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Racial ideology helped Europeans to make sense of their world. Like all ideologies, it did not provide them with a true picture of the world, only one that satisfied them for a time because it provided a workable interpretation of reality…

The question of race has long constituted a troublesome aspect of modern Western thought. From the outset, it was the skin color of Africans that provoked both the fascination and the antipathy of Europeans. During the eighteenth century, the English writer John Atkins certified established opinion, declaring that “The Black Colour and wooly Tegument of these Guineans, is what first obtrudes itself on our Observations, and distinguishes them from the rest of Mankind.” Blackness, moreover, carried connotations of malice, evil, repugnance, and corruption.

European legend, folklore, and history abounded with images of black bile, black magic, blackmail, blacklists, black knights, and the Black Death. Throughout the pages of European literature, there were countless tales of white men turning black from sin. More than a century before Atkins, Jean Mocquet, a French traveler to Africa, British North America, the West Indies, and the Near East, had already confirmed the meaning that many Europeans attached to black skin. “It might properly be said, that these Men came out of Hell,” Mocquet wrote, “they are so burnt, and dreadful to look upon.”[1] White, by contrast, signified purity, beauty, virtue, and goodness. The mysterious and sinister power of blackness pervaded the European imagination. It was embodied in Africans who, from the European perspective, could only have been the “children of darkness.”[2]

Despite these negative associations, other Europeans, such as the seventeenth-century English writer Sir Thomas Browne, argued that standards of beauty were matters of custom and perception rather than universal judgment. Africans, Browne asserted, were no doubt happy with the color of their skin, and considered Europeans to be less attractive. To some Europeans, blacks were more beautiful than whites. Richard Ligon, who had visited the Cape Verde Islands and Barbados, found himself captivated by the blacks, and especially by the black women, whom he encountered. “The young Maids,” Ligon remarked, “have ordinarily very large breasts, which stand strutting out so hard and firm, as no leaping, jumping, or stirring, will cause them to shake any more, than the brawns of their arms.”[3]

Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth century, a number of European travelers to Africa or the Americas also wrote generous descriptions of blacks. They marveled at the agility and grace that blacks exhibited. In addition, the Europeans who published accounts of their journeys commented frequently on the radiance of blacks’ teeth and the cleanliness of their bodies. Another seventeenth-century English writer, the Reverend Samuel Purchas, commented on their good manners. Purchas was not alone in confessing that, although Africans were untroubled by their nakedness, which shocked Europeans, “yet it is holden shame with them to let a fart, which they wonder at in the Hollanders, esteeming it a contempt.”[4]

Nonetheless, for many, perhaps most, Europeans the problem of the Africans’ skin color remained. How had it originated? What did it signify? Did it provide a justification for slavery? Educated opinion embraced two prevailing theories about the nature and meaning of blackness. The first was biblical, the second scientific.

A venerable tradition of scriptural exegesis associated black skin and slavery with the sin of Ham and the curse laid upon his son, Canaan. According to centuries of Hebrew scholarship, Ham, one of the sons of Noah, either had sexual intercourse with Noah’s wife on the Ark, of which Canaan was the issue, had sexual intercourse with a dog, or castrated his father. As punishment for his sin, Ham and his descendants were cursed. Black skin was the mark of their forebear’s infidelity to his father and his transgression against God. In the more familiar version of the story, which did not explicitly focus on the perverse sexual connotations of Ham’s offense, Ham had sinned against God by looking upon his drunken father’s nakedness. The consequences were the same. Ham’s son Canaan, and his entire lineage, the Canaanites, were cursed, and condemned to perpetual slavery. “Cursed be Canaan,” cried Noah in Genesis 9:25. “A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” The anti-slavery minister John Fee reached the inescapable conclusion that the story of Ham’s sin and Canaan’s curse was intended to convey: “God designed the Negroes to be slaves.” The black abolitionist Alexander Crummell agreed. In “The Negro Race Not Under a Curse: An Examination of Genesis IX.25,” Crummell lamented that:

the opinion that the sufferings and the slavery of the Negro race are the consequence of the curse of Noah [is the] general, almost universal, opinion in the Christian world…. So strong and tenacious is the hold which it has taken upon the mind of Christendom, that it seems almost impossible to uproot it. Indeed, it is almost a foregone conclusion, that the Negro race is an accursed race, weighed down, even to the present, beneath the burden of an ancestral malediction.[5]

There were few more powerful justifications for the enslavement of Africans than the association of black skin with sinfulness and slavery with the inherited curse upon black people.[6]

