitors to rent housing; buy food, water, and firewood; and hire African crew, servants, guides, and interpreters. They ensured the safety of their guests’ persons and their property. And they provided female company to the leadership. In return, visitors were expected to pay taxes, give gifts, and trade exclusively with their host and landlord. “When a ‘Grandee’ is visited by another Grandee,” Charles Wheeler told William Smith, one “who comes one or two Days Journey, and perhaps designs to stay there for some time,” the local leadership “gives his Visitant the Choice of one of his Concubines to be his Companion, and to lie with him during his Stay.” When Wheeler met the woman selected to be his companion, he found her anything but objectionable. She was “a young lady in her Prime, her Stature was tall, and she was well proportion’d.” Wheeler admitted that “the Sight of her, produc’d some Emotions in me in her Favour.” Wheeler approved the choice and his host sent them to their “house, just by his own Palace” with a few slaves to serve them. Wheeler’s host took no chances with his visitor, lodging him close to his own palace and cosseting him with female company and slaves—all to welcome his guest, to present himself as a generous host, and to remind Wheeler of the many gifts he had to give. Many traders learned the wisdom of taking a female companion. Doing so safeguarded their relationships with male leaders; it ensured that they would not, unintentionally or otherwise, have sexual encounters with inappropriate women.32
Married African men may have worried about bachelors, European and African, but European men also had to take care. Bosman warned other European men who might go to West Africa: “He who debauches a Negro’s wife here, is not only generally entirely ruined, but his relations often suffer with him: for if the injured person be a rich and great man, he is not contented with ruining the malefactor only, but will not be quiet till he hath removed him out of the way.” The woman also took her life in her hands. Everyone, except perhaps public prostitutes, was invested in the proper channeling of sexual energy. Prostitution and concubinage ideally protected marriage (and extramarital liaisons): they were intended to preserve the institution from desecration by fallible human beings and to protect husbands, wives, and single men from the shame of adultery. As Wheeler’s Black Lady told him, with likely exaggeration: “you will never hear among us, [. . .] that the Visitant cuckolds the Husband, and debauches the Daughters, and Women-servants,” as Wheeler had told her happened in Europe. Concubinage between European men and African women tamed the sexual threat posed by single men.33
It also, and probably more importantly, served as an exchange of gifts between men hoping to build mutually beneficial relationships. In concubinage, European and African men secured their alliances to one another through the exchange of women’s sexuality. Some African men wished the exchange in women went both ways. The king of Dahomey once requested that William Smith bring him a woman from England. “If there is any Cast-off Whore, either White or Mullattoe, that can be persuaded to come to this Country, either to be his Wife or else practice her old Trade,” Smith would “gain his Majesty’s heart by” enticing such a woman to Benin.34 In some ways, then, sex was beside the point. More to the point was the bond between host and visitor that the exchange of women helped to cement.
But sex between English men and African women did so much more than domesticate visiting men’s sexuality and provide European men with a way into local markets. In many ways, it changed everyone involved. Like cross-cultural relationships have the potential to do in any context, past or present, the intimacies of sex and companionship could both transform and deepen prejudices. European men in Africa found their assumptions about the nature of female sexuality, gender roles, and beauty all called into question. Charles Wheeler, for one, quickly came to understand that his “Aversion” to “Polygamy” was nothing more than “the Prejudice of a different Education.” Sounding every bit the cultural relativist, Wheeler insisted that in time he became “a little habited to this Custom” and appreciated that “Different Nations have different Customs, and consequently different Ideas of one and the same Thing.” Chastity in Guinea, he had learned, consisted not of absolute abstinence from sex outside of marriage, but abstinence during pregnancy. In fact, Wheeler was delighted to learn that, unlike proper English ladies, “the Ladies of this Country imagine it no Fault to be free, nor to be fond of a man; their Notion is, that they were made for their Diversion as well as Use, and therefore they say they ought to excite in the Man amorous Thoughts and Desires.” Wheeler, who had already been casting “an amorous Eye” on the woman he would come to call his “Black Lady,” gave in to desire. “Her Ladyship embrac’d me several times, stroaking me from my Shoulders to my Waste, both behind and before. At Midnight we went to Bed, and in that Situation I soon forgot the Complexion of my Bedfellow, and obey’d the Dictates of all powerful Nature. Greater Pleasure I never found.” She became his companion for the duration of his decade in Guinea.35
Joseph Hawkins, who worked on a “Guinea Trader” (a slave ship) in the mid-1790s, took a little longer to adapt to his surroundings than Wheeler did, but he, too, found his assumptions about sexuality and heterosexual relationships stretched. Hawkins could not have anticipated that during his trip to Iboland he would take up with not one, but two women, nor that he would consider them his “wives.” But that is just what he did. His account of his travels, published in 1797, offers a soft-core rendition of the moment “that for the first time in my life, I was to repose with the dusky daughters of Africa.” The coconut oil lamps were running low of oil as he lay himself on a “large kind of mattress made of cotton, thin but not uncomfortable.” He turned to face his “Ebo companions,” one “a tall slender and comely but sedate girl,” the other a “plump, middle sized wench” who giggled much. That night, he had a “pleasant repose” with the “dusky daughters of Africa.” The next morning, he reflected on his newfound situation. It was decidedly “odd.” It made him homesick for “my own more favoured country-women.”
