The Ideology of Racial Heirarchy

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Toward a clearer understanding of the roots of the enslavement of Africans...

“The Ideology of Racial Hierarchy and
 the Construction of the European Slave Trade”
by Dr. Molefe Kete Asante, Temple University

 DECEMBER 9-12 1998
 An International Conference 

Mr. President M'Bow, Dr. Doudou Diene, Madame Coordinator Henriques, permit me in the name of my ancestors and by the spirit of their legacies to simply say that it is not racial difference that has been a problem in discovering the ideological basis of the enslavement of Africans, but rather the idea of racial hierarchy, developed, refined and disseminated by Europeans who prosecuted the slave trade for three centuries. All of us here are aware that the magnitude of the European forced migration of enslaved Africans has no peer in history (Haywood, l985). In its extraordinary reach into another continent and its equally overcoming of horrendous obstacles on land and the high seas, the European enterprise dwarfed all other examples of similar social and economic constructions. The sea, more daunting in ways, than the desert, made the journey far more perilous than any other forced migration of peoples. Yet it is also true that the magnitude of the so-called "trade" must be measured in terms of the multiplicity of legacies, historical and contemporary, that it created. In the wake of the most mammoth forced movement of people over a period of centuries we see the very beginnings of the modern world, and indeed, the post modern world, is in effect, a creation of the same legacies (Tracy, 1990).

In one instance the spread of Africans and Europeans to continents other than Europe and Africa helped to produce a world order that has reigned supreme in technology, science, economics, law, and sociology for five hundred years. It was, however, a racist construction created out of stolen land, broken treaties, stolen labor and broken backs. Any interpretation of the post modern views of the present world has to take into consideration that the entire discourse on the fluidity of cultures, the notion of subjective identities, the instability of social and cultural space, and the interaction and interpenetration of peoples is a direct result of the most massive forced movement of people the world has ever known (Cohen, 1982). It becomes impossible to speak of the Americas or Caribbean without Africans or indeed Europe without Africa. One cannot speak intelligently about Portugal and its history without Brazil or without Angola and Mozambique; this is an incredibly interconnected historical moment.

I am struck by two phenomena of the late twentieth century: the survival of the African in the West and the decline of the doctrine of white racial supremacy, neither is yet a complete victory because Africans have not survived equally well in all places, as this UNESCO project "The Route of the Slaves" has shown, and the doctrine of white supremacy is expressed everyday on the Internet and in private circles of Europe and America. But the ultimate success of the African as African in the West and the decline and elimination of any hint of racial hierarchy will be one of the great achievements of contemporary humanity. It is, of course, one of the fundamental thrusts of the Afrocentric movement with which I am identified.

The Afrocentrist, in position as agency for African people, reasserts African humanity against all objectifications. We are not on Europe's periphery; we are ourselves historical beings and our engagement with Europe or Europe's encounter with us must be seen in the light of Africa before Europe (Asante, 1990). This is why we cannot have a fruitful discussion until we understand that no African slaves were removed from Africa, only African people were removed. They were blacksmiths, farmers, fishers, priests, members of royal families, musicians, soldiers, and traders. They were captured against their wills and then enslaved in the Caribbean and Americas.

There remains, however, one nagging question, why were Africans the victims of the most massive enslavement in history? It is a question not to be taken lightly when one views the history of humanity. It was on the African continent that humans originated and on the same continent that the most majestic civilizations of antiquity arose in the Nile Valley (Diop, l991). It was also in Africa that the first flourishing of religion occurred and even the naming of the Gods was said to be an African event (Herodotus, Book II). The mighty kingdoms of the West and South developed and maintained themselves for centuries without the presence of either Arabs or Europeans. So the question to be asked is, why did Africans become the subjects of the European Slave Trade?

