Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 8, 2009

Herman Melville’s “The ‘Gees”

Filed under: african-american,indigenous,literature,racism — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm


As a long-time enthusiastic but amateur Melville scholar, I was intrigued by David Roediger’s reference to the short story “The ‘Gees” that appears in his newly published “How Race Survived U.S. History”, a book that I will be reviewing. Roediger views this story as a satire on mid-19th century ethnology, which for all intents and purposes was nothing but scientific racism. He cites Carolyn Karcher’s article “The ‘Gees: a Forgotten Satire on Scientific Racism” that appeared in the October 1975 American Quarterly. Having had a chance to read the Melville story and Karcher’s article, it really broadens my understanding of mid-19th century racist ideology and Melville’s exemplary struggle against it.

The ‘Gees were a fictional people that Melville describes using the language of the ethnologists he was satirizing:

In relating to my friends various passages of my sea-goings, I have at times had occasion to allude to that singular people the ‘Gees, sometimes as casual acquaintances, sometimes as shipmates. Such allusions have been quite natural and easy. For instance, I have said The two ‘Gees, just as another would say The two Dutchmen, or The two Indians. In fact, being myself so familiar with ‘Gees, it seemed as if all the rest of the world must be. But not so. My auditors have opened their eyes as much as to say, “What under the sun is a ‘Gee?” To enlighten them I have repeatedly had to interrupt myself, and not without detriment to my stories. To remedy which inconvenience, a friend hinted the advisability of writing out some account of the ‘Gees, and having it published. Such as they are, the following memoranda spring from that happy suggestion:

The word “Gee (g hard) is an abbreviation, by seamen, of Portuguese, the corrupt form of Portuguese. As the name is a curtailment, so the race is a residuum. Some three centuries ago certain Portuguese convicts were sent as a colony to Fogo, one of the Cape de Verdes, off the northwest coast of Africa, an island previously stocked with an aboriginal race of negroes, ranking pretty high in incivility, hut rather low in stature and morals. In course of time, from the amalgamated generation all the likelier sort were drafted off as food for powder, and the ancestors of the since called ‘Gees were left as the caput mortuum, or melancholy remainder.

The ‘Gee is a capitalist’s dream since he is totally indifferent to wages. Melville writes:

Though for a long time back no stranger to the seafaring people of Portugal, the ‘Gee, until a comparatively recent period, remained almost undreamed of by seafaring Americans. It is now some forty years since he first became known to certain masters of our Nantucket ships, who commenced the practice of touching at Fogo, on the outward passage, there to fill up vacancies among their crews arising from the short supply of men at home. By degrees the custom became pretty general, till now the ‘Gee is found aboard of almost one whaler out of three. One reason why they are in request is this: An unsophisticated ‘Gee coming on board a foreign ship never asks for wages. He comes for biscuit. He does not know what other wages mean, unless cuffs and buffets be wages, of which sort he receives a liberal allowance, paid with great punctuality, besides perquisites of punches thrown in now and then. But for all this, some persons there are, and not unduly biassed by partiality to him either, who still insist that the ‘Gee never gets his due.

Despite the lowly station of the Gees, there are possibilities for his improvement as Melville reflects in the next-to-last-paragraph:

As yet, the intellect of the ‘Gee has been little cultivated. No well-attested educational experiment has been tried upon him. It is said, however, that in the last century a young ‘Gee was by a visionary Portuguese naval officer sent to Salamanca University. Also, among the Quakers of Nantucket, there has been talk of sending five comely ‘Gees, aged sixteen, to Dartmouth College; that venerable institution, as is well known, having been originally founded partly with the object of finishing off wild Indians in the classics and higher mathematics. Two qualities of the ‘Gee which, with his docility, may be justly regarded as furnishing a hopeful basis for his intellectual training, is his excellent memory, and still more excellent credulity.

Karcher’s article is an exhaustive close reading of Melville’s all too brief story, as one might expect from someone academically trained. Her main point is that the ‘Gees are a symbol for African-American slaves and the American Indians, both of whom were “studied” by ethnologists with an eye toward justifying their exploitation and oppression. Karcher puts Melville’s story in its historical context:

To understand Melville’s mock ethnological treatise, we must familiarize ourselves with the intellectual background. Ethnology, as one prominent authority, Dr. Josiah C. Nott of Mobile, Alabama, defined its aims, sought to “know what was the primitive organic structure of each race?-what such race’s moral and psychical character-how far a race may have been, or may become, modified by the combined action of time and moral and physical causes?-and what position in the social scale Providence has assigned to each type of man?: In practice this meant that ethnologists traced the physical attributes that distinguished the various races of men from each other to the very genesis of the human species, even postulating a separate creation for each race; that they extrapolated intrinsic moral and intellectual properties from the physical differences they observed; that they assumed the quasi-permanence of both physical and psychological characteristics; that they ranked the races of men according to ethnocentric standards of beauty and innate intelligence which allegedly entitled each race to a particular station in life-the Anglo-Saxon at the top and the Negro at the bottom.

Roediger spends a couple of pages discussing Samuel Cartwright, one of the more odious practitioners of scientific racism. A physician based in the South, Cartwright tried to explain the racial differences that justified one group dominating another. He discovered a mental disorder common among slaves called drapetomania–the desire to flee from servitude. There was also Dysaethesia aethiopica, a disease “affecting both mind and body” that explained the apparent lack of work ethic among slaves.

