Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Early European contact with 'others'

by Marika Sherwood

Iberia, the countries we now call Spain and Portugal, was conquered and settled by peoples we choose to call the 'Moors' from the eighth century, until their final expulsion in 1492. The settlers were Muslim: Arabs, North Africans, Berbers and West Africans. The advanced civilisation that developed in Iberia including architecture, irrigation, medicine, writing, mathematics and philosophy was new to Europe, and resulted from the coming together of many cultures.

The many different peoples living around the Mediterranean traded with each other, so the coastal Europeans also met the 'others', that is, people of different cultures and appearance. (It was recently announced that Leonardo da Vinci's mother is likely to have been an enslaved Arab woman [See The Guardian 12 April 2008].)

However, for many other Europeans, their first contact with the 'others' would have been the first crusade in 1099: that is, the attempt to reclaim the so called 'Holy Land' from Muslims and Jews.

This limited contact meant that in the fifteenth century, when Europeans' technology developed sufficiently for them to begin to seek to import gold and spices themselves rather than rely on other traders, they were confused by the many peoples they met. While some of their descriptions were carefully observed (though, of course, seen through European eyes) some, such as humans with faces embedded in their chests, were confused inventions. Europeans called the Africans by many names, for example, Ethiopes, Moors, negroes, blackamoors.