Black History Month Special: Exploring Institutionalised Racism Since 17th Century (Part 1)

Africa in the European imagination has created historical reverberations since the 17th century. Missionaries recalled seeing the Cape and claiming its beautiful was not just transcendent, but a land filled with sociological and economic potential. The connotation began to transform as the European objectives became more hostile and less savoury. The Kohekohes, or the ‘Hottentots’, are a primary example of this change. The language and descriptions being used to describe them developed into dehumanisation and animalistic imagery. However has Africa, in the imagination, evolved since the 18th century? In the 20th and 21st century there have been numerous cases which suggested the evolution is lethargic or stagnant. For instance in 2014, after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there was a systematic travel ban to and from West Africa from the United States Government. Dr Isabelle Nuttall, of the World Health Organisation, stated a ban was counter-productive for medical response, as well as the perception of Africa[1]. Vigilance was necessary, however fear and ignorance was allowed to envelop a nation-state. Is this any different from the concept of ‘The What Man’s Grave’? From the 18th century to the 19th century there was a predisposition to deem Africa as unrelenting land that was only to habitable my beasts. Phillip Curtin states that this image was principally false, although they derived from high mortality of Europeans[2]. Here we can see the correlation between historical ideas of Africa and contemporary thoughts; the Hottentots will be analysed in this fashion.

The intention of this is article is not to insinuate that modern racism is a direct result of the suppression and exploitation that the Hottentots received. Nor is this article attempting to apply contemporary morality and terminology to historical events. Economic, mercantile and religious factors were instrumental to dehumanisation of Africans from the 17th century until 19th century; it was not primarily for the creation of a racial hierarchy. However the intentions do not justify the consequences, especially when the consequences were exploited for insidious reasons. The objective of this article is to highlight how dehumanisation occurred from 17th to 19th century, to the Hottentots, and examine how in modernity, these perceptions have not progressed.

This article will explore historical examples of dehumanisation against the ‘Hottentots’, and examine how these techniques have not evolved in the contemporary imagination. We will examine the creation of racial hierarchy, as well as the advancement of scientific racism as factors in dehumanisation.

Theory of Dehumanisation

Dehumanisation is a complex and subjective topic, with academics still classifying the components attached to it. Studies on it primarily focus on how it enables abuse in the midst of conflict, or how it shapes perceptions of others. For instance dehumanisation came to the fore of psychological analysis after the holocaust, where rejection of humanness equated to acceptance of genocide. In this section we will discuss the dehumanisation and the methodised components attributed to it, which should provide a comprehensive framework to conceptualise the term and arguments enveloping it.

Nick Haslam discusses dehumanisation within the structure of social-psychology. Haslam asserts that the key concept within this paradigm is the denial of humanness to a person or group[3]. He divides the proponents of humanness into two categories: Uniquely Human and Human Nature. Uniquely Human characteristics define the boundaries that separate humans from the animals like socialisation, tolerance, rationality and culture. Contrarily Human Nature reflects the difference between humans and animals, but from a biological and natural prescriptive. There is an emphasis on inherent nature of a human that distinguishes themselves from animals. Thus the denial of both Unique Human and Human Nature characteristics is the genesis of dehumanisation.

Haslam expands on this by using the case study of race and ethnicity as example of denial of humanness. People or groups, who are dehumanised, in reference to race and ethnicity, are usually represented as barbarians who lack culture, self-restraint, moral sensibility and cognitive capacity[4]. This is a consistent within descriptions of Syrian refugees within the 21st century. For instance, in the British media, Syria refugees were referred to cockroaches[5]and discussed for having an inability to control themselves around Western women. These descriptions dehumanise a population fleeing terrorism, anarchy and maliciousness. When this occurs there is no empathy or sympathy for those affected, thus there is no impetus to intervene in their demise because their human qualities have been denied.

