Southern History Series: The Birth of Whiteness

The following excerpt comes from Matthew Parker’s book The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies and describes the emergence of White racial consciousness and the evolution of the culture of the Greater Caribbean in 17th century Barbados:

“The aim was to persuade the poor whites to ally themselves with the planter class, in effect to choose race over class as their defining characteristic. In the ‘Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes’, the Africans were described as a ‘heathenish, brutish and uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people’. The white servants, though still heavily policed in their behaviour, were carefully given better rights than the blacks – to food, clothing, general treatment and legal protection. Slaves who assaulted a white person of whatever status were to be whipped, then, on a second offence whipped some more and have their nose slit and forehead branded. While on paper the Act aimed to protect the slaves from ‘the Arbitrary, cruell and outrageous will of every evill disposed person’, masters could punish slaves in any way they liked, even to death, the only penalty being a fine, and this was easily evaded. Whites’ rights to trial by jury (a fundamental right of English law) were confirmed, while blacks faced a kangaroo court of the master’s local cronies. For whites, differences between men and women were legally recognised, but not for blacks. Black men were to be severely punished if they had sex with a white woman, even if it was consensual, although white men could rape black women with impunity.

This racism was a new departure, as planters, who had recently lumped together African slaves and ‘dissolute English, Scotch and [particularly] Irish’, came to realise the usefulness to their security of ‘whiteness’. A pamphleteer writing at the time felt it necessary to explain to his readers in England that ‘white’ was ‘the general name for Europeans’. And just as the 1661 Acts were copied throughout the English West Indies and in South Carolina, so this new ideology of whiteness was spread from Barbados and carried around the empire.”

Parker elaborates on this development in a footnote:

“Emigrants to South Carolina were not just poor whites, many of whom still held on in Barbados. A number were younger sons of the island’s big planter families, such as the Sandifords and Halls. With no more room to expand there, lesser offspring were sent off with whatever members of the household could be spared. From the Caribbean they brought with them slaves, the plantation system and ‘mentality’, a slave code, speech patterns and architectural styles. In all, Barbadians had a decisive role in shaping the new colony, creating a slave-based plantation society more similar to the islands than to the rest of North America.

Lowland Carolina would soon have a population ratio of four blacks to every white, similar to the ratio in Barbados. Parts of Charleston’s ‘brittle, gay and showy society’ of the eighteenth century would echo the Barbados atmosphere of a century before, and between 1669 and 1737, nearly half of the governors of South Carolina had lived in the West Indies or were sons of islanders. Seven of the early Carolina governors had Barbados backgrounds.”

Significantly, the plantation complex generated the wealth that made this group of settlers who valued ‘”whiteness” culturally dominant in early colonial South Carolina and the cotton gin later facilitated the spread of the plantation system and its racialist, authoritarian, socially conservative culture across the rim of the Gulf of Mexico to east Texas. In the antebellum era, visionaries such as Robert Barnwell Rhett and Nathaniel Beverly Tucker would advocate the dissolution of the Union and the creation of a Lower South nation-state to give institutional form to this organic culture.

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  1. But doesn’t this undercut the entire premise of African inferiority on the basis of race? And doesn’t it support the stance that race was a political construct for purposes of power? Not sure where you are trying to go with this.

    • No, not really.

      1.) The belief in racial differences between Europeans and Africans, Europeans and American Indians and Europeans and East Asians was derived from observation and speculation about the causes of those differences. Keep in mind that the settlement of Barbados corresponds to the Scientific Revolution. Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition in 1633. This was at the very beginning of the development of modern empirical science in Europe. It wasn’t just the causes of racial differences that were in doubt. Don’t forget that Europeans had yet to fully wrap their minds around heliocentrism or fully break with Aristotle’s physics.

      2.) In my view, race realism and White identity are not the same thing, but both rapidly emerged from the radically new environment of the New World plantation complex. This was something that was radically new at the time.

      Previously, nothing like Barbados had ever existed in the English-speaking world which was then MUCH SMALLER than it is today. Only Ireland had been an English colony so it didn’t stimulate White identity. The English had no experience living cheek and jowl with Africans or running plantations or being slaveowners. It was this social context and especially the later development of creole societies in the Caribbean that stimulated thinking about whiteness. The French looked much less different from the perspective of Barbados than they had from England. Barbados and Guadeloupe and Martinique were very similar.

  2. The authors ideas are so PC tainted.
    Anyone with an iota of sense can see the vast difference in racial character.

    By royal edict, the French stopped the importation of blacks into France in 1639.

  3. Ok. However, it still leaves exposed the fact that various groups of “whites” weren’t considered equals until Africans came into the picture. So again, I am hard pressed not to see the argument for racial identity (from a power/political perspective) as anything but a consolidation of power.

    I am not disagreeing with the idea that there are genetic differences between races. I agree that is obvious. What concerns me with this history is it plays into the idea that whites are at the top of the totem by definition not by right. Thus it confirms the idea that something like white privilege exists.

