The tradition of racial prejudice was already well-established in England
at the very beginning of the slave trade. The Devil was traditionally considered
to be black, and expressions like “blackmail”, “the black arts” and the “Black
Death” (a name for the plague) meant that anyone in England who was inclined
to be prejudiced had a whole set of ready-made unpleasant associations for
a person with dark skin.
But it was racist writers like Edward Long, Philip Thicknesse and Thomas Atwood,
towards the end of the eighteenth century, who first tried to present the view
that the white race was superior to all others as “scientific fact”. In his History
of Jamaica (1774), Long repeats a much older idea that all life exists
in a “great chain of Heaven” with the simplest creatures at the bottom, more
intelligent animals higher up and humans at the top, just below the angels.
Again quoting earlier writers, Long assumes that within humans there are “different
species”, with blacks being closer to orang utans than to whites. Long supports
this view with many of his own prejudices – black people, he says, are covered
with wool instead of hair; they hate work and love to be idle; they prefer
to eat their food raw and have terrible table manners. All these are signs,
Long claims, that black people are naturally inferior to whites.
Long goes on from this to argue that therefore, the slave trade is positively
good for the slaves. A modern editor of the History of Jamaica summarises
“That in every mental and moral way negroes were absolutely inferior to
white men, and that the most constructive thing that could happen to them
was to be compelled to work productively.”
Ideas such as these were particularly useful to slavers and plantation owners
as opposition to the slave trade began to mount towards the end of the century.
Between the 1770's and the 1790's, supporters of slavery were using the arguments
popularised by Long to claim that blacks could hardly feel pain (so it was
not wrong to beat them); they were incapable of learning (so it was a waste
of time trying to educate them) and, from a religious point of view, that God
must have designed them specifically as servants for the white race. These
sorts of arguments went hand-in-hand with the economic reasons for keeping
up the slave trade, and helped those who benefited from the system to justify