When this question is asked a variety of answers are given and each answer has a host of defenders. In effect the answer to the question has been made hopelessly problematic to the extent that it will be difficult to arrive at an answer satisfactory to everyone. Indeed a prominent answer with a vocal cadre in America places the burden entirely on the victims themselves, that is, that it was Africans who created the conditions of enslavement. This falls into the category of blaming the victim much like the person who beats a spouse and then claims that the spouse caused the violence. Of course, some spouses may not be blameless, as all Africans may not be, in the long engagement with the European Slave Trade. Yet it is not correct to blame the actions of the oppressor on the oppressed. Nowhere in African history do I find any example where slavery was the principal mode of production of an African society. No such slave societies were created on the continent and certainly no such societies where foreign labor was imported for the purpose of enslavement and hence, production. Africans had no global interest in the movement of African people and saw in the `trade" no advantage of a strategic nature.

I believe that it is more beneficial to seek the answers to the ideological foundations of slavery in Europe itself. At least, it is in Europe where we discover the first initiatives for the capture and use of Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean. And here in Portugal we are near the beginning of the puzzle itself. In an attempt to explain the relationship of racism and economics to the motivation behind the enslavement of Africans, scholars writing in English have concentrated on two arguments and these arguments might be expanded as we continue to see the unfolding of the "The Route of the Slaves Project." I suspect that the documents in Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch would extend our reach into the history of the phenomenon of slavery.

A First Thesis 

Eric Williams, whose book, Capitalism and Slavery, written in l944, argued that slavery was not caused by racism but that racism was the consequence of African slavery. This line of thinking has become one of the leading explanations for the cause of slavery. It is fraught with many problems, but I believe it is necessary for me to explain the principal characteristics of this argument before I offer my criticisms. For Williams, the answer to the question of why the enslavement of Africans must be found in economic rather than racial conditions. Starting from the premise that the color of unfree labor— that is the laborers themselves were not free—had been consecutively brown, white, and then black in the Caribbean, the economic argument, as I am calling it, says that the first instance of slave trading and slave labor involved the Indian, that is, the Native American. According to this idea the Indians, that is, Native Americans quickly succumbed to the excessive labor demanded of them, an insufficient diet, the white man's diseases, and an inability to adjust to the white man's way of life. This idea was buttressed by the often repeated position of the priest Bartholomes de Las Casas' 1518 petition from Hispaniola that permission be granted to bring Africans, "a race robust for labor, instead of natives, so weak that they can only be employed in tasks requiring little endurance, such as taking care of maize fields or farms." While Spain attempted to restrict the enslavement of Indians to those who rejected Christianity or to the Caribs who were considered cannibals, in the end Spain found that one African was worth four Indians. It is Williams' opinion that the New World, as he calls itbut we know that such designation is a misnomer since it was neither new nor were the ideas carried to the Americas newdemanded robust laborers who could work in the cotton, tobacco and sugar fields.

The economic argument contends that the immediate successors to the Indians as slaves were the whites as indentured servants, at least in the Caribbean. He cites considerable evidence to suggest that white servants, who signed contracts prior to departure to the Americas were indentured by law, binding them to service for a stipulated time often in return for their passage to the Caribbean or Americas. This thesis is based on a economic understanding of history, that is, as a mercantilist endeavor in which the leading economists were seeking to lower the number of poor in Europe by emigration while at the same time supplying labor for the new colonies. Between 1654 and 1685 ten thousand indentured servants sailed just from Bristol in England to the West Indies and Virginia. It is argued that one sixth of the population of Virginia in 1683 were white indentured servants. Furthermore, during the 18 century two-thirds of the immigrants to Pennsylvania were white servants and in one period of four years 25,000 white indentured servants came to Philadelphia from England. It is estimated that at the height of the North American colonial period nearly a quarter of a million whites were of the servant class and half of the English immigrants were of this class (Williams, l944).

In pressing the case for the economic basis of the enslavement of Africans, the economic proponents show how the white servant class was augmented by criminals and the poor. To supply the growing demand for labor in the Caribbean and the Americas kidnapping was resorted to on the streets of Bristol and London. The poor adults would be given whiskey and children given sweets to entice them on board ships bound for the new colonies. Many criminals found the transport ships refuges from the arm of the law and thus safer than the streets of England or Ireland. Convicts proved to be a steady source of white labor for the colonies and the harsh capital laws of England drove many criminals who had violated one of the three hundred capital offenses to take a trip to the new lands. One could be hanged or transported for picking a pocket of more than a shilling, for taking commercial goods more than five shillings, for stealing a horse or a sheep, or for burning stacks of corn. Indeed, by 1664, a proposal was made to banish to the colonies all rogues, thieves, Roma, and vagrants. By 1745 transportation was the penalty for the theft of a silver spoon and a gold watch.

