The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist Image of AfricaPart 2: Blackness As Bestiality
by Milton Allimadi
Mr. Allimadi is CEO and Publisher of The Black Star News, based in
New York City. He has graciously given BAR permission to serialize his work.
"Blackness of skin was strongly associated with moral perversity and intellectual and spiritual inferiority by whites."
By the time American and British newspapers started sending professional journalists to write about Africa during the early part of the 20th Century, the racist image of Africa was solidly ingrained in the Western psyche. This was made possible by the writings of the early Greek historians, especially Herodotus, and later by the popular journals of European "explorers."
Herodotus (484-425 BC), who is hailed as the "father of modern history" explained in The Histories that Ethiopians were Black because the men ejaculated black sperm into their women. He also informed his contemporaries - and many generations that followed - about the continent's peculiar and exotic inhabitants. "There are monstrously large snakes and lions in those parts," he wrote, referring to the continent, "and elephants and bears and asps, and asses that are horned, besides dog-faced beasts and headless ones that have eyes in their chests - at least that is how the Libyans describe them, and wild men and women and many other wild creatures the existence of which cannot be denied." Few of Herodotus' contemporaries must have challenged his assessment of Africa. So, the Western mind was conditioned to accept a fantastic and grotesque image of Africa from a very early stage.
Blackness of skin was explained as an aberration that could be resolved through scientific inquiry; it was also strongly associated with moral perversity and intellectual and spiritual inferiority by whites. Using white skin as their reference point of measuring "normality," physicians, scholars, religious leaders and politicians attempted to translate the aberration of black skin for common white people.
In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, (1646), Thomas Browne, a physician, attributed blackness of skin to "black jaundice" or "mutations" or "inward use of certain waters." More than 200 years later, the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1866), quoting a "Dr. Barrier," explained that "the gall of negroes is black and, being mixed with their blood is deposited between their skin and foreskin."
The good Dr. Barrier did not to have the final word on the matter. "Dr. Mitchel of Virginia," the Encyclopedia Britannica continued, "in the philosophical transaction No. 476, has endeavoured by many learned arguments to prove, that the influence of the sun in hot countries, and the manner of life of their inhabitants, are the remote causes of the colour of the Negroes, Indians, etc."
Clearly, the doctor from Virginia had struck on a novel theory with exciting possibilities, so the Encycopledia's editors did not shy away from extending the theory to its logical, and in this case, preposterous conclusion: "And indeed," the Encyclopedia read, "it would be a strong confirmation of his doctrine, if we would see any people, originally white, become black and woolly by transplantation, or vice versa."
About 100 years before Dr. Barrier rendered his "scientific" opinion, none other than Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the American Republic, had shed some light on the controversy surrounding black skin, in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781): "Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin [epidermis], or in the scarf-skin itself, whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and it is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us." Jefferson wanted to explain the differences between Blacks and whites in order to justify why he advocated that freed Blacks were better off being resettled "beyond the realm of mixture with whites."
"The more ‘Negroid' an African appeared, he was portrayed as more backward."
"Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race," he wrote, "They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour." Had Jefferson paused to reflect upon the fact that all the Black people he associated with worked on his plantations, he would have discerned the origin of their profuse sweating. Even then, his reservations about the hygienic conditions of Blacks did not prevent him from deriving sexual pleasure from an underaged Sally Heming, one of his slaves, with whom he fathered a child.
Some white historians have argued that whites who first encountered Africans were not racist towards them and that the pervasive stereotypical representations of Africa did not take hold until much later. In The Africa That Never Was, (1970) Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, after surveying 500 years of Western writing on Africa, concluded that as late as the 15th Century, European traders, who were the first whites to come into contact with Africans, did not focus on value judgment. However, by the 17th Century, when Europeans began acquiring Africans for slave labor, theories alleging the Africans' natural inferiority and bestiality became popular, in order to justify their subjugation.
At the same time a worldwide phenomenon emerged. The more "Negroid" an African appeared, he was portrayed as more backward, or presumed to be, by Europeans. Conversely, the more "European," Africans looked - with "aquiline" features - they were portrayed as, and believed to be more "civilized." This is partly why historically, and right into the modern era, many American and European writers consistently portray the ethnic minority Tutsis in both Rwanda and Burundi more adoringly and favorably when describing their features relative to the Hutus, who comprise the vast majority in both countries. The tendency to venerate Africans with alleged "European" features was found even in the writings of white people who condemned slavery. In her novel, Oroonoko, The Royal Slave, (1688), Aphra Behn, the early English abolitionist and first English woman to earn a living through her writing, countered the slavers' bestial image of Africans with one of her imagined "ideal" African.
