1st Edition

Anthropology and Race in Belgium and the Congo (1839-1922)

By Maarten Couttenier Copyright 2024
    436 Pages 19 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    This book examines the history of Belgian physical anthropology in the long nineteenth century and discusses how the notion of ‘race’ structured Belgian pasts and presents as well as relations between metropole and empire.

    In a context of competing European nationalisms, Belgian anthropologists mainly used physical characters, like skull form and the color of hair and eyes, to delimitate ‘races’, which were believed to be permanent and existent. Their belief in a supposed racial superiority was however above all telling about their own origins and physical characters. Although it is often assumed that these ideas were subsequently transferred to the colony, the case of Belgian colonization in Congo shows that colonial administrators, at least in theory, were reluctant to use the idea of permanent ‘races’ because they needed the possibility of ‘evolution’ to legitimize their actions as part of a ‘civilizing mission’. In reality, however, colonization was based on military occupation and economic exploitation, with devastating effects. This book analyzes how, in this violent context, widespread racial prejudices in fact dehumanized Congolese. This not only allowed colonizers to act inhuman but also reduced Congolese, or their body parts, to objects that could be measured, photographed, casted, and ‘collected’.

    This volume will be of use to students and scholars alike interested in social and cultural history as well as imperial and colonial history.

    1. Jean-Baptiste d’Omalius d’Halloy: Racial Classifications and the Attack on the Aryan Myth (1839-1864) 2. Léon Vanderkindere: Race and Evolution (1845-1882) 3. Victor Jacques and Emile Houzé: The Anthropological Society of Brussels (1882-1886) 4. A Myth that Escapes to Touch (1887-1897) 5. Craniological Alchemy (1897-1914) 6. Arrogance and Emancipation (1914-1922)


    Maarten Couttenier is a historian and an anthropologist and is based at the History section of the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium). He specializes in the history of colonial museums, the history of science, and the history of Belgian colonization in general.