Thinking about Afro-European Experiences by Tomos Evans

Last week I attended an inspiring event at UCL’s African Studies Research Centre relating to the experiences of Africans and people of African descent in Europe, both historically and in the contemporary world. This was part of UCL’s ongoing series of lectures on Heritage and Politics in conjunction with the Royal African Society.

 For a podcast of this lecture please click here

Dr. Olivette Otele (Bath Spa University) began the session with an intriguing talk that historicised Afro-European experiences. Her talk focussed on the changing relationship between people of African descent and European nations from the Medieval period to the present day. This evolving relationship was detailed via a series of case studies including both the life histories of specific African agents who lived in Europe and the ways in which Africans were stereotyped by Europeans. From Juan Latino, an important professor of black African descent at the University of Granada in the 16th century, to Joseph Boulogne, a composer of Senegalese descent who had a profound influence on European classical music in the 18th century and who played an important role in organising black support for the French revolution, numerous African agents shaped and altered Europe’s course. Yet many of these people have since been largely forgotten in Europe.

This forgetting is in part related to the changing perspectives of Europeans towards Africans over the last several hundred years. As Dr. Otele noted, Alessandro de’ Medici, a 16th century Duke of Florence likely of African descent, was referred to as a ‘Moor’ yet his race was not an object of attack, rather his class origins as the son of a poor woman. However, from the 18th century onwards, negative European depictions of Africans later became prominent in Europe. Petrus Camper at the end of the 18th century developed the study of craniology (particularly in regard to facial angles) that would develop into a discourse that dehumanised Africans, depicting them as inferior members of the great chain of being. Even portrayals of Africans intended to be sympathetic contributed to a derogatory image of Africans: in the time of William Wilberforce and abolitionism, Africans were often depicted as ‘nature’s children’, noble savages who had lived a simple existence prior to the taint of the transatlantic slave trade.

Such stereotypes (intentionally or unintentionally) developed a highly negative image of Africans as people who were intellectually inferior to Europeans and ‘in need’ of European culture to civilise them and/or to rescue them from the clutches of the slave trade. Such an image played a role in encouraging European colonialism in Africa at the end of the 19th century and contributed to the excision of Africans (particularly those whose actions contradicted racist stereotypes) from European history. Africans whose agency played a prominent role in shaping Western culture and society (from individual politicians, intellectuals and artists to the millions of slaves exploited on both sides of the Atlantic) have largely been obscured, and this legacy of excision has continued on into the present day. For example, Dr. Otele noted the common absence of information relating to African slavery at large country houses in the UK, the prosperity of whose owners rested on their control of large numbers of such slaves.

Before beginning his own discussion, the television presenter Johny Pitts concurred with Dr. Otele’s conclusion that African contributions to European history have traditionally been obscured. He cited his school experience in which the history of African slavery focussed largely on celebrating abolitionism while depicting Africans as unfortunate victims who were rescued by great European abolitionists. While abolitionism was indeed a game changer during this period of history, such perspectives have tended to ignore or obscure the agency of the slaves themselves and the tribulations that they endured during this period. Moreover, these perspectives have glossed over the negative influence of Western states such as the UK in the slave trade by predominantly focussing on the role of these states in abolitionism. I personally came face to face with such a narrative at the National Museum of the Royal Navy a few weeks ago: here the role of the British navy in policing the seas and fighting the slave trade in the 19th century was proudly noted, but there was little to no mention of the role of British military vessels in protecting the sea routes of British slave ships in the preceding century! In essence, even the narrative of abolitionism becomes the celebration of European achievements rather than a celebration of African resilience.

Johny Pitts’ talk emphasised the idea of ‘Afropeanism’ (http://afropean.com/). As the son of an African-American father and white British mother, when he was growing up in Sheffield he used to see himself on the periphery of both black British and white British identities. As a result, the idea of being ‘Afropean’ appealed to him – that he was part of a new identity generated by African and European contact. This led to him making a documentary of his visits to the hinterlands of several European capitals in which he explored the complex identities of African diaspora communities in Europe and the role of these communities in generating new ideas, new cultures and new identities. With a series of stunning photographs of the places he visited, the talk was a great way of following up Dr. Otele’s discussion of the historical trajectory of Africans in Europe with a view of contemporary African interactions in Europe.

