Gabriel Lambert

Imperial and Global History

Does ‘race’ matter in the context of Imperial and Global History? What is ‘race’? The 1964 UNESCO ‘Moscow Declaration’ revealed the limited applicability of the term as a taxonomic concept – human characteristics that had previously thought to be heritable were seen to be a product of both environmental conditions and biology, the concept of polygenesis was rejected and cultural evolution was said to be of greater significance for the species than genetic ‘improvement’.1 If ‘race’ can no longer be regarded as an objective, scientific classification, it must be taken as a socially constructed concept, much in the same was as ‘gender’ is taken to mean socially constructed identity as opposed to ‘sex’ (the biological differences between men and women). To define race as socially constructed requires it to be placed in historical context – there has never been a concrete concept of race, rather its meaning has always been based in discourse and debate, influenced by the political, economic and cultural context in which the discourse took place. If race draws on such a variety of different sources its general historical use would be great. Not only could it be used to explore the relationship between what were regarded as separate ‘races’ in the context of slavery and then economic exploitation but it could shed light on the societies in which the construction of racial ideas were happening. As Imperial and Global history deals with the time in which European societies had an unprecedented degree of connection with societies of different ‘races’ the use of ‘race’ would be most useful. Perhaps to ignore ‘race’ and take for granted historically defined racial difference is to accept that the development of racial concepts is somewhat inevitable and natural, one of the positions that late 19th century hierarchical racial theorists and social Darwinists used to justify their views. However, there are potential theoretical problems with placing emphasis on race. One common accusation directed towards sociologists of race is that, while they accept the social construction of race, they tend to imbue it with a sense of permanence and timelessness after its creation.2 For some sociologists the existence of race in everyday discourse is enough of a basis for that social action to be studied, often without probing its origins.3 To do this is to accept that racial social relationships are unavoidable and thus potentially somatically determined – the very use of the term ‘race’ implies that it is a definable, concretely apprehensible concept. Moreover, race is taken not only as a socially-constructed ideology, but as an ‘active determinant of exclusion and disadvantage.’4 The key is that this casual use of the term ‘race’ implies that the allegedly definable physical characteristics are the determining factor and ignores the more sophisticated ‘attribution of significance to certain patterns of, or imagined assertion of, difference and the use of that process of signification to structure social relationships.’5 Thus ‘race’ risks removing the historical and geographical uniqueness of various racial identities by encouraging the use of such a homogenising term. Emphasis should not be placed on ‘race’ as such but the historically-specific role of human signification of race.
1 Rex in Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p119 2 Miles in Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p127 3 Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p7 4 Miles in Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p139 5 ibid

Gabriel Lambert

Imperial and Global History

However, this semantic argument is not enough to reject the use of ‘race’ as an analytical tool altogether – just as sex and gender used to be regarded as interchangeable and have taken on very different meanings, it is possibly to ‘recolonize’ the meaning of ‘race’ through its application in history as a means of investigating the use of alleged physical difference to justify or explain social relations that arose because of conditions that have nothing to do with physical attributes. Provided one guards against implications of permanence and inevitability, the physical connotations of race can be avoided. With this in mind one can evaluate what is of real interest – the question of why racial theories were needed – what conditions created the demand for such ideas? Did they emerge as a means of legitimization for colonial regimes to resolve the contradiction between professed political equality and the obvious material inequalities that had arisen between and within countries? The Marxist interpretation of racial theories argues that, like class, race is a ‘false consciousness’ imprinted upon society by the underlying material conditions within that society. In other words, physical differences were pointed to as a means of justifying economic exploitation.6 The ‘proletarianization’ of Caribbean labour power is often pointed to as the start of this process – unlike the proletarianization of sections of the white populations around the world, this was a racial issue because it represented the proletarianization of an entire race by another one (or what would have been regarded as separate races). Race relations emerged from the historically specific process of colonialism and imperialism that emerged as a product of the development of capitalism as a world economic system.7 However, the exploitation of labour in the Caribbean plantation, first through slavery and then indentured labour was patently not proletarialization – labour power was not being commodified as work was compulsory (either because one was viewed as human chattel or one had signed a contract surrendering freedom to chose one’s work of a certain number of years). It was not the direct exploitation of labour specifically that defined race relations but the migration that was stimulated by the growth of an international labour market.8 Due to wide economic differences between countries, entire ‘races’ formed a lower stratum of labour power, fulfilling those jobs in their own countries and in colonial nations that were least desirable by the white working class. Unlike the domestic working class whose ‘surplus value’ was extracted covertly through the difference between the value of workers’ wages and the value of their input, workers from other races were directly and openly exploited, a process justified by discourses of racial superiority (see below). Therefore a new form of class struggle emerged in the colonial era – the domestic working classes of the colonial powers were prevented from expressing solidarity with different ‘races’ by making Africans a form of popular entertainment and spectacle (or an object for paternalism), by offering places in settled colonies, often at the expense of the native populations (South Africa and

