The modern history of the Caribbean has been shaped to a large extent by racism. Beginning during the European colonial system, the genocide of the region's Indigenous Peoples, the enslavement of Africans, and the indenture of Indians have all been clear and brutal manifestations of this racism. However, there is still great disagreement concerning the origin of this racist thought. Although European in origin, it is still debated whether racist ideology was the catalyst for genocide, enslavement and colonization in the Caribbean, or if it was largely an invention used as a convenient excuse for these atrocities after they had begun. The debate centers around two opposing interpretations of the rise of imperialism and African enslavement in the Caribbean as either primarily an economic or socio-cultural phenomenon. By examining the evolution of European ideas of 'race' and their relationship with colonization and enslavement, the origin of the articulation of racism in the colonial Caribbean may become clearer.
If racism is defined in the broadest of possible terms as the recognition of differences between certain peoples and consequently treating people differently because of these differences, then it may be said that nearly every human society on earth exhibits a certain degree of racism. However, in the case of European contact with the outside world in the fifteenth century, this racism was accompanied by an assumption of superiority and the belief in a 'right to rule' over supposedly inferior peoples. This concept helped to consolidate a powerful European Christian white identity in relation to the rest of the world. Enslavement and imperialism were also enormously successful in catapulting Europe to the forefront of a new world economy.
Orlando Patterson notes, "There is nothing notably peculiar about the institution of slavery."1 The process of enslavement has existed within and between various human societies for millennia. Methods of enslavement have varied over time in different regions of the world, and occasionally before the trans-Atlantic trade this servitude was associated with 'race'. In order to make the process possible within the social constructs of the societies in which it has existed, the enslaved group has often been denigrated as in some way deserving of their bondage. However, modern ideas of 'race' and 'racism' arose during the emergence of the particularly brutal European enslavement of Africans. Therefore, it is necessary to identify how European attitudes toward race shaped the process of enslavement in the Caribbean and how those attitudes evolved in relation to the progression of the slave/plantation system.
Historians disagree concerning the impact of Medieval European views of Africans on subsequent relations between the two continents. After explaining "the powerful impact which the Negro's color made upon Englishmen", Winthrop Jordan explains that for Englishmen, even before contact with Africans, "Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion."2To Medieval Europeans, Africa south of the Sahara was said to have people with multiple heads, one eye, ten eyes or various other fantastical features.3 James H. Sweet identifies certain derogatory ideas of black-skinned Africans as inferior peoples, which Christian Iberians had inherited from neighbouring Muslims.4 However, a Spanish map dated around 1375 depicts a noble-looking king of Mali on a throne holding a gold nugget. Other early European artistic depictions of Africans were equally non-judgmental.5 As Jordan notes, "Initially, English contact with Africans did not take place primarily in a context which prejudged the Negro as a slave, at least not as a slave of Englishmen. Rather, Englishmen met Negroes merely as another sort of men."6
Generally, however, although the trans-Saharan trade had linked Europe and sub-Saharan Africa for centuries through Arab traders, Europeans had very little knowledge of the people who lived there. This encounter with 'difference' was a mutual experience for both the European explorers/traders and the various Africans who greeted them. In the Americas, the situation was similar. The newness of these encounters with other peoples, and the ignorance of the 'other' that went with it, is evidenced by Columbus's assumption that he was in India.7 As Jordan's quotation indicates, Europeans had no previously held ideas of Africans as a 'race of natural slaves', or even as necessarily inherently inferior human beings, aside from their ignorance of Christianity. Although Europeans viewed Africans as heathens for their lack of Christianity, they felt similarly about the peoples of India, the Middle East and China, while still maintaining a great admiration of these societies, as they did for many in Africa and even the Americas at first.8
However, despite the admiration that European travelers from Marco Polo to Bartolomé De Las Casas had for various societies outside of Europe, these explorers and their rulers at home assumed a European, Christian 'right' over these foreign peoples. Where their military might was strong enough, this took the form of outright colonialism, such as in the Americas. Where they did not have this power, they entrenched themselves in 'trading forts' along the coast, as in much of West Africa and the Swahili Coast. Such expansion did not recognize the forms of government that were already in place, and treated the peoples of these newly conquered territories as sub-human. This idea of the 'right to rule' seems to have been inherited from the expansionist tradition that had defined Christian Iberian society during the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from what Christians viewed as "their" Christian homeland. Even those who were impressed by the Indigenous societies of the Americas and Africa believed that the paganism of these peoples justified their subjugation under Christian authority.9
The Crusades of the eleventh century provide an excellent example of the forces that led to imperialism and how ideas of racism were articulated. The enemy in these conquests was Islam, and the conflict was both a political 'reclamation' of the "Holy Land" and a result of the ideological/theological differences between Christians and Muslims. However, as Frederick Case notes, "In order to produce enthusiasm for the wars of conquest in the Holy Land, Christian rulers of Europe found it expedient to negate the humanity of their far-off adversary."10 He continues, "When negation of a race is accompanied by conquest, colonization and prolonged enslavement of that race, the conquerors, colonizers and enslavers elaborate theories of racial and cultural superiority in order to justify the degeneration in their own moral values."11 In a Caribbean context, this argument holds that the enslavement and imperial conquest brought by Europeans to the Caribbean was not in origin motivated by racism, but in order to justify the act, the humanity of the adversary was negated, and only later were theories of racial superiority clearly articulated to explain and justify what had occurred.
