In Mark Twain’s still underappreciated novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Roxy, a recently freed Missouri slave who acts and speaks like a black even though “only one-sixteenth of her was black,” shocks her arrogant grown son Tom Driscoll by informing him for the first time that she is his true mother: “Yassir, en dat ain’t all! You is a nigger!—bawn a nigger en a slave!—en you’s a nigger en a slave dis minute.” Tom had been raised as a privileged white and had even spent two years at Yale. Later, in bed, Tom groans and mutters, “A nigger!—I am a nigger!—oh, I wish I was dead!” As he struggles to confront this new identity, Tom “said to himself that the curse of Ham was upon him.”

In 1894 Mark Twain could still assume that most of his readers knew something of the Bible and were familiar with “the curse of Ham” by his father Noah, or at least with the way Tom interpreted it. That Noah had cursed Ham after the Flood was something a great many people believed, and most of them would probably have thought Ham’s descendants were black and condemned to slavery. Alexander Crummell, a distinguished free African-American who had been educated at Cambridge, hardly exaggerated when he declared in 1862 that “the opinion that the sufferings and the slavery of the Negro race are the consequence of the curse of Noah [is a] general, almost universal, opinion in the Christian world.” This opinion, Crummell added,

is found in books written by learned men; and it is repeated in lectures, speeches, sermons, and common conversation. So strong and tenacious is the hold which it has taken upon the mind of Christendom, that it seems almost impossible to uproot it. Indeed, it is an almost foregone conclusion, that the Negro race is an accursed race, weighed down, even to the present, beneath the burden of an ancestral malediction.

Crummell knew that there were other, quite separate sources of anti-black racism, including secular, scientific racism. The scientific classification of blacks as an inferior breed derived, contrary to many present-day assumptions, from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. But in contrast to the belief of some scientists in the genesis of separate white and black human species, which soon became linked with Darwinian natural selection, the biblical story of Noah, Ham, and his son Canaan, who was specifically cursed by Noah, provided supporters of slavery with a way of remaining faithful to the biblical account of a common human origin. They could believe that all human beings are created in “the image of God”—the very core principle of the abolitionist movement—while also claiming divine authority for the enslavement and subordination of African blacks and their descendants. Acceptance of this preeminent curse, even by many blacks, continued well into the twentieth century and was used by Senator Robert Byrd and others in attacking the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Belief in Noah’s curse has surely not disappeared among Christian and probably even Jewish and Muslim biblical fundamentalists.1

An understanding of Alexander Crummell’s “ancestral malediction”—and of David M. Goldenberg’s important new book on the subject—requires preliminary recognition of two key points. First, and most important, for millennia most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believed that the Old Testament’s account of creation and early human history was the literal word of God and thus the supreme moral authority for all human affairs. But since the Bible is filled with obscurities, ambiguities, contradictions, and highly disturbing passages, there was a continuing need for traditions of explanation, interpretation, and reinterpretation by supposed experts (a problem later posed on a lesser scale by such documents as the US Constitution). A second point to keep in mind is the fact that “curses” have had a central role in most premodern cultures as a way of explaining catastrophes or the misfortunes of a special group. The Bible contains scores of curses, beginning with the Lord’s curse of Adam’s son Cain for killing his brother Abel.2

But no other passage in the Bible has had such a disastrous influence on human history as Noah’s slightly later curse in Genesis 9:18–27. David Goldenberg’s invaluable and deeply researched work reconstructs the history of early Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations of Noah’s curse of Canaan (or Ham) while correcting many myths and misrepresentations along the way. By helping to explain why as well as when the misinterpretations occurred, Goldenberg illuminates one of the most important sources of anti-black racism.

The story of the curse of slavery comes soon after God succeeds in using a catastrophic flood, lasting just over a year, to “blot out from the face of the earth” all land and air life (or “flesh,” not trees), except for the animals and eight humans who were allowed to board Noah’s ark. The human survivors, whom God orders “to be fruitful and multiply,” were Noah, his three sons, and their four wives. The story then reads as follows:


The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth—Ham being the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole world branched out. Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan;/The lowest of slaves [literally ‘the slave of slaves’]/Shall he be to his brothers.” And he said, “Blessed be the Lord/the God of Shem;/Let Canaan be a slave to them./May God enlarge Japheth,/And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;/and let Canaan be a slave to them.”3

