Challenging the Boundaries of Humankind: Orangutans and savage men in the British debates about slavery (1770s-80s)

Dr Silvia Sebastiani (EHESS)

Monday 22 June, 4 pm

G.13, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, William Robertson Wing, Old Medical School

This paper aims to historicize the boundaries of humankind within a specific context, and around a particular object: the orangutan, or rather the chimpanzee, according to current classification. The paper will aim to show that the orangutan is at the heart of the debates on slavery in 1770s Britain, at the very moment in which England and Scotland approved antislavery laws.

The hypothesis is that the positions in favour of the animality or of the humanity of the savage or black slave drew directly from the repertoire of facts and proofs provided by comparative anatomy. This paper will therefore trace the uses to which the work of the anatomist Edward Tyson was put. His dissection of an orangutan in 1698, and his point-by-point comparison with the human body, marked a shift in medical practices that affected the philosophical and historical definition of man throughout the eighteenth century.

The paper will deal with two specific cases that emphasize the historical relationship between orangutans and humans, albeit from different positions and with distinct goals: the Scottish judge and erudite linguist James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, who, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, saw the orangutan as the example of the primordial man; and the historian of Jamaica, Edward Long, an English planter and judge of the Admiralty Court, who stressed the resemblance between the orangutan and black slaves, in order to defend slavery within the British Empire. Developing at the crossroad between different fields of knowledge and channels of information, this controversy acquires a global dimension, mobilizing a broad range of actors and spaces.

Silvia Sebastiani is Maître de conférences, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

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