The Origins of Mixed Race Populations

The Origins of Mixed Race Populations

New African
January 2005

Carina Ray, Associate Professor of African and Afro- American Studies
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

While rape played a huge part in the origins of Africa and the Diaspora’s mixed race populations, it is wrong to attribute it all to rape, argues Carina Ray.

In the February 2004 issue of New African, the columnist Stella Orakwue threw the covers off one of the European empire’s dirtiest secrets–the widespread rape of black women by white men. Her expose, headlined “History’s Most Sordid Cover-Up” went on to declare that the historical origins of mixed race populations in Europe’s former colonies in North and South America, the Caribbean and Africa are located in this silenced history of rape.

In the following months, Orakwue’s pronouncement drew a lively response from several New African readers. Yet, each piece of writing in the thread left me with a distinct sense that the discussion had taken a wrong turn—or gotten off on the wrong foot to begin with, sweeping historical claims, such as the one made by Orakwue, are bound to be both true and false. Exceptions to the rule aside, her argument is valid for North America, particularly in the South during the era of slavery and to a decreasing extent through the period of Jim Crow segregation.

The origins of mixed race populations in South America and the Caribbean, however, fit less neatly into a single pattern of explanation. This should not be taken as a denial of the partial role that rape played in the development of mixed race populations in these regions, but to identify it as the predominant causal factor obscures the complicated history of race mixing in these areas.

Many countries in South America and the Caribbean are home to populations that are almost entirely mixed. Their numbers cannot be accounted for primarily by rape, but rather result in large part from complex patterns of inter-marriage, concubinage and consensual sex between indigenous peoples, Africans, Europeans and multi-racial people themselves. With respect to Europe’s former African colonies, the link between rape and the origins of mixed race people is strongest, although by no means definitive, in the settler colonies of Southern Africa, where rape often formed part of a regime of white domination. It also functioned in areas like the Cape Colony, in modern-day South Africa, as a violent form of slave labour reproduction, not unlike the American South during slavery. The paradigm of rape, however, is far less adequate for explaining the historical origins of mixed race people in other parts of Africa…

…One need only look at the lineage of many of Ghana’s Afro-European families, like the Bannerman, Brew, Wulff-Cochrane, Reindorf, casely-Hayford, Hutchison, Lutterodt, VanHein, Vroom and Van der Puije families, to name just a few, to know that their female progenitors were not enslaved women, but rather members of indigenous families who married European men.

Unions of this type, as well as less formal consensual relationships, were not unique to Ghana; rather they formed an important aspect in the development of many of West Africa’s coastal societies. This key facet of West African history is eclipsed when the history of mixed race people is collapsed inside the history of rape.

It is often forgotten that in many instances during the first 400 years of the colonial encounter, Europeans were at the mercy of their African hosts. One of the ways European men survived and even thrived during this period of the colonial encounter was by marrying or cohabiting with African women, who not only provided companionship, medical assistance and domestic services, but also valuable local connections.

Contrary to the notion that colonialism was a one-way street which led to the Europeanisation of Africans, European men were also Africanised—in large part through their relationships with African women. Marriage was used as a means of cementing alliances to advance the interests of both groups, particularly in coastal trade, and importantly such arrangements were made at the behest of Africans…

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