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“A decided inaptitude in his constitution”: Race, slavery, and disability in the nineteenth century British Empire

This paper explores relationships between race, slavery, medicine, statistics, and disability in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. At its core are a series of reports on military medical statistics, principally authored by Alexander Tulloch, that would become the backbone for subsequent claims about the reality and numerical value of race.  

In his Statistical Reports, Tulloch made an argument for the inability of Africans to adapt to climates far removed from those of their homelands. “Enough has been stated,” he wrote in 1840, “to afford another striking instance how unfitted is the constitution of the Negro for any other climate than that in which he is the native.” White bodies, by contrast, were hyper-able; temperatures in Canada, for example, offered “a striking illustration how little the constitution of our countrymen is likely to be affected even by the severest climate to which they are exposed.” Africans, by Tulloch’s logic, could travel to relatively few places safely, while Europeans—committed to a range of settler colonial projects—could claim a swathe of the world as their domain, even if the tropics remained a graveyard.  

Professor Suman Seth aims to trace the roots and fruits of Tulloch’s arguments, noting its origins in its author’s (1837) statistical defence of plantation owners’ treatment of the enslaved only a few years after the formal abolition of slavery. The analyses in Tulloch’s later Reports were framed around the lives of soldiers, in other words, but they were embedded in claims about the capacities of slaves.  

Examining the novelty of the arguments made in the Reports, Professor Seth unpacks the way they overturned a long-standing symmetry between those born in different climes. It had once served the interests of slave owners to vaunt the abilities of those of African descent to labour under brutal conditions in the American South or the Caribbean. After the end of slavery, that celebration of African capacity and European incapacity lost much of its salience and we see it transformed in Tulloch’s hands into an asymmetrical white supremacy and black disability, framed around the problem of adaptation. 

In this webinar, Professor Seth hopes to offer some sense of the ways that Tulloch’s arguments were picked up and extended in the years after the Reports were published, particularly in the work of the notorious American physician and polygenist, Josiah Nott. 


Professor Suman Seth is the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of the History of Science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and a former Co-Editor of the Journal Osiris. He received his PhD in History from Princeton University in 2003. He published his first book, Crafting the Quantum: Arnold Sommerfeld and the Practice of Theory, 1890-1926 with MIT Press in 2010. His second book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.  He is the editor of a special issue of Postcolonial Studies (2009), on “Science, Colonialism, Postcoloniality;” of a FOCUS section of Isis (2014) on “Re-Locating Race;” and—with Erika Milam—of the current issue (2021) of BJHS Themes on the Descent of Darwin.  

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