Zurara: Biographer Invented Race In The 15th Century

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Who was Gomes de Zurara? How did Zurara contribute to the invention of race as a concept?

Gomes de Zurara was a biographer from the fifteenth century. In writing a biography of Prince Henry the Navigator, Zurara was the first to propose terminology relating to the hierarchy of difference races.

Keep reading for more about Zurara and how the notion of an African race did not exist before his work.

Prince Henry, Zurara, and Creating “Race”

In the fifteenth century, Prince Henry the Navigator wanted to get into the slave trade but didn’t want to work with Islamic slave traders, who were enslaving a variety of people including Europeans, Arabs, and Africans. Prince Henry sponsored voyages to West Africa and focused the Portuguese slave trade on Africans. His ships explored new regions of the continent, including the feared waters around Cape Bojador. 

Because the Islamic traders were enslaving people from a variety of areas, their trading policies weren’t racist. However, Prince Henry’s policy, because it focused on a particular group of people, was racist.

In 1453, 20 years after Prince Henry had organized the African slave trade, the King of Portugal commissioned Gomes de Zurara to write a biography of Prince Henry. Zurara invented the African race when he described the people being sold at a slave auction in Lagos, Portugal. He described the people as being different from each other in language, ethnic group, and skin color, but he lumped them into a single group of people who lived like animals and needed to be saved by civilized Europeans, who were inherently superior.

Similarly, the “Indian” or negros da terra (“Blacks from the land”) race was invented by Portuguese and Spanish colonizers after they arrived in the Americas. All Indigenous people were lumped into this group. Alonzo de Zuazo, a Spanish lawyer, compared this race to the Black race, saying that the Blacks were strong and good at work while the Indigenous people were weak. 

Why Have Races?

The goal of inventing races was twofold: 

  • To create a hierarchy
    • For example, putting Africans into one group, and slave traders and slave owners in another, allowed for comparisons between the groups. Comparison naturally resulted in some groups being superior to others.
  • To legitimize treating the groups differently
    • For example, thinking of Africans and Indigenous people as inferior groups legitimized their enslavement and murder.

Zurara created the concept of sorting people into groups, but he didn’t actually call these groups “races.” Jacques de Brézé, a French poet, first used the word “race” in a poem in 1481. Then, in 1606, another Frenchman, Jean Nicot, defined the word “race” in a French dictionary to mean “descent.”

Zurara: Biographer Invented Race In The 15th Century

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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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