Dispatches from the Archives

Assessing Supernatural Belief in Colonial Mexican Inquisition Records

By Anderson Hagler

To what extent can historians understand spiritual belief among the people of the past? What do references to magic tell us about colonial life? In Mexico, the Inquisition operated from the early sixteenth century until 1820. It viewed vernacular belief and attempts to use magic as existential threats to Christianity and potentially heretical. Inquisitors and their scribes recorded proceedings, documenting every word spoken by accused heretics. Because the threat of torture produced droves of confessions, the truth value assigned to coerced testimony remains problematic for historians. It is safe to conclude that many of those charged with crimes against the faith framed their actions in the best possible light, hiding incriminating pieces of evidence as they could.

In this essay, I suggest that historians should shift their analytical focus away from the personal faith of the declarant to evidence of shared knowledge evincing communal belief in the supernatural. Examining the exertions of the devout in the material world reveals how eighteenth-century Indigenous commoners attempted to restore spiritual equilibrium by using magical rituals to heal the infirm. The testimony analyzed herein illuminates belief in tonalli, the soul or vital force believed responsible for human life. 

Historians of European witchcraft such as Jan Machielsen maintain that belief ranges from cautious acceptance to a perceived matter of fact. The Indigenous peoples of colonial Mexico often linked their terrestrial experiences to cosmological knowledge, transforming belief in the supernatural into a broadly accepted cultural lexicon. Catarina Pizzigoni’s examination of Indigenous wills and testaments in Toluca Valley has shown that Nahua peoples linked the physical structure of their homes to local saints and deities. In Pizzigoni’s account, sincere religious devotion played an important role in Nahua communities and households. Lisa Sousa has analyzed criminal records in Oaxaca to investigate belief in magic and witchcraft. Building on their findings, this essay employs Inquisition records to analyze agrarian folk beliefs, extrapolating complex cosmologies and hierarchies of belief from statements made by Indigenous people to the Inquisition.

On April 20 1721, an eighteen-year-old Indigenous man named Agustín Díaz, alongside a local leader from the pueblo of Ocelocalco named Nicolás Fabián, testified that Agustín’s brother Sebastián had fallen ill after suffering an accident in the mountains. Agustín recounted that Sebastián had fallen while inspecting a beehive. A severe injury to Sebastián’s leg had caused the tonalli to escape from his body. Without tonalli, Sebastián became sick. Later that evening, Sebastián fell from a bench while sleeping, a worrying display of spiritual disequilibrium. Nicolás Fabián explained that the fear generated by severe accidents created disease inside the body.[1]  Extended loss of tonalli would prove fatal, a prospect which frightened the men.

Tonalli hemorrhaged from the body after someone suffered a great fall or became very frightened—occurrences common among children but less routine for adults. The proper response was to pray to restore tonalli and to visit a spiritual practitioner. In Chiapas, according to Nicolás, women practitioners preserved and consulted cures for all manner of illnesses, including loss of tonalli. References to tonalli in Sebastián’s case and others like it reveal the limits of the Catholic Church’s reach in rural Indigenous areas and the extent of local belief in the supernatural.

In Soconusco, devotees first tried to restore tonalli by lighting a candle and praying to Mary, Mother of God. Agustín treated Sebastían by incensing the room and keeping him tightly wrapped. After three or four days with little result, Agustín returned to the mountains, desperate to increase the efficacy of these rituals. He located the exact spot where Sebastián’s accident took place. At the spot, Agustín put some of Sebastián’s clothes inside a jar and sealed it. He called Sebastián’s name several times. Once home, Agustín collected some dirt and a moth. He ground them together and gave the product to Sebastián to eat. Afterwards, Agustín incensed the room, causing Sebastián to sweat profusely. Sebastián recovered, validating medical knowledge and perpetuating belief in tonalli and the metaphysical system of which it was a part.

In these eyes of Catholic clergy, these ceremonies were an offense to God and the saints. God became angry when Natives incorporated Catholic prayers and relics into non-orthodox rituals. But the Indigenous peoples of Soconusco felt that they had employed these cures successfully for too long to abandon them. Petrona González, the mother of the leader Nicolás Fabián, had once used a similar cure to restore her tonalli. According to testimony, Indigenous commoners testified that they practiced these rituals because of the love they felt for ailing family and friends, not out of malice toward God or the Church. The physical lengths to which Agustín resorted to heal his brother demonstrate how desperation could produce recourse to popular belief. The rituals conducted to heal Sebastián reveal a complex cosmology and catalogue of ceremonies preserved by Indigenous elders. Although we cannot know whether Agustín believed that the vernacular ceremony was certain to heal Sebastián, we can conclude that Agustín did not believe that the ceremony could harm his brother.

From Agustín’s labor we can extrapolate the extent of his belief in tonalli. The testimony states that Agustín incensed the room and wrapped his brother “anxiously” (con ansias) for “three or four days” before returning to the mountains where Sebastián suffered the accident next to the beehive.[2] Journeying to the mountains with Sebastián’s clothes, calling out his name, returning home, collecting earth nearby, and grinding dirt with a moth were time-consuming activities which could have been spent on basic functions. The energy exerted by Agustín implies sincere belief in the tonalli ritual. The ways in which he and other witneses refer to the ritual imply that the existence and function of tonalli was considered to be common knowledge in his community. The spiritual-medical advice of Indigenous elders reinforced Agustín’s belief in the supernatural, while successful enactment of their knowledge was considered to be proof of their authority.

Because villages like Ocelocalco exercised significant local autonomy throughout the colonial era, non-orthodox beliefs persisted. Historians can read between the lines in order to understand the hierarchy of values and beliefs of Indigenous witnesses and defendants, taking vernacular knowledge as much as possible on its own terms. This is made difficult by the fact that such testimonies are mediated by Catholic officials, and furthermore by the fact that indigenous testimony is often filtered through what Indigenous declarants imagined to be Catholic orthodoxy. Nonetheless, trying to understand the beliefs and cosmologies behind the behavior of the actors in the trial can help us understand the motivations which led Indigenous commoners to behave contrary to orthodoxy, despite the palpable danger of doing so. Foregrounding behavior and emotive testimony in this way can help us understand Indigenous belief in eighteenth-century Mexico.

[1] AHDC, Folder 2463, exp. 1, Soconusco III A1, Episcopal, Gobierno, 1721, fol. 8v.

[2] The emotive testimony may plausibly be taken at face value as there is no reason to suspect that Agustín had quarreled with Sebastián. AHDC, Folder 2463, exp. 1, Soconusco III A1, Episcopal, Gobierno, 1721, fol. 8r.

Anderson Hagler is a PhD candidate at Duke University. His scholarship examines how subaltern vassals negotiated state-led attempts to impose orthodoxy. His most recent project analyzes how magic and deviant sexuality intersected with one another, shaping notions of race and class during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in New Spain.

