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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/August 1898/The Romance of Race


LET us begin, like a wise preacher, with a personal anecdote. It happened to me once, many years since, to be taking a class in logic in a West Indian college. The author of our text-book had just learnedly explained to us that personal proper names had no real connotation. "Nevertheless," he went on, "they may sometimes enable us to draw certain true inferences. For example, if we meet a man of the name of John Smith, we shall at least be justified in concluding that he is a Teuton." Now, as it happened, that class contained a John Smith; and as I read those words aloud, he looked up in my face with the expansive smile of no Teutonic forefathers: for this John Smith was a pure-blooded negro. So much for the pitfalls of ethnological generalization!

Nevertheless, similar conclusions on a very large scale are often drawn on grounds as palpably insufficient as those of my logician. Facts of language and facts of race are mixed up with one another in most admired disorder. If people happen to speak an "Aryan" tongue, we dub them Aryans. We take it for granted one man is a Scot merely because he is called Macpherson or Gillespie; we take it for granted another is an Irishman on no better evidence than because his name is Paddy O'Sulivan. Yet a survey of some such delusive examples will suffice to show that all is not Celtic that speaks with a brogue, nor all Chinese that wears a pigtail.

Some familiar instances of outlying linguistic or ethnical islands. so to speak—little oases of one speech or blood or religion in the desert of another—will serve to lead up to the curious romances of ethnology and philology which I mean to huddle loosely together in this article. Everybody is familiar, of course, with such stories as that of the mutineers of the Bounty, who founded the colony on Pitcairn's Island, where a little community, about one quarter British and three quarters Polynesian, preserved the English language and the Christian religion for many years, without the slightest intercourse with the outer world. Equally significant in their way are the belated islands of Celticism in America, such as the Highlanders of Glengarry, in Canada, who migrated in a mass, and who still speak no tongue but Gaelic; or the Glamorganshire Welsh of the Pennsylvanian mining districts, who inhabit whole villages where Cymric is now the universal language. Again, we may take as typical examples of such insulation in the matter of religion the Abyssinian Christians, almost entirely cut off for centuries from the rest of Christendom by the intrusive belt of ]Nubian and Egyptian Islam. Who does not know, once more, that strange outlying church, the Christians of St. Thomas, whom the early Portuguese navigators found still surviving on the Malabar coast in India? Though believing themselves to derive their Christianity from the preaching of St. Thomas, these native sectaries are really a branch of the Nestorian Church of Persia—a distant scion of the Patriarchate of Babylon. Founded in the sixth century, their sect was recruited by successive flights of refugees from the revived Zoroastrianism of that date, and the triumphant Mohammedanism of succeeding generations. Their sacred language is even now Syriac. Or, finally, may we not take the racial islands, like the ancient Basque nationality in France and Spain, the Black Celts of Ireland and Scotland, and the Germans of Transylvania? side by side with whom we may place the scattered and intermixed races, like the Jews and the Gypsies, who still preserve some relics of their ancient tongues, while speaking in each country the language of the inhabitants. It will be clear at once from so rapid a survey of these few familiar instances that a map of the world, colored by race, by speech, or by religion, would be dotted all over with insulated colonies, as quaint and suggestive in their way as that of the mutineers of the Bounty.

