I'm operating off of fuzzy memory for this question but I know I have encountered this bizarre (and offensive: fair warning) historical figure who I am inquiring about here before in my previous reading.

Background to question

Allow me to provide a bit of background and context first to explain this question. In order to fulfill a requirement for a minor in history I took a directed reading course one summer several years ago on the French Revolution and had to assess and summarize varying arguments for its causes in the decades and century (or two) leading up to it. I was assigned five books to read with differing perspectives on what precipitated the Revolution (economic, political, military, cultural, etc. causes) where I read about the person described in this inquiry in passing; however, I no longer have access to the books to consult them again and thought I could outsource my question, to help with recollection.

I'm fairly sure it was not from De Tocqueville's book (one of the assigned readings), but in one of the books I read – which described the personal background of several figures involved in the early Estates General meetings on the eve of the Revolution – I encountered the French thinker whose views I am about to describe to the best of my recollection.

Description of the individual & his ideas

I, of course, do not recall this individual's name else I would not be asking this question, and only recall that it was a man; but there was a French thinker and writer who was either current with the period of the Estates General meetings leading up to the Revolution or lived just prior to then (I lean towards the former - as I got the impression he was involved in the Revolutionary events) who had some crazy ideas about slavery and what I'll call "evolution" (interestingly, prior to Darwin).

(Updated) He had written about a theory that he had to attempt to improve things for slaveholders by training black slaves to act as overseers for monkeys while working in the fields to spare slave owners having to obtain additional slaves to do labor. He theorized that the abilities of monkeys were sufficient for this to actually work, and that monkeys could be trained to wield various labor implements, and that the end result would be for whites to pursue their own matters without having to worry about labor. He genuinely thought his ideas were credible, acceptable, and possible to implement.

I remember being entirely appalled upon reading that, and my history professor also pointed him out as a Frenchman with some extremely strange and wacky ideas. Does anyone know who it is that I am thinking of? If so can someone provide sources that discuss some examples of his stated beliefs?


If I can locate the research paper I wrote for the class I could provide a bibliography, but I just recalled that among the books I read was the following volume, which I think might have been the source of that information:

  • The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (Bicentennial Reflections on the French Revolution) (Duke University Press Books, 1991) by Roger Chartier.
  • 1
    After checking Chartier: unless it's 'really flowery' in its presentation of 'this', it is probably not in there. Further, if 'often judged as having 'wacky' ideas' is correctly remembered, then: have you looked into Rousseau's writings? I didn't yet, but tbh, I suspect that's a little conflated anyhow. Mar 18 at 16:27
  • 1
    @LangLangC I can at least recall that it was not someone otherwise famous, such as Rousseau. Mar 22 at 16:14

2 Answers 2


There are many mentions from French Enlightenment writers, which is not the same as Revolutionary, but I think more adequate to what you are looking for. This is because influences of Linnaeus and Buffon:

  1. Abbé Sièyes: he came to conceive a new working race from the crossing of Negroes with monkeys. See more on his text "Reasoned Exposition of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789)". I do not have access to this source, but this is probably what you are looking for.1
  2. Voltaire: this is different to what you're looking for. But in a similar fashion the famous thinker agreed that the race of the Whites was a superior species to that of the Negroes. According to him, Whites were superior to Negroes, and Negroes were "superior to monkeys, like monkeys are [superior] to oysters…" 2

I'm sure you can find more, specially regarding the events of the Haitian Revolution. For example, citations about Napoleon generals in Saint Dominque. Toussaint nickname was the "old black monkey".


  1. Seen in Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens (Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804), Chapell Hill, The University of South Carolina Press, 2004, pp. 174-175.
  2. Voltaire, Traité de Métaphysique, Cap. V: “Si l’homme a une âme, et ce que ce peut être”, 1737
  • 1
    Ah! Thank you. After searching on Abbe Sieyes you are correct. This discovery also necessitates that I correct something rather critical (and also a title correction): Sieyes did envision a hierarchy but it was White slaveholders -> Black slaves (who then oversee...) -> monkeys who do menial labor. I will post a quote I found that clears this up more. Again, thank you for this answer. Bounty awarded. Mar 22 at 17:06
  • The word "fashing" is unclear. I first thought it was a verb meaning "to be fascist" but it may be a typo of "fashion".
    – User65535
    Mar 23 at 14:40

James' answer cleared up a critical factual error I had in my memory of this Frenchman's ideas. It was indeed Abbe Sieyes, but the the hierarchy for labor was different.

I offer the following from A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbe Sieyes and What is the Third Estate? (Bicentennial Reflections on the French Revolution) by William H Sewell Jr.

...Rather, the Third Estate, the working nation, is made up of "two peoples" who are not united but divided by their labor.

What Sieyes offers as a solution to the troubling duality of the working nation is a rather shocking fantasy: the production of new species of "anthropomorphic monkeys" to accomplish the passive labors," to be supervised by "negroes." This bizarre utopia would return humankind to the conditions of the antique polis of Sparta, where all manual labor would be done by slaves regarded as members of inferior species, and all the whites would be "directors of work" — which would give them the time and means to be educated and to become active and intelligent citizens. Manual production would no longer be carried out by two white peoples, but by five peoples, alternately called "races" or "species": whites, blacks, and three types of anthropomorphic monkeys.

It is notable that Sieyes cites as the advantage of this arrangement not that it would increase the supply of labor and hence material goods. The advantage is more moral than material: the inferior species would have "fewer needs" and above all would be "less capable of exciting human compassion." They could be exploited, in other words, with a clear conscience. The exploitable inferior species seem to include, for Sieyes, blacks as well as anthropomorphic monkeys. Without discussing the question, he places Africans in a position intermediate between whites and monkeys, and the fact that they would be mere "auxiliary instruments of labor" under guidance of the white citizen "heads of production" apparently causes him no moral anxiety.

(Chapter 5, "What is the Citizen? The Denial of Political Equality", pg. 155)

Utterly astounding.

This was the source I was looking for. Kudos to James for nailing the reference.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.