Featured Image: An auto da fe in the town of San Bartolomé Otzolotepec, 1716. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dispatches from the Archives

Hydnora Africana: The ‘Hieroglyphic Key’ to Plant Parasitism

By Katherine Arnold

At the 1836 meeting of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte (The Society of German Naturalists and Physicians) in Jena, Gustav Kunze of Leipzig University presented a dried specimen of Hydnora africana, “a remarkable Asarine which grows parasitic on the large Euphorbias in the Carro [sic]” in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Kunze’s identification of Hydnora as belonging to the Asarina family reveals the lack of knowledge European botanists had of the plant, whose curious appearance and morphology had proven a sort of botanical puzzle since its European debut in the late eighteenth century. Although it was common to misinterpret botanical material arriving from overseas, Hydnora posed a particular challenge to the developing taxonomies of nineteenth-century European botany, primarily because of its most unusual attribute: parasitism.

Parasitic plants are characterized by the ability to feed directly on other plants, invading the host’s roots or shoots through parasitic structures called haustoria. Hydnora, found in the semi-arid regions of the northwestern Cape and southern Namibia, is a root holoparasite that grows almost completely subterranean. After leaching enough energy from its spurge host, a fleshy orange-pink flower emerges, releasing a fetid odor to attract its carrion and dung beetle pollinators. The Africans and Boer farmers who lived in the area called it jakkalskos, or jackal food, and it is thought to have a sweet and starchy taste. In ethnobotanical practice, the rhizomes of Hydnora, called uMayumbuka in isiZulu and isiXhosa, are used and traded to treat diarrhea, piles, acne, menstrual problems, stomach cramps, and to stop bleeding.

Colonial specimens like Hydnora were vital to the blossoming of botany as an academic discipline. Not only were they essential to the collectors engaged in its commercial trade and to naturalists attempting to classify and order the natural world, but they were also at the heart of transnational and trans-imperial networks of communication and exchange. With the advent of the material turn, historians have increasingly looked to objects as primary sources to trace the global production and movement of knowledge. In a similar way, the history of science has shown that, by refocusing narratives through the existence and agency of the nonhuman (or other-than-human), objects and organisms were implicated within histories of violence and expansion. Object-oriented enquiries offer an avenue for new understandings of the relationships between materiality, place, and mobility. In following the life of things, it is possible to move beyond traditional approaches to natural history and practices of specimen collection that privilege anthropocentrism, a possibility which places greater onus on how the behavior of plants co-produced Western scientific knowledge.

Fig. 1: Rudolf Marloth, The Flora of South Africa, vol. 1 (Cape Town: Darter Bros. & Co., 1913).

The cryptic nature and seasonal appearance of Hydnora had made European encounters with the plant, let alone the collection and preservation of any parts of its fleshy vegetative flower, extremely rare. Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg first extracted it in 1774, so Hydnora was not new when it was displayed in Jena. He did, however, struggle to grasp its singular peculiarity. He remarked, “so strange is its composition that many would certainly doubt the existence of such a plant on the face of the earth.” In an initial description published with the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Thunberg erroneously grouped it as a fungus related to the genus Hydnum. Later botanists took some time to disprove this assertion, as it was only distinguishable from fungi when the flower had opened. This was a common problem when collecting plants out of season; the Linnaean taxonomic system was fundamentally based on the flower, making identification tricky with species that flowered infrequently. To view the type specimen in Thunberg’s herbarium, many European naturalists would have had to go to some length to travel to Uppsala, making the (relatively) freshly dried Hydnora something of a spectacle.

Fig 2: Ernst Meyer, ‘De Hydnora’, Nova Acta Physicomedica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 16 (1833), 770-788.

Already by 1833, Cape collectors had brought new Hydnora specimens to Europe, perhaps for the first time since Thunberg. The collectors, Christian Ecklon, Karl Zeyher, and Johann Franz Drège, all came from humble backgrounds in the German-speaking lands. Ecklon had trained as an apothecary, working for five years at the popular Pallas & Polemann pharmacy in Cape Town with Drège’s brother, Carl Friedrich, who collected zoological and entomological specimens in a partnership with his brother. Zeyher and Drège, on the other hand, were trained horticulturists. While Zeyher apprenticed with his uncle in the ducal gardens of Schwetzingen in Württemberg, Drège held positions in the gardens of Munich, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Riga before arriving in the Cape. In this period, it was common for apothecaries and horticulturists to transition into full-scale botanical or zoological collecting, especially since both professions coupled elements of commercialism into the practice of natural history.

Ecklon, Zeyher, and Drège were part of a new generation of botanical collectors in the region, representing a shift toward ‘entrepreneurial’ collecting: men who financed their expeditions and supported themselves through the commodification of nature. As quickly as they had become companions in the field, suspicion of one another returned in consideration of the impending sale of their specimens in Europe. An 1832 letter from Drège’s brother in Cape Town warned,

‘you probably know already that Ecklon has arrived here with a collection of plants in order to take these to Germany early 1833. Zeyher will meanwhile make a trip beyond the borders in order to collect. You will probably see therefore that it would be better not to delay any further but sail over with the whole large collection.’ (from Drège Family Collection, National Library of South Africa, MSC 61.2.266, 18 October 1832).

When they arrived in Europe, both attempted to capitalize on their rare finds in German scientific journals. In the journal of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, Drège’s patron Ernst Meyer, Professor of Botany at the University of Königsberg, published a treatise describing the Hydnora africana in relation to Thunberg’s initial assessments. He also used this as an opportunity to discuss the “discovery” of a new species, the Hydnora triceps. The Berlin-based scientific journal Linnaea published a small synopsis of the treatise alongside an announcement of Ecklon and Zeyher’s sale of dried specimens, which publicized Hydnora as one of the more ‘remarkable plants’ collected on their travels. Drège and Meyer had a different approach. Because Drège did not advertise the sale of his dried collection until 1835, the choice to publish singularly on Hydnora with the Leopoldina suggests that their aim was intellectual prestige in the “discovery” of rare, new species. They were relatively successful in this regard: Drège’s name was left indelibly on the triceps’ only known host, the Euphorbia dregeana, and both Drège and Meyer’s names appeared as the taxonomic marker. They aimed for the journal of the oldest and most well-respected scientific society in the German-speaking world, and they chose Latin, not German, as their lingua franca, to reach the widest possible audience within the global scientific community.

Fig. 3: Ernst Meyer, ‘De Hydnora’, Nova Acta Physicomedica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 16 (1833), 770-788.

In contrast, Ecklon sought his success through the sale and distribution of his specimens. His commercialism is evident in his straightforward elaboration of collecting localities, placing such a complex find as Hydnora merely among an array of other popular Cape plants. While he does mention the publication of his and Zeyher’s forthcoming Enumeratio, the title gives away its superficial contents. Because Ecklon-Zeyher’s collection was simply a list with basic descriptions, the Enumeratio suggested that the sale of specimens was more important than any “philosophical” work on the material. Not before long, European demands for Hydnora reached South Africa. After the departure of Ecklon and Drège in 1833, Zeyher remained in the Colony as one of two experienced botanical collectors. The other was Hamburg-born physician Ludwig Pappe, who began collecting to branch out from medicine into a botanical vocation. The two Cape scientific patrons of this period, Baron von Ludwig and William Henry Harvey, implored Pappe and employed Zeyher to fulfill European desiderata. In fact, Pappe obtained the only dried specimen of Hydnora available in the Cape. Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, William Jackson Hooker, had requested the specimen from the Baron in 1833, presumably after news had spread that Ecklon-Zeyher and Drège had collected Hydnora. Despite their scarcity, which would not have been unknown to Hooker, the Baron seemed confident that Pappe could extract more specimens, not only dried but also in spirits. It took two years to deliver on this promise; Pappe collected specimens from Worcester in the vicinity of the Hex River, promptly dried them, and placed one in wood vinegar, a preserving agent.

