2.23 Interpellation 07.3486, Louis Agassiz vom Sockel holen und dem Sklaven Renty die Würde zurückgeben, eingereicht am 22. Juni 2007 von Nationalrat Carlo Sommaruga und Antwort des Bundesrats vom 12. September 2007
[Parliamentary interpellation by a member of the house of representatives requesting a judgement of the Federal Council on alleged contents of racism in Louis Agassiz publications and requesting the renaming of the mountain peak Piz Agassiz to “Rentyhorn”, Renty being a slave of which Louis Agassiz allegedly used a photograph as a “scientific proof” on the inferiority of the “black race”]
We use Louis Agassiz – “the creator of American Science” – as a Swiss emigrée whose natural science based ideas on a theory of races had travelled into neighbouring sciences and influenced the discussions in legal science on the issue of slavery in the United States as a starting point to briefly focus on the cultural encounters between Switzerland and the United States as regards to the issues of slavery. In Switzerland – “the Swiss get up early but wake up late” – only after the turn of the millennium science as well as in politics and public opinion was made aware in public as part of public opinion, of the nature and the extent of the involvement of Switzerland, certain cantons, certain cities and in particular certain individuals and companies in the issue of slavery in the United States. In the Anthology we do not take a stand and do not pass a judgement. It is a fact, that after the issues relating to matters of Apartheid in the relationship between Switzerland and South Africa and after the issues relating World War II in the so called Holocaust debate, slavery in a broader sense and in particular with respect to the Swiss involvement in slavery to the United State became an issue in Switzerland as well. Research and publications as well as political interpellations of the Federal Council brought to light, that in a typology of participation in the “traite noirs” Switzerland or Swiss were substantially involved in financing activities, part of trades, substantially –in slave trade, in financial transactions connected therewith, in transactions involving American sourced cotton, in owning and operating farms in the United States and in the respective trading activities in the triangle Europe-Africa-United States. These activities were not limited to the United States. (See Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History, Concepts and Contours, Harvard University Press, 2005, partly relating to Louis Agassiz’s Theory of races).
The political initiatives in the Swiss parliament were partly driven by the activist publication of Hans Fessler, Reise in Schwarzweiss, Schweizer Ortstermine in Sachen Sklaverei, Zürich 2005 and reports on the results of new historic studies by Thomas David, Bouda Etemad, Yannick Marina Schauffenbühl, at the university of Lausanne, with the title “La Suisse et l’esclavage de noirs” (the Swiss and slavery of blacks) Lausanne, 2005. Both books were reviewed in press such as in “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, (February 4th/5th 2006), and “Tagesanzeiger”, (June 12, 2006). The activities and reactions on the national and international scene by the Swiss government will briefly be highlighted below. It has to be noted that the text of James H. Hutson, Swiss and the American Civil War (2.12) and Heinz K. Meier, the Period of the Civil War (2.13) deal with these new issues at hand.
Louis Agassiz, Swiss emigrée and a towering figure of 19th century natural science in the United States, two hundred years after his birth in Switzerland, played a role in this recent Swiss public discussions and activities in the Swiss parliament. As described in his biography and in the editors note on the background of text 2.21 on Stephen Jay Gould scientific analysis of Louis Agassiz theory on races. Agassiz was a Swiss emigrée already successful in science, in particular in paleontology and geography before his arrival in the United States. He became there a towering figure in natural science and a leading institution builder at Harvard University. After Agassiz came to the United States, he also became a prolific writer in what has been later termed the genre of scientific racism. Agassiz was a believer and advocate in polygenysm, that races came from separate origins (specifically separate creations) were endowed with unequal attributes and could be classified into specific races the same way he felt other animals and plants were classified. The respective theories were elaborated before the publicification of Darwins major work on evolution.
