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The cannibal club

How Victorian anthropologists tried to defraud the financial markets

W hen the American railway engineer

George Earl Church visited La Paz
in 1868, it was to lay the ground-
work for a grandiose scheme to build a railway
through Bolivia’s rainforested border with
Marc Flandreau
ings to order with a mace shaped like a “Negro
head” (a more offensive term may have been
used for this). They adopted a Masonic-like tri-
angular logo with pictures of a skull, a brain
and an eyeball. Unlike the Ethnologicals, they
Brazil, allowing its natural resources to be A financial history of Victorian science banned women so they could more freely dis-
exported via the Amazon River. After several 421pp. University of Chicago Press. $35. course on topics such as phallus worship and
more stops, Church was in London where he 978 0 226 36030 0 clitoral elongation, along with cannibalism (of
got himself elected to the Royal Geographical course) and the futility of missionary work
Society, lending a sheen of scientific credibil- “among savage races”. When the British gov-
ity to what was in fact a financial scam. No rail- Victorian racial politics in fact played a ernor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, brutally
way was built, but the scheme was a marvel of central role in the background of many of quelled the Morant Bay rebellion in 1865 by
financial engineering. After Church signed the those involved in such schemes. When Flan- massacring up to 500 black people, the
loan contract in Bolivia’s name, bonds to fund dreau, an expert on foreign debt bonds, was Anthropologicals vehemently defended him
the loan were sold to English investors. These researching Victorian vulture investors, he against the Ethnological “negrophilists” at the
bonds traded on the London Stock Exchange. discovered that many of the central players opposing society, who had called for him to be
Church promoted the scheme by paying were members of the Royal Geographical recalled to London and tried.
journalists for favourable coverage and digni- Society and another new society, the “Anthro- Alfred Russel Wallace joined but quickly
taries for endorsements, while his banker allies pological Society”. Before the 1860s, the resigned from the Anthropological Society,
rigged the market to create a rising trend in the scientific field concerned with the cultural, calling it a “bête noire”. The eminent Darwin-
bonds’ published trading prices, a false premo- linguistic and physical characteristics of ian anatomist (and Ethnological leader)
nition of further gains to “bait the investors”. human groups was called “ethnology”. Thomas Huxley derided it as a “nest of impost-
Church and these bankers pocketed most of the English ethnologists, who were gentleman ers”. And yet, despite scandals and resigna-
proceeds. Only 8 per cent reached Bolivia. amateurs, convened in London at the Ethno- tions, the upstart organization grew quickly to
But that was just the beginning. The initial logical Society. But in 1863 a breakaway twice the membership of the sedate Ethnologi-
run-up complete, the insider bankers bet heav- clique founded a rival, the Anthropological cals. Within four years it boasted four times as
ily against the bonds (selling them “short” on Society. These “Anthropologicals” met in the many. Charles Darwin’s wife Emma called it
forward contracts), since they knew that with same building as the “Ethnologicals”, but on “a mushroom society” because it had grown so
nothing behind the bonds their value would different evenings. The subject matter dis- implausibly fast. How did it do so?
fall. When the price hit rock bottom and others cussed was similar, though it tended to be As Flandreau shows, it takes credibility to
sold in disgust, they swooped back in as “vul- more sensationalistic and flagrantly racist. sell a loan, i.e. credit, and the more inaccess-
ture investors”, buying them up for pennies Previous accounts by the intellectual histo- ible and opaque the loan’s objects, the more
on the dollar, then forced Bolivia to settle with rians George Stocking and Ter Ellingson their evaluation by a buyer must depend
them in order to prevent their blocking explain how the schism was fed by scientific, on the issuer’s reputation. Learned societies
Bolivia’s access to future credit by London class and political differences. Darwinian anti- improved reputations. They authenticated the
Stock Exchange rules. slavery Liberals predominated at the Ethno- bona fides of men like Church who ran
This type of swindle, which the economic logical Society, whose leaders (many of them the foreign-debt rackets. This is why Church
historian Marc Flandreau unpacks in his Quakers) were prominent in the emerging appeared at the Royal Geographical Society
Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange, scientific aristocracy. By contrast, most and had himself voted in as a Fellow only “two
became so prevalent during England’s eco- Anthropologicals were anti-Darwinian pro- days after subscriptions to the Bolivian loan
nomic boom of 1850–73 that it was lampooned slavery Conservatives, marginal to traditional had been opened”.
in fiction by Charles Dickens, Anthony Trol- gentlemanly occupations and the scientific The Anthropological Society emulated the
lope, Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Con- establishment. older Geographical Society, becoming a place
rad, who in Lord Jim criticized the “pure The Anthropological Society’s vice-presi- to dine with political and financial heavy-
exercises of imagination” that were situated dent and most famous member was Captain weights. But there were other reasons that the
“three hundred miles beyond the end of tele- Richard Burton, the controversial explorer Society proved so popular at this particular
graph cables and mail-boat lines”, where the famous for sexually explicit orientalist writ- time.
“haggard utilitarian lies of our civilization ings and for disguising himself as a pilgrim In the 1850s and 60s, the vulture investors
wither and die”. making the hajj in order to penetrate Islam’s wanted to pressure defaulting Latin American
The scams were a characteristic abuse of holiest shrines; he had recently broken with the governments to settle their unpaid debts by giv-
Britain’s “informal empire”, where power was Royal Geographical Society over its refusal to ing them land, on which the bond holders
exercised through trade and finance beyond acknowledge him as a co-discoverer of the would launch private colonies. In Ecuador mil-
the reach of state-regulated charter companies source of the Nile because, having been ill, he lions of acres had in fact been received, and the
like the East India Company. In parts of Latin had not actually accompanied his expedition colony was advertised to settlers in Germany.
America and the Middle East, Britain was rep- partner, John Speke, to Lake Victoria. In the Anthropological Society’s founding
resented only by underpaid consuls who, by The Anthropological Society’s president year, the English financier Edward Haslewood
capitalizing on locals’ confusion about where and founder, James Hunt, was a “medical made a splash by proposing to settle debts of
their imperial role ended and personal busi- school dropout” turned racial polemicist who several adjoining countries in northern South
ness began, could develop their own trade on declared “the Negro” a separate species, inca- America in exchange for grants of territory
the side, usually in alliance with London- pable of civilization and rightly enslaved. A that would be consolidated into a vast new
based financiers. media-savvy activist, Hunt excoriated the English-speaking colony “about the size of
Foreign government debt issues were free anti-racism of the Ethnologicals, calling them one-sixth of Europe”, in the “uplands of the
of the disclosure requirements for financing mentally diseased with “arrested brain- Amazon”. Unlike the Ethnologicals, the self-
by joint-stock companies, making them a growth” due to “rights-of-man mania”. styled Cannibal Club put itself in the vanguard
favoured vehicle for financial chicanery. The The style of proceedings at the maverick of the “push for land-grabbing and coloniza-
defaults were easily pinned on the dissolute Anthropological Society reflected Burton and tion”. In the mid-1860s, another Cannibal
character of the borrowing nations, allowing Hunt’s shared love of provocation and shock. leader, Bedford Pim, promoted bonds for a
crimes hatched in London to be blamed on their Flouting the code of gentlemanly conduct railway, land and colonization scheme in Nic-
victims, the “defaulting races” – Victorian expected at a learned society, they called them- aragua. So to the vulture bankers, the society
racism lending cover to financial predation. selves “The Cannibal Club” and brought meet- was a platform for both promoting their



