The Origin of Racism

The Origin of Racism

Debay Tadesse

Tadesse DebayIt is now an accepted fact that Africa is the birthplace of Man and Human Societies and the birthplace of civilisation. Nonetheless, for a very long time European academicians and historians denied Africa any achievement. They argued first that the Africans were sub-human creatures not capable of building any form of civilisation. However, these Europeans came later to accept the humanity of the African but as a primitive man without past or future. Why did the Europeans hold these extreme views about Africa and the Africans? Why were Africans considered sub-human and primitive?

The Slave Trade

These views were the product of two eras: The era of the Atlantic Slave trade (16th to the 19th century) and the era of European colonisation of Africa (19th to 20th century). The era of the Atlantic Slave Trade witnessed the forceful removal of millions of Africans to be sold into slavery in the New World where they worked in mining industries and the agricultural plantations1 that capitalists of Europe developed there. Indeed, the enslavement of Africans grew rapidly to become the most dominant factor in the economic system of Europe so much so that Europe owed its subsequent prosperity and power to the labor of these African victims of slavery. Henceforth, the Europeans became interested in the African as a commodity, and as chattel. The African was thus seen as sub-human, an animal that worked under the whip for the European master.

It was during the period of the Slave Trade and later in the nineteenth century that more than one hundred books about Africa and Africans appeared in Europe. The authors of these books, many of whom were slavers themselves, had a vested interest in the continuation of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Therefore, their biased writings bristled with stereotypes and myths about Africans that they deliberately invented. For example, the slave trader, John Houston, wrote that the Africans

exactly resemble their fellow creatures and natives, the monkeys.

Even the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, described the African as “naturally inferior to the white.” A summary of these views was given by the German philosopher, Hegel, in the famous Jena lectures (Berlin 1830), wherein he declared that the Africans were sub-human and thus had no history.

Canaan’s children

Yet these Europeans were not ignorant of the African past and culture. In fact the Axum civilisation in Ethiopia, civilisation of the Ghana, Mali, and Songhay empires in West Africa and the civilisation of Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa were very familiar to Europeans, but they deliberately suppressed all information that pointed to African civilisations and achievements.

The attitude of Europeans towards Africa and its people during the era of the slave trade can be captured in the quotes below:

William Bosman: in his book, ‘A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea’ (1704):

They tell us that in the beginning God created Black as well as white men, and they tell us that God having created these two sets of men, offered two sorts of gifts, gold and the knowledge of reading and writing. Giving the blacks the first election they chose gold, and left the knowledge of letters to the whites. God granted their request, but being incensed at their avarice, resolved that the whites should forever, be their masters, and that they were obliged to wait on them as their slaves.”

From a map published in Paris in 1761 we read:

It is true that the center of the continent is filled with burning sands, savage beasts and almost inhabited deserts. The scarcity of water forces the different animals to come together to the same place to drink. It happens that finding themselves together at a time when they are in heat, they have intercourse with another, paying little regard to the difference between species. Thus are produced those monsters which are to be found there in greater numbers than in any other part of the world.

David Hume enlightenment philosopher wrote in 1768:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the white. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white.”

6th Century A.D. Jewish interpretation of Genesis:

Now I cannot beget the fourth son whose children I would have ordered to serve you and your brothers. Therefore, it must be Canaan, your first born, whom they enslave. And since you have disobeyed me doing ugly things in the blackness of night, Canaan children shall be born ugly and black. Moreover, because you twisted your head around to see my nakedness, your children hair shall be twisted in kinks and their eyes red. Again, because lips jested at my misfortune, they shall swell. And because you neglected my nakedness, they shall go naked and their male members shall be shamefully elongated. Men of this race are called Negroes. Their forefather, Canaan, commanded them to love theft and fornication; to be banded together in hatred of their masters and never to tell the truth.

The German philosopher Hegel whom I quoted earlier and who had never been to Africa was of the opinion that:

In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that he has not yet attained the realisation of any substantial objective existence-as for example, God and religion the Negro exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. There is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character Africa should never be mentioned for it is no historical part of the world. What we properly understand by Africa is the unhistorical, undeveloped spirit, still in the conditions of mere nature Africa had to be presented here only as on the threshold of world’s history the Negro has no movement or development to exhibit”.

Primitive Africa”

The colonial period is generally considered to have begun in earnest from 1884-1885 and continued until African nations obtained their independencies in the early 1960’s. During this period Europeans exploited Africa’s human and natural resources and in as late as 1923, the views of the European historians and academicians during the colonial period could be summed up in a lecture by Professor A. P. Newton delivered that year.

Professor Newton, who was invited to address the Royal African Society on the topic, “Africa and Historical Research” said in a categorical statement:

Africa had no history before the coming of the Europeans. History only begins when men take to writing. And since Africa had no knowledge of writing, information of African history could be found only in material remains, in language and in primitive culture. These are the concerns of linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists and not the concern of historians.”

This statement was reproduced in 1963, some 40 years later with equal pomposity and arrogance by Professor Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of history at Oxford University, who stated that:

Nowadays, undergraduates demand that they should be taught African History. Perhaps in the future there will be some African History to teach. But at the present there is none; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness, and darkness is not a subject of history. Please do not misunderstand me I do not deny that man existed even in dark countries and dark centuries, the present world is one that is dominated by European techniques, European examples, and European ideas. It is these which have shaken the non-European world out of its past, out of barbarism in Africa. The history of the world, for the last five centuries, is so far as it has significance, has been European History. The study of History must therefore be Europe-centric, we cannot, thus, afford to amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.

