To quote Alejandro Colás (2007, p. 117), “the racialisation of culture is central to the construction of imperial civilization.” Racialisation is the process by which one conceives and relates to an individual or a group on the basis of his or their presumed race; applied to Empires, it raises the question of races and their place in the imperial structure. After all, the European colonial empires are often cited as the source of all modern racism. Abernethy’s (2000, p. 19) definition of an empire is as “a relationship of domination and subordination between one polity (metropole) and one or more territories (colonies) that lie outside the metropole’s boundaries yet are claimed as its lawful possessions.” This essay will ask the question of how the concept of race participates in this claim of possession and how it seeks to make it “lawful”. It will look at ways in which the process of racialisation upholds an imperial rule through the example of colonial Africa. As a first step this essay will try to determine whether racialisation precedes the imperial establishment, or on the contrary whether it is the imperial rule which brings about racialisation. I will then show how racialisation can offer an imperial authority tools to uphold its rule, in particular in two ways: the use of racial imagery as a legitimation vector, and the strategy of differentiation of races among indigenous populations and devolution of power to selected chiefs. Finally, I will highlight cases in which, far from upholding imperial rule, racialisation ends up damaging it and eventually bringing forth the empire’s downfall. Does racialisation precede empires?
Racism was already in existence within Europe amongst the nobility from the 18th century: Scottish Highlanders and the Irish were looked upon as savages and barbarians in need of civilization. When the British established colonies, for example in Africa, they justified the enterprise as a means to bring civilisation to populations in need of enlightenment. It was then seen as an offered act of salvation, a refusal of which would be impossible to understand. When Kenyans fought back colonialism during the Mau Mau rebellion, rather than a legitimate nationalist movement, it was seen as a reactionary one that would take the country back into the dark ages (Rosberg and Nottingham in Crowder 1968, p. 11). The idea presented was that it was Europe’s duty to dominate and teach a racially inferior continent – a relation supported in their minds by their technological advancement (Crowder 1968, p. 5). But, in fact, Britain was undergoing a major industrial revolution and was in need of raw materials and labour (Iweriebor, E.E.G.). Through years of ongoing trade, Africa was well known to European merchants who were also aware of the vast amount of resources it held. This pre-existing notion of civilizing the barbarian gave the British a pretext to colonize Africa so they might acquire resources to establish an empire and maintain the industrial revolution.
Do empires engender racialisation?
If it is not racialisation that prompts empires into existence, is it that empires produce racialisation? Imperial rule implies a practical superiority of the dominating population. Should it be identified as of a separate race from that of the periphery, one might jump to the conclusion that the metropolitan race be itself superior. Edney (2009, p. 41) aptly wrote, “Europeans used mapmaking as a marker of difference between themselves and peoples subordinated throughout the world.” When establishing an empire across the world, the drawing of borders itself would engrave the relation of cultural and racial hierarchy in their minds – an arbitrary hierarchy, often oblivious to the actual sense of identity of indigenous people. Several elements would argue against the idea of an automatic racialisation as a consequence to imperial dominance, though. First, empires often induced natural – though more...
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