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Edward B. Tylor in Cuba, in 1856

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, history of anthropology Add comments

It is little known that Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), a founding father of British social anthropology, began his ethnographic journey not in Mexico, but in Cuba. Young Tylor traveled from Louisiana to Cuba when he was only 24 years old. At an omnibus in Havana he met a man who’d change his life: Henry Christy, a British ethnologist and archaeologist. Together they explored Cuba and then headed to Mexico, where Tylor experienced the intellectual conversion that would set him on a life path to theorize culture “in the ethnographic sense” (Tylor’s words) and in relation to civilization.

There is not much available documentation of Tylor’s Cuba sojourn except for the excursion Christy and he undertook to the Isle of Pines, and which he describes in his Mexico book, Anahuac ‘s first chapter.  Tylor describes the lush tropical jungle that walled the train tracks between Havana and Batabanó (something hard to imagine today), as well as the hamlets along the way, where “cigar making seemed to be the universal occupation.” Once in Batabanó, the travelers boarded a steamer to Nueva Gerona, in the Isle of Pines. His observations are well worth a read, from those about their fellow steamer travelers, to the daily (and nightly) life in mosquito-infested Nueva Gerona (where men tinkled guitars and sung seguidillas, and where they befriended “the Cura” -whose “parentage was the only thing remarkable about him: he was not merely the son of a priest, but his grandfather was a priest also”), to the rural settlements of free blacks (both emancipados and expatriate Floridians), to his observations concerning race relations (and racial intermarriages), to the sorry conditions of indentured Chinese migrant workers, to the continuing slave trade (abolished in Cuba only six years later, in 1862).

I reproduce here the fragment about Tylor’s visit to one of the Floridians’ settlements. These were African descendants, “free inhabitants of Florida who chose to leave that country when it was given up to the United States.”

We paid a regular round of visits to the Floridan settlers, and were
delighted with their pleasant simple ways. It is not much more than
thirty years since they left Florida, and many of the children born
since have learnt to speak English. The patches of cultivated land
round their cottages produce, with but little labour, enough vegetables
for their subsistence, and to sell, procuring clothing and such
luxuries as they care for. They seemed to live happily among
themselves, and to govern their little colony after the manner of the
Patriarchs.(…)

In one house in the Floridan colony we found a _menage_ which was
surprising to me, after my experience of the United States. The father
of the family was a white man, a Spaniard, and his wife a black woman.
They received us with the greatest hospitality, and we sat in the porch
for a long time, talking to the family. One or two of the mulatto
daughters were very handsome; and there were some visitors, young white
men from the neighbouring village, who were apparently come to pay
their devoirs to the young ladies. Such marriages are not uncommon in
Cuba; and the climate of the island is not unfavourable for the mixed
negro and European race, while to the pure whites it is deadly. The
Creoles of the country are a poor degenerate race, and die out in the
fourth generation. It is only by intermarriage with Europeans, and
continual supplies of emigrants from Europe, that the white population
is kept up.

For more on Tylor, see George Stocking’s essay, “Tylor and the Mission of Primitive Man,” included in his book Delimiting Anthropology. An earlier paper of Stocking’s on Tylor’s culture concept (and its contrast to Boas’) can be downloaded HERE.

7 Responses to “Edward B. Tylor in Cuba, in 1856”

  1. ETHNOCUBA: Edward B. Tylor in Cuba, in 1856 | Emilio Ichikawa Says:

    […] (EC)-It is little known that Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917), a founding father of British social anthropology, began his ethnographic journey not in Mexico, but in Cuba. Young Tylor traveled from Louisiana to Cuba when he was only 24 years old. At an omnibus in Havana he met a man who’d change his life: Henry Christy, a British ethnologist and archaeologist. Together they explored Cuba and then headed to Mexico, where Tylor experienced the intellectual conversion that would set him on a life path to theorize culture “in the ethnographic sense” (Tylor’s words) and in relation to civilization. (More…) […]

  2. Savage Minds Around the Web | Savage Minds Says:

    […] Nice Piece of History: Ethnocuba has a great piece about Edward Tylor’s little-known excursion to Cuba before he went to Mexico and collected information for his first book, […]

  3. Joan Leopold Says:

    See also Joan Leopold, E. B. Tylor and the Making of Primitive Culture

    published at Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1980
    in English and her articles and forthcoming book on this subject.

  4. Time Travelling Pit Stops #1 « time travelling Says:

    […] Edward B. Tylor in Cuba, in 1856 by EthnoCuba Tylor describes the lush tropical jungle that walled the train tracks between Havana and Batabanó (something hard to imagine today), as well as the hamlets along the way, where “cigar making seemed to be the universal occupation.” […]

  5. Flower Tattoos Says:

    I actually had an argument with friend of mine about Edward starting in Cuba… He was so stabber with a Mexico. have to email him this page now, thanks 🙂

  6. Mark Says:

    Such a stark reminder of how close the USA and Cuba really are from each other. The entire embargo and regime has hurt both countries, here is hoping that cold war stereotypes continue to lessen without Fidel in power.

  7. anonymous Says:

    He was the son of Joseph Tylor and Harriet Skipper, a part of a family of financially effectively-off Quakers, homeowners of a London brass factory.

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