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Hilary Jones

The idea of race shaped the encounter between Africa and Europe from the “age of discovery,” through the height of colonial rule in the 20th century, and on into the age of independence, decolonization and the birth of the postcolonial nation. Race, understood today as a social construct rather than a biological fact, emerged as an ideological framework in Western thought to rationalize difference. In the 16th and 17th centuries, religion and color stood as markers of difference. The Atlantic slave trade furthered the notion of African inferiority by defining African people as “heathen” and therefore suitable for enslavement. By the 19th century, scientific racism advanced the idea of blackness as biologically and culturally inferior to whiteness, which in turn served to justify colonial conquest under the guise of “civilizing dark Africa.” Colonial rule, moreover, relied on ethnicity as a means of categorizing African peoples. Using the idea of “tribe” to characterize and govern African peoples furthered the objectives of European imperialism by taking a complex landscape of social, cultural, political, and linguistic identity and establishing a rigid and fixed system of classification. African women stood at the intersection of racialist thinking about Africa and the construction of a colonial social order that used race and ethnicity as means of defining and controlling African populations. Women like Sara Baartman became the symbolic projection of racial and ethnic difference for Europe; at the same time, customary marriages between African women and European men in Atlantic Africa defined cross-cultural trade and gave rise to multiracial communities. As European imperialism gave way to colonial bureaucracy, the fluidity of interracial unions gave way to policies that sought to police the boundaries between black and white in the colony; children of mixed racial ancestry did not fit neatly into the ethnic or racial categories erected by colonial regimes. Far from being passive receptacles of racial and ethnic thinking, African men and women used these categories of European knowledge as tools for their own purposes. African women, in particular, developed their own strategies for engaging with European merchants and officials in the age of encounter, and for navigating the evolving landscape of colonial rule, whether defying colonial boundaries by entering into intimate partnerships with European men, or rejecting European suitors.