Today I thought I would share some historical material about a controversy that blew up over Atlantis in 1911. Regular readers will remember that a New York newspaper published a hoax in 1912 claiming that Heinrich Schliemann’s descendant had uncovered a trail of clues leading to Atlantis. One reason that the hoax seemed superficially convincing is that the previous year the New York Times had published a serious article announcing that another German, Leo Frobenius, had indeed discovered Atlantis, in Africa.
I hadn’t heard of this weird sidelight into Atlantis history, but it is noteworthy as a case when a claimant made an Atlantis claim so racist that even the generally racist Europeans and Americans of 1911 thought that it was too racist to be true. And the irony is that Frobenius thought he was being less racist than his fellow scholars.
On January 30, 1911, the Times published a cable, received the day before, describing Frobenius’s claims. These claims, like most related to Atlantis, take liberties with Plato to fit facts to prejudices:
He places Atlantis, which he declares was not an island, in the northwestern section of Africa, in territory lying close to the equator.
Contacted by the Times, a Columbia professor dismissed the hype as overblown.
“If Leo Frobenius says he has discovered Atlantis,” said Prof. James Rignall Wheeler, Professor of Greek Archaeology and Art at Columbia University, “I suppose that he believes that he has. But it would seem difficult to prove anything one way or other about his find. The finding of Atlantis has become a common occupation, and they look everywhere for it, the Azores Islands being the latest favorite. You cannot, however, give a scientific opinion on the meager data contained in a press dispatch.”
This was explosive stuff, and it caused a sensation, just not the good kind. There was already a queasy unpleasantness about the story because Frobenius, an ethnologist, had ventured into Africa in 1904 on an expedition designed to prove the racial inferiority of Black Africans. While in Africa, he developed his theory that Atlantis had been in Africa because he was unable to reconcile his racist belief in African inferiority against the fact that he found elements associated with his vision of civilization in a land he had expected to be wild and savage. At first, Frobenius was seen as an advocate of African civilization, and to this day many African countries revere him as a scholar who respected the dignity of African people and treated them with honor and respect.
But while he was not the racist terror of his many contemporaries who openly abused and humiliated African peoples, he didn’t think Black people were responsible for those elements of civilization they possessed. In his book The Voice of Africa, translated into English in 1913, he blasted “their crude fetishism, their brutal and often cannibal customs, their vulgar and repulsive idols and their squalid homes.” He argued that the Africans were the inheritors of the faded remnants of a lost civilization, that of Atlantis, which occupied southern Africa in the remote past. This civilization, he further said, was white, and it was only through imitating whites that Black Africans rose above base savagery.
By 1900s standards, this was considered progressive, mostly because, unlike, say Leopold II of Belgium, Frobenius didn’t advocate for the outright genocide of Black people. But when Frobenius traveled to Africa in 1910-1912 and announced in 1911 that he had found Atlantis… well, it didn’t go well.
As European and American scholars digested Frobenius’s claims, they quickly realized that the bronze bust of Poseidon was no such thing. C. H. Read, the President of the Society of Antiquaries, took to the Burlington Magazine to explain that the bronze head of “Poseidon” was actually a piece of regular old African art, albeit one of the most perfect:
As a piece of modelling it reveals an artistic sense and a technical capacity that certainly is unexpected in the heart of West Africa, and a more competent critic than Dr. Frobenius might be forgiven if he were for the moment led astray into wild speculations. It is hardly necessary, however, for us to look beyond its own country for the production of this head, though from what side, or at what date, the inspiration came which made it possible in Yorubaland, is another and a wider question.
It turned out that the British Museum already held another bust of the same individual, this one with lines representing tribal markings. Since one cannot admit that Africans made one but not the other, and one is clearly African in its markings, the case seemed fairly closed.
Nevertheless, while Americans were convinced that Frobenius was a racist fantasist, Germans were much more taken by his theories and consumed his many books about Africa and Atlantis. Frobenius persisted in an academic career into the Nazi era, retaining a prominent position because the Nazis thought he had done such a great job proving Black people to be racially inferior.
While I have not transcribed his entire multi-volume 1913 book, I did put together a selection of early reports from 1911 about Frobenius’s claims for your reading enjoyment.
9/14/2017 10:10:29 am
This is fascinating stuff, Jason. Great post. I appreciate all the hard work and time that you obviously put into the research that you share with us.
9/14/2017 10:18:33 am
Copy/paste. Copy/paste. Nothing original.
9/14/2017 10:26:56 am
Funny, that's exactly what I think every time I see one of your posts, Henry.
9/14/2017 10:37:31 am
What exactly do you mean by "original"?
9/14/2017 10:58:47 am
If you don't like this blog, then maybe you should stop reading it. Just a suggestion.
9/14/2017 12:55:04 pm
You might as well ask him to stop being a quaint fad toy designed by a Danish woodcutter.
9/15/2017 12:18:52 am
As you are so dismissive of Jason's work, perhaps you could deign to share yours so we may marvel at its perfection?
9/14/2017 11:25:03 am
And once again, Plato turned in his grave.
9/14/2017 01:18:48 pm
It's amazing how many different locations all over the world the fringe has tried to place it in, whether or not they have the slightest relation to Plato.
