Pseudoscience in Pith Helmets: the Denver African Expedition
In 1925 Denver, Benjamin Stapleton was mayor, KKK power was at its peak and a group of “Denver men” with prominent Denver benefactors traveled to “Darkest Africa” in search of its people. They intended to both document the “the real missing link between humanity and the lower animals” and bring back a pair of living “specimens” for further scientific study.
The Denver-African Expedition, as it came to be called, was the vision of Dr. C. Ernest Cadle, a graduate of Iliff Theology School and University of Denver. By the end of the expedition, he was acclaimed as an “internationally known scientist” (Denver Post) and then “rare picturesque genius” (Denver Municipal Facts), though his only relevant expertise was having been born in South Africa. With him, he took Dr. Grant John, a physician, and Paul L. Hoefler, a Denver Post photographer.
The expedition was part scientific exploration and part promotional exploit, with regular installments of information sent back to the Denver Post as the men traveled through the African wilds. Due to the long travel distances, the Denver-African Expedition lasted nearly a year, from July 1925 through April 1926, but spent just a few autumn months in the Kalahari desert.
Putting Denver on the Map
Upon its return, the Denver-African Expedition was immediately hailed as a great success. The Denver Post, which had already invested many column inches into detailing and supporting the expedition’s progress, announced it as having found “the first real scientific knowledge ever gained of the primitive Bushman.” (April 25, 1926)
Denver’s Municipal Facts for January-February 1927 devoted six full pages to Cadle’s personal memories of the trip, plus a two-page photo spread and introductory pages championing the trip’s “scientific significance and value to the city.” Indeed, Cadle’s accounts and his promotional work made the Denver-African Expedition more well known. The London Illustrated News included a spread devoted to the expedition and Cadle’s accounts also made their way to Asia Magazine (“The American Magazine on the Orient”) and The New York Times. The praise and promotion was, at the very least, successful enough to generate interest in another, larger expedition from 1928-1929, which yielded the 1930 film Africa Speaks!. Municipal Facts writer Edith Sampson declared, "Perhaps no single endeavor has added more to the glory of Denver than the Denver-African expedition."
Yet, time has told a different story. Even as the Denver-African Expedition has been largely forgotten by this city, this city's 1920s character shaped the results of the expedition and how it should be remembered.
Speaking for Africa
In many ways, Hoefler and Cadle approached the people of the Kalahari with almost the same mentality as legendary photographer Edward S. Curtis had approached Native Americans. They manipulated perceptions and posed shots, even mimicking his terminology:
Two hundred years ago they were numbered by the million; today, a begarly few thousand survived…they were already a vanished race as far as the Cape Province was concerned.
Yet the rhetoric of the expedition was often more patronizing and adopted a pseudo-scientific racism that fit the Denver from which it departed. In fact, as the entire expedition was predicated on a search for the “true missing link between the highest anthropoid ape and the highest type of manhood,” it is only surprising how far their rhetoric went. The native people were regularly referred to as the “most primitive of all humans” or a “half animal [with a] physiological structure...much like that of [a] monkey.” (Denver Post) The expedition went in with this conception of primitive half-human and, predictably, came out with results and photographs that confirmed just that. The noble savage is still a savage, after all.
It is worth remembering that this was the Ku Klux Klan's Denver. People of African descent had been a part of Denver’s population since the city’s infancy, yet they were often excluded from the city’s general activities. In 1920, over 6,000 African-Americans lived in Denver, but the surge of the KKK during that decade also helped to keep them even more out of view. Restrictive residential covenants and rental restrictions meant that people of African descent rarely found places to live outside of the Five Points Neighborhood, effectively keeping them separate from the largely white middle-class populace targeted by the Denver-African Expedition's promotion. In such an environment, this sort of “othering” could have far-flung results.
As anthropologist Robert J. Gordon argues in his 1997 study of the expedition's photographs, Picturing Bushmen, "the Denver expedition was the first attempt on a large scale to present a systematically romanticized image of bushmen." Thus, "When, later, photographers did focus on people, it was on people as ethnic group, preferably the most exotic and pristine primitive," rather than as simply impoverished. This effectively reshaped the way that African native people were seen, in much the same way that Edward Curtis shaped the way Native Americans were seen. Like in the case of Curtis's images, the effects on those depicted were mixed and complicated. As anthropologist Robert Gordon wrote, Hoefler’s photographs quickly found their way into textbooks and international imagery, as “its portrayal of bushmen as pristine permeated much of Western consciousness.”
Meanwhile, the winds were starting to change in Denver even before the expedition had returned from Africa. The Klan’s power in Colorado peaked in 1925 and was on the way down by 1926, fueled by scandals and declining membership. Similarly, after his lecture tours, Cadle appears to have faded into obscurity; though Hoefler went on to make "edutainment" in Hollywood. Some of his works helped people in classrooms "visit" American landmarks such as Yosemite, while others were used as propaganda for the apartheid regime in South Africa. The path of history is not always straight and does not always bend toward good. Perhaps it is best that the Denver-African Expedition was not the city-defining discovery that it was promoted to be, even as we recognize how it was shaped by and shaped Denver even more than it shaped the African continent.
While it's important to shine a light on Denver's racist history and to examine how it continues to shape the city today, we have to do so while not reinforcing and repeating the racist ideology of our predecessors. There are a number of instances in this article that are either woefully lacking self awareness or are outright racist. It appears that this article is meant to highlight a particularly dark portion of Denver's history while also noting how far we've come, but simply decrying the KKK and it's influence on Denver is not a particularly radical or progressive notion at this point and beyond that it doesn't seem like this article has much further to add.
