On the history of racial theory and the concept of white supremacy

Essay 2006 8 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents


Racial Classification in the European Enlightenment

Evolutionary Theory and Its Interpretations

White Supremacy, Imperialism and Genocide

Racism in Modern Sciences




Although historians have not been able to pin down when and where exactly the concept of white supremacy first emerged, the human urge to classify living organisms according to a hierarchical system - from which the idea of supremcy has sprung - is ancient. It is common to several religions and socio-political concepts, yet what is most relevant when looking at the supression and subjugation of indigenous peoples under the hands of white man, are its deep roots within Christian nations, especially in the Middle Ages. The ‘divine mission’ to spread ‘civilisation and belief’ was repeatedly used as a pretext for exploitative colonialism, as in the example of the conquest of South America by the Spanish. Centuries later in what is called the Enlightenment period, theories of special creation were abandoned and evolutionary theories gave rise to more concrete ideas about racial superiority of whites, who in this way tried to justify their imperialist motives. At the turn of the 19th century, the industrial European nations were grabbing for colonies, eventually ending up in battle fighting for their share of Africa. Thus, racial theory and white supremacy have been closely related with ultra-capitalilsm.

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Fig. 1: Drawing of the great chain of being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana (1579)

Racial Classification in the European Enlightenment

“According to Arthur Lovejoy, the Great Chain of Being was, along with the word ‘Nature’, the ‘sacred phrase of the eighteenth century, playing a part somewhat analogous to that of the blessed word “evolution” in the late nineteenth’”[1]. The Great Chain of Being, a divinely inspired metaphor seeking to place all forms of higher and lower life into a universal hierarchy, was an idea of classical origin particularly adhered to in the Middle Ages but was still widespread up to the 19th century. Yet during the Enlightenment Period there was also a rationalist break with the biblical account of all men descending from Adam, catalysing both monogenetic and polygenetic theories of racial classification. Blumenbach admitted that there were different forms of human life, but argued in support of biblical monogenesis that they all “degenerated” from a single “Caucasian” type. In his publication De generis humani

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Fig. 2: An illustration from Blumenbach’s De generis humani varietate nativa

varietate nativa he named five human races, four of which he said to have descended from the

“Caucasian race”. Their distinct physical features, he argued, were a result of adaptation to their respective climates. Although this theory was abused to justify racist actions, it should be pointed out that Blumenbach considered neither of the races to be superior or inferior to another, but that all forms of human life were equally valuable and legitimate.

Morton, on the other hand, claimed that Earth was inhabited by several races of different origins (polygenesis) of which some were superior to others. Another influential work was that of Linnaeus, who was not so much concerned with describing ancestral relations between the “races” but with attributing certain characteristics to each. Several travelers and missionaries in Africa followed his example in their subjective characterisations of the Khoi (formerly called Hottentots). Although some voices rejected the common European perception of the Khoi as “stupid, irrational, godless and lacking in humanity”[2], the general view was negative, which was promptly transported from a pseudo-academic level to a popular one: Returning to Europe, many expeditionists brought with them indigenous people and zoo-like exhibitions such as the “Hottentot Venus” became a sensationalist spectacle.


[1] Dubow, p.21

[2] Dubow, p.21


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University of Bayreuth
South African Fiction



Title: On the history of racial theory and the concept of white supremacy