schemes and energetically asserting the scien- perspective, he takes the discipline as a store-
tific legitimacy of their racist justifications for house of information for sale, with the con-
them. tent of the ideas beside the point. What
It was no secret that the coveted lands were matters, according to him, is how much the
inhabited. Haslewood had observed that his information is worth and to whom. But
proposed South American territory was occu- anthropology in the 1860s was far from a
pied by Indians who “dispute the authority” of professionalized discipline.
the governments that would be pressed to con- Today, anthropologists are intensely preoc-
cede ownership of their land. Small wonder cupied with research and representational
that this group so vociferously expressed dis- ethics. Their professional associations con-
dain for “Indians, blacks, and more generally stantly discuss and revise their ethics state-
anyone who stood in the way of their schemes”. ments (unlike, say, the American Economic
They blended racial antipathy with the suprem- Association, which only recently adopted an
acist notion that “only the Anglo-Saxon race ethics statement, and a minimal one at that).
would be able to generate value from such Because anthropologists’ ethical concern is
land”, as purportedly shown by the example of often self-critical, it is easily misinterpreted.
California, which was cited repeatedly. For example, Flandreau cites the US military’s
Land grants for new colonies would require recent attempt to use anthropology in counter-
information about the lands, their occupants, insurgency in Afghanistan as a parallel instance
and the state of politics in the relevant country. of anthropology’s debasement. But the main
To feed this need for intelligence, the Anthro- thing anthropologists did in that episode was to
pologicals created a new category of mem- criticize the programme from the outside.
bership that the Ethnologicals lacked: “local Flandreau blusters against a straw man ideal
secretaries” on the ground in the Americas, of noble disinterested science. That science
Asia and Africa who sent in scientific reports has “interests” and shades of grey is old news.
with specimens of skulls and insider tips It is absurd to conclude that all forms of self-
on local bond-funded schemes. Flandreau interest corrupt equally, that all science is
implies that rank and file members joined the therefore cheapened and none legitimate.
Society to get in on the game. The Anthropo- Indeed, anthropology can be distinguished by
logical Society was a colonization-promoting how little corrupting money has been thrown
cabal of men seeking fortune at the expense of its way, compared to the much larger disci-
despised others. plines of political science and economics. In
that regard, the Victorian era may have been

