The Adapted Words of Memmie Le Blanc

Karl Steel in Lapham’s Quarterly:

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo, rich, strange, and Scottish, died at eighty-four in 1799. He was known for exposing himself: he exercised naked before the open windows of his estate and eschewed travel by carriage, insisting instead on riding his horse Alburac through the damp gray of every Scottish season. Like many other men of his ilk and era—Rousseau, Condillac, Mandeville—he speculated at length about language’s origins among our primeval ancestors. He maintained, incorrectly but not unlaudably, that fully articulate speech first appeared in the Black civilization of ancient Egypt; that certain Native American languages were mutually intelligible with Gaelic; and, most notoriously, that orangutans were humans, though just too lazy to learn to speak. For Rousseau orangutans’ humanity was only a hypothesis, but Monboddo asserted it as fact so insistently that the universal wit Samuel Johnson likened him to a man with a tail, but without the shame to try to hide it.

The Scotsman should be remembered less indulgently for attempting, in 1778, to thwart the successful suit for liberty of Joseph Knight, an enslaved man brought by John Wedderburn from Jamaica to what Knight and his supporters maintained was the free soil of Scotland. Johnson’s friend and future biographer, the Scottish lawyer James Boswell, wrote to Johnson to inform him of the outcome. Eight judges ruled for Knight’s freedom—and with it the end of slavery in Scotland. Four ruled against it, including Monboddo, who, as Boswell reported, maintained that slavery should be honored as lawful, as it was present “in all ages and all countries, and that when freedom flourished, as in old Greece and Rome.” The classical pomp of Monboddo’s legal logic perhaps rested on more local foundations: his desire to keep his mastery over a Black man he called Gory.

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