According to the Wikipedia article entitled White people

The concept of a unified white race did not achieve universal acceptance in Europe when it first came into use in the 17th century, or in the centuries afterwards. The strongest proponents of racialism in 20th century Europe, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, regarded some European peoples such as Slavs as racially distinct from themselves. Prior to the modern age, no European peoples regarded themselves as "white," but rather defined their race, ancestry, or ethnicity in terms of their nationality (Greek, Roman, etc). Moreover, there is no accepted standard for determining the geographic barrier between white and non-white people. Contemporary anthropologists and other scientists, while recognizing the reality of biological variation between different human populations, regard the concept of a "white race" as socially constructed.

The term "white race" or "white people" entered the major European languages in the later 17th century, in the context of racialized slavery and unequal social status in the European colonies. Description of populations as "white" in reference to their skin color predates this notion and is occasionally found in Greco-Roman ethnography and other ancient or medieval sources; but these societies did not have any notion of a white, pan-European race. Scholarship on race distinguishes the modern concept from pre-modern descriptions, which focused on physical complexion rather than race.

The term "white race" or "white people" entered the major European languages in the later 17th century, originating with the racialization of slavery at the time, in the context of the Atlantic slave trade [citation] and the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Spanish Empire.[citation]

The work of Theodore W. Allen in his two volume set The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1 Racial Oppression and Social Control and The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2 The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America and Jacqueline Battalora's Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today pinpoints the first usage of "white", specifically "White-woman", to the British Colony of Maryland in 1681 within An Act concerning Negroes & Slaves (Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, October 1678-November 1683 (Volume 7, Page 203-205) Liber W. H.); see Was race really unimportant in the 1660's?.

@sempaiscuba pointed out that the term "white" was used before 1681 by George Best in The fyrst Booke of the first voyage of Martin Frobisher Esquier, Captayne Generall for the dis∣couerie of the passage to Cataya and the East India, by the Northweast, first attempted in Anno Dom. 1576. the .15. of May

For euē vnder ye Equinoctiall in Ame∣rica, & in ye East Indies, & in the Ilāds Moluccae, yt people are not blacke, but white, with lōg haire vncurled as we haue, so that if the Ethiopians blacknesse came by the heate of the Sun, why should not those Americans and Indians also bée as blacke as they, séeyng the Sunne is equally distant frō them both, they abiding in one paralel: for the concaue and cōuexs Superficies of ye Orbe of the Sun is concentrike, and

Page 29

equidistant to ye earth, except any man should imagine som∣what of Aux Solis, & Oppositum, whiche indiff•r•ntly may be applied aswel to ye one place, as to the other.

It manifestly and plainely appeareth by holy Scripture, that after the generall Inun∣dation and ouerflowing of the Earth, there remayned no moe mē aliue, but Noe & his thrée sonnes, Sem, Cham, and Iaphet, who only were lefte to possesse & inhabit the whole face of the earth: therefore all the land that vntill this daye hath bin inhabited by sundry discents, must néedes come of the ofspring eyther of Sem, Cham, or Iaphet, as the onely sonnes of Noe, who all thrée being white, and their wiues also, by course of nature, should haue begotten and brought forth white children.

however, it is not clear if their usage of the term was consistent with the context of usage of the term in the 17th century; that is, the use of the term "race" and "racial slavery" as described at the Wikipedia article.

This inquiry has the historical purpose of clarifying precisely who can be attributed with using the term "white man", "white woman" and "white race" by means of primary resources instead of secondary source, to avoid speculation and confusion.


  1. Who is the first individual or person who described themselves as "white", "white man", "white woman", or "white person" in literature or law in the 17th century?

  2. Who is the first individual or person to use the term "white race" in literature or law in the 17th century?

2 Answers 2


I'm afraid that this is yet another example of Wikipedia editors misreading source material. I went to the source of this specific assertion: Black Odysseus, White Caesar: When Did "White People" Become "White"? by James H. Dee, and here's the passage where that "17th century" date must have come from:

So, to return to my title question at last: when did "white people" become "white"? The first examples of "white race/people" in the Oxford English Dictionary are no earlier than the 1600s, when Europeans were deeply involved in African slave-trading; the same seems to be true of the corresponding terms in the major European languages. At that point, the use of what was by then a powerfully stigmatizing form of polarized terminology must have seemed comfortingly appropriate.

But the paper continues, as it has already covered at length in previous sections, that the "white people" distinction had been made much much earlier:

But that loaded valuation of the colors black and white, as observed by Snowden, had already begun in the late classical period, and we can see by the height of the medieval period the clear and explicit emergence of a prejudicial assignment of whole groups of humans to the diametrically opposed categories of "white"/Christian/ good and "black"/Moslem/ evil. For example, in the Middle English epic The King of Tars, the narrator says that when the Moslem Sultan converted from Islam to Christianity, a miraculous change took place: "his hide, that blac and lothely was, al white bicom, thurth Godes gras, and clere withouten blame" (11. 928- 30, original spellings slightly simplified).21 This thematic contrast, based on supposed inherent racial-biological differences, is sounded repeatedly in the work; it is worth noting that although we clearly have European self-identification with "whiteness," the "blacks" are not sub-Saharan Africans but "Moors" who are not slaves at all.

