top of page
  • Writer's pictureGeoff Kronik

Nationalist Geographic, 1926

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

When National Geographic halted newsstand sales and laid off its staff writers recently, I felt a nostalgic pang. Long ago, my parents subscribed to Nat Geo, and I’d eagerly devour each month's yellow-framed feast of natural wonders and photos. The cutbacks at what to me was an institution felt like another blow to the tangible, dealt by the digital.

At the time of the announcement, I didn’t know of National Geographic’s 2018 admission of its racist heritage—or of that heritage itself. This was a blessing: had I read the story in its moment, I’d have learned indirectly of the magazine’s decades of white-centered, chauvinist-supremacist reporting. Instead, I got a sledgehammer firsthand experience.

I have a few ancient National Geographics at home, bought--where else?—at a garage sale. After reading of the changes at the magazine, I thought revisiting those old volumes would be interesting and fun. It certainly was interesting.

In a 1926 issue, a piece on Singapore caught my eye, as I have in-laws there and in neighboring Malaysia. I imagined passing along the article with “look-what-I-found” delight.

Except I found this: “The Malay…is too lazy to even be a good fisherman…It is the Chinaman who is the tin miner, farmer, shopkeeper and financier. The palatial homes of the rich Chinese…afford proof enough of the...commercial superiority of the Yellow Race.”

Assuming this nastiness an unfortunate but exceptional product of its era, I read on. I credit the author for calling the notorious durian delicious, but not for this description:

“No Malay dancing girl…could hold a job in the cheapest American cabaret show. To any Yankee theatergoer, the Malay dancer…is a dull and tiresome performer, and the din and rattle of gongs, drums and dried sticks…are sadly without even a suggestion of jazz.”

Who had written this bile? I searched the author, Frederick Simpich: he was a diplomat, world traveler, prolific writer and esteemed member of the National Geographic Society. He liked what he saw in Singapore, evidently:

“(Sir Stamford) Raffles declared…British law should be applied with patriarchal mildness and indulgent consideration for the prejudices of each tribe…In this policy lies the secret of British colonizing success.”

Britain’s legacy is controversial in Singapore, and I have family who attribute their quality education to British influence. But reading that 1926 Nat Geo made the magazine’s 2018 mea culpa seem essential, albeit belated. Already in the late 19th century, anti-imperialism existed, but the elites at National Geographic were apparently having none of it.

In the same 1926 issue, I enjoyed truly remarkable early color photos of Greenland, but not some of the captions : “Like a tropical butterfly emerging from its somber shell, this beauty stands at the door of her igloo built of stones and sod.” After reading other subjective descriptions of women (“rotund”), I checked the masthead. Unsurprisingly, all men.

In another piece, an author waxes sympathetic towards Egypt’s women—“not one in twenty can read and write”—then bathes in white guilt: “one feels rebuked for a life of comfort or happiness in the presence of dull, commonplace lives given over to treadmill labor…”

How to allevisate this ennui? “Perhaps these illiterate people…will someday have a new heaven and a new earth opened to them through music...or through motion pictures, which constitute the only legitimate writing for the illiterate.” That’s right--the solution to presumed earthly misery is movies.

I parsed a 1931 issue, expecting more of the same: after all, this was still shortly after the eugenics-influenced Immigration Act of 1924, which was praised by no less than Adolf Hitler. Now it struck me: eugenics’ proponents included prominent, wealthy, elite-educated Americans--exactly the class from which Nat Geo’s then-stewards came.

A piece on South Africa, while offering many interesting facts and observations, treats whites and Europeans as generally heroic and practically canonizes Cecil Rhodes. There is an unreadably racist passage about so-called Bushmen, and also this lament: “When whites first came, (the Transvaal) abounded in game, but indiscriminate shooting took a sad toll.” What exactly was so tragic--the loss of wild things per se, or of abundant “game” to shoot? The author does not elaborate.

By now, I expected a report on a Hindu festival to harshly judge devotees’ self-perforation with skewers, but the reporting was surprisingly neutral. Why was this piece different? Was its author, L. Elizabeth Lewis, a woman hiding behind a cryptic initial, while telegraphing identity via a feminine middle name? If so, did gender influence tone?

Perhaps. In 1931, Ida Treat visited Somalia for National Geographic. Her views are steeped in whiteness: she is fascinated by black bodies, and portrays the Afar people as having “little if anything that recalls the negroid”. Even so, her writing mostly avoids the lofty disrespect of other articles. Maybe being female helped; it seems plausible, and beyond dispute is that Ida Treat was a remarkable person: adventurer, traveler, journalist, writer, professor. A colleague said she might have made a good feminist role model later, but would have disliked the label.

Eventually I put away the old magazines, wondering what to think. It would be wrong to dismiss National Geographic's many contributions solely due to past content, as its pages have also helped countless readers develop a positive fascination with nature and culture. Meanwhile, how to judge history through a contemporary lens is tricky, as times do change, but to dismiss transgressions as mere products of their time assumes people are incapable of critical thinking.

In any case, sacred cows need slaying if they obstruct a clear view. Learning of National Geographic’s past was a needed dose of perspective for me, and a reminder to stay healthily skeptical.

On the current Nat Geo website is a welcome piece called "How Queer Identity Shapes Nat Geo Explorers". Clearly, an effort is being made. At the site one can also read of the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year, an honor "given to an individual whose actions, achievements, and spirit push the boundaries of leadership in exploration."

There also happens to be a Rolex Explorer watch, "designed to accompany those who push back the boundaries of human knowledge." That's a lot of boundary-pushing overlap, but most non-profits need partnerships, and National Geographic has long had advertising. The old ads themselves can make for interesting time-travel.

That said, it's a pity the funds coming from Rolex aren't enough to keep writers on staff.

35 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page