How do racisms start? Francisco Bethencourt’s study of racial prejudices since the Crusades does its best to answer the culturally sensitive question
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.
The detailed account of the racial aspects of Portuguese and Spanish history and their interplay with religion will be the most unfamiliar and easily the most interesting sections of Bethencourt’s work for British and American readers. When he comes to deal with Portugal and Asia, he runs into problems, however, since he treats Portuguese and other European perceptions of, say, India or the Islamic world as mere exercises in bias and stereotyping, or even as rooted in self-interest. All negative observations are treated as evidence of the racist bias of the observers, even when what is being observed is clearly a manifestation of a purely local racism. The Portuguese descriptions of the relative lack of mobility in the traditional Indian caste system and the plight of the untouchables at the bottom may be unsubtle and unsympathetic, but were the Portuguese not right in essence to see it as parallel to a racial hierarchy and one underpinned by an elaborate ideology rooted in the local religion?
Similarly, while we are told at great length about the Portuguese and Christian denigration of black Africans and of the Atlantic trade in them, Bethencourt is coyly evasive about the extensive and long-lasting Arab slave trade and Arab racial attitudes towards the blacks. He accurately notes that many Arab authors denigrated Africans, but the only one he names is a lone geographer who dissented from this. He would have done better to quote directly Ibn Khaldun, one of the founders of sociology and the ablest and most famous of the Arab historians, who saw the black Africans as light-headed and dim-witted and far more willing to become slaves than any other race. Had Ibn Khaldun been a Portuguese, he would surely have been cited and denounced by Bethencourt. We should never make the mistake of automatically portraying our own group as more culpable than its historic enemies. Unless there is good evidence, this is merely an inverted version of the racist error.
Again, when Bethencourt discusses the premeditated mass murder of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915, seen as the first genocide of the 20th century, he sees it mainly as a Turkish attempt to create a racial nation state, a heartland for Turks alone. This underplays the role of religion, though in fairness he does provide a good discussion of it. Yet as he himself notes the “Kurds could not be submitted to the same level of atrocities since they were Muslims”. The Turkish atrocities were extended to the Syriac Christians, but not to the non-Turkish Laz, who speak a language related to Georgian but are Sunnis. It is as if Bethencourt is still feeling bad about the eventual harsh fate of those Muslims who centuries ago had invaded, looted and settled the Iberian peninsula, but who quite justifiably ended up losing. Their expulsion was, like that of the French settlers in Algeria, a post-colonial phenomenon, the kind of thing that often happens at the end of an empire.
The real losers in Iberia (as in Algeria) were the Jews, victims down to our own time of a series of vicious combinations of racial and religious anti-Semitism. Which version was espoused by the many peoples without an Aryan racial theory of history — Croatians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Slovaks, Latvians, Lithuanians and Bosnians — who enthusiastically took part in the Holocaust? Francisco Bethencourt has well described the irrational racial nonsense that intensified German anti-Semitism to the point of genocide, but what of their assistants? Despite this omission, his book is well worth reading, particularly for the sections on Iberia.