Introduction: Recovering the Contexts of Early Modern Proto-Racism

  • Robert Hornback
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)


The Renaissance became at once a period that marked a turning point in race history and an era whose role in racism has been obscured in the interest of arguments insisting on a divide between early modern and modern ideas of race. Dismissals of considerations of race in the Renaissance, often buttressed by assertions of anachronism, may satisfy desires for finding a race-free “golden age,” but they require an overlooking of evidence. Seeking to challenge such narratives, this discussion begins with a simple fact: the Renaissance oversaw the ushering in of the early modern slave trade in African people during its boom in the Atlantic sugar trade and in the wake of Ottoman conquest cutting off Western Europe’s access to the former white slave trade. Anti-black racism thus appeared as a purposeful rationalization of the “racial slavery” emerging in the Renaissance, well before American chattel slavery. Furthermore, English slave trading is under-documented and the presence of black people in England likewise under-reported. The marked consciousness of race expressed in estranging terms among seventeenth-century British Virginians was preceded by similarly negative entries for black people in Elizabethan parish records back in England. This period was also one in which colonialism first emerged alongside an expansion of linguistic and religiously inflected proto-nationalism. Moreover, what Renaissance Englishmen referred to as the “Stranger” functioned like later racialized fictions of “the Other” in Postcolonial analyses and worked in the promotion of a proto-racism, that is, the earliest observable pre-modern forms of racism preceding and underlying the derivative, so-called modern scientific racism. The latter was not founded upon biologism but, rather, received belief in the supposed rational and moral inferiority of blackness drawn from religious texts, moral allegory, metaphysical philosophy, and the many blackface fool traditions informed by them. Although the word racism first appeared amid scientific rhetoric, conceptually, racism is/was not free from preexisting beliefs. Race-belief remains at the core of racism.

