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  • Online publication date: December 2014

2 - Hair


Descriptions of hair pepper the eighteenth-century explorers’ accounts of Aboriginal men: its texture and colour, the styles in which it was sculpted, the various pomades and adornments used, and how it was groomed. It was not only Aboriginal men's locks which garnered interest, the navigators also discussed their beards and the amount of body hair they possessed. This level of attention has not been reflected in the historiography; as art historian Angela Rosenthal observes, more ‘often than not studies of eighteenth-century culture have overlooked or underemphasized the importance of hair’. Until the last two decades those historians who have taken an interest in hair in general have focused their attention on the elaborate wigs worn in the eighteenth century. While significant, this narrow focus on status has obscured the broader significance of hair to eighteenth-century Europeans. Hair, for instance, was thought to reveal the state of one's inner health or supposed mental infirmity.

Of greater significance to the eighteenth-century explorers, however, was what hair revealed about human difference. Through the influential work of the great taxonomer Linnaeus, hair became one of the key indicators in tracing the relationships between the different varieties of man. From the revised tenth edition onwards of his Systema Naturae Linnaeus cited hair as his second descriptor after skin colour, thereby elevating its significance to that of a racial phenotype. His catalogue reduced the varieties of man to just four, masking the differences within each ostensible race and exaggerating those between the races. Each of Linnaeus's four ‘races’ had different types of hair: the hair of the ‘American’ was ‘black, straight, thick’, ‘European’ ‘yellow, brown, flowing’, ‘Asiatic’ ‘black’, and ‘African’ ‘black, frizzled’.

The purported empiricism of the taxonomic sciences gave credibility to long-held beliefs that physical characteristics such as hair type and skin colour reflected the inherent qualities of different ‘races’. For instance, in the late seventeenth century the English philosopher William Petty thought that Europeans and Africans ‘in their Haire differs as much as a straight line differs from a Circle’, and that this disparity reflected crucial divergences in ‘their Naturall Manners, & in the internall Qualities of their Minds’.