Origins of African Stereotypes in French Colonial Novels

  • Sarah L. Milbury-Steen


The literary image of Africans prevalent in French colonial novels owes a considerable debt to the writings of pseudo-scientific racists that were published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One important exception, however, is Count Arthur de Gobineau’s celebrated work Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, which appeared between 1853 and 1855. This long treatise which most scholars, including Arendt, regard as the seminal point for the racism employed by imperialism and totalitarianism, has been clearly demonstrated by both Curtin and Cohen to be a compilation, synthetic rather than original, of earlier racist theories.1 In this work Gobineau returned to the long-standing debate of monogenesis vs polygenesis, as well as the identification of language as a racial attribute; then borrowed from Knox the concept of racial purity as a requisite of racial strength; from Morton the association of physical characteristics with racial differences and mental deficiencies; and from Carus the equation of culture with race as a means of classifying mankind.2 Even his fundamental premises that race dominated history and that civilisations declined through the degeneration of racial mixing found antecedents in Knox’s assertion, ‘race is everything; literature, science, art—in a word, civilisation depends on it’.3 Gobineau’s real talent was as an organiser and not a thinker, for his ability to assemble all of these ideas cohesively was without precedent.


Black Woman African Language French Colonial Literary Image Direct Rule 
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  1. 4.
    Arthur de Gobineau, Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Paris: Editions Belfond, 1967. First published, vol. i–ii, 1853; complete version, vol. i–iv, 1855) p. 205.Google Scholar
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© Sarah L. Milbury-Steen 1980

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  • Sarah L. Milbury-Steen

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