Claude Nicolas Rollin and the Study Of Exotic Individuals in the Americas and Asia (1785-1788)


Claude-Nicolas Rollin was engaged in 1785 as head surgeon of La Boussole, under the command of François Galaup de Lapérouse (1741-1788)[1]. Rollin left France 1 August 1785 to do a series of medical and anthropological investigations on exotic communities. During Lapérouse’s scientific expedition (1785-1788), he undertook important studies of five indigenous groups in the Americas and Asia.

In the Americas Rollin studied the Indios bravos or Araucanian Natives from the region of Conception, Chile, the Coastanoen-Natives from the area of Monterey, California, and finally the Tlingit-Natives from Yakutat-Bay, Alaska (Fig. 1). In Asia, Rollin examined the Orotchies and Bitchys (Oroks)[2] or Tungunzian people from the region of De Kastri, now Khabarovsk Territory, Eastern Russia, (Fig. 2) and the natives from the Island of Sakhalin, now Eastern Russia[3].

In this article I will discuss the ideological and scientific context framing Rollin’s scientific investigation of individuals from the Americas and Asia. My aim is to demonstrate, how the identity of American and Asian native groups was dissected and constructed by quantitative and qualitative methods.

1.Culture by numbers - Anthropometry, Craniometry and Physiognomy

Keeping the crew in shape was one of the key aspects of every successful naval expedition. The Royal Society of Medicine (Paris) and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris hired Rollin to examine native populations. Rollin did a series of physical measurements and experiments. He observed the natives’ way of life, including their behaviour, clothing, nourishment and health.

Furthermore, Rollin received a set of scientific medical instructions about Anatomy, Physiology and Gender / Sexuality from the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris and the Royal Society of Medicine (Paris). The instructions identified some particular unsolved scientific problems. While the instruction Anatomy, written by the scholars of the Royal Academy of Sciences, aimed at a more general examination and description of anatomical characteristics of native individuals, the instruction Query proposed by The Royal Society of Medicine[4] comprised a series of more extensive studies about anatomy and physiology, hygiene, nosology[5], pharmacology and surgery (Milet-Mureau 1797, I: 165-167 and 180-196).

The Secularisation of travel

The secularisation of travel in the Enlightenment emerged from the need to understand Nature first-hand. Being a surgeon and a scientific traveller, Rollin documented and organised what he observed during the expedition. Moreover, to systematise new knowledge about native groups, Rollin had to measure different body parts. The scientific academies hoped that by measuring the diameter of the skull of for example a Chilean and Alaskan native, Rollin would discover some rational law that would confirm the existence of biological and intellectual discrepancies between different types of Mankind.

However, since measurements (numbers) alone do not give any sense whatsoever, Rollin had to draw on an archetypal measure that is the size structure of the European human body. Furthermore, and as I will demonstrate, Rollin compared the body structure of different exotic groups to explain different cultural behaviour.

In the essay Comparison of the Proportions of Male and Female Indians from the American Continent, and Latitudes of the Regions Where They Were Taken From (Milet-Mureau 1797, IV, p. 60), Rollin gives a perfect example of the Enlightenment’s quest to find a rational link between physiognomy, anthropometry, craniometry and the intellectual and cultural faculties of different native groups. By comparing body measurements of Chilean and Alaskan natives, Rollin hoped to identify a scientific principle that would explain different kinds of moral and cultural irregularities between native populations. Understanding Nature in the Enlightenment meant finding anomalies and even oddities that could explain divergences from a given prototype, hence placing different beings in their precise order. And in this light, wasn’t the exotic other a perfect prototype of deviation?

Physical and cultural ratios

My analysis of Rollin’s anthropometrical and craniometrical tables proves that the physical measurements of Tlingit (Alaska), Araucanian (Chile) and Costanoen (California) female and male individuals were made upon a set of ten different criteria. These criteria are the height, the sagittal[6] and horizontal diameter of the skull, the linear measurement of the arm, leg and foot, the thorax and shoulder’s width, the height measurement of the spinal column and the diameter of the hip. Rollin’s measurements shows that Tlingit Natives had a larger cranium and a taller body size than Araucanian and Costanoen Natives. A study of Rollin’s comparative measurements of the physical proportions of the Tlingit (Alaska) shows that Tlingit individuals were therefore considered stronger than the Araucanian (Chile) and Costanoen (California) Natives. Feeling optimistic and confident with the precision of the data results, Rollin interpreted his findings as a solution to understand different psychological and cultural qualities.

