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You are in: Derby > Abolition > Slavery and the science of racism

Slave ship conditions

Slave ship conditions

Slavery and the science of racism

The University of Derby's Dr Lovemore Nyatanga examines some of the dubious science which sought to justify slavery and explains how some attitudes from that time remain to this day.

The Slave Trade which flourished between about 1500 and 1900,  saw an estimated 12 million African slaves removed from their homelands in a manner that blended racism and brutality in order to enrichen the European countries who engaged in it.

Slave financial markets

The slave trade generated huge revenue that was used to buy raw materials such as sugar, cotton, coffee, metals, and tobacco. 

Abolition medallion

Abolition medallion

Slave trade networks and markets developed in search of easy money. For example, European farmers (plantation owners) mining companies, and other trades joined the slave market in order to secure slaves as they were the cheapest form of labour.

New industries in Europe and America were created and processed raw materials under the cheap labour of slaves. Slave trade, soon became an international institution, characterised by economic ruthlessness and total disregard of the possibility that slaves were once normal people with proper identities.

In UK the slave trade made enormous financial contribution to wealth of some cities. Cities such as Liverpool and Amsterdam became quite wealthy as a result of the slave trade.

The psychology of slavery

Advertently or inadvertently slave trade across the Atlantic, while intended to meet European economic need, also created very negative stereotypes of black people. The stereotypes matched the inhuman conditions that had become synonymous with being a slave.

This suited a number of people particularly the so called polygenists (those that believed in racial differences and unequal treatment of people). The polygenic view afforded those with a racist predisposition the psychological advantage of feeling superior and more important than slaves and the like.

The polygenists intensified their struggle to maintain the ideology of racial differences when the anti-slavery uprisings led to the abolition of slavery.

Social conscience & the abolition of slavery (1807 & 1833)

Slave trade was banned in UK 1807 but it was not until 1833 that slavery was abolished.

There was still fierce debate in America. This led to civil war between the monogenists (abolitionists) of the northern states and the polygenists (pro-slavery group) of the Southern States. America eventually abolished slavery in 1865.

Derby & Derbyshire

Derbyshire does appear to have a direct contribution to the slave trade. It, however, had one notable psychologist who engaged in scientific racism. His name was Herbert Spencer.

Scientific racism means the use of science to develop theories and propaganda (such as those of the 20th Century) that draw upon the biology of racial differences.

For example, craniology & phrenology were initially used (now discredited) as evidence that attributes such as intelligence quotient (IQ), were purely biological or genetic.

Spencer’s most notorious contribution to scientific racism was 'the Spencer Hypothesis'.

It stated that black people could not suffer from depression because they were not mentally sufficiently developed to recognize stressors of life.

This may be because one of the most popular stereotype of slaves was gregariousness and child-like behaviour.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

An even greater influence in scientific racism was Sir Francis Galton the founder of the Eugenics movement.

What is Eugenics anyway?

Eugenics is the scientific study of those factors that influence the hereditary qualities of future generations.

Rather being thought of a social or political ideology eugenics would prefer to be seen as a science.

It seeks to improve humanity's future by positive and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics concerns itself, for example, with ways of increasing the number of children produced by persons who are, by some definition, superior.

Negative eugenics, on the other hand, seeks ways of reducing the number produced by persons who are physically or mentally deficient.

Thus attempts to encourage larger families from superior parents are called positive eugenics, attempts to reduce the number of children from defective parents negative eugenics.

While slavery might have ended, it is rather sad that residual attitudes from slavery still persist and are now supported by scientific racism.

Dr Lovemore Nyatanga

last updated: 24/10/2008 at 12:21
created: 02/03/2007

You are in: Derby > Abolition > Slavery and the science of racism

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