Medicine and race under the French Empire

Drawing on the works of naturalists and doctors, as well as reports from colonial missions, historian Delphine Peiretti-Courtis studies the way in which medical authority inferiorized and dehumanized racialized bodies in the French Empire from the XIXe century.

Delphine Peiretti-Courtis' book is part of an already well-established historiography on the relationships between race, the medicalization of bodies and colonial violence in the XIXe And XXe shekels. Following in particular the work of Claude-Olivier Doron, The altered man. Races and degeneration (XVIIeXIXe shekels), published in 2016, which documents the history of the uses and circulation of racialist scientific theories in Europe, Delphine Peiretti-Courtis documents the history of French colonization and its past and present legacies through the history of medical treatments applied to black bodies. Divided into three chronological parts, Black bodies and white doctors draws on a plurality of sources, mainly works by naturalists and doctors, as well as reports from colonial missions in order to study the way in which racialized, constantly inferiorized and dehumanized bodies were theorized by the colonial medical authority in the French Empire from the XIXe century.

How did “bush” medicine, practiced as close as possible to the colonized by doctors like Alphonse Tremeau de Rochebrune, stationed in the colonies in the 1870s, or Charles-Victor Berger and Gustave Reynaud, military doctors, came to reform the European medical authority? At XIXe century? How did these racialist theories function to legitimize the extent of the policies in force in the colonies in Africa, particularly in Angola, Cape Verde, and Senegal? What developments are noted regarding the circulation of these medical and scientific precepts concerning racial differentialism between the XIXe And XXe centuries, and can we still discern its heritage today? So many necessary questions to which Delphine Peiretti-Courtis' book offers to provide an answer.

In the beginning: the making of racial prejudice and the otherization of bodies XVIIIeXIXe shekels

The first part of the work recalls the already well-known history of racialist typologies created in XVIIIe century by naturalists like Linn, Buffon or Blumenbach to divide the human race (p. 57). By using taxonomies, these naturalists aimed to prove the physical, moral and intellectual superiority of Europeans and anchored their theories on observations relating to the epidermis, the size and shape of skulls, or even the sexual organs. Debates rage between monogists and polygenists, the latter rejecting the idea, “according to which there is only one human species, divided into races but all coming from the same branch” (p. 60). Conversely, monogenists, like the anatomist Georges Cuvier, remain faithful to Christian thought which advocates the unity of the human species according to Genesis (p. 49). This religious dimension in debates in natural sciences in XVIIIe And XIXe centuries has already been highlighted by the book by historian Terence Keel published in 2018, Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Scienceon the emergence of monogenist and polygnist theories in the United States at the beginning of the XIXe century, while extending them in the French-speaking context.

The conception of beauty is not exempt from these theories of racial differentialism. Delphine Peiretti-Courtis shows that the engravings of the Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper (p. 98-100) seek to highlight what he theorizes as the different “facial angles” of individuals, supposed to represent the degree of primitivism, beauty and animality of each . The black female body is designed by biologists from XIXe century as particularly close to nature, intended for maternity. As Delphine Peiretti-Courtis shows, some European doctors consider that African women have “an undeniable advantage for maternal function, and more particularly at the time of childbirth, compared to European women considered fragile” (p. 164). like Elsa Dorlin's book published in 2006, The matrix of race: sexual and colonial genealogy of the French nationDelphine Peiretti-Courtis hypothesizes that this valorization of the racialized female body during childbirth is also to the detriment of its humanity, since it is described by white doctors as insensitive to pain.

“Bush” medicine and colonial power

The second part of the book opens with the medical reports established by the “bush” doctors who practiced in the colonies from 1860 until the 1910s. Medical theories were then no longer developed in “offices”, in France, far from all field application. Delphine Peiretti-Courtis brilliantly shows the relationships that existed between the theories developed by these doctors and the legitimization of colonial public order, based on the values ​​of work. The black body was thought to present significant immune resistance, and military doctors like Aristide Le Dantec did not hesitate to admit that the colonized were much more enduring than whites when confronted with work requiring great physical strength: “The European in hot countries finds in the indigenous an essential auxiliary for the workforce which he himself does not always have the strength to carry out due to his precarious health. » (p. 147) In doing so, racialist science justified the colonial political enterprise and the hierarchical order that resulted from it by naturalizing the relationship of black bodies to work. As Delphine Peiretti-Courtis reveals, this complementarity between black bodies and white bodies was thought to be essential to the maintenance of colonial power: “if Africans are praised for their bodily vigor, it is therefore essentially because they are of interest to France. : that of serving her, like all unworthy peoples. » (p. 147)