For the puropose of this Anthology we use Stephen Jay Gould’s analysis of Louis Agassiz theory of races in his revised and expanded version of his story in the Mismeasure of Man. In order to show how scientific theories travelled in the United States into neighbouring social sciences such as anthropology and later into legal science we revert to Lee D. Baker’s book From Savage to Negro, anthropology and the construction of race, 1896 – 1904, University of California Press, 1998, Lee D. Baker explores what racial categories mean to the American public and how these meanings are reinforced by anthropplogy, popular culture and the law. Focusing on the period between two landmark Supreme Court decisions Plessy vs Ferguson (the “separate but equal” doctrine, established in 1986) and Brown vs. Board of Education, (the public school desegregation decision of 1854) – Lee D. Baker illuminates the ways in which social scientists have responded to and have shaped the politics of races in the United States. He paints a vivid picture of the relationships between African-American and White scholars, and documents interracial efforts to use the social sciences as a means of fighting for racial equality. In chapter one, History and Theory of racialized World view he writes a brief history of the formation of these ideas and describes in the subpart the “American School” of anthrology. As regards to Louis Agassiz, Lee Baker states as follows:
“The American School of Anthropology”:
“The so-called American school of anthropology was developed in the midst of the political, financial and ideological unrest that led to the Civil War. Until the mid-ninetheenth century most scientists explained racial inferiority in terms of the “savages” fall from grace or of their position in the “Great Chain of Being”. The idea of monogenesis – that Negroes were fully human – was integral to both paradigms. U.S. scientists, however, revived earlier ideas of polygenesis – multiple origins of the human species – in the wake of the growing antislavery forces and slave revolts. The proponents of these arguments eclipsed the single-origin thesis prior to and following the Civil War, even after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) should have abated them. The first American anthropologists advanced the polygenesis thesis within the highly politicized antebellum period, and these efforts were aimed at setting Negroes apart from Whites and defining the Negro’s place in nature. The most influential scholars of the school were Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and Louis Agassiz. …”
“ The third and most prominent contributor to this American school of anthropology was the Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz hailed from Switzerland and was an expert in paleontological ichthyology. In 1846 he was invited to join the faculty of Harvard University, where he developed an interest in the origins of the human species. Initially he advanced the single-origin or monogenesis approach. After four years in the racially charged antebellum climate, however, he underwent a conversion that led him to believe Negroes were a separate species altogether. Two important events led to this conversion. The first meeting Samuel Morton and viewing his collection of skulls in Philadelphia. The second event occurred in Philadelphia. Apparently, Agassiz had his first encounter with African Americans in a hotel in Philadelphia, and he was disturbed by their features. When a Black waiter approached his table, he wanted to flee. “What unhappiness for the white race,” he exclaimed, “to have tied their existence so closely with that of Negroes …. (T)his (is a) degraded and degenerate race.
Agassiz’s legacy is not only the statues, schools, streets, and museums in Cambridge emblazoned with his name but also the bevy of students who were under his tutelage at Harvard University. He trained virtually all of the prominent U.S. professors of natural history during the second half of the nineteenth century. Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and Joseph Le Conte were two of his students who became influential in the political debates concerning racial inferiority. “ …
It is not the task of this Anthology to further follow the Intra-American travels of Louis Agassiz theories on the origin of races as well as its international travels. We note though, that as part of the discussion of the issue of Switzerland’s and the involvement of Swiss in slavery in the United States, Louis Agassiz was drawn on to the Swiss scientific, political scene two hundred years after his birth in 2007. We note though, that Louis Agassiz in most of the popular books on Swiss emigrating to the United States is amongst the personalities described. In Karl Lüönds book Schweizer in Amerika, 1979, p. 11 to 21 “Louis Agassiz, Der schweizerische Humbold” (the Swiss Humbold), he is vividly described as a major figure of American natural science in the 19th century. His writing on the theory of races is not mentioned. The description of Helmut Stalder in Verkannte Visionäre, 24 Schweizer Lebensgeschichten (misunderstood visionaries – 24 Swiss lives), of Zurich 2011 already contained the subtitle “the Swiss Humbold and his shadow”. The last paragraph with the title Späte Schande, (late discgrace), of this book, highlights Agassiz theory of races and the scientific analysis and assesmentof Stephen Jay Gould of Agassiz theory of races. Helmut Stalder briefly analyses as well the political activities in Switzerland after the Fessler book and states the reasons why the competent communities refused into rename Piz Agassiz as requested(see below) – in the context of interpellation of a member of the Swiss parliament to the Federal Counsel.
