Exploring Institutionalised Racism Since 17th Century (Part 2)

This is part two of the dehumanisation series, and it feels pertinent that this article be realised now with institutionalised racism becoming a vociferous topic once again. Please read the first article for context, but remember that the tragic events of George Floyd are an emblematic problem in our society. There is no quick fix. There is no containment of anger. There is only solidarity as we move forward.

 ‘The Great Chain of Being’   

‘The Great Chain of Being’ is a hierarchy of eminence in relations to celestial deities, humanity and animal kind as well as plants, minerals etc. The aspiration of the chain was to give a purpose of life to every individual no matter how insignificant; with the ultimate goal to glorify God. The concept first came into prominence in medieval Christianity[1], however the concept garnered racial undertones by the Enlightenment period. The chain’s Christian connotations were distorted, and replaced with racial connotations and within this section we will explore how they were superseded and how it affected the Hottentots.

One of the first instances of distortion came towards the end of the 17th century where gaps within the chain became apparent. Monkeys and Humans shared similar characteristics and facial features and mannerism; however the concept of evolution had yet to be developed so there seemed to be a category of animal missing from the chain. Dr William Petty wrote a paper in 1677 stating ‘savages’ or non-white humans were fundamentally divergent and inferior species of humanity, located between men and animals on ‘The Great Chain of Being’[2]. The implication being that these ‘creatures’ were lesser than humans, but more developed than the monkey, thus satisfying the gap within the chain.

This concept languished as scientific precedent was absent from the theory, however by the early 18th century the notion became scientifically robust. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish physician and zoologist, was instrumental to this resurgence, believing there were different characteristics within the same genus. Linnaeus classified these characterisations into his own hierarchy and groups, with white-European being identified as the superior race. This was determined by Linnaeus’s rational that one characteristic distinguished men; the ability to facilitate reason[3]. Africans are identified as passive, inattentive and ruled by impulse[4], which denies the human qualities that are attributed to white-Europeans. There is a clear parallel to Linnaeus’s theory and dehumanisation in creating a racial hierarchy, and his theory would also foster in an era of comprehensive thought on this subject.

The 18th century produced additional theories and case studies on racial hierarchies, with Edward Long being a prominent figure in its accession. Long was one of the principle members within the scientific community that advocated with racial biology, contending that ‘negroes’ were a lower order of humanity; they were different species within the same genus who were incapable of civility[5], which verifies Linnaeus argument. Eviatar Zerubavel states that Long was a polygenist who believed, because of the savage nature of blacks, that the white race was a completely separate species to the black race[6]. Nevertheless this shows us a growing consensus for racial dehumanisation within the 18th century, justified by scientific evidence.

Hottentots  in the Chain

So where do the Hottentots fit in ‘The Great Chain of Being’? The Hottentots are a fascinating case study with relation to racial hierarchy because of their ambiguous complexion and the fears of the degeneration manifesting as a result. However it is imperatively important to recognise that British society did not just fear the Hottentots, for fear leads to hesitation and often cautiousness. What will be discussed within this section is the contempt and disgust British explorers and plantation owners possessed for the Hottentots. This disgust leads to dehumanisation and the annihilation of human qualities of the Hottentots, which prevented their ascendency on the ‘The Great Chain of Being’.

One instance of dehumanisation which lowers the Hottentots down ‘The Great Chain of Being’, is the assumption of idleness. In 17th and 18th century accounts the Hottentots are presented as a community graced with fertile lands however because of inherent laziness situated within their disposition, these lands have been left dissipated. William Dampier, an English explorer from the 17th century, states though the lands are fertile enough to be manured, their passiveness is inherent condition which leaves them in poor living conditions[7]. Henry Louis Gate elaborates that the clash of cultures of the West and Africa created animosity between contentment and industry[8]. Thus Industrialisation within British society, and to a large extent Europe, had become the predominant factor in behavioural civility, whereas contentment was a sign of indolence.