Fig 4: Ernst Meyer, ‘De Hydnora’, Nova Acta Physicomedica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 16 (1833), 770-788.

While the Sixth Frontier War (1834-36) rendered plant collection in the eastern districts nearly impossible, the material nature of Hydnora made procuring a sample a difficult task for collectors. Because its structure changed so drastically in the drying process, it was poorly represented in European herbaria and led to challenges in taxonomic determination. This sparked enormous controversy and debate: how could botanists classify plants without seeing them in situ and what characteristics should be considered in classifying and determining flowers that “appeared decidedly afloral?” In revising his classification of the corpse flower (Rafflesia arnoldii) in 1834, British botanist Robert Brown used the newly arrived Hydnora specimens from Ecklon-Zeyher, Drège, and Pappe to discuss possible affinities of the two parasites and whether they should be classed together. He believed there were points in Hydnora’s structure which threw “some light on one of the most difficult questions respecting Rafflesia,” allegedly bringing him to more fully realized conclusions about the nature of parasitism.

Fig 5: Rafflesia arnoldii in Robert Brown, ‘Account of a New Genus of Plants, Named Rafflesia’, Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 13 (1821).

However, Brown’s student, British botanist William Griffith, fundamentally disagreed. His contentions were both taxonomic and material, and the latter wholly informed the former. Based on his fieldwork in situ, he concluded that Rafflesia and Hydnora were not similar in their parasitism, nor should parasitism be used as the singular point of comparison. But Griffith, and before him Austrian botanist Franz Unger, held that such a complicated process should only be conducted in the field using live plants. Although Griffith found the herbarium specimens Brown used to be useless evidence in supporting his hypothesis, he had, in fact, never seen Hydnora in its natural habitat to make any comparisons. Acting somewhat hypocritically in his derision of Brown, the specimens Griffith examined were “both in the dry state and in … pyroligneous acid,” clearly the examples that Pappe had collected years earlier. Amongst themselves, botanists could not agree where to study traits like parasitism, and Hydnora africana was a central point in the debate.

For Brown and Griffith, the impenetrability of Rafflesia was essentially tied to their understanding of its tropical home in the Sumatran rainforest. The corpse flower, like many unusual and exotic plants, did not fit into their taxonomic assumptions of the natural environment. Yet, botanists dwelled very little on the landscape which gave life to Hydnora, omitting it from grandiose portrayals and popular imaginings. In their mind, they separated the desert plant from its desert environment. The moment these collectors detached Hydnora from its Euphorbia root, an indigenous African plant was both materially and intellectually abstracted to fit it into Western notions of scientific knowledge. In attempts to understand the essence of parasitism, Hydnora both resisted and facilitated human understanding. While we have a better grasp of its place amongst other parasitic plants in the floral kingdom, Hydnora has only been successfully cultivated once outside of southern Africa, illustrating that even today the plantposes difficulties for botanists. Hydnora’senigmatic character, though, was not lost on those who studied it. This abstraction is best embodied by German botanist C.G. Nees von Esenbeck: “Aphyteja Hydnora thus stands as a hieroglyphic key between two worlds, which like dream and waking, are laid out in an endless interrelationship and flee before us.”

Katherine Arnold is a fourth-year PhD student at LSE studying German ‘entrepreneurial’ natural history collectors in southern Africa (1815-1867). Her research interests include Anglo-German relations, imperial history (British, Dutch, and German), and the history of science.

Featured Image: William Griffith, ‘On the Root-Parasites Referred by Authors to Rhizantheae: and on Various Plants Related to Them’, Transactions of the Linnean Society, 19 (1845).

Dispatches from the Archives

Enclosed Against Crocodiles: The Bathing Place in the Colonial Imagination

By George Townsend

Scholars have made significant strides in recent years towards decentring colonizing and ruling class perspectives in their accounts of historical swimming and bathing practices. Margaret Roberts and Dave Day have delved into the lives of the Victorian swimming professors – men and women who often taught at private schools and universities but were also key players in lively working-class communities oriented around physical prowess, competition and spectacle. Kevin Dawson’s groundbreaking Undercurrents of Power, meanwhile, explores West Africa’s rich history of swimming and the ways in which enslaved Africans carried aquatic cultures with them to American colonies – paving the way for further study of the resilience of swimming and bathing practices among non-Western and colonized peoples. At the same time, the bathing place itself remains relatively under-examined. The concept of the bathing place was applied in dramatically different contexts, both at the heart and in the peripheries of of colonial geography: from the grounds of English public schools where prospective colonial administrators were socialized, to the riversides of countries like Sri Lanka, where traditional bathing practices persisted under colonial rule. How can a comparative approach to these sites of communal outdoor bathing, and an approach open to their representation in a variety of sources, from scientific texts to picture postcards, contribute to our critical understanding of the colonial imagination?

On the one hand, the bathing place figures as a site of colonial voyeurism, where the anthropological gaze penetrates a zone of tenderness and play – a space where non-Western societies can supposedly be viewed and interpreted in their most frank and unmediated states. In Havelock Ellis’s ‘The Evolution of Modesty’, from the first volume of his highly influential Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928), the bathing place repeatedly appears as a site that registers the ‘modesty’ of native peoples – and particularly of women, in whom Ellis adjudges modesty to be almost the “chief secondary sexual character”. “In Ceylon,” writes one of Ellis’s correspondents,

a woman always bathes in public streams, but she never removes all her clothes. She washes under the cloth, bit by bit, and then slips on the dry, new cloth, and pulls out the wet one from underneath (much in the same way as servant girls and young women in England).

Deploying a social evolutionary framework, in which the practices of “primitive peoples” from across the globe are uncritically identified with those of European ancestors, Ellis presents modesty at the bathing place as a form of cultural backwardness. Classical baths where men and women bathed naked together feature, by contrast, as the pinnacle of human body culture. Within Ellis’s account this frequently results in an upturning of nineteenth century stereotypes about the relationship between savagery and immodesty. The moral reformer Joseph Livesey complained in 1831 against the naked bathers at Lea Marsh in Northeast London: “Unrestrained either by principle, custom or authority, the scenes exhibited are just what might be expected from savage nations”. On the contrary, Ellis suggests, principle, custom and authority are everywhere to be found, even if they do not match up to the principle, custom and authority of the English moral reformer.

Ellis nonetheless maintains a hierarchical, Orientalist perspective, measuring cultures according to their perceived advancement or decline. According to this view Europe had – when it came to sex, nudity, and public bathing – been dragged back into an unenlightened state through the stifling prudery of the Church. Ellis’s most striking exemplar here comes from Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing in the third century to chastise women who bathed promiscuously with men:

Such a washing defiles; it does not purify or cleanse the limbs, but stains them. You behold no one immodestly, but you, yourself, are gazed upon immodestly … in delighting others you yourself are polluted; you make a show of the bathing-place; the places where you assemble are fouler than a theatre … Let your baths be performed with women, whose behavior is modest towards you.

