British Polygenists and the Indigenous Body, 1820–1880

  • Paul TurnbullEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Pacific History book series (PASPH)


This chapter explores the ideas and arguments of Britain’s most influential exponents of polygenism. It examines the seminal influence of Robert Knox (1791–1862), the Scots anatomist and controversial racial theorist. Knox’s racial determinism made him a trenchant critic of British settler colonialism. He believed that not only were Australian and other indigenous peoples doomed to suffer extermination at the hands of European settlers, but also that Britons settling in equatorial or arctic climates would experience racial decay and eventual extinction. The second half of this chapter is devoted to Knox’s admirer, Joseph Barnard Davis (1800–1881). It traces the development of Davis’s interest in racial craniometry, his energetic collecting of racial skulls, his rejection of Darwin’s evolutionism and his use of Australian remains in challenging early Darwinian accounts of humankind’s place in nature.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TasmaniaLauncestonAustralia
  2. 2.University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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