1.10 The Curse on Africans?
The two curses that we have encountered in Genesis, that on Cain in chapter 4, and on Canaan in chapter 9, are the two Old Testament props for the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and Americans in the 18th-19th centuries:
"This doom has been fulfilled in the destruction of the Canaanites--in the degradation of Egypt and the slavery of the Africans, the descendants of Ham." (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, 1871)
"The appointment of this race of men to servitude and slavery, was a judicial act of God, or in other words was a divine judgment [evidenced by]..the fact of their being created or produced in a lower order of intellectuality than either of the other races,...[and] the great and everywhere pervading fact of their degraded condition, both now and in all time...." (Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro, by Josiah Priest, C. Van Benthuysen and Co., 1845, p.83).
It was a commonplace of 19th Century American Protestant Biblical interpretation that God intended the African peoples to be fodder for Europeans. As explorers slowly penetrated the "Dark Continent," their reports of the primitiveness and backwardness of tribal peoples reinforced the interpretation of the two Old Testament curses that were applied to Africans. It was obvious to the educated Englishman that white civilization was superior to African culture. This nearly universal belief led to two opposite responses: malevolent (slavers) and benevolent (missionaries). Those who used Scripture to justify slavery believed there was a genuine divine right of rule over lesser nations. Africans represented a race of sub-humanity, a type of intelligent animal, a resource without civil rights. Because God ordained this division in humanity, unbelievable acts of cruelty could be performed with a clear conscience. 1
The other response was that of the missionary, whether domestic (converting the slaves in America), or later foreign (reaching the African on his home turf). The objectives of the missionary were educational and moral, focusing on the goal of "uplift" -- bring the African as close to par with the white man as his supposed lesser capacity allowed. On the one hand, one has to laud the self-sacrifices and many of the achievements of the educators. Yet this admiration is offset by the realization that they resulted from the same hermeneutic of superiority that motivated the slavers. Some missionaries, too, believed in their own God-ordained superiority, and in the worthlessness of all indigenous non-Western cultures. Refusing to treat Africans as subhumans, they settled for regarding them as retarded children, in need of constant supervision and with limited prospects for improvement. 2
But the root problem with both slavers and missionaries was their faulty exegesis of the race teachings of the Bible. They willfully distorted the two key Old Testament Scriptures on Cain and Canaan, and ignored or belittled other more substantive passages in both Old and New Testaments. We have already dealt with the curse on Cain and showed that it does not apply to questions of race at all. Let us now look at the curse on Canaan.