In reaction against such ideas, which progressive critics such as Ellis regarded as symptomatic of organized Christianity across the centuries, the fin-de-siècle bathing place became a petri dish for assessing, and possibly addressing, wider societal progress and decay. Ellis notably became an advocate for the “moralizing and refining influence of nakedness” as part of education – an idea taken up contemporaneously at schools such as Abbotsholme and Bedales (founded 1889 and 1893 respectively) that guided their pupils “back to the land.” There, open air bathing was, according to historian Jan Marsh, “almost an article of faith”.

A postcard showing a bathing place on the Kelani River in Colombo, Sri Lanka, c. 1909. Source: personal collection.

The idea of the bathing place as a social petri dish was active at a more popular level, too, through the ephemera of empire. A picture postcard sent in August 1909 to an address in Hull, England, depicts a bathing place at the foot of a bridge, which is shown extending across the Kelani River in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thick wooden staves, driven into the riverbed, form a stockade in the water, and a caption in red accompanies the image: ‘Bathing place enclosed against Crocodiles, Ceylon.’ Women and children stand in and around the water, facing the camera. The women wear clothes, the children are largely naked. The photographer, or somebody developing the picture, has doctored one figure in the bottom right-hand corner, drawing over their face and possibly their dress after the photograph was taken. The rectilinear metallic structure of the bridge contrasts with the higgledy-piggledy line – like so many uneven teeth – of the enclosing palisade. The bridge was completed in 1895 and named after Queen Victoria. “Ceylon grand place for half day trip,” writes ‘Bert’, the sender, with the ambiguous sign-off, “Good fishing evidently.”

In the same period, the bathing place had another very different face, featuring in several texts as an embodied, almost umbilical link to home for Britain’s colonial actors. The protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s short story “To Be Filed for Reference”, which is set in India, drunkenly recalls using cold dips at “Loggerhead” as a hangover cure in his student days. In the nineteenth century, Loggerhead was an alternative name for Parson’s Pleasure, a bathing place active on the river Cherwell outside Oxford for several centuries. After 1865, when the site was enclosed and the entry fee increased from a penny to 4p for men and 3p for boys, Parson’s Pleasure was largely appropriated by affluent citizens and members of the university. With a more reverential tone, a 1922 article in the Pall Mall Gazette tells the story of how T. E. Lawrence (who grew up in Oxford) was “fetched up from the bottom of Parson’s Pleasure” as a child, indicating that he bore a “charmed life.” The diplomat Sir Francis Lindley (1872-1950), meanwhile, concludes a roving account of his bathes around the world – in the Pacific, the Bosphorus, the Mediterranean,

If those in advancing middle age reflect on their bathing careers … they will think in their hearts that nothing can ever quite equal a morning plunge in Parson’s Pleasure, in Gunner’s Hole, or Cuckoo Weir [bathing places associated with Winchester and Eton]. For many these names hold a magic not to be exorcised by the voice of reason or of experience.

Parson’s Pleasure and similar sites excluded working-class bathers and women, even as they relied on female and working-class labor in the form of attendants and laundresses. In these texts they nonetheless appear as remembered idylls with a deep affective power. Emblematic simultaneously of England and childhood, they began in the second half of the nineteenth century to represent for colonial agents and commentators both a rite of passage and a perennial source of nostalgia.

This side of the bathing place bears some similarities to the playing field of the English public school, with its emphasis on the body, male sociality, play and memory. Yet ideas about the benefits or pitfalls of the bathing place – and specifically its prevalent use as a site of communal bathing for male pupils – are far less evident in historical debates about education, and indeed in subsequent historiography. In the early days of Marlborough College in Wiltshire (founded 1843) the bathing place was, according to one alumnus, a “large pond some 80 yards long and 15 wide.

The depth was graduated from the ‘duck-pond’ to the deeper depths, where advanced swimmers took ‘headers’ off spring-boards, and otherwise disported themselves … There was no lack of teachers, in every case self-appointed, who … would take no refusal. The hapless pupil was seized by the arms and legs by two big fellows, and with one – two – three – and away, hurled into the middle of the pond, to find his way out as best he might … It was of a piece with the rough-and-ready education of those days, which helped boys become resourceful men.

Bathing places such as this were not only locations for learning to swim, but also formed part of the educational ideology that became known as muscular Christianity, turning boys into men capable of defending and expanding the Empire. By the early 1900s, the pond had been supplanted by a new pool in the river Kennett, a photograph of which was taken for Frank Sachs’s The Complete Swimmer, published 1912. The photograph, reproduced here as a postcard, makes for a striking counterpoint to the postcard from Sri Lanka.

A postcard showing the bathing place of Marlborough College, on the River Kennett, England, c. 1912. Source: personal collection

Straight formalized banks contain the bathing place to left and right. The water is void of bathers, the banks populated not by local women and children but service staff from the College, uniformed in flat caps and in one case a white apron. Through this configuration, the image seems to invite and flatter the viewer, the water offering itself up for refreshment and exercise, attendants ready at hand to instruct and protect. Far from nature posing any threat, it is in these controlled, amenable conditions that natural forces are mastered, the only hint of animal life looming in the background, barely visible: the chalk figure of the Marlborough White Horse on the hill.

George Townsend is a PhD candidate in English at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is studying the cultural history of public bathing places, focusing specifically on the history of Parson’s Pleasure, Oxford.

Featured Image: A postcard showing a bathing place on the Kelani River in Colombo, Sri Lanka, c. 1909. Source: personal collection.

Dispatches from the Archives

Historical Traces in Archival Poetry

By Rachel Kaufman

In his 1978 article “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White argued that elements of the past are not innately imbued with story. Instead, historians shape elements of the past into tragedies and comedies, “verbal fictions” that are a result of a literary process, a “process of refamiliarization.” Historical narratives, “a complex of symbols” as Hayden illuminates, then seem to mirror poetry, specifically archival or historical poetry, which refamiliarizes the past in a cross-stitched pattern of symbols. These symbols exist as such in the poem, as metaphor or sound or image, while hearkening back to their referent, the archival fragment or historical voice which they recall.

I’ve argued elsewhere that archival poetry—poetry which grounds itself in a historical narrative, historical characters, or the language or materiality of archival sources—acts as a medium of translation that is able to preserve the ambiguities and simultaneities of history. In this piece, I’ll briefly discuss the formal traces of history which surface in prefaces, endnotes, and epigraphs and enter two poetry collections grounded in the past to examine how these traces mark and blur the borders between history and poetry, past and present. I’ll finally turn to my own archival poetry collection Many to Remember, recently published by Dos Madres Press, and discuss my process in weaving history into the work.

 “The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates,” White wrote, but rather “calls to mind images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.” If a metaphor, and perhaps an historical poem more broadly, calls to mind images of the things it recalls, where do the things themselves exist in the world of the poetry book? Though often, I would argue, the metaphor and the poem do “image the things” they indicate, breaching the distance between poem and referent, symbolizer and symbolized, historical poems sometimes represent an image of the past without fully entering it, perhaps purposefully acknowledging the gap—the archival silences, worm-eaten words—between present-day poet and the past which she recalls.

