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“Scientific” racism
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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 his views:

“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 themselves.




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