There was, at least, in England a proclivity for transportation whenever the society wanted to rid itself of convicts and criminals. Without such characters neither Australia nor North America would have received such regular infusion of whites, and without such characters maybe our own history as Africans would have been different. However, one cannot speculate on what would have happened since the ones who sent the convicts were the same ones who started the African trade.

Nevertheless, Eric Williams believed that the transportation of these white convicts and criminals and servants showed the process to be neither especially cruel nor inhuman but a part of the age. In effect, everyone was doing it and everyone thought it something to do. Meanwhile, the emigrants were packed into ships like herrings, given about a meter and a half in width and five meters in length for a bed, and treated like common criminals during the crossing which was long, often turbulent, with little good food, and lots of diseases. By 1639 a Parliamentary petition described how seventy two servants had been kept below deck of a ship for five and a half weeks among horses. You can imagine the condition of the servants and the horses after such a journey.

Although Williams sets up the scenario that leads to an economic basis of the enslavement of Africans, he is not willing to go as far as some other writers in drawing the parallel between the white servants and the enslaved Africans. Indeed one could reasonably claim that in some American colonies like Maryland and Pennsylvania the white servants were said to be nearly chattel. But nearly chattel is not chattel. The fact that their conditions were often horrible, even unspeakable, does not lead to the conclusion that the white servants were chattel. The white servants spent their time on the islands and in North Americas grinding at the mills and attending to furnaces or digging the earth with little food that they were used to having, and being bought, sold, and traded among white planters, whipped at will, and sleeping in places worse than hogs. Yet they were not slaves and their conditions never approached dehumanization, that is, the idea that they were not humans.

Williams concluded that the white servant laid the basis for black enslavement because the planters learned from their experience with the white servants what to do with the Africans. According to this theory had it not been for the economic downturn involved with the transportation of the white servants this process would have continued indefinitely. It did not continue only because the white servants cost more than Africans, particularly since the white servants could work only until their contracts were completed and Africans could work a lifetime. Buying an African for life cost the same as buying a white servant for ten years. This thesis holds that the Africans were latecomers into a system already established (See Manning, 1990).

A Second Thesis

Now let me place beside this thesis another that has been advanced as an alternative argument. Its principal proponent writing in English may have been Winthrop Jordan whose book, White Over Black, was a thorough expression of the dual generation explanation for the enslavement of Africans. I shall refer to it as the Social-Economic thesis because it contends that there was an economic idea involved in the ideology behind slavery, but the societies from which the impetus for the enslavement of Africans derived already had in them certain racist ideas that could be developed into full blown ideological foundations by the practice of slavery. The point to the Social-Economic thesis, as a way of escaping the issue of which came first, the hen or the egg, is that racism and slavery generated each other. While Williams maintained that slavery was not born of racism but that racism was the consequence of slavery, Jordan contends that one should not argue whether slavery caused racism or vice versa but rather that they seem to have generated each other, hustling the African toward complete degradation.

In defending his simultaneous invention of slavery and racism Jordan, like Williams, concentrates on the English, establishing that they did not arrive on Africa's west coast until nearly a century after the Portuguese. While the Portuguese seemed to have come early to the twin sins of enslavement and Christian conversion, Jordan argues that the English were adventurous traders in the 1550s with nothing more on their minds than normal commerce. It would be the seventeenth century when English sailors would seriously join in the slave trade. The first permanent English settlement was at Kormantin in 1631, but the first Royal African Company would not be chartered until 1670. Consequently, it is Jordan's belief that Englishmen initially met Africans as another sort of men, not as men to be enslaved. It was true that Africans were black, African religion was not Christian, and the African lifestyle was different from that of England, but they were still human. Indeed the idea that Africans were Moors was common in English literature. To separate the non-Muslim Moors from other Moors the term BlackMoors was often used to describe Africans of West Africa, but there was nothing particularly strange in this form of contact with Africans. Nevertheless the word "black" did hold special negative properties in the English language as an opposition to the word "white" and latent within the English was a cluster of perceptions about black and blackness that must have colored their attitudes toward Africans (Hakluyt, 1928).

