We Can Gain a Better Understanding of Contemporary Racialised Relations by Studying Europe’s Colonial Past

The tension existing between different ethnic groups in Europe and America has a long history. Nationalist political groups often draw on the imagery of a once great country, which has been diminished through its incorporation of other ethnic groups, and seek a return to the chimera of an unpolluted, white, supreme land. In their particular take on history it is not recognised that there have been black people in Europe for over 2000 years.

In fact, although there has always been a certain amount of European distrust of people’s of darker shade1, the common racist preconceptions, fears and ideals exhibited in contemporary Europe can largely be traced back to the later part of the seventeenth century and the advent of European colonialisation. For the purpose of this essay I will draw mainly on the effect of British imperialism on racialised relations in Britain, as this is the country with which I am most familiar and to which I have the greatest access to information.

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However colonialisation has given rise to similar racialised relations throughout Europe and in the countries, which these European nations once ruled. The birth of modern racism came about through the slave trade. Racism was used to reconcile the economic interests of the owners of sugar plantations with their apparently un-Christian treatment of the slaves forced to work on them. Christian missionaries saw Africans as heathens who were in need of conversion to Christianity. The planters in the West Indies shared a widespread belief that if their slaves were baptized this would mean setting them free (Fryer 1984 p. 46). In response to this threat they argued that black people were beasts without souls to save. Whilst the church did not contest the practice of slavery, many Christians were appalled by this attitude, leading one minister of religion to remark that plantation owners ‘know no God but money, nor religion but profit’ (in Fryer, 1984 p. 148). Racism began to be supported by some eminent thinkers of the time such as John Locke and David Hulme, whose work made it respectable to argue that black people were naturally inferior to whites.

Africans were generally seen as savage, unintelligent, childish, dirty, libidinous, treacherous and of weak moral character. In this way the first seeds of racism were planted in the British psyche and the basis for white supremacist ideology was founded. Slavery was abolished in 1833, but by this point racism had become established, and was an integral part of the justification of the expansion of the British Empire. Colonial foreign policy was accompanied by pseudo-scientific racist writing in the fields of anthropology, phrenology, history and social Darwinism.

Black people were seen to be primitive and have inferior levels of intellect and morality to Europeans. Physical characteristics distinguished them from white people and suggested atavistic qualities. They had little native culture or civilization and it was inevitable that they should be overtaken and ruled by the more advanced Europeans. This ideology not only helped justify the expansion of the empire but was also influenced by the great arrogance that the acquisition of such an empire bred into the British psyche.

The British had become ‘the greatest and most highly civilized people that the world had ever seen and the acknowledged leaders of the human race’2. Half the world map was painted pink, signifying it as British territory and there were ten times as many members of the British Empire as there were native British. It seemed to many that ‘No European can mix with non-Christian races without feeling his moral superiority over them. ‘(Sir Francis Young husband)’3. The apparently unstoppable spread of the Empire convinced many (if they needed any more convincing) that the British were inherently superior to all other nations and peoples.

This national arrogance has since been diminished by the fall of empire, but it harks back to a past still within living memory and is still filtered down from parent to child. British patriotism is intimately connected with the memory of colonialisation, with songs like ‘Rule Britannia’ being routinely sung at any national events. The continued celebration of our once dominant position in the world is also a celebration of our oppression of the peoples of our colonies, and is therefore inflammatory to racial tensions.

Most of the wealth of pseudo-scientific racist literature produced during the reign of the British Empire is now shrugged off as an embarrassment in our history. Anyone who wrote in such a manner today would be unlikely to make it to print. However many of these authors were amongst the intellectual elite of the period and have made great contributions to science and the humanities, which are studied to this day. John Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) is the ‘primary classic of systematic empiricism’, yet it built the foundation for the racist theory of intellectual gradation.

Locke’s successor David Hulme was also a great empiricist but was openly racist. Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ believed that black people were trapped in a permanent ‘childhood of intellect’. The dominant note in British historiography before 1914 was justification and defence of colonialism and was profoundly tainted with racism4. Edward Augustus Freeman, once Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, was captivated by the idea of an Aryan race.

The great constitutional historian William Stubbs saw Britain as representing ‘clear sighted justice and living sympathy with what is good and sound in the progress of the world’5. According to John Kenyon ‘his shadow still lies across the Oxford School of Modern History in 1980’ and ‘some of his most dubious assumptions are still at the roots of our historical thinking. ‘6 With literature laced with racism forming the basis for much we know, it is inevitable that through education racial differences will be reinforced.

David Killington’s 1977 study of ‘African history in the classroom’ revealed that: ‘Africa is reduced to an anthropological zoo. It is not uncommon to illustrate lessons about early man by using film of present day hunting and gathering societies, a strategy which can lead children … to conclude that Africa is still in the stone age and that there is a hierarchy of mankind. ‘7 Although such a situation is unlikely to arise in the modern classroom, it is such knowledge that informed the leaders of the country and much of the working population when they were children.

Books studied in English literature often date from colonial times and contain undertones of racial prejudice, as do popular children’s novels such as the Doctor Dolittle stories and some of Enid Blyton’s work. 8 Such material is ‘as hurtful to the young black reader as it is harmful to the young white reader’9 One great effect of British imperialism was that it brought, for the first time, ethnic groups such as blacks and Asians into contact with the British population as a whole.