Consider, as one striking and well-known example, the curious history of the Parsees, earlier pilgrim fathers of an Oriental Mayflower, who fled eastward and southward before the face of Islam in Persia to the west coast of India. Their very name means Persians; they are the remnant of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, followers of that shadowy and doubtful prophet, whose very existence has been called in question bj the skepticism of our century. But whether or not there was ever a Zoroaster, it is certain, at least, that Zoroastrianism flourished in Irania, from Tibet to the Tigris, at the time of Alexander; and that it declined before the fashionable Hellenism of the Seleucidæ, or, later, of the Parthian and Gæeco-Bactrian kings. Gradually, however, the Hellenic influence in inner Asia "petered out," as an American miner would say, for lack of fresh Greek blood, till at last hardly anything tangible was left of it save Greek names in Greek letters on coins of barbaric kings. Then a native dynasty, that of the Sassanians, upset the last of the half-Hellenized Arsacidæ, and the Zoroastrian faith, which had lingered on among the people, became, at the beginning of the third century after Christ, the established religion. The Magi had things all their own way, and persecuted Greek thought with the zeal of inquisitors. For four hundred years the creed of the Zend-Avesta held sway in Iran, till the Caliph Omar bore down upon the land with his victorious Mohammedans. The mass of the population were "converted" en bloc by the usual argument of Islam, at the battle of Nahavand; and the faithful remnant, who declined to accept the creed of the Prophet at the point of the sword, fled as best they might to the desert of Khorassan. A few thousand persecuted and despised Zoroastrians, known as Guebres, still linger on in the dominions of the Shah; but the greater part of the incorruptible took ship to India, where they settled for the most part in the neighborhood of Bombay and the other trading towns of the western coast. As they never intermarry with Hindus or Mohammedans, they still remain pure, both in race and religion, and can not be regarded as in any sense representative of the people of India. Their sacred language is still the Zend of the Avesta, and their fire worship is as pronounced as when they fled from Persia.

These historic examples are familiar to most of us. Far more interesting, however, are the prehistoric facts of similar implication, which are known to few save the students of ethnology. It is not everybody, for instance, who is aware that the language of Madagascar is not African at all, but a pure Malayan dialect. The ruling race of the island (till France displaced them) were the very unnegrolike Malayan Hovas. Now, the Malays in their day were the Greeks or the English of the Indian Ocean. Just as the Hellenic race annexed the Mediterranean, turning the inland sea with their colonies into a "Greek lake" (as Curtius calls it), and just as the "Anglo-Saxon" race annexed the Atlantic and the Pacific, colonizing the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australasia, so did the Malays annex the Indian Ocean, penetrating every part of it in their light pirate craft, and settling where they would among subject populations. They may be compared with the Phœnicians in the earlier world as pioneers of navigation among the far-eastern islands.

The aboriginal people of Madagascar, again, were apparently not African at all, but members of the still more ancient Melanesian race, which is scattered in little groups over so many parts of the Pacific and the Malay Archipelago. This race apparently spoke already, at an early date, the common Malayo-Polynesian tongue—that widespread speech which, as we now know, forms the basis of all the dialects in use from Madagascar itself, right across Java, New Zealand, and Melanesia, to the Sandwich Islands and the very shores of America. And, what is odder still, the Malagasy dialect of the present day approaches nearest to that of the Philippines and of Easter Island. In other words, at these immense distances relics of an ancient common language survive, which elsewhere has undergone specialization and simplification into the modern Malay of Java and its neighborhood. It is almost as though somewhere, among scattered villages in Portugal and in Roumania, people were still speaking tolerably pure Ciceronian Latin, which elsewhere had glided by imperceptible degrees into French and Spanish, Italian and Provençal,

The lowest and oldest layer of the Malagasy population thus probably consists of black, woolly-haired Melanesians; above it come true yellow-brown Malayan immigrations, the last of which is apparently that of the dominant Hovas. These two have intermarried more or less with one another. But there is also a true negro admixture on the side nearest Africa; while the intrusive Arab has, of course, established himself along the coast line wherever he found an opening for his peculiar genius. Thus, even before Christianity and the European element came in to disturb our view, the ethnical facts of the island were tolerably mixed, and presented several problems on which I have not space to touch. But if this seems a good deal of ethnology for a single land, we must remember that Madagascar would cut up into four of England; and even in our own country the known elements of the population, Silurian, Cymric, Brigantian, Cornish, Anglian, Saxon, Norwegian, Danish, Norman, and so forth, are sufficiently numerous; while modern anthropologists would probably fight hard for an admixture of Palæolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Dacian, and Spanish elements, as well as for a trifling fraction of Jewish, Gypsy, Huguenot, and negro blood. It is a truism now to say that "there is no such thing as a pure race"; every individual, especially in civilized countries, is a meeting place and battlefield for endless hostile and conflicting ancestors. Our idiosyncrasy depends in the end upon the proportion of each which comes out victor in the formation of our character.

