Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

How racist ideas became widespread

by Marika Sherwood

The scramble for Africa

Slowly the trade in enslaved Africans was replaced by trade in diamonds, gold, other metals, palm oil, sisal and agricultural produce. Many of these trades pre dated and co existed with slavery. Europeans decided Africa had to be conquered and governed in order to expand the profits from the exploitation of its resources. At an 1885 conference Europeans scrambled to divide Africa among themselves. But Africans still had to be 'pacified', that is violently controlled while this exploitation took place. This required an army.

So the glories of the British Empire had to be propagated in Britain partly in order to ensure that enough men volunteered to join the army. These men were not needed to protect Britain from invaders, but to conquer peoples thousands of miles away. The easiest way was to perpetuate the myth of Africans' savagery, their inability to farm their own lands, their lack of laws and culture. The propaganda claimed Africans needed to be 'civilised' to ensure they paid taxes, worked on Europeans' plantations for a pittance and on Europeans' vessels for much lower wages than the white crews.


As the rate of literacy was very low in Britain until the late 1800s, the mass of the population knew very little about 'others'. Seamen must have returned with stories, but what these were we do not know. Once the missionaries became active, the British people learned about Africans', Australians' and Native Americans' savagery from the church pulpit. Those who could afford a ticket to the spreading popular musical theatres would have been entertained by comic acts imported from the USA, performed by 'blacked-up' minstrels. These minstrels were white men insulting, denigrating and caricaturing a black man usually called 'Jim Crow'.

From the late 1800s with the introduction of compulsory free education, this notion was propagated very thoroughly, in children's books and comics, by scientific societies, in the new profusion of newspapers, in school text books, on the stage and from the pulpit. You could not escape it: to give just one example, the peoples of west Africa who were not already working for the Europeans were described in a 1925 school text as being 'usually the most degraded, cannibalism and a horrible blood ritual in their idolatrous worship being common' (CB Thurston, An Economic Geography of the British Empire, London 1925, p. 233).

One of the most popular writers of children's fiction, the World War I pilot Capt WE Johns, wrote 96 books about a pilot hero, 'Biggles', whose enemy was very often a 'coloured' person. Written in the 1940s and early 1950s, the books have been republished again and again; the last one was in 2002. The 1935 novel, Biggles Hits the Trail, reprinted in 1980, is an example of the attitudes Johns' books entrenched in his young readers. The enemy this time is a Chinese group called the 'Chungs'. Biggles refers to Chinese peoples as 'coolies' and as 'chinks'; they are 'yellow'; the Himalayas keep the 'Chinese hordes in check'; the Chungs don't talk, they 'chirp' or 'chatter monkey-like'; the face of one, whom Biggles is about to shoot, is 'reptilian'.

The upper and middle classes, that is those who profited the most from the British Empire, had already been thoroughly mis-educated by the books they could read and the plays they could attend. The racist mythologies about the peoples of the vast British Empire were now supported by the eugenicist movements.

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