The History of Adventure Fiction and the Search for the Lost White Tribe
From the Time to Eat the Dogs Podcast
Time to Eat the Dogs is a podcast about science, history, and exploration. Each week, Michael Robinson interviews scientists, journalists, and adventurers about life at the extreme.
In today’s episode, Babak Ashrafi and Jessica Linker talk to Time to Eat the Dogs host Michael Robinson about his book The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent. This interview was produced for the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.
From the episode:
Babak Ashrafi: When people tried to explain the existence of white tribes in Africa, they returned some biblical interpretations. How did they do that?
Michael Robinson: So one of the really interesting things for me about this project is the book unfolds over a kind of 2,000-year arc. Most of it unfolds in the 1800s and 1900s. But there are really powerful links that go back to Judeo-Christian history. And the easiest way to explain this is to say that really prior to the 1700s or even really the 1800s, people were using biblical stories of migration to explain why people look the way they do, and in particular in the Judeo-Christian and Muslim contexts in the Middle Ages. And even during the Renaissance, people would look to the story of Genesis, but not the story of Adam and Eve, which was essentially the original populating of the earth. They would look later to the story of Noah because in Genesis, after God essentially realizes that the earth is corrupt and human beings are corrupt, decides he wants a do-over, and essentially annihilates the Earth, with the exception of Noah and his family, which in the Bible is described as Noah’s three sons and their families.
And so it’s very easy to go to medieval sources and see map representations of the three known continents of the world, each of which has one of Noah’s sons on it. And in the minds of many people, it was the repopulating of the world by Noah’s sons that accounts for the ethnic and racial differences that you see. I guess I was expecting that this story would all be about the race science material that we know so well from the late 19th century and early 20th century about people measuring heads and looking at skin color and eye color and things like that. And in fact, there are a lot of very late references to these early stories of migrations that happened in Central Asia and the people that migrated out from those regions and became racially distinct. So, yes, that was a surprising aspect of the story.
Jessica Linker: Your story also goes beyond exploration and biblical interpretation to some of the sciences in the late 19th century, including archeology, for example, and discovery of greater Zimbabwe.
Michael Robinson: Yes. So one of the things that was also really interesting for me and a bit of a challenge, because I’m not really a historian of archeology and certainly not a historian of linguistics, but there were a number of different fields in which these stories of ancient migrations start to play a role, certainly in the role of linguistics. You have William Jones, who becomes a linguist, a philologist, as they would have called it in the late 1700s. He’s a British scholar. He moved to India to become a barrister and in the process of that, becomes fascinated with ancient languages, including Sanskrit. And through that process, realizes that there are these structural links between ancient languages that are quite geographically distinct. So, for example, links between Sanskrit and the structure of Latin and the structure of ancient Greek. It’s only one more step for Jones to start than thinking about, well, why are these languages linked? There must have been a primordial people that spoke some common languages out of which these grew. And so what we would call this idea of Indo-European languages emanates from that source.
And then in archeology, you also have similarly archeologists looking at various sites in Great Zimbabwe. For listeners who haven’t seen Great Zimbabwe, it’s this fantastic structure. It’s really a city that exists in Zimbabwe and that is built out of this incredibly meticulous use of stone work to build these large oval enclosures, as well as buildings that really populate this valley in Zimbabwe. And it had been rumored to exist from the time of the Portuguese. So there were Swahili traders who had come out of the interior of Africa and tell Portuguese traders about this fantastic city. So there are actually reports about it that goes back quite far, but it really wasn’t discovered, so to speak, and putting quotations around that by Europeans, into the middle decades of the 19th century when looking at how fantastically meticulous and beautiful these were, they started almost immediately looking for sources other than indigenous African peoples as the creators of them.
This happened as well with the pyramids in Egypt, where people are looking for some kind of foreign source. These are clearly too sophisticated for the people who live in this region. There must have been some kind of prior invasion of a more advanced civilized race to do this. And so archeology specifically in Africa, but in other places, too, like North America, gets harnessed to this idea of ancient migrations of people from other areas that are more civilized and sophisticated.
Babak Ashrafi: And then in your book, you go on to look at the broader residences beyond academia of ideas about the lost white tribes in the realms of fiction, for example.
Michael Robinson: Yeah, in the late 1800s, Stanley is coming back and reporting about a lost race in the interior of Africa, and there are other reports from other areas of the world. For example, the people who go to Japan, particularly missionaries, talk about the complexion of the eye, new people on the north island of Hokkaido and how they look Caucasian. And there are a number of reports like this from different regions of the world. And so adventure writers start to write about this, people who are writing what today we might call young adult fiction or juvenile fiction or something we might call science fiction or speculative fiction, they were calling scientific romances.
But this genre of literature really starts to catch fire in the late 19th century with the publication of books like Treasure Island and Jekyl & Hyde. And probably the most famous book of this genre was King Solomon’s Mines, written by Sir H. Rider Haggard. Haggard had spent some time on the British colony in South Africa in the Transvaal and had heard some of these stories and used them as an inspiration for his own story, a kind of adventure story in which British explorers go into the interior and find this hidden race of people who have links to the world outside of Africa. And that becomes a huge blockbuster and generates more stories on a similar theme. So you could say that by the turn of the 20th century, a large percentage of the stories of what we would call adventure fiction were actually tied up with this idea of finding lost worlds and lost races, many of which were Caucasian.
To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of Time to Eat the Dogs, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.
Michael F. Robinson is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Hartford. He is the author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, which won the Forum for the History of Science in America Prize in 2008.