Humans, Apes, and Skin Color
29 juli 2013 Harold Cook Nederlandse geschiedenis en cultuur

Gisbert Cuper shared much in common with Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717), an Amsterdam burgomaster with a seat among the Heren XVII. Both were keen collectors of information as well as coins, objects, and pictures.

They first met in The Hague, when Witsen joined the States General, among whom Cuper had been a member since 1681. Witsen left the States General in 1685, but they continued to meet in person, and from 1688 added to their conversations by exchanging letters, which grew more numerous after Cuper returned to Deventer in 1694. (These are now bound together as manuscript volume KW 72 C 32.)

Establishing the truth

Cuper and Witsen were both eager to add to the wealth of knowledge about geography and peoples, and both were also keen to establish the truth of things in a world full of fictions and misunderstandings. While they debated the existence of unicorns, or the possible veracity of Marco Polo’s report of the existence of a bird large enough to pick up an elephant (the “Rukh”), they were also interested in creatures that were similar to humans. Witsen believed in the existence of mermen, for instance, and sent Cuper a report of an interview of a free black man from Mozambique testifying to having seen them with his own eyes. On 1 January 1713, Witsen also sent Cuper a letter containing a copy of watercolors of exotic figures, including a very dark-colored man from Papua New Guinea with a tail. Witsen claimed that the painting had been drawn from life (“nae het leven geschildert”), although about two decades ago, Jan van der Waals identified the origin of the image as a sketch sent from the chief medical officer in Batavia, Andries Cleyer (see his essay on “Exotische Rariteiten …” in De Wereld Binnen Handbereik [Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers/Amsterdams Historisch Museum, 1992], p. 155).

Correspondence of Witsen and Cuper
Correspondence of Witsen and Cuper

Shelfmark 72 C 32

Correspondence of Witsen and Cuper
Correspondence of Witsen and Cuper

Shelfmark 72 C 32

Correspondence of Witsen and Cuper
Correspondence of Witsen and Cuper

Shelfmark 72 C 32

Papuans and orang outans

Clearly, Witsen thought that the Papuans were like other half-men, or apes. Dese menschen sÿn zeer wilt, en leven den beesten gelÿk, he wrote, being similar to the description of the orang outang in Willem Piso’s book on the natural history of both Indies (published in 1658). The illustration accompanying Piso’s description made the creature look like a naked woman with a hairy body. Witsen also knew Dr. Tulp’s Observationes medicae of 1641, containing an illustration and anatomical description of an “orang outang” brought back to Amsterdam from Africa (clearly what would now be called a chimpanzee). He possessed two other depictions of orang outangs, he wrote, one showing them black in color but the other, of a female and very well done, showing her to be mainly yellowish in color with black only around the mouth. Witsen had also spoken with someone who had seen an orang outang alive. They could be found in the dark forests of Borneo, he said, almost as large as a human--about like a child of twelve or fourteen--walking on their hind feet like humans, and acting like people, although they were entirely covered with hair. But others said they were not humanlike in their behavior. He wondered whether to call them apes or half-men (sal ik ze Apen of halve menschen noemen weet ik niet). In a postscript to this letter he added that on page 230 of the 2nd volume of Olfert Dapper’s book on Africa (published in 1668) was confirmation that orang outangs were to be found on Borneo. In other words, he was explaining to Cuper his view of a kind of sliding scale from apes to men in which some half-men had tails.

Three years later, just months before Cuper’s death at the age of 72, Witsen wrote Cuper twice with further explicit speculations about race. In the first letter, of 28 July 1716, he reported that he had with him a large bottle of spirits containing the first-born child of a black man and a black woman from Suriname, which was as white as a child of Europe. He thought this showed that the color of the skin was not due to climate but to an inborn nature. Cuper must have asked for more detail, since on 10 September Witsen explained that he had obtained the specimen from the first wife of his upright nephew Jonas Witsen, born in Suriname, where his father was a minister. The nephew reported that children of black parents were born as white as his own children, but after 10 or 12 days became brown, and after a few months were completely black. In the East Indies, moreover, there were many people to be found here and there who had white skin and yellow hair, who only came out at night.

Wild men

Cuper did not have access to original observations, bottled specimens, or many conversations with people straight from the Indies, but like Witsen he had a good library. He replied by noting that the Korte Historiael of Pieter van den Broeke’s travels to west Africa (published in 1634) contained a report of the “wild men” of the Manicongo, who were proportioned like humans, with hair all over their bodies, having a flat nose, a wide mouth, and a little tail over the cleft of their buttocks like a long and thick thumb. They couldn’t speak and slept at night in the trees. Cuper added from his knowledge of ancient literature that the 5th-century BCE Carthaginaian, Hanno, had reported something similar from the west coast of Africa. (Indeed, it is from Hanno’s report that the word “gorilla” originates.)

The Witsen-Cuper correspondence is a reminder that ideas of race were not only constructed in the process of cultural encounter, but also by influential Europeans working in their studies who were far distant from any such encounters. Intriguing reports about little-known great apes were intertwined with conversations about and images of humans in the wild, and with strange examples of alteration in the color of skin. Witsen and Cuper were eager to assert only the truth of things, but they had at their disposal only descriptions in word and line, and a specimen in a bottle. Their interpretations therefore demonstrated first and foremost a confidence in their own superior place in the world.

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