Racism Watch

Comparing black people to monkeys has a long, dark simian history

Tarzan, a racial symbol

 In European cultural history the comparison of humans to apes and monkeys dates back to at least Plato. Evolutionist Darwin made his contribution and so did Hollywood with King Kong and Tarzan.

Plato, quoting Heraclitus, declared apes ugly in relation to humans and men apish in relation to gods. It transcendentally disconnected them from their human co-primates. The Fathers of the Church went one step further: Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Isidore of Seville compared pagans to monkeys.

Middle Ages Christian discourse recognised simians as devilish figures, representatives of lustful and sinful behaviour. Women were subject to an analogous defamation. In the 11th century, Cardinal Peter Damian gave an account of a monkey that was the lover of a countess from Liguria, out of jealousy killed her husband and fathered her child.

Hotbed of monsters

In 1633 John Donne in his Metempsychosis even has one of Adam’s daughters seduced by an ape.

The sexist manifestation of simianisation became intimately intertwined with its racist dimension.

Jean Bodin, doyen of the theory of sovereignty, ascribed sexual intercourse of animals and humans to Africa south of the Sahara, characterising the region as a hotbed of monsters due to the sexual union of humans and animals.

The history of a narrative by Antonio de Torquemada shows how in the process Africans became demonised and the demons racialised. In its first version (1570), a Portuguese woman was exiled to Africa where she was raped by an ape and had his babies.

A century later the story had entered the realm of Europe’s great philosophical thought with John Locke’s 1689 essay Concerning Human Understanding, declaring that “women have conceived by drills”, which, according to the wisdom of the time, lived in Guinea.

Simianisation over centuries entered different sciences and the humanities, including: anthropology, archaeology, biology, ethnology, geology, medicine, philosophy, and theology.

King Kong’s reel racism

Literature, arts and everyday entertainment also seized on the issue, popularising its repellent combination of sexism and racism – climaxing the hugely successful classic of Hollywood’s horror factory, King Kong.

King Kong’s production coincided with a high profile US rape trail of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of having raped two young white women. A 1935 picture story, ‘Scottsboro Alabama’ carried a foreword by Michael Gold, editor of the communist journal New Masses.

One of the 56 images showed the accused young men beside a newspaper with the headline “Guilty Rape”. The rest of the picture depicted a monstrous black simian figure baring its teeth and dragging off a helpless white girl.

It rolled together racist ideology, reactionary reporting and southern injustice and capitalizing on the white public’s conditioning to the dehumanising violence of animal comparisons and simianised representations of the King Kong film.

Labelled with disease

Animalisation and even bacterialisation are widespread elements of racist dehumanisation – closely related to the labelling of others with the language of contamination and disease.

Images of men on a level with epidemic plague-carrying rats were part of the ideological escort of anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese racism.

Africa is labelled as a contagious continent incubating pestilences of all sorts in hot muggy jungles. AIDS in particular is said to have its origin in the careless dealings of Africans with simians.

There is a long and ugly line of stereotypes directed against different people like the Irish or Japanese, and Africans and African Americans in particular – to throw bananas in front of black sportspeople is a common racist provocation even today.

Why are blacks abused?

In the case of blacks, a combination of factors might have played a role in simianisation:

  • the prevalence of a variety of great apes in Africa, closest in size to humans, while Asia’s great ape population is more limited and the Americas has only monkeys, but no apes;
  • the extent of the aesthetic “distance” between whites and blacks, compared to the physical “otherness” as compared to other “non-white” races;
  • the higher esteem generally accorded by Europeans to Asian as against African civilisations; and
  • above all the psychic impact of hundreds of years of racial slavery, which stamped ‘Negroes’ as permanent sub-persons, natural slaves, in global consciousness.

The origin of species

Long before post-Darwinian “scientific racism”, one found blacks being depicted as closer to apes on the Great Chain of Being. In mid-19th century America, in some circles, polygenesis (separate origins for the races) was taken seriously.

Leading scientists of the day, Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, in their 1854 Types of Mankind, documented what they saw as objective racial hierarchies with illustrations comparing blacks to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Charles Darwin’s revolutionary 1859 work, On the Origin of Species, did not discredit scientific racism but only its polygenetic variants.

Social Darwinism, triumphantly monogenetic, would become the new racial orthodoxy.


Popular culture played a crucial role in disseminating racialist beliefs. The average layperson might not have been reading scientific journals but they certainly read H. Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and She, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan.

They were going weekly to the movies (including the genre of “jungle movies”), following daily comic strips like ‘The Phantom’ – Africa’s white super cop.

Africa and Africans came to occupy a special place in white imaginary, marked by the most shameless misrepresentations.

Burroughs became one of the bestselling authors of the 20th century with his most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes, delivering numerous books, movies, and various cartoon strip and comic spin-offs.

Tarzan became embed in the Western mind as the indelible image of a white man ruling a black continent. It consolidated a Manichean iconography pervasive throughout the colonial Western world in the first half of the 20th century and lingering still today.

Lumumba’s announcement

The Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Tintin series, for example, includes the infamous Tintin au Congo book, likewise depicting Africans as inferior apelike creatures.

Unsurprisingly, “macaques” (monkeys) was one of the racist terms used by whites in the Belgian Congo for blacks, as was “macacos” in Portuguese Africa.

In his 1960 Independence Day speech, Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba blasted the oppressive legacy of Belgian colonialism (to the astonishment and outrage of the Belgian king and his coterie).

He is reputed to have concluded: “Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques!” (We are no longer your monkeys). No documentation has been found for the statement, but its widespread circulation testifies to the post-colonial aspiration of millions of Africans.

Racist cross-class alliances

The use of simianisation as a racist slur against black people is not yet over, as shown by the furore in South Africa sparked by Penny Sparrow.

Sparrow’s public outburst indicates the deep entrenchment of racial prejudices and stereotypes.

This does not stop at class boundaries. The internet has overflowed with ape comparisons ever since Barack and Michelle Obama moved into the White House. Even a social-liberal newspaper, like the Belgian De Morgen, has deemed it kind of funny to simianise the First Couple.

Cross-class alliances against declassed others are a hallmark of racism.

Theodore W. Allen once defined it as “the social death of racial oppression” – the reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, beneath that of any member of the oppressor group.

Animalisation remains a malicious and effective instrument of such a form of desocialisation and dehumanisation.

A version of this strategy historically manifested a lethal combination of sexism and racism.

(This is a synopsis by Piet Coetzer of an article by Wulf D. Hund, professor emeritus of sociology, Department of Socioeconomics, University of Hamburg and Charles W Mills, John Evans professor of moral and intellectual philosophy, Northwestern University, on The Conversation website.)

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