Essays on Louis Agassiz in Brazil

Left: Louis Agas­siz, by Car­leton Watkins, San Fran­cis­co, cir­ca 1870, cour­tesy of the Muse­um of Com­par­a­tive Zool­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty; Right: Racial type por­trait, iden­ti­fied as Mina Ige­ichà, by Augus­to Stahl, Rio de Janeiro, 1865, cour­tesy of the Peabody Muse­um of Archae­ol­o­gy and Eth­nol­o­gy, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

This series of three essays by lead­ing schol­ars in Brazil explores a lit­tle-known col­lec­tion of pho­tographs pro­duced for the not­ed Swiss-Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ist Louis Agas­siz (1807–1873) dur­ing his sci­en­tif­ic expe­di­tion to Brazil in 1865–1866. Agassiz’s pur­pose in this jour­ney was to gath­er data and spec­i­mens to sup­port a vari­ety of his the­o­ries, includ­ing his the­o­ry of poly­ge­n­e­sis, that is, that the var­i­ous human types derive not from a sin­gle ori­gin but rather from sep­a­rate acts of cre­ation, with each human type being fit­ted to its respec­tive envi­ron­ment. Agassiz’s voy­age to Brazil marks an impor­tant moment in the his­to­ry of race in the Amer­i­c­as, when a North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean scheme of race met with the real­i­ty of race in a South Amer­i­can nation. The pho­to­graph­ic mate­ri­als gath­ered by Agas­siz, though sec­ondary to his pur­pos­es, con­sti­tute one of the ear­li­est col­lec­tions of pho­tog­ra­phy made in the field to sup­port a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry of race; it leaves an impor­tance lega­cy for the study of race and racism in West­ern thought and deed.

The authors rec­om­mend that the essays be read in the sequence below. To view a spe­cif­ic essay, click on its title; to learn more about an author, click on the author’s name.

Maria Hele­na P. T. Macha­do, Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Sci­en­tif­ic Trav­el and Racial Pho­tog­ra­phy: The For­ma­tion of Louis Agassiz’s Brazil­ian Col­lec­tion”

Flávio dos San­tos Gomes, “ Pure Race’ Africans and Eth­nic Diver­si­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Rio de Janeiro’ 

John M. Mon­teiro, Mr. Hunnewell’s Black Hands: Agas­siz and the ‘Mixed Races’ of Man­aus