Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century by Francisco Bethencourt - review by David Nirenberg

David Nirenberg

Hell is Other Peoples

Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century


Princeton University Press 444pp £27.95 order from our bookshop

It may be mere coincidence that the author of Racisms bears the same surname as the Norman knight Jean de Béthencourt, the first European to make colonial conquests in the Atlantic. The earlier Béthencourt set out in 1402 to subdue the Canary Islands – known in the parlance of the conquerors as ‘The Fortunate Isles’, though the conquered and widely enslaved natives might have felt that the fortune came at their expense. Two manuscripts survive that relate his exploits. One of these, written around 1485, served as the basis for the Frenchman Pierre Bergeron’s printed chronicle of the conquests, Le Canarien, of 1630. It presents Béthencourt’s voyage as a chivalric quest, a morally elevating journey motivated by a desire to ‘plant the Christian faith’ amicably among the natives, rather than by a thirst for treasure or a desire to pillage. The conquest is largely irenic, in marked (and deliberate) contrast to the cruelties of the Spanish and Portuguese empires that are the target of Bergeron’s polemic.

There exists, however, an earlier manuscript, held today at the British Library. It tells a tale of violence and betrayal, as Béthencourt’s ambitions, combined with the cupidity and treason of some of his followers, lead to the corruption of a noble enterprise and the destructive subjugation of a ‘poor innocent

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