Another factor that Jordan sees as having an impact upon the interaction of Englishmen and Africans was the Christian religion. While the English did not seem to have the same zeal as the Portuguese and Spaniards in converting the Africans to Christianity, religion played a part in their eighteenth century reaction to Africans. The English were conflicted, according to Jordan, by the Christian idea of the oneness of mankind, yet the English believed that Africans were different, heathen, savage, and suffered from a fundamental defect which could not be overcome. The English observers found the African so different in habit, manners, dress, religion, and color that it became increasingly possible for them to consider the African as a different species of human, indeed, sub-human.

Jordan contends that the English did not know what to make of the African in the sense that sometimes they felt that the African was absurd in dress and personal etiquette but quite capable in terms of government with kings, counselors, generals, and other functionaries of government just like the English. Jordan writes:

"They knew perfectly well that Negroes were men, yet they frequently described the Africans as "brutish" or "bestial" or "beastly." The hideous tortures, the cannibalism, the rapacious warfare, the revolting diet seemed somehow to place the Negro among the beasts. The circumstances of the Englishman's confrontation with the Negro served to strengthen this feeling. Slave traders in Africa handled Negroes the same way men in England handled beasts, herding and examining and buying" (Jordan, 1968).

Jordan thus concludes that the enslavement of Africans and other forms of debasement coincided in the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland with these negative assessments of the character of African. perpetual service, the core of enslavement. This convergence found its first full expression in the l640s in the American colonies. Consequently the general debasement of the African, permanent service, prejudice against the religion, manners, and morals, of the African made it easier for whites to see Africans as natural slaves. On the other hand the condition of white servants improved. By the 1660s there were protests against holding whites in bondage. The protests were not against enslavement or servitude but against the idea that whites should be held in servitude.

Jordan seems to indicate that although he has identified the twinness of racism and the enslavement of Africans he is not satisfied with the argument he has made. Therefore, he tries again to identify specific elements in the question of why the African was enslaved. He says that economics is a clear factor and had there been no economic need, no persistent demand for labor, then Africans would not have been brought to the Americas. Secondly, Africa was relatively helpless in the face of European aggression and war technology. But unlike Williams, Jordan knows that these two factors alone cannot sustain an argument for the concentrated focus on African enslavement.

It is here that Winthrop Jordan understands that something must have existed in the English attitudes about Africans and indeed about Indians that produced the reaction to these two peoples. Therefore, in this regard, he anticipates many disagreements with Eric Williams' assessment. But as I will demonstrate the Social-Economic thesis has its problems as well.

The Economic Thesis Reviewed

It is my contention that the impetus for the enslavement of the Indian, the white servant and the African was all racist. The driving force for the capture, enslavement, and brutalization of the brown and white people prior to the enslavement of Africans was difference, mainly class in respect to the whites, but also in terms of the Indians racial and color differences. The eventual enslavement of Africans was based on color and racial hierarchy. Difference had already been assumed based on physical appearances.

Although Eric Williams argues that slavery was not born of racism he is fundamentally in error because of his understanding of racism of the time. The English considered the Indians and the Irish of a different race than themselves long before they had expressed the same sentiments about Africans. The idea of English as separate and better than Indians and Irish was deeply implanted in the English attitudes of race, class, and color by the time they came to the Americas and Caribbean islands. It was racism that made Englishmen see the Indians and the Irish servants as different and therefore useful for enslavement. I would agree, however, that the capture and entrapment of the poor whites of Bristol and London was due largely to class and economic factors. Yet it was racism, class, and color consciousness that demanded that whites be released from this type of bondage and blacks remain it it.

Williams admits that popular sentiment demanded African enslavement but not white enslavement. I contend this was because slavery had a racial basis. When Williams speaks of popular sentiment he is speaking about how whites viewed the issue of enslaving whites. They never accepted white enslavement but they were prepared to accept black enslavement because the issue was racial in character. Africans were not considered equal to whites and even though there were white servants the sentiment of the white populations never approved of their enslavement.