Colonial power was also thought to be beneficial for the health of Africans and especially for the control of their vices and their sexuality, unbridled judge. A figure of paradox, the racialized body was sometimes effeminate, described as not very virile (p. 467) by doctors, sometimes represented as hypersexualized (p. 218). The body of Africans was also the subject of numerous pictorial representations, on advertising posters depicting racialist stereotypes or on anthropometric images which were intended for medical and anthropological sciences. In the wake of the recent work by the historian Daniel Foliard, Fight, Punish, Photograph. Colonial empires 1890-1914which underlines the preponderant role played by photography in the architecture of the colonial project in XIXe century, Delphine Peiretti-Courtis shows that the photographic medium had the function of subjecting colonized bodies to the eye of the colonizer and the doctor, by representing “the supposedly primitive character of Africans” (p. 376) and by providing “a concrete illustration, a “proof” by image” (p. 377). The photographs from the collection of Prince Roland Bonaparte reproduced in the book (p. 384, p. 385) notably represent naked Hottentot and Khoisan women, posing in front of a tropical garden in the background: as Delphine Peiretti-Courtis points out, objectivity science mixes with eroticism, because “behind the pretext of science there is often the desire to represent the sensual exoticism of black women” (p. 386). This observation echoes the recent work published by Anne Lafont, Art and racewhich analyzes the processes of naturalization of sexual and racial differences and the fetishization of the racial object in the pictorial productions of the Enlightenment.

Race, between nature and culture

The third part of the book deals with the years 1910 to 1960 and clarifies in particular the discourses advocating cultural relativism, which lead to “thinking about otherness differently”: indigenous behaviors are then scrutinized by ethnologists, like Paul Rivet, Marcel Mauss and Lucien Lvy-Bruhl from the 1920s, who launched into “the comparative study of the social and cultural characteristics of peoples” (p. 498). As these young sciences become institutionalized, field observers, whether military doctors or administrators, understand “the natives through new reading grids”, freeing themselves “little by little from the all-innate to explain the origin of the divergences between the peoples” (p. 499). Despite successive declarations made in the 1950s and 1960s under the auspices of theUNESCO by scientists who recognize the fact that races as natural constants do not exist, the concept of “biological” race is still popular in the XXIe century “in the popular imagination as among certain scientists” (p. 545) and takes new forms, notably those of genetic identifications to identify the belonging of an individual to a discrete group, defined as “racial”.

Present legacies of scientific racial bias

Basically, Delphine Peiretti-Courtis' work delivers a story often left aside by historians of science and medicine with great skill, nuance and precision. The book also invites us to question the past and present uses of the racial object in our contemporary societies.

A few pages at the beginning and end of the work highlight the persistence, in contemporary times, of stereotypes about black bodies, legitimized by medical and scientific authority throughout the centuries. XIXeXXe shekels. Precisely, the work would have benefited more from an epilogue inviting the reader to question the continuities until today of the uses of race in medicine and its new reconfigurations, particularly in genetics: the “retrieves of the Empire”, as the historian and anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler calls them In The flesh of empire: Intimate knowledge and racial powers in the colonial regime have ceased to litter our present. The popularization in recent years of genetic ancestry tests and the growing media coverage of scientific publications identifying diverse geographic ancestry within groups of human populations continue to legitimize the return to this racial imaginary in biology, constantly defined by phenotypic criteria. distinct.

Centered on the French Empire, the work could also have interacted more with works on other colonial empires or post-slavery societies, such as Brazil or the United States, in order to analyze the numerous transnational circulations of medical and scientific theories relating to black bodies. These few points constitute new avenues which could be explored in new publications and take nothing away from this book, which proves to be as detailed as necessary in the historiography on the French Empire, race and science.