The long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place
By Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne
This week’s Newsweek magazine cover features an image of a chimpanzee behind the words, “A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic.” This cover story is problematic for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that there is virtually no chance that “bushmeat” smuggling could bring Ebola to the United States. (The term is a catchall for non-domesticated animals consumed as a protein source; anyone who hunts deer and then consumes their catch as venison in the United States is eating bushmeat without calling it that.) While eating bushmeat is fairly common in the Ebola zone, the vast majority of those who do consume it are not eating chimpanzees. Moreover, the current Ebola outbreak likely had nothing to do with bushmeat consumption.
Far from presenting a legitimate public health concern, the authors of the piece and the editorial decision to use chimpanzee imagery on the cover have placed Newsweek squarely in the center of a long and ugly tradition of treating Africans as savage animals and the African continent as a dirty, diseased place to be feared. What can social science tell us about why Newsweek’s cover story is so problematic?
Categorizing peoples in the colonial period
The Europeans who colonized Africa in the late 19th century were members of a culture obsessed with classifying and categorizing the natural world. This quest built much of modern biology, but it also led to some rather unscientific justifications for the colonial project.
One of these was an idea developed by Frederick Coombs, author of Coombs’s Popular Phrenology. In the book, Coombs expounded a then-popular (and completely false) idea that the size, shape and other physical characteristics of a person’s skull determine that individual’s intelligence. Coombs and his fellow phrenologists started with the assumption that non-northern and western Europeans – namely, southern Europeans (who were not considered to be racially “white” at the time) and people of color, were inherently less intelligent than northern Europeans with light-colored skin.
Not surprisingly, this led to a flawed conclusion: that people with heads that were supposedly more “ape-like” in shape were less intelligent than northern Europeans and therefore in need of the “civilizing mission” that colonization was supposed to bring. The Victorian phrenologists developed elaborate typologies supposedly showing that Africans had the most apelike – and therefore most “savage” – skull types, thus justifying their subjugation under colonial rule.
While Coombs’s book may be the best-known of the works of Victorian phrenology, the racism that his conjectures embodied was deeply embedded in the culture of most colonizing states. Most Westerners of the time believed that people of color were “savages,” desperately in need of the benefits of modernity, Christianity and intelligence the colonists believed they were well-suited to bring to Africa.
The racism embodied in the notion that African people’s skulls are more similar to those of other primates than those of other homo sapiens skulls made its way into popular culture. And it did so in a particularly insidious way – by portraying Africans as apelike savages. Images showing Africans as apelike were commonplace. In popular culture, Africans were portrayed in postcards, film and literature as “savages” who were not as “civilized” as their colonizers. These stereotypes even extended to children’s books. A Belgian cartoon book, Tintin au Congo, is perhaps the most famous of these representations; there, the Congolese people whom boy adventurer Tintin encounters are at times almost indistinguishable from the great apes of central Africa.