Excerpt: A Missionary Nation

Scott Eastman is a professor of history at Creighton University. He is the author of Preaching Spanish Nationalism across the Hispanic Atlantic, 1759–1823 and A Missionary Nation (Nebraska, 2021), which is now available.


Race and Empire

What did race and empire mean to contemporary men and women who lived in both metropolitan and imperial spaces in the mid-nineteenth century, and how were these ideas forged? As Anne McClintock asserts, racial discourse has been historically unstable, overlapping with other lexicons of gender, sexuality, culture, and religion. Influential writers correlated masculinity with physical strength, contrasting white civilization and manly virtues with degeneracy and effeminacy. In the Spanish-speaking world notions of racial difference and their corresponding attributes could be used to distinguish Black Dominicans, mestizo Mexicans, and Sephardic Jews from European Spaniards. But were distinctive characteristics understood as fixed and ingrained products of biology, or had they been determined by climate? Did culture play a role? Although Joshua Goode has explored the development of racialized thinking in turn-of-the-century Spain, less has been written about the 1850s and 1860s, a defining era that saw the publication of some of the most important racial theorists of the age, such as the Frenchman Arthur de Gobineau. While scholars note that the works of Victor Courtet de L’Isle and Gobineau initially had been “received with deep silence,” Spanish intellectuals had waded into debates over their veracity by the end of the 1850s.

The question of race posed complications for even the most outspoken democrats of the nineteenth century and exposed the contradictions and limits of their radical thought. Castelar was no exception. While formally espousing the equality of all races, he correlated absolutism and backwardness with Eastern societies. Others continually associated barbarism and tyranny with Blackness—as archetypal African traits. Contrary to those who preached a doctrine of innate racial difference, however, a number of important scholars dismissed the vitriolic scientific racism of Frenchmen like Courtet and Gobineau. Castelar said, “Mr. Courtet holds that racial difference explains all of history. He says that the enslavement of inferior races, of poor and ignorant races, is based upon human nature. There always will be a race privileged by nature. From here he makes the absurd claim that societies cannot be happy where all men are of the same race, and that it is necessary that two distinct races exist, one that is free, rich, and happy, and the other poor, enslaved and despondent. These absurdities do not need to be refuted.” Likewise Alexis de Tocqueville privately admonished his friend Gobineau, criticizing his extreme ideas on inherent inequality. Yet, as Goode has shown, racial thinking based upon an inclusive premise that disavowed scientific racism was often in practice no different than an ideology grounded in exclusionary claims. In other words, Europeans advancing a civilizing mission as well as practitioners of scientific racism operated the same way, especially in the colonial world. Mid-nineteenth-century Spanish imperialism and the edifice of a Catholic civilizing rhetoric, as witnessed and propagated by Castelar, is a case in point. Though often downplayed at the time, the idea of biological racial inferiority in many ways served to justify expansion overseas.

Nineteenth-century politicians and statesmen spilled a great deal of ink explaining how culture, ethnicity, and race differentiated Europeans from Africans and Asians. Prior to the invasion of Morocco, for example, one diplomat insisted that Maghrebis tended to “conserve their primitive language and their traditional independence.” Drawing on a current of essentialist thinking, he wrote that they therefore embodied “a state of misery and desolation in which the country will remain.” A popular song that celebrated the Catalan volunteers in the Spanish-Moroccan War condemned all Moroccans as a “race of slaves.” Castelar publicly castigated the despotism of the “Orient” and contrasted Islam’s aristocratic, hereditary priesthood with the democratic meritocracy of Christendom.33 Christianity was, he said emphatically, “the exaltation of humanity.” The explorer Manuel Iradier y Bulfy, describing the people of the Río Muni region of West Africa, definitively stated, “The only thing I dare to affirm is that the blood of the black vengas [Benga people] is not the same as we, the men of the Caucasian race, have.” In private diplomatic correspondence Spain’s consul to Haiti in 1862 claimed that the entirety of the Black race showed “great defects and inherent vices”; they only would respond to the language of force and violence. The broad brushstrokes of Orientalism and mid-century racism, which began to dovetail with conclusions of phrenologists, certainly affected ideology and praxis prior to the Restoration (1874–1923). One particularly telling letter reprinted in a newspaper, written by a seventy-four-year-old father of a soldier, paid tribute to the men fighting in North Africa against the vile “African Caribs.” No sarcasm had been intended. Europeans used epithets for Moroccans, Berbers, Dominicans, and Indigenous peoples of the New World interchangeably, erasing ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences. Ultimately, many Spanish imperialists employed a similar language of declension and fundamental difference to justify their actions in Africa and in the Caribbean.

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