In her 2019 poetry collection 1919, sociologist and writer Eve L. Ewing begins with a 1922 report entitled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot to tell the story of the 1919 race riot in Chicago. As described in the preface to the book, Ewing at first approached the report searching for information on housing segregation at the start of the Great Migration. Yet as she read on, she “kept getting sucked into other parts of the report,” which revealed Black life in Chicago a century before and read like poetry—“so narrative, so evocative, so imagistic…the report was like an old tapestry with loose threads sticking out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave” (4). Passages from the 1922 report serve as epigraphs to the poems in the book and place the language of the archive in direct dialogue with the language of the poet. This dialogue sometimes suggests great distance between past and present, as in the first poem of the collection, “Exodus 1,” in which a passage about the religious significance of the migration of Black people from the South to Chicago between 1910 and 1920 and the songs sung as part of the movement (including “Flight Out of Egypt” and “Bound for the Promised Land”) give way to a poem which begins: “Now these are the names of the people of Adeline, which came into Mississippi.” The poem in some ways fulfills the call of the quotation, crafting a biblical narrative of Black people who “increased abundantly and multiplied,” filling the land of Mississippi before a meeting of the people’s counsel and a great exodus of the community from “the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of browning blood.”

But Ewing also often refutes the archive’s claims, calling to mind images of the past without imaging them in the present, as she does with the epigraph to the next poem, which reads: “the presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.” Ewing answers the archive’s violent arrogance—she writes, “How could someone claim to tell the story of Black people in this city?”—with her own visions, dreams, and images, and with the specificities of her language. In her 2013 article “The Archive and Affective Memory in M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!” and 2020 book Immaterial Archives: An African Diaspora Poetics of Loss, scholar Jenny Sharpe writes on M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry book Zong!, which tells the story of an historical event in which slave owners threw enslaved African people alive into the Caribbean Sea. Sharpe writes: “Zong! suggests that silences in official archives are not only holes to be filled with meaning—missing pieces of a counter-history—but also spaces of an affective relationship with the past. At the same time, its poems demonstrate that affect is not universal or free-floating even if its potential for realization happens across geographical space and historical time” (“The Archive and Affective Memory,” 470). Less experimental in form than Philip’s book, Ewing’s collection still manages to hold onto silences and prejudices in the archives without filling them in. In “The Train Speaks,” the poem which answers the “not a menace in itself” quotation, Ewing writes:

My children. My precious ones.
I can never take you home. You have none.
And so you go, out into the wind.

Held as her children yet released beyond the abilities of her words, the historical actors who Ewing speaks to and with (rather than for) extract themselves from the world of the archival document and yet do not entirely reattach to Ewing’s new language. A later poem, entitled “there is no poem for this,” quotes a horribly violent description of a white mob’s actions during the Chicago riot from the archival report and adds nothing else. In this case, Ewing embraces scholar Saidiya Hartman’s assertion that the archive is “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body” which must be approached without replicating its “grammar of violence” (Venus in Two Acts, 2). In Ewing’s book, history enters through language that is attached squarely to a static past and then unravels, traveling towards the wind, across the page of the poem and the lives Ewing emboldens without claiming ownership.

In another recent poetry collection, Salient by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., history emerges in the book’s preface, in which Gray weaves together the Battle of Passchendaele, a battle in Belgian Flanders in 1917, and the chöd ritual, a “severance” practice which descends from twelfth-century female Tibetan Buddhist saint Machik Lapdrön. Interspersed with interjections (“how could that be? who was there?”) and lyrical images (“dark drawings of the battlefield,” “exhausted men advancing slowly uphill for weeks in relentless rain through waist-deep mud”), the preface nods to historians’ debates about generals’ and politicians’ decisions yet dwells in the affective. The preface finds its momentum in the poet’s questions, her wanderings through the sensorial world of the past which emerge in lines of prose driven by rhythm and beat—“For so far? For so long? In the rain? How could one imagine this? How did one explain it to oneself, to loved ones?” The poet not only draws from archival materials but from her experiences walking the ground “in all seasons and all weathers,” the preface thus rooting itself to the poet’s body and the bodies and minds of the historical figures she explores. The preface then transitions to the chöd ritual with a personal grounding: “I grew up with terrible nightmares, and across from our town’s seventeenth-century burial ground.” And yet the chöd ritual, as Gray describes it, requires dismembering one’s own body and offering the pieces to harmful beings who, “once sated,” would vanish. The poet writes: “the practice that had fascinated me was about severing one’s attachment to one’s individual self…I began Salient by placing these two poles of obsession in proximity to one another. And waiting. In the charged field between them I originally thought I might find The Missing.” Gray is thus neither searching for that which the archive and the passing of time withhold nor for the “subaltern treasures” latent in the past’s canon, to use historian and anthropologist Ann Stoler’s language. Instead, Gray is entering empty space, the “charged field” between two disparate yet deeply connected worlds, to find presence in absence, “The Missing” unkempt yet arrived.

Salient fulfills its promise, brilliantly weaving together the archive’s language with the poet’s simultaneous desire and refusal to create cohesion or connection. The language of history, “Trench map sheet 28 NW 2 St. Julien C.28.a.5.5.” or “Chief of Staff to General…on the evening of 6 June 1917, hours before nineteen mines were detonated under the Messines Ridge,” is wound and unwound by the poems. In the poem, “Construction of Trench Systems: Explanation of Diagram #7,” technical language of war surfaces in strict lines

Two distinct lines
of wire entanglement
in front of the first line

and then collapses:

….Now try
to find your
way back through
all this in
the dark.

The “Notes on Sources,” which appear at the end of the book, are neither strict historiographical footnotes nor direct extensions of the poems. They sit between genres and include expected information, such as publishing information for books on mapping or the chöd ritual, as well as lyrical bursts, such as “For the curious:” and “Geographical names and map coordinates have been altered to locate the poem in the Ypres Salient. This poem is dedicated to the Infantry Captain with the Cat, who taught me how to read it.” Filled with personality and recognition of the role of imagination (the map coordinates have been entirely altered to fit a new geography), Gray’s footnotes demonstrate a potential new mode of citation. In her notes, referenced sources, the voices of historians and of primary sources, visual and auditory, meet the poet’s voice. The notes reveal the poetics latent in the labels of maps, the “sound ranging” method of locating coordinates of hostile artillery, and the sonic playground of captains’ titles, including “His Majesty’s Twenty-Third Foot, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers.” One note reads: “The gyalpo (lit. ‘kings’) are spirits that bring illness, impersonate leaders, and supposedly cause insanity.” Literal translations yield to simultaneous truths, and mythology meets history in “supposedly,” in the poet’s license to believe what she chooses to believe.

In my own collection of poems, entitled Many to Remember, I grappled with genre and with the moments in which history entered the text (in both the Preface and Notes sections). The collection, grounded in my archival research on New Mexico crypto-Judaism and the Mexican Inquisition, often required background information. But the archival history of crypto-Judaism in Mexico and New Mexico, especially after the fall of the Mexican Inquisition in 1821, is filled with absence, and it is this absence many of the poems attempt to explore, unravel, and preserve. I ended up including history esoterically, weaving archival fragments into a preface grounded in my family’s history and writing Notes that would indulge curiosities but leave much to be further researched or simply imagined by a reader. In a book of poems interested in how absence can be translated from archive to poem through form and through the line, it made sense to me to include history primarily as fragment. In this way, I attempted to ground the poems in their history, to give readers some insight into my process of translation, but to mostly leave archival gestures as objects to be interpreted, verbal fictions whose process of refamiliarization was only partially complete and whose reference remained at once image and metaphor. In this way, I felt I could leave the poetry without burden and motion towards the form of the archive, the objects I had held, and the fragmented histories with which I began.

