The Invention of “Xenophobia”
By George MakariOctober 6, 2021
NO ONE REMEMBERS Jean Martin de Saintours. Though his aspirations were at times grand, he lived out his days scuttling between France and England, confined to a life of intellectual hard labor as a translator and stenographer. And yet I found him at the center of a storm that crashed over much of the globe, and now seems to be doing so again.
Five years ago, after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, I set out in search of the origins of the word “xenophobia.” Its birthplace seemed obvious. In ancient Greece, it was said, a wise man combined “xénos” — which connoted both stranger and guest — with “phobos,” their word for fear. Since xenophobia was an eternal and ubiquitous human problem, it made sense that its origins lay near the start of Western civilization, when some Aristotle-like figure opened his eyes and spotted it before him.
All that, I discovered, was nonsense. The ancient Greeks — or the written record we have of them — never employed this term. Instead, in a historical moment with similarities to our own, the word emerged alongside troubles fostered by rapid globalization. And lingering by the starting blocks, off to the side, stood Jean Martin de Saintours.
Around 1880, a number of influential psychiatrists concluded that irrational fears constituted discrete illnesses. In a flash, French, German, British, and American doctors proposed dozens of medical “phobias.” First came claustrophobia and agoraphobia, then zoophobia, hematophobia, toxophobia, syphilophobia, monophobia, and phobophobia, the fear of being frightened. In this gathering of great frights, the neo-Grecian compound term “xenophobia” made its first, fleeting appearance.
As that coinage splashed and then sank into scientific obscurity, another simultaneously bobbed up in fin-de-siècle French and British newspapers. During this fertile age for print journalism, xénos was linked to phobos to describe an extreme form of nationalism. Political commentators worried that modern nation-states, stripped of Crown and Cross, now sought to maintain internal unity by stoking hatred for a common enemy. “Anglophobia,” for example, served to unite disparate members of a rival nation, but it might also provoke constant bloodshed. The worst form of this trouble, an expert advised, occurred in wobbly places like Romania, where a fear and hatred of all nations — xenophobia — might take root. This extravagant claim — really, all nations? — found few defenders.
The history of ideas is filled with such half-run races in which, after a short burst, the explanatory power and relevance of a notion fades and collapses. However, when the historical context shifts, that concept may find new purpose and re-emerge as the missing piece of a newly assembled puzzle.
On April 14, 1900, the Exposition Universelle in Paris threw open its doors to adoring crowds. Millions of visitors toured its marvels, which included ethnological villages and human zoos stocked with members of far-off tribes like the Malagasy from Madagascar and the Dahomean from West Africa. A poster depicted Arabs and Asians at the foot of a heavenly, white goddess. Thanks to Western technology and industrial wealth, it seemed, the entire world was coming together.
Alongside these festive reports, French newspapers featured a more disturbing story, one of things falling apart. On July 17, 1900, Le Constitutionnel ran a short, unsigned dispatch from Shanghai telling of a new “xénophobe” movement in northern China. Three days later, Georges Clemenceau’s left-wing paper, La Justice, picked up the story and used that term. Next, it showed up in L’Univers, then one of the most literary papers, Le Journal. As fall arrived, La Presse featured a headline warning of China’s xenophobia, and by October, Le Figaro and Le Matin assumed readers knew exactly what was meant when they denounced Chinese “xénophobes.” In less than a year, xénophobe and xénophobie had become part of the French lexicon.
Parisians learned that the trouble with “les xénophobes” commenced in a corner of northern China during the winter of 1899. Amid a drought, a group of young Chinese men united the traditions of mass possession from the Spirit Boxers with the invulnerability rituals and beliefs of the Big Sword Society. Using spells, swallowed charms, deep breathing, and martial arts, they came to believe themselves invulnerable to swords and bullets. These “Yihequan,” or “Boxers United in Righteousness,” adopted a simple slogan: “Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners.”
Two years earlier, a pair of German missionaries had been killed, a harbinger of what was to come. On December 31, 1899, a British evangelist was murdered, followed by a group of four French and Belgian engineers. As the disparate national identities of the victims made clear, the Boxers were not specifically Anglophobic, Francophobic, or Germanophobic. Their country was occupied by many foreign powers, and they declared war on all of them. Over the next months, as tension built, more skirmishes were reported, and then, almost overnight, thousands of Boxers swarmed the streets, eager to burn down Western churches and chase down immigrants. In the rioting, nearly 200 non-Chinese were murdered.
The Boxers’ revolt followed decades of furious globalization. During the second half of the 19th century, a tidal wave of Western expansion was driven by demographic pressures at home and new advances like steam power, the telegraph, and medicines like quinine. A grand reunion of human tribes thus began, cheered on by some as the dawn of a universal age. Beneath the grandeur of such proclamations, however, another reality lurked. International interdependence commenced at the end of a long gun. Between 1870 and 1914, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Belgium conquered weaker lands in a stampede for new markets, cheap resources, and forced labor. Japan and America jumped in as well, but this was mostly Europe’s party. Their unprecedented conquests spread out over nearly all of Africa, as well as many parts of Asia.