9/14/2017 11:47:58 am
The yoruba art pieces caused a huge re-assessment of African art and capabilitiess hen they were first studied.
9/14/2017 03:39:59 pm
The Commissioner is named in Jason's "selection of early reports" as linked in the last sentence of the above article. He is given the designation "F.S.A." (Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries) and other reports indicate that he was also an "F.R.G.S." (Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society)
9/14/2017 12:10:11 pm
Frobenius's early work roughly coincided with the before, during, and after of the Herero Genocide (kind of a warm-up to the Holocaust) by Germany in what is now Namibia. Even the most "objective" German scholars of the time were up to their collective neck in scientific racialism and would have seized upon anything that could be used to justify their colonial policy in Africa even if it was considered silly even by the low standards of the time..
9/21/2017 12:16:44 pm
That's an interesting bit of historical revisionism. You can't blame Herodotus for this one.
9/21/2017 04:56:13 pm
I think I was very fair. Having looked at the German wikipedia page, I note that I failed to mention the ongoing rape beginning in the 1800's. Von Trotha was in the chain of command, two steps down from the Kaiser. Perhaps he was just being silly.
9/21/2017 06:36:46 pm
"genocide takes a lot of organization and infrastructure and hard work"
9/21/2017 08:27:57 pm
If you want to retire as Genocide Champion that's your business, Herr Oberstuermfuehrer Silly. As Basil Fawlty famously said "Don't mention the war!"
9/22/2017 11:19:08 am
More revisionist history. I never called you a Jew-killer. But I am troubled by how easily you gloss over death-by-concentration-camp in the case of the Herero as if that's somehow different from the previous approach of shooting them and corralling them in the desert.
9/22/2017 03:48:47 pm
Yes, I checked that before I responded and did say it. But "called me a 'Jew killer'" sounds like the sort of lie a Holocaust denier would tell. Did I just call you a Holocaust denier (you certainly seem comfortable with the Herero genocide)?
9/23/2017 09:29:06 pm
9/14/2017 01:25:28 pm
I just finished reading The Lost White Tribe by Michael Robinson, which is about the whole history of how scientists were trying to prove that Africa was originally populated and/or civilized by white people. Interesting stuff, and Frobenius sounds like he was playing with a late parallel to the Hamitic theory everyone else was using.
9/14/2017 01:51:45 pm
What these century old racist stories seem to forget is thew vast culture of Egypt, which is in Africa, and was not formed by white people. Ironically the Eglyptian civilization was far advanced of their 'savage' germanic (white) counterparts in the old Europe of the time of the Pharoahs. Does anyone have an account of what 2,000 BC white people were doing during the time of the pyramids? Or are we to assume that the cradle of civilization was not in upper Africa, (Mesopotamea) which it just might be? Atlantis was thousands of years later, and Plato wrote about it a thousand years after that.
9/14/2017 05:02:34 pm
In Frobenius' day, it was commonly assumed that Egypt had been civilized during prehistory by an invading wave of people from Mesopotamia. Thus, it was a Middle Eastern society, not an African one.
9/14/2017 02:38:49 pm
“their crude fetishism, their brutal and often cannibal customs, their vulgar and repulsive idols and their squalid homes.”
An Over-Educated Grunt
9/14/2017 08:16:42 pm
Are we certain that his report did not originate in the Red Hook district of New York City, or in certain quarters of Innsmouth and Dunwich, whence such curious events were reported not long after Frobenius issued his despatches?
9/14/2017 10:55:11 pm
I was thinking certain areas of Vermont, which had seen unusual amounts of rain and flooding around that time period...
9/15/2017 12:03:09 am
I read that line and immediately though of the neighborhood in Baltimore where I grew up.
9/15/2017 02:23:31 am
Thank you so much for your translations and transcriptions. This is the reason I keep returning. Your reviews of the pseudo-history programs are fun, yet I enjoy posts like today's better.
9/15/2017 07:14:02 pm
Or the salt flats near the reclamation plants at the edge of Alviso, or the Haite/Ashbury district in San Francisco, or the Jungle in the creeks central to San Jose, Calif, or East LA.
9/16/2017 11:47:55 am
How come no one told me it was Fantasize About Bad Neighborhoods Day?
9/20/2017 10:10:52 am
We sent you a memo. You must have been too busy with the dowigers to read it
Sorry, the basic assumption of this article is plainly wrong, as far as I have understood the approach of Frobenius.
10/31/2017 07:59:06 pm
It's very sad what's happened to my people. If we were never colonized the world could be so magnificent if not for the greed of a few. Hopefully nature will continue to take care of the problem.
4/13/2018 03:35:14 pm
Most scholars say that if their was an Atlantis, which most think there was. The peoples of Central Americas are the surviving ancestors of Atlantis, this is due to cultural similarities to many culture around the world that built temple pyramids. They also studied that the central Americans ancient language was the only language that had words like Atlantis in them.
4/13/2018 04:24:27 pm
No, most scholars do not think there was an Atlantis.
10/21/2018 07:23:01 pm
hmmm, I wonder if the theme of Wilbur Smith's novel, The Sunbird, was influenced by the idea of an African Atlantis.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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