Racist ideas

As the slave trade developed, Europeans created a racist ideology which could be used to justify the trade. Africans were thought to be sub-human, uncivilised, and inferior to Europeans in every way. And as they were ‘not one of us’, they could be bought and sold. The development of racism is linked to the slave trade. The slave trade could not have continued without this ideology to justify it. Racism cannot be ignored in any study of the slave trade.

The English had equated blackness with death and evil centuries before they met any black people. Thus the first reaction to people with black skin was to assume that they were some form of devil or monster. From this, and from travellers’ tales, arose the stereotype of the African, as barbarous, prone to excessive sexual desire, lazy, untrustworthy and even cannibalistic. There were few who challenged this prejudiced view. Richard Ligon, in his book A true & exact history of the Island of Barbados, published in 1657, wrote against the popular view. He believed ‘that there are as honest, faithfull, and conscionable people amongst them, as amongst those of Europe’.

From about 1600, with the development of science in Europe, racism could be ‘proved’ scientifically. Scientists and philosophers like David Hume could state that Africans were ‘naturally inferior to the whites’. It was widely believed that Africans and Europeans had developed separately. Many, like Sir Thomas Herbert, writing in 1634, believed that Africans must be descended from apes and were part of a separate and inferior race. This was long before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which showed that all humans are part of the same species. In the 18th and 19th century, many white people campaigned for an end to the slave trade and for freedom for the slaves. But few of those white people believed in racial equality, that is equality between the black and white races.

In the 19th century, racist ideologies were strengthened by ‘fake’ sciences such as phrenology. It was believed that the shape of the skull reflected the character of the person. Phrenologists applied their theory to African skulls and classified all Africans as inferior to white races intellectually, culturally and morally. Phrenology showed Africans to be unsuited to work other than that supervised by white people. In the minds of most, this justified making Africans work as slaves.

The study of teleology looked at design in nature. This allowed men to argue that Africans were, by nature, suited to hard work but not to thinking. They were, therefore, obviously made to serve white people. “The Negro in general is a born slave” wrote Sir Harry Johnston, a British colonial administrator in Africa in the 1890s.

Anthropology, the study of mankind, looked at such things as the size of the brain and the physical appearance of people. Again, anthropologists could conclude that the African was inferior to the white man, a separate species more closely related to apes than to whites.

The English naturalist, Charles Darwin, developed a theory of evolution. It suggested that Europeans were related to Africans and that all humans were related to the apes. Whilst this upset the anthropological theories about separate species, other aspects of the evolutionary theory still ‘proved’ the superiority of the white races over all others. His theory saw the Anglo-Saxons, that is, the British, at the top of the evolutionary scale. The British were at the top of the family tree of the human race, as the most ‘civilised’ race. The African, as a ‘primitive’ race, was considered childlike and unintelligent. Such ‘inferior’ races were doomed to be either ruled by or destroyed by the ‘superior’ races. Survival of the fittest was the rule in Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The belief in the superiority of the British and European races fed the expansion of the empire. The British empire grew from the idea ‘that the British were the best race to rule the world’, a view expressed by Cecil Rhodes, the colonial administrator who founded the British colony
of Rhodesia, in Central Africa (now Zimbabwe).

These ‘scientific’ theories of the inferiority of the African were generally accepted by the British public. Racism was taken for granted. For example, books by G A Henty were seen as great reads for boys. His book By Sheer Pluck: a tale of the Ashanti war was written in 1884 and probably still available in school libraries until the middle of the 20th century. The boys reading it learned that black people are ‘just like children. They are always either laughing or quarelling. They are good-natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond… They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power.’

Black people living in Britain, as well as those living in their own countries under European colonial rule, had to cope with this racism. Racism has been and is central to the experience of black people in Britain, over the centuries.

With acknowledgement to Peter Fryer and his work on the history of black people in Britain in Staying Power.