Consequently, the stronger or the taller a group of individuals appeared to be, the more culturally advanced Rollin believed they were[7]. Since Araucanians (Chile) and Costanoens (California) were smaller than the Tlingits (Alaska), Rollin concluded that the Chilean and Californian Natives were not only more unattractive (aesthetic difference) but also very uncultivated (cultural difference). Rollin goes even further in his study, as he compares the differences of the Araucanian and Costanoen individuals to the European human archetype. From initially being an anthropometrical and craniometrical quantitative register, Rollin’s measuring data becomes the epitome of an ideal type. Rollin’s rational and ingenious vision consequently converts numbers into cultural values.

However, the inconsistency of Rollin’s method is even more evident in the essay Dissertation about the inhabitants of the Island of Tchoka and about the Oriental Tartars (Milet-Mureau 1797, IV, pp. 73-86). In this study, Rollin presents a comparative anthropometrical and craniometrical measurement table and observes that the inhabitants of Sakhalin are taller and more robust than the Orotchies and Bitchys from the region of De Kastri (Eastern Russia). However, reading the measurement tables of the Asian and American native populations (Conception, California, Alaska) proves that the people from Sakhalin and De Kastri were indeed shorter although more robust than the American natives. Furthermore the results of the anthropometrical and physiognomic measurements confirmed that the two Asian groups were more heavily built than the American natives. Nevertheless Rollin remarks that although the Asian individuals did not possess normal European features, their physiognomy was vivacious and remarkably pleasant.

Rollin’s evaluation of the Asian natives’ low stature, contradicts his own analysis of the Chilean and Californian Natives, since the American natives’ low stature was taken for a symbol of reduced intellect, want of courage and lack of incentive. The explanation for this contradiction lies in the essay Dissertation about the inhabitants of the Island of Tchoka, and about the Oriental Tartars in which Rollin describes his first encounters with the Asian natives as very favourable and respectful, attributing such good qualities to a certain Asian kindness and thoughtfulness. Furthermore, Rollin describes the natives from Sakhalin as being skilful, correct and hospitable to strangers (Milet-Mureau 1797, IV, p. 73), while the Orotchys and Bitchys (from the Kastri) are portrayed as extremely friendly and pleasant (Milet-Mureau 1797, IV, p. 80).

Although the anthropometrical, craniometrical, physiological and physiognomic tables were essential for Rollin’s portrayal of the American Natives, the author neglects these very same scientific criteria in his observation of the inhabitants of Sakhalin and De Kastri, because, as I argue, he was overwhelmed by their cordiality and hospitality. Describing the Asian natives, Rollin remarks indeed about unflattering practices, such as the decoration of lip tattooing and he even comments on the women and men’s so called ugliness as well as the strong smell of raw fish that poured from their bodies. Yet the author never uses such negative qualities to judge the Orotchys and Bitchys. Consequently, my question is, why did Rollin deliberately overlook such “negative” qualities ?

One of the possible answers is that even if Rollin draws on positivist methods (anthropometry, craniometry) in his effort to analyse objectively different native groups, he also gets strongly influenced by the actual cultural encounter. Moreover, Rollin’s contact with Tlingit, Costanoen and Araucanian Natives in the Americas had been quite challenging for two major reasons. Firstly, previous contacts with American Natives were not very encouraging; European priests and colonisers had informed Rollin that the Araucanian and the Costanoen natives were idle, immoral and uncultivated populations. Then, Rollin’s encounter with the Tlingit people (Alaska) took place under very disheartening circumstances, since Lapérouse’s expedition lost 21 men in a drowning accident in Lituya Bay on July 13 1786 (Milet-Mureau 1797, II, p. 179). An evaluation of Lapérouse’s log reveals that following the accident there was little understanding among the crew for the Tlingit people, who, according to Lapérouse, constantly tried to mislead the expedition’s search for possible survivors.

As I will show in the next chapter, Native Americans were very often classified as wild and uncultured because they were illiterate, compared to Asians, who were described by travellers as being quite civilized. Certainly Asian groups were not as civilised as Europeans; nonetheless European travellers had since the thirteenth century brought home tales of enthralling cities, of people with fascinating customs and prosperous trading. Most important however, Asian cultures had their own written language, their own literature, their own philosophy and their own religion. Asian societies had cultural traditions and a written history, something that Europeans and in this case Rollin could easily identify with.

