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