Excerpts from Anténor Firmin’s Masterwork, De l’égalité des races humaines (1885; transl. Asselin Charles, The Equality of the Human Races, 2000), chapter 17
The Role of the Black Race in the History of Civilization
Et le génie m’indiquant du doigt les objets : « Ces monceaux, me dit-il, que tu aperçois dans l’aride et longue vallée que sillonne le Nil, sont les squelettes des villes opulentes dont s’enorgueillissait l’ancienne Éthiopie ; voilà cette Thèbes aux cent palais, métropole première des sciences et des arts, berceau mystérieux de tant d’opinions qui régissent encore les peuples à leur insu. »
Pointing at the objects, the genius said to me, “This rubble, which litters the long and fertile Nile valley, are the remains of the opulent cities which were the pride of ancient Ethiopia. There is Thebes, the city of one-hundred palaces, preeminent center of the arts and sciences, mysterious cradle of so many ideas which still rule nations without their knowledge.”
1. ETHIOPIA, EGYPT, AND HAITI
In response to those who refuse to acknowledge that the Ethiopian race did play any active role at all in the historic development of our species, it suffices to evoke the existence of the ancient Egyptians. It has been possible to support the strange thesis of the original inferiority of the Black peoples as long as a willfully biased and guiltily complicit science persisted in the opinion that the Retous were a White race. Today, however, historical criticism has evolved to such a high degree that discerning and sincere minds are able to reestablish the truth about this extremely important point. It may no longer be possible, therefore, to close one’s eyes to the light and to continue to propagate the same doctrine. In fact, the supporters of the theory of the inequality of the human races would find it very awkward to persist in their belief. It is now well known that the ancient inhabitants of the shores of the Nile were members of the Black race, and I have presented overabundant evidence in support of this fact. Let us now see what humanity owes to this race.
It is not necessary to draw up a long list of accomplishments. Students of Egyptian archeology and antiquities are aware of the pioneering and inventive role this industrious people have played in all sorts of fields. The basic technologies and manufacturing techniques that have been most useful for furthering the development of human societies were generally invented in Egypt or Ethiopia. There we find evidence for the practice of all the trades and all the professions. Never before or since has the genius for architecture reached such heights. Never before or since has a people created such magnificent art with such elementary means. The monuments of Egypt seem to challenge time in order to immortalize the memory of these Black peoples who distinguished themselves by their artistic genius. In the all-embracing light of Egypt, human imagination has created the most splendid, the most magnificent structures in the world. No sculptural tradition, no school of architecture, will ever match the boldness of the ancient Egyptian canon with its inimitable gigantic proportions and pure lines. Under the clear sky of Attica, one will find no doubt delicate and pure forms whose perfect execution imparts to the soul an ineffable impression of serenity. But this is not the majestic grandeur that both humbles the spirit and inspires a sentiment of invincible pride as one contemplates those colossal masses which the human will has shaped to its liking.
As regards the intellectual development of humanity, there is no doubt whatsoever that we owe to Egypt all the rudiments which contributed to the elaboration of modern science. The only thing that might seem foreign to Egyptian civilization is the moral evolution of the Western peoples which started with Greek philosophy and continues today, with successive crises of varying lengths and disruptive effects. But the more we understand the meaning of the ancient hieroglyphs preserved on the resilient Egyptian papyrus manuscripts or chiselled into the antique stelae and bas-reliefs, the more we become convinced of the high level of moral development achieved by the Nilotic populations of the era of the Pharaohs. We find that the same kind and humane morality, very restrained in terms of metaphysics and the supernatural, free of religious superstition, prevailed in a rudimentary form among the Black peoples of Sudanese Africa, until the invasion of Islam, a religion of which zeal is an essential and permanent characteristic.