A thick web of narratives justified these actions. The expansion of European culture eastward was widely celebrated, thanks to what the French called their “civilizing mission.” British Anglo-Saxon, German Teutonic, French Catholic, and Russian pan-Slavic expansionists were encouraged to imagine themselves as philanthropists. They came, it was said, not in a mad scramble for wealth, land, and power, but as peacekeepers, liberators, and educators. Missionaries, schoolteachers, and functionaries carried the flags of freedom, rubbing up against a motley crew of fortune hunters, ex-convicts, libertines, slave traders, and pirates. So confident were they in their righteousness, the good of their God, and superiority of their lineage, that they could make little sense of the hostile reactions of their hosts. When a whirling group of rebels in China announced their mission to attack and destroy all foreigners, this terrifying reaction demanded an explanation.
German commentators warned of a “Fremdenfeindschaft,” “stranger-as-enemy relationship” endemic to the Chinese. That never translated into other tongues. Instead, the French xénophobie infiltrated English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and more. Almost immediately, readers of those languages heard stories about “xenophobic propaganda,” “secret xenophobic societies,” and the power of “xenophobes” to stir up bloodlust in the masses. The British and French discovered xenophobia not just in the Chinese but a wide array of Asians, Africans, and Arabs. The Italians decried it in their recalcitrant hosts, the Ethiopians, while the Spanish diagnosed it in the Moroccans. In a few years, everyone from an American reader of glossy magazines to a British diplomat to a French businessman knew exactly what was meant by “xenophobia.”
Xenophobia answered the plaintive colonizer’s question: why do they hate us? The response had nothing to do with land grabs, theft, indentured servitude, or occupation. Nor was this an exercise in Romanian-style ultra-nationalism. This xenophobia was due to an in-born condition, a reflexive fear and hatred of all strangers that, anthropologists duly explained, stemmed from the racial inferiority of these primitives. Race-based xenophobia became the missing piece of the colonists’ puzzle.
Why could I find no memorialization of this upside-down birth? And who was the wordsmith who first used xenophobia in this, well, xenophobic way? Unfortunately, news reports, like the first one published in Le Constitutionnel, went unsigned. Some unknown scribe had sent a report from Shanghai to a news service, where a faceless dispatcher received that report and then disseminated it. Along the way, their hidden hands framed faraway events for a vast reading public. Learning more than that seemed impossible.
Then, while scouring the results produced by powerful, online search engines, I found a cranky letter, dated June 4, 1915, to the editors of The Globe, one of London’s leading newspapers. The author quickly established himself as the kind of fellow who took pleasure in correcting another’s grammar. He chastised the editors for their misguided usages of “Boche,” a derogatory French term for Germans, which the letter-writer explained came from the Latin for “Kaiser of the Teutsch.” His note ended with an aside:
The process by which some words come into general use is rather obscure. During the days of the Boxers’ Rebellion, I launched the word “Xénophobe.” It caught on in the French Press, and is now to be found in some dictionaries!
The letter was signed, “Yours faithfully, Jean de Saintours, The College of Preceptors, W.C.” After piecing together his noms de plume — Jean P. A. Martin de Saintours, Jean P. A. Martin, and J. Martin-de-Saint-Ours — I discovered that this man descended from a dwindling noble line with roots in the Périgord region. In 1883, the young scion was listed as French deputy consul to the United States. Under that title, this patriot hosted a conference in Lyon on the need to teach French to natives in the colonies.
During the following years, he developed a formal expertise in stenography, then a lively semiotic science, quite useful when deployed in tandem with the telegraph and that new wonder, the telephone. Our man, I found, took out ads in French newspapers offering his services to journalists who wished to employ transatlantic telegraphic or telephonic means to send or access news from abroad. By 1893, Jean Martin had been appointed senior telephone stenographer for Reuters. In this capacity, he gathered information, wrote reports, and distributed them to news outlets.
As news of the Boxer uprising broke, an ad for his services placed Martin at 32 rue du Rocher near the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. Right place, right time. The idea that he would have the nerve to coin a new term was also believable. In his scattered writings, Martin reveled in wordplay and neologisms; he even jumped into kooky linguistic debates, like the ones stimulated by the British Simplified Speling Sosieti. Unless he chose to lie about a matter that no one cared about, the polyglot Jean Martin de Saintours, sitting at the hub of a network of global communications, concocted the compound word “xenophobe” to account for these Chinese rebels, and seeded this explanatory term throughout Western metropoles and their colonies.
All of that was swiftly forgotten in a fog of collective amnesia. Just as well, I first thought. Why sully this noble precept with its sordid start? And yet without that beginning, the following chapters — in which this new “commonsense” was transformed into rank prejudice — also faded from view. An array of critics ripped at the extravagant lies tied to colonialism and racist theorizing, until the original conception of xenophobia collapsed into contradiction and paradox. It then was made to do an about-face, so as to account for bigoted imperialists who could not imagine that occupied people might have legitimate grievances, and for anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic movements in London, Paris, and Berlin. Subsequently, behavioral scientists took up the hunt for the sources of this redefined, psychosocial ill.
That sea-change happened neither effortlessly nor overnight. Only by remembering xenophobia’s first instantiation do we bring these broader battles into focus. For the contested ground named by Jean Martin de Saintours became far more than a matter of semantics; it buttressed aspects of Western ethics, psychology, science, economics, and political power. In the end, what was at stake was nothing less than fundamental notions of identity — of I and thou, us and them, stranger and host — that had been thrown into question by new forms of global interconnection and radical technological change, disruptions not unlike the ones we face today.
This essay was adapted and excerpted from the author’s new book, Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).
George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia was published in September of this year.
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