It is, perhaps, among the great unremarked tragedies of history that Europeans found blacks living in proximity to apes. Although many thinkers rejected the theory that black skin originated with the curse that God had placed upon Ham and Canaan, they entertained the theory that blacks descended from apes. The idea that blacks had evolved from apes, or at least were the product of a separate creation from the rest of humanity, was the innovation of radicals, freethinkers, charlatans, and heretics such as the German physician Paracelsus or the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno. Despite these dubious antecedents, with the growth of the international slave trade, theories of black inferiority gained currency. Many writers magnified the supposed physical and intellectual differences between blacks and whites, explaining them now with reference not to scripture but to science. It was, of course, in the interest of slave traders and slaveowners to propagate the belief that blacks were not fully human, and that they were thus unalterably inferior to whites and fit only for slavery. Those who fashioned such arguments had a rich intellectual tradition on which to draw. European folklore was replete with stories of ape-men, and the monstrous offspring that had resulted from every sort of bestiality. The fantastic tales of early explorers and chroniclers had only multiplied the variety and horror of these terrible creatures.[7]

At least since the Renaissance, Europeans had regarded themselves as having been made in the image of God. But European myth had long acknowledged an uneasy connection between men and beasts. Europeans believed in fixed and distinctive species. They also held to another ancient belief in the continuity and fecundity of creation, or, as they called it, The Great Chain of Being.[8] According to the Great Chain of Being, there were infinite gradations between every form of life that linked all of creation in one vast hierarchical continuum. God, the Creator of the universe, of course, was alone atop the Chain, followed by various degrees of angels, then humanity, and, at last, the lower beasts. By the late seventeenth century, European scientists thought they had discovered the missing link between humanity and the apes in the Hottentots, a people whose brutish appearance and bestial customs provided the basis for the familiar Western stereotype of black Africans well into the twentieth century.

As Carolus Linnaeus and Georges-Louis LeClerc de Buffon refined systems of biological classification during the eighteenth century, it became increasingly clear to educated men and women that human beings were members of the animal kingdom.[9] They were structurally and functionally so much like other mammals that no sharp distinctions existed. These biological discoveries appeared to confirm the ancient idea of the Chain of Being as an infinitely graded continuum encompassing all creation.

Disagreements over whether blacks constituted a separate species or whether there was unity to the human race, and whether the apparent differences between blacks and whites resulted from their different environments, ignited a vibrant, and at times furious, scholarly debate. Even those theorists who concluded that Africans and Europeans had the same origins and were members of the same species also believed that whites were the human standard. Blacks were, at best, a deviation. Europeans came to regard blackness not perhaps as the punishment for sin but rather as a kind of aberration or disease. Whether the consequence of climatic conditions or chemical agents found between the layers of the skin, Africans had degenerated from their white ancestors. This explanation of black inferiority was the secular, scientific version of the biblical curse placed on Ham and Canaan, with biological necessity replacing divine judgment.

Few European writers applied this emerging racial ideology more rigidly than did Edward Long, and few approximated Long’s vicious racism. Yet, according to David Brion Davis, during the second half of the eighteenth century, fewer still exercised the comprehensive authority on questions of race that Long enjoyed.[10] In the History of Jamaica, published in 1774, Long popularized the notion that blacks were a distinct species, uniquely suited only for bondage. He compared his theory of black racial inferiority to the Copernican system, which, he maintained, had also initially appeared heretical and unorthodox, but which, in time, became generally accepted as offering the only explanation for observable phenomena. Long assumed the mantle of a careful scholar, a natural philosopher interested only in advancing scientific knowledge and understanding. He offered as credentials the residence of twelve years among blacks in Jamaica, which, he insisted, had provided him with countless opportunities for thoughtful scrutiny of their habits, conduct, and nature. He also displayed ample familiarity with all the leading ancient and modern authorities on race and slavery. His conclusion from years of observation, research, and study was that blacks were innately and permanently inferior to whites.

