Blackness in Gobineau and Behn: Oroonoko and Racial Pseudo-Science

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In this essay, Derek Hughes gives a wide-ranging illustration of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories which have moulded our modern understanding of race and racism, and warns against reading Oroonoko (1688) in the light of their assumptions. To be sure, it is impossible to erase from memory the way we nowadays understand racism, and earlier texts may contain half-conscious traces of attitudes which were fully elaborated only later. But Hughes gives a timely warning that it is anachronistic and unfair to import the racist preconceptions of later ages into Behn's fictional world. Pseudo-scientific reasoning about racial hierarchies is intimately connected with the new findings of archaeologists and biologists, and with the craze for classification at the end of the eighteenth century. Behn's contemporaries had no theories about innate racial inferiority and about biologically determined intellectual and moral differences between various human groups. Hughes makes clear the difference between a seventeenth-century understanding of “race” and later racist ideologies, and emphasizes that enslavement in the late seventeenth century was justified in terms of religion, not in terms of skin colour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)204-221
Number of pages18
JournalWomen's Writing
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2012


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