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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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