PORTRAITURE OF THE BLACK AFRICAN
BY CAUCASIANS IN BOTH
ANTIQUITY AND MODERN TIMES
By Gabriel Adeleye(1)
Man, as we know him today, is homo sapiens sapiens. He has three main characteristics, namely a large complex brain, manipulative hands and bipedal stature. Homo sapiens sapiens thinks reflectively, he can remember and generalize his experiences and pass them on to others. Moreover, he has a high degree of adaptation to the environment and can thus live under various environmental conditions. According to the Biblical story of Creation, all men descended from Adam and Eve. This view was demolished by Charles Darwin, who propounded the theory of the evolution of man. According to this theory, man is a mammal who by the process of evolution ultimately became homo sapiens sapiens. Darwin also pointed to Africa as the original home of man. Intensive interdisciplinary research by archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, taphonomists, animal behaviourists and psychologists has proved Darwin right on both scores. We know, however, that there is diversity in the human species, especially in skin pigmentation. This paper focuses attention on two groups of the human species--Caucasians and Black Africans. It examines portraiture of the Black African by Caucasians in both antiquity and modern times.
We do not know for certain when ancient Caucasians first came into contact with, or got to know of, the Black African. It is clear, however, that, as early as Homer, Greeks knew about the Black African. Homer (Od. XIX. 246-8) describes Eurybates, Odysseus' herald, as black-skinned and woolly-haired, two of the prominent somatic features of the Black African. Other Greek literary sources which refer to the Black African include Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus. By the Roman era, the Caucasian world had made ample contact with, and amassed considerable information on, the Black African. Latin literary sources which refer to the Black African include Martial, Petronius and Pliny the Elder. The literary evidence is corroborated by archaeological evidence, i.e. art objects, which cover the period from the C6th B.C. to the late Roman empire.
Graeco-Roman writers and artists knew the Black African well enough to describe or portray his physical features with some degree of accuracy. He is described as black or dark in colour. They also note variations in the darkness of his colour, which range from the colour of the mulatto through dark to very black. The blackness of the Black African was proverbial, giving rise to the saying, Aethiopa smechein--"to wash the Ethiopian white" (Lucian, Adversus Indoctum 28). Another distinguishing feature, which attracted the attention of Graeco-Romans, is the Black African's hair, which is variously described as woolly, curled, kinky, wiry or frizzly. As a commentator noted (Petronius Satyricon 102), one would need a curling iron to transform a non-Ethiopian into Ethiopian hair. Other physical features of the Black African observed by Graeco-Romans include the legs (described as rickety, bandy or thin), broad and ample feet, flat nose, thick, protruding, puffy or prominent lips, broad chest and big or pendulous breasts. With respect to breasts, Juvenal (XIII.163) says:
Who in Meroe marvels at the breast of a woman bigger than her fat baby?
Perhaps the ancient Caucasian's description of the physical features of the Black African is crystallized in four verses of the Moretum (31-5), an anonymous poem believed to have been written by Vergil. The verses read:
She was by race African, her entire figure testifying to her native land: hair tightly-curled, lips swollen, complexion dark, the chest broad, breasts lying low, abdomen somewhat pinched, the legs thin and the feet wide and large.
What, then, was the attitude of the Graeco-Roman to the Black African? To answer this question satisfactorily, we need to examine it at two levels, namely theory and practice.
On the theoretical level, we need from the very beginning to draw a line between Greek and Graeco-Roman. Ancient Greeks, in spite of their parochialism and intense inter-state rivalry, regarded themselves as one people, united by a common language and set apart from the rest of the world (Her. VIII.144). They called themselves Hellenes or the Hellenic people, while all other peoples were called Barbaroi or Barbarians, a pejorative word which has retained its connotation. To ancient Greeks of the classical age, therefore, Romans, like all other non-Greek peoples, were Barbarians. Generally, Greeks classified Barbarians as human beings, albeit inferior ones, being regarded as uncivilized, half-savage and servile. For instance, the philosopher, Aristotle, not only believed that Barbarians are slaves by nature (Pol. 1.1252b.4-7) but also is said to have advised his pupil, Alexander, to treat them like plants or animals.(2)
The Hellenistic Age, followed by the Graeco-Roman world proper, saw a drastic change in attitude towards Barbarians due, principally, to the policy of homonoia or racial fusion introduced by Alexander the Great. It was an age which put considerable emphasis on cosmopolitanism, with philosophers contributing immensely to the trend with their views on the brotherhood of man. These philosophers include the Stoics and Neoplatonists. Their views were reinforced by the Christian doctrine of the equality of all men.