Moreover the notion that indolence was a natural disposition within the Hottentots was furthered by their lack of appreciation of culture and technology. John Maxwell states that the lack of ingenuity and resourcefulness, in regards to technology, art, religion and culture was an example of the primitive temperament of the Hottentots. Maxwell continues by claiming their lack of religious belief system was a factor within their primitive nature, and that “men of sense” couldn’t comprehend the ambitions of Hottentots as a result[9]. Merians concludes that this statement was to distance the Hottentots from other African colonies which had developed, albeit inferior, religious systems of belief. This statement from Maxwell also corresponds with Linnaeus’s theory of rationality within the superior race, as ‘men of reason’ couldn’t understand the customs of the Hottentots.

Both these examples illustrate how the denial of Uniquely Human characteristics (economic drive), leads to assertions of intrinsic indolence within the Hottentots. This is an example of dehumanisation which renders the Hottentots lower on the ‘The Great Chain of Being’, which consequently justifies institutionalised suppression without any moral complications for the British public.

Further examples of dehumanisation, and it’s relation to racial hierarchy, derive from accusations of animalistic tendencies and qualities. This is best exemplified by the idea that the Hottentots were oversexed, impulsive and lacked self-constraints. This imagery of a wild animal-like creature was entrenched and indoctrinated into British societies’ conscious. John Ovington, for example, declared that their lack of reason was due to their race, and their sexual urges dominated them; there was a need to physically castrate Hottentot men[10]. Again we witness Linnaeus’s premise of rationality and reason purely existing, according to Ovington, within the Caucasian race and being denied to the Hottentots. This attempt at dehumanisation lowers the Hottentots within ‘The Great Chain of Being’.

However these animalistic images were not just susceptible to the British imagination, but also were common themes within American travel documentations and biological examinations too. One such instance involved the insidious notion of infanticide committed by the Hottentots on an institutionalised base. Infanticide is a concept which originated from studies within zoology and ethology, which discussed the practice of killing off-spring for a plethora of reasons. Those reasons range from sexual conflict between animals or elements of pack, group or herd survival[11]. Ovington himself makes suggestions of Infanticide, however provides no scientific or observational sources to prove his theory. However American physician John Beck claims that infanticide within the Hottentot community was a common occurrence, and listed inconceivable motives they had for committing such a crime. Beck states infanticide occurs with the Hottentots:

When they are in want of food; when the father of a child has forsaken its mother; or when obliged to fly from the boors and others; in which case, they strangle them, smoother them and case them away in the desert or bury them[12].”

Beck possess a higher academic authority than Ovington which makes his biological study vehemently distinguished. These animalistic images placed on the Hottentot’s culture and identity is another egregious attempt to dehumanise them, thus diminishing their rank on the ‘The Great Chain of Being’.

These thoughts within the British imagination, however, have yet to dissipate and in the late 20th century as they still remain relevant. For instance the British political party National Front, in the 1970s and 1980s, acquired vast amount of members through biological and scientific racism. There claims were to incite racial disharmony within British society for the purposes of creating a ethno-nationalist state. Nigel Fielding states during this time the National Front were concerned with establishing academic support for its racial theories[13], thus an influx of racial scientific evidence became attainable. For instance John Tyndall, chairman of the National Front and politician, claimed that the Black African’s brain was smaller and had a less complex cerebral structure than the white-European[14]and because of this they couldn’t assimilate into British society. Here we can see that dehumanisation efforts have scarcely been altered since the time of the Hottentots, and its racism has an institutionalised element that festers within the heart of contemporary British politics.

Scientific dehumanisation and Hottentot women

Contemporary society has remnants of biological and physical racism entrenched within it, and none is more obvious than the characteristic of African (or black) women. The stigma attached to black women are callous stereotypes which hinder social progression. These stereotypes include ferocious   demeanours, aggressively loud and even physical stereotypes such as big lips and noses[15]. These cause great harm within the psyche of black women, and lower them in societal hierarchy. For instance a recent report found that on social dating apps, black women are the least desired race for white, Asian and Latin men[16]. The private nature of dating apps gives credence to honesty in what men deem attractive. This example demonstrates how black women are lower of the societal hierarchy compared to their Caucasian and Asian equivalents. Hottentot women also faced such incredulous stereotypes, however the reverberations were unquestionably more serve; dehumanisation of Hottentots resulted in slavery, oppression and lack of societal empathy. Within this section we will discuss how women were dehumanised and sexually demonised, again through scientific racism.