6 Winant in Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p182 7 Miles in Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p128 8 Ibid, p130-1

Gabriel Lambert

Imperial and Global History

Australia) and through cheap imperial goods.9 Thus racial divisions were maintained to prevent a union of the domestic working class and the racial working class abroad. Thus race is not only a ‘false consciousness’ – if one stripped away the theory of racial superiority one would still find the real material conditions that underlay the exploitation, specifically the greater economic and military power that the colonizing could wield over the colonized. But similarly race cannot only be expressed in terms of material conditions – the discourses that were generated to justify exploitation became a ‘social reality’ with time and took on a life independent from the conditions from which they had been born.10 It is possibly to argue not only that racial discourses were detached from their material conditions but also that their origins may have been domestic. That is to say there was a long tradition of political, social and philosophical thought that inclined western European countries towards racial ideas. The process can be seen to have started with the Romanticism of thinkers such as Blake, Shelley and Rousseau – the emphasis on intuition, non-rationalism, a rejection of the concept of universal laws, group loyalty and an ‘unchanging inner essence within human beings, an essence beyond the reach of history or society’11 led the way for Herder to discuss the incommensurability of the values of different cultures. The nature of the ‘people’ was expressed through volksgeist, the unchanging spirit of a people.12 Of course many of the Romantics were anti-racist and most contemporary concepts of race was blurred with concepts such as ‘peoples’, ‘nations’ and ‘classes’. But they did lay the groundwork for the emotional attachment necessary for popular nationalism and racism. There emerged a belief in the rationalizing and ordering power of science to legitimize what was seen as a fragmenting social order. Three core scientific ideas of the mid 19th century prepared the ground for ‘social Darwinism’: a teleological concept of the triumph of ‘civilization’ which was later connected to the triumph of certain races; the continuity with the animal world meant people recognized the ‘natural’ in humans; a belief that physical properties were outward indications of mental faculties – although phrenology had been heavily critiqued by the 1840s, the principle that it was possibly to measure something physical to determine brain capacity remained.13 A concept of society and hierarchy based on natural laws rather than social developed in works such as Robert Knox’s The Races of Men published in 1850 in which he argued the Saxon race was the most developed in the world’s ‘organic plan’.14 But it was Darwin who gave these theories dynamism – those that succeeded did so because they had been naturally selected to succeed, they had an innate superiority in the struggle for survival and therefore deserved their superior position (whether they were an animal species or a human race). Darwin’s ideas were bent to support the culmination of the 19th century’s racial theory – that some ‘races’ were innately

9 Bush, B., Imperialism, Race and Resistance. Africa and Britain, 1919-45 p8 10 Winant in Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p183 11 Malik, K., The Meaning of Race. Race, History and Culture in Western Society p77 12 Ibid, p 78 13Ibid, p87 14 Ibid, p89