Not only did the Graeco-Roman world regard Black Africans, like all other peoples, as members of the world community but also they introduced the environmental theory to explain diversity in the human species. Taking themselves as the norm, they recognized as racial extremes Scythians and Thracians--i.e. inhabitants of northern Europe--and Ethiopians--i.e. inhabitants of Africa to the far south. They attributed differences in character, skin pigmentation, physique and culture to environment. Graeco-Roman writers, who ascribed to the environment theory, included the Hippocratic School, Aristotle, Vitruvius and Ptolemy. For instance, according to Ptolemy (Tetrabiblos II.2.56), Black Africans owe their black skin pigmentation, thick woolly hair, short stature and sanguine nature to the proximity of the sun, while Scythians owe their white skin pigmentation, straight hair, tall stature and cold nature to the remoteness of the sun. To the Graeco-Roman world, therefore, physical features are merely the product of "geographical accident", the different features being what each group needs to cope with its environment.
Another point, which we need to take note of, is the Black African's reputation for probity in the Graeco-Roman world. Homer (Iliad I.423-4) had laid the foundation for this image when, using the medium of mythology, he described Ethiopians, i.e. Black Africans, as blameless people whom Zeus, accompanied by all the gods, visited for conviviality. That the Black African's probity is not merely a figment of the fertile imagination of a mythographer is proved by the corroborating evidence of other Graeco-Roman writers. Perhaps the most interesting corroboration is Herodotus' account of trade between Carthaginians and Black Africans. This significant account deserves citation in large part. Herodotus says:(3)
The Carthaginians also tell us that they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya beyond the Pillars of Heracles (i.e. the straits of Gibraltar--mine). On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it represents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.
This is an authentic description of dumb barter or the silent trade, a well-known system of trade in ancient Africa, which was still being practised when Europeans first arrived on the West African littoral. Equally interesting and significant is the evidence of Stobaeus (IV.2.25), who says not only that the houses of Black Africans had no doors, but also that one could leave things in the streets and nobody would steal them. It is interesting to note that such practices persist in certain parts of Black Africa, where there are houses with no doors, fitted with locks, bolts and bars, but mere mats for privacy.
Let us now turn to the practical level and examine how Graeco-Romans and Black Africans interacted. Literary and archaeological evidence indicates that the Black African was not unknown in the Graeco-Roman world. Some of the Ethiopians who served in the Persian army, which invaded Greece in 480 B.C., probably remained in Greece as captives. Black Africans, like other non-Greeks, could also have come to Greece via the slave market. The foundation of Alexandria accelerated contact between Graeco-Romans and Black Africans. Moreover, as Rome became an imperial power with provinces in North Africa, interaction between Graeco-Romans and Black Africans increased tremendously.(4)
The Black Africans of the Graeco-Roman world engaged in a wide variety of occupations. Some were active in the entertainment sector, serving as boxers, jugglers, acrobats, gladiators, professional animal-hunters, tamers of wild animals, dancers, jockeys and actors. Other Black Africans were employed as cooks, bath-attendants, shoe-shiners, divers, courtesans, lamp-bearers, personal attendants of magnates and labourers who pull cables or work on Archimedes' screws.(5) In addition to these, some Black Africans were engaged in respectable occupations and they moved in the high society of the Graeco-Roman world. Aesop, the fabulist (Perry (ed.), Aesopica I.215), was a Black African. Terence, a former slave from Carthage who, like Plautus, composed comedies based on Greek originals, the type of comedy called New Comedy or the Comedy of Manners, was most probably a Black African. He became a celebrity, moving in Rome's high society and he had a daughter who, reportedly, married a Roman of equestrian rank (Suet. Vita Terenti 5). Black intellectuals of the Graeco-Roman world included Juba II, king of Mauretania, and one Memnon, a gifted disciple of the celebrated sophist, Herodes Atticus. Generally, the Roman empire offered opportunities for distinguished careers in the army, diplomatic service or business to talented provincials and men of humble background. Thus Lusius Quietus, apparently a Black African, became a prominent general under emperor Trajan and subdued Mesopotamia.(6)
Our sources indicate not only that the Black African was accepted in the Graeco-Roman world but also that there were black-white sexual relations in the form of either marriage or concubinage. The Graeco-Roman world regarded beauty as relative. Thus, Propertius (II.25.41-42) says that a tender beauty is attractive, be it white or black. This relativity is reflected in our sources, some expressing preference for white beauty, others for black beauty. With respect to the latter, Asclepiades (Anthologia Palatina V.210), praising one Didyme, says:
Gazing at her beauty, I melt like wax before the fire. And if she is black, what difference to me? So are coals, but when we light them, they shine like rosebuds.