The ideology of white racial hierarchy had been introduced by numerous Europeans as a way of explaining differences, even differences between Europeans, prior to the height of the European Slave Trade. After the 18th century the arguments were used to explain and justify the enslavement of Africans, but they had been planted in the European consciousness as a matter of course.

Late in the 18th century, at the University of Gottingen, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Alexander von Humboldt began to develop the racial hierarchical theories that would catapult European thought into the next centuries as the bedevillers of truth. The intention of the Humboldts and other European writers and promoters was the creation of a world in which the dominant motifs of thought and behavior would reflect the European world. Not unlike the conquest in territory that had begun in the 15th century, this information conquest would prove to be just as important in the construction of the West.

So aggressive would these early propaganda tycoons be in promoting their ideology that they would not only conjoin it with enslavement of Africans, capitalism, and imperialism but would spread it to other parts of the world. They even convinced many Africans and Asians that Europeans and European culture were not only superior but were destined to be superior by some Divine Providence. No explanation of the massive enslavement of Africans can be made without reference to the project of white racial hierarchy and the doctrine of white supremacy.

European scientists, scholars, men and women of learning would propagate the most abhorrent nonsense about race. So-called biologists, anthropologists, physiologists, medical doctors would advance theories about brain size, genital size, and head bones to demonstrate their points concerning white supremacy. This would become the background for much of Western theorizing about the world. Popular culture from coaches to cups, from utensils to lamps, from theater plays to analytical essays would be created reflecting white supremacy and the degradation of the African. Furthermore, sermons preached proclaimed a sort of manifest destiny for the white race as priests and preachers became the mighty arms of God in the conquest of the so-called lower races.

Make no mistake, what we have today in every sector: art, education, economics, law, medicineis the legacy of five hundred years of Western promotion of this ideology of white European supremacy. It structures everything we know about the European Slave Trade and it must not be ignored by the scholars of the African world, even if Europe continues to bury its head in the sand.

The Germans were not alone in their proclamation of a white supremacy. While the von Humboldts had suggested a hierarchy of Aryans, Alpines, and Mediterraneans in that order, others were more intent to make comparisons that underscored the necessity of the European Slave Trade. In the Netherlands during the l8th century, Peter Campier, (1722-1789) compared African facial and skull measurements to monkeys and developed a racial hierarchy in which he claimed the superiority of the European form. In such a world it was possible for the European to assume that any enslavement of Africans, indeed, the rape of African women was not only beneficial to Africans but necessary for the improvement of the race!

I am careful to say that racist thinking was not the undertaking of every white writer. Actually, racist ideology was formed by a narrow group of clergymen, philosophers, curators, physicians, and scientists who lived on the salaries of churches, museums and universities. As they came into contact with Africans these became the spreaders, the evangelists of white supremacy.

Of course, most of those who wrote probably had never seen an African or been to Africa, and those who had often formed their opinions before they ever encountered Africa. Widely differing accounts of Africans often emerged from white travelers to the continent. For example, Count Constantin de Volney, a Frenchman, (l757-1820) traveled to Egypt, in the 18th century prior to the invasion of the French Army and claimed in his book Ruins of Empire that Europe owed its arts, civilizations, and sciences to Africans. "Just think that this race of black men, today our slave and the object of our scorn, is the very race to which we owe our arts, sciences, and even the use of Speech!" But Volney was the exception in a long line of racist thinkers.

Earlier, however, David Hume in 1748 had written "I am apt to suspect that the Negroes in general are naturally inferior to whites. There has never been a civilized nation of any other complexion than white."

George Cuvier, the Aristotle of his age, the founder of geology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy, wrote in his major 16 volume work, The Animal Kingdom, in 1812 that the "African is the most degraded of human races and whose form approaches that of the beast and whose intelligence is no where great enough to arrive at regular governance." The implication of this kind of thinking is that Africans are fit for enslavement.

Georg Hegel, the greatest European thinker of his century, wrote in 1828 "Let us forget Africa never to return to it for Africa is no part of the historical globe, it is outside of history."

