Quakers and early Anthropology
Quaker abolitionists had been heavily involved in the establishment, in 1837, of the Aborigines Protection Society (APS), with the aim of safeguarding the interests of indigenous people throughout the British Empire.
One of those most closely involved was the physician Thomas Hodgkin (1798 – 1866). But while the APS was primarily a campaigning organisation, Hodgkin had a great interest in the scientific study of indigenous people and particularly their languages. He believed that languages provided philological evidence of man's origins, and should be preserved.
Hodgkins’ desire for a more scientific focus led to his establishing in 1843, the Ethnological Society. As with the APS, many of the founders of the Ethnological Society were Quakers or from a Quaker background. Among these was James Cowles Prichard (1786 –1848), a Quaker physician who converted to Anglicanism in order to pursue his medical career. Prichard came close to developing a theory of evolution through natural selection more than ten years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. He was also, like most Quakers of the period, a strong proponent of monogenism – the belief that all human beings came from the same origins and that differences between them arose from environment and culture. In 1843 he published his Natural History of Man, in which he laid out his belief in the unity of man, pointing out that “the same inward and mental nature can be recognized in all the races.”
The Ethnological Society took a strongly liberal, abolitionist, monogenist line. This led in 1863 to a split with the breakaway group, the Anthropological Society of London, a group who espoused the view that there were three separate races of humans – Caucasian, Asian and Negroid. This split occurred in the shadow of the American Civil War and while the Ethnological Society sided strongly with those seeking to abolish slavery, the Anthropological Society sided with the Confederacy. The two societies only came together again in 1871, when they formed the Anthropological Institute.
Two notable Quaker members of the Ethnological Society were Henry Christy and Edward Burnett Tylor.
Christy, the son of a Quaker banker, was inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851 to study indigenous people. In 1852, and again in 1853, he travelled through Scandinavia to examine the public collections of antiquities at Stockholm and Copenhagen. In year 1856 he travelled through Canada and the United States before a chance encounter with fellow Quaker Tylor in Cuba led him to Mexico. Tylor and Christy’s experiences in Mexico were described by Tylor in Anahuac, published in 1861. Their work helped to prove that early Spanish accounts of the riches of Aztec civilisation has not been exaggerated. Christy also worked with French archaeologist Edouard Lartet on the excavation of caves in the Dordogne Valley.
Tylor is considered to be the father of cultural anthropology. Throughout his travels in Mexico with Christy, he tried to travel simply and see things as far as possible through the eyes of local and indigenous people. He observed and made note of where those people were being exploited.
He was a believer in social evolution, and classified all cultures as savage, barbarian or cultural. Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Matthew Arnold, he considered these to be phases that all peoples go through, and that there was therefore no inherent difference in intelligence or potential for development between, say, a hunter-gatherer society and an advanced industrial one.