Martial (I.115.4-5) says that, though pursued by a girl whose colour is whiter than silver, lily or snow, he chose to run after a girl whose blackness surpasses that of pitch, a cicada or an ant. Furthermore, a Pompeiian graffito (CIL IV.6892) says:
Whoever loves a Black girl is set ablaze by black charcoal; when I see a Black girl, I willingly eat blackberries.
As the force of attraction exerted by beauty and love ignored colour boundaries, there were black-white sexual relations. Reference has been made to the marriage of Terence's daughter. King Juba II of Mauretania was married to two Caucasian women at different times, first to Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, and, then, to a daughter of Archelaus, king of Cappadocia, by name Glaphyra (Snowden, 1979, 95). According to Aristotle (Generation of Animals I.XVIII.722a), a woman from Elis had a child, whose father was an Ethiopian. Plutarch (De sera numinis vindicta 2I ) tells the story of a Greek woman who gave birth to a black child and was accused of adultery, but subsequent investigation revealed that her great grandfather was an Ethiopian. According to Pliny (Naturalis Historia VII.12.51), a famous boxer by name Nicaeus resembled his grandfather, who was an Ethiopian. Generally, the frequency of black and white sexual relations is attested by the attention it received from satirists and rhetoricians. In all this, we need to note that there is no evidence of repugnance at black and white sexual relations per se. What is deemed reprehensible is adultery and the consequent birth of a mulatto.
To conclude on the attitude of Graeco-Romans to the Black African, initially Graeco-Romans regarded Black Africans, like all other non-Graeco-Romans, as barbarians, i.e. uncivilized, half-savage and servile peoples. After the age of Alexander the Great, there was emphasis on cosmopolitanism as well as the brotherhood and equality of man. Right from very early times, Black Africans had been regarded as men of probity. They were a familiar sight in the Graeco-Roman world and they offered services, mainly of a humble type, though some talented ones among them rose to distinguished positions. Moreover, the Graeco-Roman world did not resent black-white sexual relations, condemning them only if adultery were involved. Generally, Graeco-Romans paid scant attention to colour in their evaluation of man. They were primarily concerned with a man's natural inclination, endowments, ability, skill, etc. To paraphrase the words of Menander (A. Koerte, Leipzig, 1959, frg.612), it does not matter whether one is an Ethiopian, Scythian or Greek; what matters is merit.
With the fall of the Roman empire, direct Caucasian-Black African relations almost completely collapsed to be replaced with Arab-Black African relations in the wake of Islam's advent in Africa. It was not until the latter part of the 15th century A.D. that direct Caucasian-Black African relations were restored after Portuguese exploration of the coast of Africa en route to India. We need not go into the details of subsequent events. Suffice it to say that Caucasian-Black African trade was established, the triangular trans-atlantic slave trade eclipsed all other forms of trade, the slave trade and slavery were abolished, "legitimate" trade was established and the "scramble for Africa" took place, culminating in the establishment of European colonial rule, which began to collapse after the Second World War.
