Historical background Manuscript list Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784). Frontispiece from Poems on various subjects, religious and moral. By Phillis Wheatley. London 1773. Wheatley was the first published African-American female poet. Blumenbach mentions her in his Beyträge zur Naturgeschichte, vol. 1 (2. ed. 1806), p. 91. Click to enlarge.
Reports about Blumenbach’s “African library”
In his “Éloge” on Blumenbach, Marie Jean-Pierre Flourens reported that Blumenbach “avait une bibliothèque toute composée de livres écrit par des nègres.” (Éloge historique de Jean-Frédéric Blumenbach, un des huit associeés étrangers de l’Académie. Lu dans la séance publique du 26 avril 1847. Paris: Claye, 1847, p. 13; digitised version). At least in his lectures, Blumenbach also seems to have mentionned such a “library”, cf. the reproduction of a note of an English listener in The London Medical Gazette 1 (1827/1828), p. 72 (digitised version): “Blumenbach gives us a most entertaining account of a little library which he possess of works written by Negroes, […].” (for the origin of the notes see ibid. p. 47). Already in 1829 this short note was quoted almost literally in Freedom’s Journal, the first journal in the USA published by Afro-Americans (January 24, 1829, p. 337; with “striking” instead of “entertaining”; digitised version). Modern research also speaks of such a “library” (cf. z. B. Schiebinger, Londa: Nature’s body. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, p. 190f.).
The term “library” must probably be understood in the limited sense of a smaller collection of books. It contained works by non-European authors, mostly from Africa and trained in Europe or the USA. Blumenbach mentions publications by three authors of African origin for the first time in 1787, still without a hint that he himself collected these works (“Einige naturhistorische Bemerkungen bey Gelegenheit einer Schweizerreise”, in: Magazin für das Neueste aus der Physik und Naturgeschichte vol. 4, 3. Stück (1787), p. 1–12, here p. 9; digitised version). In an extended version of this text in the first volume of the Beyträge zur Naturgeschichte (1790), pp. 95–118 (digital version), Blumenbach mentions seven writers of African origin by name (and four others without giving their names) and declares that he owns works by four of them (and had the other works “in his hands” i.e. he had borrowed copies). In the second edition of the first volume of the Beyträge (1806; digitised version) Blumenbach adds two more names to this list, again with the remark that he also owns works by these authors and by other authors of African origin not mentioned by name.
Blumenbach refers to these works as anthropological evidence for the unity of the species “man”, in this case with regard to its intellectual abilities, using scientific or artistic achievement based on a European model as a yardstick.
As far as is known, Blumenbach was the first to establish such a special collection (cf. Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 150). The procurement of these rare publications was usually difficult: “The few books of history or social science running against the grain of American racism, as well as creative works of fiction and poetry by writers of color, have all had trouble being taken seriously and finding publishers. As a result, many were printed privately, distributed locally, and never found their way into libraries, let alone bookstores.“ (ibid.) In Blumenbach’s correspondence, there are references to his efforts to acquire such publications, though not by Afro-American but by other non-European, indigenous authors. On 22 March 1796 he reported to Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Autenrieth that during his stay in London in 1791/1792 he had “erwischt” (caught) a school primer written by a Mohawh Indian (Dougherty, Frank William Peter: The correspondence of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Volume 5. Göttingen: Klatt, 2013, p. 11–13 no. 974; digitised version); already in 1789 he had – unsuccessfully – asked Johann Samuel Lieberkühn for a copy of the Essay of a Delaware-Indian and English spelling-book for the use of the schools of the Christian Indians on Muskingum River (1776) (Dougherty, Frank William Peter: The correspondence of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Volume 3. Göttingen: Klatt, 2010, p. 223–226 No. 550; digitised version).
