Robert Knox’s The Races of Men (1850) expressed the dominant view of the time in the West that race was a major determinant of culture, behaviour and character. Such views were used to support slavery and anti-Semitism. Knox himself was an anatomist and physiologist, and used his studies of black people in South Africa to build a theory of human history based on racial distinction.

Knox’s book grew out of a popular lecture tour, in which he proposed that the different races of people were in fact distinct species, with a range of aptitudes to different levels of civilisation. Knox himself held contradictory views: he was anti-Semitic, but attacked slavery. He also opposed British colonial policy, though supported the idea of colonial trade ventures.