The picture of the Black African painted by Caucasians in modern times is considerably influenced by the former's experience of both slavery in the plantations of the West Indies and the Americas and European colonialism. European occupation of Black Africa was facilitated by European technological superiority. European colonialists equated technological superiority with racial superiority. They then propounded theories of white racial superiority, which viewed mankind hierarchically, placing the Caucasian at the top, the Black African at the bottom, of the ladder. Moreover, they reinforced their position with a "sense of moral superiority", viewing their occupation of Black Africa as a civilizing mission, conveniently pushing into oblivion their primary motive for coming to Black Africa, i.e. economic exploitation. By degrees, this assumption of racial and moral superiority gave birth to prejudices, myths, distortions, exaggerations, half-truths, etc., especially since the colonialists did not mix with their subjects well enough to know and understand them.
Thus, the Black African is portrayed as dirty. Crocker,(7) a British colonial administrator in Nigeria in the 1930s, said:
the first sensation of the European coming into contact with the African is that of smell.
Secondly, Caucasians regard the Black African as an over-sexed person, who spends most of his time thinking of sexual intercourse. Crocker(8) also says:
. . . the reproductive impulses are active enough among all peoples, but among none do they monopolise interests and energies to the degree they do among the African.
Similarly, Sir Harry Johnston,(9) commenting on Black African young men said:
When the youth arrives at puberty there is the tendency towards an arrested development of mind. At this crucial period many bright and shining examples fall off into disappointing nullity. As might be imagined, the concentration of their thoughts on sexual intercourse is answerable for this falling away.
Thirdly, Caucasians regard the Black African as lazy, unreliable and incapable of doing things the right way. A European lady, resident in Freetown in the early 1950s, would rather make ice cream herself for dinner parties than ask Black Africans, apparently her servants, to do so. According to her:(10)
You can't depend on these people at all. I find it's best to get on with things myself.
In a similar vein E. Beurdeley,(11) a French colonial officer, said in 1914:
Anyone who has lived for some time in contact with our natives and takes the trouble to observe them, rapidly begins to discover imperfections in them such as the following: they do not know how to appreciate the value of time any more than of distance; they are useless at all kinds of work demanding any appreciation of symmetry; they are incapable of laying out their fields in straight lines; incapable of laying a table cloth evenly on a table; of placing a carpet on the floor parallel to the walls.
Moreover, Caucasians regard the Black African as dishonest. Thus Walter Miller,(12) a missionary, wrote about the "mental dishonesty, habitual deceit and apparently ineradicable lying" of the Hausa, whom, ironically, he wished to convert to Christianity.
Above all, Caucasians regard the Black African as uncivilized. Thus Binger says:(13)
One must act with sweetness but firmness toward the African; one must never forget that nineteen centuries of civilisation separate us from their ignorance . . .
Attempts have been made by some distinguished Caucasian intellectuals to perpetuate the portrait of the Black African painted by European colonialists. Thus, in 1951, Margery Perham,(14) a distinguished scholar of African history, who should know better, said:
until the very recent penetration of Europe the greater part of the continent [i.e. Africa--mine] was without the wheel, the plough or the transport animal; without stone houses or clothes except skins; without writing and so without history.
Similarly, in 1962, the distinguished historian, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper(15) of Oxford, pronounced, ex cathedra, the verdict:
Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at the present there is none; there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness . . . and darkness is not the subject of history.
And when so-called distinguished Caucasian intellectuals find anything sophisticated and commendable about the Black African, they ignore the evidence and bring out a hypothesis to nullify his achievements. One such hypothesis is the Hamitic hypothesis, which attempts to throw some doubt on the ability of the Black African to establish such polities as the empires of the Western Sudan and to produce such art works as the Ife bronzes of Nigeria. According to this hypothesis, any sophisticated Black African state must have gained its sophistication from the rule of the Hamites, "a mythical light-skinned nomadic people."(16)
To recapitulate, Black Africans have been portrayed as lazy, dirty, over-sexed, a people with no appreciation of time, a people with no history and culture.
