‘Hottentots’ and the Evolution of European Racism

Nicholas Hudson, Journal of European Studies 34(4): 308-332

Springing from the argument in recent scholarship that ‘race’ is a doctrine that emerged only in the post-Enlightenment, this essay develops a theory concerning the ideological history of ‘racism’, understood in its modern Western sense. While it is impossible to examine all forms of Western racism, the author focuses on evolving reactions in European travel accounts, belles-lettres and anthropology to the Khoikhoi, popularly known as ‘Hottentots’, a people that became proverbial as the most wretched and degraded of all ‘savages’. The question posed is why the Khoikhoi, a relatively peripheral and cooperative people, attracted this virulent hatred. Challenging the assumption of the small body of modern scholarship on the Khoikhoi, I maintain that this spite derived not simply from a sense of the Hottentots’ ‘Otherness’, but more accurately from the awareness that this people upset models of ethnicity that supported the Western vision of the non-European world. Europeans needed to neutralize the ideological threat represented by the Khoikhoi, a programme that culminated in the development of the modern science of ‘race’. ‘Race’, and its corresponding ideology of ‘racism’, I conclude, involves not merely the exclusion, but an approximation and appropriation of the ‘Other’ into Western systems of thought: the ultimate and fatal destiny of this highly distinct and independent culture.

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We cannot, of course, examine every instance of Western hatred of the Other throughout history. But our investigation can begin to shed light on the evolution of racism by focusing on the development of attitudes towards a particular group that became, quite arguably, the most reviled people in European thought of the early modern era. These were the Khoikhoi, popularly known as ‘Hottentots’, a herding society that lived near the Cape of Good Hope when Vasco da Gama first touched there in 1497, and that developed a long and troubled cultural and economic relationship with Europeans over the next four hundred years. By the eighteenth century Hottentots had become proverbial as the most savage of all savage peoples, occupying a rung, according to many, elevated just above the beast. As Sir Joseph Banks commented after his visit to the Cape on Cook’s Endeavour in 1771, Hottentots ‘are generally represented as the outcasts of the human species, a race whose intellectual faculties are so little superior to those of beasts, that some have been inclined to suppose them more nearly related to baboons than to men’ (Banks, 1896: 439). The very term ‘Hottentot’ became a familiar insult exchanged among Europeans themselves for any behaviour deemed uncivilized, filthy or ill-mannered. The question this hatred raises is ‘why?’ Why were the Khoikhoi, a relatively peripheral and cooperative people in colonial expansion, singled out from all other non-European peoples for this abuse?

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Very early, travellers revealed their nervous amusement that Khoikhoi customs were, in fact, analogous to European customs, though strangely inverted. Though born ‘white’, it was said, they apparently preferred black, and painted themselves appropriately. Their filthiness and foul smell, thought travellers, arose not merely from an impoverished life, but was actually sought and cultivated as a beauty or dignity. It was the richest Khoikhoi, not the poorest, who were smeared most fulsomely with fat and dirt, a sign that they had cattle to spare for this decoration. Even the Khoikhoi taste for precious metals seemed a bizarre deviation from European ideas: the Khoikhoi valued not gold, but copper, which they purchased from the colonists at great expense of cattle and fashioned into elaborate ornamentation. Such details could hardly be related without drawing detailed comparisons between European and Hottentot culture, and early descriptions repeatedly portray Hottentots as a kind of parody of Europeans. Consider, for example, Georg Meister’s observations in 1677 on the ‘wonderful ceremonies’ surrounding Hottentot courtship and marriage, which consistently draw from European customs as their frame of reference. ‘The friends of the bridegroom come together’, he tells us, ‘and then [the groom] throws a thick, greasy cow-gut around the neck of his sweetheart instead of lovely pearls and golden chains, and this is the true bond of love, which is worn until it falls off of itself’ (Raven-Hart, 1971: 1, 349). Elsewhere Meister paints a ludicrous picture of Hottentot men rising from a meal of barely cooked guts, bowing ‘most humbly’ to their hosts, and going off ‘two-by-two in their leather coats like the merchants of the Exchange in Amsterdam or Hamburg in their silken ones’ (Raven-Hart, 1971: 1, 203).

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