Racial thinking began as early as the 1500s when Christianity questioned whether Blacks and Indigenous people had souls or whether they were human at all. As slaves became more important, religion was used to justify slavery, classifying Black and Indigenous people as soulless and thus deserving of enslavement. While this lasted some time, as more and more people of colour were converted to Christianity, the idea of them being soulless began to lose weight. Of course, something had to fill the gap for the European slave-based economy to continue flourishing; that something was science. The development of twisted and inaccurate biological, zoological and botanical theories began to gain traction and were used to explain human differences and further justify slavery, genocide and racism.
In this visual essay, we explore the words of “glorified figures” of oppression, shedding light on what they truly thought of colonisation and those they oppressed. The stigmas they created have survived through the generations, often rearing head as unconscious bias. So how do we eliminate that which we do not know is alive and well within us? We could start by learning about and addressing the many forms of racism BIPOC have been subjugated to over the years. The following blatant expressions of racism may give us clues as to why the more covert forms exist today.
Words of caution: The thoughts of the people explored in this essay may not match up to what you were taught through your colonial education system. In fact, you may even have looked up to some of these people, their “discoveries” and their dedication to creating a better world for White people. However, the sooner you see the lies you have been told, the easier it's going to be on your journey to decolonising your mind. Once you begin that process, you will realise it is the greatest act of love—for yourself and the rest of humanity.
1493: Christopher Columbus in a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain regarding his “discovery” of the Caribbean islands
“They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells.
"They willingly traded everything they owned . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
1758: Robert Clive in letters to the directors of the East India Company
“The Moors are indolent, luxurious, ignorant and cowardly beyond all conception . . . The soldiers, if they deserve that name, have not the least attachment to their Prince, he can only expect service from them who pays them best; but it is a matter of great indifference to them whom they serve; and I am fully persuaded that after the battle of Plassey I could have appropriated the whole country to the Company and preserved it afterwards with as much ease as Mir Jafar, the present Subah [governor], now does, through the terror of English arms and their influence . . ."
1776: Third US president Thomas Jefferson in his book Notes on the State of Virginia
“Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the Blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made . . . will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. ... They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid: and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. The Indians, with no advantages ... will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. ... Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. ... We know that among the Romans, about the Augustan age especially, the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the Blacks on the continent of America."
1800s: Missionary Richard Taylor on Māori people
“Oh, what a wretched spot is a heathen pa, human excrement and filth in every direction so that it is almost impossible to avoid treading in it—wretchedness in every form, women all but naked with their heads and bodies smeared with ochre and oil, shrieking or crying and dirty children running about in a state of nudity all combine to form as wretched a whole as can well be imagined."
1850: Renowned English anatomist Robert Knox in his book The Races of Man: A Fragment
“All we know is that since the beginning of history, the dark races have been the slaves of those lighter skinned. What is that due to? I feel disposed to think that there must be a physical and consequentially, a psychological inferiority in the dark races generally. This is perhaps not due to lack of size in the brain but rather a lack of quality in it."
1858: 16th US president Abraham Lincoln during one of a series of debates with former US senator Stephen Douglas
“There is a physical difference between the white and the Black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together... while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any man am in favour having the superior position assigned to the white race.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the White and Black races.”
1864: British historian, explorer, and philosopher William Winwood Reade's prediction in his book Savage Africa
“England and France will rule Africa. Africans will dig the ditches and water the deserts. It will be hard work and the Africans will probably become extinct. We must learn to look at the result with composure. It illustrates the beneficent law of nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong.”
1944: Winston Churchill when asked about his repeated refusal to send food aid to India during the Bengal Famine which killed three million Indians
“Relief would do no good. Indians breed like rabbits and will outstrip any available food supply.”
1962: Charles de Gaulle, former president of France on integrating Algeria into France and making its Muslim population French citizens
“Have you seen the Muslims
with their turbans and their djellabas? You can see that they are not French. Try and integrate oil and vinegar. Shake the bottle. After a moment they separate again. The Arabs are Arabs; the French are French. Do you think that the French can absorb ten million Muslims who will tomorrow be twenty million and after tomorrow forty? If we carry out integration, if all the Berbers and Arabs of Algeria were regarded as French, how would one stop them coming to settle on the mainland where the standard of living is so much higher? My village would no longer be called Colombes-les-deux-Eglises but Colombey-the-two-Mosques.”
1971: Ronald Reagan in a phone conversation with Richard Nixon on the African nations at the United Nations who sided against the United States in a vote to recognise the People's Republic of China
“Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did.
“To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!”