Historically there has been a large focus on the limbs and body of African women. Linnaeus discussed African women within the context of ‘The Great Chain of Being’, stating they were shameless because their large breasts would profusely lactate. But within the context of the Hottentots, this intense concentration of body parts was a principle element in dehumanisation. For instance Jean Tavernier, a French explorer, stated that the Hottentot women produce potent liquid during their period which infects the Europeans with the plague[17]. Merians states that this observation had no biological or empirical merit, but rather Tavernier’s trepidation about the Hottentots created a false evil imagery[18]. It could also be contended that Tavernier was trying to create separation, through the menstrual cycle, between the beautiful nature of the white-European woman and the ‘evil’ Hottentot woman. By creating this separation, the beautiful virtues of the white European are enhanced, thus the dehumanisation functions in several ways.

However travel experiences and documentations were antiquated, in terms of academic authority, by scientific evidence which verified the lowness of the Hottentot women. The first instance of dehumanisation, from a scientific perspective, was made by George Cuvier. Cuvier, whilst discussing the density and structure of the human skull, came to state that Hottentot woman possessed flatter bone structure than their European equivalents. Furthermore Cuvier quantified that the head of the Hottentot woman closely resembled that of a monkey[19]. Sander Gilman states the Cuvier is trying to correlate the idea of primitiveness and Hottentot in an attempt to undermine the African race[20]. These words, from a renowned anatomist, supplement the racial arguments put forward throughout the 17th century, which lowers the Hottentot population in ‘The Great Chain of Being’. Alison Wright advocates with this premise, declaring that discussions of features and bone structure were imperative to identifying Baartman’s position to other races[21]. However this did not dehumanise just Baartman, but it also gave authority to institutionalised dehumanisation of the Hottentot women  throughout Europe.

Cuvier’s theories gave the stimulus for other French scientists to formulate and expanded upon his principles.  Many of the topics that grew from Cuvier were concerning the sexual nature of Hottentot women (with Baartman used as a repetitive example). For instance French anthropologist Julian Virey discussed how there was no sense of modesty within Hottentot women, for their voluptuousness was indicative of their primitiveness. Virey justifies this with two factors: firstly the African climate created this untenable sexual desire within the Hottentot women. And secondly their sexual organs (breasts, buttocks and vagina) were more developed than those of the whites[22]. This coherent necessity to create a foil for the white-Europeans is consistent within the works of Virey as it was with Cuvier. Nonetheless it demonstrates how differences within the anatomy are considered as symbols of primitiveness and over-sexualisation of Hottentot women.

This premise is concurrent within the works of Cuvier’s contemporary Henri de Blainville. His belief was that European society was shrouded in civilising effects, thus European women had modesty and sexual self-restraint. He also argued that the physiognomy elements of Hottentot women were a clear indication of the racial inferiority[23]. Anne Sterling agrees with the idea that Blainville were trying to create separation between white-European women and the Hottentot women. Sterling states that the gender norms of white women appear as a backdrop for the consideration of the savage Hottentot women[24] (in particular the example of Baartman). Creating a foil for white-European women, which serves to propel the white race in ‘The Great Chain of Being’ and lower the status of the Hottentot. This is the objective of the scientific evidence presented from the 17th century until the 19th century.


