Scientific racism, human remains, and the guano trade, 1845

Scientific racism, human remains, and the guano trade, 1845

Wonderful natural phenomenon. A specimen of a Negro man, preserved by guano, now exhibiting in the Victoria Saloon Rooms. Lowgate, Hull: William Stephenson, Printer, Eastern Counties Herald Office, [1845]. 17 x 10 ⅞ in. Old manuscript date top right (4 August 1845); small loss at top left, slight tears and creases.


So horrific that it might have been pulled from the pages of Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, this appalling broadside surely represents a low water mark in the history of scientific racism. Contemporary newspapers offer the context: while excavating guano – the fecal remains of seabirds – on Possession Island off the coast of present-day Namibia, British mariners under the command of one Captain Douglas of the ship Toronto exhumed the preserved corpse of a young man:

The mummy is that of a [N]egro, apparently about 25 years of age, length five feet ten inches long. … The subject has received the rites of sepulture, the jaws being bound up, and the great toes tied together; the hands are crossed upon the body, just below the breast; and, what is very extraordinary, the shirt is in perfect preservation without adhering to the mummy. … The coffin was found imbedded in guano, about four feet from the surface, and an inscription, which unfortunately has not come into the possession of the owners, is stated by Captain Douglas to have shown the date of interment to have been nearly 100 years ago.

According to an inscription found with the corpse, this "perfect specimen of the [N]egro race" was "a native of Bermuda" serving on an American whaler in the mid eighteenth century. Had he been free when he signed on, or was he escaping slavery? The respect paid to the young man by his shipmates was not shared by the people who disinterred him. A document buried with the body identified the deceased by name, but the guano merchants did not record it.


Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 1 August 1845, p. 5

At a time when robbing the graves of Whites was widely condemned in England – the Anatomy Act of 1832 was designed to curb the practices of “resurrection men” – the entrepreneurs evidently felt no compunction about disinterring the corpse of a Black man, removing it far from its burial site, and displaying it to the public as a “Natural Curiosity.” Initially presented at one shilling, the price of admission was later reduced to sixpence for adults. Children were admitted at half price. Newspaper accounts note that the faculty of the University of Hull were negotiating for the purchase of the corpse for the local museum. The notice first published in Hull Packet and East Riding Times was reprinted in newspapers nationwide, including the London Standard, the London Examiner, the Manchester Guardian, the Leicester Journal, the Cornwall Royal Gazette, the Lancaster Gazette, and the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser.


Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 9 May 1845, p. 4

In addition to being a staggering example of the inhumanity of racial display during the age of empire, the broadside is significant also as a relic of the guano rush of the 1840s. Prized as a fertilizer, guano was a valuable commodity after 1836. In the Americas, a contest over Peruvian deposits triggered a small war in the 1850s and inspired the U.S. Guano Islands Act in 1856, which laid the foundations for American expansion into the Caribbean and Pacific islands. Beginning in the early 1840s, British interests were focused on the Penguin Islands, including Ichaboe and Possession, where over 500,000 tons of guano were gathered for export between 1843 and 1846. Hull served as a hub for the lucrative trade. The fact that the chemical properties of “white gold” evidently were responsible for the corpse’s mummification surely made it doubly fascinating for contemporary viewers – one is reminded of Damian Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull.

A deeply disturbing and eminently teachable artifact, particularly relevant today in the context of debates over the ethics of displaying human remains. (Essay question: does the display advertised here differ from the objects in anthropological collections in degree or in kind?)

No other copies of the broadside are recorded.


Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 1 August 1845, p. 1

Selected References

  • “A Mummy from a Guano Island,” Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 1 August 1845
  • “Mummy found at Possession Island,” Lancaster Gazette, 9 August 1845
  • Eden, T. E., jun. The search for nitre and the true nature of guano… London: R. Groombridge and Sons, 1846
  • Cushman, Gregory T. Guano and the opening of the Pacific world: a global ecological history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013
  • Förster, Larissa and Sarah Fründt, eds. Human remains in museums and collections: a critical engagement with the “Recommendations for the care of humans remains in museums and collections” of the German Museums Association. Historisches Forum vol. 21, 2017. DOI:
  • Karp, Ivan and Steven D. Lavine, eds., Exhibiting cultures: the poetics and politics of museum display. Washington and London:  Smithsonian Press, 1991

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