Monday, June 15, 2009

George R. Gliddon (1809-1957)

This posting looks at the career of George Robbins Gliddon (1809-1857), the husband of Anne Gliddon.

The generalisation that "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones" might be applied in the case of George R. Gliddon.

He is remembered one hundred and fifty years after his death as one of the chief protagonists of the theory of polygenesis - the theory that different races were different species, and so denying a common humanity. Among the inequalities said to exist between races was brain size, and by implication intellectual capacity.

My blog is not designed to deal with the debates concerning the history of ideas and theories which relate to the origins of mankind. But I will note here that ideas and theories are developed within a cultural context. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that the United States, in the 19th century, was fertile ground for theories that supported the notion of the superiority of "Whites" over "Blacks". This was particularly so in the first half of the century when slavery was an important aspect of American economic life. Stephen J. Gould, (1981) in his book The Mismeasure of Man provides ample evidence of the ways science has aided, and in some cases abetted, social and racial prejudice. He includes in his book the work of the craniologist Dr. Samuel Morton, [Samuel Morton, 1790-1851] - a close friend and colleague of Gliddon, who was the first to attempt to scientifically measure racial differences in brain size.

Today the theory of polygenesis has become an obsolete relic of the past. Although these arguments may have fallen silent, the victims of the injustices that were perpetrated in its name have had to deal with a bitter and sad legacy. However I am not writing this to apportion blame nor to give praise, but to provide, as much as I am able, an accurate account of an unusual man with an extraordinary life history. To do this I have chosen to print a transcript of George Gliddon's Obituary, published in the New York Herald shortly after his death. Despite the fact that it reads more like an eulogy, and avoids being critical in any way, I believe that it is, generally. a fairly accurate account of the events of his life, and I will comment further at the end.

From of the New York Herald's Obituary Column, 30th Nov., 1857:


Science and the World has suffered a severe loss in the death of George R. Gliddon, the well known Egyptian scholar and author, who died suddenly at Panama, of pulmonary congestion, on the 16th Inst., aged about 50 years. Mr. Gliddon was born in England, but went early to Egypt, where his father was consul of the United States, which office was afterwards held by Mr. Gliddon himself. As Consul he was most attentive to American interests, and untiring in his kindnesses to American travellers. In 1836, when Mohemet Ali indicated his plans for the material improvement of Egypt by the introduction of machinery, Mr Gliddon succeeded in impressing him with the skill of American mechanics in this department, and was sent by the Pasha to the United States to contract for rice, sugar and other mills, which were subsequently put into successful operation. Up to this time Mr. Gliddon was known chiefly as an active business man; but an eager, acquisitive mind like his could not fail to be arrested by the monuments of ancient civilization around him, and he early took a deep interest in the researches of Bonomi, [Joseph Bonomi, 1796-1878]; Salt, [Henry Salt, 1780-1827]; Vyse, [Richard Henry Howard Vyse, 1813-1872]; and other Egyptian scholars and explorers to whose labors the rapid and brilliant discoveries of Champollion, [Jean Francois Champollion, 1790-1832] had given augmented force and true distinction. He became an efficient member of the Egyptian society, composed of all the savants of Cairo and Alexandria, and rapidly acquired a thorough knowledge of all the results which had been reached in the various departments of Egyptian research. It was this knowledge, equally with his genial spirits and brilliant intelligence, that made him the welcome friend and correspondent of Dr. Morton, and other distinguished scientific men in America. But it was with Dr. Morton that he became most intimately connected, undertaking to supply that eminent craniologist and philosopher, with the materials for carrying forward his inquiries into the origins and relations of the various families of men from the New to the Old World, and from the Valley of the Mississippi to that of the Nile. With great difficulty and expense, and at no inconsiderable personal risk, Mr. Gliddon collected some hundreds of crania from the ancient tombs and sepulchral caverns of Egypt, embracing numerous specimens from every part of the valley of the Nile, from Upper and Lower Egypt and from the Delta to the Falls of Merve. These were sent to Dr. Morton of Philadelphia who directed upon them those eminent powers of analysis which had won so high renown for his great work. "Crania Americana". The result was an
elaborte work dedicated to Mr. Gliddon and published bythe Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, entitled "Crania Egyptiaca", which has set at rest, once and forever, the leading questions so long in dispute as to the race and physical type of the ancient Egyptian.

Meantime, Mr. Gliddon was actively occupied with the overland route to India, and after various experiments at his own cost, submitted a memorial on the subject to the British government. which not only attracted the attention of Lord Palmerston, but led to his being called to London with a view to the practical realization of his suggestion. A sudden change in the ministry, however, prevented any action at that moment and Mr. Gliddon returned to Egypt where he published an "Essay on the production of Cotton in the Valley of the Nile"; and an "Appeal to Europe" against the wholesale destruction of the Egyptian monuments by Mohemet Ali, who spared none of the venerable relics of the past in his new born utilitarian zeal. About this time the financial and commercial establishments with which Mr. Gliddon was connected met with reverses, which induced him to abandon Egypt and essay his fortune in the United States. Here his Egyptian knowledge and experience led to his being invited to lecture on Egypt and its monuments, by a great number of literary and scientific societies. He accordingly delivered a course of lectures on these interesting subjects before the Lowell Institute, which met with great success. It was repeated twice in Philadelpia, and in rapid succession, in all the principal cities of the Union. A stenographic report was published which met with an unprecedented sale, and it was not long before Egyptian studies and their results became more widely known and thoroughly popularized in the United States than in any country of Europe. Personally known to the leading savants, and in correspondence with them, Mr. Gliddon was always able to present the latest and freshest of their discoveries, and without pretending to originality of research, he was probably better acquainted with the results of Egyptian science than any other man of the age. His success as a lecturer interested him more and more in his subject, and led him, almost imperceptibly to himself, to adopt lecturing as a profession. In accumulating his facts and illustrations, he paid several visits to Europe, and resided at various periods, in Berlin, Paris and London where he was received with ardent welcome by all the leading oriental students, such as Lepsius, [Karl Richard Lepsius, 1810-1884]; Lazci, [partiaulars unknown]; Rawlinson, [Sir Henry Rawlinson, 1810-1895]; Jornard, [possibly the French hydrographer]; Longperrion,[particulars unknown]; Birch, [Samuel Birch, 1813-1885]; Maury, [Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury , 1817-1892]; Layard, [Austen Henry Layard,1817-1894]; and Wilkinson, [Sir JohnGardner Wilkinson, 1797-1875]. They all looked upon him as their most efficient auxiliary in making known and popularizing as a consistent whole, the detached results attained by each in his special field of inquiry.

