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Premeditated mass murder: “Les Massacres D’Arménie” (1915) from French newspaper “Le Petit Journal”

The word racism has degenerated into a vague, inaccurate and malicious term of political abuse. A book with the title Racisms, plural, gives promise of a more precise historical and comparative analysis and yet one which also acknowledges complexity and the extent to which racial hierarchies get blurred with those of religion and with closed aristocracies.  

Francisco Bethencourt has the advantage of being a native speaker of Portuguese and thoroughly versed in Spanish. This enables him to comment with authority on the early contacts of Europe with distant and unfamiliar peoples from the time of the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration from the late 15th century onwards. Out of these Iberian conquests in Africa, Asia and South and Central America and the pioneering of the Atlantic slave trade by the Portuguese stem many of the racist perceptions and patterns of behaviour that have troubled us ever since.

Professor Bethencourt is also able to show that these perceptions were shaped by what may be seen as the earliest of the crusades, the Reconquest of Spain and Portugal from the Muslim invader. The Muslims rapidly overran Spain in the early eighth century.  It took several hundred years to drive them out again. It is here that ideas of race emerged and entered what might otherwise be seen as a clash of religions. In the reconquered areas Muslims and also Jews were often more or less forcibly converted to Catholicism, but this did not gain them proper acceptance.  These "New Christians" were excluded and ill-treated by the indigenous Old Christians simply because of their ancestry. A doctrine of "purity of blood", often incorporated in statute law, discriminated against racial minorities. In the end both were expelled. The statutes of purity of blood in Spain were only formally and finally abolished in the mid-19th century. Perhaps from this obsession with purity came our phrase "blue-blooded" (sangre azul), the superiority of the fair-skinned who can see the blue veins in their wrists over those of darker ancestry who cannot. Ironically, the aristocrats of Spain, such as Don Quixote, were probably more intermarried than the peasants like Sancho Panza, proud of being an Old Christian, even if he was more burnished by the sun than his social superiors. This seems to have been the mental framework taken from Iberia to the New World.

Far more men emigrated to South and Central America from Spain and Portugal than women, which resulted in a large mixed-race population, but the traditions of the home countries led to the creation of elaborate classifications of individuals by fractions of descent. The pure Europeans were always at the top. Bethencourt describes in fascinating detail the ingenious attempts by those of mixed ancestry to rise within the hierarchies of church and state and the determination with which their efforts were blocked. One of the disadvantages many of them faced was that they were illegitimate in a world where bastards were excluded from many professions.

It was the Portuguese, the explorers of Africa and founders of Brazil, who developed the earliest, largest and longest-lasting of all the slave trades across the Atlantic; they had a concomitant sense of contempt for the Africans. Bethencourt shows that the slave traders were so entrenched that no public movement for the abolition of slavery ever developed in Portugal. Their slave trade was only discontinued in the mid-19th century when a British naval blockade of the Brazilian ports brought it to an end.  

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