In this article:
- Gomes Eanes De Zurara was a Portuguese chronicler credited with having influenced the development of racism and colonialist ideas into the form we see it today.
- To truly understand De Zurara and the paradoxical stance of his writings towards enslaved African people, we must situate him not just geographically, but in the kind of society and the dominant zeitgeist he was born in and helped shape.
- De Zurara isn’t the sole or principal author of modern racism, but here is how his ideas sowed the seeds of racist ideology and racial hierarchy.
Racist ideology and ideas have been with us for centuries and they remain with us even after theories such as phrenology, a product of the scientific racism of the 19th century that claimed non-white races were “less than” for pseudo-biological/evolutionary reasons, have been debunked. Why racism continues to survive today has been attributed to everything from social psychological factors to, again, “evolutionary” theories about how racism and xenophobia are a “defense mechanism”.
But whether these forces exist and affect how racism pervades our society today, it can be argued that there’s no stronger and more direct influence contributing to the survival of racist attitudes than politics and history.
Which brings us back to the European Age of Discovery, a time when politics, xenophobia, and a desire for wealth birthed colonialism as we know it today. One of its most notable figures? Gomes De Zurara, a 15th century Portuguese chronicler whose racist writings have been credited with inventing modern racism.
Who Was Gomes Eanes De Zurara?
Gomes Eanes De Zurara was born in the year 1410 in Portugal. To truly understand De Zurara, though, let’s situate him in his place in history – not just geographically, but the kind of society and the dominant zeitgeist he was born in and helped shape.
His birth coincided with the birth of the European Age of Discovery which led to the extensive seafaring empires of Europe. Its foremost competitors were Spain and Portugal. The neighboring countries jockeyed for power and fought over who would have the riches of the New World so fiercely that just 20 years after De Zurara’s death in 1474, Pope Alexander VI would divide the New World between Spain and Portugal with the Treaty of Tordesillas.
But that would come years after he first took office.
There’s little known about De Zurara’s personal life, but we can infer he must have come from a fairly well-off background or had access to friends and distant relatives who were given that by the middle of his life, he began writing for a living. He also did not become just any writer. He was an assistant to none other than Fernão Lopes, arguably the only Portuguese writer of his time more influential than him. Lopes was first and foremost a historian and together, he and De Zurara would serve King Edward of Portugal.
According to Ibram X Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, this put him in the position to later become the chronicler for Prince Henry (a.k.a Henry the Navigator).
Henry, or Henrique in his native Portuguese, took De Zurara with him to conquer Ceuta, a Morrocan city situated in North Africa.
Far away from the supplies and support that his royal family in Portugal could have provided, Henry needed a way to fund his explorations. His taste for conquest drove him to fund an innovative operation consisting of mariners, scholars, and merchants. But all of this required money and when he couldn’t get his hands on Africa’s gold, he took Africa’s people. Locals were abducted, enslaved, and brought to Lisbon where they were forced to work on sugar plantations.
This was a game-changer. Henry had done more than just trade slaves – he had cut out the middleman. His freshly minted slave trade machinery would result in around 20,000 enslaved people being taken to Portugal and by 1457, the wealth generated by the slave trade would help Portugal mint the cruzado, a solid gold coin.
Sitting in front seat to all of this was Gomes Eanes De Zurara. His writings would cement Henry’s legacy in history but they also cemented his own racist views. It may feel like a cliche to say that De Zurara was a product of his time, but he was a product of his time. De Zurara lived in a world that was telling him that African people were inferior and reinforcing that idea through violent subjugation. This does not make his writings any less racist, however.
The Racist Writings of Gomes Eanes De Zurara
In 1454, De Zurara became the royal chronicler and a chief royal archivist. Today, we know Gomes De Zurara for his works The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, Chronicle of the Siege and Capture of Ceuta, and Chronicle of King John I. Though he documented everything and everyone else, few returned the favor for him and very little writing about his life has survived.