The Greeks, who were, through the influence of Rome, Europe’s educators, must have taken from Egypt the most practical principles of their philosophy, just as they have taken from her all the sciences which they cultivated and later improved with a marvelous intelligence. This can hardly be doubted, especially as we know that all the great Greek philosophers, the leading thinkers, those we might call the masters of Hellenic thought, from Thales to Plato, habitually dipped their cups into the Egyptian springs and that they ail journeyed to Sesostris’ homeland before setting out to propagate their doctrine. I shall not insist on the influence of Buddhism and on the impact of the thought of the Blacks of India on Oriental philosophical thought in general. This is because, on the one hand, the thesis of the historical importance of Blacks in the Hindu world has not been as clearly demonstrated as the thesis of the origin of the ancient Egyptians and, on the other hand, the civilization model of the Orient has never had a direct influence on the development of the occidental races. Whatever speculations an enthusiastic Europe did for a while weave around the Aryan myth, no scientist can insist on such an influence. It would suffice to remember the little success enjoyed by the gnostic doctrines among Westerners during the first centuries of Christianity.
Beside the ancient Ethiopian-Egyptian race, is it possible to identify another Black nation, great or small, that has directly influenced by its achievements the social evolution of the civilized peoples of Europe and America? Without succumbing to the temptation of chauvinism, I must once again return to the Black race of Haiti. It is interesting to note the extent to which this small nation made up of descendants of Africans has influenced world history since its independence. Barely a decade after 1804, Haiti played one of the most remarkable roles in modern history. The importance of Haiti’s role may not be apparent to the less sophisticated minds of those who consider only the surface of phenomena and do not study the facts to elucidate their causes and consequences. Any imaginative thinker knows how small causes, or at least apparently small causes, bring about great consequences and affect the sequence of political and international events that determine the destiny of nations and their ruling institutions. An eloquent phrase or a generous and noble action sometimes has more bearing on the life of a nation than the greatest victory or the loss of the greatest battles. It is from this moral perspective that we must evaluate the great influence of the actions of the Haitian people on the events we are about to consider.
The great Simon Bolivar, the liberator and founder of five South American republics, had failed in the great project, in which he succeeded Miranda in 1811, aimed at shaking Spanish domination and making independent the huge territories that were the pride of the Catholic king of Spain. His resources and supplies having been depleted, Bolivar went to Jamaica to beg the help of England, whose representative was the governor of the island. His request for help was rejected. Desperate and without means, he decided to journey to Haiti and to appeal to the generosity of the Black Republic to solicit the help he needed to continue the liberation struggle which he had started with such remarkable vigor but which had lately stalled. That was a moment of the greatest import for a man who embodied the destiny of the whole continent of South America. Dared he hope to be successful? When the English, who had everything to gain from the fall of the colonial power of Spain, showed indifference, had he any reason to expect that an emerging nation, a weak state with a microscopic territory, still worried about its inadequately recognized independence, would join in such a perilous adventure as the one he was about to attempt? He came to Haiti perhaps with a sceptical mind. But Alexandre Pétion, the president of the western part of Haiti, welcomed him with great warmth.
With all the caution and legitimate prudence required at this delicate juncture in our national existence, the Haitian government made available to the hero of Boyaca and Carabobo all the resources he needed. Bolivar needed just about everything, and he was generously given men, weapons, and money. Pétion wished to act discretely in order to avoid upsetting the Spanish government. So the two men agreed that the men would sail stealthily as volunteers, and that no mention would ever be made of Haiti in any official statement of the government of Venezuela.
Bolivar left Haiti with the resources he needed, full of confidence in his genius and his great courage. The basic aspirations of his countrymen favored his undertaking; they were expecting, to manifest their support, only some bold move, some resolute action. So Bolivar orchestrated a heroic landing on the coast of Venezuela. After a victory over General Morillo who tried to stop his progress, Bolivar advanced from triumph to triumph until all the Spanish troops were expelled and the independence of Venezuela was proclaimed and solemnly celebrated in Caracas.