Following these two talks was a fruitful Q&A session in which numerous members of the audience expressed themselves and stimulated discussion relating to African identity in the West. Two particular themes discussed which resonated with me were:

1). The lack of mention (in popular discourse) of black contributions to British history (as mentioned by both speakers).

2). The relationship between black and white working class identities, particularly in Britain.

It struck me that both themes interrelate: as well as the lack of commemoration of black agency in UK history, there is also relatively little to commemorate anti-establishment working class individuals and movements in shaping our shared history.

This has been highlighted somewhat by the debates at the University of Oxford over whether Cecil John Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College should be removed. Inspired by protests at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, this is partly to do with the fact that the statue is seen as commemorating an individual whose wealth and power derived largely from the exploitation of cheap African labour, and such a commemoration is viewed as a symptom of institutional racism. Regardless of whether or not the campaign is successful in this aim, it drew my attention to the comparative absence of commemorations of anti-establishment working class icons in Britain today. Statues representing wealthy and/or powerful individuals (such as Cecil Rhodes) from the British or colonial establishment are legion. At London’s parliament square for example, the core area of commemorating British political history, most of the individuals honoured were powerful members of the political establishment. Statues honouring the influence of British black and/or working class movements in shaping British politics are absent here. While recently erected statues of Ghandi and Mandela are a step in the right direction, it’s also important that we commemorate struggles against oppression and colonialism by disempowered people here in the UK.

While considerable debate has been held over the Cecil Rhodes issue, there was no such debate involved when the resplendent Chartist Mural at the city of Newport (commemorating the Newport Rising of 1839) was shamefully destroyed in 2013 as part of a redevelopment scheme facilitated by Newport City Council. While the Chartist movement’s drive for political reform in Britain did not lead to immediate results, it inspired working people across the UK and signalled to the political elite that reforms were necessary. A smaller movement that also developed in the mid 19th century was that of the Rebecca Riots in south Wales in which impoverished farmers disguised in women’s clothing launched attacks against toll-gates that were charging extortionate toll rates (thus contributing to the poverty of the region). Like the Chartist movement, these riots inspired local downtrodden people and encouraged reforms that would improve people’s lives in the area for generations to come. Despite the importance of these movements in stimulating reforms that were important in shaping the trajectory of British history, they are poorly commemorated.

As a result, this has created an image of British history that is constructed from nothing but the actions of powerful establishment individuals or institutions, a history that many in the UK are proud of. For example, a recent poll by YouGove (see https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/01/18/rhodes-must-not-fall/) found that 44% of polled Britons were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism (conversely, only 21% regretted that it happened). Alternative histories exemplifying the important role of the agency of British minorities and of working class movements have been marginalised, creating the illusion of a past shaped predominantly by the agency of benign elites. The agency of black people, minority groups and working class people had a profound impact on the course of British history and shaped the Britain of today – it is thus history that all Britons should know and understand. This is not to say that the history that has traditionally been fed to us should be torn down, only that other voices that offer alternative narratives contradicting and challenging the dominant narratives should also be offered. This redefinition (as opposed to replacement) of conventional history would offer a more critical and more enriched perspective on the meaning of being British by exposing the pluralism and multidimensionality of British history, the deep multiculturalism of ‘Britishness’, and the role of conflicting ideas and interests in shaping British history.

Tomos Evans is a student on the UCL African Studies MA Programme, taking the Heritage pathway. Tomos conducted his undergraduate studies in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge and is particularly interested in the archaeology, anthropology and cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa and the ways in which studying the African past can challenge and influence academic and popular notions of culture, civilisation, society and development as well as contribute to our understanding of the role of Africa in world history and prehistory.

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