Throughout this article we have been subjected to the notion that biological and scientific racial studies, from 17th century until the 19th century, were attempting to understanding the genesis of humankind. The conclusion was that monkeys and humans shared similar characteristics, however they could not be direct descendants. There must have been a species which developed into humankind. There must have been a missing link. The Hottentots, and Africans in general, became catalogued into this position. Petty, Linnaeus, Cuvier, Long and Beck (just to name a few) were attempting to eradicate Uniquely Human and Human Nature characteristics in an attempt to validate their theories, and find the missing link within ‘The Great Chain of Being’. Thus dehumanisation functions as a device which gives clarity and intelligibility to inception of life and also the role of the white-Europeans within the world. Dehumanisation gave assurance to the white-Europeans of biological stature, and helped alleviate any reservations of racial or societal degeneration.

In contemporary European society this racial trepidation stills exists, and envelops basic human decency. We have seen the rise of far-right groups which discuss the black community, and other ethnic immigrant races, as being the scourge of national decline. The creation of the ‘us vs them’ narrative originates from the Hottentots, although it not a direct correlation. The similarities are frightening to observe, and the rise in populism in the 21st century means anti-immigrant and ethnic stances will become standardised to an extent.

As a global European society, do we belong in ‘The Great Chain of Being’? Is there a way back from our decadence? Or are we destined to repeat the similar tropes, albeit with different races, which came before us? As we dehumanise those we label ‘grief causes’, we are actually exterminating the Uniquely Human characteristics which would give optimism to these questions.

[1] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Harvard University of Press,1933),67.

[2] William Petty in 1677 as seen in: Chris Low, Khoisan Medicine in History and Practice (R.Koppe,2008),58.

[3]  Randall Miller and John Smith, Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery (Greenwood Publishing Group,1997),617.

[4] Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae (Stockholm: Laurentius Salvius,1758),34.

[5] Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (T.Lowndes in Fleet-Street,1774),353.

[6] Eviatar Zerubavel, Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past (University of Chicago Press,2004),70.

[7] William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World Volume 11 (J.Knapton,1699),385.

[8] Henry Louis Gates, Race, Writing and Difference (University of Chicago Press,1986),5.

[9] John Maxwell, ‘An Account of the Cape of good Hope’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 25 (1706-07),2425.

[10] Ovington, Surrat (Tonson,1696),495-496.

[11] Michael Breed and Janice Moore, Animal Behaviour (Academic Press,2011),358.

[12] John Beck, An Inaugural Dissertation on Infanticide (J.Seymour,1817),23-24.

[13] Nigel Fielding, The National Front (Routledhe and Kegan Paul,1981),98.

[14] Martin Walker, The National Front (Fontana,1977),192.

[15] Judith Howard and Jocelyn Hollander, Gendered Situations, Gendered Selves: A Gender Lens on Social Psychology (Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), 78.

[16] Jasmine Dotiwala, ‘Black women are the least valued people in society’, http://metro.co.uk/2017/08/03/black-women-are-the-least-valued-people-in-society-6808199/  accessed on 23/04/18.

[17] Jean Baptiste, The six voyages of John Baptista Tavernier (London, R.L & M.P,1678), 206.

[18] Merians, ,28

[19] This statement was in reference to Sarah Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, who was subject to much racial scientific analyse in the 19th century. See: George Cuvier, Discours sur les Révolutions de la Surface du Globe (Paris, 1817), 214.

[20] Sander Gilman, ‘Black Bodies and White Bodies’, in Amelia Jones (eds), The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (Psychology Press, 2003), 141.

[21] Alison Wright, ‘The Face of Saartjie Baartman: Rowlandson, Race and the Hottentot Venus’, in Diana Dethloff (eds), Burning Brights (UCL Press,2015),116.

[22] Julian Virey, Natural History of the Negro Race (Charleston: D J Dowling, 1837),115.

[23] Henri de Blainville, ‘Sur Une Femme de la race Hottentote’ Bulltein du Scoiete Philomatique de Paris (1817), 183-90.

[24] Anne Sterling, ‘Gender, Race and Nation: The Compartive Anatomy of Hottentot Women in Europe, 1815-1817’ in Jacqueline Urla (eds), Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture (Indiana University Press,1995),34-35.

Categories Politics, Psychology, SociologyTags , , , ,

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