Manual Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

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David Nirenberg

Apart from the fact that notions of the purity of blood emerged in Spain at this time and place, Iberia also represented the take off in European exploration or imperialism or even Eurocentric globalization. The most important contribution which this book makes to the historiography of racism, apart from moving its origins more towards Iberia, is to emphasise that racial categorization developed from the 16th century as Europeans encountered new peoples.

This contrasts with much of the Anglocentric literature which has focused upon the imperial encounter as a 19th-century phenomenon consequent upon expansion into Africa and other parts of the globe. Bethencourt argues here that the racial classifications of the world which would become solidified from the 18th century onward initially emerged in a frontispiece used as the front cover to the present book to the first Atlas of the world published by Abraham Ortelius in , Theatrum Orbis Terrarum , which had reached its 41st edition by In this illustration Europe is depicted as the racial superior to the other parts of the world in the form of the Americas, Asia and Africa.

Bethencourt provides a detailed and convincing analysis of the meanings of the figures used in this particular illustration, with Europe at the top of the hierarchy. Chapter five as a whole demonstrates how the message conveyed in this image spread through the visual arts during subsequent centuries. The chapters which follow in part two then examine views of Africans, Americans, Asians and Europeans, using a wealth of deeply analysed sources.

Examining the original sources produced by these writers, which he deconstructs and analyses in detail, Bethencourt provides an interesting narrative and timeline. From a thematic point of view the book works best when it deals with racial ideology, a subject in which Bethencourt demonstrates himself expert. As I have previously mentioned, whether dealing with Theatrum Orbis Terrarum or Mein Kampf , Bethencourt explains racial ideas in an incisive, concise and intelligent way, which any undergraduate student could grasp.

Some parts of the narrative also demonstrate the ways in which racism lessens, as in the brief discussion of racial segregation and desegregation in the USA. There is not enough economics in this book, at least not in an overt sense. Marx is dismissed in 8 lines pp. Post-war Marxist scholars developed our understanding of the link between capitalism and racism in the evolution of immigration into Europe from the end of the 19th century. It also stresses the importance of Spain and Portugal in the evolution of such ideas, both in the Iberian Peninsula and, more importantly, in the Empires which these two states created in the Americas in particular.

The narrative works much better when Bethencourt writes about his own areas of expertise, especially in the early modern period, linked with the fact that here he uses and analyses more primary sources, whether visual or written. By the time we arrive at the 20th century these disappear, with the exception of Chamberlain and Hitler, which means that the final two chapters are just descriptions of what Bethencourt regards as the worst manifestations of racism in the 20th century.


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In order for a consistent narrative to have emerged throughout, Bethencourt needed to devote more attention to this period: put crudely, there are more people alive in the 20th century, meaning more experiences of racism and more sources. We needed more space on this era rather than less.

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Bethencourt also brings in a discussion of racism in Asia in the last section, partly to demonstrate the impact of European ideas in its evolution. However, he does this is in a superficial way using secondary sources. I am afraid that after reading the final page of this book I came away feeling that racism inhabited a different era because biologically determined prejudice has had its day, despite a final paragraph of the book which contains a catalogue of platitudes stating that we do not live in a world free of racism.

A proper engagement with immigration towards Europe since in a book about racism revolving around Europe would have overcome this misrepresentation.


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  • The racial ideas which evolved in Empire did not disappear with the collapse of European imperial control during the 20th century. They remain active, in a different form, in the centre, even though the periphery has withered away. In popular discourse which, of course, should not determine, but inevitably plays some influence on, academic conceptions we would describe this as racism, which, I am afraid whatever word you might use to describe this type of discrimination is alive and well in contemporary Europe in all manner of ways.

    Bethencourt analyzes how practices of discrimination and segregation from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries were defended, and he systematically integrates visual culture into his investigation. Moving away from ideas of linear or innate racism, this is a major interdisciplinary work that recasts our understanding of interethnic relations. Racisms : From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century.

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      Demonstrating that there is not one continuous tradition of racism in the West, the author, a historian shows that racism preceded any theories of race and must be viewed within the prism and context of social hierarchies and local conditions. In this book, he argues that in its various aspects, all racism has been triggered by political projects monopolizing specific economic and social resources. He focuses on the Western world, but opens comparative views on ethnic discrimination and segregation in Asia and Africa.

      He looks at different forms of racism, particularly against New Christians and Moriscos in Iberia, black slaves and freedmen in colonial and postcolonial environments, Native Americans, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and Jews in modern Europe. Exploring instances of enslavement, forced migration, and ethnic cleansing, he reflects on genocide and the persecution of ethnicities in twentieth-century Europe and Anatolia.