By now, it is old news that Africa's supposed lack of civilisation, history and culture was conjured up to justify the enslavement, and later the colonisation of millions of Africans. The venerable historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, summed it up best when he argued that: "The racism that we know, was born in Europe and America from the cultural need to justify doing to black people, doing to Africans, what could not morally or legally be done to white people, least of all to Europeans. To justify the enslavement of Africans, in short, it was culturally necessary to believe ... that Africans were inherently and naturally less than human ... That was the cultural basis ... of the slave trade and of the modern imperialism of Africa which followed the slave trade."
Prior to this, xenophobia and the association of blackness with evil were not unknown in the ancient world, but they did not constitute in the words of Davidson "a weapon of dispossession and exploitation". In fact, there was a time when Europeans revered Africa. In Martin Bernal's path-breaking study Black Athena, he convincingly documents the great extent to which Greek thinkers of the Classical Age admired Egyptian civilisation and drew upon its rich tradition of governance, and intellectual and artistic production.
This history had to be done away with as Europe entered the age of new imperialism. Accordingly, Greece and by extension the rest of Europe, was severed from its African roots so that Africa and its people could be maligned and then plundered in the service of empire. A cursory perusal of the racist ideologies espoused by some of Europe's most famous thinkers demonstrates how knowledge production about Africans during the era of the slave trade centred on the idea of African inferiority. In the 18th century, the French philosopher Voltaire wrote: "If their [Africans] understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application or association of ideas, and seem formed neither in the advantages nor the abuses of our philosophy."
Writing in the second half of the 18th century, the famed German philosopher Immanuel Kant contended: "The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. The difference between the two races is thus a substantial one: it appears to be just as great in respect to the faculties of the mind as in colour."
David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and historian, similarly regarded Africans as an inferior race: "I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.
"On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men."
Needless to say, neither Hume, Voltaire, nor Kant had any firsthand knowledge of Africa and its people. Clearly these so-called Enlightenment thinkers were wandering in their own heart of darkness as they pontificated about Africa. Equally unfamiliar with Africa, the early 19th century German philosopher, Georg Hegel, was nonetheless confident in his pronouncement that Africa existed outside history. Referring to sub-Saharan Africa in his seminal philosophical work, Geographical Basis of History, Hegel wrote: "Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained--for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World--shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself--the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night. …