« Tlingit woman from Alaska ». Milet-Mureau, Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse, Paris, 1797, p. 24
"Orotchis from De Kastri". Milet-Mureau, Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse, Paris, 1797, p. 55

2. The Pathological Gaze – on endemic degeneration

The Royal Society of Medicine of Paris requested Rollin to carry out a series of investigations on the existence of sexual deviation of Native American male individuals, such as the extension of the testicles, the abnormal swelling of the penis, the male’s possibility of producing milk and the existence of extreme body strength as well as highly evolved senses (Milet-Mureau, 1797, IV: 42-43). It is noteworthy that the requests made by the Royal Society of Medicine of Paris about the observation of abnormal cases of sexuality only focused on Native Americans, linking this specific ethnic group to a so-called endemic degenerative sexuality. In the following chapter, I will dig deeper into the ethical motives behind the Royal Society of Medicine’s restrictive request.

Dissecting otherness – sexual aberration

The native’s physique has since the discovery of America been a common theme in travel literature and philosophical dissertations, where queries about the savage’s strength and highly evolved senses were recurrent topics. The source of the discussion of the American native’s physique, among French intellectuals of the Eighteenth century, has its roots in the Dutch born author Cornelius de Pauw’s work, Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains (1768).

In his work, De Pauw (1739-1799) compiled an impressive overview of second-handed references about Native Americans from the coast of Patagonia up to Canada. The systematic approach, in which the author arranged the anthropological information, made his work a leading authority on the study of primitive human groups and contributed to the negative view of the American continent held in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. De Paw educated his readers on different subjects, such as the development of syphilis in America (De Pauw, 1772: I, pp. 21-24), the native’s possibility of producing milk (De Paw, I, pp. 45-47), and on the relation between the colour of the blood, sperm and cerebral matter, with the native’s dark skin colour (De Pauw 1772, I, pp. 208-210). It is worth mentioning that the instruction given to Rollin and titled Query proposed for the Royal Society of Medicine included several questions and problems that were directly related to, or even directly quoted upon the work of De Pauw. Question 13 of the instructions given to Rollin illustrates this:

130 Is it true, that in America we often find men whose breasts contain enough milk to feed children? What do we think about the hermaphrodites from Louisiana? Does the wild life among the primitive nations rend mating periodical? Is it true, that the American savages prick their penises with the help of insects thus provoking enormous swelling? (Milet-Mureau, 1797, I, pp. 184-185).

An identical subject is to be found in De Pauw’s work:

I want to propose, that to a certain extent a strenuous way of life can provoke both in men and in beasts the conditions for periodical mating, consequently maintaining it under certain periods of heat […] American women’s abnormal sexuality may have been the cause of men’s sexual indifference. The lascivious females no longer tempt these men. This is so true, that in different regions one finds women who try to help the male and his physical deficiency by making his penis swell up. The women provoke an enormous swelling by placing on the men’s penis different varieties of poisonous and caustic insects, which they constantly irritate, causing the insects to attack and sting. (De Pauw 1772, I: 70-71).

It is remarkable that the Royal Society of Medicine had chosen De Pauw’s work as a guide to their questions owing the fact that in the preliminary reading of the second section of his work, On the Diversity of the Human Species in America, clearly reveals that De Pauw with an impressive determinism, defended the theory of degeneration of the entire indigenous populations of America. De Pauw strongly believed that Native Americans had no potential to develop themselves and he even predicted that as a race Native Americans would degenerate due to the males’ lethargic disposition and lack of sexual desire.

The problem of the degeneration of a given ethnic group raises some interesting questions, namely why did De Pauw choose sexuality as the predominant argument for the degeneration of Native Americans and why did the Royal Society of Medicine of Paris rely so strongly on De Paw’s statements? Was it to promote the idea that Native Americans were not ferocious, but could instead be tamed and used as a working force for Europe? Were the descriptions about the so-called lack of sexuality meant to neutralise the image of the wild but free male Native American? In my opinion, the lack of sexual desire in male Native Americans was directly proportional to the European need to discipline. In assuming that Native Americans were on the verge of a degenerative state affected by sexual apathy, De Pauw was conveying that Native Americans would not fight against the invasion of European colonisers. However, degeneration meant the self-eradication of an entire group; a race would fade away and let another take its place. Speaking of the colonisation of America, the loss of an ethnic group due to degeneration would be ideal. In fact Europe had no need for male or female Native Americans. Europe had long begun the process of importing a working force to the Americas consisting of mainly African people, who, contrary to Native Americans, were characterised as being physically powerful (efficient)[8], highly sexual (amply reproductive)[9], and under specific conditions manageable (disciplined). Nonetheless, De Pauw was also rather pessimistic about the European colonisation of America. He criticised not only its inhabitants but also the land and the climate. America was a nuisance in many aspects. But it was a nuisance as long as it could not be tamed. Surprisingly, De Pauw was also drawn to the many possibilities that the continent offered to discontented or restless Europeans. And in this aspect, America was a playground, the perfect laboratory for the bizarre and in its innermost sense for Alterity.