These biblical words immediately raise two problems that were bound to intrigue generations of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpreters of the text. First, the punishment of eternal slavery seems excessive for Ham’s vaguely described crime. It is noteworthy that at the beginning of human history, according to the Bible, hereditary slavery is seen as a severe penalty or punishment, not as a natural part of the human world, as Aristotle claimed. By the early fifth century Saint Augustine stressed that the word for “slave” does not appear in the Bible until Noah branded his son Ham with this name and condition—proving that all slavery is the result of human sin. In other words, in an ideal and sinless world there would be no slavery. According to Gratian, the great twelfth-century legal scholar and founder of the science of canon law, human bondage began with Noah’s curse, and “if there had not been drunkenness, there would not be slavery today.”4

As for the sin committed, the severity of the punishment elicited some extraordinarily imaginative speculations about what Ham may have done to deserve it. According to one tradition attributed to a rabbinic authority of the third century CE, Ham had castrated his father, Noah, in order to humiliate him and prevent the future conception of any further siblings. One Talmudic debater of the same period even accused Ham of sodomizing his unconscious father (in the laws of Leviticus 18, which also prohibit male homosexuality, “uncovering nakedness” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse). Yet on a far less extreme level, the scrupulous care shown by Shem and Japheth to cover Noah without glimpsing his naked body suggests that simply staring at his naked body would have been regarded at that time as an egregious offense. It has been argued that in ancient Mesopotamia, “looking at another’s genitals” was seen as a way of obtaining illegitimate “mastery and control,” for which slavery, or “losing all mastery and control,” would be an appropriate punishment. According to many interpreters, including Origen in the mid-third century CE, Ham worsened this sin by laughing contemptuously, in front of his brothers, after he had viewed his father’s body.

The obvious second problem arises from the fact that Noah does not curse Ham, the offender, but rather Ham’s son and Noah’s grandson, Canaan, whose name appears without any mention of his birth or age. For well over two thousand years Jews, Christians, and Muslims wrestled with this anomaly, sometimes arguing that Ham could not be directly cursed since he had been blessed by God, as stated earlier in Genesis, or that Ham and the youthful Canaan had both gazed on Noah. These ingenious explanations of the biblical story, which can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from circa 200 BCE to 68 CE) as well as in much later Jewish, Christian, and Islamic commentary, are all attempts to make sense of an enigmatic passage (which the redactors who compiled the biblical text had probably edited centuries after its first composition).

When we go back and reread the text, Noah’s curse of slavery clearly punishes only Canaan but it also benefits Ham’s two brothers, Shem and Japheth, and their descendants. The story makes no mention either of Africans or of skin color. Nevertheless, as we have seen in both Pudd’nhead Wilson and Alexander Crummell’s powerful statement, the tale came to be widely understood as imposing the curse of slavery upon Ham and thereby providing divine justification for the eternal servitude of black Africans. This was probably the most popular and widespread defense of racial slavery in the nineteenth-century American South.5


But why were the descendants of Ham and Canaan understood to be black? The biblical Table of Nations, which immediately follows the story of Noah’s curse, provides genealogical lists of Noah’s descendants; it makes no reference to race or skin color and contains few clues regarding the later racist interpretation of the curse. The descendants of Japheth include the peoples to the north and west of the ancient Near East, such as the Scythians, “the maritime nations,” and the ancestors of the Greeks and other Eastern Europeans. The peoples descended from Shem include not only the Arabs and Assyrians, but a line of descent leading to the Hebrew Abraham and Sarah and thus to the future “great nation” of Israelites, to whom God promises the land already occupied by the Canaanites, or descendants of Canaan. The latter, who were white or swarthy, like the Egyptians, Philistines, Babylonians, and other future enemies of Israel, were the offspring of Ham, the sinner. But so was Cush (or Kush, to use the Hebrew term), who was thought to be black and who occupied the African lands south of Egypt including Nubia (or Ethiopia in later Greek). Despite all the later attempts to extend the curse of slavery to black-skinned Kushites, the Bible tells us that “Kush also begot Nimrod,” who was the first great king on earth, and “was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.” In human rankings, kings like Nimrod have stood at the top of the scale, slaves at the bottom.

