Enslaved Remains, Scientific Racism, and the Work of Counter-History (Part Two)

This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read part one and more reflections from this series here.

Part 2. ‘Recollection’

Dr. Holmie recalled the skull had belonged to one of his former patients, a child “owned” by the hospital’s keeper and who died under his medical care. “The boy,” Holmie wrote to Davis:

…was owned by the keeper or headman of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s hospital at Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, in 1840 and previously under my medical care. He was when in health a very fat, well featured, cheerful little fellow much liked by those he came in contact with on account of his mild and obliging disposition and he died after a few days illness—apparently inflammation of the brain, or its membranes.[1]

The skull inscription prompted the collector to remember the otherness of the human being. Dr Holmie’s memory of an unnamed enslaved child whose bones he had seized and subsequently diverted from burial to a museum in Scotland added to the slave mark on the skull inscription. The “recollection” came in the form of a patronizing story which diminished and abridged the personhood of the child to a docile infantile body under enslavement; a “cheerful” and submissive servant of his slave master; an unnamed “little fellow” known above all for being the propriety of a known (white?) owner; a body ultimately reduced to the condition of medical object, to a “case” record of illness and death.[2] Thus, just like inscription re-marked the enslaved Other, this life-story re-narrated and reinforced the same classificatory condition of enslavement.

The narration shows the generalized desire of craniologists and skull collectors, like Holmie and Davis, to archive historical documents and biographical stories along with the human skulls in their possession. This activity was important—just like the bone inscription above—making reliable and effective the transition of human remains into museum specimens. Seen through the lens of current concerns with restitution and decolonization, the narration also exemplifies the limits and biases of this kind of old archival data for scholars and activists interested in re-using this “recollection” to initiate restitution processes and re-humanize human remains. In fact, in many cases historical narratives that “document” skulls in museums are themselves artefacts embedded in the racial and colonial regimes of power and truth that one seeks to criticize and subvert. In some ways, it is not the skulls-in-themselves alone that require restorative and critical historiographical work. It is also the composition of bone-and-inscriptions that produced (and, sometimes, continue to produce) the “specimen” that must be countered. It is this kind of composition that generated the transit of the enslaved person to enslaved skull in the phrenology and raciology museum of Joseph Barnard Davis.

And yet, this same transit can also bear witness to harmful colonial pasts and histories of enslavement, in turn acquiring a new kind of forensic value. From this perspective, Holmie’s inscriptions and words become an evidential trace of past cultures of exploitation and violence, the legacies of which continue to impact the present. The “slave boy” inscription of 1841-62 shows that slavery in North American settler colonies such as British Columbia was an event embedded in the regimes of scientific skull collecting, even after slavery was formally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834. Dr. Holmie’s writings are silent on whether the enslaved child was either an African or an Indigenous person. His mention of “tribe” (“Tribe Unknown”) in the skull inscription leaves African Black characteristics unmentioned (blackness, in contrast, was a trait most craniologists did not let pass in their inscriptions). This may suggest that the remains belonged to an enslaved Indigenous person owned by a white settler. This seems plausible considering that for most of Canada’s colonial history “the majority of slaves were Indigenous” and many were children used as manual labourers and domestic servants, just like Holmie’s “slave boy.”[3] Unwillingly, therefore, Holmie’s letter in Barnard Davis’s archive now becomes a record of the dark history of Black and Indigenous peoples’ enslavement in British Columbia (now Canada), a history sidestepped for decades and made invisible in mainstream narratives and national imaginaries of Canada.[4] In Canada there is now pressing urgency to remember this history and oppose forgetfulness, producing new historical narratives of slavery as an intrinsic part of Canada’s national past.[5] In this sense, re-telling here the “slave boy” inscription and recollections counters what some designate as the “collective silence” over “200 years of enslavement” and colonialism in Canada; it suggests a modest gesture of counter-memory that helps unveil what historian Afua Cooper recently denounced as “Canada’s best-kept secret.”[6]

Taken in this light, the inscriptions and stories that marked the so-called “slave boy” as specimen, from Canada (then British Columbia) to Stattfordshire in England, can also pave the way for a counter-reading. They contain the possibility of creating counter-discourses of race science and its abusive power formations, counter-narratives that subvert and act against those very same skull inscriptions and “recollections.”

Part 3. Counter-history

Reveal. Counter. Subvert. Remember. These verbs come to mind. They sum up, in my view, restorative historiographical interventions required in the messy world formed by physical anthropology, colonialism, and enslavement. Burial and/or restitution may offer justice to the unjust diversion of the remains of many enslaved people from burial grounds to the museum. In order to further terminate these “specimen regimes,” however, it is also meaningful to activate narratives and memories that interfere with the past inscriptions and “recollections” (such as those analyzed here) which marked the human remains. A racist past is perhaps not something one can, or perhaps even should, undo or erase—it is one perhaps that requires a carefully crafted counter-history that does not let its violence and effects be forgotten. A problem we historians face, in other terms, as anthropologist Michael Taussig might have put it, is to simultaneously engage, reveal, and subvert the “hallucinatory quality” of cultures of scientific racism; it is how to “write effectively” against the “effects of truth” and power they generated; against the effects produced, for example, by inscriptions and stories in “enslaved skulls” in museums.[7] Archive-grounded historiographical work inspired by those active verbs helps to dismantle the epistemic muddle within which human remains are captured in the process of becoming racial “specimens.” Writing against scientific racism and its legacies —without neglecting laborious analysis and archival and historiographical rigor—is difficult work. Yet, I think we need to keep on creating meticulous restorative counter-narratives and remembrances that do not let a dark past be forgotten. This short note, I hope, is but one small step in this direction.


[1] W. F. Holmie to Joseph Barnard Davis. Victoria, Vancouver Island, March 14, 1863. Enclosed in Joseph Barnard Davis, Catalogue of Human Crania, Vol. IV. Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London.

[2] See Warwick Anderson, “The Case of the Archive,” Critical Inquiry, 39 (2013), 532-547.

[3] Lawrence Bonita states that “the average age of Indigenous slaves in Canada was 14 years old and 57 per cent were girls or young women” and “were used primarily as manual labourers and domestic servants.” See Lawrence Bonita, “Enslavement of Indigenous People in Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, May 8, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/slavery-of-indigenous-people-in-canada. See also Natasha L. Henry, “Black Enslavement in Canada,”The Canadian Encyclopedia, June 9, 2020, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/black-enslavement.

[4] An early and ground-breaking work (first published in French in 1960) that began to unveil this history in Quebec is Marcel Trudel, Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage, translated by George Tombs (Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2013).

[5] For example, as stated by Matthew McRae, “The story of slavery in Canadian history,” Canadian Museum of Human Rights, 2021, https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-slavery-in-canadian-hi’story.

[6] Afua Cooper, as cited in Kyle G. Brown, “Canada’s slavery secret: The whitewashing of 200 years of enslavement,” June 9, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/canada-s-slavery-secret-the-whitewashing-of-200-years-of-enslavement-1.4726313.

[7] Michael Taussig, “Cultures of Terror-Space of Death: Roger Casement’s Putumayo’s Report and the Explanation of Torture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984): 467; 470-71.

Ricardo Roque: contributions / ricardo.roque@ics.ulisboa.pt / Universidade de Lisboa, Instituto de Ciências Sociais

1 Comment

  1. Raise the curtain on the bias that exists within the field of science……..even in death the enslave are still enslaved to the ideological beliefs of others

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