But in time Hawkins came to appreciate his wives. They took him for walks, seeking “every means to divert and please me, [. . .] by plucking flowers, and fruits, or picking up pieces of broken arrows or lances, and at the same time, pointing at places, and speaking as if I understood every word they said.” They were trying to teach him their language, of course. And at first, Hawkins resented being in the position of a student, finding it “very loathsome.”
But after some time, I must confess, the pains they took to please me, and the little efforts they made in the house, with their labour to teach and make me understand their language, soon softened my disgust: from laughing at their folly, I came to like it, and to be thankful for their efforts to excite it—and in short, I soon became so habituated to my situation, as not only to be satisfied, but pleased with it. In fact, I felt a fondness for both my wives, although I reluctantly confess it to the ladies of my former acquaintance.36
There was nothing timeless about the fixation that Englishmen and white Americans would develop regarding interracial sex and marriage between Africans and whites. Many other English travelers referred to their African companions just as Hawkins did: as “wives” and “ladies”; some considered themselves to be “husbands” and “married.”37
Not only did some Englishmen learn to esteem the dark and the light in African skin, its softness and its glow, but some also gained the interpretive nimbleness to comprehend, if not respect, the place of cloth and hair in West African self-presentation. African women’s dress and hairstyles were understood by admirers and detractors alike to be essential and inseparable elements of women’s public identity. Which, in fact, they were: West Africans considered cloth and plaited hair to be woven arts. Hair and string both could be woven into bodily ornamentation, the former done on a human body and therefore possessing a social and sensual aspect.38 European men could not help noticing these woven arts. In classically male-chauvinist language, Willem Bosman congratulated African men for their sartorial restraint by comparison with African women’s “addict[ion] to sumptuous attire.” Like “the female sex” the world over, African women, “even” enslaved women, were vain. “Accordingly, the women’s dress is richer than the men’s.” African “Ladies plat their hair very artfully,” bedecking it with “their Fetiches, coral and ivory.” They adorned their arms, legs, and waists with “gold chains and string or coral” and dressed according “to their fashions.” African women’s primping was “skilled” and “artful.” It was designed, Bosman thought, to “allure” European men, an undertaking at which African women reputedly were highly successful. “Their greatest power is over those who make no difference betwixt white and black, especially where the former color is not to be found.”39 According to John Matthews, a “full drest” African “lady,” dressed in layers of cloth and jewelry, cut “no contemptible figure.” She wore a petticoat made from “her common country cloth,” a dress of a more luxurious cloth, a head wrap to match, and jewelry everywhere—ears, neck, wrists, and fingers. Her hair would be “neatly and curiously plaited”; sometimes it was “shaved in small circular or crescent formed spots.”40
Not everyone, it must be noted, thought highly of African women’s sartorial choices. Francis Moore thought the women who dolled up with blue-and-white head wraps were all right, but those who “let their Hair hang down on each Side of their Heads” in braids reminded him of horses with plaited manes. So did the women who braided their hair and wore bells atop their heads, a combination that “makes ’em look not unlike the Fore-Horse of a Country Farmer’s Team.”41 African women’s body ornamentation was skillful, elegant, and seductive. But none of that precluded comparison with European farm animals.