Another term within the realm of dehumanisation is infrahumanisation, which examines emotionality and essence. Within social-psychology there are two distinct social groups known as ingroup and outgroup. The identification, psychologically, of these groups regards how socially accepted or conformist an individual is. Thus ingroups and outgroups create a dichotomy between the socially-accepted and socially-excluded which highlights dehumanisations. Phillipe Leyens states infrahumanisation occurs when people view the ingroup and the outgroup as essentially different, and apply ‘human essence’ towards the ingroup and denies it to the outgroup[6]. Human essence in this instance directly correlates with Haslam’s notion of Human uniqueness. Leyens explains that emotionality is a feature of Human Uniqueness, and infrahumanisation occurs when emotions such as sadness, joy and love are denied to the outgroup[7] and are classified as a fundamental attributes of the ingroup.

Here we can see how dehumanisation can manifest into two distinct aspects: application of animalistic imagery and the denial of human emotionality such as love and joy. Both these examples give precedent to idea that the Europeans had a ‘moral responsibility’ to tame the ‘savages’ from the 17th century onwards, and that is what we will analyse throughout this article.

Was Race Relevant in Regards to Kohekohe?

 But before we ascend into a comprehensive analysis we must examine how prevalent concepts of race were, and if it directly paralleled with Kohekohe. The purpose of this is to dismantle any belief that dehumanisation of the Kohekohe was subconscious, and to contextualise how race was perceived by European (largely British) society during this period. This section will discuss the Kohekohe with regards to thoughts of degeneration in the British public, and reservations around imposing traditional slavery implications on the Kohekohe.

Race and skin colour was a crucial component in understanding the Hottentots, but also caused ambiguity within the British public too. The Hottentots were routinely depicted as being fair-skinned compared to Black Africans, which the British had encountered. This variation within pigmentation of Africans caused great anxiety amongst explorers and scholars during their encounters with the Hottentots. For instance John Phillips discussed whether the Hottentots were able to transform their skin colour by will, because even though Hottentots children tended to be born white, they became darker gradually[8]. His theory centres on the idea that the African sun mutates these children into darker-skinned adults.  Antithetically John Ovington’s perplexity about the Hottentots race dismissed ideas that the sun was the principle factor in the changing of skin colour. Instead Ovington indicates that food and diet may be responsible for this inexplicable alteration[9]. However he constantly refers to the Hottentots with a plethora of terminology and skin colours, without offering any tangible retorts to the confusion. This shows that race was a central debate in relation to the Hottentots. We can see that during the 17th century there was an obvious concentration on the race of the Hottentots, and this caused anxiety within British society.

This anxiety was a symptom of fear, the fear that degeneration may become a disease which affects British society. There were no definite explanations of how the Hottentots transformed from white to darker-skinned. Phillips and Ovington purposed theories indicating climate and dietary restrictions, however these were not proven. So fears of degeneration, much like the Hottentots, became ubiquitous in the mind of British society. Linda Merians, renowned historian on matters relating to the Hottentots, advocates with this theory, stating that there was a familiar trope within British society that contended that degeneration was a consciousness fear within society. Merians contends that British people feared deteriorating socially and declining on the ‘The Great Chain of Being’[10]. The collective British voice, according to Merians, acknowledged that the Hottentots could not evolve and escalate up the ‘The Great Chain of being’, however they feared they could degenerate and cascade down it. The fear of what the Hottentots represented within the British imagination was a potent and persuasive sentiment, and this stemmed from issues relating to skin colour and race.

This racial fear manifested itself into British society in the form of debate between pro-slavery groups and abolitionist movements. Pro-Slavery movements and individuals argued that Africans were fortunate to be embroiled under slavery, as it protected them from harsher punishments in their own lands. Bryon Edward, a 17th century Politician, advocated this point, and used the example of a young girl who witnessed the murder of twenty people at the funeral of community leader at the behest of the despotic local governments[11]. Africans, according to Edward, avoided cruelty and barbarity under slavery thus his justification of slavery was based on compassion rather than economic prosperity or racial demonization.

Furthermore, perhaps more poignant, pro-slavery arguments came in the form of economic prosperity for the British. British merchants and planters warned that abolition would destroy the British economy. A 1749 Pamphlet highlighted this consistent and incessant argument which examined how tobacco, rice, rum, cotton and sugar trades and plantations would suffer unequivocally as a result of the potential annihilation of slavery[12]. Additionally arguments from the pro-slavery camp contended that Britain’s economic and physical power would diminish if slavery was abolished. A 1777 parliamentary speech made by Temple Lutrell illustrates this thought process, as Lutrell states that slavery maybe be considered inhumane but British colonies needed to be cultivated and it would be imprudent to relinquish a source of free labour and to buy from competing empires[13]. These examples show an inherent need to elongate the construct of slavery, however the British public feared degeneration and racial usurpation more than prospect of economic and mercantile depletion.