Believe it or not, scientific racism did not disappear with the abolition of slavery. Evidence of it can be found in the earliest volumes of the prestigious Foreign Affairs, which began life as the Journal of Race Development in 1911. In its premier issue, you could read articles with these titles:

–The point of view toward primitive races.

–The origin of the polynesian race.

–A worthy example of the influence of a strong man upon the development of racial character.

All of these articles are laced with paternalistic, social Darwinist language that is enough to make you throw up.

Roediger also has a fascinating discussion of Herbert Hoover, who was as inept at understanding the genuine science of homo sapiens as he was in combating the effects of the Great Depression. As a mining engineer, he was disposed to see racial hierarchies everywhere mining companies went to steal resources using indigenous labor.

Our good friend Michael Perelman also took note of Hoover’s racism in “The End of Economics”:

Hoover’s racism, especially in his early years as a mining engineer, was legendary. For example, he regarded Asians and Negroes as “working labor of a low mental order.” He estimated that on the average “one white man equals two or three of the colored races, even in the simplest forms of mine work. In the most highly skilled branches…the average order is one to seven, or in extreme cases, even eleven.”

Just a final word on Melville and the problem of racism. Lest anybody assume that the short story under examination here was prejudice rather than satire, Melville was on record as opposing racism using forthright language not subject to misinterpretation. Although he was never quite as much in demand as Mark Twain, Melville did make the lecture circuit talking about a subject very close to his heart, the peoples of the South Seas-in other words, the real ‘Gees.

Although the full text is not extant, we do have notes about one such lecture from a “phonographist” (stenographer, basically) from the Baltimore American newspaper on February 8, 1859.

Melville recounts Balboa’s discovery of the South Seas: “The thronging Indians opposed Balboa’s passage, demanding who he was, what he wanted, and whither he was going. The reply is a model of Spartan directness. ‘I am a Christian, my errand is to spread the true religion and to seek gold, and I am going in search of the sea.'”

Melville wonders if the Europeans will begin to tour the charming isles of the South Seas? His reply:

Why don’t the English yachters give up the prosy Mediterranean and sail out here? Any one who treats the natives fairly is just as safe as if he were on the Nile or Danube. But I am sorry to say we whites have a sad reputation among many of the Polynesians. They esteem us, with rare exceptions, such as some of the missionaries, the most barbarous, treacherous, irreligious, and devilish creatures on the earth. It may be a mere prejudice of these unlettered savages, for have not our traders always treated them with brotherly affection? Who has ever heard of a vessel sustaining the honor of a Christian flag and the spirit of the Christian Gospel by opening its batteries in indiscriminate massacre upon some poor little village on the seaside–splattering the torn bamboo huts with blood and brains of women and children, defenseless and innocent?

The final paragraphs are the phonographist’s own words and it is too bad that we don’t have Melville’s. They deal with the colonization of the South Sea islands:

The rapid advance, in the externals only, of civilized life was then spoken of, and the prospect of annexing the Sandwich Islands to the American Union commented on, with the remark that the whalemen of Nantucket and the Westward ho! Of California were every day getting them more and more annexed.

The lecturer closed with an earnest wish that adventurers from our soil and from the lands of Europe would abstain from those brutal and cruel vices which disgust even savages with our manners, while they turn an earthly paradise into a pandemonium. And as for annexations he begged, as a general philanthropist, to offer up an earnest prayer, and he entreated all present to join him in it, that the banns [public announcements] of that union should be forbidden until we had found for ourselves a civilization moral, mental, and physical, higher than the one which has culminated in almshouses, prisons, and hospitals.


  1. “Believe it or not, scientific racism did not disappear with the abolition of slavery.”

    I believe it.

    The Nazis resurrected it, as did white South Africans.

    Stephen J. Gould argued that the 1994 best seller “The Bell Curve” fell into that category.

    It’ll probably rear it’s ugly head again as imperialist casualties mount in Af-Pak, you know, some “violence gene” attributed to people in predominantly Muslim countries.

    There’s certainly a flavor of it in some modern Zionism.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 8, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  2. Karl, I was being ironic.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 8, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

  3. I figured as much but while reading your account of Melville I overheard some TV talking head in the backround blathering about how Islam allegedly has some deep seated bloodlust and it struck a nerve.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 8, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

  4. Lou – There’s an obscure novella by Edgar Allen Poe (his only novel) called “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” written in 1838. It’s extremely strange & twisted saga that you’d find fascinating as a juxtaposition with your Melville studies, particularly with how it relates to racism.

    Here’s a review: http://www.enotes.com/nineteenth-century-criticism/narrative-arthur-gordon-pym-edgar-allan-poe

    Since the 2 were contemporaries I’m curious if Poe was influenced in some way by Melville, or vice versa, their opposing views on race nothwithstanding?

    In any event Poe’s obscure novella is a superb read and one that manages to haunt the readers’ psyche long after it’s finished.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 8, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

  5. Thank for this, fascinating stuff. I think Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is worth a look in this regard too, since it’s about the blindness of the white eye.

    For what it might be worth to you, I did an interview with David Roediger about his most recent book on my blog. Best of luck with your interview!

    Comment by macon d — April 9, 2009 @ 12:23 am

  6. Oops, read this again, I meant to write, “with your review!”

    Comment by macon d — April 10, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

  7. […] representations, while apparently parodied by no less than Melville himself in his short story “The ‘Gees,” have remained under-examined in Anglophone culture. Those in the Portuguese community who might […]

    Pingback by “Generations, Time, and Rewriting the Portuguese Stereotype”: A Review of Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars | THE PURITAN — May 12, 2014 @ 11:31 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: