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Asante, Molefi Kete: The Ideology of Racial Hierarchy and the Construction of the European
Slave Trade
Black Renaissance 3:3 [Summer 2001] p.133-146
It is not racial difference that has been a problem in discovering the ideological basis of the enslavement of
Africans, but rather the idea of racial hierarchy, developed, refined and disseminated by Europeans who
prosecuted and profited from the slave trade for three centuries. All of us are aware that the magnitude of the
European forced migration of enslaved Africans has no peer in history (Haywood, 1985). In its extraordinary
reach into another continent and by overcoming horrendous obstacles on land and the high seas, the
European enterprise dwarfed all other examples of similar social and economic constructions. The sea, more
daunting in ways than the desert, made the journey far more perilous than any other forced migration of
peoples. Yet it is also true that the magnitude of the "trade" must be measured in terms of the multiplicity of
legacies, historical and contemporary, that it created. In the wake of the most mammoth forced movement of
people over a period of centuries we see the very beginnings of the modern world. Indeed, the postmodern
world is, in effect, a creation of the same legacies (Tracy, 1990). Without European slave traders, slave
buyers, slave insurers, slave sailors, slave auctioneers, and slave owners, there would have been no transport
of Africans across the sea for enslavement.
In one instance the spread of Africans and Europeans to continents other than Europe and Africa helped to
produce a world order that has reigned supreme in technology, science, economics, law, and sociology for five
hundred years. It was, however, a racist construction created out of stolen land, broken treaties, stolen labor
and broken backs. Any interpretation of the postmodern views of the present world must take into
consideration that the entire discourse on the fluidity of cultures, the notion of subjective identities, the
instability of social and cultural space, and the interaction and interpenetration of peoples is a direct result of
the most massive forced movement of people the world has ever known (Cohen, 1982). It becomes
impossible to speak of the Americas or Caribbean without Africans or indeed Europe without Africa. One
cannot speak intelligently about Portugal and its history without Brazil, Angola and Mozambique or Britain
without its ties to the Fante coast of Ghana and the Calabar coast of Nigeria.
I am struck by two phenomena of the late twentieth century: African survival in the West and the decline of the
doctrine of white supremacy. Neither is yet a complete victory because Africans have not survived equally well
in all places, and the doctrine of white supremacy is expressed everyday on the Internet and in private circles
of Europe and America. More than two thousand white sites spread racist hatred on the Internet; there are no
black sites that spread racist hatred. But the ultimate success of the African in the West and the decline and
elimination of any hint of racial hierarchy will be one of the great achievements of contemporary humanity. It
is, of course, one of the fundamental thrusts of the Afrocentric movement with which I am identified.
The Afrocentrist, in positioning agency for African people, reasserts African humanity against all
objectifications. We are not on Europe's periphery; we are ourselves historical beings and our engagement
with Europe or Europe's encounter with us must be seen in the light of Africa before Europe (Asante, 1990).
This is why we cannot have a fruitful discussion until we understand that no African slaves were removed from
Africa, only African people were removed. They were blacksmiths, farmers, fishers, priests, traders,

musicians, soldiers, traders, and members of royal families. They were captured against their wills and then
enslaved in the Caribbean and Americas.
There remains, however, one nagging question, why were Africans the victims of the most massive
enslavement in history? It is a question not to be taken lightly when one views the history of humanity. It was
on the African continent that humans originated and on the same continent that the most majestic civilizations
of antiquity arose in the Nile Valley (Diop, 1991). It was also in Africa that the first flourishing of religion
occurred and even the naming of the Gods was said to be an African event (Herodotus, Book II). The mighty
kingdoms of the West and South developed and maintained themselves for centuries without the presence of
either Arabs or Europeans. So the question to be asked is, why did Africans become the subjects of the
European Slave Trade?
When this question is asked a variety of answers is given and each answer has a host of defenders. In effect
the answer to the question has been hopelessly problematized to the extent that it will be difficult to arrive at
an answer satisfactory to everyone. Indeed a prominent answer with a vocal cadre in America places the
burden entirely on the victims themselves, that is, that it was Africans who created the conditions of
enslavement. This falls into the category of blaming the victim much like the person who beats a spouse and
then claims that the spouse caused the violence. Of course, some spouses may not be blameless, as all
Africans may not be, in the long engagement with the European Slave Trade. Yet it is not correct to blame the
actions of the oppressor on the oppressed. Nowhere in African history do I find any example where slavery
was the principal mode of production of an African society. No such slave societies were created on the
continent and certainly no such societies where foreign labor was imported for the purpose of enslavement
and hence, production ever existed. While it is true that there were some African collaborators, much like
there were African collaborators in South Africa under the minority white apartheid regime, the slave trade was
the initiative of Europeans alone. Africans had no global interest in the movement of African people and saw
in the `trade" no advantage of a strategic nature.
I believe that it is more beneficial to seek the answers to the ideological foundations of slavery in Europe itself.
At least, it is in Europe where we discover the first initiatives for the capture and use of Africans in the
Americas and the Caribbean. I suspect that documents in Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch would extend our
reach into the history of the phenomenon of slavery. In an attempt to explain the relationship of racism and
economics to the motivation behind the enslavement of Africans, scholars writing in English have
concentrated on two arguments.
A FIRST THESIS
Eric Williams argued in Capitalism and Slavery, written in 1944, that slavery was not caused by racism but that
racism was the consequence of African slavery. This line of thinking has become one of the leading
explanations for the cause of slavery. It is fraught with many problems, but I believe it is necessary for me to
explain the principal characteristics of this argument before I offer my criticisms. For Williams, the answer to
the question of why Africans were enslaved must be found in economic rather than racial conditions. Starting
from the premise that the color of un-free labor had been consecutively brown, white, and then black in the
Caribbean, the economic argument, as I am calling it, says that the first instance of slave trading and slave
labor involved the Indian, that is, the Native American. According to this idea, the Native Americans quickly
succumbed to the excessive labor demanded of them, an insufficient diet, the white man's diseases, and an
inability to adjust to the white man's way of life. This idea was buttressed by the often repeated position of the
priest Bartholomes de Las Casas 1518 petition from Hispaniola that permission be granted to bring Africans,
"a race robust for labor, instead of natives, so weak that they can only be employed in tasks requiring little
endurance, such as taking care of maize fields or farms." While Spain attempted to restrict the enslavement of
Indians to those who rejected Christianity or to the Caribs who were considered cannibals, in the end Spain
found that one African was worth four Indians. It is Williams' opinion that the New World, as he calls it -- but
we know that such designation is a misnomer -- demanded robust laborers who could work in the cotton,
tobacco and sugar fields.
The economic argument contends that the immediate successors to the Indians as slaves were the whites as

indentured servants, at least in the Caribbean. Williams cites considerable evidence to suggest that white
servants, who signed contracts prior to departure to the Americas were indentured by law, binding them to
service for a stipulated time often in return for their passage to the Caribbean or Americas. This thesis is
based on an economic understanding of history as a mercantilist endeavor in which the leading economists
were seeking to lower the number of poor in Europe by emigration while at the same time supplying labor for
the new colonies. Between 1654 and 1685 ten thousand indentured servants sailed from Bristol in England to
the West Indies and Virginia. It is argued that one sixth of the population of Virginia in 1683 were white
indentured servants. Furthermore, during the 18th century two-thirds of the immigrants to Pennsylvania were
white servants and in one period of four years 25,000 white indentured servants came to Philadelphia from
England. It is estimated that at the height of the North American colonial period nearly a quarter of a million
whites were of the servant class and half of the English immigrants were of this class (Williams, 1944).
In pressing the case for the economic basis of the enslavement of Africans, the economic proponents show
how the white servant-class was augmented by criminals. To supply the growing demand for labor in the
Caribbean and the Americas, kidnapping was resorted to on the streets of Bristol and London. The poor
adults would be given whiskey and children given sweets to entice them on board ships bound for the new
colonies. Many criminals found refuge from the law on the transport ships and thus they were safer than the
streets of England or Ireland. Convicts proved to be a steady source of white labor for the colonies and the
harsh capital laws of England drove many criminals who had violated one of the three hundred capital
offenses to take a trip to the new lands. One could be hanged or transported for picking a pocket of more than
a shilling, for taking commercial goods worth more than five shillings, for stealing a horse or a sheep, or for
burning stacks of corn. Indeed by 1664 a proposal was made to banish to the colonies all rogues, thieves, and
vagrants. By 1745 transportation was the penalty for the theft of a silver spoon and a gold watch.
There was, at least, in England a proclivity for transportation whenever the society wanted to rid itself of
convicts and criminals. Without such characters neither Australia nor North America would have received such
regular infusion of whites, and without such characters maybe our own history as Africans would have been
different. However, one cannot speculate on what would have happened since the ones who sent the convicts
were the same ones who started the African trade.
Nevertheless, Eric Williams believed that the transportation of these white convicts and criminals and servants
showed the process to be neither cruel nor inhuman but a part of the age. In effect, everyone was doing it and
everyone thought it something to do. Of course the emigrants were packed into ships like herrings, given
about a meter and a half in width and five meters in length for a bed, and treated like common criminals during
the crossing which was long, often turbulent, with little good food, and lots of diseases. By 1639 a
Parliamentary petition described how seventy two servants had been kept below deck for five and a half
weeks among horses. You can imagine the condition of the servants and the horses after such a journey.
Although Williams sets up the scenario that leads to an economic basis of the enslavement of Africans, he is
not willing to go as far as some other writers in drawing the parallel between the white servants and the
enslaved Africans. Indeed, one could reasonably claim that in some American colonies like Maryland and
Pennsylvania the white servants were said to be nearly chattel. But nearly chattel is not chattel. The fact that
their conditions were often horrible, even unspeakable, does not lead to the conclusion that the white servants
were chattel. The white servants spent their time on the islands and in North Americas grinding at the mills
and attending to furnaces or digging the earth with little food that they were used to and being bought, sold,
and traded among white planters, whipped at will, and sleeping in places worse than hogs. Yet they were not
slaves and their conditions never approached dehumanization, that is, the idea that they were not humans.
Williams concluded that the white servant laid the basis for black enslavement because the planters learned
with the white servants what to do with the Africans. According to this theory had it not been for the economic
downturn involved with the transportation of the white servants this process would have continued indefinitely.
It was only because the white servants cost more than Africans, particularly since the white servants could
work only until their contracts were completed and Africans could work a lifetime. Buying an African for life
cost the same as buying a white servant for ten years. This thesis holds that the Africans were latecomers into
a system already established (See Manning, 1990).

A SECOND THESIS
Now let me place beside this thesis another that has been advanced as an alternative argument. Its principal
proponent writing in English may have been Winthrop Jordan whose book, White Over Black, was a thorough
expression of the dual generation explanation for the enslavement of Africans. I shall refer to it as the SocialEconomic thesis because it contends that there was an economic idea involved in the ideology behind slavery
but the societies from which the impetus for the enslavement of Africans derived already had in them certain
racist ideas that could be developed into full-blown ideological foundations by the practice of slavery. The
point to the Social-Economic thesis, as a way of escaping the issue of which came first, the hen or the egg, is
that racism and slavery generated each other. While Williams maintained that slavery was not born of racism
but that racism was the consequence of slavery, Jordan contends that one should not argue whether slavery
caused racism or vice versa but rather that they seem to have generated each other, hustling the African
toward complete degradation.
In defending his simultaneous invention of slavery and racism Jordan, like Williams, concentrates on the
English, establishing that they did not arrive on Africa's west coast until nearly a century after the Portuguese.
While the Portuguese seemed to have come early to the twin sins of enslavement and Christian conversion,
Jordan argues that the English were adventurous traders in the 1550s with nothing more on their minds than
normal commerce. It would be the seventeenth century when English sailors would seriously join in the slave
trade. The first permanent English settlement was at Kormantin in 1631, but the first Royal African Company
would not be chartered until 1670. Consequently, it is Jordan's belief that Englishmen initially met Africans as
another sort of men, not as men to be enslaved. It was true that Africans were black, African religion was not
Christian, and the African lifestyle was different from that of England, but they were still human. Indeed the
idea that Africans were Moors was common in English literature. To separate the non-Muslim Moors from
other Moors the term Blackmoors was often used to describe Africans of West Africa, but there was nothing
particularly strange in this form of contact with Africans. Nevertheless the word "black" did hold special
negative properties in the English language as an opposition to the word "white" and latent within the English
was a cluster of perceptions about black and blackness that must have colored their attitudes toward Africans
(Hakluyt, 1928).
Another factor that Jordan sees as having an impact upon the interaction of Englishmen and Africans was the
Christian religion. While the English did not seem to have the same zeal as the Portuguese and Spaniards in
converting the Africans to Christianity, religion played a part in their eighteenth century reaction to Africans.
They were conflicted, according to Jordan, by the Christian idea of the oneness of mankind, yet the English
believed that Africans were different, heathen, savage, and suffered from a fundamental defect that could not
be overcome. The English observers found the African so different in habit, manners, dress, religion, and color
that it became increasingly possible for them to consider the African as a different species of human, indeed,
sub-human.
Jordan contends that the English did not know what to make of the African. Sometimes they felt that the
African was absurd in dress and personal etiquette but quite capable in terms of government with kings,
counselors, generals, and other functionaries of government just like the English. Jordan writes:
They knew perfectly well that Negroes were men, yet they frequently described the Africans as "brutish" or
"bestial" or "beastly." The hideous tortures, the cannibalism, the rapacious warfare, the revolting diet seemed
somehow to place the Negro among the beasts. The circumstances of the Englishman's confrontation with the
Negro served to strengthen this feeling. Slave traders in Africa handled Negroes the same way men in
England handled beasts, herding and examining and buying.
Jordan, 1968
Jordan thus concludes that the enslavement of Africans and other forms of debasement coincided in the
English colonies of Virginia and Maryland with these negative assessments of the character of the African.
This convergence found its first full expression in the 1640s in the American colonies. Consequently, the
general debasement of the African, permanent service, prejudice against the religion, manners, and morals of

the African made it easier for whites to see Africans as natural slaves. On the other hand the condition of
white servants improved. By the 1660s there were protests against holding whites in bondage. The protests
were not against enslavement or servitude but against the idea that whites should be held in servitude.
Jordan seems to indicate that although he has identified the twinness of racism and the enslavement of
Africans he is not satisfied with the argument he has made. Therefore, he tries again to identify specific
elements in the question of why the African was enslaved. He says that economics is a clear factor and had
there been no economic need, no persistent demand for labor, then Africans would not have been brought to
the Americas. Secondly, Africa was relatively helpless in the face of European aggression and war technology.
But unlike Williams, Jordan knows that these two factors alone cannot sustain an argument for the
concentrated focus on African enslavement.
It is here that Winthrop Jordan understands that something must have existed in the English attitudes about
Africans and indeed about Indians that produced the reaction to these two peoples and therefore in this
regard he anticipates many disagreements with Eric Williams' assessment. But as I will demonstrate the
Social-Economic thesis has its problems as well.
THE ECONOMIC THESIS REVIEWED
It is my contention that the impetus for the enslavement of the Indian, the white servant and the African was
racist. The driving force for the capture, enslavement, and brutality against the brown and white people prior to
the enslavement of Africans was difference, mainly class difference, but also in terms of the Indians, racial
and color differences. The eventual enslavement of Africans was based on color and racial hierarchy.
Difference had already been assumed based on physical appearances.
Although Eric Williams argues that slavery was not born of racism he is fundamentally in error because of his
understanding of racism of the time. The English considered the Indians and the Irish of a different race than
the English long before they had expressed the same sentiments about Africans. The idea of English as
separate and better than Indians and Irish was deeply implanted in the English attitudes of race, class, and
color by the time they came to the Americas and Caribbean islands. It was racism that made Englishmen see
the Indians and the Irish servants as different and therefore useful for enslavement. I would agree, however,
that the capture and entrapment of the poor whites of Bristol and London was due largely to class and
economic factors. Yet it was racism, class, and color consciousness that demanded whites be released from
bondage and blacks remain in it.
Williams admits that popular sentiment demanded African enslavement but not white enslavement. But he
fails to see that this was because slavery had a racial basis. When Williams speaks of popular sentiment he is
speaking about how whites viewed the issue of enslaving whites. They never accepted white enslavement but
they were prepared to accept black enslavement because the issue was racial in character. Africans were not
considered equal to whites and even though there were white servants, the sentiment of the white populations
never approved of their enslavement.
The ideology of white racial hierarchy had been introduced by numerous Europeans as a way of explaining
difference, even difference between Europeans, prior to the height of the European Slave Trade. After the
18th century the arguments were used to explain and justify the enslavement of Africans but they had been
planted in the European consciousness as a matter of course.
Late in the 18th century, at the University of Gottingen, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Alexander von Humboldt
began to develop the racial hierarchical theories that would catapult European thought into the next centuries
as the bedevillers of truth. The intention of the Humboldts and other European writers and promoters was the
creation of a world in which the dominant motifs of thought and behavior would reflect the European world.
Not unlike the conquest in territory that had begun in the 15th century, this information conquest would prove
to be just as important in the construction of the West.
So aggressive would these early propaganda tycoons be in promoting their ideology that they would not only

conjoin it with enslavement of Africans, capitalism and imperialism, but would spread it to other parts of the
world and even convince many Africans and Asians that Europeans and European culture were not only
superior but were destined to be superior by some Divine Providence. No explanation of the massive
enslavement of Africans can be made without reference to the project of white racial hierarchy and the
doctrine of white supremacy.
European scientists, scholars, men and women of learning would propagate the most abhorrent nonsense
about race. So-called biologists, anthropologists, physiologists, and medical doctors would advance theories
about brain size, genital size, and head bones to demonstrate their points concerning white supremacy. This
would become the background for much of Western theorizing about the world. Popular culture from coaches
to cups, from utensils to lamps, from theater plays to analytical essays would be created reflecting white
supremacy and the degradation of the African. Furthermore, sermons proclaimed a sort of manifest destiny for
the white race as priests and preachers became the mighty arms of God in the conquest of the so-called lower
races.
Make no mistake, what we have today in every sector: art, education, economics, law, medicine -- is the
legacy of five hundred years of Western promotion of this ideology of white European supremacy. It structures
everything we know about the European Slave Trade and it must not be ignored by the scholars of the African
world, even if Europe continues to bury its head in the sand.
The Germans were not alone in their proclamation of white supremacy. While the von Humboldts had
suggested Aryans, Alpines, and Mediterraneans in that order, others were more intent to make comparisons
that underscored the necessity of the European Slave Trade. In the Netherlands during the 18th century,
Peter Campier, (1722-1789) compared African facial and skull measurements to monkeys and developed a
racial hierarchy in which he claimed the superiority of the European form. In such a world it was possible for
the European to assume that any enslavement of Africans, indeed, the rape of African women was not only
beneficial to Africans but necessary for the improvement of the race!
I am careful to say that racist thinking was not the undertaking of every white writer. Actually, racist ideology
was formed by a narrow group of clergymen, philosophers, curators, physicians, and scientists who lived on
the salaries of churches, museums, and universities. As they came into contact with Africans, they became
the spreaders, the evangelists of white supremacy.
Of course, many of those who wrote probably had never seen an African or been to Africa. And some had
formed their opinions before they ever encountered Africa. Widely differing accounts of Africans often
emerged from white travelers to the continent. For example, Count Constantin de Volney, a Frenchman (17571820) traveled to Egypt in the 18th century prior to the invasion of the French Army and claimed in his book
Ruins of Empire that Europe owed its arts, civilizations, and sciences to Africans. "Just think that this race of
black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences,
and even the use of Speech!" But Volney was the exception in a long line of racist thinkers.
Earlier, however, David Hume in 1748 had written "I am apt to suspect that the Negroes in general are
naturally inferior to whites. There has never been a civilized nation of any other complexion than white."
George Cuvier was the Aristotle of his age, the founder of geology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy. In
1812, he wrote in The Animal Kingdom that the "African is the most degraded of human races...whose form
approaches that of the beast and whose intelligence is no where great enough to arrive at regular
governance." The implication of this kind of thinking is that Africans are fit for enslavement.
Georg Hegel, the greatest European thinker of his century, wrote in 1828 "Let us forget Africa never to return
to it for Africa is no part of the historical globe, it is outside of history."
Louis Agassiz, the Harvard scholar, said there has never been a regulated form of government in Africa.