Louis Agassiz, the Harvard scholar, said there has never been a regulated form of government in Africa.

Thomas Jefferson, the second American president and a slaveholder wrote "I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind." Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, l790.

It is duplicitous for us to deny the duplicating nature of this racist reasoning. It was copied and used as a justifying rhetoric for racial hierarchy and the subjugation of Africans. The reasoning was reinforced in every operation of the European will against Africa.

One could go on with this list with quotes from Arnold Toynbee, Voltaire, and others, but the point to be made is that the leading opinion makers for a period of several centuries believed in the categorical superiority of the white race over the black. This line of thinking, however painful at this era, must be explored to see the root causes of human's inhumanity to other humans.

I would like to make a third point in reference to the Economic Thesis. However brutal the white servant was treated, the white servant was not treated like the enslaved African. They were never chattel in the sense that they lost all ownership of themselves and their time. They were not real estate and could look forward to eventual freedom. Unlike the white servants, the African in America and the Caribbean could only see permanent enslavement. Nothing in the treatment of the Indian or the white servant was ever in the same category as the treatment of the African. Racism was at the door of the house of African enslavement.

It is my belief that the expense of purchasing Africans has not been shown to be cheaper than the cost of capturing whites from the cities of England and Ireland. The capture of Africans was a racist act. The argument that the opening of the lands in the Americas and Caribbean to European interest demanded labor, and the need for labor being  the reason for the enslavement of Africans is only half correct. It is true that labor was needed, but it did not have to be slave labor or forced labor. Labor is not definitionally unfree (laborers working without compensation). Furthermore, it did not have to be African labor. In Spanish colonies the caste system consistently and without variation placed Africans lowest in terms of rights and privileges. In Portugal, Africans were captured and brought to Lisbon prior to the voyages of Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus).

Finally, the commonly held notion that the Native American succumbed to the demands of labor in the sun, an insufficient diet, white diseases, and an inability to adjust to the European diet is an overly promoted, distorted, and inexcusable promotion of racism against both the Native American and the African people. In the first place, this notion assumes that neither the Indian nor the African are human. The Indian is weaker, somehow, than other humans, and the African is stronger, somehow, than other humans. These other humans by which the Africans and Indians are judged are whites. The sun in certain parts of southern North America could be hotter than many places in Africa and to conclude that Indians of North America or the Caribbean could not adjust to the heat is like chasing a pink whale, a fantasy. Furthermore, the diet of Native Americans was well established before the Europeans arrived and it is not as if they had to depend upon the foods prepared by whites. There is no sufficient evidence for this legendary argument in any literature that I have read. The notion of the strength of the African was a justification for the massive importation of Africans into the European colonies in the Americas and Caribbean.

The Social-Economic Thesis Reviewed 

In reference to the Social-Economic Thesis I have a few remarks to make.

First, the prejudice against Africans existed long before the actual enslavement of Africans by Englishmen began. And those who use the dates of the English enslavement of Africans as a starting point for their analysis miss the entire earlier period of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch operations against Africa. We now know from scholars such as Martin Bernal who wrote Black Athena that the so-called Aryan thesis of history arose during the European Renaissance and maybe even earlier. The Aryan thesis held that Europeans were the highest form of men and that the greatest traditions of history in the world were those of Europe, beginning with the Greeks. The fact that this was myth did not dissuade the promoters of the thesis from making the argument. Indeed one can see that blackness was problematic for whites as early as Aristotle who wrote in Physiognomonica that "the Egyptians and Ethiopians were cowards because they were too black."

