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Slave trade, slavery, and Darwin

Colonialism aside, the most consequential outcome of the notion of a hierarchy of the races has to be the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the slavery it begot. In combination, they evidenced some of the most horrific treatments of humans in history. The very idea of selling and buying human beings speaks for itself. And on that score, both the “Black slavers” and “White Predators” are complicit, to borrow Chinweizu’s phrase.16 Where culpability shifts decisively is what happened to the slaves once they left their homelands.

Because Africans were deemed sub-human, the slaves were stacked like cargo in the ships that sometimes took up to six months to complete the journey from West Africa to the Americas. They lived in such deprivation that about 15 percent routinely died en route. Those

Dark history of distinctions 83 who survived became slaves at plantations, where they toiled and got whipped like animals. In fact, in 1904 the Bronx Zoo formalized the notion of Africans as animals when it exhibited Ota Benga, a kidnapped Congolese teenager, in the same compartment as monkeys. The brutalization of slaves notwithstanding, slavery too was deemed a civilizing undertaking much like colonialism.

In due course, the theory of a hierarchy of the races was discredited— at least among the learned. In fact, there soon arose contestations over the very notion of race, whether there is, indeed, such a thing.17 Even then the notion of race superiority still had strident advocates.

It was in the context of the debate that Darwin published his theory of evolution. It was supposed to be a purely scientific theory that explains the origins of the species. Yet it energized the debate about race superiority. People who argue for the sameness of biology found confirmation in Darwin’s finding of continuity in the human species. Those who still believed in a hierarchy also found support in the theory. Some races are higher evolved than others, they argued.

Darwin himself became a subject of controversy regarding his stance on the race matter. The prevalent view was that his writings and political activism both pointed to a non-racialist belief. But others argue that he slyly implanted racist views in his writings. It would be too much of a detour to delve into this controversy. Suffice to state that justifications for the view that Darwin was a racist are a stretch. But that matters little to those who make the case.

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