The “bestial fleece,” the “tumid nostrils,” and the “fetid smell” characteristic of all blacks to a greater or lesser extent rendered them loathsome creatures. In addition to their repulsive physical qualities, Long avowed that blacks did not possess rational minds. Incapable of comprehending simple ideas or even organizing the perceptions with which their senses furnished them, blacks lacked the inherent moral sense prerequisite for virtue. As a consequence, they could desire nothing more than food, drink, sex, leisure, and sleep. They would pursue these impulses without restraint, Long suggested, unless disciplined and coerced to engage in productive labor. Their languid natures had ensured that Africans made no progress for 2,000 years. The supposed accomplishments of ancient African civilizations were fictitious, Long wrote, for Africans were “a brutish, ignorant, idle, crafty, treacherous, bloody, thievish, mistrustful, and superstitious people.”[11] Long took a more favorable view of apes than he did of blacks. It was possible, he surmised, that apes could learn the rudiments of spoken language. In addition, he was convinced that apes could be taught to “perform a variety of menial domestic services…” and to conduct the “mechanic arts” as well as, or better than, any black.[12]

Obsessed with the possibility of sexual relations between apes and black women, Long affirmed that “from a natural impulse of desire, such as inclines an animal towards another of the same species, or which has a conformity in the organs of generation” blacks, and especially black women, shared with apes a “lasciviousness of disposition.” He felt certain that an orang-outang husband would bring no “dishonour to an Hottentot female.”[13] There was every reason to believe, in fact, that black women frequently admitted such animals to their embraces in the “genial soil of Afric, that parent of every thing [sic] that is monstrous in nature, where… the passions rage without controul; and the retired wilderness presents opportunity to gratify them without fear of detection!”[14]

Edward Long’s History of Jamaica represents not only an extreme version of the European prejudice against blacks. It also illustrates some of the common fallacies that have shaped racial ideology. Like many other Western thinkers in both Europe and the New World, Long assumed that race is an observable physical reality. It is not. Race, instead, is an idea. At the zenith of the Atlantic slave trade, both the slave merchants and their customers understood that the cargoes of the slave ships included Africans of vastly different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. To traders and planters alike, blacks did not constitute a single racial group. Slaveholding planters could discourse at length on the nuanced differences that existed among the Coromantees, Manidingoes, Foulahs, Congoes, Angolas, Eboes, Whydahs, Nagoes, Pawpaws, Gaboons, and others. Expert buyers and sellers of slaves distinguished members of these groups from one another by sight, and set prices according to the characteristics that were most and least desirable.

Ideas about skin color, like ideas about anything else, derived much of their meaning from context. It was the context in which Europeans encountered Africans that told them what traits to notice and emphasize and which ones to ignore or take for granted. Race is thus a much less fixed and much more flexible category than even now we may generally recognize or admit. In their earliest contacts with Africans, Europeans made use of whatever points of reference were readily at hand to assimilate and understand what, for them, was a radically new experience. The skin color of Africans became for Europeans the most evident sign by which to identify these unfamiliar and perhaps frightening people who inhabited a distant, mysterious, and exotic continent. Geography and the circumstances under which Europeans found Africans contributed as much to the development of the ideology of race as did scripture, folklore, superstition, and prejudice.

According to their racial ideology, Europeans saw themselves as unequivocally superior to Africans. The reality they experienced in their contacts with Africans was far more complex and ambiguous. European prejudice against blacks antedated, and doubtless made possible, the development of slavery. Racial prejudice helped to condition evolving Europeans perceptions of, and attitudes toward, blacks. But the experience of Europeans in dealing with Africans often contradicted the ideology.

Travelers, for example, who knew that Africans were diverse peoples with many gradations of skin color (reality) spoke exclusively of black Africans (ideology). Slave traders who enjoyed the civilized amenities that their African hosts provided (reality) spoke of savage Africans (ideology). Missionaries acquainted with both Muslim and Christian Africans (reality) spoke of pagan Africans (ideology). Planters who feared slave insurrection (reality) spoke of docile Africans (ideology). The ideology of race enabled Europeans to formulate ideas and to develop a language with which to understand and describe Africans. But that same ideology also prevented Europeans from appreciating what they themselves had experienced in their various encounters with Africans, whether in Africa itself or in the New World.

The Portuguese slave traders who did business with the African chieftains of the upper Guinea coast, for instance, came to terms with the sovereignty of these potentates. They had no choice but to do so if they wished to preserve genial, to say nothing of profitable, relations. The Portuguese accepted the political superiority that the Africans exercised, and learned to operate in a world that was alien to them, and that they did not dominate. Even if they considered themselves and other Europeans to be culturally, intellectually, and morally superior to the Africans, these Portuguese traders had to know that their present circumstances made nonsense of the assumption that blacks were easily manipulated, controlled, and subdued.

