In the fifteenth century, as Europeans began to explore and trade on other continents, they brought with them various preconceptions that would shape
how they perceived the many peoples they would meet. The biblical book of Genesis taught them that all humans came from a single ancestor, created by
the same God. All of those descendants (and other creatures on earth) were assigned a permanent place in life in the Great Chain of Being, which
connected all existence, from the lowest insects to the heavenly hosts a concept with roots in ancient Greece but which served Europe’s relatively rigid
social hierarchy. Those descendants were divided into two clearly delineated groups, Christians and unbelievers. All Christians were to be brethren,
responsible to each other and the Church; slavery was barred among Christians, although not servitude.
While Europeans were attentive to how different peoples looked, dressed, and acted, their intellectual framework was founded on Aristotelian philosophy
and physics, which reinforced biblical concepts that the environment shaped human variation. English writers, like other Europeans, focused on the body
as a reflection of the universe, with the body’s four humors (black bile, blood, yellow bile, and phlegm) corresponding to the universe’s elements (earth,
air, fire, and water). The balance between those humors shaped a person’s (and a people’s) nature. That balance was influenced by the local climate, as
well as by inheritance and various aspects of culture such as food.
European notions of exotic peoples and cultures evolved rapidly in the sixteenth century. The expansion of direct trade with Africa and the discovery of
the Americas, which came as the printing press and literacy became more widespread, spawned a growing literature of travel stories and other writings,
which focused on those strange places and peoples. These accounts focused on religion, clothing, physiognomy (including skin color), and temperament,
and often speculated about how those characteristics were shaped by the group’s climate and environment.
Europeans generally agreed that Africans’ skins had been burned black by the equatorial sun, and, given their biblical ideas about creation and
monogenesis, they rejected the idea that Africans were not fully human or somehow created differently. But intellectuals used to arguing over whether the
English or French climate was more conducive to high civilization were easily able to agree that the equatorial heat of Africa fostered durable, insensitive
bodies, inherently fitted for heavy labor and low social status.