Take the single kingdom of Scotland alone. Englishmen are carelessly wont to suppose there is such a thing as a Scotch temperament. Scotchmen know better. Even if we omit from the reckoning such remoter and more doubtful elements as Black Celts, and so forth, we may say, roughly speaking, that Scotland consists of six distinct nationalities—the English of the Lothians, the Welsh of Strathclyde, the Irish Scots of Argyllshire, the true Gaels of the Highlands, the Picts of the east coast, and the Scandinavians of Orkney, Caithness, and Sutherland. All these, of course, though in some places tolerably pure, are in others inextricably intermingled; while outlying islands of each, such as the Picts of Galloway, are universally recognized. The "Little England beyond Wales" in Pembrokeshire, mainly peopled by Flemings, who are English in speech among a Welsh-speaking population, forms a similar example in the southern half of our island; while, conversely, little outlaw communities of Welsh-speaking Britons are known to have held out in the eyots of the Pens for many generations against the conquering English of East Anglia and Mercia.

Take a linguistic case again. How strange it would seem to us to-day if there existed, say in Newfoundland, a colony of AngloSaxons, sent there by King Alfred, and speaking still the pure old Saxon tongue of King Alfred's Wessex! Yet this would exactly parallel the case of Iceland. While Danes and Swedes have modernized the ancient Scandinavian of the Sagas into the Danish and Swedish of the present day, the Icelanders still go on speaking the tongue of their forefathers pretty much as it was spoken by Rolf the Ganger and Harold Hardrada; they read the Sagas in the tongue of the old singers as easily as our children can read Shakespeare and the English Bible. Mr. Steffanson, the learned Icelander, tells me another interesting fact of the same sort. It seems the women in certain parts of Normandy still wear a peasant cap with silver ornaments identical to this day with the cap commonly worn by Icelandic women. I need hardly add that the names of Norman villages are but Frenchified corruptions of the old pirate nomenclature—Ivo's toft has been shortened to Ivetôt, while Hacon's home has declined into Haconville.

On the other hand, nothing is more fallacious than the old-fashioned argument from language to kinship. It used once to be thought there was a "great Aryan race" because there were many peoples who spoke the Aryan languages. I doubt whether even Professor Max Müller himself really believes nowadays in Our Aryan Ancestor; certainly, for the rest of the world, that exploded old humbug has vanished into the limbo of central Asia, whence he never came, according to our latest authorities. (If he existed at all, it was probably in Scandinavia.)

A race, indeed, may speak the language of another without having received any appreciable admixture of its blood; just as, for example, the pure-blooded negroes of the West Indies and the Southern States speak no tongue but English, Creole French, or Spanish. So, again, English has become the language of Ireland, without interfering to any large degree with the Celtic nationality of the people; indeed, writers who talk about the "Anglo-Saxon race" in America and the colonies forget that the Anglo-Saxon who emigrates is generally either an Irishman, a Welshman, or a Highland Scot, without prejudice to the chance of his being a Cornish miner or a Celtic Yorkshireman. Through these Anglicized Celts, the English language has taken possession of North America, South Africa, and Australasia; not only is it swallowing up the French of Canada or Louisiana, the Spanish of California or New Mexico, and the Dutch of the Cape, but in the New World it has blotted out the African and Indian tongues, and is assimilating in the second generation the German, Scandinavian, Russian, and Italian immigrants. Your true New-Englander is not a prolific father, like the German or the Irishman; and I believe myself that the proportion of Anglo-Saxondom in the America of our day has been grossly overrated. "Anglo-Celtic" is perhaps the truest description of the British nationality.

