Racist ideology was used to legitimize the slave trade, allowing it to flourish and endure. Did the Enlightenment contribute to this or help defeat it ?
Did racism against blacks begin with the slave trade? Did the Enlightenment, the broad rationalist current of thought developed up in 18th century Europe, endorse racial exploitation or did it give birth to the movement to abolish slavery?
,,The buying and selling of slaves were ancient customs in Europe, " says French philosopher Louis Sala-Molins. "Since the time of Aristotle, there had been the notion in the West of two kinds of people, the free and the unfree. Trading in slaves flourished in medieval Europe, mainly supplying the Muslim rim of the Mediterranean. The word 'slave' came from 'slavus' because Europeans went looking for slaves on the Balkan frontiers of Christendom, among the Slav peoples. But with the transatlantic slave trade, things switched from this relatively local scale and took on an 'industrial' dimension.
"Racism against blacks existed well before the slave trade. There was the curse on Canaan and the descendence from black Africa of he who was condemned by Noah. In the Bible, blacks were doomed to be slaves.
When, for example, the Portuguese began navigating the African coasts, the pope authorized them to take Africans as slaves. In this way, the purchase of people and racism became intertwined in the West.
THEY ARE PEOPLE!
With the Enlightenment of the 18th century came the first attempts at anthropological classification, which relegated blacks to the lowest grade of the human species. But there was also the great movement which led to the French Declaration of Human Rights and the Citizen. which was mostly based on the defence of those peoples oppressed by Europe.
"The rationalist movement developed as a break with religious thought, " says Sala-Molins. "The Church debated the matter at length and concluded that Indians and blacks were human beings and had souls. But the dominant language used then was scientific: it was in this period that the first anthropological categories appeared.
"The work of Georges Buffon (the French naturalist, philosopher and writer
1707-1788), had considerable impact because it was the yardstick of the time, There had always been classification, but Buffon made it 'scientific'. Categories were created because the stories of returning travellers showed there were stages in ‘becoming a human being'. This included the idea that the white race was the most perfect and that blacks were right at the bottom, close to the apes.
It Was even thought at the time that blacks had sex with apes, a notion which surfaced again recently with the AIDS epidemic.
"The concept of human rights grew out of the spectacle of the conquest of the Americas, " says French historian Florence Gauthier. "The Enlightenment was inspired by knowledge from the 16th century on unprecedented crimes against Indians and blacks and the idea of defending the rights of these people and of humanity as a whole.
"The Enlightenment was also a revolt against European domination of the world. This is why blacks latched on to it: they
knew it concerned them. They rose up with copies in hand of the Declaration of Human Rights and the Citizen. "
But as so often, events were caused more by economic change than by a movement of ideas. The slave revolts were partly inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment but in practice were made possible by changes in colonial society.
"In the 18th century, a class of mulattos grew up on the plantations, " says Gauthier. "Some were freed men with rights of inheritance and property. These were the ftee coloureds'. They took charge of plantations and competed with the poorer colonists, who had a hard time in the towns.
"This gave rise to a whole range ofprohibitions concerning professions, dress and other aspects of life, which foreshadowed the discrimination which has endured into the 20th century. The whites waged war on the free coloureds, seizing their land and killing them off. When the slaves saw their two masters fighting each other they knew their chance for rebellion had come ".
ANOTHER COLONIAL SYSTEM
The abolitionist movements were likewise less the result of generosity than of the economic interests of the colonial powers.
"Abolition was strongest in England Why was that? Were they more enlightened? " asks Sala-Molins. "Not at all. The English went to India and saw that what was produced on the American plantations couldjust as well be produced there ".
"Europe simply chose another colonial system, " confirms Gauthier. Instead of displacing people, they simply set up their production systems locally.
Finally, notes Sala-Molins, "if you compare what the Spaniards said about the Indians in the l6th century, what the Europeans said about the blacks in the 18th and what the French said about North Africans in the 19th or even the 20th, it's as ifthey'd copied each other Thenon-whites are supposedly all the same: lazy, drunk and good-for-nothing.
"Societies notoriously develop ideologies which distrust, keep at a distance and reject those they need the most for their material success.