But the great Venezuelan did not stop there. He continued his campaign with an indefatigable vigor and drive. With the celebrated victory of Boyaca, he conquered the independence of New Grenada and merged its territory with Venezuela to form the Republic of Colombia, honoring by this name the memory of the immortal Christopher Colombus. Unable to rest on his laurels, he knew no respite until he could bring the whole enterprise to its conclusion. He assisted the inhabitants of Upper Peru as they went on, with the help of the Colombians led by General Sucre, to defeat the Spanish in a decisive battle near Ayacucho. He then proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Bolivia. His victory at Junin over the Spanish troops consolidated the independence of Peru and ruined Spain’s colonial power forever.
The impact of all these events on the political regime of the Iberian Peninsula is unarguable. As they fought with indomitable energy against the ascent of a French prince onto the Spanish throne and challenged Napoleon Bonaparte’s pretensions to hegemony over the whole of Europe by replacing all the old dynasties with members of his own family, the Cortés showed that while resisting violence the Spanish people bad understood the nobleness of the ideas which burst forth with the Revolution of 1789. The Constitution which they wrote in 1812 provides sufficient proof of such understanding. Then the Bourbons returned. After the imperial colossus had been overthrown by the coalition of monarchic Europe and disappeared from the scene, Ferdinand VII wished to sit on the ancestral throne, to which he was entitled by birth, without any loss of his royal privileges. Like the Bourbons of France, those of Spain took no account of the time that had gone by between the demise of their predecessors and the restoration of the monarchy. They had learned nothing: they had forgotten nothing.
Without the turmoil in the South American colonies, which liberated themselves from the Spanish yoke one after the other, the monarchy could have been powerful enough to repress all the demands for increased freedom. However, weakened by the efforts it had been forced to deploy in order to avoid the disintegration of the bleeding empire, it was powerless to do anything against an increasingly bold and demanding opposition. When the Spanish monarchy sought the help of France in 1823 to regain its privileges, the result was temporary and the repercussions superficial. This unintended consequence would later upset the very principle it was intended to safeguard by ruining totally the modicum of popularity the legitimist flag enjoyed in France.
When one follows carefully all these twists and turns of European history of that period, their cause-and-effect connections become astonishingly clear. The effects on Bolivar’s heroic deeds in the shady gorges or on the burning plateaux of the Cordilleras ricocheted on the century old institutions of Europe. The consequences of Bolivar’s actions bolstered the torrent of revolutionary ideas which were then shaking with increasing force the decrepit foundations of the old regime. Throughout the Americas, it was the concept of the republic that prevailed. It was as if the New World had sensed that the ideas of liberty and equality would be the wave of the future. These ideas were believed to be indispensable to the progress of the younger generations. Thus, as the shrewd statesman prince Metternich makes clear in his Memoirs, one could not underestimate the significance of the successive crises experienced by all the South American countries which were opting for republican ideals. Still, with common sense and great insight, Metternich understood that there was nothing to be done and that the tide could not be turned back.
Undoubtedly there comes a specific moment when political events occur as if by destiny, regardless of our wishes. The human spirit progresses and often inspires some inner process which ultimately shakes nations and leads them to unavoidable commotions from which emerges a new era with institutions that are better suited to the times. But these events are the results of specific factors; they are produced by specific forces. We cannot neglect the least of these factors if we are to understand these events. Thus, when we consider the influence exercised by Bolivar directly on a considerable part of the New World and indirectly on European politics, we must admit that the original decision of the government of the Haitian republic to assist the great Venezuelan leader in his enterprise did morally and materially determine a whole sequence of remarkable events.
Beside this example, which is one the most beautiful actions for which the Black Republic deserves the whole world’s esteem and admiration, we can say that the declaration of independence of Haiti has positively influenced the fate of the entire Ethiopian race living outside Africa. At the same time, Haiti’s independence has affected the economic system and moral order of all the European powers that owned colonies. In addition, it had considerable bearing on the internal economy of all the American nations where slavery existed.
