Search | Directories | Reference Tools
UW Home > Discover UW > Student Guide > Course Catalog 

Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Christina D Wygant
CHID 250
Seattle Campus

Special Topics: Introduction to the History of Ideas

Examines a different subject or problem from a comparative framework. Satisfies the Gateways major/minor requirement. Offered: AWSp.

Class description

Interpreting Difference: Sacrifice, Sexual Liberation, and Slavery CHID 250B, Winter 2012 (Writing Course, VLPA, I&S)

Course Introduction: The influences of 18th and 19th century beliefs about human difference instilled power dynamics between cultures, races, genders, and classes of people still very present today. In the 18th century, coming to terms with racial identity was a complicated struggle, as its meaning was constantly shifting and becoming negotiated in the face of competing traditional and new beliefs and practices. The predominant view of race in the 19th century as determined by skin color was strikingly at odds with the much more fluid and conflicting interpretations of human variety in the 18th century, when scientific theories based on climate, the humoral or the anatomical body co-existed with older markers of difference, such as Christianity, civility, and rank, as outlined by Roxann Wheeler in her book The Complexion of Race. This becomes especially evident when comparing the widely publicized 18th and 19th century colonial travel texts, the highly acclaimed scientific theories of human variety, and the contentious abolitionist slave debates. Through the study of travel narratives and scientific texts, we will trace how the racialization of human variability gets recoded as human hierarchy and profoundly affected the abolition of slavery.

For example, when European travel writers described the characteristics of a variety of people, they examined the group at hand in contrast to another group considered more or less “civilized,” which was often a comparison to people from locations the traveler had never seen. Similarly, scientists who studied and created theories of race did not write of non-European peoples and races from first-hand experience; instead, these scientists relied on descriptions from travel writers of different races of people from all over the world. A majority of the European public held these scientific principles in such high regard that colonizers were able to continue exploiting millions of slaves for their labor. Although some of the most influential scientists of the 18th and 19th century vehemently opposed slavery, their theories of human difference were used as evidence in favor of the anti-abolitionist cause, having profound impacts on the continuation of slavery and the emergence of racial ideology.

In this class, we will explore the travel narratives of Captain James Cook’s, Joseph Banks’s, John Hawkesworth’s journey to the South Seas which excited ideas of Eden and sexual liberation in Tahiti; William Snelgrave’s narrative which incited racialized fear of the Dahomey sacrifices in Guinea; and John Gabriel Stedman’s conceptions of slavery and colonial love in Surinam which raised questions about contradictory social mores. These narratives are important to our study particularly as they relate to the work of scientists Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, J.C. Prichard, William Lawrence, Charles White, and Stanley Stanhope Smith, which were influenced by the theories of Linnaeus and Buffon. With these texts, we will identify and trace the instability of 18th century categories of difference, noting the ways in which, for example, a fear of cannibalism, exaggeration of sexual liberation, and contradiction of social mores developed into new ways of thinking about human variety. These developments had immediate and profound repercussions on the emergence of racial ideology and the abolition of slavery.

Like scientists and travel writers, abolitionists and anti-abolitionists attempted to make sense of human differences, as we will read in James Ramsay’s work titled An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (1784), where he writes of the arbitrary differences between skin colors, describing black skin as “a universal freckle.” Thomas Clarkson also stresses the arbitrariness of skin color in An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1788), questioning how civilized Christian Europeans really are if they promote the barbarity of the slave trade. Attempting to thwart the claim that slaves are not dealt with in a Christian-like manner, anti-abolitionists maintained that Africans are treated better on plantations than in their own country where they would most likely be enslaved or killed, pointing to the Old and New Testaments, which do not oppose slavery. In his Scriptural Researches on the licitness of the Slave Trade, shewing its conformity with the principles of natural and revealed religion (1788), Raymond Harris describes how slavery is both tolerated and approved of in the Old and New Testaments, a point which troubled abolitionists.

The slave trade reflected British uncertainties about how to interpret human difference, which manifested itself in a national identity crisis as it pervaded 18th century philosophical, religious, financial, and scientific discussions. This course will demonstrate that these anxieties permeated travel narratives and scientific theories of race, and had profound effects on the abolition of slavery. As we will see, the emergence of racial ideology was not as straight-forward as some contemporary scholars might believe. Interpreting difference was uneven, unstable, and constantly shifting, the effects of which are still experienced today.

Student learning goals

Course Goals: “Interpreting Difference” provides a space to discuss many influential and widely-cited texts on human variety. When reading, writing, and speaking about these texts, we will:

Locate the text within a historical and cultural context

Compare texts and identify the similarities and differences

Identify how the work questions, complicates, and advances previous belief and knowledge systems

Understand how these ideas developed and are part of larger conversations of power, oppression, and difference

General method of instruction

The course will be divided into five main sections followed by a course overview at the end of the quarter. Due to the length of each of the texts, shorter reading sections will be assigned in a course packet.

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

Students will write two 2-3 page papers, which will engage with at least one of major readings. The final 6-8 page paper will engage with at least three major texts (one of which is Wheeler’s The Complexion of Race), and can incorporate ideas from the previous response papers, addressing at least two new texts. Students will also complete two 1-page participation write-up papers. Each student (or group of students) will be responsible for leading a discussion on one of the texts.

Paper #1: 20% Paper #2: 20% Paper #3: 40% Participation: 20%


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Christina D Wygant
Date: 01/06/2012