The legacy of any expression of racism cannot be understood outside of that context. The intent of the expedition was, as mentioned in the article, to dehumanize black people. The idea that any photos to emerge from this intent can be viewed through a different lens is at best whitewashing and an effort of erasure. As the article also says, these photos were not for Denver's black population, or black people anywhere for that matter. They were meant to justify to the white middle class their treatment of black and indigenous people of color.
The qualification that the rhetoric that came out of the expedition was overwhelmingly racist, but only to today's sensibilities is completely centering of white people's changing understanding of our seething horror. This rhetoric has always been racist. White people not recognizing that black and indigenous people are actually human beings at the time did not make the rhetoric not racist, and certainly the eyes of any non-white person of any time could recognize that.
The notion that there is anything resembling balance in providing an oppressive regime with racist propaganda and American school children imagining Yosemite is somehow simultaneously laughable and insulting. The justification proposed in this juxtaposition says more about "today's eyes" than it does about the validity and value of Heofler.
Thank you for your comment, Jeremey. I'll admit that once I dove into the less-known history of this expedition, I wondered if bringing it back to light at all would be worthwhile. It is often difficult to discuss racism of the past without repeating the racism today. However, I also felt that reflecting on the impact that racism had on the science of 1925 Denver was important, as well. Racism has a tendency to diminish everything it touches.
Regarding the photographs, I saw a benefit in that they moved from the poverty and pity-based imagery of prior depictions to portraits of people with personality. I feel that this is a step in the right direction, especially in light of the rhetorical mire in which Hoefler stood. However, in the same way that Edward Curtis's images of Native Americans have crystallized that culture for many people, the widespread use of Hoefler's images did so for the people of the Kalihari desert. The indication about Hoefler's later career was not meant to suggest balance, but rather to suggest that someone who was creating something for American classrooms was also supporting a regime that seems antithetical to our values. Yet again, even as we saw progress in the diminishment of Klan control in Colorado, there was still a more insidious nature that continues.
Hopefully this clarifies some points and again, thank you for your comments.
That does help to clarify the comments about Hoefler's work, but I still get the impression from the article, and your response, of a sense of loss that something great was ruined by racism rather than that so many people's lives were and continue to be ruined by our city's racism and that this is one such example of disenfranchisement and dehumanization.
I don't find the shift in representation relevant when it was never something for us to represent in the first place, be it images of poverty or personality. It's not our place to represent these people. Rather we should step aside and make room. And regardless they were both produced to the end of justifying cruelty. These photos never did anything for the people of the Kalihari, or for the various Native American tribes in Curtis's case. They were for us.
I agree that it's important to accurately contextualize these parts of our city's history, but this comes off as dismissive. We can do better.
Thank you again for commenting, and for your passion on this subject. It saddens me that you find this dismissive, though I am not sure what you feel is being dismissed - the expedition, 1920s Denver or something more current? I argue that we shouldn't dismiss any of it as it reflects the insidious nature of racism. I do feel like something was lost due to rampant racism - the opportunity for people of different backgrounds to come together and recognize their mutual humanity. It may sound idealistic, and it was not likely to happen in that environment. Yet that is what I imagine the true power of scholarship and science to be, when it is applied appropriately. Today, I hope we can and do do better. Your very comments indicate how far we have come.
I think that your comment can be summarized by an aphorism: "don't know history, condemn it!"; the author condemns the racist motivation of the Denver Africa Expedition, but any observation about it other than full-throated condemnation is apparently unacceptable to you. You and your fellows have made understanding or even studying history impossible -- you would replace the enterprise with the direction of vigorous opprobrium at most of the institutions and personages of the past.
The comments on the Klan and black Denver are the usual cant.
In 1924, The Colorado Statesman, the leading weekly of black Colorado, supported Klansman Clarence Morley for governor.
At that time many blacks lived outside of Five Points.
These comments distract from an otherwise informative piece.
Thanks for reading. Glad you found it informative
I'm not certain how the comments you mention are inaccurate. In 1921, for example, a black family's home on Gilpin was bombed twice in 5 months. Both Capital Hill and City Park were also formally organizing to ban "negro encroachment". This was not an integrated city by any stretch of the imagination.
I have one problem with this very interesting essay, which is that you equate Edward Curtis's North American Indian photographs with those of the Denver-Africa Expedition. At issue for me is intent - in no way did Curtis embark on his project intending to demean his subjects in the way Cadle did, nor to justify white oppression of Indigenous peoples, as Cadle did. In fact, it was the opposite. Curtis began his project at the tail end of the genocide of Native peoples in the US. In that context, his desire to rescue what remained of Native culture are understandable. Your comment that his habit of posing and manipulation are problematic is correct, of course, but not grounds for dismissing his entire 30+ year body of work. Anonymous's comment that Curtis's photographs never did anything for Native peoples is just wrong - today, many Native anthropologists and tribal historians use his imagery to aid their research. In that sense its contemporary value is immense, as are his sound recordings and transcripts, which aid the preservation of Native language. Curtis gets a bad rap these days (as does Laura Gilpin) but I would hope that his legacy would be valued more than your article suggests.
Thank you for commenting, Rupert. I appreciate the importance of intent, and Curtis's intentions, as well as his relationships with his subjects, were definitely more benign than those of the Denver African Expedition. Perhaps of more concern is how we have used each of these photographs to define and crystallize a cultural group that is much more complex and human than these romanticized notions.
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