The antipodal sexuality of Native Americans

Two years after De Pauw edited his work (1768), the French Benedictine friar Dom Pernetty (1716-1796) criticised De Pauw’s chauvinistic ideas about Native Americans in the treatise Dissertation sur l’Amérique et les Américains contre les recherches philosophiques de M. de P., 1770 (Essay on America and the Americans against the philosophical views of M. de P[auw]). Pernetty claimed that if De Pauw had travelled to America and had seen with his own eyes what he so hastily had criticised, he would never reach the conclusion that Native Americans were on the verge of degeneration (Pernetty 1770, p.11). That same year, De Pauw answered Pernetty in a new and improved edition of his work (De Pauw 1770b), in which De Pauw emphasized that the sexual degeneration of Native Americans was due to venereal diseases (syphilis and gonorrhoea), lack of hair and finally impotence (De Pauw 1772b, II, p. 35). By claiming that degeneration was due to venereal diseases, De Pauw was in reality establishing a diagnosis of race degeneration. Consequently, the Native American was transformed into a patient. In this case a patient with a terminal disease: not only biological but also cultural degeneration. Once more, physical qualities were diagnosed and rationalised into differences.

Inspired by the work of De Pauw, the scholars of the Royal Society of Medicine of Paris requested Rollin to examine the tendency of libidinous and hermaphroditic behaviour between Native American females. And again the work of De Pauw was the source of this enquiry. De Pauw not only wrote about the manifestation of cases of hermaphroditic behaviour in America, but the author also related hermaphroditism to the prodigious size of the females’ sexual organs, hence identifying the sexuality of Native American women as queer, as Other. America became as a result of De Pauw’s beliefs, a menagerie for the abnormal; A place where European male travellers would find lascivious females and witness cases of sexual monstrosity.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, monstrosity was understood as an aberration of Nature. The monstrous was Nature’s way of playing freakish tricks with Mankind. As Jane R. Goodall points out, it wasn’t until the French savant Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, had proven that monstrosity was subjected to precise laws of Nature, that physiological anomalies could indeed be classified (Goodall 2002:14). From the nineteenth century on, there was less space for aberration. But in the eighteenth century, philosophers as well as travellers were still expecting to see cases of tailed men, mermaids, hordes of hermaphrodites, and especially libidinous amazons. There was no practical boarder-zone between fantasy and biological deformity, so to speak.

Speculations about the huge size of the women’s sexual organs that could be mistaken for penises and the abnormal sexual tendencies of the male such as pederasty and transvestism, associated sexuality with carnality. The queer and the grotesque were subsequently shaping the image that European had of indigenous societies. The construction of the abnormal sexuality of Native Americans was central to the eighteenth century’s establishment of a diametrically opposed image of the savage Other in relation to Europeans. A form of antipodal sexuality, where the male was characterised with feminine qualities and the female was in possession of an exaggerated libido and exorbitant sexual organs. In other words, the European male imagination transformed male Americans into female, and female Americans into desirable and highly active sexual individuals.

Oversized sexual female organs fascinated undoubtedly European male travellers. A tradition that came among others from the descriptions of the Hottentot women’s huge labia and clitorises described by the German savant and traveller Peter Kolbe in 1719 (Kolbe: 1741, I: 92). And obviously De Pauw also stated that females living in rather warm climates, like America, had an enormous clitoris (De Pauw 1772, I: 91). The inversion of sexual roles of Native Americans, that is men described as women (sexual passivity) and women described as men (sexual activity), reflected the reversed image of European sexuality in the eighteenth century, where European men’s virility (activity) and European women’s decorum (passivity) were the required norm. No wonder that such standards were essential elements in the European traveller’s reflection on otherness.

The inversion of anatomic characteristics epitomized the alleged abnormality inherent to Native Americans and the idea of their presumed savagery. But savagery was one thing, carnal savagery was quite another. In Europe, savagery was understood for want of progress and educational sophistication. In this light, Native Americans were often perceived as children of Nature. By bringing their own culture into primitive societies, travellers had allegedly the opportunity to improve the life of the Savage. Contrary to this image, sexual or carnal savagery was a step closer to the fall of Mankind. The possibility for Europeans to influence positively the life of such lost and degenerated souls was therefore limited. Carnal sexuality simply lacked logic, although the Native’s sexuality was shaped by European imagery alone. Native sexuality was invented as the materialization of a fascinating subterfuge for the European male sexuality, transforming America into a potential place for perversion and free sexual interplay. In other words, Europeans could actually come closer to their carnality by simply travelling abroad - to America.

