Friday, October 14, 2011

Slave Daguerreotypes for Louis Aggassiz, 1850

The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
In 1976 a group of remarkable early photographs was discovered in the attic of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The fifteen daguerreotypes depict five black men of African birth and two young African-American women, daughters of two of the men. The photographs had been hidden away for more than 100 years.

J.T. Zealy, “Jack (driver), Guinea. Plantation of B.F. Taylor, Esq., Columbia, S.C.,” (frontal) March 1850

At first glance they appear to be conventional daguerrean portraits, of which millions were made in America during the 19th century. The presence of photographic furniture and a decorative carpet in some of the images indicates they were taken in a professional studio, while the leather and velvet-lined cases that were used to display and protect early photographs reinforce the impression that the pictures are conventional portraits. Yet there is evidence to suggest otherwise: the masklike expressions and stiff frontal and profile poses of those depicted are not at all typical of the genre; but, more strikingly, the subjects of the daguerreotypes were photographed with their clothing partially or in some cases fully removed, a clear sign that these photographs were not intended as family keepsakes. The men and women in the Peabody's daguerreotypes were not middle-class Americans seeking images of themselves or their loved ones, but slaves on Southern plantations. Discovered with the photographs were handwritten labels that make their status clear. Each label gives the name of the person photographed, the African tribe to which he or she was affiliated, and the name of his or her ‘owner’. This information makes these the earliest known photographs of identifiable slaves.

Renty was born in the Congo and enslaved in South Carolina

The daguerreotypes were made in South Carolina in 1850 by J. T. Zealy (1812-93), a respected photographer in the state capital of Columbia. He catered to an elite clientele, including military officers and fashionable ladies, more than one of whom was moved to praise his skill with poetry. Zealy's client for the slave daguerreotypes was Dr Robert Wilson Gibbes, a physician and palaeontologist of national reputation who also collected daguerreotypes of famous people. It was Gibbes who wrote the labels, his role as physician to some of Columbia's leading citizens and their slave populations providing him with detailed knowledge of the slaves' identities. The photographs, however, were not for his own use, but commissioned on behalf of America's most famous natural historian of the time, Louis Agassiz (1807-73).

Jack the driver born in Guinea

Arriving from Europe in 1846, Agassiz had captivated both the scientific community and the general public with his ability to describe and elucidate the most complex mysteries of nature. Seemingly an expert on all things, there was one area that was new to Agassiz, the so-called ‘problem of the races’. Almost from the moment he arrived, Agassiz was caught up in the scientific debate about the origin of man and the cause of human diversity that took place in the decades before Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859), and was of particular interest in racially mixed America.

One theory, associated with the new discipline of ethnology, proposed that racial difference was the result of multiple acts of creation, or polygenesis. Although considered by many to be heretical and by others to be nonsense—the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass called ethnology ‘scientific moonshine’—it was an idea that proved especially useful to Southern slaveholders and politicians, who in response to the rise of abolitionism sought an irrefutable defence of slavery. In 1850, at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, Agassiz announced his support for polygenesis, and by virtue of his fame propelled the debate into the public arena.

Renty, Jack (driver), and Delia enslaved on the plantation of B.F. Taylor, Esq.,” (frontal) March 1850

Following the conference and his controversial announcement, Agassiz travelled to Columbia as the guest of Dr Gibbes to examine a number of slaves from nearby plantations in search of evidence to support his ideas on race. He was looking for proof that ‘the Negro type’ was essentially different from other races and, according to Gibbes, found what he was after.

Renty (top), Drana, American-born, daughter of Jack (center) and Jack (bottom)

It is uncertain how the idea of photographing the slaves came about, but it may well have been during another session in Zealy's studio. Gibbes persuaded Agassiz to sit for his daguerreotype so that he might add the great naturalist to his collection, and perhaps that experience led to the idea of photographing the slaves. Gibbes used his own collection to remind him of people he admired, and similarly the slave photographs made by Zealy would have been useful reminders to Agassiz of the men and women he examined while in Columbia. The fifteen slave daguerreotypes were not intended to record the public face of individuals; they are not in fact portraits. Rather, their purpose as scientific documents was to contribute to a typology of human beings, a project that reduced the sitters to bodies representative of racial types. And yet the images fall short of this function as well.

Delia was born enslaved in South Carolina; she is the daughter of Renty of the Congo

Dodging both the conventions of portraiture and the requirements of scientific evidence, Zealy's daguerreotypes manage to capture something more than the appearance of specific men and women by documenting aspects of the power relationship that characterized American slavery. In the event, the photographs seem never to have been used: Agassiz did not reproduce them for publication, nor did he keep them with other images of racial types that he collected later in his career. They were instead placed in a cabinet and forgotten. Perhaps, contrary to his expectations, and with great immediacy and intensity, the men and women in the daguerreotypes appeared all too human. (source:

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