The end of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a movement in favor of the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce, in England, and the Abbé Grégoire, in France, were two of those exemplary philanthropists who were inspired by a superior sentiment of justice and humanity in the face of the horror of the slave trade. Raynal had predicted in prophetic language, the end of this barbaric regime. He had foreseen the emergence of a Black genius who would destroy the colonial edifice and deliver his race from the opprobrium and debasement in which it was mired. But these were only eloquent words scattered to the four corners of the world. They moved the souls of high minded people but they could not convince those whose scepticism equalled their lack of a sense of justice, their contempt, and their greed. But when, using their own resources, the Blacks of Saint-Domingue made true these predictions which no one had wanted to believe, people started to think. Those whose faith only wanted the reassuring support of facts to become a strong conviction persevered in their principles. Those, on the other hand, whose lucidity and sense of justice were stifled by greed and pride, were shaken in their foolish complacency. Events strengthened the ones in their hope and caused added anxiety in the others.
The actions or the Blacks of Haiti indeed offered the most complete refutation of the theory according to which the Negro was a being incapable of grand and noble actions, incapable especially of standing up to White men. The greatest military feats of the Haitian war of independence had proved the courage and energy of our ancestors. Still, the sceptics persisted in their incredulity. They conceded that these Ethiopian men, emboldened by the success of their first shots, could indeed have fought against and taken a perverse pleasure in kicking the Europeans out of the island. But these people were like children enjoying a new, and therefore attractive game. Who could doubt that once the war was over, the former slaves, left to their own devices would take fright at their own audacity and volunteer to be chained again by their former overseers? Could these inferior creatures maintain for two whole months an order of things in which the White man played no role and wielded no authority? The whole world scoffed at the idea that Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his comrades would want to create their own country and to rule themselves free of foreign control. These are not idly attributed opinions. Such thoughts were in fact printed in learned monographs and were widespread in Europe during the early years of Haiti’s independence. Unsurprisingly then, the ruler of France, confident in the veracity of these absurd theories rooted in the belief in the inequality of the human races, kept hoping to recapture the old colony whose revenues had been such a reliable source of wealth for France. In 1814 under the provisional government of Louis XVIII, formal contacts were made with both King Henry Christophe in the North and President Alexandre Pétion in the West to propose that the island be placed again under French rule. Both Haitian leaders were offered a large sum of money and the highest possible military rank in the French king’s army. Without ever losing their calm and dignity, the two leaders firmly and indignantly rejected those offers. The negotiations were conducted under the guidance of Malouet. All these facts can only considerably bolster the small republic’s claim to universal respect.
In those difficult times, Haiti offered evidence of such common sense, of such intelligence in the management of its political affairs that all men of good will were impressed and had to reconsider the stupid prejudices that so many had harbored with respect to the moral and intellectual aptitudes of Black people. In just one of the Caribbean islands, Bory de Saint-Vincent writes alluding to Haiti, some of those men with a presumably inferior intellect gave more evidence of rationality than can be found in the entire Iberian Peninsula and Italy put together. (1)
Experience and observation led them to an irrefutable conclusion. The most intelligent statesmen, following the European philanthropists, came to understand that Black slavery was forever doomed. The very existence of the Black Republic was an overwhelming negation of the specious notion that served for so long to excuse slavery, namely, that Ethiopian man was congenitally incapable of behaving like a free man. Macaulay, in England, and the Duc de Broglie in France, assumed the leadership of a new antislavery league. In 1831, Richard Hill, a socially prominent free man of color in Jamaica, was sent to Haiti on an observation mission and asked to report on his impression about the country. He took note, with satisfaction but also with impartiality, of the rapid progress made by the descendants of Africans in Haiti. According to Malo, a few years earlier, in 1820, John Owen, a Protestant minister, had travelled to Haiti and observed the sudden development of the society and public administration. (2) Improved knowledge of the reality of Haiti eventually bore fruit. In 1833, England abolished slavery in all its colonies. In 1848, persuaded by the generous and courageous Victor Schoelcher, the provisional government of France decreed a similar measure and had it inserted in the country’s Constitution.