Mr. Gliddon's Egyptian studies naturally led him into the cognate researches, and he became deeply interested in those anthropological subjects which have of late secured so large a degree of attention amongst students, especially as connected with the question of human origins, and the diversity and permanence of race. Upon these questions, Dr. Morton, previous to his death had begun to concentrate the light of his clear, calm intelligence. As a disciple ofMorton, and in connection with his friend and colleague, Dr. J C. Nott [Josiah Clark Nott, 1804-1873] of Mobile, Mr Gliddon conceived the plan of an elaborate work, which would embrace the unpublished papers of Morton and combine the mature ideas and conclusions of the most distinguished scholars of America on the various questions above indicated; the whole to be dedicated "To the Memory of Morton". This work was published in 1854, under the title of "Types of Mankind", &c., and has been widely read and produced a profounder impression on the educated mind of this country, and Europe than any similar work hitherto published. It contained papers by Agassiz, [Louis Agassiz, 1804-1873] and other distinguished writers, which at once stamped it as a standard work among the scholars, and put it beyond the reach of those invidious attacks and disparagements by which previous works on similar subjects have been assailed and put down. The success of this work, of which no less than ten thousand copies were sold, encouraged Mr. Gliddon, again in conjunction with Dr. Nott to undertake another similar work, entitled "Indigenous Races of the Earth", &c.,which issued from the press in the spring of this present year.[1857]. This work may be regarded as a supplement to the first, and is consequently without its novelty. It could not be expected, therefore, to produce so marked an impression, but still it has been warmly welcomed among students, and containing as it does, mature papers from Dr. Nott, Alfred Maury and Francis Pulszky, [Ferencz Aurelius Pulszky, 1814-1897] must take a high stand as book of reference. [The figure on the R, is a copy of a Pulszky Lithograph that belonged to Gliddon. It is headed "Pulszky Lithograph 13th Dynasty, Plate VII"]

Before the publication of this last work, Mr. Gliddon wearied of sedentary life, and longing for the excitement of change and physical activity, in which his early life was passed, accepted the post (tendered to him, by his old friend and colleague, Mr. E.G. Squiers, [Ephraim George Squiers, 1821-1888]) of Deputy Agent of the Honduras Inter-Oceanic Railway in Honduras, Central America. The ability and energy which he had displayed in opening the Suez or Overland route to India made the appointment especially acceptable to the English directors of that company, and on the 15th April last Mr. Gliddon and his staff, in company with the engineers of the company, sailed for Honduras, where he at once exhibited those qualities of activity, zeal and personal disregard of dangers, which had distinguished him in the East. He was on his return to the United States, on leave of absence, when he was overtaken by the isthmus fever, and died as stated above in Panama.

In his death, we repeat, science and the world have sustained a most severe loss, and the intelligence of this mournful event will carry sorrow to the hearts of thousands of personal friends throughout the United States and Europe. Mr. Gliddon was an extraordinary man, of versatile talents, varied information, and large experience. The races and the civilizations of both continents were familiar to him. He had been a guest of the Arab and Turk, had traversed the great deserts, wandering over Palestine and Mesopotamia, had been a resident in Greece, was familiar with every country in Europe and was a cosmopolitan in America. In language a polyglot, an encyclopedia of information, he was at once the most entertaining and instructive of companions. But it was in respect of the noble qualities of friendship and uncomplaining fortitude, of honor and honesty of purpose that those who knew him best loved and esteemed him most. In his attachments and dislikes he was equally fervent, but his enemies, if such remain, now that his gallant spirit has gone from us, will not fail to recognise his sincerity and truth, and forgetful of errors and mistaken judgments, join his friends in a tribute of sorrow over his untimely grave . It will be a consolation to Mr. Gliddon's friends to know that his last hours were soothed and cheered by the presence of his friend H.S. Sandford, Esq.,[1823-1891] late U.S. Charge d'Affairs in France.


Gliddon's obituary here is hard to reconcile with the picture of Gliddon that has emerged since. Probably the most scathing comments can be found in William Stanton's (1960), The Leopard's Spot: Scientific Attitudes towards Race in America. In this book Gliddon is portrayed not only as a racist, but as "a name dropper, a sponger, a swinger on the shirt-tails of the great, a braggart, pretender and scatologist". Written 100 years after Gliddon's death and at a time when America was in an intense ideological battle for the civil rights of Black Americans, it is understandable his image was likely to take a battering.

The problem in providing some sort of a biography is to try to see "the man" rather than "the image". Both the New York Herald and The Leopard's Spot offer the reader an image, while "the man" himself lives only in the past, and cannot be ressurected. If the story of Gliddon's life is to be told as accurately as possible, he needs to be undersood in the context of his own time.

A future posting may attempt to take up the challenge.

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