Thomas Jeffereson, the second American president and a slaveholder, wrote in Notes on Virginia in 1790. "I
advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by

time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind."
It is duplicitous to deny the duplicative nature of this racist reasoning. It was copied and used as justificatory
rhetoric of racial hierarchy and subjugation of Africans. The reasoning was reinforced in every operation of the
European will against Africa.
One could go on with this list with quotes from Arnold Toynbee, Voltaire, and others, but the point to be made
is that the leading opinion-makers for a period of several centuries believed in the categorical superiority of the
white race over the black. This line of thinking, however painful at this era, must be explored to see the root
causes of human's inhumanity to other humans.
I would like to make a third point in reference to the Economic Thesis. However brutal the white servant was
treated, the white servant was not treated like the enslaved African. They were never chattel. They could look
forward to eventual freedom, and they never lost all ownership of themselves and their time. Unlike white
servants, the African in America and the Caribbean could only see permanent enslavement. Nothing in the
treatment of the Indian or the white servant was ever in the same category as the treatment of the African.
Racism was at the door of the house of African enslavement.
It is my belief that the expense of purchasing Africans has not been shown to be cheaper than the cost of
capturing whites from the cities of England and Ireland. The capture of Africans was a racist act. The
argument that the opening of the lands in the Americas and Caribbean to European interest demanded labor
and that labor was the reason for the enslavement of Africans is only half correct. It is true that labor was
needed, but it did not have to be slave labor or forced labor. Labor is not definitionally un-free. Furthermore, it
did not have to be African labor.
Finally, the commonly held notion that the Native American succumbed to the demands of labor in the sun, an
insufficient diet, white diseases, and an inability to adjust to the European diet is an overly promoted,
distorted, and inexcusable promotion of racism against both the Native American and the African people. In
the first place, this notion assumes that neither the Indian nor the African is a normal human. The Indian is
weaker, and the African stronger than other humans. These other humans by which the Africans and Indians
are judged are whites. The sun in certain parts of southern North America could be hotter than many places in
Africa and to conclude that Indians of North America or the Caribbean could not adjust to the heat is like
chasing a pink whale, a fantasy. Furthermore, the diet of Native Americans was well established before the
Europeans arrived and they did not have to depend upon the foods prepared by whites. There is no sufficient
evidence for this argument in any literature that I have read. The notion of the strength of the African was a
justification for the massive importation of Africans into the European colonies in the Americas and Caribbean.
THE SOCIAL-ECONOMIC THESIS REVIEWED
In reference to the Social-Economic Thesis I have a few remarks to make. First, the prejudice against Africans
existed long before the actual enslavement of Africans by Englishmen began. And those who use the dates of
the English enslavement of Africans as a starting point for their analysis miss the entire earlier period of
Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch operations against Africa. We now know from scholars such as Martin Bernal
who wrote Black Athena that the Aryan thesis of history arose during the European Renaissance and maybe
even earlier. The Aryan thesis held that Europeans were the highest form of men and that the greatest
traditions of history in the world were those of Europe, beginning with the Greeks. The fact that this was myth
did not dissuade the promoters of the thesis from making the argument. Indeed one can see that blackness
was problematic for whites as early as Aristotle who wrote in Physiognomonica that "the Egyptians and
Ethiopians were cowards because they were too black."
Secondly, Winthrop Jordan seems to suggest that the English participation in the slave trade was categorically
different from that of the other European nations since they did not hold the same views about Africans.
However, the English cannot cry innocent when they had the experience of the Portuguese, Dutch, and
Spaniards before them. The Portuguese had begun in the 1400s to travel down the west coast of Africa,
moving from Ceuta which was captured in 1415 around the coast, and the first Africans brought to Lisbon as

servants or "gifts" came around 1444. There was no need for Africans as laborers in the Americas at this time,
Europe had not made the journey across to the Americas. Indeed Europe was more intimate with Africa than it
was with America during this period. Since Portugal under Alfonso Henriques had reconquered land in Baja
from the Islamicized Africans in 1139, Portugal had been the first European country to explore Africa.
