Few of us would have the temerity to summarize world history in a single volume but that is what the Swiss educator, cartographer and geographer Henri Venel attempted in the 1840s. We would hardly be aware of his name though were it not for a translation of that work by the English-born American Egyptologist George Gliddon. As it turns out, the fruit of that labor survives here at the New-York Historical Society along with some of Gliddon’s professional papers.
The translation is a large manuscript folio titled “Outline of a Grand Chronological Atlas, Presenting Parallel Histories of the East and West.” As unique as it is, it really must be seen to be fully appreciated. The volume references everything from cosmogony and geogeny (the study of the origins of the heavens and earth respectively), the “Paleontological Characters”, “Natural History of Man,”the so-called “Mysterious Period” to the Great Wall of China, the First Alliance of Carthage with Rome and the theories of Kant, Schelling and Hegel. There is nothing new about the content but taken as a whole, the work is a panorama of accumulated knowledge and a sweeping insight onto the mid-nineteenth century Western mind.
Despite the efforts of both men there is nothing to suggest that either Venel’s original or Gliddon’s translation reached an especially wide audience since there is no evidence that either were ever printed. The closest is an addendum to an 1846 prospectus for Gliddon’s lecture series on ancient Egypt. A short 1865 biography of Venel insinuates that the work’s complex arrangement proved too daunting for printers. A look at the extant manuscript surely makes this plausible!
Gliddon’s passion for antiquities, undoubtedly fostered as the son of the United States’ first consul to Egypt, likely stimulated his interest in the Chronological Atlas. In fact, Gliddon is arguably the more curious of the two figures since he is widely regarded for popularizing Egyptology in America. This included two successful American lecture tours, the second of which included a stop at New York’s Mechanics Hall, in early 1847, at the invitation of the N-YHS.
A 1923 New York Times article lauded the impact of Gliddon’s work, saying “There is no more remarkable passage in the history of American interest in ancient Egypt than that of the activities of George Gliddon, writer and lecturer, during the years 1842-1850.” The same article credits Gliddon’s exploits with attracting Englishman Dr. Henry Abbott to these shores along with his extraordinary collection of Egyptian antiquities. (One of the world’s greatest Egyptian collections at the time, by the close of 1860 it had been acquired from Abbott’s heirs for the N-YHS.)
Credit for kindling people’s fascination with Egypt may be well due, and perhaps even under-recognized. But, ultimately, it’s important to take a comprehensive view of Gliddon since there is also an unfortunate, less appealing side to him concerning the origins of the races. In fact, whether part of the original work or sign of Gliddon’s influence, the manuscript Atlas contains a summary of the races with a hierarchy rather transparently predicated on skin color. (It places Africans firmly at the bottom.) When considered alongside his book Types of Mankind, co-authored with physician Josiah C. Nott, this certainly aligns with Gliddon’s perspective on race.
In that work, “disciple” Gliddon and Nott furthered the theory of polygenism promulgated by American physician and physical anthropologist Samuel G. Morton. The theory itself denies a common ancestor among the races, tacitly supporting since refuted ideas about superiority and inferiority among races. Coupled with his additional interest in the pseudoscience, craniometry, elements of Gliddon’s passion for antiquities takes on a very different hue.
Noteworthy as a advocate for studying the ancient world, Gliddon is also a testament to the extraordinary implications the study of the past actually has on the present, and how destructive misinterpretations can actually be. Whatever the conclusion may be about Gliddon and his pursuits, he remains a remarkably interesting, though not always admirable, figure.