One of the greatest surprises of modern discovery in ethnical and linguistic science is similarly the overthrow of the Great Chinese Fallacy. Time was when the remote antiquity of China and Chinese civilization was an article of faith for European scholars. It was believed that the yellow man had developed his own culture, such as it is, independently for himself, in the far east of Asia. He was the pioneer in writing, printing, and the use of gunpowder. But now Chinese scholars have shown us, alas! that China really derived its civilization, like all the rest of us, by indirect steps, from Babylonia and Egypt. M. Terrien de Lacouperie first demonstrated the fact that long before the ancestors of the Celestial race reached the middle kingdom which they now inhabit, by the Hoang-Ho and the Yang-tse-Kiang, they lived in close contact with that ancient civilized people, the Akkadians of Babylonia. From the wise men of Akkad they learned the rudiments of their arts; and when they set forth from Mesopotamia, a little horde of Bak tribes, on their long journey eastward, they carried with them both the early elements of Akkadian science, and the words and phrases of the Akkadian language. They reached China with letters, astronomy, and arts ready made, and they have done little since but live on the traditions of their farwestern ancestors. The truth is, for the eastern hemisphere at least, there is but one civilization, which began in Egypt and the Euphrates Valley, and spread in either direction, eastward to Persia, India, and China, or westward to Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and the Atlantic.

Even the Chinese language turns out, on examination, to be just the opposite of what earlier investigators thought it. Elder philologists took it for granted that primitive tongues must have been monosyllabic; and since Chinese is monosyllabic, they regarded it, somewhat illogically, as therefore primitive. But Terrien de Lacouperie and Douglas have shown, on the contrary, that Chinese is really Akkadian by origin, and that it was once polysyllabic, like most other languages. Its words have been shortened by wear and tear, or by that familiar process which turns omnibus into "bus," photograph into "photo," and bicycle into "bike." It consists of words said "for short," like the common abbreviation of William into Bill, Richard into Dick, or Theodore into Theo; or rather, it has suffered by that imperceptible phonetic change which has reduced eleemosyne to "alms," semetipsissimum to même, and Aethelthryth to Awdry. In fact, it turns out that Chinese, instead of being one of the most primitive languages, is really one of the most worn and degraded. In place of "psychology" it would content itself with psy; while tel or pho would do duty for "telephone."

In this case, the diffusion of a language and a culture is by simple migration, as in the well-known instances of Tyre and Carthage, of Greece and Sicily, of England and America. In other cases, the diffusion is rather by conquest, as in the equally well-known instances of Alexander's successors, of the Roman Empire, and of the Arabs in Egypt, North Africa, and Syria. Greek, Latin, and Arabic, with their accompanying arts, became naturalized among the subject peoples. Most often, it is the conquerors who thus impose their language on the conquered; we need go no further afield than Wales or Ireland, where the process is incomplete, and Cornwall, where it reached its termination a century ago. But sometimes it is the conquered who absorb and assimilate the conquerors; the Normans seem to have been good hands at thus losing their identity wherever they went; for in Normandy, they dropped their native Scandinavian and adopted old French; while in England again they lost their French, and in a few generations became thoroughgoing Englishmen. In Ireland, too, as an Irishman expressed it, they "inculcated Celtic habits," and gave rise to the famous saying, so often repeated, that they were "ipsis Hibernis Hiberniores."