Nevertheless, the English knew enough from the Portuguese and the Dutch about Africa that the images of
Africans were firmly planted in the minds of the English prior to their own massive involvement in the slave
business during the "Century of No Mercy," the 18th century, when more than six million Africans were forced
from the continent, and millions more had their lives disrupted on the continent. We know of course that the
first Africans brought to an English colony in North America came aboard a Dutch ship. Yet in 1568, half a
century before the presence of Africans at the Jamestown, Virginia Colony, John Hawkins had left Plymouth,
England, with 150 sailor-soldiers for the purpose of capturing Africans on the West African coast. Hawkins and
his men ran into some difficulty as African soldiers fought them along the coast and many of his men were
wounded, some dying ten days after the battle with Africans. Hawkins recounts, however, how he joined with a
local king to defeat a neighboring king in order to obtain captives, and another forty-five of his men were either
hurt or killed.
I believe that the arguments for African enslavement were refined during the brutal process by Christians who
needed justification but the attitudes behind the arguments were pre-existent (Drake, 1987). Thus, the
attitudes making African enslavement possible existed prior to the actual taking of Africans from the continent,
but the refinement of the argument against Africans and for the enslavement occurred during the long history
of enslavement in the Americas and Caribbean. Increasingly the Christian sentiment of the settlers became
disturbed by the practice of slavery and consequently demanded new and more complex arguments to justify
an un-Christian practice.
While it is fashionable today and perhaps scientifically correct to speak of race as a social construction, it has
not always been the case. For nearly five hundred years European thinkers developed, and perfected in
Europe itself, and then disseminated to the rest of the world a notion of race and inherent racial hierarchy that
led to the enslavement of millions of Africans. The "slave trade" was preeminently neither a trade nor an
activity initiated by the victims. It was not merely a mechanism to answer the labor needs of the Americas and
the Caribbean but an example of deep moral and ethical failing that relied upon the belief of white racial
superiority to sustain it. I do not know of any European nation to date to have sufficiently responded to this
crisis in the psychology of Europe. This is the great failing of all discourse on Europe and Africa.
Sustained by an ideology of racial hierarchy where the African was judged the categorical inferior of the white
person, the enslavement of Africans was fueled by economics and racism. To this degree, I am more firmly in
agreement with Jordan's position than that taken by Eric Williams. However, the ideology of racial hierarchy
and white racial supremacy, indeed, contaminated or influenced by the Christian idea of anti-heathenism,
meant that Africans were fair game to be worked to death.
What is clear is that the labor loss to local African economies produced for European economies a surplus of
value distorting the historical and developmental process for centuries. The ideology of racial hierarchy
produced outrages of medicine where Africans were said to need less food than whites and outrages of
shelter where Africans were thought to be able to withstand the elements better than whites. Indeed the
dependence on molefque, from eight to fifteen years of age, as the majority of enslaved Africans from Angola
in the 19th century, meant that the outrages against African youth were attacks on the humanity of Africans
(See Joseph Miller in Northrup, 1994). Therefore, in dealing with the question posed at the beginning of this
paper I am raising the issue of social and psychological violence and dehumanization aimed at Africans. What
some have called a trade, trafico negreiro, com?rcio negreiro, la traite n?gri?re, and what Walter Rodney
called a "social violence," I call a "racial war" prosecuted against presumed inferiors to establish the idea of
white supremacy in economics, culture, religion, education, industry, politics, and power. The enslavement of
Africans was pure brutality; it takes violence and savagery to hold millions of people in bondage for as long as
Europeans held Africans. We must not romanticize the enslavement, it was not some pilgrims landing on
Plymouth Rock. We must see the deliberate, conspiratorial nature of the destruction of African history in order
to rationalize the enslavement. Those whites who, enjoying unwarranted privileges of a racist society, seek to
deny that they had anything to do with the enslavement seek to maintain the immoral justification of African

robbery. It is clear that the enslavement of Africans must be seen in a larger context of European domination
where nothing prevents the use of collective violence, enslavement, against Africans in order for Europe to
carry out its aims. Yet in the end we must declare victory over racism, racial hierarchy and racialized histories
that seek to protect even now the racist project by denying its base in the enslavement of Africans. May the
African ancestors always live and the historical essence of those buried under the Atlantic join with our
determination that their story and ours be told forever.
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Copyright Indiana University Press Summer 2001