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most importantly, religion.5 The encounter with sub-Saharan Africans, from the mid fifteenth century onwards, encouraged Europeans to conceive themselves as part of a broader grouping of white people, in contrast to the black-skinned Africans.Europeans inevitably made comparisons between themselves and Africans, and invariably found Africans inferior and less civilized.
It was possible for non-whites to effectively “become white” by adopting Christianity, and by dressing or living like Europeans.
English trader Bartholomew Stibbs, visiting the Gambia River in 1723, remarked, without apparent irony, that the local inhabitants were “as Black as Coal; tho’ here, thro’ Custom, (being Christians) they account themselves White Men.”1 It was equally possible for whites to “go native” by adopting African lifestyles.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, skin color was often perceived to be a simple result of the degree of exposure to the sun.
But, if “race” was a construct, why did Europeans begin to “invent” it and, subsequently, denigrate “black” Africans?
One answer is that all European elites at the time were obsessed with hierarchy and its preservation, believing that it denoted order in contrast to chaos.6 Peasants and serfs were meant to pay due homage to their local lords who in their turn were part of a detailed hierarchy of earls, counts, and dukes.
In medieval Europe all the descendants of Noah were portrayed as white since the lineage of Noah’s sons was somewhat confused; indeed Ham’s descendants were often believed to have populated Asia rather than Africa.
During the early modern period, however, the Arab version that Canaan’s descendants had been “marked” as servants by altered skin color became widespread in Europe as well.10 This belief fitted in neatly with preexisting negative attitudes towards black people and helped to confirm the idea that black skin was a mark of subordinate and inferior status.Yet Europeans were not so foolish as to try to treat all Africans the same, whatever they might have believed about their own elevated status, since the) were acutely conscious that without the goodwill of local chiefs and princes their ships would have found trade goods as well as basic supplies hard to come by.Pragmatism, if nothing else, required that early modern Europeans responded to Africans on a case-by-case basis.Having said that, according to Winthrop Iordan, Europeans did not set out in the fifteenth century to explore the world with the express intention of sub jugating more than ten million Africans; they were far more interested in securing trade routes to Asia that promised real wealth.After the somewhat accidental European discovery of America (Columbus was seeking China and Japan, and indeed never believed that he had been anywhere but Asia) and the gradual conquest ol’ the larger Caribbean islands and parts of mainland Central and South America, the demand for new labor to clear forests and foster productive land increased dramatically.Yet there were also those who commented positively on the black peoples during the seventeenth century: John Ogilby, visiting Africa, commented that “The Na tives are very black; but the Features of their faces, and their excellent Teeth, being white as Ivory, make up together an handsom Ayre, and taking comeliness of a new Beauty,” while Richard Ligón described a black woman in Barbados “of the greatest beautie” as “excellently shap’t, well favour’d, full-eye’d, and admirably grac’t.’’11 Elite European attitudes towards Africans were therefore mixed, even plastic.