Perhaps it is both more accurate and more charitable to observe that Europeans simultaneously believed and did not believe in their own superiority. Most seem not even to have been aware of the contradiction. As are all human beings, the Europeans who enslaved Africans were capable at once of believing two ideas that, according to strict logic, were inconsistent and incompatible. But no slave trader who had to learn how to placate an African chief could in practice assume that all Africans were docile, primitive, or stupid.

Race is not a biological fact. It is an ideological construct and a historical reality. The foundation upon which racial differences purport to rest—the biological inequality and inferiority of some human beings in relation to others—is false. There is but one race: the human race. The most striking attributes of racial appearance can gradually be modified or radically altered by repeated instances of miscegenation. This conclusion does not make race unimportant, for all ideologies embody in thought and belief the social relations that justify the subordination of some human beings to others. But the reality of race, paradoxically, lies in appearances. To repeat: Race is not a fact of nature; it is a fact of history.

Racial ideology helped Europeans to make sense of their world. Like all ideologies, it did not provide them with a true picture of the world, only one that satisfied them for a time because it provided a workable interpretation of reality. John Atkins probably spoke for the majority of Europeans when he said that Africans were like the people one might expect to find on another planet. Europeans sought categories in which to situate blacks in an effort to comprehend and explain these strange creatures so obviously human and, at the same time, so visibly different from themselves.

According to the European worldview, blacks, in the end, were alternately savages who lacked a sense of piety and remorse or innocents endowed with a sense of purity and gentleness. For every noble savage whose simple virtue and happiness the world had not yet sullied, there was, in the Western imagination, a vicious brute prepared to commit the most heinous acts of immorality and barbarism. That neither vision was true did not matter. Europeans could uncover or invent evidence to support both interpretations, as suited their needs of the moment. Of greater import, these images of both the bestial and the noble savage were projections of Europeans’ most profound desires and fears, obscuring from them not only the reality of Africa and Africans, but also the conflicts raging in their own discordant minds.

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[1] John Atkins, A Voyage to Guienea, Brasil, and the West-Indies. . . . (London, 1735), 39; Jean Mocquet, Travels and Voyages into Africa, Asia, and America, the East and West-Indies, Syria, Jerusalem, and the Holy-Land, trans. by Nathaniel Pullen, (London, 1696), 44-45.

[2] Much has been written about the meaning of black skin, but perhaps the best starting point to examine the question remains Harry Levin’s classic study The Power of Blackness (New York, 1958).

[3] Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Vol. III (1646) in The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (London, 1928), 246-47; Richard Ligon, A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (London, 1673), 12.

[4] Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimes in Five Books, Book V, 718 (London, 1625).

[5] John G. Fee, An Anti-Slavery Manual Being an Examination, in the Light of the Bible, and of Facts, into the Moral and Social Wrongs of American Slavery, with a Remedy for the Evil (Maysville, KY, 1848), 19; Alexander Crummell, “The Negro Race Not Under a Curse: An Examination of Genesis IX.25,” in The Future of Africa, Being Addresses, Sermons, etc., etc., Delivered in the Republic of Liberia New York, 1862), 327-28.

[6] The extensive scholarly literature on the long and complicated history of the sin of Ham and the curse on Canaan includes Winthrop D. Jordan, Black Over White: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968), 35-37; Thomas V. Peterson, Ham and Japheth: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South (Metuchen, NJ, 1978); Stephen Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford, 2002); Sylvester Johnson, The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century Christianity (New York, 2004); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (Cambridge, UK, 2005), 521-27; David M. Goldenberg, Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham (Boston, 2017).

[7] See Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (Dallas, 1963), 15.

[8] Arthur O. Lovejoy’s classic study, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA, 1936, 1964) is useful and informative.

[9] See especially Buffon’s Natural History, Containing a Theory of the Earth, a General History of Man, of the Brute Creation. . . . (1797-1807), Vol. IV, 277-333.

[10] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, 1966), 459.

[11] Edward Long, The History of Jamaica; or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island. . . . (London 1774), Vol. II, 353-54.

[12] Ibid., 355.

[13] Ibid, 355, 359, 382-83.

[14] Ibid, 382-83.

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2 replies to this post
  1. It’s not race so much as culture. The Europeans have a culture that goes back thousands of years, and so do the Africans. It’s just that the cultures are very different.

  2. One group that is usually underplayed if not outright ignored in racial/ethnic studies and ideologies are identifiably “mixed” (multi-racial) peoples of all variations. Such individuals, I amongst them, really complicate the thought process and history of race. The greatest variable is the mixed associate with whatever and whomever we please in the long run. This fascinates me to no end, because there are innumerable ways the research can lead.

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