"His face was not that brown rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished black," she wrote, describing the hero of her novel who later led a slave rebellion. "His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: his mouth the finest shape that could be seen; far from that great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the negroes."
Behn noted that except for her hero's race, which, due to no fault of his own was Black, "there could be nothing more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty. His hair came down to his shoulders, by the aids of art, which was for pulling it down, and keeping it combed."Europeans Travel to Africa, to Discover Africa
"The British public was eager to imbibe absurd tales from the continent."
It was the popular journals of the European travelers that widely disseminated the racist image of Africa throughout the Western world between the 18th and the 20th centuries. Many of these books are still consulted and quoted from by Western writers who travel to report from Africa.
In 1790, a Scotsman, James Bruce, published his Travels to Discover The Source of The Nile, telling of his three years of wandering in Ethiopia and Tigre. Unfortunately for him, his countrymen did not believe him when he described what he alleged was one typical occurrence in those God forsaken places. Bruce wrote that he witnessed three Ethiopians fling a cow onto the ground, cut two steaks off its buttocks, pin the skin back over the wound and cover it with clay. Then the Ethiopians chased the cow off and fell upon the warm meat. The British public, which was eager to imbibe absurd tales from the continent, still rejected Bruce's account and laughed him into seclusion.
The explorers who followed Bruce fared much better and many of their journals became best sellers throughout the Western world; the books were awaited with the kind of anticipation people nowadays reserve for new film releases. The more the explorers denigrated Africans in their accounts, the more books they were able to sell.
The travel writers knew the public's appetite for their tales from Africa and did not hesitate to encourage others to lace their writings with fiction to make them exciting. "It had struck me that you could not do better than write a short description of your travels in Africa," John Hanning Speke, author of Journal of The Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863), wrote in a letter to John Petherick, a contemporary traveler, "well loaded with amusing anecdotes and fights with the natives."
In 1866, Samuel Baker - he called himself "Baker of the Nile," a reference to his purported contribution toward "finding" the source of the Nile - published Albert N'yanza, recounting his own efforts at "discovering" the source of the Nile, which, as far as African fishermen were aware, had always existed. More than any one of his contemporaries, Baker, who made repeated trips to the continent, had a rabid loathing for the Africans he encountered. "I wish the Black sympathizer in England could see Africa's innermost heart as I do, much of their sympathy would subside," he wrote. "Human nature viewed in its crudest state as pictured among African savages is quite on a level with that of the brute, and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog."
Elsewhere in Albert N'yanza, Baker observed: "So long as it is generally considered that the negro and the white man are to be governed by the same laws and guided by the same management, so long will the former remain a thorn in the side of every community to which he may unhappily belong. When the horse and the ass shall be found to match in double harness, the white man and the African black will pull together under the same regime."CongoMap
There were many such popular explorers' journals that perpetuated and popularized the racist image of Africa in the West. For instance, in 1873, the German traveler, Georg Schweinfurth, published Heart of Africa, in which he issued the following chilling warning to fellow Europeans: "The first sight of a throng of savages, suddenly presenting themselves in their naked nudity, is one from which no amount of familiarity can remove the strange impression; it takes abiding hold upon the memory, and makes the traveler recall anew the civilization he has left behind."
"Joseph Conrad's book is a catalogue of scenes portraying Africans in the most racist manner."
These so-called explorers' writings paved the way for novelists like Joseph Conrad, who published Heart of Darkness in 1902, informing Europeans about the African's alleged barbarity and the continent's propensity to drive people insane - his book is still considered a classic and it is part of the so-called Western canon. Conrad probably borrowed the title of his masterpiece by combining the titles of two books published before his: Schweinfurth's Heart of Africa, and Henry Morton Stanley's book, Darkest Africa. Conrad's book is a catalogue of scenes portraying Africans in the most racist manner.
There is one section in Heart of Darkness where an African character is bestowed with the power of speech - in crude English befitting him, of course - and here's what he tells the European: ‘"Catch ‘im,' he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp white teeth, ‘catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.'" When the narrator of the story asks the African what he would do with the fellow African captive, the answer is predictable: ‘"Eat ‘im.'"