Gabriel Lambert

Imperial and Global History

superior and that their position was therefore deserved as it was as inevitable as it was natural. Yet these theories did not initially develop in response to foreign ‘races’. Indeed one of the first essays on race by Count Arthur Gobineau on the Inequality of Races in 1789 argued that civilizations ‘are equal to the traits and spirit of the dominant race’15 and that within every society there were three race – the dominant, conquering aristocracy, the bourgeoisie who were fortunate enough to have bred with the nobility in the past, and the common people who had tainted noble blood with that of negroes in the south and Finns in the North. This was a theme to recur repeatedly – racial theory was by no means only applied to foreign ‘races’ but to the working classes as well. For instance, the Saturday Review commented that ‘The Bethnal Green poor...are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing’16 while the higher echelons of society would visit India, Egypt and the East End of London to ‘view the strange, the primitive and the exotic creatures.’17 In a fascinating piece the Daily Telegraph called white workers negroes – ‘there are a good many negroes in Southampton who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe.’18 They were said to be organising a counter-rally to the banquet prepared for Edward Eyre who had put down a Jamaican revolt using particularly brutal means. Thus not only was racial discourse internally generated within colonial powers, but it was actually applied to different classes within their own society – any racial theory based on the superiority of the imperial races must bear in mind this general interest in the applicability of racial theory to all aspects of society, not just externally. Moreover this application of racial theory illustrates that social behaviour could be just as important as physical appearance, if not more so, in providing justification for discrimination or abuse. The origins of racial discourse are therefore contested and reveal the complexity of factors that are exposed by investigating race – intellectual history, economic and military background and class consciousness all have a part. But racial discourse also reveals a good deal about the colonial societies’ sensibilities. For instance, when ‘Prince Lobengula’, allegedly a warrior chieftain captured in the Matabele war tried to marry a woman called Florence Jewell the popular uproar was intense – The Spectator wrote ‘the white man, being supported in his faith by the whole history of the world, believes firmly...that his colour marks him out as belonging to the hereditary aristocracy of mankind and regards and degradation [read racial intermarriage] to that aristocracy as a kind of personal insult.’19 Interestingly the only positive report came from the Southern Echo in an article that argued he had been brought up properly and therefore ‘knew what civilization was’20 demonstrating that it was English manners as much as race that the press were concerned about. The episode reveals the intensity of the feeling that there was something ‘special’ about the English race (with a touch of
15 Ibid, p83 16 Ibid, p93 17 Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader p14 18 Malik, K., The Meaning of Race. Race, History and Culture in Western Society p98 19 Mackenzie, J.M. (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture, p101 20 ibid

Gabriel Lambert

Imperial and Global History

sexual insecurity). This feeling of uniqueness was also reflected in imperial literature for children – in W H Fitchett’s ‘Deeds that Won the Empire’ he wrote that he was trying to ‘renew a popular memory of the great traditions of the Imperial race to which we belong.’21 Together, these cases show how England used racial theory and the concept of the ‘other’ to define what it meant to be English. In other words, racial theory was bound in with national spirit – it was felt that there must have been something innate in English people to have made such a small island succeed so spectacularly on the world stage. Hopefully a complex picture of race in the context of imperial and global history has emerged. Although the term ‘race’ is inherently risky and needs to be carefully defined as a set of socially rather than physically or naturally determined characteristics applied to a group it remains a useful term of analysis. Racial theory itself is of course fascinating, but it is useful because it sheds fresh light on so many other interconnecting issues associated with empire – economic exploitation, cultural superiority, class conflict and even the worldviews of the colonizers themselves. It is vital to conclude that race was not just a feature of empire – a has been discussed racial theory was applied to sections within colonial societies too, revealing that to look at the world in racial or even socially Darwinistic terms was very much part of the zeitgeist. Racism and racial theory arose in unique historical circumstances but those circumstances should not be confined to relations with colonies – domestic and European political, social and intellectual thought remained paramount in their conception. Bibliography
Back, L and J. Solomos (eds.), Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2000). Bernasconi, R. and T.L. Lott (eds.), The Idea of Race (Indianapolis, 2000) Bush, B., Imperialism, Race and Resistance. Africa and Britain, 1919-45 (London,1999). Curtin, P.D., The Image of Africa. British Ideas and Actions, 1780-1850(Madison, 1964). Dubow, S., Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa (Cambridge, 1995). Mackenzie, J.M. (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1986). Malik, K., The Meaning of Race. Race, History and Culture in Western Society (Basingstoke, 1996). Rich, P., Race and Empire in British Politics (Cambridge, 1990). Sampson, J., Race and Empire (Edinburgh, 2005). Solomos, J, Race and Racism in Britain (Basingstoke, 2003).

21 Ibid p79

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