In the Ringling collection, there is a rare first-edition book from 1775 named “The History of the American Indians”. Published in London by an Irish-born colonial South Carolina trader named James Adair, it describes the customs, dress, and traditions of North American indigenous folk from the eyes of a contemporary Western settler. While it is not as overtly racist as many contemporary that called for Indigenous assimilation or extermination, it espouses many of the quaint ideas of the time. Particularly noteworthy are its odd theories on race and culture.
Adair argues against the polygenism of the time, which claimed that different races of humanity had different biological origins. In particular, he argues against the idea that Indigenous Americans are “Pre-Adamites”, human-like creations of God separate from those descended from Adam. Instead, Adair puts forth a bold hypothesis that race changes in humans due to climate. For instance, he claims that white Spaniards introduced to South American heat immediately take on the skin tone and characteristics of American Indians. Tellingly, he claims to have known “a Spanish lady, who conceived, and was delivered of a negro child, by means of a black picture that hung on the wall, opposite to the bed where she lay.”
Without scholarly knowledge of the cultural practices of the groups Adair describes, it is difficult to give a statement on the accuracy of his claims. It is reasonable to discount some of his other theories, however, which include speculation that Native Americans are descended from the lost tribes of Israel. Even with the limitations of archaeological knowledge in the era Adair lived, his evidence relies on oversimplification and misinterpretation of Native and Jewish society and theology. Claiming that Jewish and Native American peoples have a similar religion and societal order, he makes questionable assumptions on the role of the “Great Spirit” in indigenous belief system and the applicability of the word “tribe” across vastly different civilizations.
Though this case is not as extreme as comparable works of the time, Adair’s text still Others the Indigenous American peoples in certain ways. He casually stereotypes them as mysterious and inferior, even when praising qualities he admires. This ingrained racism toward non-white culture, and its study and consumption as an exotic curiosity, continues to seep its way into many modern forms of entertainment. The circus is one branch of popular culture particularly affected, and Ringling Bros. circus offered many exhibits importing what seemed odd about foreign cultures to Western audiences..
Finding this book in John Ringling’s personal library brings to mind a fresco on the roof of the Ca d’Zan. On it is depicted dancers of various nationalities in traditional costumes, many in an inaccurate or objectified manner. While these dancers were probably not meant as caricatures, the art of their societies is not put on the same type of display in the Ca d’Zan or Ringling Museum as the art of European cultures.
As in Ringling’s copy of Adair’s history, the place of the non-European in the Ringling grounds, museum, and circus is of a misunderstood Other. While the Other’s arts are seen as splendid entertainment, they are never put on the same level of Ringling’s European art or Adair’s Israeli admirations.
Adair, James. The History of the American Indian. London, 1775.