While European men wrangled conflicting thoughts and feelings about African bodies, Africans, of course, had no such chore. “Of all the things in the world,” the art historian Sylvia Boone wrote of Mende aesthetics, “people are the most beautiful.” Of people, Boone found that women were thought of as the most beautiful. “Nothing that has a vagina can be called ugly,” says a vivid Mende proverb. Indeed, women were “beauty incarnate”; beauty was female, and women were all beautiful, more and less. It was they who possessed what was arguably everyone’s favorite attribute: breasts.
During her field research on Mende beauty ideals in the twentieth century, Sylvia Boone found that “no amount of familiarity with the breast seems to diminish its appeal.” Infants nursed from them, children toyed with them, girls and women took pride in them, adult men admired and palpated them. Breasts, Boone found, “are desired and worshipped.” Yet, for all that, “perfect breasts are rare in the world.” Ideally, breasts should be firm, round, close to the chest (“like a saucer”) and thick—neither distended nor protruding. They should not “jiggle or shake even when a girl dances or runs.” Needless to say, even girls who had such breasts in their youth bid them adieu after nursing a few babies.42
Many commentators claimed that West Africans liked dark skin best, the darker the better. Sir John Mandeville wrote, in one of the earliest published texts in English, that Africans considered dark skin to “hold a great beauty, and aye the blacker they are the fairer they think them.” Mandeville wrote, with apparent perplexity, “if they think them not black enough when they are both, they use certain medicines for to make them black withal.” Mandeville could not believe that such measures were frequently necessary, for “that country is wonder hot, and that makes the folk thereof so black.”43
But these commentators may have missed what was happening. Scholarship on color preferences in West Africa suggests that, in the twentieth century, Africans admired skin that was neither very light nor very dark, but brown skin. Balance was key. “Beauty” in Africa “is a mean,” wrote the renowned historian of African art and aesthetics Robert Farris Thompson. That is, beautiful bodies must be, as one of his informants told him, “neither too tall and not too short, not too black and not too yellow.” Thompson found the same emphasis on balance throughout West Africa: “the Akan of the Ivory Coast similarly believe that the beautiful woman is moderate in height, neither as tall as a giraffe nor as short as a pygmy.” The Bete of Côte d’Ivoire, like the Kongo, disliked reddened eyes (which were associated with violence and cruelty), but the Bete also had an aversion to eyes that were too white, the color of death. Ideal eyes for Bete and Kongo people should be clear, bright and smiling. Bete insisted that noses ought to be “neither too snubby nor too aquiline,” ears “neither too large nor too small.” Kongo people preferred skin color of a middling tone. As one of Thompson’s informants told him, “a very darkly pigmented skin is not considered beautiful, nor is a fair complexion.” Very dark skin was compared to scorched, “sooty mfilu-trees, where a prairie fire has passed.” Light skin raised the question of illness originating in the spirit realm: “the mother is considered to have come into contact, for example when bathing, with nkisi Funza or simbi-spirits.” But a person with a shining brown complexion, now that “is pleasant to look upon.” Balance was important throughout the body. From head to toe, beautiful bodies were harmonious, everything fit together easily with no one part jarringly drawing attention to itself. Beautiful women moved gracefully, with straight posture, flexible hands, swaying hips.44
When skin was dark as soot or light like sickness, it was seen to be out of balance and lacking life. West Africans shared with Europeans a love of glowing, shining skin. It was a sign of “vital aliveness.” Dull skin resembled dust or dirt, ash or illness; bright, shiny skin was beautiful skin. It was achieved by frequent bathing (once or twice a day) and by the consistent application of oil or, in some regions, shea butter. To keep skin glossy and smooth also required keeping it free of bug bites, fungi, and scars—no easy task in tropical regions. Women should be free of most body hair, which dulled skin’s appearance. West Africans also believed that vitality arose from the personality. Beautiful women smiled shyly, were sweet, modest, submissive; West Africans prized many of the same characteristics that European men favored in their African lovers.45
Blackness in early modern Africa and Europe was neither prized above all other forms of beauty nor consistently understood to be the very antithesis of the beautiful. Unlike the more consistently negative meaning it would gain in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, early European ideas about black bodies were deeply unsettled, containing complex and contradictory meanings. The Africans that early modern Englishmen imagined consisted not of headless or one-eyed people of the ancient and medieval past, nor of people who were uniformly hideous to look at. Instead, African bodies were diverse: black and tawny, sinful and hospitable, crooked and symmetrical, scarred and soft, graceful and slavish, foul and clean, loose bodied and hardy, wanton and sweet, naked and well dressed, beastly and beautiful.46 At points, European men even shared beauty ideals with West Africans: people of both continents adored cheerfulness in women and warmed to their smiles. They esteemed graceful, straight bodies; bright skin; the elegance and status of cloth. They shared, to different degrees, the notion that beauty existed primarily among women. Of course, unlike Africans, European men also thought Africans were suspiciously close to animals, entirely too “naked,” and darker than could be pure.
