Impact of the forgotten black Europeans

Scholars, poets, writers, composers... a new book focuses on the wide influence of Africa abroad, writes Angela Cobbinah

Thursday, 12th May — By Angela Cobbinah

The Chevalier de St George

The Chevalier de St George

ALESSANDRO de Medici, Duke of Florence, virtuoso 18th-century French violinist and composer Joseph Bologne and 1922 world light heavyweight boxing champion Battling Siki from France via Senegal are probably people we know little about, if at all.

They are part of a forgotten European past explored by Olivette Otele in her scholarly book, African Europeans, which travels through time to reveal how trade, war, slavery and colonialism resulted in a black presence in Europe from as far back as the third century.

This is where Otele, professor of the history and memory of slavery at Bristol University, kicks off, telling the story of St Maurice, Egyptian leader of a Roman legion who was famously executed for refusing to crush a Christian revolt in Gaul.

Celebrated as a martyr across Germany, he is clearly represented as an African in a statue at Magdeburg Cathedral and other church iconography.

Black saints and Madonnas appeared across Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, perhaps Otele speculates, to symbolise the transformative power of the Catholic Church in converting those it considered heathen.

Alessandro de Medici

The start of transatlantic slavery in the 15th century overlaps with the Reconquista, the Christians’ attempt to reclaim the Iberian peninsular from Muslim rule, and both saw the emergence of an explicit racism.

Those who managed to succeed against the odds like Juan Latino, who rose from being a slave in 16th-century Granada to become a renowned Latin scholar and poet, were seen as exceptions to the rule and, in his case, redeemed by Christianity.

Two centuries on, Jacobus Capitein became one of the increasing number of Africans caught up in the competition for slave markets with seemingly little control over their lives. Taken to the Netherlands from Ghana as a child and considered a prodigy, he studied theology at the University of Leiden and became one of the first Africans to be ordained in the Dutch Reformed Church. Although he defended the right of Christians to keep slaves, he fell from grace after being refused permission to marry an African woman, demonstrating that inclusion often comes at a price.

The poet Pushkin

Otele explores the lives of people she variously terms mixed race, bi-racial or dual heritage but who are nevertheless defined by their connection to Africa, among them the aforementioned Renaissance prince Alessandro de Medici, whose mother was believed to be a free African woman living in Rome, and Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born to a French aristocrat and a Guadeloupe slave woman in 1739.

Then there was the Russian writer and poet Pushkin, great grandson of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, a child slave from West Africa who was eventually adopted as a godson by Tsar Peter the Great.

While such figures were protected by their wealth and influence, the vast majority of African Europeans had to navigate societies that didn’t want them around.

Author Olivette Otele

Theodor Michael, born in Germany to a Cameroonian man and German woman between the world wars, was sent to a forced labour camp by the Nazis as a stateless citizen, a classification that continued to haunt him after the war. The story of how he survived and finally triumphed as a writer and actor is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

The book is an exhaustive study that takes in lesser known actors in the race for commodities like Sweden and Denmark and also includes the story of the Afro Greeks of Avanti in northeast Greece, whose ancestors worked for the Ottomans or were First World War soldiers from Sudan.

There are absorbing accounts, too, of communities in Senegal and Ghana built expressly on unions between European traders and African women at the latter’s behest.

Throughout her tome, Otele sheds light on the issues of racism, belonging and identity that we continue to grapple with to this day, how these have been shaped by seismic events in history and the how individuals have tackled them in different eras.

Above all, it underlines the influence Africa has exerted abroad for several millennia.

African Europeans: An Untold History. By Olivette Otele, Hurst, £20.

Related Articles