It is necessary to examine the process of colonization and enslavement in the Caribbean in these terms. Although Eric Williams' economic reductionist argument has been shown to have greatly oversimplified the forces that led to the enslavement of Africans, it is true that the economic considerations were what motivated European aristocrats to find forced labour in the first place. In Capitalism and Slavery, Williams examines the types of forced labour used by the European elite in the Caribbean. Indigenous Peoples, Africans and Europeans were all used as forced labourers of one form or another in the sixteenth century Caribbean. Although the poor Europeans who were brought to the Caribbean, like Indians several centuries later, were officially "indentured" and thus technically free after a certain period of service, Williams argues that they were treated with the same barbaric harshness as their African and Indigenous counterparts in the sixteenth century.12 Williams concludes: "Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thus been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery."13
Williams' argument, however, does not critically examine the social and cultural forces that defined the limits of exploitation for European aristocrats. Europeans were never officially considered "slaves" in the Caribbean, as Africans were from the beginning. Europeans who were indentured in the Caribbean were also officially considered to have committed an offence that merited their indentureship. Although this was often not the case, all Indigenous Peoples were subject to the encomienda system under Spanish rule because they were Indigenous, and for no other reason. Although Africans were enslaved in various parts of Africa as criminals or captives of war, the Europeans who purchased them were never concerned with this. In fact, they often intentionally caused conflicts in West Africa and even sent out raiders to kidnap people into slavery.14 This racial policy was justified as the spreading of Christianity, but in practice it was a system of enslavement based on 'race' with little to no attempt at conversion except at Christian missions.15
Most importantly, the entire process of European imperialist expansion in the Americas reveals an assumption on the part of both the explorers and the governments they represented that they had a 'right' to the land and labour of the peoples whom they met. This assumption was a supremely arrogant philosophy that had emerged from the tradition of the Crusades and the reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. The reconquista was primarily a war for territory, and according to Mark Meyerson, the rhetoric of 'holy conquest' was largely brought by northern Europeans who had fought in the Crusades and came to aid the Christians in Spain. Many Iberians, both Christian and Muslim, fought as mercenaries on both sides of this conflict.16 However, whether justified by 'holy conquest', racial superiority, or just selfish expansionism, the concept of a Christian European 'right' over the rest of the non-Christian world guided both the reconquista and the conquest of the Americas.
While European concepts of 'right to rule' and the history of expansionism and frontierism in Spain made the conquest of the Americas possible, the process of enslaving Africans was also made possible by certain European social and cultural norms. Indigenous Peoples were the victims of the first attempt by Europeans to enslave others for work in the Americas. As the genocidal policy of forced labour and the spread of deadly diseases decimated the Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean, "humanitarians" such as Las Casas looked for alternative forced labour supplies. Las Casas was horrified at the loss of so many people whom he viewed as "particularly receptive to learning and understanding the truths of our Catholic faith."17 Thus, the enslavement of Europeans would do little to 'improve' the world through Christianity, because Europeans themselves were already Christians. So, as C.L.R. James wrote, "Las Casas… hit on the expedient of importing the more robust Negroes from a populous Africa."18
Winthrop Jordan argues that Europeans began to associate Africans with enslavement and Europeans with freedom as they attempted to define themselves as "Christian, civilized, free men."19 In order to overcome this crisis in identity brought about by their "discovery" of peoples so unlike themselves, argues Jordan, they found it necessary to equate Africans with savagery, heathenism, blackness and slavery and themselves with civilization, Christianity, whiteness and freedom. In portraying this transformation as an almost purely socio-cultural process, he takes the opposite view of Eric Williams who argues that it was completely due to the economics of forced labour in the rise of the capitalism. Chinua Achebe also holds an interpretation closer to that of Williams: "This perception problem ["of alienness that Africa has come to represent for Europe"] is not in its origin a result of ignorance, as we are sometimes inclined to think.… It was in general a deliberate invention devised to facilitate two gigantic, historical events: the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa by Europe."20
The rise in the enslavement of Africans and Indigenous Peoples and the decline in the indenture of Europeans was made possible by the consolidation of Christian, white, civilized, free European identity. However, as the early history of the colonial period in the Caribbean illustrates, the European elite were in search of a forced labour supply from their first encounter with the Indigenous Peoples of the region. After the decimation of the original inhabitants of the islands, both Africans and Europeans were used as indentured labourers. Orlando Patterson described how initially "there were few marked differences in the conceptions of black and white servitude, the terms 'slave' and 'servant' being used synonymously. The power of the master over both black and white servants was near total: both could be whipped and sold."21 However, as both Williams and Jordan illustrate, the profitability of the African slave trade coincided with a rise in the consolidation of distinct new European identities in relation to the rest of the world. Thus, the economic expedience of African slavery allowed for European indenture to end as the entire system became justified by theories of racial superiority.