Works Cited

  1. Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. London: Duckworth Overlook, 2009.Google Scholar
  2. Anonymous. “To His Honored Friend Mr. T.B.” In Glossographia: Or a Dictionary, Interpreting All Such Hard Words … [1656]. Menston, England: The Scolar Press Limited, 1969.Google Scholar
  3. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Race.” In Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 274–87. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990.Google Scholar
  4. Bhabha, Homi K. “Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative.” In The Location of Culture, edited by Homi Bhabha, 57–93. New York: Routledge, 2004.Google Scholar
  5. Bhabha, Homi K. “Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition.” In Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, edited by P. Williams and L. Chrisman, 112–23. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.Google Scholar
  6. Blank, Paula. “The Babel of Renaissance English.” In The Oxford History of English, edited by Lynda Mugglestone, 212–39. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.Google Scholar
  7. Blount, Thomas. Glossographia: Or a Dictionary, Interpreting All Such Hard Words … [London: Thomas Newcomb, for H. Moseley and G. Sawbridge, 1656]; rpt.: Menston, England: The Scolar Press Ltd., 1969.Google Scholar
  8. Bristol, Michael D. “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello.” In Materialist Shakespeare: A History, edited by Ivo Kamps, 142–56. New York: Verso, 1995.Google Scholar
  9. Callaghan, Dympna. “‘Othello Was a White Man’: Properties of Race on Shakespeare’s Stage.” In Alternative Shakespeare’s, edited by Terence Hawkes, vol. 2, 192–215. London: Routledge, 1996.Google Scholar
  10. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014.Google Scholar
  11. de Alencastro, Luiz Felipe. “The Apprenticeship of Colonization.” In Slave Trades, 1500–1800: Globalization of Forced Labour, edited by Patrick Manning, 83–108. New York: Routledge, 1996.Google Scholar
  12. Davis, David Brion. “Constructing Race: A Reflection.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 7–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966.Google Scholar
  14. Donnan, Elizabeth. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. vol. 1 of 4 vols. Washington, D.C: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1930.Google Scholar
  15. Drake, St. Claire. Black Folk Here and There: An Essay in History and Anthropology. Los Angeles: University of California Center for Afro-American Studies, 1991.Google Scholar
  16. Elbl, Ivana. “The Portuguese Trade with West Africa, 1440–1521.” Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1986.Google Scholar
  17. Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Google Scholar
  18. Erickson, Peter. “‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George’: British National Identity and the Emergence of White Self-Fashioning.” In Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in Renaissance England, edited by Peter Erickson and Clark Hulse, 315–45. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2000.Google Scholar
  19. Erickson, Peter. “Profiles in Whiteness.” Stanford Humanities Review 3, no. 1 (Winter 1993): 98–111.Google Scholar
  20. Erickson, Peter. “Seeing White.” Transition 67 (Fall 1995): 166–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Erickson, Peter and Kim F. Hall. “‘A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Floyd-Wilson, Mary. English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge UP, 2003.Google Scholar
  23. Fonseca, Jorge. “Black Africans in Portugal during Cleynaert’s Visit (1533–1538).” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, 113–21. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
  24. Frederickson, George. Racism: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.Google Scholar
  25. Fryer, Peter. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 1984.Google Scholar
  26. Galloway, J. H. “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry.” Geographical Review 67, no. 2. (April 1977): 177–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Galloway, J. H. The Sugar Cane Industry: An Historical Geography from Its Origins to 1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.Google Scholar
  28. Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.Google Scholar
  29. Habib, Imtiaz H. Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible. New York: Routledge, 2008.Google Scholar
  30. Hall, Kim F. “‘These Bastard Signs of Fair’: Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” In Post-Colonial Shakespeare, edited by Ania Loomba and Matt Orkin, 64–83. London: Routledge, 1998.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hall, Kim F. “Culinary Spaces, Colonial Spaces: The Gendering of Sugar in the Seventeenth Century.” In Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture: Emerging Subjects, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, 168–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  32. Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.Google Scholar
  33. Hargrave, Francis. An Argument in the Case of James Sommersett a Negro: Wherein It Is Attempted to Demonstrate the Present Unlawfulness of Domestic Slavery in England: To Which Is Prefixed a State of the Case. London: Printed by W. Otridge, 1772.Google Scholar
  34. Hendricks, Margo. “Race: A Renaissance Category?” In A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, edited by Michael Hattaway, 690–98. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000a.Google Scholar
  35. Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.Google Scholar
  36. Hughes, Paul L. and James F. Larkin, eds. Tudor Royal Proclamations, vol. 3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.Google Scholar
  37. Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton University Press, 2006.Google Scholar
  38. Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.Google Scholar
  39. Kaufman, Miranda. Black Tudors: The Untold Story. London: Oneworld, 2017.Google Scholar
  40. Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016.Google Scholar
  41. Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Google Scholar
  42. Little, Arthur L. Jr. “Re-Historicizing Race, White Melancholia, and the Shakespearean Property.” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 84–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.Google Scholar
  44. Morgan, Philip D. “British Encounters with Africans and African-Americans, circa 1600–1780.” In Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan, 157–219. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.Google Scholar
  45. Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1990.Google Scholar
  46. Pickering, Michael. “Mock Blacks and Racial Mockery: The ‘Nigger’ Minstrel and British Imperialism.” In Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790–1930, edited by J. S. Bratton et al., 179–236. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.Google Scholar
  47. Rushworth, John. Historical Collections of Private Passages of State, vol. 2. London: J.D. for John Wright and Richard Chiswell, 1680.Google Scholar
  48. Sherwood, Marika. “Black People in Tudor England.” History Today 33, no. 10 (Oct. 2003): 40–2.Google Scholar
  49. Singh, Jyotsna. “Post-colonial Criticism.” In Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide, edited by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin, 492–500. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Google Scholar
  50. Smith, Ian. Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Smyth, W. H. On Certain Passages in the Life of Sir John Hawkins, Temp. Elizabeth. In a Letter from Captain W.H. Smyth, … in Archaeologia or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, the Society of Antiquaries of London, vol. 33. London: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1850.Google Scholar
  52. Sweet, James H. “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1997): 143–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Taguieff, Pierre-André. The Force of Prejudice: Racism and Its Doubles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.Google Scholar
  54. Vaughan, Alden T. “The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” In Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience, 136–74. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995a.Google Scholar
  55. Vaughan, Alden T. Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995b.Google Scholar
  56. Vaughan, Virginia Mason. Othello: A Contextual History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Google Scholar
  57. Vitkus, Daniel. “The New Globalism: Transcultural Commerce, Global Systems Theory, and Spenser’s Mammon.” In A Companion to the Global Renaissance, edited by Jyotsna Singh, 31–49. Chichester, U.K.: Blackwell, 2009.Google Scholar
  58. Vitkus, Daniel. Turning Turk: English Theatre and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630. New York and Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Walvin, James. The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555–1860. Surrey: Orbach and Chambers, 1971.Google Scholar
  60. Wood, Michael. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Hornback
    • 1
  1. 1.Oglethorpe UniversityAtlantaUSA

Personalised recommendations