A Short History of Racism image

A Short History of Racism

Discussions of racism today are dominated by the modern, pseudo-scientific, white supremacist version. Rightly so, in my view. It is egregious, appalling, systemic, and its effects are everywhere, and while reflecting on your own failings can lead to appropriate humility, repentance and restoration, reflecting on the failings of others can lead to moral superiority, apathy and even (ironically) racism. But sometimes, and particularly in the American context, the discussion takes place as if racism has only ever been perpetrated by white people (which would surprise the Uighurs), or only ever been perpetrated against black people (which would surprise the Jews). It is this narrative that David Abulafia, Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History at Cambridge, seeks to correct in a recent article. He writes:

The history of racism goes back further in time than the records humanity possesses. The ancient Egyptians ... may or may not have been negative about Israelites, depending on how literally you believe the book of Exodus; but they certainly had condescending views of other peoples such as the Asiatic Hyksos, who for a time conquered the Nile Delta; they mocked the ‘gross’ appearance of the corpulent, steatopygous Jtj, Queen of Punt (roughly, Somalia), and were not very complimentary about her husband’s subjects either.

The early Arab conquerors of al-Andalus, Spain, looked down with contempt on the Berbers who accompanied their armies, treating them as second-class citizens, along with Jews and Christians, even though these Berbers had accepted Islam. If we want to play the game of skin colour, it is quite likely that many of the Berbers were whiter with bluer eyes than their Arab masters.

And the slave trade within the Indian Ocean brought hundreds of thousands of black African slaves to the heartlands of the Islamic empire, resulting in a massive slave revolt in 869 that started in Basra and carried on for fourteen years, threatening the survival of the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad. Zanzibar, under the rule of the Sultans of far-away Oman, was the nineteenth-century capital of this horrible trade. 35,000 African boys sold along these trade routes are said to have been castrated in Coptic monasteries each year, of whom ten per cent survived.

… it is not difficult to find racism far beyond the lands inhabited by white people. Among the most pernicious examples is Japanese racism towards Koreans and Chinese, at its worst in the famous Rape of Nanjing in 1937. To this day, Koreans living in Japan change their name to a Japanese one to avoid the denigration and discrimination that many of them experience. White Europeans were also the butt of Japanese racism.

The marvellous folding screens that portray the arrival of Portuguese or Dutch ships in Japan, made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often portray the Europeans as monkeys. The Oranda Kapitan, ‘Captain of Holland’, was subjected to ritual humiliation on his annual visits to the shogun from the tiny ghetto off Nagasaki where the Dutch merchants were confined. And the Ainu population of northern Japan has literally been pushed to the margins and has shrunk to a mere 25,000 people.

Then there is racism within sub-Saharan Africa. The modern history of Rwanda testifies amply and horrendously to that, though it has been argued that the distinction between Hutus and Tutsi was imported by their Belgian colonial rulers. Within the Belgian Congo, the Pygmies have often suffered at the hands of their neighbours. But there is plenty to report further back in time, as the Bantu population displaced the original San or ‘Bushman’ population of the southernmost parts of the continent. More to the point, the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves was fed by African rulers who passed on captives from neighbouring peoples. By and large they avoided selling their own brethren.

The Aztecs were not keen on their neighbours and exterminated large numbers in ritual human sacrifices. The early Gypsies may well have moved out of India because of caste discrimination, which is not very different from racial discrimination. Nor can one ignore white-on-white racism, whether against European Jews or Slavs or the Irish, just to give some major examples. It is therefore a sad and horrible truth that every continent has experienced racist persecutions before as well as after the age of the European empires. Quite possibly the first Homo Sapiens played a big role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals.

In other words, racism has a long, complicated and tragic history. Lest we forget.

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