Still on Images of Savages

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Race and History
Tuesday, August 7, 2007.
By Nicolette Bethel
The thing about writing about race and related stuff, it seems, is that it stimulates considerable discussion. It’s perfectly true that up to now many of our public discussions about this difficult topic have been politically motivated, and politically motivated on the most destructive level.
One party says race is irrelevant, and this gains them points in some circles. The other party says race affects every element of our current life, and this gains them points in other circles. The problem is, a discussion such as this is not a discussion at all; it’s a form of political campaigning that doesn’t tell us anything at all about who and why we are.
And so back to the images of savages.
I didn’t invent the term, by the way. I took the name of this article and the one before it from a book written by an anthropologist who traced the origins of racial stereotyping to ancient Europe, and who linked the development of the concepts we carry with us in our minds and our bodies to their roots. And he found some of those roots at a very interesting time in history — during the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For those who don’t know what the significance of those centuries is, consider this. These were the years in which Europe was reforming itself, moving from the so-called “Dark” Ages into the so-called “Enlightenment”. Rather than getting rid of its own “darkness”, however — the ignorance, superstition, and fear that it considered synonymous with mediaeval times — it instead shifted that “darkness” geographically outward.
By the time Columbus was setting sail to find the short road to China, Europe had already prepared itself to see the people he would meet not just as having stepped onto a beach, but having stepped out of the past.
By so doing, Europe had laid the foundation for the development of an idea of “savagery” that would enable them to categorize the people they met in the Americas as lesser beings, people who God intended to be conquered, to be evangelized, to be subordinated, and to be enslaved. And by so doing, Europe turned the conquest and rape of the New World into a divine project of civilization and transformation. The enslavement of Africans in the old world followed almost seamlessly behind.
It’s become commonplace to observe two things when defending the position that we really shouldn’t be talking about this — about things that are long past and faded away.
The first is that none of this is relevant to us today. Slavery is over, and everybody’s now equal. Crying victimhood does nobody any good, and casting blame doesn’t help either. Let’s not cry about the past. Let’s just deal with it.
The second is that slavery has always existed, and people have always been slaves. It doesn’t do us much good to focus solely on one kind of slavery; we have to acknowledge that the Africans themselves kept slaves, and even sold those slaves to the Europeans.
There’s a lot to be said for this position. Crying victimhood is not an answer to any problems, for while you can’t always change the bad things that happen to you, you can control how you react to them. And slavery did exist, not only in Africa, but all the way up to Rome and Greece and even Russia. But there’s a little more to be said.
The institution of slavery that affected us most here in the new world was a slavery that was fundamentally different from the slavery that existed in the ancient world.
While that had a place within the societies that practised it — slaves were got through conquest or debt or some other process that was shared by the dominant society, and every member of the society, if they were unlucky, ran the risk of being enslaved as a result of war or misfortune — TransAtlantic slavery involved the enslavement of other people far away from the societies of the enslavers, and enabled otherwise decent people to be complicit in a huge dehumanizing effort.
What was not permissible in Europe was perfectly fine when practised on other people. In the words of “Rule Britannia”: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”; but until 1834 people of other “races” could be, and were.
In order to justify the enslavement of other human beings in a society that was engaging in discussions of humanity and civilization and progress, a distinction had to be made between types of human beings. Hence the promotion of the idea of the “savage” — it helped make the Enlightenment practice of slavery fit with the ideas of freedom and equality that were being taught at the same time.
And the results of that idea are with us today. While the institutions that that distinction created have been officially dismantled, the psychic residue of those instituions has not even begun to be addressed.
I would argue that the current “gangsta” culture of the Black boys in the US and Britain — which draws upon and embodies much of the worst of the imagery of savagery that was developed to describe people of colour — is a playing out, an internalization, of those ideas of savagery that were used to justify the enslaving of Africans, the indentureship of Asians, and the subordination of mestizos and mulattos throughout the Americas.
The word we use to describe our own ghetto young women — jungless — is derived, whether we admit or not, directly from that whole battery of images of animality, brute force, and stupidity that were projected upon the so-called “lesser races” during the enslavement, forced migration, and subordination of the people who were used to build the American colonies.
I’ll say it again, and without apology. We cannot even begin to address the problems that afflict us today, therefore, without understanding, and making peace with our past.
Nicolette Bethel currently serves as Director of Culture for the Government of the Bahamas . She is a social anthropologist and a writer. Her plays have been produced locally, and her fiction and poetry have appeared in various collections. She blogs at Bahamapundit
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