Stuff White People Say

October 21, 2009

Collective Degradation

Filed under: Uncategorized — jwbe @ 10:09 pm

by James H. Sweet

Collective Degradation:
Slavery and the Construction of Race
Spanish and Portuguese Influences on Racial Slavery in British North America, 1492-1619

“At the end of the medieval period, slavery was not widespread in Europe. In fact, it was mostly isolated to the southern fringes of the Mediterranean, especially along the frontiers of Christendom. In those places where it existed, the physical labor of slavery was the preserve of social and religious “others.” Iberian Christians enslaved primarily Muslims, but also Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and so on. As “infidels,” Jews and Moors were considered incapable of redemption and therefore doomed to marginal, enslaveable status. When the Atlantic slave trade began in 1441, most Africans were placed into an entirely new and different category of enslaveable peoples.”
“The policies and ideas that flowed from these understandings of African inferiority only served to crystallize racial hierarchies, not only in Iberia, but across Europe. The first transnational, institutional endorsement of African slavery occurred in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull, Dum Diversas, which granted King Afonso V of Portugal the right to reduce to “perpetual slavery” all “Saracens and pagans and other infidels and enemies of Christ” in West Africa. In 1454, the Pope followed up Dum Diversas with Romanus Pontifex, which granted Portugal the more specific right to conquer and enslave all peoples south of Cape Bojador.5 Taken together, these papal bulls did far more than grant exclusive rights to the Portuguese; they signaled to the rest of Christian Europe that the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans was acceptable and encouraged.”
“By homogenizing all non-Christians south of Cape Bojador, the Catholic Church also endorsed the idea that there was a certain oneness to sub-Saharan Africa, a oneness based not only on religious difference, but also on culture and race. The conflation of
cultural difference and race quickly found its way into the Portuguese language. Though legally in the same category of enslaved “infidels,” Islamic Africans were distinguished from “white” Moors by the term “Negro.” The term “mouro Negro” implied a double “othering.” As noted earlier, Moors were enslaveable due to their religious infidelity, but race was an aggravating factor that apparently made them even more enslaveable.
By the second half of the fifteenth century, the term “Negro” was essentially synonymous with “slave” across the Iberian Peninsula.”
“Europeans continued to solidify a common identity vis-à-vis “Negroes” across the Atlantic world, especially by the seventeenth century. In practical terms, the English, and especially the Dutch, whittled away at Iberian supremacy on the open seas, including in the African slave trade. From an ideological perspective, northern Europeans continued to draw from the Iberian example in their perceptions of blackness. One of the clearest examples of this can be seen in the terms used to describe black people. Instead of using the term “black” to describe Africans, the English, the Dutch, and the French relied on variations of the Spanish “Negro.” There were suitable terms for “black” in all of these languages, yet northern Europeans adopted variations of “Negro” by the mid-sixteenth century. The only reasonable explanation for the adoption of the word “Negro” is that it conveyed a concept or a meaning that was absent from the languages of northern Europe. In short, there was not another word in these languages that could capture both “blackness” and servile status. Just as was the case with the Spanish and the Portuguese, northern Europeans recognized that “Negro” was synonymous with “slave,” or at least, “enslaveable” status.”
“If Africans were widely understood to be members of an enslaveable Negro “nation,” then “Europe” must have been the normative political community against which these non-Christian, uncivilized, blacks were measured. While I would hesitate to impute conscious motive on the formation of a “European” or “white” identity during this period, it is clear that the bundle of norms associated with European “civilization” was what separated Europeans from Africans, at least in the European mind. Some might argue that these group distinctions were based on nothing more than cultural difference; however, this logic simply displaces race onto group difference. In practice, group differences between “Negroes” and “Europeans” were always marked by racial differences, as social and cultural realities were literally “read” onto black and white bodies.”

1 Comment »

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