Let us now examine the validity of the allegations. We call upon Sir Hugh Clifford, British Governor of the Gold Coast, to testify in connection with the alleged indolence of the Black African. Paying tribute to the industry of the cocoa farmer of the Gold Coast, he said:(17)
This man, reputed to be lazy by the superficial globe-trotter or the exponent of the damned nigger school, has carved from the virgin forest an enormous clearing, which he has covered with flourishing cocoa farms. Armed with nothing better than an imported axe and machete, and a native-made hoe, he has cut down the forest giant, cleared the tropical undergrowth, and kept it cleared. With no means of animal transport, no railways and few roads, he has conveyed his produce to the sea, rolling it down in casks for miles and carrying it on his own sturdy cranium. Here is a result to make us pause in our estimate of the negro race.
The allegation respecting the Black African's indolence can be made by only people with negligible knowledge of the Black African. The African resents (who does not?) working, while somebody else enjoys the fruit of his labour. In Nigerian pidgin English, it is expressed thus: "Monkey de work, baboon de chop." The dictum is derived from the experience of the monkey which climbs a tree to pluck fruits, while the baboon stands on the ground, eating them. Knowing that the colonialists were cheating him by paying either low wages for his services or low prices for his products, he would either work with hardly any enthusiasm or sell his products elsewhere. Thus the labourer on a construction site would pretend to be working enthusiastically when the foreman is on the spot to supervise his work, but as soon as the foreman goes elsewhere, all workmen would sit down and chat, with one standing on guard to watch his movements. As soon as word is relayed that the foreman is coming back, they would all stand up and pretend to be working.
We call Michael Crowder,(18) British author, to testify in connection with the allegation that the Black African smells. Commenting on Crocker's allegation, he says:
An African had annotated the Rhodes House copy in the margin `We feel you stink.'
By contrast most Africans are far too polite to comment on what they consider the very unpleasant smell of many Europeans. And one must remember that some Europeans still cling to the metropolitan habit of the weekly bath.
Weekly bath! That is an anathema for the Black African. Most Black Africans take their bath at least once a day before going out to work. It is not unusual for the female Black African to take her bath twice a day, in the morning and in the evening or at night.
As for the Black African's lack of appreciation of the value of time, he pleads "guilty with explanation". Africans call it "African punctuality", while their brothers and sisters in the diaspora call it "Coloured People's Time". The origin of this habit is not known for certain, but it probably goes back to the days of transatlantic slavery and colonialism. A number of factors must have contributed to the habit. First, there is the novelty of the chronometer to a people whose perception of time was fluid and who were not accustomed to the dictatorship of a man-made instrument. Moreover, it must have been a reaction to the onerous demands made by Caucasian masters and superior officials. Though admitting, to some extent, the validity of the allegation, the Black African is pleasantly surprised to find that he now shares with many other peoples, including Caucasians, what used to be considered a lapse peculiar to him.
With respect to the Black African's so-called over-sexuality, it is not easy to determine the exact connotation of the allegation. Does it mean his phallic potentiality, inclination to have many children, attraction to the fair sex or what? More importantly, what kind of research did Sir Harry Johnston, for instance, conduct to reach the conclusion that the thoughts of Black African youths are concentrated on sexual intercourse? There is, however, no need to waste words on the allegation. The widespread exposure which the Caucasian world has given to sexuality--in magazines, on screens, on the stages of nightclubs, etc.--suggests that the plaintiff has exchanged places with the defendant.
To expose the intellectual dishonesty of so-called distinguished Caucasian intellectuals, who maintain that, "until the very recent penetration of Europe", Black Africans had no history and culture, we need not do any more than present a parade of historical facts:
1. The Black African pharaohs of Egypt's 25th dynasty--Piankhi, Shabako, Shebitku, Taharqua and Tanwetamani--who ruled Egypt from 730 to 663 B.C., with an empire stretching from the Mediterranean shores to the south of Egypt.(19)
2. The kingdom of Kush, Napata and Meroe, whose existence spanned the period 751 B.C.-550 A.D.
3. The empires of the Western Sudan (Ghana, Mali and Songhai), spanning the period 700 A.D. to the 15th century, especially Songhai with her Arabic literature, Sankore University and burnt brick houses.