Blumenbach’s manuscript list of publications by non-european authors
All works mentioned by Blumenbach in the Beyträge zur Naturgeschichte of 1806 and five others can be found in a list at the end of a handwritten catalogue of Blumenbach’s private collection kept between 1817 and about 1838 (SUB Göttingen, Cod. Ms. Blumenbach I, No. 4, p. 25–26: “Schriften, welche Neger oder andre sogenannte Wilde zu Verfaßern haben” (Writings composed by Negroes or other so-called savages); digitised version; see transcription below). 15 books are listed. The catalogue containing this list is not a library catalogue, but according to its title page a “Catalogus of my skull collection and the other anthropological apparatus belonging to it”. Immediately before the book list there are lists with portraits and skull casts of non-European peoples. At least in the context of this catalogue Blumenbach seems to have been primarily interested in the books as pieces of evidence for his anthropological theories and not in their specific content (e.g. information about environmental conditions, way of life and culture in Africa or about the practices of the slave trade and the living conditions of African slaves in the USA).
Transcription of SUB Göttingen, Cod. Ms. Blumenbach I, No. 4, p. 25–26:
SUB Göttingen, Cod. Ms. Blumenbach I, 4, S. 25 (detail). Click for complete image.
[p. 25] 1. Ant. Guil. Amo, Guinea – afer, Phil. et. A.A.L.L. [= Artium liberalium] mag. et J.V.C. [= Juris utriusque consultus] De humanae mentis απαθεια [= apatheia]. Witteb. 1734. 4. Digital version.
2. Ej[usdem] disputatio philosophica continens ideam distinctam eorum quae competunt vel menti vel corpori nostri vivo et organico. ib[idem] eod[em anno]. 4. Digital version.
3. Uitgewrogte Predikatien, gedaan door Jacobus Elisa Joannes Capitein, Africaansche Moor, beroepen Predikant op D’Elmina aan het Kasteel St George. Amst. 1742. 4. Digital version.
4. Ej[usdem] Staatkundig-Godgeleerd Onderzoekschrift over de Slaverny etc. Leiden. eod[em anno] 4. Digital version.
5. Poems on various Subjects, religious and moral. by Phillis Wheatley, Negroservant to Mr. J[ohn] Wheatley of Boston. Lond. 1773. 8. Digital version.
6. Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African. to which are prefixed, Memoirs of his Life. ed. 3. ib[idem] 1784. 8. Digital version.
7. The interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. written by himself. ed. 2. ib[idem] (1790) II vol. 8. Digital version.
[added on margin] 8. Absalom Jones’s and Richard Allen’s Narrative of the Proceedings of the black people, During the awful calamity in Philadelphia a. 1793. Philad. 1794. 12. Digital version.
9. [corr. from „8.“] Benj[amin] Bannaker’s Alamanac for 1794. Philad. 8.
10. [corr. from „9.“] Ej[usdem] Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanac for 1795. ib[idem] 8. Digital version of a reprint (1969) of the editions 1793 and 1795.
SUB Göttingen, Cod. Ms. Blumenbach I, 4, p. 26 (detail). Click for complete image.
[added on margin] 11. Absalom Jones’s thanksgiving Sermon on account of the abolition of the African Slave trade. ib[idem] 1808. 8. Digital version.
[added on margin] 12. Pet[er] Williams’s jun. oration on the abolition of the Slave Trade. New York. eod[em anno]. 8. Digital version.
[added on margin] 13. Russell Parrott’s oration on the abolition of the Slave Trade. Philad. 1814. 8.
14. [corr. from „10“] A Primer, for the use of the Mohawk children, to acquire the Spelling and Reading of their own, as well as to get acquainted with the English Tongue (von einem Mohawk-Indianer, Nahmens Shotisyowane) Lond. 1786. 12. Digital version.
[without number] Carte réduite des Îles de France et de la Réunion, dressée – par [Jean-Baptiste] Lislet[-]Geoffroy, Officier attaché au Génie (Correspondent der Pariser acad. des Sciences) publiée par ordre du Ministre de la Marine . Digital version.