Thankfully, phrenology has been thoroughly debunked: the idea that the shape of the skull can be used to infer mental characteristics. Nevertheless, it was extremely popular all over the world during the 19th century, finding converts among reform-minded Bengalis in Kolkata, India, and colonial settlers in Australia.
Charles Caldwell, for instance, a doctor from Kentucky who revelled in both phrenology and slave ownership. He became one of the earliest “experts” in phrenology in the United States.
In 1837 he wrote to a friend claiming that “tameableness” explained the apparent ease with which Africans could be enslaved. This was a standard phrenological argument. Areas located towards the top and back of the skull, such as “Veneration” and “Cautiousness”, were routinely claimed to be large in Africans. A correspondent of Caldwell concurred, writing: “They are slaves because they are tameable.” Clearly enjoying himself, Caldwell replied: “Depend upon it my good friend, the Africans must have a master.”
The fact that phrenology was used to justify slavery is perhaps unsurprising. What would one expect from such an overtly racist science? But it wasn’t just the slavers. Some of the most vocal anti-slavery campaigners of the 19th century were also advocates of phrenology, and used it to justify their stance. If anything, the majority of phrenologists were against slavery.
For abolitionists, the apparent weakness and timidity of the Africans served two purposes. It countered fears that they would take revenge on their masters if set free. It also provided a moral argument: if Africans were innately weak, society should help them, not enslave them.
In present western society, it is fair to say that racism has become less and less of a problem, but it would be impossible to deny that it still lingers in the far-right corners of the political spectrum.