In the context of the document of the interpellation and the answer of the Federal Councill the following context is important to take note of the link to the sudden upsurge of the slavery issue in the Swiss discussions after the turn of the millennium and the particular role Louis Agassiz played in the Interpellation at hand of the Swiss government.
With respect to the official statements of the Swiss government concerning the issue Switzerlands and Swiss relationship to slavery the following can briefly listed. Though, according to David Bouda Etemad, Janik Marina Schaufelbuehl, La Suisse et L’esclavage des Noirs, in the introduction, the Federal Commission on Racism states p. 6-11. In March 2001 in a memorandum among others: “La Suisse peut et doit condamner la trait négrière, l’esclavage et le colonialism on temps que manifestation historique participants (….) d’une meme vision racial de l’humanité, qui a profondément blessé et lésé les individues et les peuple concernés” … “La Commission soutient le principe d’un reparation (….) tout on affirmant l’importance primordial, a ses yeux de ‘l’expression publique par la Suisse d’un reconnaissance morale des texts infligés par la traite negrière, l’esclavage et le colonialism.” Two months later, Switzerland had signed the Declaration of Durban in connection with the Third World Conference on Racism. The text reads among others “Nous reconnaissance (paragraph) 13, que l’esclavage et la traite des esclave constituent un crime contre l’humanité …” The representative of Switzerland in Durban, Jean-Daniel Vigny is alledged to have said, “nous n’avons rien d’avoir avec l’esclavage, la traite négrière ou le colonialsm.” (We have nothing to do with slavery, the traité négriaire or colonialism.) The issue of slavery thereafter has become a recurring theme in parliamentary interpellations. (See Interpellation of Pia Hollenstein of March 5th 2003 on the Swiss involvement in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and Interpellation of Josef Lang on Switzerland and slavery of March 3rd, 2006 (http://parlament./ch/d/suche/Seiten(Sklalverei)
In the interpellation at hand of a member of the house of representatives of Switzerland to the Federal Council of June 22, 2007 concerning directly and exclusively Louis Agassiz, the following is requested. The Federal Council is asked to pronounce itself on the racist nature of the views and the judgments of Louis Agassiz. Further he is asked to state on the incompatibility of those views with the Swiss Constitution. He is asked to rename Piz Agassiz and to give it a new name by a formal decision of the Federal Council “Rentyhorn” this had been done in 1863 with theprenaming of the “höchste Spitze” (highest speak) to Dufourspitze in the Sonderbundkrieg (the general of the Swiss army). The reasoning of the Interpellation is based on scientific judgements of Louis Agassiz theory of races and on the book of Hans Fessler, arguing, that a racist attitude and values are contrary to the values of the Swiss constitution. In consequence, Piz Agassiz should be renamed to Piz Renty.
The answer of September 9th 2007 from the Federal Council states as follows, Louis Agassiz work as renowned geologist and paleontologist should be recognized. The racist attitude on the other hand should be condemned. The question if a historic person violates the Swiss constitution should not lead to a post humous dettamination of the work of a person as a whole. There is no reason to change the name of Piz Agassiz, which is widely accepted. We confirm that the naming of the mountain is not in contradiction with Agassiz racist views. As regards to the renaming, the Federal Office of Topography, the respective Cantons and the communities are competent to decide. The renaming of Dufourspitze in 1863 is an exception and can not be used as a precedent for renaming Piz Agassiz.
You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.23_AGASSIZ_vom Sockel holen und dem Sklaven Renty die Würde zurückgeben