African images under Western eyes: Part One …West looks down on Africa because of racist beliefs

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By Dr Rino Zhuwarara

ONE of the things that we should consider occasionally is how outsiders have looked at us and our continent from a long time ago.
This exercise is necessary in so far as it has the potential to empower us to understand how those outsiders regard us when it comes to relating to them and dealing with them in the so-called global village of today.
This exercise of assessing the perceptions of some of our neighbours in the said global village is likely to assist us in deciding who our true friends are and who are not, more so when we consider that European countries like Britain and the US consider themselves as champions of human rights and democracy on a global scale nowadays.
It seems as if there is always this yawning chasm between the kind of noises that they make in regard to human rights and democracy in Africa and their actual record of performance on the ground.
It is therefore important that we periodically take a step back and look at the record of these self-appointed and self proclaimed apostles of human rights from an historical angle.
Here is how a certain Lord Stanhope Chesterfield, considered in 18th Century Britain as an aristocrat of good breeding, highly educated and worldly-wise, a man of letters justified the enslavement of Africans to his son: “Blacks are a little better than lions, tigers, leopards and other wild beasts which that country produces in great numbers.”
In the same letter to his son who was deeply troubled by the slave trade centred on Africans, he argues that blacks have no arts, sciences and systems of commerce and as such it was acceptable ‘to buy a great many of them to sell again to advantage in the West Indies’.
We need to take into account that Chesterfield is considered by his contemporaries as a powerful and enlightened man of culture, representing, perhaps, one of the finest minds that Britain could produce.
From our point of view, it is important to observe that Chesterfield identifies blacks as being almost an integral part of the animal kingdom, far removed from the human family! Describing Africans using animal imagery is meant to justify the slave trade and the enslavement of blacks on an industrial scale, a trade which Britain, together with its European counterparts, undertook from the 15th right up to the 19th Century.
The same trade became the basis for the development of the US and the Caribbean Islands as well as South America.
In other words, black slaves literally functioned as the technology which developed the so-called new world of the Americas.
It is also the same trade which laid the basis of the Industrial Revolution of the 1760s in the sense that it generated the capital which brought about fundamental changes in the way goods and commodities were produced on a massive scale.
In Britain cities like London, Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, among others, became industrial hubs; they literally grew and expanded phenomenally on the basis of the slave trade itself and on the back of the cheap black labour which in turn produced agricultural commodities such as tobacco, sugar, cotton and coffee in the Americas – all these became exports bound for Europe.
Of particular significance is the description of blacks by Chesterfield using a language which symbolises the dominance of the racist ideology which seeks to legitimise the slave trade and the enslavement of blacks!
Put differently, white racism meant to degrade and dehumanise blacks as a way of justifying enslavement of blacks is the same white racism which is, later on, used by Europeans to justify the colonisation of Africa and the brutal exploitation of African labour and resources.
After all, if blacks are animals, as proclaimed by prominent Europeans, why should civilised white people not exploit them to their advantage?
It is not by sheer coincidence that as slavery came to an end during the 1880s it was succeeded by colonisation of Africa after the 1884 Berlin Conference.
Just to show that the racism displayed by Chesterfield vis-a-vis blacks is not an isolated phenomenon confined to England alone but part of a widespread and powerful racist ideology of superiority over non-whites; some prominent European philosophers go out of their way to proclaim in writing about the inferiority of blacks.
One of the leading German philosophers, Wilheim Hegel, said in a more or less oracular fashion: “Africa proper as far as history goes back, has remained – for all purposes of connection with the rest of the world shut up; it is the gold-land compressed within itself the land of childhood, which lying beyond the days of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of the night.
“Africa has no movement or development to exhibit.”
In the same vein, Hegel goes on to state with disarming confidence that the negro exhibits the natural man in his completely ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’ state.
Hegel remains one of the most renowned German philosophers of his time, an intellectual heavyweight who, for a time, dominated the thinking of Europe until the coming of Karl Marx!
Yet his utterances concerning Africa remain pedestrian in the extreme, yoking together and attempting to dignify all those stereotypes and clichés which poisoned the popular imagination of ordinary European folks in regard to Africa.
In Hegel’s mind, Africa is a dark continent peopled by childish and childlike characters completely untouched by the supposedly civilising influences of European culture and thought!
To him Africa remains a tempting wilderness and not so easy to redeem.
The only problem here is that Hegel never set foot in Africa, never interacted with Africans as far as one can tell!
As such his utterances on Africa seem to say more about the staggering amount of his ignorance about Africa and its people.
Just by looking at the communication about blacks written by Chesterfield and Hegel, there are many more communications similar to those by these two, we can tell that Europe has had a big problem in regarding Africans as normal human beings.
The racism that most of us come across when we visit Europe, when some of our politicians negotiate agreements with some of these Western countries, be it on trade, cultural exchanges, prices of goods and services, among others, that racism is part of a deep- seated belief system, an ideology in fact, which has been used to devalue Africa and its people.
Why?
Because it has always been profitable for them to do so at our expense.

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