The Bible, then, is by no means clear with respect to the descendants who inherited Noah’s curse of slavery. In fact, as the historian Benjamin Braude has shown, medieval and Renaissance writers often identified Ham with Asia, not Africa. The supposed curse of Ham was used to justify European serfdom as well as the medieval enslavement of Slavs, Turks, and other peoples. As Braude observes: “Shem, Ham, and Japheth have been ever-changing projections of the likes and dislikes, hatreds and loves, prejudices and fears, needs and rationales, through which society continually constructs and reconstructs its selves and its opposites.”6

This haphazard search for people who could be exploited as Ham’s descendants brings us to the central point. It was not an originally racist biblical text that led to the enslavement of “Ham’s black descendants,” but rather the increasing enslavement of blacks that transformed biblical exegesis, beginning especially with Muslims.

By 740 CE the spectacular Muslim conquests had created a vast intercontinental empire extending from modern Pakistan westward across the entire Mideast and northern Africa to Spain and even southern France. This territorial conquest produced an immense flow of slaves from many ethnic groups for employment as servants, soldiers, members of harems, eunuch chaperons, and workers in the fields and mines. Since Islamic law prohibited the forcible enslavement of Muslims, the Arabs, Berbers, and their Muslim converts who made deep inroads into sub-Saharan Africa had strong incentives to acquire by purchase or capture large numbers of “infidel” black slaves.

Muslims, or “Moors” as they were called, also enslaved enormous numbers of Europeans, but with the exception of the southeastern Byzantine region, Europeans were less accessible than East Africans. Between 1550 and the early 1800s the Moors of North Africa seized and enslaved well over one million Europeans—by raiding the coastlines from Italy to England and even Iceland as well as by capturing countless ships. But many of these white slaves were ransomed, thanks to the strength and negotiating power of European states and the concerted efforts of Christian benevolent societies. White captives tended to be given less onerous and degrading jobs than the blacks.

The importation of huge numbers of black slaves into Islamic lands, from Spain to India, was the result of a continuous, large-scale migration—by caravan and sea over a period of more than twelve centuries, beginning in the 600s. It may have equaled, in total number, all the African slaves transported to the New World. Between 869 and 883, thousands of black slaves in what is now southern Iraq staged one of the greatest slave revolts in human history. Because the status of slavery came to be associated with the increasing number of sub-Saharan Africans, the Arabic word for slave, ‘abd, came to mean only a black slave, and in some regions referred to any black, whether slave or free. Numerous Arab and Iranian depictions of black slaves were almost identical with the worst racist stereotypes in nineteenth-century America.7

In view of this history, it is hardly surprising that the Muslims wanted to justify the slavery of blacks on religious grounds. Goldenberg cites many early medieval Arabic sources that used the curse of Ham to do so. Since many Jews and Christians lived within Muslim states or interacted, as merchants, with Muslim societies, Goldenberg is also able to provide numerous quotations that show non-Muslims repeating or adopting the curse of Ham as the justification for enslaving blacks. For example, the highly distinguished Rabbi Ibn Ezra (d. 1164 or 1167), who lived in Islamic Spain and wrote works that introduced Islamic mathematics and Indian number systems to Europe, is clearly quoting the view of the surrounding culture when he says, “Some say that the Blacks are slaves because of Noah’s curse on Ham.”

The most famous example of such influence in a Christian nation occurred when in 1453 Portugal’s official royal chronicler, Gomes Eannes de Zurara, described in a major work the arrival and sale in Portugal in 1444 of the first group of captured African slaves (by 1550 black slaves made up 10 percent of Lisbon’s population):

These blacks were Moors [Muslims] like the others [their light-skinned masters who had also been captured by the Portuguese], though their slaves, in accordance with ancient custom, which I believe to have been because of the curse which, after the Deluge, Noah laid upon his son Cain [read: Cham], cursing him in this way: that his race should be subject to all the other races in the world.8

The racist argument was circular—in David Goldenberg’s words, “it must have been black Ham who was cursed with slavery because the Blacks are all enslaved.” But this circularity points to a causal sequence in the origins of anti-black racism: the very presence of increasing numbers of black African slaves, first in the early Islamic world and then in Christian Portugal and Spain, provided the basis for a more convincing interpretation of the enigmatic biblical story, which Jewish and Christian “sages” had struggled to understand for many centuries. The “curse” became clear when used as both an explanation and a justification for the appearance of large numbers of enslaved blacks, presumably the descendants of Ham. And of course this reasoning helped to encourage the acquisition of more black Africans, who were increasingly seen by Europeans as the only people who could justifiably be seen as “natural slaves.”