It became particularly fashionable to have a black manservant and many households employed Indian and black servants. In times of industrial prosperity black workers were imported from the West Indies and other colonies. This sudden introduction of large amounts of members of other racial groups into the country provoked a fearful reaction to both the possibility of racial contamination, the possibility of these people taking the jobs of British born whites and their potential for rebellion. Philip Thicknesse wrote in 1778 that, London abounds with an incredible number of these black men… and in every town… are to be seen a little race of mulattoes… If they are to live amongst us, they ought by some very severe law to be compelled to marry only amongst themselves, and to have no criminal intercourse whatever with people of other complexions. ‘ This worry about the ‘contamination’ of the British gene pool became an obsession of the propagandists of racism. However it was mainly the sexual threat of Black men taking British women that was their concern.

The pseudo-scientific anthropological and phrenological justifications for the belief that white people should rule black people claimed that black people were primitive, uncivilized and closer to animals than white people. Fanon (1967 p. 165) suggests that the white, civilized man retains an irrational longing for ‘unusual areas of sexual license, of orgiastic scenes, of unpunished rapes, of unrepressed incest. ‘ As he sees the black man as uncivilized he projects these desires onto him as if he had them. This was combined with the perception that Black men are better-endowed and better lovers than white men10.

In this way the ideology used to support Imperialism created racial jealousy. By creating an image of the black man as the negation of all the characteristics valued by civilization, the image was also endowed with characteristics envied by our less civilized inclinations. According to Etiemble11 it is this racial jealousy that produces the crimes of racism, and these stereotypes of black male sexuality are still prevalent in society today. There was also jealousy of the positions in the labour market that blacks that were brought to Britain occupied.

In 1764 a writer calling himself Anglicanus wrote a letter to the London Chronicle, saying of black people that, ‘As they fill the paces of so many of our own people, we are by this means depriving so many of them of the means of getting their bread, and thereby decreasing our native population in favour of a race… whose uses cannot be so various and essential as those of white people. ’12 This shows a concern for the impact of ethnic groups on the labour market at a time when growing industrialisation meant that jobs were plentiful.

However in 1919, following demobilization after the First World War, the tension between blacks and Asians vying for limited jobs resulted in riots throughout the country lasting over a month. With the decline in industry witnessed in modernity it is inevitable that such concerns have grown amongst working people. The prevalence to this day of an attitude that white people should come first in line for jobs when they are limited amongst parts of the working class may be influenced by Labour’s initial stance on Imperialism. The Socialist ideal of equality for all workers was not extended to black people.

Labour MPs’ lack of interest in the Empire led them to ignore the condition of its subject peoples. The Empire was regarded as good for the British economy and therefore good for the British (i. e. white) working classes. It was only amongst a minority of the British working class that authorities stance that British imperialism was bringing peace and civilization to backward peoples was challenged. It was these early concerns about the number of people from the colonized countries who were entering Britain that sowed the first seeds of the suggestion of restricting immigration.

In 1773 a writer in the London Chronicle, fearing their effect on the stability of the country, urged that black people be expelled from Britain and no more allowed in. 13 Although there was no restriction on immigration during the peak of the British Empire, immigration was organized along the lines of the empire so it was along these lines it was first restricted. Colonialisation had granted British passports to many people and their access to Britain had traditionally been unrestricted. This situation was changed with a series of pieces of legislation starting in the 1960’s.

Colonialisation linked Britain to many more countries and set up a network of transport enabling immigration and emigration to take place on a much larger scale than it ever had before. It was as a result of this that immigration policy was first introduced and it is therefore useful to have knowledge of this in order to understand contemporary concerns about immigration. Some of the stereotypes first created in the era of Imperialism may be seen to contribute to the racial conflict between black people and the police today. Black people were seen to be morally inferior to white people.

Winwood Reade paints a typical picture of the attitude to black people prevalent in the nineteenth century, saying ‘The typical Negro, unrestrained by moral laws, spends his days in sloth and his nights in debauchery. He smokes haschich till he stupefies his senses, or falls into convultions; he abuses children; stabs the poor brute of a woman whose hand keeps him from starvation; and makes a trade in his own offspring. ’14 Ever since the first black people came from the colonies they have been viewed to be more prone to commit crime than the rest of the community.

Maureen Cain (1973) found that policemen generally believed that ‘niggers’ were ‘in the main… pimps and layabouts, living off what we pay in taxes’. 15There have been many instances of complaints against the police for harassing black communities as they perceive them to be more likely to be involved in criminal activity. It is a widespread belief in our society that we are at greater risk of criminal victimization from black people than we are from whites. In conclusion we can certainly better understand contemporary racialised relations through studying Europe’s colonial past.

Racism was created as a justification of slavery in the colonies and then later used to justify imperial rule. Through science and literature colonial racism developed into a national institution and our past dominance of the countries and peoples of Africa and India is still intimately connected with our sense of national pride. Racist ideology was so firmly imbedded into so many British institutions that it still affects the way people of ethnic minorities are viewed by white people today, as it affects the way ethnic minorities view white people. Long after the material conditions that originally gave rise to racist ideology disappeared, these dead ideas went on gripping the minds of the living. ‘

Many people still believe that white people should be given priority in te labour market, and despite the fact that many black and Asian people are the second or third generation to be born here, the cries for them to ‘go home’ still sound. In schools and in newspapers people were taught that black people were primitive, unintelligent, lazy, libidinous, treacherous, mischievous and immoral and, as Colin Holmes observes, ‘once formed, stereotypes tend to display massive resilience’. 7 It is also useful to study colonialism when looking at the history of immigration as it was as a result of our contacts with the colonies that Britain first felt the need to restrict entry to the country. This issue has been particularly relevant over the last couple of years with increasing numbers of people seeking asylum in Britain. In short, all racialised relations in Britain are, directly or indirectly, a result of colonialisation, or can be understood better through its study.