The unsettled attitudes of European male travelers to Africa would not, however, survive their journeys into the slave trade. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in America, ambivalence would largely disappear as certainty and scientificity displaced the earlier contradictions. When American scientists invented their own concept of race, they did so by defining black bodies as, among other things, singularly ugly.
1. Richard Jobson, The Discovery of the River Gambra, edited by David P. Gamble and P. E. H. Hair (1623; London: Hakluyt Society, 1999), 100–104; Arnold Hughes and David Perfect, The Historical Dictionary of the Gambia (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2008), 40; David P. Gamble and P. E. H. Hair, introduction, in Gamble and Hair, Discovery of the River Gambra, 44, 64.
2. Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657, 1673; London: Frank Cass, 1970), 12–13; Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 13.
3. Ligon, True and Exact History, 15–17.
4. De Marees quoted in Morgan, Laboring Women, 31.
5. Wheeler in William Smith, A New Voyage to Guinea: Describing the Customs, Manners, Soil, Climate, . . . (London: Printed for John Nourse, 1745), 252, 263–64, 255; Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 211; Willem Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, . . .(London: J. Knapton et al., 1705), 122.
6. Ligon quoted in Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 158; John Atkins, A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West-Indies (London: Printed for Caesar Ward and Richard Chandler, 1735), 179; Joseph Hawkins, A History of a Voyage to the Coast of Africa (Troy: Printed for the Author by Luther Pratt, 1797), 86; Small-wood, Saltwater Slavery, 160–61. On commodification in American slavery, see Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); Edward E. Baptist, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106, no. 5 (2001): 1619–50; Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery.
7. On African women’s appearance, see Jobson, Discovery of the River Gambra, 100–101; John Adams, Sketches Taken during Ten Voyages to Africa, . . . (London: Hurst, Robinson, and Co., 1822), 6–8; Charles Wheeler in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 253.
8. Francis Moore, Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa (London: Edward Cave, 1738), 131; Atkins, Voyage to Guinea, 49–50.
9. Ligon, True and Exact History, 51. See also Richard Bright journal in Guinea Journals: Journeys into Guinea-Conakry during the Sierra Leone Phase, 1800–1821, ed. Bruce L. Mouser (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1979), 55.
10. P. E. H. Hair, “Attitudes to Africans in English Primary Sources on Guinea up to 1650,” History in Africa 26 (1999): 59; Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Morgan, Laboring Women, 14; Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009). Joyce Chaplin found a similar rise in criticism of Indian uses of their bodies after the 1650s. See Joyce E. Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500–1676 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 243–79.
11. James Bruce cited in Samuel Stanhope Smith, Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (New Brunswick, N.J.: J. Simpson, 1810), 140.
12. Adams, Sketches, 7–8, 21–23.
13. Joseph Hawkins, History of a Voyage, 86.
14. A. M. Falconbridge, Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone during the Years 1791–1793 (London: Printed for L. I. Higham, 1802), 40, 44.
15. John Matthews, A Voyage to the River Sierra Leone (London: Printed for B. White & Son, 1791), 92–93, 98.
16. Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 213; Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 395.
17. François Bernier, “A New Division of the Earth” (1684), reprinted in History Workshop Journal 51 (spring 2001): 247–50. On Bernier’s standing in the history of racism, see Siep Stuurman, “François Bernier and the Invention of Racial Classification,” History Workshop Journal 50 (2000): 1–21; and Pierre H. Boulle, “François Bernier and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race,” in The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, ed. Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003), 11.
