Historic controversy  |  20 August 2008

A racist and his mountain

The glaciologist Louis Agassiz and his tainted legacy

The Agassizhorn is an unassuming peak, overshadowed by its neighbour and Canton Bern’s tallest mountain, the Finsteraarhorn. It was named in honour of Louis Agassiz, a pre-eminent 19th century Swiss glaciologist and geologist who emigrated to the USA and was one of the most influential scientists of his age. A group called «Démonter Louis Agassiz» has turned the spotlight on Agassiz’ tarnished legacy of openly declared racism and wants to see the peak renamed.

The Agassizhorn peak is located on the border of the cantons Bern and Valais and the municipalities of Grindelwald, Guttannen and Fieschertal. 3953 metres high, it stands in the shadow of Bern’s highest mountain, the 4274 metre-high Finsteraarhorn. It was named after Swiss scientist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz. Louis Agassiz, an influential zoologist, palaeontologist and glaciologist, was born in Môtier in 1807. He was the first to promote the Ice Age, an achievement that prompted the government to name the peak in his honour. Agassiz emigrated to the New World in 1846 and disappeared from the Swiss public’s eye.

A «notorious racist»

A book by St. Gallen historian Hans Fässler focuses on Louis Agassiz’ reinvention after his relocation to the USA and sheds light on the famous scientist’s darker side. Agassiz became a proponent of polygenism, the theory that blacks and whites had separate origins. He was an advocate of the separation of the races, and although his views were not unusual at the time, his reputation meant that his opinions had a great impact on the slavery and racial equality debate. Agassiz’ bicentenary was celebrated without dissonance in Môtier last year. Earlier this year, Hans Fässler and the «Démonter Louis Agassiz» committee launched its campaign to have Agassiz’ honour stripped and the peak renamed «Rentyhorn». Renty was a slave of Congolese origin who was photographed by Agassiz on a plantation in South Carolina in the 1850s. Agassiz used the images to illustrate his theory that blacks were inferior to whites. Last year, the Swiss Federal Council acknowledged Agassiz’ «racist thinking» but declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit, stating that Agassiz was honoured for his work as a glaciologist, thus playing the ball into the court of the respective cantons and municipalities.

Artistic performance to raise awareness

Swiss-Haitian artist Sasha Huber will draw the public’s attention to the issue at her coming exhibition in Helsinki. She also plans to fly over the Agassizhorn at the end of August and put a painting of the slave Renty on the peak. Sasha Huber lives and works in Helsinki, Finland.