Elsewhere in Conrad's novel, as his steamer sailed down the Congo river, the narrator of the story made the kind of "observation" that still conforms with many white people's deep-seated stereotypical views of Africa today: "We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We would have fancied ourselves the first men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled around a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grassroofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy motionless foliage." (This very scene was plagiarized in a National Geographic article decades later, in October 1922, as this study will reveal in a subsequent chapter).
Chinua Achebe the Nigerian author and essayist in Hopes and Impediments (1988) concluded that Conrad's novel projected Africa's image as "the anti-thesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality."
There are many other books comparable to Conrad's that denigrate Africans and that are still widely read and highly regarded in the West. Conrad's book was one of the best and most enduring writings serving to convince the European mind about Africa's savagery.
The European travelers' journals also had similar influence on American newspapers and magazines. Most Americans first encountered Africa through a National Geographic magazine article in its Volume II, 1889 issue. The article was written by the magazine's managing editor, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, and based entirely on the accounts provided by Henry Morton (H.M. as he preferred) Stanley, the brutal so-called explorer and newspaper correspondent. He traveled extensively in Africa and wrote many lavish and concocted tales about his journeys. During his travels he developed a reputation for shooting down unarmed Africans who challenged him, as if they were wild game. Stanley's primary claim to fame was his account of his search for David Livingston, the British traveler who got lost in Africa. He is credited with the now famous - and most probably concocted - greeting: "Dr. Livingston, I presume?"
"The negro has never developed any high degree of civilization," Hubbard lamented in his magazine article, showing total ignorance about the great civilizations of the Zulus, the Ashanti, Songhay, Mali, Buganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and ancient Ghana, "and even if, when brought into contact with civilization, he has made considerable progress, when that contact ceased he has deteriorated into barbarism." Here we have a sampling of the enduring notion that even among so-called "civilized" Africans, barbarism lurkedbarely underneath the surface, waiting to be unleashed at any given moment.
"The New York Times explained that Africans were ‘arrested at a position not so much between heaven and earth, as between earth and hell.'"
Even The New York Times relied on the image of Africa perpetuated by Stanley. In an article published on July 1st 1877, the newspaper explained that Africans were "arrested at a position not so much between heaven and earth, as between earth and hell." This article went on to offer further evidence of the Africans' backwardness. "There is an old touch, a tertiary or pre-tertiary touch about them, affiliating them with the ancient hippopotamus and the crocodile; but there is also a touch of a sensitiveness and an affection as keen as any to which the more civilized races have attained." As a result of the Africans' "suspended" condition between earth and hell, the article concluded: "This has exposed them to a torture which the crocodile and the hippopotamus do not know; but it has been insufficient to elevate them to a platform of order and happiness."
Another preposterous article about Africa was published in The New York Times on April 30th 1885. This was shortly after The Berlin Conference that had resulted in the formal partition of the African continent among the European powers of the day - principally Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain. One vast territory in Central Africa, was acquired through fraudulent "treaties" between African rulers and representatives of King Leopold II of the Belgians, including H.M. Stanley, and renamed the Congo Free Estate. The article, under the headline "A New Native King," explained the challenges the Belgian monarch would face, should he decide to travel to the continent to rule his new "native" subjects. "He knows that were he to carry to Africa the manners and the customs of a Belgian king," the article admonished, "his darky subjects would misunderstand him and would be dissatisfied."
So, in order to familiarize himself with the continent, Leopold had commissioned Stanley to show him how to make native beer called "pombe"; he had also learned "the banjo and the bones," and read Daniel Bryant's Theory and Practise of Colored Conundrums. (My several attempts to locate a copy of this book were not successful). The Times article explained: "His skill in performing the banjo will please the people, and his knowledge of the ancient and classical conundrums of the African race will gain for him the reputation of a man of profound learning."
On the other hand, according to the article, the king also faced grave risks in going to Africa. "If king Leopold is not ready to face the danger he had better not go to Africa," the article warned. "He knows very well that no European can make rain, whatever a native king may be able to do, and he need not expect that he can compromise with his subjects by establishing a weather bureau." Failure to produce a downpour, the article alleged, would lead to a revolution "to be followed by a banquet at which the dethroned monarch is the principle dish."
One effect of the Times' article is known: Leopold was a voracious reader of publications from all over the world, so perhaps following the Times' advice, he never set foot in Africa, instead, ruling through his cruel functionaries and intermediaries.© Milton G. Allimadi
Next week, Part Four: The New York Times as Apartheid's Apologists
The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa
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