It is no surprise that it soon became necessary to provide an explanation for such inhumane treatment. Cox (1948) states that, in order to justify such humanly degrading treatment, exploiters must argue that the workers are ‘innately degraded and degenerate’, and consequently, naturally merit such a condition. As a result, ideas relating to ‘race’ emerged, in the form of racist ideologies, which were used to justify the slave trade and its barbaric treatment of black Africans. It was believed that the black man was naturally inferior so therefore did not deserve the rights of an English man. This was seen to legitimise the treatment of black Africans as cattle, not as equals; Africans were regarded as subhuman. These ideas, which had developed in
Europe, soon spread to other parts of the world. Kipling’s poem in 1899 titled ‘The White Man’s Burden’ describes a desperate conflict, never experienced by any other race in all the history of the world.
By looking at events prior to the slave trade, for example, eastern trade with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese merchants, one can see the changes in ideas relating to race. At this point, “The white man had no conception of himself as being capable of developing the superior culture of the world- the concept ‘white man’ had not yet its significant social definition- the Anglo-Saxon, the modern master race was not even in the picture.” (Cox 1948 :327) As these merchants travelled along the African coast, they did notice the inferiority of the African people as fighters and culture builders, however still no conclusions relating to racial superiority were drawn. Cox believed that there was no sort or racial antagonism present at this point because there was no economic and rationalistic basis.
It is important to discuss the slave trade and racism as an idea on race, in a cause and effect type dimension. It has been a long debated question as to whether racism was the root cause of the slave trade or merely a by-product of it. Cox explains that the slave trade was a system set up to recruit labour to exploit America’s natural resources. He claims that it was not because the Africans were black, but because they were the best workers found for heavy labour, and similarly if white people had been available in sufficient numbers, they would have been used. The Slave Trade formed a “practical, exploitive relationship with socio-attitudinal facilitation.” (Cox 1948:332) i.e. racial prejudice emerged.
In short, the bourgeois world began to commercialise human labour in the West and East Indies. This led to intense competition and increased capitalist exploitation of resources. This later led to the consolidation of European nations and the development of nationalism, which was accompanied by racial antagonism, theories of racial superiority and master hood. Fryer (1984) claimed that racism was just a by product of slavery. Black Slaves were not treated as equals, which led to the thinking that racism was born out of the slave trade. However, slavery was not the result of racism, but rather the other way around.
Throughout this era, British law was constantly changing and in many ways reflected ideas on race at that time. Walvin (1973) refers to 1677, as the Slave Trade began to grow; the Solicitor General was faced with the Acts of Trade, and defining where the African slaves fitted into it. In his opinion, in order to justify the treatment of African slaves whilst travelling the Atlantic, the Africans would have to be regarded as goods and commodities, commonly known as ‘Chattel’. It was from this early legislation that the dehumanisation of the African slaves began. Similarly, in 1783, a court case concerning the compensation wanted for the black slaves lost during the transatlantic journey on the ship ‘Zong’. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, refused the compensation and justified the huge death toll of the African slaves due to drowning as ‘in the same sense as if horses had also been thrown overboard’. This gave legal approval for labelling African slaves as animals. It is clear that by 1789 the dehumanisation process was complete as hostility and brutalisation towards the black Africans grew as a result of the large numbers who had settled in Britain. In order to legitimise the way in which the Africans were being treated, they were newly defined as ‘ignorant beasts’. Racial discrimination and exploitation of the most sickening form were not only used to enhance economic growth, but were also used as political tools to influence the legal system and the masses. In this way, English law worked for the economy and paved the way for Negro oppression, relegating them to a quite unacceptable status.
Malik (1996) believes that by looking at Slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is easier to understand the relationships between equality, race and the origins of racial discourse. He argued that racism was responsible for slavery, or at least the lack of opposition to it; The Slave Trade remained legal for almost a century after the ‘Declarations of the rights of man’. In 1765, William Blackstone in the ‘commentaries on the laws of England’ stated “The spirit of liberty is so implanted in our constitution, and rooted in our very soil, that a slave or a negro, the moment he lands in England falls under the protection of the laws and becomes eo instanto, a free man.” (cited in Malik 1996:62) This doesn’t fit in with the argument that the Slave Trade was fuelled by beliefs in the inferiority of Africans.
The Historian Peter Fryer looked at work by Edward Long, ‘The History of Jamaica’, which talked about the racial basis to slavery and the ‘dissimilarity of Africans to the rest of mankind’. He referred to Africans as a different species with the intellect of orang-utans. This shows that even at a time that accepted such gross and inhumane treatment, there were a broad spectrum of views regarding race and many argue that slavery did centre on practicality and economic utility, rather than racial ideologies.
