Exploration, Race, and the Christian Dilemma

Emma Newman, a third year History student at the University of Sheffield, considers the cultural encounters between Europe and other parts of the globe in the Renaissance era, and discusses how different groups of indigenous peoples were perceived in general by Europeans.

Historians and sociologists don’t tend to attach the label of ‘racism’ to Europeans at this time, and deem them instead to be largely ethnocentric – the concept of having an aversion to other cultures, and a belief that one’s own culture and society are natural and superior. However, I want to try to understand how racism emerged, and I believe the roots of this were set down during the voyages of discovery that took place in the later Middle Ages.

Travellers’ accounts provide us with a useful source of information as to how those living in faraway lands were seen. Some of these accounts, like Sir John Mandeville’s Travels (written around 1350) circulated in various languages for over 100 years and fired the imagination of Europeans. (Incidentally, Mandeville and his adventures are largely thought to have been fabricated!) Fanciful tales of the cynocephali (dog-headed men) and other weird and wonderful creatures were propagated by travellers’ accounts and taken as truth by European readers, and explorers were often on the look-out for odd creatures during their adventures. There was a fascination with the exotic during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and I think explorers wanted to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of indigenous peoples they encountered in order to maintain some continuity with the popular myths, and to give people back home a few entertaining stories to circulate.

But there was also a genuine curiosity with regards to the skin colour of black Africans and the indigenous peoples of South America and the Caribbean. European philosophers and theologians were honestly confused as to whether these people, despite outwardly appearing to be human in shape, were in fact human after all. They did not worship a Christian God, so how were they seen in the eyes of God? Could they be ‘civilised’ and ‘Christianised’, or were they deemed to be inhuman and therefore beyond God’s help?

The Bible itself caused a dilemma for theologians and other intellectual thinkers. For centuries, it was believed that geographical origin and skin colour were unimportant and that it was one’s acceptance of the Catholic faith that mattered (and to classical Greeks and Romans, it was your devotion to civic duty that mattered above all else). However, anyone who examined the Bible for guidance on this subject would also be influenced by the story of Noah’s son Ham, whose descendents were condemned to sin forever by God and marked out by the blackness of their skin. Therefore, a discourse began to emerge that marked Africa as a continent full of sinners, divined by God to serve the ‘superior’ European and Asian continents. (Asia, whilst still seen very much as religiously misguided and as the ‘other’, was in the East – where Jesus Christ had been born – and therefore considered an area of significance.)

As the colour white gradually came to represent religious morality and chastity, the subconscious symbolic connection between the colour black and sexual deviance, death, and dirt became ingrained for the white European Christian population. And as time progressed and colonies were set up – by the Portuguese in West Africa, by the Spanish in the West Indies and South America – it became a useful strategy to downplay the importance of these people in God’s eyes and to reinforce the idea that they were ‘naturally’ inferior and prone to slavery by the more superior European man. Social Darwinism (the idea that some groups of people are biologically weaker than others) would not emerge as a theory until the late nineteenth century but I believe that colonisation, and the subsequent exploitation of these indigenous peoples (and of course later proponents of American plantation slavery, who also cited the Bible as ‘evidence’ for ‘natural inferiority’), were the precursor to this theory.

There is plenty of literature on the cultural encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples around the world (albeit from a Western perspective) but it is still difficult to find evidence for historical attitudes towards black Africans living in Renaissance Europe. We know from recent research carried out on Venice that black Africans often had occupations and families (see my last post); we also know from portraits, and the lives of men such as Alessandro de’ Medici, that some black men rose to positions of influence and importance in places such as the Low Countries and Florence. However, this fact alone is not indicative of positive or neutral attitudes towards black Africans. After all, there is a mixed-race president in the White House today, but yet he has still been the subject of racially-motivated attacks in the American media and elsewhere. I want to know if black Africans (or indeed, Italians of African descent) experienced any public racial prejudice, whether they were treated differently in judicial courts, and whether they had their own communities, or integrated into the Italian societies. I look forward to the day when I can travel to Italy to carry out my own investigations into these fascinating areas of study.

New academic year, new students, new Facebook page

After a bit of a break, we’re back for the new academic year with plans to post lots of new resources on the site through October and November. We have sources for Alessandro’s life including tales of hunting, football, a rather unfortunate stabbing incident and a great fancy dress party… all coming soon to tie into the University of Sheffield History Workshop module. As well as the Twitter feed we now have a Facebook page – please like us and join in the discussion there.