The author had this in The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea regarding the enslaved African people he encountered while serving Prince Henry: “…others again were as black as Ethiops, and so ugly, both in features and in body, as almost to appear (to those who saw them) the images of a lower hemisphere.”
Yet he also goes on to empathize with them, “But what heart could be so hard as not to be pierced with piteous feeling to see that company? For some kept their heads low and their faces bathed in tears, looking one upon another; others stood groaning very dolorously, looking up to the height of heaven, fixing their eyes upon it, crying out loudly, as if asking help of the Father of Nature.”
De Zurara’s views may seem paradoxical. How could someone who empathizes with others see them as lesser beings, not as worthy of freedom as himself? And how could someone who advocates for slavery claim to have sympathy for others?
As Michael Fuentes puts it, “In context, however, Zurara’s views are more complex and challenging to a contemporary understanding: not despite, but precisely because he considers Africans as fully human and worthy of his sympathy, Zurara advocates for their slavery. Only as slaves can Africans be civilized and Christianized for their material and spiritual benefit since in the past they were “living in the perdition of their souls.”
It’s not an uncommon view from his time. “God, gold, and glory” were motivations for crusading and colonizing Christians of De Zurara’s era. They also provided justification. Though African people would not be free on this earth if they were brought to Portugal as slaves, they could be “brought closer” to Christ. In his own words, they were “…turned into the true path of salvation.”
This would later evolve into the (in)famous white man’s burden that claimed it was the white race’s duty, as steward to all of mankind, to bring other races into the fold and “civilize” them away from local traditions, customs, and beliefs.
Colonialism. The guilt-free edition.
De Zurara’s Ideas on Racial Classification and Hierarchy Sowed the Seeds for Modern Racism
It was this ‘humane’ face to colonialism and the slave trade that De Zurara would become the principal author of. The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea cast Prince Henry in a savior-like light. In the process, he invented the idea of the African race as a category, grouping the enslaved tribes of Northern and West Africa that he encountered under one “herd” of metaphorically lost sheep.
“…without any custom of reasonable beings. They had no understanding of good, but only knew how to live in a bestial sloth.” De Zurara wrote. Spanish colonizers who went to the East by circumnavigating the Earth would later echo the same sentiment, lamenting that their Philippine subjects were “indolent” by nature.
By sowing the seeds of propaganda that washed Prince Henry’s campaign for gold and conquest clean, De Zurara had created a group of “lessers” for the prince to save. Emphasis on lessers.
Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, ran with this idea by classifying people into even strict hierarchies with Homo sapiens europaeus at the top and Homo sapiens afer at the bottom. He described the former as intelligent and ruled by law while the latter was “crafty” (as in devious and deceptive) and “ruled by caprice”. Exactly in the footsteps of De Zurara.
Today, African-American men continue to be stereotyped as dangerous criminals and this prejudgement has led to their deaths. They are also disproportionately affected by wrongful convictions, many of which are for murder charges that can get them locked up for life or subjected to the death penalty.
James Sweet writes in The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought, the enslaved African people of the Iberian peninsula later grew to dominate the numbers of the servile class, to the point that in Spain, under the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, they were subjected to “greater royal supervision and control”. Officials cracked down on their gatherings at inns and taverns, one of the only outlets for them to have public social lives, imposing restrictions on how many enslaved peoples could assemble in one place.
But if De Zurara wasn’t the principal author of modern racism, only an early contributor whose work laid the foundations for it, did he actually promote a hierarchy of racial superiority?
Orlando Patterson, a sociologist and professor at Harvard University says: “The absence of an articulated doctrine of racial superiority does not necessarily imply behavioral tolerance in the relations between peoples of somatically different groups.” The enslaved people Ferdinand and Isabella kept a close eye on? White Spaniards would openly jeer and insult them when they were out in public. The attitude of the time and its people were pervasively racist, even if the exact names and hierarchies as to why would come later. It was there and so was the power structure, cruelty, and propaganda written by De Zurara that informed and reinforced it.