t couldn’t last. Pim’s scheme for Nicaragua “The Ogre of Foreign Loans”, from Fun magazine, April 10, 1875; from exceptional. And even then, not all figures in
unravelled, as did another scheme he pro- Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange finance were equally bad. For example, before
moted for a fanciful “ship-railway” across the merger of the two societies, the
Honduras that would transport loaded cargo wrote to Mrs Darwin to ask her husband for the truly were and social scientists truly are”. This Ethnological leader Lubbock, who was the
ships by rail between the two oceans. Around first contribution. That “horrid word”, she denunciation involves arguing that the Anthropologicals’ “archenemy” and a serious
the same time, the government moved to rein wrote, “isn’t the right one”, but if the debt were despoiling Anthropologicals of the 1860s contributor to debates over human antiquity
in the bond vultures, and the Foreign Office paid, they could drop it and “go back to the Eth- were “real anthropologists” and that “exclud- (he coined the distinction between “palaeo-
tightened oversight of British consuls (of nological, which was the first & real root of the ing” them is “bad history” and even elitist lithic” and “neolithic,” for instance), was also
whom Burton was one, in Brazil). The Can- thing”. The debt was paid the next year, but by because they were, he says, “subaltern” rela- vice-chairman of the Council of Foreign
nibals suffered attrition. The Ethnologicals then people must have grown used to the name, tive to the better-heeled Ethnologicals. They Bondholders, in which capacity he led the tam-
attacked. A letter in the prestigious periodical for it stayed. It survives to this day in the Royal have been wrongly vilified for their “racism ing of the vulture investors of the foreign debt
the Athenaeum accused the Anthropologicals Anthropological Institute. and sexism”, Flandreau suggests, but the industry.
of “charlatanism, puffery, and jobbery” – all Curiously, Flandreau uses this story to draw material he presents deepens the case against Flandreau set out to “show the strings and
terms that pointedly referred to the Stock the moral that the modern field of anthropol- them. the string pullers” behind Victorian science,
Exchange and the shady dealings that inflated ogy is tainted. Focusing on the Anthropo- Flandreau also treats past and present and his research gives an impressive account
securities with false hopes, creating financial logical Society’s heyday, he presents their anthropologists alike as retailers of facts of who was on the make and who on the take.
bubbles. Even the Anthropologicals’ member- behaviour as showing “what anthropologists about exotic locales. Applying an economic But he overheatedly dismisses previous schol-
ship, it was revealed, had been inflated. Many arship such as George Stocking’s magisterial
members were non-paying, and some had been Victorian Anthropology (1987), though Flan-
elected without even having applied to join. Netherworld dreau’s own telling is so digressive and tan-
Now it was the Anthropologicals who had a gled one must first read Stocking’s to be able
By way of musquash and green uranium bowls,
breakaway clique, which proposed uniting to follow the financial plots and stories
I thread myself through to the back of the shop,
with the Ethnologicals. But the ever-pugna- Flandreau’s book adds.
where the owner – who has a reliable habit
cious James Hunt resisted. Knowing that the As Stocking observes, the term “ethnol-
of licking an index finger when turning a page –
Ethnologicals detested the name “anthropol- ogy” is older, but the etymological meaning
conjures childhood, my grandmother.
ogy”, he organized a vote “to reject any pro- of “anthropology” is more capacious and bet-
posal that did not maintain the integrity of the ter conveys the “study of humanity in relation
Usually, we are alone and shy together.
Society’s name”. But three months after that, to nature”. If it hadn’t been temporarily pre-
She rarely speaks but I admire the way
Hunt died, and the Cannibals surrendered. The empted by the Anthropologicals, “the Dar-
she maintains her goose-feathered curls
eight-year struggle between Anthropologicals winians might well have chosen to adopt it
among a netherworld of slanting lampshades
and Ethnologicals came to an end, and the themselves”. So we need not be as worried
and blackened sunburst mirrors.
societies merged. as Lubbock was, and Flandreau is, that the
She keeps almost as still as the deer heads
Ironically, the Anthropologicals saddled modern discipline has a once disreputable
as though her body is already irrelevant,
the new organization with unpaid debt. Since eponym. After all, names remain continually
become another artefact.
there could be no extinguishing of the Anthro- available for reinterpretation and reinven-
pological Society until this debt was paid, the tion. There is no need to posit an original
Sometimes I buy something, but most days I prefer
merger had to be structured legally as its acqui- lexical sin.
to play at shops. Today, I’ve brought some freesia
sition of the solvent Ethnological Society, But whether or not one accepts Marc Flan-
and water biscuits so we might be pharaohs?
which is why the word “Anthropological” had dreau’s argument that the Anthropologicals’
As much as it breaks my heart, it also suits
to remain in the name. story continues to taint the discipline, Anthro-
my purposes that there’s no actual till,
That necessity so galled Sir John Lubbock, pologists in the Stock Exchange reveals the
just a drawer full of torn-up newspapers.
first president of the Anthropological Institute symbiosis between financial crime and Vic-
of Great Britain and Ireland, that his wife Ellen torian racial theory, and breaks new ground
feared his anger would sicken him and orga-
CATHERINE ORMELL in showing the importance of the world of
nized a redemption fund to repay the debt. She finance in the history of the human sciences.