Prejudice against the black community grew with the increase of not only the black population, but also mixed race unions and the so called ‘black crime’ problem. Long’s racist views were somewhat a representation of the attitudes of the majority of people as he stated that “The lower class women in England are remarkably fond of the blacks for reasons to brutal to mention- they would connect themselves with horses and asses if the law permitted them to.” (cited in Shyllon 1974: ).
Prejudice and racist ideologies grew, but so did opposition to them and by 1807, the Slave Trade in Britain was abolished, as it was in British colonies by 1830. But did this abolishment rise as a result of humanitarian or economic reasons? Legitimate trade with Africa began in the 1850s, but did the racist ideologies which had become so common change? It was obvious that attitudes towards black people would not change overnight. The old ideas concerning the inferiority of Africans remained, but new ideas also emerged. Africans began to be perceived as child-like and helpless, needing the guidance of Europe and of course, Christianity. As time progressed, Africans were portrayed as happy and thrift full but with a lack of discipline; but they would soon benefit from the ‘superior culture’ of Europe. This reinforced a paternalist ideology, with the job of the colonisers and missionaries to look after the spiritual and material well being of the Africans; their country would become ‘civilised’.
During the inter war period, black communities grew, particularly in port towns like Liverpool. Inter racial reproduction was also on the increase which led to stereotypes of black men having ‘a woman at every port’. There were high levels of unemployment among Africans; the press encouraged people to hire white people as opposed to black people. The Alien Order Act in 1925 meant that black people had to prove British nationality or face deportation. The use of the word ‘alien’ sums up the precarious status of black people at a time when black and white people had been hit hard economically, to which racial discrimination did not help matters.
After this came the introduction of ‘Sudo’ Science and scientific racism. This used methods of science to try to prove the inferiority of black people. Ideas put forward by the evolutionist Darwin, claimed that some human beings were superior to others and could be put onto a superiority scale. Many saw this as another type of justification, this time for colonisation, not the slave trade. In 1945, the UN attempted to formulate a scientific meaning to ‘race’, as biologists and geneticists questioned it as a scientific ID. It was argued that differences between one so called ‘race’ were actually greater than between the races. I.e. there was a greater genetic diversity between any one ethnic group, than between them.
After World War 2, the process of decolonisation began and was accompanied with an increased migration of black people to Britain. By the 1960s, black people were no longer openly denounced as racially inferior. Instead they just had a ‘different’ culture, which incidentally was also thought to be inferior! In the 1960s and 70s, there was a surge of equal rights campaigns against the segregation of races and immigration laws. Malik refers to the civil rights reform which “reinforced the idea that black liberation should be defined by the degree to which black people gained equal access to material opportunities and privileges available to whites, in the way of jobs, housing, schooling.” (Malik 1996:261) However, it was questioned as to how this could ever bring about liberation? Those reforms could merely be seen as attempts to imitate the lifestyles and values of white people. Nowadays, ‘equality’ has come to mean oppression, and ‘difference’ liberation. This is mirrored in modern day campaigns for separate schools, the use of different languages and the maintenance of specific cultural practices i.e. Equality can now be defined as ‘the right to be different’.
Racial ideologies and ideas on ‘race’ have been prominent throughout history and continue to be today. The Slave Trade is an important example of how ideas and concepts relating to race can influence masses of people and how they can be used in many ways to justify the actions which are under normal circumstances unacceptable. It also offers an example of how these ideas can change so dramatically over long periods of time. During the Slave Trade, prejudice was supported by great interest and began to grow and become customary. People became unreasonable in their very reasoning as a result of racist ideologies which had that very purpose; They encouraged thoughts which today would be considered foul and dark, and emotions which would be considered brutal and debased. Rex (1986) stated that “The pith of this ideology is not so much that coloured people are inferior, as that they must remain inferior” (Rex 1986:357) i.e. Black people should be have no rights, no status, no function and no mobility. But was this type of racism socially constructed to serve a purpose; economic success?
There became an increased anxiety about the growth of the black population in England and how it would threaten the purity of English blood.
But by 1760s, intellectual arguments were formulated against black slavery and in the nineteenth century Britain became proud of its role in supporting black freedom, forgetting the role they had played in black oppression and exploitation. The decades after the abolition of the slave trade saw the emergence of new ideas on race, including a scientific approach and the emphasis on equality and the right to be different. The way in which a change in ideas and broader ideologies can affect many aspects of social life is particularly evident as today we find constant emphasis on equality in our everyday lives, regarding rights, status, function and mobility, just what the black population were deprived of in Britain centuries ago.