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African Europeans

Olivette Otele

C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd October, 2020

Review by Colin Grant


‘As long as you’re a black man’, sang the reggae star Peter Tosh, ‘you’re an African’. But what if you’ve lived most of your life in Europe or are born in Europe to African parents? Why, in any event, was Tosh so dogmatic? The answer is perhaps to be found in his angry denunciation of white domination and ‘400 years’ of slavery. In African Europeans, Olivette Otele, Professor of the History and Memory of Slavery at the University of Bristol, explores the troubled and deep connections between Europeans and Africans from as early as the third century, in ways that challenge the telling of that history. She can’t, of course, skirt round slavery.

From the fifteenth century, arguably the most involved and violent contact was in Africa and the Americas, where Europeans trafficked Africans as slave labour. Otele introduces individual stories that complicate the usual narrative. They include Lene Kuhberg, born on the Gold Coast to a Ga mother and Danish father, who in the 1760s married the slave trader, Frantz Kuhberg. After her husband’s death, the entrepreneurial Lene accumulated sufficient wealth to become a moneylender and, defying convention again, married another Dutchman.

Otele travels back, beyond the Atlantic slave trade, to write, mostly chronologically, the tale of Africans in Europe, resurrecting what she calls an untold history. Untold rather than forgotten. It’s a distinction that conjures the African proverb popularised by Chinua Achebe: ‘until the lions have their own historians, then the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.

One of the earliest African-European encounters Otele reflects on involves Saint Maurice, thought to have been born in the third century CE ‘near present day Egypt’. Maurice, whose statue, with a noble black head ‘clothed in chain mail’, adorns Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany (erected centuries after his death), was a commander of Rome’s Theban legion. ‘His African features’, writes Otele, posed no problems for contemporaries, ‘as he was himself the expression of the common values across boundaries’ that were embodied by the Roman Empire. But after disobeying orders to suppress an insurrection in Gaul, Saint Maurice was executed, along with soldiers loyal to him, in 287 CE.  His disobedience ‘may have been linked to religious freedom’, says Otele. The veneration of St Maurice, along with one of the Three Wise Men who is depicted in Albrecht Durer’s Adoration of the Magi as a Berber, moor or black African, suggests ‘an acceptance of ‘otherness’. But it was also in the last part of the Middle Ages, scholars like David Theo Goldberg contend, that ‘racial consciousness began to emerge’.

African Europeans charts the later problematizing of Africans by white Europeans, especially through the Enlightenment, as science was co-opted into the taxonomy of race. Along the way, the book also cogently explores themes such as exoticism and exceptionalism; the Negritude movement; and intersectionality.

One strength is Otele’s ability to compress yet illuminate an array of stories, such as the campaigns for land ownership by Signare women in eighteenth-century Senegal. These are necessarily thumbnail sketches. More rewarding are the times when she slows to interrogate some of the challenges of integration, highlighted in the conflict between those descendants of Africans in Europe who lined up to claim their African heritage, whilst others expediently obscured it. Marcus Cornelius Fronto ‘one of the most eloquent orators that Roman education ever produced’, who styled himself ‘a Libyan of the Libyan nomad’, praised Rome’s imperial project and dialed down his Africanness, flattering his hosts and apologising for a lack of sophistication in Greek. By contrast, the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, whose maternal great-grandfather, Gannibal, had been kidnapped from West Africa as a child, embraced his African roots, mournfully introduced in the passage in Eugene Onegin: ‘land where I learned to love and weep/ land where my heart is buried deep’.

Otele’s book is most insightful when teasing out the power dynamics between Africans and white Europeans, as exhibited by enslaved Africans navigating the slim opportunities open to them. For example, before the expulsion of Moors from the Iberian peninsula, poet and scholar Juan Latino (c.1518-c.1594) rose to prominence in Granada through his mastery of Latin and the patronage of the third Duke of Sessa, such that he was able to assimilate in a way denied to an enslaved subject: marriage to a white woman. As a poet, he published Austrias Carmen, an account of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, a text which emphasised the ‘explosive nature of cohabitation between Christians and Muslims’.

African Europeans shines with intelligent reflections from Otele but, at times, the book reads as a kind of literature review of academic writing on the subject. Fundamentally, her whistle-stop tour through the centuries is an account, not just of the longevity of Africans in Europe, but also of a shared history, and a reminder to former colonial powers, as Ambalavaner Sivanandan once asserted: ‘We are here because you were there’.