The only thing worth noting about the 17th century (or more accurately, "no earlier than the 1600s") is that the term "white people" made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. "White people" as a concept existed for a very long time, although its definition was in flux. During the medieval period, it was to distinguish between the Muslim Moors. During Classical (Roman) times, a similar distinction was made, as the Romans dealt with darker-skinned peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, but they also dealt with people, who they deemed inferior, but were lighter skinned, like the Celtic and Germanic peoples.

So it seems to me that there's no good or meaningful way to answer your question, at least in its current form. The first person to describe themself as a "white person" was probably a prehistoric tribesman meeting someone darker-skinned member of a foreign tribe. The first person to write of such may have been a politician of an ancient kingdom referencing a foreign kingdom of darker-skinned peoples. In either case, their definition of "white people" would have been different to ours, which first arose out of the African slave trade, but has been in constant flux, even today.

  • Will try to avoid a lengthy discussion at comments here. To be direct, this does not answer the question. Words and terms have a definitive origin. The term "white race" has a beginning. An individual used that term for the first time in the 17th century in literature or law. The question specifically asks who that individual is. The question also specifically asks whom described themselves as "white", "white man", "white woman", or "white person" in the 17th century. From the historical record 1681 is the year "White-woman" was first used in law. Can 1681 be predated by a primary resource? Jun 22, 2018 at 4:28
  • 5
    I'm saying your question is meaningless without further context. "White people" as a term existed long before the 17th century, although it had different connotations than today. The paper opens with the mention of Cantullus's poem 93, with the line "I am not over anxious, Caesar, to please you greatly, or to know whether you are a white or a black man.". What's so special about the 17th century? It's as if you're asking something like, "Who was the first person in the 21st century to call themselves a terrorist", given that the term "terrorist" existed long before. Jun 22, 2018 at 4:38
  • The context is the 17th century because that is the first time that the term "White-woman" was used in law; in Maryland Colony in 1681. The term "white race" was used after "White-woman" was first used. Do you refute those facts? The questions do not ask for definitions. Who is the first person to describe themselves as a "white man" or "white woman" and who was the first individual to use the term "white race" in literature or law in the 17th century? "The first person to describe themself as a "white person" was probably a prehistoric tribesman". "probably" is not a primary resource. Jun 22, 2018 at 5:00
  • 1
    The answer is sound.
    – Rohit
    Jun 22, 2018 at 16:29

Have yet to locate any literature published in the 17th century where an individual specifically described themselves as a "white", "white man", "white woman", or "white person". If such literature is found will update the answer accordingly.

The earliest mention of the term "white people" in the 17th century that have been able to find so far is within the play The Triumphs of Truth by Thomas Middleton (1613)

No sooner can your eyes take leave of these, but they may suddenly espy a strange
Ship making towards, and that which may raise greater astonishment, it having neither Sailor
nor Pilot, only upon a white silk streamer these two words set in letters of Gold, Veritate
Governor, I am Steered by Truth; the Persons that are contained within this little Vessel are
only four; a King of the Moors, his Queen, and two Attendants of their own colour, the rest
of their followers, people the Castle that stands in the middle Island, of which company two
or three on the top appears to sight, this King seeming much astonished at the many eyes
of such a multitude, utters his thoughts in these words.
The Speech of that King.
I see amazement set upon the faces
Of these white people, wonderings, and strange gazes,
Is it at me? does my Complexion draw
So many Christian Eyes, that never saw
A King so black before? no, now I see
Their entire object, they're all meant to thee
(Grave City Governor) my Queen and I
Well honoured with the Glances that by,
I must confess many wild thoughts may rise,
Opinions, Common murmurs, and fixed Eyes
At my so strange arrival, in a Land
Where true Religion and her Temple stand:
I being a Moor, ethen in Opinions lightness
As far from Sanctity as my Face from whiteness;
But I forgive the judgings of th'unwise,
Whose Censures ever quicken in their Eyes,
Only begot of outward form and show,
And I think meet to let such Censurers Know,
however Darkness dwells upon my Face,
Truth in my soul sets up the Light of Grace;
And though in days of Error I did run
To give all Adoration to the Sun,
The Moon and Stars; nay Creatures base and poor,
Now only their Creator I adore:
My Queen and People all, at one time won,
By the Religious Conversation
Of English Merchants, Factors, Travellers,
Whose Truth did with our Spirits hold commerce
As their affairs with us, following their path
we all were brought to the true Christian Faith:
Such benefit in good Example dwells,
It oft hath power to convert Infidels;
Nor could our desire's rest, till we were led
Unto this place, where those good Spirits were bred;
And see how we arrived, in Blessed Time,
To do that Mistress Service, in the Prime
Of these her Spotless Triumphs, and t'attend
That Honourable Man, her Late sworn Friend.
If any wonder at the safe Arrive
Of this small Vessel, which all weathers drive
According to their Rages, where appears
Nor Mariner nor Pilot (armed 'gainst fears)
Know this came hither from man's guidance free,
Only by Truth Steered; as our Souls must be;
And see where one of her fair Temples stands,
Do Reverence, Moors, bow low, and Kiss your hands,
Behold our Queen.

