The oldest human anomaly on record is that of albinism. Although we were called many other names in various parts of the world, the modern word was coined by a 17th century historian named Balthazar Telez. He coined the term “albino” meaning white Negro when he saw tribe members along the coast of West Africa. He and the other explorers thought they were seeing two different races of people. The meaning of the word has since changed. Some people take offence at the word for various reasons. A more acceptable term is “person with albinism”. This puts the person in front of the condition or syndrome, which can be a good thing. Caucasians and other races are certainly not white Negroes, but the word albino (pronounced albeeno if you live in Europe) has become universal for the condition. Albinism has been found in everything that breathes including every type of fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, mammal, and plant.
We have been given many names throughout the world, not many of them good. Dundus in Africa and the West Indies means ghost person: a body without a soul. The Dutch called us cockroaches: things that scurried around in the dark. The French called us blafards. Side pork, the white fatty part of the pig that is discarded, is also an epithet we have had to bear. Even people with the best of intentions have called us diseased and freaks of nature. Albinism is in fact inherited. It is not a sickness or a disease.
Linking With Our Past
Ever wonder if there were slaves with albinism? If so, who were they? How did they live?
The following information came from an 1869 publication titled: Observations and Researches on Albinism in the Negro Race. by Joseph Jones, MD. Remember, this was written 120 years ago so don’t be too hard on the speculations of the good Doctor. He speculated that the Negroes with albinism he observed were of superior intelligence and countenance because of their “superior” color. He linked vitiligo with albinism and thought perhaps fetuses were of normal black color and turned white in the womb.
In the early 1800’s a slave with albinism was born in Halifax Virginia named Robert Crews. He claimed that his hair was white and his eyes pink when he was born but while growing up his hair turned to a light yellow-brown and the eyes were described as being clear light brown with dark pupils. His five siblings were normally pigmented as were his mother and father. He was reported to have a permanent squint by the time he was an adult and restless eyes with poor vision. His first master tried to employ him as a cook, maybe to keep him out of the sun, but his eyes couldn’t tolerate the bright fire and he had to stop. Despite this he showed exceptional intelligence and was always industrious and active. He drove a wagon and was a furniture mover. He purchased his freedom for $750 several years before the civil war. This might have been the time when he named himself Crews. He married, but his wife could not produce children. She had been married before and had had a child but was told she could not have any more. At the time of the study he was 56 years old.
The following is supposedly a true story. It has a few holes in it but it was probably told by some romantic soul.
Around 1735 on a small plantation in Virginia, two slaves were married and the woman gave birth to a child with albinism. When the woman was told that the child was “like the children of white people”, she was in great dread of her husband. She thought he might accuse her of sleeping with a white man and leave her, or hurt the child. She asked her friends to keep the room dark so her husband would not see it.
When he came to look at the baby he wondered why the room was shut up. The woman reluctantly brought the baby into the light. To her surprise and confusion he seemed highly pleased and behaved with extraordinary tenderness. She thought that he was only hiding his resentment but he said to her, “You are afraid of me and therefore keep the room dark because my child is white (albino). But I love it the better for that. My own Father was a white (albino) man though my Grandmother and Grandfather were as black as you and myself. Although we came from a place where no White people ever were seen, there was always a white (albino) child in every family that was related to us.”
According to this same 1869 report, a Black man named Henry Moore began to show the effects of vitiligo. He supposedly not only turned white completely but his hair turned blond and silky. (Yeah, right) The White population felt kindness for him and could not tolerate his being a slave any longer, so they bought his freedom. At last reports (in the 1700’s) he was living happily as a White man and no one could tell the difference.
The above story is not actually the whole truth. To learn more about Mr. Henry Moore read The White African American Body by Dr. Charles Martin. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Where did the name “albino” come from? When were we first “Discovered?”
Some of the following information is taken from Natural History, Oct. 1975, Incorporating Nature Magazine, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 8, pp. 48-59.
Albinism is said to be the oldest anomaly ever recorded.
The word is from the Latin, albus, meaning white. It might also mean blank, as in devoid of color or features. It was first coined around 1660 by Balthazar Tellez. a historian and missionary. He used the word to describe tribe members he saw on the West African coast.
Earlier words include leukoethrope, a Greek word for white, or leukoethiopians meaning White Ethiopians. We were also called moon children since until sunscreen and sunglasses became available we were not able to spend a lot of time in the sunlight, and went about at night. Another word is dundus from Africa or West India meaning a ghost or spirit person: a body walking around without a soul.
In doing my research I came across many words related to whiteness, featurelessness, and nothingness such as albatross; (a white bird), album; (white or blank pages), blank, blond, blanch; (a pallor achieved when blood leaves the face) bland, blizzard; (a white out) and bleach. I add this information because the letters b-l-a and a-l-b are very much related in use and meaning.
Is albinism mentioned in the scriptures?
The Midrashic accounts state that the famed Noah of the Old Testament at birth had hair as white as snow and eyes like the rays of the sun. His Father thought he was an angel and fled from the baby’s presence, frightened for his very life. The father was persuaded by his own father to return to his son’s side and care for him. As far as I know, Noah’s “albinism” is not mentioned again.