In this way, it was necessary for Europeans to initiate a superiority/inferiority dialectic of a supposed "White" race over a supposed "Black" race. Alta Jablow and Dorothy Hammond support this by examining how, at this time, British literature by travelers to Africa "shifted from almost indifferent matter-of-fact reports of what the voyagers had seen to judgmental evaluation of the Africans."22 The fact of servitude in the Caribbean had already existed, but the denigration of Africans in comparison to Europeans allowed Europeans to justify the system while serving their own economic interests and creating an identity for themselves of free civilized white Christians.
In order to understand colonization and enslavement in the Caribbean in terms of 'race' and 'racism', it is necessary to examine the various definitions or explanations of these terms. While a dictionary definition of biological race clearly refutes that there is any such thing as scientific 'races' within humankind, there clearly is a social construct of race that developed during the colonization of the Caribbean and the enslavement of Indigenous Peoples and Africans. Frederick Case, drawing on the work of A.G. Bailey, defines "racial differences" as "those hereditary physical characteristics that remain constant irrespective of changes in climate, topography, or social and cultural environment. Racial differences are therefore essentially superficial."23 In a section of the epilogue to White Over Black entitled "Note On the Concept of Race", Jordan gives a similar, if more scientific, definition.24 However, Orlando Patterson has discussed how these physical differences are highly problematic since phenotypic and genetic differences within so-called 'races' are often greater than the differences between them. Thus, the concept of race seems to refer to the socio-cultural identity of phenotypically arbitrary groups of people. This definition supports the idea that the rise of the concept of 'races' coincided with the consolidation of European identities that sought to prove the existence of a superior white Christian race and inferior heathen dark races. Although Patterson states that "the focus of this 'we-they' distinction was at first religious, later racial," the concept of 'race' is difficult to distinguish from any such "we-they distinction." Therefore, the shift did not go from religious to racial, but from "Christian versus non-Christian" to "White versus Black".
Though Williams, Jordan and Patterson do not directly define "racism", the term is enormously important. In his discussion of racism, Frederick Case states,
The use of racial difference as a means of obscuring ethno-cultural diversity is the ultimate in stereotyping. The physical appearance of the individual becomes the sum of all moral, cultural and social values. Racism deprives the individual, and entire groups, of those singularities that render them dynamic elements of growth in order to produce a wildly distorted image based on prejudice. I use the term in its full semantic value signifying a pre-judgement made before or outside of the experience of a person or situation.25 This interpretation identifies the concept of 'racism' with "physical appearance", which is highly problematic given that within groups that are often considered 'races', physical appearance often varies more than between races. However, in the context of the emergence of racism, these "racial differences" described by Case refer to the concepts of "White" and "Black" peoples. This definition, then, does not recognize as racism the initial European denigration of Africans and Indigenous Peoples for not being Christian. If Orlando Patterson's statement is correct that initially the "we-they distinction" was religious and only later became racial, then, according to Case's definition, racism only emerged after imperialism and enslavement had been enacted in the name of Christianity.
As dangerous as it is to accept such sources, a dictionary definition of "racism" gives a different picture. Webster's New American Dictionary defines "racism" as "a belief that some races are by nature superior to others." Their definition of a "race" is "a family, tribe, people, or nation of the same stock."26 This interpretation indicates that if Europeans identified themselves within a Christian "nation", their idea of Christian superiority was indeed a form of racism. Under such a definition, European ideas of the inherent superiority of Christians was racism from the beginning. However, according to Case's interpretation, racism did not emerge until the shift was made from religious to racial identity, which only occurred with the rise of the enslavement of Africans. Indeed, in the early sixteenth century, Africans who had converted to Christianity and visited Europe were often treated with great respect, while those who did not convert were often scorned.27
As could be expected, the definitions of terms such as "race" and "racism" are central to identifying the point at which these concepts emerged. The question that I set out to examine was whether racist ideology was the catalyst for enslavement and colonization in the Caribbean, or if it was largely an invention used as an excuse for these atrocities after they had begun. Given the varying interpretations of "racism", this question is not easily answered. In order to arrive at a sufficient solution, it will be necessary to refine an understanding of "racism" and fully examine the process of the European articulation of superiority over the rest of the world.
1 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. (p. vii)