Rachel Kaufman is a PhD student in History at UCLA and focuses on memory, religion, and diasporic identity in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. She is interested in the ways in which literary and historical texts transmit the past and the affective world of the archive, and her current research focuses on New Mexico crypto-Jewish memory practices and the Mexican Inquisition. Her prose has been published in Rethinking History and The Yale Historical Review, and her poetry has appeared on and in the Harvard Review, Southwestern American Literature, Western Humanities Review, JuxtaProse, and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, Many to Remember, was recently published by Dos Madres Press. She received her B.A. from Yale in English and History.

Featured Image: Archival seal, courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Dispatches from the Archives

Democratized Archives in an Enforced Digital Age

By Avery Weinman

Archival work is my bread and butter. Throughout the fall of 2020, I spent a majority of my time researching Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim: two Palestinian Sephardi members of the extremist Zionist terror organization Lohamei Herut Israel (also known by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi). On November 6, 1944 in Cairo, Beit-Tzuri and Hakim assassinated Lord Moyne, who, as the British Resident Minister of the Middle East, was one of the highest-ranking officials in the British Empire in the Middle East and North Africa. The assassination thrust the British-Zionist conflict in Palestine to the forefront of the international imagination, and the reverberations from the assassination and subsequent trial both accentuate the importance of Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s Sephardi identities and situate Zionism alongside other anti-imperial national liberation movements of the early-to-mid twentieth century. As I sifted through Hebrew, French, and English newspapers from the mid-1940s, court transcripts from Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s trial in Cairo, their letters to home, fiery propaganda issued by Zionist terror cells, and interior memos of the British Foreign Office, I was filled with the buzzy delight that characterizes how I feel working with primary sources. It was only in the brief moments of unexpected interruption—in which the alarm for my lunchtime baked potato went off, or my laptop chirped that I had ten minutes until my umpteenth Zoom meeting of the week—that I remembered how deeply removed I actually was from traditional archival work.

Since the spring of 2020, archives all over the world have closed their doors in accordance with quarantine measures designed to impede the spread of COVID-19. These conditions are, to put it mildly, a profound challenge to historical research. But these challenges are not without their silver linings, the potential benefits of which are especially visible in the Israeli archives I used while researching Beit-Tzuri and Hakim. While state and state-adjacent institutional backing typically determine the legitimacy of Israeli archival sources, coronavirus-related closures have brought digital accessibility to the fore as a newly significant factor in historical archival research. The abnormal circumstances of archival work in the coronavirus era, which restricts historians almost entirely to the digital space, acts as a sort of hyper-fertile incubator that accelerates historians’ inquiries into the idea of archival work, which archives count, and, ultimately, whose voices get heard.

Archival theory and historians’ investigation into archives themselves well predate the absurdity of 2020. As part of the post-colonial, post-structuralist wave that began in the mid-twentieth century, historians have expanded their understanding of the archive beyond a mere container for data to what Ann Laura Stoler memorably coined “archives-as-things” in her 2009 monograph Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Here, Stoler identified and analyzed the palimpsests of colonial anxieties about race, gender, and power as they appear in archival documentation from the nineteenth-century Netherlands Indies to unveil archives themselves as dynamic expressions of historical processes. In addition to Stoler’s establishment of the archive as a site of historical inquiry, Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s 2015 article “Black Holes, Dark Matter, and Buried Troves: Decolonization and the Multi-Sited Archives of Algerian Jewish History” and Diana Taylor’s 2010 article “Save As… Knowledge and Transmission in the Age of Digital Technologies” raise questions into the role of the archive that have been sharpened by the era of coronavirus. Stein shows that who has the legitimate “right” to archival material and what kinds of archival materials different players seek to control indicate how historical actors use the conquest dimension of the archive to exert authority over the historical narrative. In Stein’s piece, four distinct actors—Algeria, France, Israel, and the Mzabi Jewish community from southern Algeria—competed to possess Mzabi Jews’ archival trail. Both in a literal sense by attempting to collect and house Mzabi documentation, and in a symbolic sense by moving to weave the Mzabi Jewish past into their own narratives, each rival party sought to nationalize, colonize, liberate, or localize Mzabi records to substantiate their own claim as the authentic heirs of Mzabi Jewish history amidst the upheavals of post-colonial independence in the mid-twentieth century. Their four-way tug-of-war prompts historians to consider the problem of dominion over archival materials, and to question the ideologies behind where archival materials are located. Taylor studied the digital archive specifically, and concluded that digitization and twenty-first-century technologies have fundamentally redefined what an “archive” is and can be by democratizing access to and construction of archival (web)sites. According to her, these technologies have transformed which kinds of materials are worthy of archival documentation, eroded the notion of archival ownership or copyright, and deracinated archival sites from physical space and capital. While each of these works predated the coronavirus pandemic, the questions Stoler, Stein, and Taylor have posed are especially potent in a time when being restricted to the digital realm further magnifies the form of archives themselves. My own research experience with Israeli archives this past fall exemplified the renewed relevance of these scholars’ analyses, as historians’ temporary relegation to the e-archive have overturned the pre-existing hierarchy of Israeli institutional archival legitimacy.

Divisions between different Zionist factions siloed whose histories went to which Israeli archives along political lines. This was especially true for the bitter, and often violent, rivalry between the Labor Zionists and the Revisionist Zionists. The Labor Zionists dominated the political landscape of both the pre-state Yishuv and the initial decades of Israeli state sovereignty, from the early twentieth century through the late 1970s. Conversely, the Revisionist Zionists were relegated to the fringes of Zionist and Israeli politics and governance. As Israeli historian Amir Goldstein explains in his 2015 article Olei Hagardom: Between Official and Popular Memory,” the Labor Zionist establishment led by David Ben-Gurion and the Mapai party at the beginning of Israeli statehood were acutely aware of the political power that came with their ability to use institutional legitimacy to curate Israeli collective memory. By privileging their own activities in archives, museums, and ceremonies, while obscuring the presence of their Revisionist Zionist rivals, Mapai formalized a decades-long precedent of political marginalization through institutional exclusion. In so doing, Mapai fixed the parameters for what kinds of politics would be considered legitimate in the Israeli sphere for decades to come. To cement their own position as the hegemon of Israeli state power, the Labor Zionists excluded, redacted, and erased the presence of their political rivals—most notably the Revisionist Zionists, but also the Israeli Communist Party as well—from the archival bodies of state and state-adjacent institutions.

Israeli scholar Tuvia Friling articulates both the process and the consequences of this exclusion of Revisionist Zionist voices from the archive and Israeli historiographical narrative in his 2009 article “A Blatant Oversight? The Right-Wing in Israeli Holocaust Historiography.” Examining the “lacunae” of writing about Revisionist Zionist efforts to facilitate so-called illegal immigration to British Mandatory Palestine following the enactment of the 1939 White Paper, Friling explains that the Labor Zionists at the head of the newly created state of Israel quickly mobilized “sweeping historiographical enterprises to secure their version as the canonical narrative of national rebirth.” In other words, in spite of the fact that Revisionist Zionists’ role in facilitating Jewish immigration was well-known among the population of British Mandatory Palestine, the state expunged records of their activities from institutionally legitimized archives. As a result, Revisionist Zionists were, and remain, overwhelmingly absent from both popular commemoration and Israeli historiography of Jewish immigration in this formative period of national myth-making.