4. The Yoruba Oyo kingdom and empire of Nigeria with its governmental system of checks and balances.
5. Nigeria's Benin with its rich art.
6. Ghana's Asante empire with its Golden Stool, the "Sunsum" or soul of the nation, Asante with its military might, Asante which inflicted a heavy defeat on Britain in 1824, crowning it with the killing of Sir Charles MacCarthy, Governor of British West Africa.(20)
To conclude, the Graeco-Roman lived in a world whose sophistication had not reached the level attained by the modern world. Writers of that age had no vested interests to protect, no tenuous hypotheses to defend. They were close to nature and said it like it was. To Homer, Black Africans were blameless people--i.e. people of probity. His testimony has been corroborated by Herodotus and Stobaeus. The Graeco-Roman regarded the Black African as a member of the world community and attributed his physical features to the effect of his environment. Our sources show the wide spectrum of occupations of Black Africans in the Graeco-Roman world, ranging from the humble to the respectable. They make it clear that the Graeco-Roman world paid scant attention to colour in its evaluation of man, being primarily concerned with a man's inclination, natural endowments, ability, etc. They show that beauty is relative, that the Black woman could be considered beautiful just as much as the Caucasian woman and that there were black-white sexual relations. There is no evidence of condemnation of the practice as long as adultery were not involved. The modern Caucasian, on the other hand, has vested interest to protect. He occupied lands of Black Africans and exploited them economically. He had to justify his strange conduct, which is unacceptable even to his own notions of morality. He found justification in his imagined superiority to the Black African and the need to civilize the supposedly backward Black African. To reinforce his view of the inferiority of the Black African, he takes to distortion of facts, portraying him as lazy, dirty, over-sexed, decadent, a person with no culture and history, etc. Unfortunately, the modern Caucasian made one crucial mistake. He introduced into Black Africa western education with its emphasis on respect for the supremacy of facts and rational reasoning. The game is over. Nor will intellectual dishonesty make any difference. Obviously, the modern Caucasian needs to consult his Graeco-Roman predecessors and revise drastically his attitude to the Black African.
NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20.
1.Professor Adeleye was Fulbright Professor of Classics at Monmouth College in 1992. He presented this paper at Hamilton College and Monmouth College.
2.Plutarch, De Alex, Magni Fortuna aut Virtute, 329b.
3.Herodotus IV.196. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt.
4.See Frank M. Snowden Jr., Blacks in Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), pp. 184-85.
5.Snowden, p. 187; L.A. Thompson, Romans and Blacks (Norman and London, 1989), pp. 147-48.
6.For Terence, Juba, Lusius Quietus and Memnon, see Snowden, pp. 187-88, W. den Boer, Mnemosyne (1948) 327-337, (1950) 263-67 and 339-343 and L.A. Thompson, pp. 25, 51-52 and n.167. Scholars disagree on whether Terence, Juba II and Quietus were black or merely "coloured". For our purposes, it makes no real difference whether they were black or "coloured" Africans.
7.W.E. Crocker, Nigeria -- a Critique of Colonial Administration (London, 1936), p. 202.
8.Crocker, p. 203.
9.Sir Alan Burns, Colour Prejudice (London, 1948), p. 104.
10.Pearce Gervis, Sierra Leone Story (London, 1952), p. 16.
11.E. Beurdeley, La Justice indigène en Afrique Occidentale Française: Mission d'Etudes, 1913-14 (Paris, 1916), p. 36.
12.Cited by Sir Alan Burns, op. cit.
13.See Michael Crowder, West Africa under Colonial Rule (Evanston, 1968), pp. 395 and 400n.15.
14."The British Problem in Africa", Foreign Affairs, July 1951.
15."The Rise of Christian Europe", The Listener, November 28, 1963.
16.Michael Crowder, op. cit., p. 12.
17.The Times, June 2nd, 1925.
18.Michael Crowder, op. cit., p. 396.
19.Snowden, op. cit., p. 114.
20.Edward Reynolds in J.F.A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder (eds.), History of West Africa (Essex, 1987), II, p. 222.