As it is made convincingly clear in the excerpts from Wendell Phillips’s speech [on Toussaint Louverture] quoted earlier, the example of Haiti was a determining argument in favor of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Appearances to the contrary, this big country is destined to strike the first blow against the theory of the inequality of the human races. Indeed, at this very moment, Blacks in the great federal republic have begun to play a prominent role in the politics of the various states of the American union. It seems quite possible that, in less than a century from now, a Black man might be called to head the government of Washington and manage the affairs of the most progressive country on earth, a country which will inevitably become, thanks to its agricultural and industrial production, the richest and most powerful in the world. These are not utopian musings. We only have to consider the increasing participation of Blacks in American society to cast aside our scepticism. Besides, we must remember that slavery in the United States was abolished only twenty years ago.
It is no exaggeration to maintain, regardless of arguments to the contrary, that the Black race has a history that is as positive and as important as the history of all the other races. Neglected and for a long time falsified by the lie that made of the ancient Egyptians a White race, that history is reemerging at the beginning of this century. It is a history replete with facts and lessons, a history whose study is made absolutely fascinating by the significant achievements highlighted on every one of its pages.
2.THE HEART OF AFRICA
It should be evident that in the course of my demonstration I have avoided as much as possible references to known facts about the various peoples of central Africa, facts that considerably challenge whatever prejudices some people have long entertained about the supposed absolute savagery of Africans. In so doing, I have obeyed a scruple dictated by the science I love above everything. I wanted to limit myself to generally known fields where serious discussions can be conducted with evidence and verification. In this respect, even though the climate of Africa does indeed impede in many ways the evolution of the Black populations who aspire to civilization, still it is clear that despite prevailing conditions these populations have achieved considerable progress. To evaluate their achievements fairly, it is necessary to consider their physical environment as well as the resources available to them.
Despite the debilitating heat of the tropical sun, the inhabitants of equatorial Africa are far from leading the kind of purely animal life that modern Europeans too often imagine. Their societies have not yet produced anything that would bring them glory or earn them the admiration of the civilized nations who are so difficult to impress. Still, the very nature of their societies gives reason to hope for the future. “From the heights of modern culture,” writes Hartmann, “we imagine that life in the indolent land of Niger flows sterile and monotonous, like a muddy river in its muddy bed. In those highly civilized countries, where imprecise science and even ignorance are nevertheless still not uncommon, people cannot fathom that the inhabitants of the Sudan in fact live a distinct, if admittedly limited, life full of political, religious, and social activity. Psychologists must simply look into it.” (3)
There is then much to challenge in all those half-learned expositions where Negroes are described as people who live only the material and vegetative lives of brutes. Indeed, the more enlightened and conscientious travelers journey in greater numbers into this Africa which remains as mysterious to us as the colossal Sphinx, the more we are gradually compelled to rectify those long accepted errors that are responsible for perpetuating the absurd theories against which I am fighting. Not only do the Negroes think and act like other human beings, in accordance with the education and training of the individual, it is also obvious that they do not live their lives in a total lack of the comfort which is indispensable to Europeans. “The towns inhabited by the Negroes,” writes Louis Figuier, “could be mistaken sometimes for European towns. There is only a difference of degree between their civilization and industry and those of Europe. Towns as such are spaced out in the interior of Africa, but travellers discover new ones every day. The future perhaps will reveal to us barely suspected facts about central Africa.” (4)
These words are no doubt inconsistent with Louis Figuier’s earlier stated belief in the innate inferiority of the Black race. This seems to be the unassailable proof that those scientists who still lend the authority of their names to the theory of the inequality of the races do so without any reasoned conviction. There is, in these flagrant contradictions between the facts and the conclusion derived from them, the undeniable sign of a conspiracy or deep-rooted prejudice that keeps ethnographers and anthropologists from proclaiming the truth as their eyes can in fact behold it. Such is obviously the case. Those who maintain that Negroes are inferior to all the other human races know definitely that there are many Mongolian and even White nations that are a hundred times more backward than most of the peoples of central Africa. Still, to compare and contrast the races, they will persist in putting side by side the most savage among the Africans with the most cultured among the Europeans. They would pass judgment only on such false and artificial bases. It is as if the word was being spread around unchallenged, unexamined, as in a conspiracy.