On a large scale, this absorption of the conquerors by the conquered appears to have gone on over the entire Malayo-Polynesian region. It is curious that over this wide area from Madagascar to Hawaii only one type of language is spoken by the remotest islanders, belonging to all races, and having attained the most varied degrees of culture. The black and woolly-haired Melanesians of the South Pacific Islands, the warlike Maories of New Zealand, the gentle, brown Polynesians, the yellow Mongoloid and Mohammedan people of Java, the dark and half-negrolike Malagasy of Madagascar, all speak varieties of this widely diffused language. At one time it was supposed that the Malays, those active Vikings of the far East, had carried their own tongue to these remote places; but then, as Mr. A. H. Keane has pointed out, Malay itself is not the most primitive, but the latest and most developed, member of the group. It answers to French rather than to Latin; it is like modern Danish rather than modern Icelandic. The truth seems to be, as Mr. Keane suggests, that the language in question is a very old one, originally belonging to the true Polynesians. Before their arrival the Pacific isles were peopled by the low black race whom we call Melanesians. Many of the archipelagoes, however, were afterward conquered and colonized by the lighter and essentially Caucasian people, closely akin to our own, whom we call Polynesians. These white Polynesians intermixed and intermarried more or less with the black Melanesians, remaining relatively pure and light-colored in a few of the archipelagoes, while in others they acquired such an infusion of black blood as made them in time dark brown or copper-colored. They imposed their own speech upon the black people everywhere, exactly as the English have imposed the tongue of Shakespeare and Newton upon the rude American and West Indian negroes. In the remotest and blackest islands, Mr. Keane points out, the oldest and crudest form of the common language survives, just as the ancient Scandinavian of the Sagas survives in Iceland; in the more advanced light-brown Polynesian groups, it has been improved and simplified into a more modernized form, just as in Europe the ancient Scandinavian has been improved and simplified into modern Danish and modern Swedish. Finally, at a still later period, the Polynesian tongue was adopted by the yellowish Mongoloid Malays, who conquered the same region, and who further improved and simplified it into the Malay of commerce, as the Normans did with the English of King Alfred. Unfortunately, however, the languages in the lump are generally called Malayan, after the latest people who adopted them, instead of Polynesian, after their original speakers; which is somewhat the same error as if we were to describe English as the Norman tongue, or speak of Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese as belonging to the French Canadian group of languages.

The fact is, we have to recognize that changes such as those which we know to have taken place during the historical period also took place in prehistoric times and in unhistoric countries. Just as the English now colonize the coasts of the world, from Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand, to South Africa, Canada, British Columbia, and Demerara, so the Phœnician and the Malay colonized in earlier times the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean, and so the Melanesian in a very remote past spread across the Pacific in the frailest of vessels. And just as the Goth and Hun and Tartar swept down in historic times on the Roman Empire or the Asiatic world, so, long before, unknown migrations and unnamed hordes of savages swept down upon Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India. Nor the historic periods and places, we have documentary evidence; for the prehistoric or unhistoric, we have but the evidence of the existing and resultant arrangements.

Even these, however, tell us a great deal. What, for example, can be more curious than the existing diffusion of that tiny black "Negrito" race, with woolly hair and very protruding jaws, which is now in all probability the earliest surviving variety of the human species? These pygmies occur in Africa as the dwarfs of the forest country, the Akkas, Wochuas, and others, barely four feet high; as the Batwas and Bushmen of the south; and less pure, as the Hottentots. They crop up again in the undersized aborigines of the Andaman Islands of the Gulf of Bengal, in the Negritos of the Philippines, and in the small black Papuans. Hence we are justified in concluding that this widespread half-developed race of dwarfs once covered a large part of the southern world, from which it has now been ousted by newer, bigger, and more developed tribes; while the primitive pygmies hold their own best either in a few remote islands, in a few barren deserts, or else in very dense and pathless forests, through which taller races would creep with difficulty.