    • White identity is something that emerged all over the European colonies.

      It actually emerged in the Spanish Empire before it emerged in the English plantation colonies in North America and the Caribbean. The whole vocabulary of race and the idea of racial purity itself was imported from the Spanish who had developed the concepts in the course of driving out Jews and Muslims who had converted to Catholicism in 16th century Spain. The Spanish and Portuguese had half ass pioneered plantation slavery and there were already mixtures of Europeans and Indians and Europeans and Africans. The terms like “negro” and “mulatto” are borrowed from Spanish.

      After years of studying the issue, it seems to me that it wasn’t so much about slavery as it was about the creole identity crisis. The original settlers of Virginia, for example, were Englishmen. They thought of themselves as Englishmen in Virginia too. It was the second and third generations which developed the idea of White identity in the context of being surrounded by slaves and hostile Indians. In New Spain, there was a sharp division between mestizos and creoles and native born Spaniards. Mexico never developed full blown plantation slavery, but it also had a racial caste system.

      New England developed a lower key sense of White identity. It never had plantation slavery either much less was it ever a Slave Society. In spite of that, White identity became important there. Because New England was so much more racially homogeneous, it was more racially tolerant. There are countless other examples like the Belgian Congo or the English in India and Australia. The Boers in South Africa developed their own racial caste system. Basically, wherever Europeans went and ended up living alongside a non-White majority or threatening groups it developed.

    • In the English-speaking world, I do think that Barbados played the decisive role in developing White identity, but I should stress it wasn’t the only or even the oldest example. It was something that was sort of weird back home in metropolitan Britain. The same was true of the French colonies and metropolitan France and this disconnect led to the Haitian Revolution.

      From the perspective of creoles in the colonies, race was extremely salient in a way that it hadn’t been before living back in 100% White England or 100% White France. The White creoles in Jamaica and the White creoles in Saint-Domingue were far less divided by ethnicity, culture and religion than by the difference between themselves and the masses of blacks. This is why these other markers of identity which were so much more important in Europe were muted in the colonies. It is why Jews were accepted in the colonies in a way that wasn’t the case back home.

  4. I understand. I suppose what is striking to me is that “lesser” whites did not inherently have the same political standing as the planter class. And that the planter class elevated them as a means to buffer against the other. It does show that when you have a clear class system it changes the approach to race.

    • The planters couldn’t afford to alienate the non-slaveholding Whites. Southern slavery was different from Caribbean slavery also because it was a middle class institution. Planters owned the most slaves, but most slaveholders weren’t planters. It was also highly permeable. Look at John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson who were Scots-Irish

  5. This history also explains why all white-black biracial children only identify as black, no matter how they look. It isn’t them rejecting their whiteness, it’s whites rejecting their blackness. I bring this up because I keep seeing & hearing whites wondering why they never consider themselves white versus black. But even in the case of those who can pass (Halsey comes to mind), if they own their blackness in any way they are not allowed to be white.

    In her case, white men she’s dated found out she was biracial when they saw her nipples and asked why they were brown. She stated half didn’t want to date her anymore.

  6. But why doesn’t the one drop rule apply to ANY other race? If a person is biracial white and anything but black, they have the option to choose white as their race.

    This history is enlightening but if you are serious about developing a new way, this disparity needs to be addressed. Otherwise the resentment of blacks towards whites will continue to grow. If biracial people could be used as a bridge, it would be easier to convince blacks to vote their economic interests versus their political interests. Just my opinion.

    • Good point.

      The answer is that Southerners have never really thought of Indians in the same way they have thought of blacks. The policy of the federal government for a long time was to absorb and civilize Indians like the Cherokee. The various state laws against miscegenation often didn’t apply to Indians.

      Thomas Jefferson who shaped so much of Southern racial thought believed that Indians were uncivilized and savages, that is, their condition was largely a product of their environment. In contrast, he believed that blacks were often civilized, but their condition was a product of their heredity.

      Southerners were always less concerned about Whites and Indians mixing. That’s why Virginia’s leaders boasted for centuries of being descended from Pocahontas or why so many Southerners to this day believe they have Indian ancestors.

      It’s true that Indians and Europeans are more closely related than African and Europeans. All non-Africans are more genetically closer to each other than to Africans

  7. “the Africans were described as a ‘heathenish, brutish and uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people’.

    Nothing has changed.

  8. “Emigrants to South Carolina were not just poor whites, many of whom still held on in Barbados. A number were younger sons of the island’s big planter families, such as the Sandifords and Halls. With no more room to expand there, lesser offspring were sent off with whatever members of the household could be spared. From the Caribbean they brought with them slaves, the plantation system and ‘mentality’, a slave code, speech patterns and architectural styles.”

    Nearly exactly what we were taught in elementary school. Of course, these were the people who had dispatched Filibusters to Texas, to carve out a Southern Republic from a part of Mexico.

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