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“The White Man's Grave:” Image and Reality, 1780-1850

Abstract

There is a “black legend” about the climate of tropical countries, that lives on in spite of the knowledge geographers, meteorologists, and specialists in tropical medicine have gained over the past half century. With all the recent publicity given to West Africa, most people in the Western world carry a half-conscious image of “The White Man's Grave”. It is usually elaborated with such elements as “primitive tribes”, burning heat, fever-laden swamps, swarming insects, and miles of trackless jungle. Above all, West Africa is thought of as a place where white men cannot work. Only Africans can work there, and Europeans “go out” for brief periods at a considerable risk to their lives. Most of this image is, of course, quite false. Maximum temperatures on the West African coast would be moderate summer heat in the American mid-West. Insects are generally less annoying than they are in the United States. The forest is by no means trackless, but the home of sedentary agricultural people who have for centuries periodically cut it down to burn a place for their farms. Neither physical capacity for work nor immunity to disease is significantly different between Europeans and Africans on racial grounds.

Still, the image was not made up from imagination alone. In its British version, it was based on facts — facts misunderstood in Africa, reported “at home”, and repeated over several generations. Both the facts and the image have a part in shaping West African relations with Great Britain, and both the facts and the image have changed through time in significant ways. The early nineteenth century represents a crucial phase in these changes. British traders had been on the Guinea coast for two centuries before 1783, but the loss of the American War and the thirteen colonies brought a new phase in Anglo-African relations.

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Journal of British Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9371
  • EISSN: 1545-6986
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-british-studies
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