To sail between England and Asia typically required a resupply break, which was a major purpose for English involvement in the Cape of Good Hope (on the southwest coast of Africa). Since the 1590s these stops exposed English sailors and traders to the peoples of the Cape, who would soon include not only the native peoples of the region but also a settlement of the Dutch East India Company (formally the United East India Company, a monopolist of the sea trade of the Netherlands). As the English (and other Europeans) traveled the world for exploration, exploitation, and commerce, English people at home had significant interest in reading their travel narratives. Many were extensively fabricated; for example, in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations a letter from the sailor Thomas Stevens includes the observation, made from “no more than five miles from the Cape,” that “the land itselfe [was] so full of Tigers, and people that are savage, and killers of all strangers, that we had no hope of life nor comfort, but onely in God and a good conscience” (cited in Merians). As Linda E. Merians notes, Stevens’ expectations are so set that he reports far beyond what he could possibly have witnessed: he “never set foot on land at the Cape.” He imagines barbarous peoples just as he imports tigers (native not to Africa but to Asia).
English narratives about the Cape throughout the seventeenth century tend to praise themselves and the landscape of the Cape while dismissing and denigrating the peoples. Merians traces the transformation of blackness as a descriptive of skin color, generally without associating the people’s color with the travelers’ assumptions about their morals and culture, to a racist judgment where the description of blackness was tied to a judgment of barbarity.
The peoples of the Cape provided the English with a counter-example to one popular theory of skin color; as John Pory noted in Leo Africanus’s The History and Description of Africa, it could not be a hot climate that made the people of the Cape so dark skinned, as there are other even hotter climates where the people are much lighter skinned. Pory concludes that skin color must be hereditary (cited in Merians).
These beliefs, connected to the peoples in Africa, reinforce and are reinforced by widespread English perceptions of blackness as signaling immorality. As Matthieu A. Chapman writes, “most scholars [...] today [believe] that the early modern English placed blacks at one of two extremes: either as objects to be feared and loathed or as objects of exoticism and wonder” (78). Chapman notes that these prejudices connect to A Summary of the Antiquities and Wonders of the World, a travelogue by Pliny the Elder (a first century Roman) that was published in English in 1566; the renaissance veneration of classical Greek and Roman literature and philosophy brought with it those cultures’ prejudices as well.
Chapman, Mattieu A. “The Appearance of Blacks on the Early Modern Stage: Love’s Labour’s Lost’s African Connections to Court.” Early Theatre vol. 17, no. 2, 2014, pages 77-94. http://dx.doi.org/10.12745/et.17.2.1206.
Merians, Linda E. “‘Hottentot’: The Emergence of an Early Modern Racist Epithet.” Shakespeare Studies vol. 26, 1998. International Bibliography of Theatre and Dance with Full Text.