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Encountering Africans

Early modern Europeans had not yet developed hard and fast racial theories. While negative stereotypes of Africans abounded, there was intense curiosity about the continent and its people. The word "race" itself had a variety of different meanings and was most commonly used to refer to distinctions between Europeans based on their nationality, gender, or ethnic origin.


While the notion of Africa itself initially conjured up imaginary kingdoms and peoples, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century colonial expansion and increased trading and raiding brought Europeans greater knowledge of the continent and of African peoples. This evolving geographic and ethnographic knowledge, derived from experience, often challenged many of the myths inherited from the Ancients and the Bible. In the case of Africa and Africans, acquaintance did not lead to increased respect and the toleration of difference. Rather, the demands of empire and commerce culminated in the brutal persecution of Africans in the slave trade.


One of the most common representations of "blackness" derived from visual images of the expression "washing the Ethiop white." This expression came from Aesopian fable and was used primarily to refer to an impossible task, or laboring in vain.

Geffrey Whitney. A choice of emblemes, and other devises. Leyden, 1586

Wenceslaus Hollar. Portrait of a young African woman. Etching, 1645.

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