Race is so intricately woven into the world order – indeed, the very fabric of life – that few people can see beyond it to a time when the world was not organised and controlled this way. As notions of superiority and inferiority among groups of people seem ever present and almost unchanging, many commentators are happy to report that race, racism, and the desire of the strong to dominate, are features of human nature itself. The beauty of this approach is that it requires no intellectual effort, no analysis, and no history.
For today’s elites, this theory of a timeless racism is convenient precisely because it ignores the way that imperialism threw backwards some of the most advanced societies of the age. It means they need not discuss the way that ruthless robbery and exploitation of the ‘New World’ provided the seed money for the development of capitalism and the industrial techniques that allowed the new European empires to dominate the world. It also means they can largely ignore, or at the very least downplay, the capture and transportation of millions of African people as slaves because the bloody trade was little more than an expression of human nature. And by providing an excuse for the past, the idea of a world naturally divided into a hierarchy of races also provides excuses for the present – and the widely accepted notion that some human lives are simply more valuable than others by virtue of the culture they inhabit.
But a look back to the early contacts between civilisations of what became Europe, and those that became Africa and Asia reveals a far more complex picture. It was one where British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish travellers and traders often met societies at least as advanced as their own. In 1510, Leo Africanus, an exiled Moor from Granada, travelled to Timbuktu (in modern Mali) and wrote: ‘here are many shops and merchants, especially such as weave linen and cotton cloth. Corn, cattle, milk and butter this region yieldeth in great abundance. The rich king keeps a magnificent and well-furnished court. Here are great stores of doctors, judges, priests and other learned men.’ And in 1600, a Dutch trader entering the city of Benin in West Africa wrote: ‘The city looks very big when you go into it. The houses in the town stand in good order as our Dutch houses are. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch in cleanliness. They wash and scrub their houses so well that these are as polished as a looking glass.’