But while the “curse” could help explain the fact that most of the numerous blacks living in Lisbon and Seville as well as in North Africa were enslaved, no one could alter the biblical text stating that Noah had cursed Canaan, not Ham (though a few interpreters who accepted the actual text claimed that Canaan was black). David Goldenberg addresses this contradiction in his analysis of numerous Jewish and Christian sources from the eighth and ninth centuries to some writings of nineteenth-century American abolitionists. Again and again he finds that most Bible readers simply believed that it was Ham and not Canaan whom Noah cursed with perpetual slavery. He concludes that countless writers, including major rabbis and Church fathers, simply forgot or ignored the actual text, often assuming that since it was Ham who had sinned, he must have been the one singled out for punishment.

The linkage between Ham, slavery, and dark-skinned people was also reinforced by a false etymology that identified the Hebrew name “Ham” with “black, dark, or hot.” Goldenberg’s exhaustive etymological research shows that contrary to longstanding belief, the original Hebrew name “Ham” contained no such root meanings. This misinterpretation clearly helped some medieval Christian, Muslim, and Jewish writers to connect Ham with sub-Saharan Africans. Yet Goldenberg stresses that the earlier rabbinic explanations for Ham’s dark skin were not connected to the curse of slavery, which Jewish writers before the eighth or ninth century CE still associated with their historical light-skinned Canaanite foes.

Goldenberg shows that for a long period explanations of the Africans’ darkness of skin, even when seen as a form of punishment, did not refer to the curse of slavery. Indeed, in biblical and early antiquity, when all ethnic groups were subject to enslavement and when human bondage carried no racial connotations, Hebrews and other peoples often took a somewhat positive view of black Africans. Goldenberg finds, for example, that biblical literature describes black Africans as being tall, smooth of skin, extremely formidable in their use of long bows and arrows, and by far the fastest runners in the world. A post-biblical passage in the Talmud echoes Homer’s idealized view of the distant black Africans as being especially pious.

The Hebrew Bible shows repeated respect for the military strength of the Kushites (called Nubians or Ethiopians by others), who ruled Egypt during “the Ethiopian Dynasty” from approximately 760 to 660 BCE.9 As Goldenberg makes clear, skin color was simply not an issue in the Bible or early rabbinic literature, even after the name “Ham” was incorrectly understood to mean “black” or “dark.” Jews accepted Kushi, who was almost certainly black, as being the father of the Hebrew prophet Zephaniah (Zephaniah 1:1). Those who thought that Moses’ wife had been a black African10 raised no objections to miscegenation (even if some complained that he had married a non-Israelite).

By the third century CE, however, a Talmudic sage, Rabbi Hiyya, described a Jewish legend that interpreted black skin as a divine punishment. God had pragmatically prohibited Noah and all the humans and animals on the ark from having sex during the great flood. After all, they lived in very limited space and had no room for progeny. Nevertheless, according to legend, the dog, the raven, and Ham broke this law and were punished in memorable ways by God.11 Ham, after having intercourse on the ark with his wife, found that his skin had been “blackened.”

Goldenberg points out that this interest in the origins of all dark-skinned peoples was not explicitly connected with slavery. The story was rather a myth intended to explain an unusual natural phenomenon, in this case, the existence of dark-skinned people in a relatively light-skinned world. Goldenberg recounts similar myths about ethnic origins from sub-Saharan Africa in which the colors are reversed: a dark-skinned person is punished or cursed by having his skin color turn white, thus accounting for light-skinned people in a relatively dark-skinned world.

Building on the pioneering work of Ephraim Isaac, Benjamin Braude, and other scholars, Goldenberg shows that the curse of slavery and the curse of blackness had separate origins and long had separate histories in the major Jewish interpretations of scripture. The linkage between blackness and slavery first appears, implicitly, as early as the fourth century CE in a Syriac Christian work known as The Cave of Treasures. Goldenberg finds that the first explicit link between blacks and slavery was made in Arabic sources beginning in the seventh century, when the scale of the slave trade in black Africans was increasing with the Muslim conquests in Africa. From the seventh century onward some Islamic writers established strong precedents for uniting the curse of blackness with the curse of slavery.