Not less interesting than these romances of race as race are the romances of the interaction of race and religion, or of race and culture. For example, the Moors of the towns and of the seacoast in North Africa, largely intermixed as they are with Arab and other Semitic blood, have swallowed Islam entire, adopting not only its religion but also its social order—its polygamy, its harems, its veiling of women. The Kabyles and Berbers of the hills, on the other hand, fairly pure descendants of the old native Mauritanian or Romanized inhabitants, though they have accepted Mohammedanism more or less fervently as a religious faith, have never really assimilated it as a social system. To this day they are practically strict monogamists; their women do not veil, but freely show their extremely pretty and piquant faces; while the family is organized on much the same basis as in Europe generally. In other words, the racial habit of allowing a certain freedom and independence to women has proved stronger in practice than the law of Islam; the intrusive Semite has not been able to inoculate with his ideas the Hamitic North African. Nor in "Aryan" Persia, again, has the prohibition against wine been so successful as elsewhere; while the native artistic and pictorial spirit of the Persian race has made a dead letter of the restriction against fashioning an image of anything that is in heaven above, or in earth beneath, or in the waters that are under the earth. Race, in short, has proved stronger than religion. For the Persians are Shiahs, not orthodox Sunnis; they have transformed the materialistic tenets of Islam into a mysticism not far removed from that of India or the Buddhists. Who could mistake Omar Khayyam for a mere Mohammedan?

Very similar ethnical diversities of faith may also be noticed in our own islands. The Anglican church, as a rule, has firmly established itself in the more Teutonic and southeastern half of Britain alone. The Gaelic Celts, both in Ireland and the Scotch Highlands, have remained Roman Catholic; the Cymric Celts, both in Wales and Cornwall, have adopted Wesleyanism or some emotional form of Protestant nonconformity. Even in England proper it will be found that the Establishment flourishes best in the Teutonic southeast, while dissent is rife in the half-Celtic north, in the Yorkshire dales, in Lancashire, and in the west country. I may add, side by side with these facts, that poets, musicians, and painters spring most frequently in Britain from the Celtic or semi-Celtic north and west, while they are rarer in the Teutonic or Teutonized south and east. Vocalists, in particular, are very frequently Welsh. Even in London, that vast congeries of mingled races, it is not without reason that nonconformity is led by Cambrians like the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, and that song is dispensed for us by Mr. Hirwen Jones and Mr. Ben Davies.

Canon Isaac Taylor has pointed out a still more curious crossdivision of Europe as a whole, dependent upon underlying racial features. Two main types of skull are generally distinguished throughout the whole historic and prehistoric period—there are the dolichocephalic or long-headed, and the brachycephalic or shortheaded people. "The dolichocephalic Teutonic race," says the learned canon frankly, "is Protestant; the brachycephalic Celto-Slavic race is either Roman Catholic or Greek orthodox. . . . The Teutonic peoples are averse to sacerdotalism, and have shaken off priestly guidance and developed individualism. Protestantism was a revolt against a religion imposed by the South upon the North, but which had never been congenial to the Northern mind. The German princes, who were of purer Teutonic blood than their subjects, were the leaders of the ecclesiastical revolt. Scandinavia is more purely Teutonic than Germany, and Scandinavia is Protestant to the backbone. The Lowland Scotch, who are more purely Teutonic than the English, have given the freest development to the genius of Protestantism." And then the intrepid canon, instead of worrying about theological explanations of the fact, goes on to show that the mean cephalic index (as it is called) of the Protestant Dutch is nearly that of the Swedes and the North Germans; while the Belgians are Catholics because their cephalic index approaches that of the Catholic Parisians. If a Swiss canton is long-headed, it is Protestant; if round-headed, it is Catholic. And Canon Taylor accounts (rightly, as I think) for one apparent British exception by saying shrewdly, "The Welsh and the Cornishmen, who became Protestant by political accident, have transformed Protestantism into an emotional religion, which has inner affinities with the emotional faith of Ireland and Italy."

Unless so distinguished a divine had led the way, I do not know whether I should have ventured myself to follow into this curious by-path of ethnology. But, in future, whenever one is tempted to ask one's self the once famous question, "Why am I a Protestant?" the answer will be obvious: "Because 75 is my cephalic index. If it were 79, I should, no doubt, have become a Dominican brother."

How charming is divine ethnology! I have said enough, I hope, to show that it is not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose, but teeming with odd hints of unsuspected quaintness.—Cornhill Magazine.