Revisionist Zionists did attempt to set up their own institutions and archives in response to neglect in state interest and state funding. However, because of infighting between different Revisionist Zionist factions and predilection towards mythification and privatization within the ideology of Revisionist Zionism itself, these institutions and archives opened slowly and without the necessary organizational unity required to make a meaningful intervention into the historical narrative. For example, The Lehi Museum in Tel Aviv did not open until 1991. The Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which enjoys a greater degree of political recognition, only began collecting archival materials in 2000. The state of Israel officially recognized the archives of the earliest and most established of Revisionist Zionist bodies, the Jabotinsky Institute, in 1958, but Friling asserts that even the Jabotinsky Institute “remained an isolated island in the ocean of institutes connected in various ways with the leftist camp.” It is one of the peculiarities of Israel that, even four decades after the Revisionist Zionists achieved mainstream political success with the Likud Party’s first victory in the 1977 elections, Revisionist Zionism remains peripheral to the dominant historical narrative and structures of the state.

Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim were both members of the Lehi, meaning I relied on marginalized Revisionist Zionist archives—especially the Jabotinsky Institute—to conduct my research. State and state-adjacent institutional archives like the Central Zionist Archives or the Israel State Archives have few, if any, relevant sources on Beit-Tzuri’s and Hakim’s actions and lives. Because of coronavirus-related closures, my main consideration in conducting meaningful research was online access to digitized material. Fortunately, I discovered quite quickly that the Jabotinsky Institute hosts a veritable treasure trove of digitized content on its website that is free to access for anyone with an internet connection. For my research, this archival body yielded an abundance of photographs, letters, newspaper articles, propaganda publications, transcripts, and commemoration pamphlets about Beit-Tzuri and Hakim, their roles in the assassination of Lord Moyne, their trial in Cairo, their executions in March of 1945, and the resonance they would ultimately leave in a hotly contested landscape of Israeli collective memory. With supplementary sources from the extensive collection of historical newspapers provided through the National Library of Israel, I conducted rigorous archival research akin to the standards of working in a physical archival space—all while sitting comfortably at my desk in my tried-and-true Adidas sweatpants.

Working entirely digitally allowed me to conduct this research with relative ease, and to bypass the hierarchy of Israel’s politically siloed archives. This fact, in turn, has prompted me to consider if the crucible conditions of archival work in the era of coronavirus closures have actually created an accelerated democratizing process that casts which archives are considered institutionally legitimate and which histories get told into sharp relief. As Goldstein and Friling point out, the Revisionist Zionist archives I relied on typically fall outside the boundaries of institutional legitimacy. However, because those sources are digitized and easily accessible, Revisionist Zionist archives benefit from the leveled playing field brought about by the unusual circumstances of the pandemic. This strange period in time in which digital access outranks institutional endorsement encourages historians to work with archives they might have otherwise overlooked. My experience researching Beit-Tzuri and Hakim was specific to Israeli archives, but the accelerated process of democratization enabled by digital accessibility applies broadly to archival work across fields of study. How does “doing history” change when unexpected challenges recalibrate which archives historians can even use? Can this moment, as frustrating as it is, instruct historians in how to better include marginalized voices? Can it embolden historians to challenge the notion that institutional backing is synonymous with historical legitimacy? These prodding questions into the idea of archives themselves predate the era of coronavirus closures, but I would optimistically hope that historians can extract a silver lining from this enforced digital age to turn a challenging time into an opportunity to examine the archive with renewed zeal.

Avery Weinman is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of History and the Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow at the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Her main areas of focus are modern Jewish history, Sephardi/Mizrahi Studies, the history of modern Israel, the history of the modern Middle East and North Africa, and the intellectual history of Zionism. Currently, she is intensely interested in the activities and worldviews of Sephardi and Mizrahi members of the Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lohamei Herut Israel in the 1940s during the British Mandate of Palestine.

Featured Image: Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Interior shot of the storage facilities at the Archives of American Art’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. June 1, 2011. Accessed February 8, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. | Victor Grigas. Wikimedia Foundation Servers. July 16, 2012. Accessed February 8, 2021. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dispatches from the Archives

Why Emerson Admired Bentham But Rejected His Utilitarianism

By Christopher Porzenheim

While it’s become increasingly common since 1970 for scholars to study Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher and evaluate his relationship to canonical philosophers, no one has thoroughly analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks upon Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, which is now one of the most influential contemporary schools of moral philosophy. This is odd. Emerson says at least as much, if not more, about Bentham than he does about Immanuel Kant, yet a vast amount of attention has been devoted to Kant’s influence on Emerson while very little ink has been spilled on Emerson’s relationship to Bentham. Indeed, so far as I know, Neal Dolan and Bhiku C. Parekh are the only scholars who have published anything on this subject.

Ultimately, I believe an analysis of Emerson’s remarks confirms Dolan and Parekh’s claim that Emerson rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, but also reveals something new—why he rejected his ethics. Understanding why Emerson disagreed with Bentham’s ethics matters because it will help anyone who wishes to compare John Stuart Mill and Emerson, characterize the nature of Emerson’s own moral philosophy or determine where he fits in the philosophical canon. As we shall see, Emerson was likely hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because of the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although quite accurately, Emerson recognized Bentham as one among many of the reformers making “accusations of society” in the 19th century (W 1: 228) whose proposed reforms focused on the subject of “Civil Law.” (EL 3: 225-26)

In addition, Emerson had some unambiguously complimentary things to say about Bentham. For example, Emerson is grateful Bentham coined words like maximize, minimize and “international.” (J 7: 69-70) Emerson also believes we should mimic one of Bentham’s habits. According to Emerson, if we wish to have excellent friendships we should primarily spend one on one—rather than group—time with our closest friends, just like how Bentham would only admit one person at a time into his study. (EL 2: 289) More generally, Emerson admires Bentham as a man of ideas (J 8: 465) unseduced by “too fanciful refinements” (EL 2: 289) who loved the truth (J 2: 501-502) and prophetically saw the need to advocate for “systematic Moral Education” in response to the “dark times” of his era. (J 3: 348, EL 2: 97) The rest of Emerson’s praise for Bentham is more ambivalent in its tone.

