Colonialism and the expansion of empires

British attitudes to 'others'

by Marika Sherwood

Justifying racist attitudes

Attitudes to 'others' seem to have varied over time: Shakespeare suggests in various sonnets that he most likely had a relationship with an African woman; written records from the sixteenth century indicate that both male and female African servants in Britain married whites. Those describing their experiences on the African coast gave positive descriptions (eg 'goodlier men') of those who consented to trade and negative (eg 'wilde and idle') of those who did not.

However, when trade in goods such as ivory, pepper and hides was replaced by the trade in enslaved Africans, Europeans needed to justify their un-Christian behaviour. So they declared the Africans not to be human beings of equal worth to themselves but instead primitive savages. Africans would benefit from enslavement, Europeans argued, as it freed them from their savage state.

When Europeans decided to settle in the Americas, they declared that the indigenous people there were also savages, unfit to cultivate their rich lands. This justified in European minds the conquest and sometimes the extermination of people they mistakenly called 'Indians' . These attitudes were then adopted when it was decided that Africa was to be divided between the European powers.

Conversion to Christianity

Europeans were a 'force – a great civilising, Christianizing force', according to Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury. (GT Warner, CHK Marten, DE Muir, 'The New Groundwork of British History', London [1943], 1947, p.877)

The Church Missionary Society in its God's Image in Ebony published in 1912, argued that 'it was the special task of Christian Europe to educate these negroes till they may be able to govern themselves in a suitable state of civilization, and even play an efficient part in the world's work in developing their own backward continent' (p.38). The 'negroes' were 'mostly naked savages'; the speech of some 'is so dependent on gesture that they are unable to converse properly in the dark' (p.35).

The missionaries would be the 'heralds of civilization among savage peoples' (p.169). Presumably it was only when thus 'civilized' that Africans would become 'God's image in ebony'. It was this message that was preached from the pulpits in British churches on Sunday mornings, thus prejudicing the views of many worshippers. The black man was now the 'white man's burden', as the poem originally written by Rudyard Kipling came to mean.

Does 'race' refer to geographical, religious, class-based or colour-based differences? This is often unclear. As the British wars of conquest expanded, 'Anglo-Saxons' were defined as a race  – a conquering race. These Anglo-Saxons were part of the 'superior Aryan race, the only race capable of creating a true civilisation', as Professor Muller of Oxford University told his audience at the Royal Institute in 1859.

Further relevant writings by Marika Sherwood include:

'After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade since 1807'I.B. Tauris, 2007
‘Manchester, Liverpool and Slavery’, North West Labour History, 32,16-22 2007-08
'Perfidious Albion: Britain, the USA and slavery in the 1840s and 1860s', Contributions to Black Studies, 13-14 1995-6