A System Modern Geography, Comprising a Description of the Present State of the World and its Great Divisions etc., by S. Augustus Mitchell, 1860, is a fair example of what American students were taught about the world before the Civil War.
[quoteright]This is a solid book, full of factual detail. All the major nations extant in 1860 are briefly described, as well as most of the minor ones. All major cities are described, as are the peoples that inhabited the world at that time. This book seems to have been designed with a double purpose, to inculcate students with a belief in the moral superiority of their own nation, and to give them a practical preparation for dealing with the corrupt and untrustworthy foreigners that Yankee traders were perforce to encounter as they plied the trade routes of the world.
Mitchell's Geography begins with a long chapter called "Geographical Definitions," which contains definitions of terms and a lot of other things besides. There are sections entitled "Races of Men," "Stages of Society," "Government," and "Religion." A drill from the section called "Religion" goes:
Q. How may the different forms of religion be divided?
A. Into true or false.
No room for error or doubters here. The principal systems of religion given as Christian, Mahomeda, Pagan, and Jewish. The Mahomedans, or Mussulmans, are "Those who believe in Mahomed, a religious imposter, who arose in Arabia, about 600 years after Christ." The Pagans, or Heathens, are "Those who believe in false gods, and who worship idols, beasts, birds, serpents, etc .... They comprise several classes, such as Bramins, Buddhists, worshippers of the Grand Lama, etc."
All the races of men are descended from Adam and Eve and can be divided into various races. "The European or Caucasian is the most noble of the five races of men. It excels all others in learning and the arts .... The most valuable institutions of society, and the most important and useful inventions, have originated with the people of this race."
I would suppose that the writer of this book had considerable experience in considering the needs of the readership, for this was only one of several lesson books written by him, and not the first edition either. In light of this supposition, the level of ignorance of the school child as reflected in Mitchell's care in presenting the six proofs for the roundness of the Earth, can only be guessed at. The author stresses that "Ignorant people suppose the earth to be a flat body, rounded on all sides by the sea and the sky." In fact, the very first pages of the book also present the point that the Earth is "like an immense ball" that rolls through the universe. The Flat Earth Society would not be amused.
Following "Geographical Definitions," the various nations are described, beginning with the American states, and especially with the various parts of the soon to be dis-united United States. There is no indication of the terrible divisions that were already splitting apart this Eden of industrious Christians. Conflicts over slavery, Nullification, and Protectionism are not even hinted at within these pages.
Of Connecticut "(that state) ...is noted for the excellence of its literary institutions, and for the enterprise and good morals of the people." And of New York: "It exhibits one of those striking examples of growth and prosperity which are nowhere seen except the city is grand and extensive." The Capitol building, the White House, and the Smithsonian are described in glowing terms. In remarks about other states, all the people have good moral character, work hard, and are Christians.
Of the Eastern states in general, the author writes: "In these states the people are almost exclusively of English origin; and, from the earliest settlement of the country, have been used to habits of industry, economy, and enterprise." After the Civil War, the great waves of immigration would begin, changing forever the Anglo-Saxon look of these states. Then thinkers and writers would react with bitterness to the loss of the imagined paradise.
All of the Central and South American countries are identified, and their principal cities and geographic features enumerated. When the peoples are mentioned, the most frequently used adjective seem to be "indolent." The book wags a disapproving finger at chaotic political conditions, weak economies, and illiterate peoples, all Catholics, the book repeatedly points out. Information as fresh as yesterday's headlines is forthcoming with the description of the Falkland Islands, which "belong to Great Britain."
The countries of Europe, mostly kingdoms in those days, are all described. This enumeration includes the states of Germany and Italy, which were numerous in the days before the unification of those nations. Russia is treated in two sections, European and Asiatic, and the descriptions indicate that things have changed little in certain essential ways in Russia: "Russia, for the last 100 years, has been an aggressive power, and within that time the Empire has greatly increased in extent." "The Polish provinces were acquired by the 'Partition of Poland,' a deed of wholesale robbery, committed on a defenseless victim, in 1772 and 1795 ...." About Siberia: "It serves the Russian government as a place of banishment for convicts and prisoners of state. Some of the latter have been men of superior talents, and were banished only for political causes."
Of Great Britain, the author has mostly good things to say, with a few qualifications. "Great Britain is one of the most important states in the world, and surpasses every other in the extent of its manufactures and commerce. The intelligence, enterprise, and industry of its inhabitants are nowhere equalled, except in the United States."
An interesting note in the section on Switzerland is mention of the Alpine Spaniel, "...one of the largest animals of its kind. Several are kept by the monks of St. Bernard, for the purpose of discovering travellers lost in the snow." The Turkish Empire is depicted as declining and corrupt. "Smoking the pipe, lounging for hours crosslegged upon a cushion or sofa, and bathing, are the principal occupations of the better class."
Of Persia (Iran) the author wrote: "Persia was, in early times, one of the most powerful empires in Asia; but the imbecility of the government, and the disastrous civil and foreign wars, have diminished its importance." "The people of Persia are Mahjommedans of the Shiah denomination, and are in consequence disliked by the Arabs, Turks, and other Mussulman nations of the Sunni sect." Of the Chinese, (they) "are distinguished for order, industry, and regularity; but their treatment of females, worshipping of idols, and general disregard of truth, are circumstances which lower them in the scale of nations, and rank them below the least civilized Christian communities."
The Barbary states are noted for their piratic practices, and the book mentions the efforts of various "Christian" nations to end their troublesome habits. Consistent with the book's high moral tone, it does not mention that the Christian nations so nobly employed were often known only a generation before to bribe the various Barbary chiefs to raid a fellow-Christian competitor's commerce.
The African states are shown to be wild and exotic. The kingdom of Ashantee is accused of "The horrid custom of sacrificing human beings." A large part of the army of Dahomey "is composed of women." The "Zoolu" and Hottentot peoples are described among the peoples of South Africa, but the writer seems unaware of the terrible power of the Zulu nation which was to stun Britain in 1879.
One can imagine midwestern school boys dreaming away quiet moments with heads full of the names of far-off places, and of heroic explorers, like these in the description of the nation of the Fellatas (of the Sudan): '"Their empire is from 300 to 400 miles wide, and extends from Timbuctoo 1400 miles south-east to Adamua. It has increased greatly in power and magnitude since first made known to us by Denham and Clapperton. Sackatoo is the capital. Kano and Kashna are important cities in Houssa."
Youri is remembered as the place where the Scottish explorer Mongo Park died. Begharmi often wars with Bornou; their cavalries wear "iron armor, and fight with long spears." "Mauritius is the scene of the inimitable tale of Paul and Virginia."
Among the things said of the Australian peoples is this note on the inhabitants of Papua. '"They are generally destitute of clothing...and often live on the most disgusting food." "The inhabitants, like all savages, are divided into petty tribes, and are at constant war with each other." (unlike the Christian nations, who did make peace from time to time, I suppose.)
The decline of the native population of Hawaii is noted, and their ultimate extinction predicted. No regrets are expressed. The inhabitants of the Friendly Islands (Navigator's Tonga, Hapaai, and Feejee Islands) are "the most savage and warlike in Polynesia."
The last geographic entity mentioned is Pitcairn's Island, notable as the home of the descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty. Why they chose to remain there instead of rejoining their fellow Christians is not explained.
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