Although there were many reasons for abolition such as biblical authorities, calls for equality and damaging of the African continent socio-economically. However in terms of race, abolition aligned with fears of degeneration and racial upheaval from the ‘The Great Chain of Being’. Seymour Drescher states that British society found itself in a tough position, especially pro-slavery advocates, between enhancing the reputation of Black Africans as more than just a valuable commodity and the fears of British society that they could degenerate, or that the Africans could become the dominant race within British society[14].

Perhaps this explains the manoeuvres initiated by the British government in enslaving the Hottentots; the creation of the 1809 Hottentot Proclamation. British society, as stated before, was decisively against slavery. However slavery did not befall the Hottentot people during this period. In 1718 Captain Daniel Beeckman stated that “that there are not Hottentot slaves; for as ignorant and brutish those people are[15]”. Merians states that racial ambiguity was a factor in the decision not to sell the Hottentots into slavery[16]. However the Hottentot people were still a valuable commodity in terms of cultivation of land, and there needed to be a way to circumvent public opinion and fears, while exploiting free labour. Thus the proclamation was legal documentation and manipulation of the abolishment of slavery. One protocol within the legislation allowed for Hottentot children, aged between eight and eighteen, to be ‘employed’ without pay if they were destitute or grew up on the employer’s property[17]. British societies obsession with degeneration made it impossible for slavery to exist, but importantly they saw identical characteristics (being white at birth) within the Hottentots. Thus any ambitions to treat them exactly like other Black Africans would never have been plausible.

What this demonstrates to us is how prevalent issues of race were from the 17th to the 19th century, and not just as a consequence but as a primary factor. We have also seen elements of dehumanisation and infrahumanisation within the primary sources analysed too which shows us conscious systems established in creating a racial hierarchy. ‘The Great Chain of Being’ after all is a vigorous concept within early modern thought.

Part 2 will be realeased shortly.


[1] Isabelle Nuttall, ‘Ebola Travel: Vigilance, not Ban’, accessed on 12/04/18.

[2] Phillip Curtin, ‘The White Man’s Grave: Image and Reality, 1780-1850’, Journal of British Studies 1 (1961),94.

[3] Nick Haslam, ‘Dehumanization: An Integrative Review’, Personality and Social Psychology Review 10 (2006), 252.

[4] Haslam, ‘Dehumanization’, 256.

[5] Heather Saul, ‘Katie Hopkins urged to apologise for dehumanising column comparing refugees to ‘cockroaches’ after Independent campaign’, accessed on 12/04/18.

[6] Jacques-Phillippe Leyens, ‘The Emotional Side of Prejudice: The Attribution of Secondary Emotions to Ingroups and Outgroups’, Sage Journals 4 (2000), 186-187.

[7] Leyens, ‘Emotional Side of Prejudice’,191-192.

[8] Linda Merians, Envisioning the Worst: Representations of Hottentots in Early-modern England (University of Delaware Press,2001),125.

[9] John Ovington, A Voyage to Surratt in the year 1689 (Tonson,1696),496.

[10] Linda Merians, What They are, Who We Are: Representations of the Hottentot in 18th century Britain (Duke University Press,1993),15.

[11] Bryon Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British West Indies (Princeton University Press,1819),104.

[12] John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom (McGraw-Hill Education, 2000), 82.

[13] Temple Luttrell, ‘Parliamentary Speech in 1777’, accessed on 13/04/18.

[14] Seymour Drescher, ‘The Ending of the Slave Trade and the Evolution of European Scientific Racism’, Social Science History 14 (1990),417.

[15] Daniel Beeckman, A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo in East-Indies (Warner,1718),180.

[16] Merians, Who are we (Duke University Press,1993),22.

[17] Hermann Gilliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Hurt & Co Publishers, 2003), 83.

Categories Psychology, Sociology

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