The impact of these attitudes was that on the one hand, while colonial history was accepted as a field worthy of study, African History was not. Moreover colonial History of Africa (i.e. the study of the History of the white man in Africa) was not only studied and taught in schools, but represented or became African History. This so-called African History was studied under three major themes:

(a) History of European colonial activities

(b) What Europe brought to Africa

(c) History of European settlers

Therefore the study of Africans and the African past was left to the anthropologists. On their part, the anthropologists concerned themselves with the study of what they called “primitive societies” untouched by civilisation. They searched for the small and isolated African ethnic groups, which they called tribes, and made them the subject of their study. These small and isolated groups were taken as representative of the whole continent.

And when they studied the groups, the anthropologists stressed their static nature rather than their dynamic nature. They did not bother to examine the Bantu of central Africa and the southern half of the continent, the Hausa, the Mande (Mandinka) or the Songhay of West Africa. Having studied small groups, the anthropologists concluded that African societies were timeless entities, without past or future. Naturally, this kind of study of African people was convenient to the European and British colonial administrations, specially the British who went about inventing chiefs to suit the colonial system they called Indirect Rule. Small wonder anthropology was viewed with suspicion by educated Africans as the handmaiden of colonialism.

One may ask the question why the anthropologists reached such conclusions. In general, the European anthropologists of the colonial period were attempting to justify the colonisation of Africa by Europe. First, they were telling their audience in Europe that the superior white men with his superior culture were justified in colonising the so-called inferior and primitive African. Only then would the African be guided to Christianity and civilisation. Secondly, the anthropologists were conveying to the European coloniser that the African was primitive and weak and would never have the strength to challenge them effectively. Thirdly, the anthropologists were confirming to the colonisers that Africans were children who were incapable of growing up, but were dangerous and had to be subjugated by force.

The Hamitic Myth

Having exhausted the study of the small isolated African societies, the anthropologists were faced with the larger and complex African societies. They came to realize that some of these complex political, economic and social systems were comparable and at times more advanced that those developed in Europe. In spite of the evidence, they denied these African achievements to the Africans, and looked for their origins outside the continent.

Their immediate reaction was that the civilisations of Egypt (KMT), Meroe, Axum, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Mali, Songhay etc. must have been developed by invaders from the outside. These so-called invaders they called “Hamites” whom they described as white, inherently culturally superior, nomads who came to Africa in successive waves in the course of which they conquered the Africans who were then living in settled agricultural communities, and galvanized them into civilization.

The chief exponent of the “Hamitic Myth” was the British anthropologist, C.G. Seligman who in 1930 wrote in his Races of Africa, that,

The civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites. Its history is the record of these people and of their interaction with the two African stocks, the Negro and the Bushman. The incoming Hamites were pastoral Europeans, arriving in wave after wave, better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negroes.”

Today, of course, we know better. African historiography since the attainment of independence in the 1960s has completely shattered the Hamitic myth, allied European racist writing on Africa masquerading as science.

Ethiopia is an ancient polity that managed to sustain an unbroken civilisation free of foreign influences. Like ancient Egypt, and other civilisation in Africa, Ethiopian civilization was systematically de-Africanized in Western literature. As anthropologists were faced with the larger and complex societies, they looked for external influences when faced with our civilisation. Accordingly, in the case of Ethiopia, they came up with a new lie called the Semitic hypothesis.

According to the Semitic hypothesis or myth the Ethiopians are actually not African but a member of a group of Semitic-speaking peoples of the Near East who settled by the Red Sea. In saying this they included and still include, for example in Professor Greenberg’s thesis on The Languages of Africa (1954), the Ethiopian alphabet with Afro-Asiatic languages that includes Arabic and Hebrew.

In addition they say these Semitic people were the Habshit ethnic group with an alphabet called Geziet which they used for writing. Therefore they associated the current Amharic alphabet which evolved from Geez with the Habsha people who live in Ethiopia today and are called Habshit (Semite).

However, this myth or hypothesis is completely false because there is no evidence to prove it. In fact neither the Habshit people nor the Geziet alphabet exists in any part of today’s Near East (Middle East) where they claim to have originated but only in Ethiopia. Ethiopians (Africans) invented the alphabet Geez between 5000-2000 BC by Ethiopians in Ethiopia according to the clergy who kept the record in Ethiopia for thousands of years.


The period after World War II, (1945), is considered a turning point in the writing of African History. During the era of the Slave Trade, Africa was not considered as a historical part of the world and the African was regarded as sub-human. In the colonial period, the European academics recognised the humanity of the Africans but still considered them an inferior and primitive without a history worthy of study. Hence, the African history that existed was “the history of Europeans in Africa” i.e. is colonial history. However, with the struggle for independence after 1945, the reconstruction, decolonisation, and rehabilitation, of African history began, and is still progressing.

The last 50 years have witnessed the establishment of Research Institutes, and the establishments of departments and Centers specializing in African Studies (including African history) not only in Africa but in all parts of the world. By 1963 thirty or forty universities in the U.S.A were offering courses in African History. This was followed by the setting up of special programs for graduate study and research in Africa.

In Africa itself, the independent nations began to build their national archives in which historical data is made available for researchers and museums to preserve and project their cultural heritage. International conferences on African History were organized in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Books, including text books on African History as well as journals specialising in African History filled the shelves of libraries and bookstores. African history has come of age.

Nonetheless, the mistakes of the past still linger on in the writings of some historians of Africa and in the minds of some of us. Many but not all European academics and historians have forgotten the racist notion that “Africa has no History”. We have indeed come a long way but there is still much to be done, beginning with the decolonisation of our minds.

We learn the past to predict the future and to form the present


To Know…To be Free

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