18. Bernier, “New Division of the Earth,” 249.
19. Adams, Sketches, 41.
20. Hawkins, History of a Voyage, 86; William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave-Trade (1734; London: Frank Cass, 1971), 51.
21. Georges Louis Buffon, Buffon’s Natural History (1749–1804; London: J. S. Barr, 1792), 283–84, 289.
22. Georges Louis Le Clerc (Count de Buffon), Histoire Naturelle (1749–1804; London: n.p., 1792), 69; Buffon, Buffon’s Natural History, 283–84, 289.
23. Charles Wheeler’s account is reproduced in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 253.
24. Matthews, Voyage to the River, 92.
25. Buffon, Buffon’s Natural History, 280.
26. François Leguat quoted in J. F. Blumenbach, “Observations on the Bodily Conformation and Mental Capacity of the Negroes,” Philosophical Magazine 3 (1799): 141–47, 144.
27. Wheeler quoted in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 253; Thomas Gray quoted in Chaplin, Subject Matter, 190.
28. Wheeler in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 252–53.
29. “Every man hath his whore” quote in John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 66; Jobson, Discovery of the River Gambra, 97; Ligon, True and Exact History, 9–10; Francis Moore, Travels into the Inland Parts, 121; P. E. H. Hair, The Atlantic Slave Trade and Black Africa (London: Historical Association, 1978), 14–15; Gamble and Hair, introduction, 97; Charles Wheeler in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 253; Charles W. Thomas, Adventures and Observations on the West Coast of Africa (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), 199, 222.
30. Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 424; Emmanuel Akyeampong, “Sexuality and Prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast, c. 1650–1950,” Past and Present 156 (1997): 146–51, 156, 163. “Institutionalized rape” quote attributed to Adam Jones in Akosua Adomako Ampofo, “The Sex Trade, Globalisation and Issues of Survival in Subsaharan Africa,” Research Review of the Institute of African Studies 17, no. 2 (2001): 30. “Prostituting themselves” and “in flower” quotes from Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 424.
31. Atkins, Voyage to Guinea, 39–40; Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 539; Akyeampong, “Sexuality and Prostitution,” 163.
32. George E. Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003), 28, 29, 56, 71, 141; Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 94; Wheeler in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 251–52. See also Ligon, True and Exact History, 9–10; Bruce L. Mouser, introduction, in Guinea Journals, 7–8.
33. Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 422; Wheeler in Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 252.
34. Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 183–84.
35. Wheeler in ibid., 244–45, 253.
36. Hawkins, History of a Voyage, 13, 69–71, 85.
37. Jobson, Discovery of the River Gambra, 97; Smith, New Voyage to Guinea, 252; Hawkins, History of a Voyage, 71, 85, 69–70; Atkins, Voyage to Guinea, 94.
38. Mariane C. Ferme, The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 49–59.
39. Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 387–88.
40. Matthews, Voyage to the River, 108–9.
41. Moore, Travels into the Inland Parts, 75.
42. Sylvia Boone, Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986), 82, 102–7.
43. Sir John Mandeville quoted in Alden Vaughn and Virginia Mason Vaughn, “Before Othello: Elizabethan Representations of Sub-Saharan Africans,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series, 54, no. 1 (1997): 19–44, 22–23.
44. Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 26, 49–52; Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), 5; Boone, Radiance from the Waters, 89, 120, 122–29. Also see Lynn M. Thomas, “Chapter One: Cosmetic Practices and Colonial Crucibles,” in A History of Skin Lighteners in South Africa and Beyond, Duke University Press, forthcoming.
45. Thompson, African Art in Motion, 9; Boone, Radiance from the Waters, xix, 48, 151 n76, 120, 132; Marlene Elias, “African Shea Butter: A Feminized Subsidy from Nature,” Africa 77, no. 1 (2007): 37–62. Sylvia Boone’s scholarship is based on field research conducted during the 1970s and 1980s. She found that it had historical precedents and that many of her conclusions held true for as far back as the era of the slave trade. See Boone, Radiance from the Waters, 23–25, 143.
46. See also Jennifer L. Morgan, “‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulders’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology,” in Laboring Women; and Brown, Foul Bodies.