While Emerson admires Bentham’s aims and intellect, he is also unsettled by the idea that Bentham’s philosophy will be idolized. Emerson thought that Bentham, just like Charles Fourier or Emanuel Swedenborg, was a reformer armed with “a mind of uncommon activity and power” which would allow him to easily impose his philosophical “system” and “classification[s] on other men”. Therefore those with “unbalanced minds” will likely idolize Bentham’s philosophical system and mistakenly think of it as an “end” rather than “a speedily exhaustible means” of reforming society. (W 2: 79-80, EL 3: 140-141, LL 1: 356)

Why is Emerson worried about Bentham becoming idolized? There are at least two reasons. The first is that, as a rule, Emerson believed uncritical hero worship was vicious, whether for writers and poets like Shakespeare or Goethe, philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or religious figures like Jesus. (W 1: 88, 130-131, 4: 18). The other reason Emerson was uneasy with Bentham is more unique to Bentham. Emerson was always suspicious of very systematic theoreticians like Fourier, Swedenborg, or Bentham: “The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it.” (W 4: 135) This dislike follows from the first reason. Emerson believed that the more comprehensive a theoretical system was, the more likely it would be uncritically worshipped by intellectually complacent pupils. (W 2: 79, EL 3: 140)

Despite Emerson’s concerns there is little evidence that Bentham had anything like a cult following. As Bhikhu C. Parekh relevantly observed in his reception history of Bentham: “If one surveys the controversial writings and the systematic political treatises of the first six or seven decades of the nineteenth century, one finds that the leaders of thought [in America] were untouched by or were unfriendly to Benthamism.” Thus, it seems Emerson’s worry Bentham’s philosophy would be idolized by many of his American contemporaries was unwarranted.

Perhaps the safest general characterization of Emerson’s estimate of Bentham was that he saw him as a positive and negative role model. For, on the one hand, Emerson appears like he may have wished to emulate what he perceived to be Bentham’s life-long focus popularizing one idea. In a journal passage, Emerson asked himself “what do you exist to say?” after approvingly noting that Bentham existed to say one thing “The greatest good of the greatest number”. (J 8: 422) This passage, alongside others, suggests Emerson may have believed he should, like Bentham, focus on popularizing one idea. (JMN 4: 348-349) But, on the other hand, Emerson seems uncomfortable with what he perceives to be Bentham’s monomaniacal focus. As Emerson thought Bentham was “insane on one side” and simply as “crazy” as the popularizer of phrenology Johann Spurzheim for being so eager to repeat one idea over and over again (J 3: 505, EL 3: 140); Bentham “pound[s] on one string till the whole world knows that.” (J 7: 186)

Yet, while Emerson was of mixed minds about Bentham himself, he had no love for his moral philosophy. Emerson’s earliest judgments of Bentham’s philosophy occur in his prize winning Essay on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy. In this youthful scholastic essay, the 18 year old Emerson is dismissive of Benthamite consequentialism, but not openly hostile. Emerson claims that those looking to advance the “science” of ethics should ignore Bentham’s utilitarianism because his “moral arithmetic” is not “necessary” for the “science” of ethics to discover the proper moral “precepts”.

Later, when the mature Emerson judges Bentham’s moral philosophy in his private journals and public lectures his judgements become harsher. Emerson’s outright contempt for Benthamite utilitarianism is well summarized by Bhikhu C. Parekh

in 1831 he [Emerson] wrote in his journal: ‘The stinking philosophy of the utilitarian! Nihil magnificum, nihil generosum sapit, as Cicero said of that of Epicurus.’ [J 2: 455] Two years later, however (a year after Bentham’s death), he [Emerson] wrote to his brother from London: ‘I have been to see Dr. Bowring, who was very courteous. He carried me to Bentham’s house and showed me with great veneration the garden walk, the sitting room, and the bed chamber of the philosopher. He also gave me a lock of his gray hair, and an autograph.… He is anxious that Bentham should be admired and loved in America.’ [L 1: 392] Emerson contributed nothing to that end. He rejected utilitarianism with the same contempt as did his friend Carlyle, by whose views on this subject he was greatly influenced. In 1836, he [Emerson] wrote: ‘I had rather not understand in God’s world than understand thro’ and thro’ in Bentham’s. [L 1: 450]’

This passage from Parekh makes clear that Emerson considered Bentham’s philosophy stinking, ignoble and ungodly, but not so clear why. Some philosophical context can help clarify.

To justify his specific criticism of Bentham’s “stinking philosophy” Emerson appears to be invoking one of Cicero’s arguments from De Finibus; a dialogue written by Cicero in which an Epicurean and Stoic spokesperson defend their ideas about virtue. One of Cicero’s many criticisms of the Epicurean position is that he thinks the Epicureans are mistaken for only valuing virtue instrumentally as a means of securing pleasure, rather than for its own sake. (Cicero. DeFinibus. Bk2.69-73) By invoking Cicero on this point, Emerson implies that this same Ciceronian criticism can be applied to Benthamite utilitarianism. Emerson is right to think so. Like the Epicureans, Bentham’s ethics does not value virtue intrinsically. Bentham’s utilitarianism values actions and things instrumentally insofar as they are conducive to utility (i.e the greatest happiness principle.) Thus, as the Epicureans only value virtue for the sake of pleasure, Bentham can only value virtue for the sake of utility. In contrast, as Jonathan Bishop has noted, Emerson believes that virtue is valuable for its own sake. (W 2: 94-95, 102-103, 121-123, 255) Therefore, Emerson seems to reject Bentham’s ethics because it necessarily denies virtue has intrinsic value (i.e. that virtue is its own reward.) 

Emerson also offers what seems to be a different but related criticism of Bentham’s ethics, namely that it fails to show enough interest in cultivating our character (i.e. in cultivating virtues like temperance, courage, justice, or wisdom.) As Emerson puts it, Bentham is an advocate of a “vulgar utilitarianism” which aims merely at “political or external freedom” and neglects an appropriate concern for “inward freedom also”. (EL 2: 67) Now, it’s undeniable Emerson is objecting to what he perceives to be Bentham’s ethical vulgarity, but not necessarily why. A quick conceptual detour can clarify Emerson’s ire.

Emerson’s critique of Bentham assumes a distinction between what contemporary philosophers sometimes call “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Put plainly, I lack some positive liberty if I am an alcoholic, because I cannot freely choose among courses of action; an alcoholic has an intemperate (hence vicious) desire to get drunk all the time which shapes all their decisions. Whereas, I lack some negative liberty if the government imprisons me for drunk driving, because it has interfered with my ability to freely choose among courses of action; I am now constrained to one location.

Because Emerson derides Bentham’s utilitarianism as “vulgar” for focusing its concern on our “political or external freedom” (negative liberties) and not also our “inward freedom” (positive liberties) this suggests that Emerson thinks that ethics should be concerned with helping us cultivate the kind of intellectual or moral virtues that allows us to exercise “inward freedom”. Therefore, Emerson seems irked by Bentham’s utilitarianism because he thinks it neglects an appropriate ethical concern for cultivating a virtuous character. 

We can now safely say a few things about Emerson’s remarks on Bentham. There are at least three patterns. One, Emerson tends to be slightly more kind to Bentham in public lectures and essays, and slightly less in his private letters and journals. Two, Emerson admires and criticizes Bentham for the same quality: a monomaniacal, systematic, and lifelong focus popularizing one idea. Three, while Emerson somewhat admired Bentham as a person, he had no admiration for his consequentialist ethics, which he saw as unnecessary moral arithmetic at best, and ignoble and ungodly at worst.

Ultimately, Emerson appears to have been hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because he believed it considered cultivating character relatively inconsequential and subordinated virtue to utility, rather than valuing virtue as its own reward. Thus, it seems as if the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics is driving most of his hostility toward Bentham’s consequentialist moral philosophy.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Abacus Patent Application filed by Andrew F. Schott. 1964. US Patent Office, US110564A.