But the truth is coming out, as it must. The future will show how useless would have been all those subterfuges intended to mask reality. The facts have asserted themselves with such irrefutability that it is impossible to overlook the Negro element in contemporary history. The impact of the Negro, whether positive or negative, ostensibly affects the political balance of Europe itself.
One must be patient, then, and strive to study better than before the important subject of the evolution of the human races. Consider the astonishment of travellers and explorers at finding deep inside the Black continent so many things that were thought to be the exclusive creations of European civilization. We know today that the most delicate industries, such as the manufacture of woven materials and metal works of the most exquisite and luxurious quality, are practiced there with superior taste and skill, despite the elementary tools and techniques in use. This ability to produce the most beautiful artefacts with rudimentary tools is precisely the African genius, which manifested itself with such distinction in ancient Egypt.
Most of the African languages, such as Hausa and Kanuri, are becoming increasingly supple, graceful, and grammatical idioms. It will soon be possible to create literary works in those languages, and thus to strike one final blow against some old prejudices. Meanwhile, Arabic is used with great and admirable success by most of those peoples who are still labelled savages and given fantastical facial features, the most disgusting that could be imagined.
I will close this chapter by citing the conclusion of a study of the civilization of the Negro peoples authored by M. Guillien and presented at the International Convention of the Ethnographic Sciences (Congrès international des sciences ethnographiques) held in Paris in 1878. After analyzing all that has been written by the most qualified travellers, by such people as Caillé, Moore, Barthe, Raffenel and others, respecting public roads, industries, and trade in Africa, Quillien concludes thus:
These data are very incomplete, and some of them have not even been proven. Nevertheless, they provide sufficient evidence that what Negroes lack is neither intelligence nor drive but, rather, culture and civilization. There is no doubt that the day is near when the ethnographers’ motto, “Corpore diversi sed mentis lumine fratres,” will be justified and when black-skinned men will be able to walk side by side with white-skinned men. (5)
I read such thoughts with a predictable sense of satisfaction. I am tempted to quote at length from the study to which they serve as conclusion. Meanwhile, I am particularly happy to find in Guillien’s ideas a moral truth constantly overlooked by the partisans of the inequality of the races, the monogenists and religious dogmatists, namely, that one cannot proclaim the universal brotherhood of men without at the same time proclaiming their equality.
Yes, human beings can and do differ by their physical traits or the color of their skin. Yet, they are all brothers, that is to say, they are equal in intelligence and thought. Only a long process of perversion of the spirit and very powerful influences on the minds of White people could have made them overlook a truth that is so obvious and natural that it requires no scientific proof. Have such influences always existed? Are those we have already examined the only source of White people’s prejudice respecting the inequality of the races? These are questions that need clear answers. We will have a chance of eradicating this prejudice from the minds of those who still harbor it only if we can show by what contrived means, through what false beliefs it has impregnated the intelligence of so many people. In the process, we will succeed in lowering the pretensions of an incomplete and ill-conceived science which continues unconsciously to validate the most hurtful errors through assertions that are as suspect as they are perverse.
4. Bory de Saint-Vincent, loco citato, vol. 2, p. 63.
5. Malo, Histoire d’Haïti depuis sa découverte jusqu’à 1824.
6. Hartmann, loco citato.
7. Louis Figuier, Les Races humaines.
8. Congrès international, p. 245.
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