Race is a fiction. Racism is an enduring reality. For generations, for centuries, the ideals, the policies, the habits of life we now know to be racist were often considered simple common sense. So deeply rooted in our culture, so essential to our understanding of our lives, we can’t imagine a time when racists ideals and racist policies didn’t exist.
It began when the Portuguese wanted to cut the Muslim middlemen out of the slave trade. In the 1400s the slave trade was in transition. The Slavs, the primary source of slaves for Europeans, were learning to effectively defend themselves from slave raids of the Turks. The pool of slaves for Europeans was drying up.
At the same time the Portuguese were traveling further south along the Western coast of Africa longing to increase their take of african slaves and gold directly from the Kingdom of Mali. Slaving was a business after all, and reducing costs by cutting out the middlemen was a shrewd move.
At the head of this enterprise was Prince Henry the Navigator. Prince Henry is known today for launching the Age of Discovery. His take was 20% of everything he brought home. This was normal for the day.
So the ships of Portugal began to slide down the coast of Africa until finally reaching their goal. On August 6, 1444 Prince Henry presented 240 captives for auction. Of course the prince secured his 46 slaves as profit as was his due. Now Portugal was in the big leagues of slave trading along with the Genovese, Catalans, and Valencians.
But the Portuguese took it all a step further. Slave trading was really not for profit after all, it was claimed. It was a missionary enterprise. It was a way to save these Black Africans. It was the only way.
Prince Henry, in considering these newly enslaved people, “reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost.” For him, being enslaved by Christians was far better than living free in Africa.
Black Africans were reduced in the eyes of Prince Henry and eventually to all of Europe as subpar. The Portuguese and the rest of the Europeans viewed the Africans by setting themselves as the standard to measure all others. The Africans had other foods and languages. Their culture and technology asked and answered different questions in a different setting. So, according to the slave traders the Black Africans were in need of spiritual and civil salvation.
Being the Grand Marshall of the Military Order of Christ, Prince Henry readily fell into the long standing tradition of conversion by force. Beginning with Augustine asking the authorities to quash a heretical sect, Christians began to use force to order the world according to their understanding. Forcing people to convert at the point of a dagger became a viable option to many.
This violence leading to redemption is easily seen in the Crusades as well with all of the battles and the forced conversions of Muslims.
Forced conversion was applied to the Jews of course. There was an ebb and flow of the Jews being forced to convert or exiled or massacred in Europe. They were the scapegoats of European society. They were held with suspicion. But once a Jew converted, they could be seen as fully Christian in time and their persecution ended. This might take a generation but eventually you could stop being a Jew.
And you could stop being a Muslim too, but you could never stop being African. The differences in the Middle ages between Christian, Muslim and Jew were seen as religious. The differences between Europeans and Africans were insurmountable. They were immutable. It is here we introduce the notion of race.
Despite the fact that slave trading was a lucrative business, Prince Henry justifies the enslaving Africans because they needed it. It was for their own good. Slavery was to be their salvation. But really, in truth, slavery was a business.
The economic need for a steady new influx of slaves came first. The racist policy decision to secure new slaves directly from Africa came next. And the idea, the justification that Black Africans needed our salvation, that they were a race substantially inferior came last.
And this notion, that Black Africans were so diminished that they needed European salvation just to function as humans has been repeated and justified for more than 600 years. It is in every nook and cranny of our culture and the fiction of race seems undeniable. For far too many people, race seems real.
For further reading:
Between the World and Me Ta-Hehisi Coates
Stamped From The Beginning Ibram Kendi
The Mismeasure of Man Stephen Jay Gould
The image above is a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The background image is a Portuguese nautical chart of the Gibraltar Straits from 1471.