The earliest use of "white" relevant to the construct of "race" in the 17th century can be found in A New Division of the Earth by François Bernier (1684)

Under the second species I put the whole of Africa, except the coasts I have spoken of. What
induces me to make a different species of the Africans, are, 1. Their thick lips and squab noses, their
being very few among them who have aquiline noses or lips of moderate thickness. 2. The blackness
which is peculiar to them, and which is not caused by the sun, as many think; for if a black African pair be
transported to a cold country, their children are just as black, and so are all their descendants until they
come to marry with white women. The cause must be sought for in the peculiar texture of their bodies, or
in the seed, or in the blood-which last are, however, of the same colour as everywhere else. 3. Their skin,
which is oily, smooth, and polished, excepting the places which are burnt with the sun. 4. The three or
four hairs of beard. 5. Their hair, which is not properly hair, but rather a species of wool, which comes
near the hairs of some of our dogs; and, finally, their teeth whiter than the finest ivory, their tongue and all
the interior of their mouth and their lips as red as coral.
The third species comprehends a part of the kingdoms of Aracan and Siam, the islands of
Sumatra and Borneo, the Philippines, Japan, the kingdom of Pegu, Tonkin, Cochin-China, China,
Chinese Tartary, Georgia and Muscovy, the Usbek, Turkistan, Zaquetay, a small part of Muscovy, the
little Tartars and Turcomans who live along the Euphrates towards Aleppo. The people of all those
countries are truly white; but they have broad shoulders, a flat face, a small squab nose, little pig's-eyes
long and deep set, and three hairs of beard.
The women who live in the Ganges at Benares, and downwards towards Bengal, are generally
esteemed. Those of the kingdom of Cashmere are still more so; for besides being as white as those of
Europe, they have a soft face, and are a beautiful height; so it is from there that all those come who are to
be found at the Ottoman Court, and that all the Grand Seigniors keep by them. I recollect that as we were
coming back from that country, we saw nothing else but little girls in the sort of cabins which the men
carried on their shoulders over the mountains. But although the women of Lahore are brown like the rest
of the Indian women, still they seemed to me more charming than all the others; their beautiful figure,
small and easy, with the softness of their faces, quite surpassed by a great deal that of the Cashmerians.

For the precise term "white races" and "white race", unless proof to the contrary can be presented in the form of primary resources that the term "white race" was used in literature or law in the 17th century, we would need to proceed from the 17th century to the 19th century where the terms appear in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races by Arthur de Gobineau (1853-1855)

The white races are, further, distinguished by an extraordinary attachment to life.
They know better how to use it, and so, as it would seem, set a greater price on it; both in
their own persons and those of others, they are more sparing of life. When they are cruel,
they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists
in the negro. At the same time, they have discovered reasons why they should surrender
this busy life of theirs, that is so precious to them. The principal motive is honour, which
under various names has played an enormous part in the ideas of the race from the
beginning. I need hardly add that the word honour, together with all the civilizing
influences connoted by it, is unknown to both the yellow and the black man. 
It would not have been all gain. The superiority of the white race would have been
clearly shown, but it would have been bought at the price of certain advantages which have
followed the mixture of blood. Although these are far from counterbalancing the defects
they have brought in their train, yet they are sometimes to be commended. Artistic genius,
which is equally foreign to each of the three great types, arose only after, the intermarriage
of white and black. Again, in the Malayan6 variety, a human family was produced from the
yellow and black races that had more intelligence than either of its ancestors. Finally, from
the union of white and yellow, certain intermediary peoples have sprung, who are superior
to the purely Finnish tribes as well as to the negroes. 
  • @JEL Kindly post an answer to the question. Feb 25, 2019 at 3:42
  • @JEL All human activity is political in nature and substance. Am only interested in the facts; the primary sources. Not "participation". Feb 25, 2019 at 3:44
  • @JEL However you need to address the matter internally, that is your concern to tend to. Am interested in the facts. There are more than one institutional mythology propaganda campaigns that can and have lasted for decades if not centuries, e.g., biology.stackexchange.com/questions/81319/…. Clinical application of the scientific method eventually gets to the absolute core of the matter. Feb 25, 2019 at 3:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.