The Roots of European Racism Lie in the Slave Trade, Colonialism

There is a view that discussions about modern Africa should be forward-looking. They should be about trade, entrepreneurship, expanding markets, Chinese investment and the commercial and cultural dynamism that undoubtedly characterises many of the continent’s 55 nations. This future-facing philosophy is an admirable attempt to free the spirit and imagination of the continent from the weight of its own history and the legacies of colonialism.


While there is much to commend this apparent pragmatism it is, perhaps, more viable in Lagos and Kinshasa than in London or Paris. Europe’s image of Africa, although changing fast, is too firmly tethered to history to be easily or quickly recalibrated. To historians, who inevitably take the long view, the modern relationship between Europe and Africa is merely the current chapter in an enormous book.

For much of the period from the 15th century till now, during which Europeans and Africans have been connected through trade, empire and migration, both forced and voluntary, Europe has viewed the people of Africa through the distorting veil of racism and racial theory. In the British case much of the jumble of stereotypes, pseudo-science and wild conjecture that coalesced to form racism arose from the political battles fought over the slave trade and slavery, during the last decades of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th. The men who set out to defend slavery assembled a vast arsenal of new claims and old theories about black people, which they then codified, refined and disseminated through books, pamphlets, cartoons and speeches.

That propaganda campaign, along with the institution of British slavery itself, was ultimately defeated by the moral energy of the abolitionist campaign, and by the determination of the slaves of the Caribbean to resist their enslavement, yet the ideas about the nature of African peoples and the cultures of Africa that had been marshalled by the pro-slavery lobby lived on. Some, in more subtle forms, are still with us today.

Recent debates about slavery in Britain and the United States have understandably focused on the toxic legacies those systems bequeathed to the black peoples of the Caribbean and the US, the descendants of the slaves. What is sometimes overlooked is that the racial ideas of the pro-slavery lobby were also aimed at Africans in their home continent. The impact of Atlantic slavery on Africa can be measured not just in terms of underdevelopment and depopulation, but also in the way in which the continent came to be imagined in Europe in the post-slavery era, during which all but two of Africa’s nations were colonised by the competing European powers.

The book that, arguably, did the most to disseminate racial ideas about Africans was written by a man who never set foot on African soil. Edward Long was a slave owner and the son of a slave owner, his family having been in Jamaica since the middle of the 17th century. His ideas about black people and Africa were widely accepted as being rigorous and scientific, although Long had no scientific training. The book that made him famous, his History of Jamaica (1774), was not a history book but rather a strange hybrid; part travel guide, part discussion of British colonial rule and economics in the Caribbean, and part political score-settling. But it is also the classic text of 18th-century European pseudo-scientific racism.

Its key sections are Long’s vitriolic denouncements of Africans as irredeemably inferior and perhaps not even human. Despite his obvious self-interest, the fact that he had spent 12 years in the Caribbean gave Long’s views a supposed authority that goes some way to explaining why his ideas had such longevity.

Though lacking any first-hand experience, he dismissed the continent as backwards, concluding that it was the source of “every thing that is monstrous in nature”. Long’s racism was flexible enough to make the transition from being a defence of slavery to a justification for colonialism: he was a vital strand in the connective tissue that links the history of slavery to that of colonialism. Echoes of Long’s most venomous passages can be heard in books written by men of later generations who did venture to Africa; their views of the African societies they encountered were contaminated by Long and other racial theorists before their ships had even landed.

Of the many ideas and theories that seeped out of the debates around slavery, the one that still casts a shadow over the image of Africa is the notion that tyranny, war and chaos are the natural condition of the continent. Long asserted that Africa was so barbaric and chaotic that Africans were better off as slaves, since slavery saved them from the worse fates that, he claimed, would otherwise have consumed them in their homelands.

That idea was generated by men who were attempting to justify their trade in human beings, yet today there are still well-meaning, progressive-minded people, in Europe and in Africa, who speculate as to whether democracy, the rule of law and human rights can ever properly take root in Africa. Such views are testimony to the power of history and the potency of the race idea.

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