For example, according to a Muslim religious text by Kisa’i (medieval but date uncertain), Noah cursed Ham as follows: “‘May God change your complexion and may your face turn black!’ And that very instant his face did turn black…. ‘May He make bondswomen and slaves of Ham’s progeny until the Day of Resurrection!'”

By the fifteenth century Christian and Jewish writers were accepting the same story: that Noah subjected Ham to dual curses of blackness and eternal bondage. And in later periods, extending on into the nineteenth century, many Jews and Christians living within the sphere of the Atlantic slave trade seem to have had no hesitation about invoking the “curse” as a way of merging blackness and slavery as a form of racist ideology. Small numbers of Jews were involved both in the Atlantic slave trade and in owning and selling black slaves in regions extending from Dutch Brazil and the Caribbean to North America.12

But the complexity of this vast subject can at least be suggested when we note that the American abolitionists made extensive use of the Bible to justify their indictment of slavery as a fundamental sin, and that some Jews became abolitionists. Moreover, Dr. Harold Brackman informs me that beginning in the nineteenth century some African-Americans have transmogrified the curse into a badge of distinction.

Since the Bible was by no means the only source of anti-black racism, I think it is important for a sense of balance to move beyond Goldenberg’s work and return briefly to the question of scientific racism. From the Renaissance onward, contrary to the more simplistic view of a progressive secular Enlightenment, the first early ventures toward racism were expounded by heretics and “free thinkers,” including Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), and Isaac de La Peyrère (1596–1676). The latter, for example, wrote about types of human beings before Adam and his work helped to inspire much later theories of polygenesis—the idea that blacks were, in fact, a different species from white human beings and descended from different prehuman ancestors.

While Thomas Jefferson’s racist views have attracted much attention in recent times, few readers have any inkling of the similar racist statements made by many of the leading figures of the European Enlightenment. For example, David Hume wrote in 1748:

I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general other all species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection [sic] than white… No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences…. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.

(from Essays: Moral, Political and Literary)

And here is Voltaire (who believed in polygenesis), writing in 1756:

Their round eyes, their flat nose, their lips which are always thick, their differently shaped ears, the wool on their head, the measure even of their intelligence establishes between them and other species of men prodigious differences.

(from Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations)

And Immanuel Kant, writing in 1764:

The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. The difference between the two races is thus a substantial one: it appears to be just as great in respect to the faculties of the mind as in color…. Hume invites anyone to quote a single example of a Negro who has exhibited talents.

(from “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime”)13

The list of such writings can be greatly extended, but it is important to put these statements in a European context in which most information about black Africans came from distant America and were mainly drawn from prejudicial reports of the behavior of black slaves. We should also remember that this was the beginning of a pre-Darwinian realization (though one long anticipated) that was as revolutionary as the discovery that the sun and universe do not encircle the earth: that human beings are really part of the animal world. For their part, white philosophers such as Kant and other writers had no knowledge of the long-term effects of such speculations. I should also emphasize that such Enlightenment figures as Francis Hutcheson, Montesquieu, and Condorcet not only attacked slavery but insisted on human equality. That said, George Fredrickson, one of the leading authorities on racism, makes the crucial point that “the scientific thought of the Enlightenment was a precondition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology.”14

By classifying the races of mankind, the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the German zoologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and other pioneering scientists of the eighteenth century unintentionally put their disciplines on a path that led, by the mid-nineteenth century, to a kind of official racism in Western culture. From today’s perspective, these doctrines won shockingly wide acceptance and professional authority.

In 1865, for example, Dr. James Hunt, who co-founded the Anthropological Society in London and whose work helped to legitimate anthropology in British and American universities, gave a paper at the British Association in which he argued that Negroes were a distinct and irredeemably inferior species. He also maintained that there is a far greater difference in intelligence between a Negro and a European than between a gorilla and a chimpanzee.

A full and comprehensive history of anti-black racism, which is still much needed, would have to trace the evolution and interaction of both the curse of Ham and the science of polygenesis. Beginning in the eighteenth century, they seem to have developed along wholly separate paths. A belief in science generally required a rejection of belief in biblical fundamentalism. People who believed that racial slavery was the result of Noah’s curse would seldom have embraced the view that blacks had evolved as a separate species, closer to apes than to humans. Future investigations of the long history of racism will need to give serious attention to David Goldenberg’s extremely erudite and informative study of the “curse of Ham.”15

This Issue

November 16, 2006