Secondly, Winthrop Jordan seems to suggest that the English participation in the slave trade was categorically different from that of the other European nations since they did not hold the same views about Africans. However, the English cannot cry innocent when they had the experience of the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spaniards before them. The Portuguese had begun in the 1400s to travel down the west coast of Africa, moving from Ceuta which was captured in 1415 around the coast, and the first Africans brought to Lisbon as servants or "gifts" came around 1444. There was no need for Africans as laborers in the Americas at this time, Europe had not made the journey across to the Americas. Indeed Europe was more intimate with Africa than it was with America during this period. Since Portugal under Alfonso Henriques had reconquered land in Baja from the Islamicized Africans in 1139, Portugal had been the first European country to explore Africa. Nevertheless, the English knew enough from the Portuguese and the Dutch about Africa that the images of Africans were firmly planted in the minds of the English prior to their own massive involvement in the slave business during the Century of No Mercy, the 18th century, when more than six million Africans were forced from the continent, and millions more had their lives disrupted in the continent. We know of course that the first Africans brought to an English colony in North America came aboard a Dutch ship. Yet in 1568, half a century before the presence of Africans at the Jamestown, Virginia Colony, John Hawkins had left Plymouth, England, with 150 sailor-soldiers for the purpose of capturing Africans on the West African coast. Hawkins and his men ran into some difficulty as African soldiers fought them along the coast and many of his men were wounded, some dying ten days after they had been shot by the arrows of the Africans. Hawkins recounts, however, how he joined with a local king to defeat a neighboring king in order to obtain captives, and another forty five of his men were either hurt or killed.

I believe that the arguments for African enslavement were refined during the brutal process by Christians who needed justification but the attitudes behind the arguments were preexistent (Drake, 1987). To emphasize, It is my position that the attitudes making African enslavement possible existed prior to the actual taking of Africans from the continent, but that the refinement of the argument against Africans and for the enslavement occurred during the long history of enslavement in the Americas and Caribbean. Increasingly, the Christian sentiment of the settlers became disturbed by the practice of slavery and consequently demanded new and more complex arguments to justify an un-Christian practice.

While it is fashionable today and perhaps scientifically correct to speak of race as a social construction, it has not always been the case. For nearly five hundred years European thinkers developed, and perfected in Europe itself, and then disseminated to the rest of the world a notion of race and inherent racial hierarchy that led to the enslavement of millions of Africans. The "slave trade" was preeminently neither a trade nor an activity initiated by the victims. It was not merely a mechanism to answer the labor needs of the Americas and the Caribbean but an example of deep moral and ethical failing that relied upon the belief of white racial superiority to sustain it. I do not know of any European nation to date to have sufficiently responded to this crisis in the psychology of Europe. This is the great failing of all discourse on Europe and Africa.

Sustained by an ideology of racial hierarchy where the African was judged the categorical inferior of the white person, the enslavement of Africans was fueled by economics and racism. To this degree, I am more firmly in agreement with Jordan's position than that taken by Eric Williams. However, the ideology of racial hierarchy and white racial supremacy, indeed, contaminated or influenced by the Christian idea of anti-heathenism, meant that Africans were fair game to be worked to death.

What is clear is that the labor loss to local African economies produced for European economies a surplus of value distorting the historical and developmental process for centuries. The ideology of racial hierarchy produced outrages of medicine beliefs where Africans were said to need less food than whites and outrages of shelter needs where Africans were thought to be able to withstand the elements better than whites. Indeed the dependence on Moleque, from eight to fifteen years of age, as were the majority of enslaved Africans from Angola in the 19th century, meant that the outrages against African youth were attacks on the humanity of Africans (See Joseph Miller in Northrup, 1994). Thus, in dealing with the question posed at the beginning of this paper I am raising the issue of social and psychological violence and dehumanization aimed at Africans. What some have called a trade, trafico negreiro, comércio negreiro, la traite négrière, and what Walter Rodney called a social violence, I call a racial war prosecuted against presumed inferiors to establish the idea of white supremacy in economics, culture, religion, education, industry, politics, and culture power. Thus, the enslavement of Africans must be seen in a larger context of European domination where nothing was to prevent the use of collective violence and enslavement against Africans in order for Europe to carry out its aims. Yet in the end we must declare victory over racism, racial hierarchy and racialized histories that seek to protect even now the racist project by denying its base in the enslavement of Africans.

May the African ancestors always live and the historical essence of those under the Atlantic join with our determination that their story and ours be told forever.

Dr. Molefe Kete Asante is Professor and former Chair, Department of African-American Studies, Temple University

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Tracy, James, ed.,  The Rise of the Merchant Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Rodney, Walter,  How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington: Howard University Press, 1972.

Williams, Eric.  Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

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