Furthermore in asking Rollin to investigate the existence of hermaphroditism and lubricious behaviour, French scholars were in fact searching for the evidence of symptomatic signs of degeneration and consequently otherness, since through the Native’s alleged perverted sexuality, savagery becomes more evident and consequently more logical. In the search of the Native’s physical peculiarities, scholars were trying to sweep away the complexities of an ambiguous and intangible boundary between the savage and the irrational animal.

As a man of sciences, Rollin disclaimed the existence of either sexual deviation or other physical abnormalities among Native Americans. Additionally, he did not observe any cases of hermaphroditism, the presence of huge female labia or the existence of sexual apathy among Native Americans. Furthermore, Rollin did not believe that Native Americans were a degenerated race, stating, that those who claimed such views were following a fantasy instead of following the truth (Milet-Mureau 1797, IV, p. 42). Nevertheless, the instructions given to Rollin by the Royal Society of Medicine of Paris showed, that the anthropological study of primitive societies in the Enlightenment was already impregnated with an interest in Natives’ sexuality and especially in sexual deviation.

I find that the idea of degeneration among primitive groups represents the native’s physical and cultural destruction. Sexual deviation embodies otherness in its purest form. By focusing on abnormal sexuality, scholars acknowledged the presence of unyielding racial discrepancies between Native Americans and Europeans. That was the main reason why the Royal Society of Medicine of Paris never asked Rollin to observe if people in other regions of the globe had sexual deformities (huge labia, deformed penises) or strange sexual habits (hermaphroditism or pederasty). Such oddities were still associated with the American continent alone.

Concluding remarks

As tools of research, outlined by the French scientific academies to control both the area and the outcome of scientific investigation of native individuals and societies, the scientific instructions were deeply rooted in anachronistic observations and biased interpretations of native societies. Measuring skulls, hips, legs and arms appeared to be an exact and harmless approach to assess cultural differences. Yet numbers in themselves reveal very little, if nothing, about unknown societies and cultures. This is the reason why Rollin adapted his scientific analysis of different bodily measurements in the mirror of his own personal encounter with exotic individuals from the Americas and Asia.

Elsa Brander

Notes de pied de page

  1. ^ In 1785 Lapérouse’s two frigates, L’Étoile and La Boussole, sank near the island of Vanikoro, resulting in the loss of mostly of Rollin’s work. Only four scientific essays arrived in France before the tragedy. These are found in volume IV of Lapérouse’s travel journal. (Milet-Mureau, 1797)
  2. ^ Rollin never identifies the ethnicity of the Orotchys and the Bitchys in his article. However, there are several allusions to the Orotchys and the Bitchys in Lapérouse’s work (see Milet-Mureaux 1797, III, chapter xix, p. 57). Moreover there are three illustrations made by the artist Duché de Vancy, where the Orotchys and the Bytchys are named. These illustrations are “ Orotchys. Habitans de la Baie de Castries”, “Pirogue des Orotchys” and “Pirogue des Bitchys”, Milet-Mureau, 1797. Atlas du Voyage de La Pérouse, folio 55 and folio 62.
  3. ^ The natives of the Island of Sakhalin could also be Oroks or Nivkhs’ natives, the last known by the name of Fish-eaters. Kolga, Margus, 2001.
  4. ^ All translations are the author’s own.
  5. ^ Nosology is a branch of medicine dealing with the classification of diseases (Nørby 2004).
  6. ^ Median longitudinal antero-posterior plane of the body, or any plane parallel with this (Nørby 2004).
  7. ^ The same type of rationalisation will be used in the nineteenth and twenty centuries to classify people according to race, intelligence and criminal temperament (MacCormack 1994, p.1438).
  8. ^ Africans had a reputation amongst traders to the Americas of being more disease resistant, especially in tropical and semi-tropical regions, than either Amerindians or Europeans. Turley, David (2000). Slavery. New Perspectives on the Past. Blackwell, p. 41.
  9. ^ In North America, pregnancy out of wedlock was encouraged between non-white women, particularly if they were slaves because their children would become workers. Until the middle of the nineteenth century most people of African descent in North America were slaves. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry (2011). Gender in History. Global Perspectives. Second edition. P. 43.