The origin of the prejudice against a black complexion cannot be ancient. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, had a dark complexion and therefore is invariably portrayed in blue. Another version of Krishna, and a popular one, is Srinathji whose famous temple is situated at Nathdwara, north of the Chittor Fort in Rajasthan. Here, he is always portrayed in black. A few years ago, Prof SR Rao discovered the original city of Dwarka established by Krishna which had, in an earthquake, sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Most of the retrieved artefacts of Dwarka have been preserved at the Museum of Oceanography in Goa. Prof. Rao considered Krishna to be contemporaneous with the Harappan (Indus Valley) civilization. This means that the acceptance of dark complexion is not unduly old. Prejudice against the blacks in America began as recently as the 18th century when the slave trade from Africa began. Until then, it was not unusual to have black characters prominent in European literature.
The name of Othello, the hero of the Shakespearean great tragedy, is an example. The question arises whether such prejudices are related to power. In India, we have people of virtually all complexions and there is no social prejudice against any of them, although when choosing a bride there may well be a preference for the fair and lovely girl. This is all very surprising when one thinks of the four year bloody American Civil War fought between the northern Unionists and the southern Confederates.
While most white people on both sides of the divide reconciled themselves to the new post- Civil War unity, a fringe group of blacks could not march lockstep with the rest of the nation. Much earlier than the American Civil War, sincere efforts were made by several white leaders to either abolish slavery or make it less harsh. The slave trade was dominated by British slave traders. Yet, the leader of the Abolitionists was a gentleman from Hull, Yorkshire in England. He was William Wilberforce, a Cambridge graduate born of well-to-do parents and of liberal sentiment.
He leaned towards evangelism for quite a while in his life, and at other times, towards Methodism. It is possible that religious sentiments had their influence on Wilberforce’s views. He was a Member of Parliament for a good ten years. Wilberforce had another great advantage in the pursuit of his cause; he was friendly with William Pitt the Younger. Pitt became the Prime Minister, at the age of 24 and continued to remain the head of government continuously for 22 years. Essentially liberal in his outlook, Pitt supported, as far as politically possible, the cause of abolition of slavery.
The slaves thus had the sympathy and help of two powerful Englishmen. Yet, the vested interests must have been so deeprooted that the acquisition of slaves on the west coast of Africa, called the Horn of Africa, continued. It was not until passage of a Bill called the Slave Trade Act of 1807 by the British parliament that serious political steps began being taken towards ending this inhuman activity. For the practice of slavery to be abolished though, it took several more years, till the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, again by the British Parliament, which abolished slavery in large parts of the British Empire.
The 1833 Act was essentially an expansion of the jurisdiction of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. However, no matter what the British parliament did, vested interests located outside the British Isles continued with their profit-making. African slaves were captured inland by Arab slave traders and then handed over to British traders. The hapless Africans were then transported in ships that had very little space and no toilets. Imagine sailing across the Atlantic with no toilet at all in the hold. How suffocating and unhygienic such a voyage must have been.
Many of the slaves being so herded across the ocean died during the voyage, which also shows how cheaply they had been acquired. In other words, the traders who had got hold of them could afford to lose a substantial number. The accounts of these atrocities, both narrated and read, prompted any number of sympathisers to plead for the slaves. Their names included such distinguished individuals as William Ewart Gladstone ~ Prime Minister of Britain from 1868 to 1894 – and others. However, the role of the American Civil War (1861-65) is seminal in ending the practice of slavery in the Western world.
It was a war that threatened to undo the United States of America itself. Had the USA not remained a single country after its Civil War, it is a matter of conjecture as to what the fate of Western civilization would have been. One thing is certain, though; a divided USA would have been a great threat to this civilization. Imagine what would have happened as a result of German aggression and imperial ambitions in Europe, resulting in both the World Wars, had there been no undivided USA to come to the aid of and preserve the liberal Western civilization.
What if there had been no USA to stand up to the (now deceased) Soviet Union, an equally dangerous foe? As an aside, my own familial experience with Africans might be instructive in bringing into focus how prejudices or preconceived notions might hamper mutual understanding among communities. One of my nieces is married into a Christian Nigerian family. Particularly, to show moral support and to demonstrate our lack of racial prejudice, my wife and I attended the wedding in New Jersey. I must say that I discovered to my surprise, the Nigerians were different; they were better educated and culturally more polished.
Since the family is Christian, the wedding was also held in a church. About one-third of the population follows Jesus Christ and is concentrated in the south-east of the country which is known as Biafra. According to their custom, speeches were made by relatives of the bride and bridegroom. Overall their side made better speeches and altogether appeared to be better, at least by Western standards. It has been a happy marriage, and their values appear to be like those of a joint family, not very different from an Indian one. The son-in-law was a F.R.C.S. from London, but this qualification was inadequate to practice in the USA; he was therefore, studying for another surgery course good enough for his new country.
Ten years later, the new surgeon heads three hospitals in the Pennsylvania and is flourishing as a medical star. The couple has produced three intelligent daughters who all wish to study at Ivy League universities like Harvard and Princeton. On balance, these West Africans appeared a lot superior to their East African cousins. The point I am making is how different the people in different parts of the world are than we presume. Incidentally, the Nigerians we met at the wedding were slim with trim figures even at comparatively advanced ages. The other niece is married into a family which hails from Jamaica and is settled in Canada, mostly around Toronto.
They are educated too, and earn their livelihood through professional work. They were well read and betrayed no complexes. We came to know about ten of them as they had dined with us in Delhi. What was remarkable was that they were quite indifferent to the colour of their skin. Two of the ladies were almost as white as Europeans, while two others were black. The men were of mixed colour, the kind that are described as ‘mulatto’ in South Africa. In short, our observation was that they could not care less about their complexions. This in turn, was an indication that they bore no complex on this issue.
The marriage of my niece has been a happy one and their husband is quite a popular uncle amongst all our relatives. The couple has produced a boy and has adopted an attractive girl child from near Bhopal. What is striking about both these families is that they had no interest in talking about their problems, either racial or national. For example, the Jamaicans did not talk about their difficulties in their native country, which had been the reason for their migration to Canada.
Despite probing by me, none of the Nigerians seemed prepared to discuss the civil war of 1967 in their country between the southern Biafrans and the northern Nigerians, and its accompanying slaughter. Their uniform answer was that all that was a long time ago. For us Indians, there is a lesson to learn. When we go overseas, we should avoid discussing our communal, linguistic or casteist disputes with foreigners.
(The writer is an author, thinker and former Member of Parliament)