Review: African Europeans by Olivette Otele

Olivette Otele’s new book reveals the long and complex history of relations between Africa and Europe through the stories of some remarkable African Europeans.


Image : Hurst Publishers

Olivette Otele constructs this fascinating book through stories that explore the complex and intertwined histories of people of African and European descent from the third century to the present day. 

Before Europeans began the widespread enslavement of African people in the 15th century, a complex patchwork of attitudes to race existed in Europe, says Otele, professor of the history of slavery and memory of enslavement at the University of Bristol in the UK. 

Delving back into centuries of complex interactions, Otele begins her study with the story of an early black Christian saint, St Maurice. Born in Thebes in Egypt, he joined the Roman army and was rapidly promoted to lead a 1,000-man legion. Rome ordered him to Gaul to put down an insurrection, requiring him to pay homage to the god Jupiter before battle. His refusal led to his martyrdom.

His depiction in paintings and sculpture from the 13th century onwards shows him with African features and reveals deep insights into the early European view of Africans.  

“The colour black, as an entity that represented inferiority and the ugliness of human experiences on earth, was a component of Christian notions of good, evil and the redemptive opportunity for salvation through atonement for one’s sins,” Otele writes. “Africans were black or of dark skin. They were the colour of evil, but they could repent, be saved and even become patron saints.”

Such examples show the ambivalence in medieval Europe about the place and role of black saints in society, both within and outside the church. 

But by the sixteenth century, when southern Europe was characterised by a sizeable black population, these complex and sometimes nuanced religious views of Africans were increasingly being replaced by systems of exploitation and slavery.

Some people of African descent, such as the first Duke of Florence – Alessandro de Medici, known as the “Moor” and rumoured to have been born to a maid of African descent in his father’s household – reached prominence, but many others lived lives of subjugation. The vast majority were enslaved and worked in rural areas of Italy and Spain or as house servants in wealthy households.

Slavery and resistance

The exploitation of African people was institutionalised in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, when many of Europe’s malign racial attitudes to Africans were forged. The trade and plantation economy forged a relationship between Africa, Europe and America that was entirely dependent on notions of racial superiority and violent exploitation. This ruinous, murderous system shaped European views of Africans in insidious ways and by the 18th century European competition for commodities and slaves had fundamentally shifted the nature of the relationship between Europe and Africa.

Scientific classifications were employed in a bid to establish and legitimise a racial hierarchy with Africans at the bottom. But it was also the era in which an increasing number of dual-heritage people defied stereotypes and classifications. Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was the illegitimate son of an aristocratic plantation owner in Guadeloupe and an enslaved Senegalese woman. His father took him to Europe to be educated and he is now celebrated as the first classical composer of African descent. 

Indeed, dual-heritage people have played a crucial role in the interactions between Europe and Africa. In one of the book’s chapters, Otele studies how European merchants settled, made fortunes and left behind children of African-European dual heritage who would go on to forge unique identities. She analyses the blurring of racial hierarchies and boundaries in places where European descent offered great economic and social advantages, as typified by the lives of the Signares on the island of Gorée and in the city of Saint Louis in Senegal, and of Ga women in Ghana.

African European histories are transcontinental, and Otele shows how they are intertwined with the stories of key African-American and Caribbean, Senegalese, and German-born individuals. People exposed to both Africa and Europe came to play key roles in the resistance to colonialism. Manga Bell – the European-educated son of a Cameroonian king – led a campaign against the German appropriation of land and managed to rally other Cameroonian leaders and kings before his arrest and execution for high treason.

The fight for equality

How does complex history feed into today’s interactions? Chapter seven reflects on the way identities function in contemporary Europe, bringing together issues of race, racism, citizenship, black radical liberation and activism.

It looks at how gender, and Afrofemin­ism in particular, play a crucial role in shaping African European identities today. From detailing stop-and-search police practices in Spain to the experiences of Afro-Greeks and the different ways 21st-century black Britons fight against racial discrimination, inequality and marginalisation, the book shows how the fight for equality of people of African heritage in Europe goes on. 

Despite an often confrontational joint history marked by racism and exploitation, Otele ends her book with both a touching note of optimism and a challenge to readers.

“Each section in this book establishes a link between the past and the present. Some individual or collective decisions shape communities’ futures, but the bigger story is ultimately what we make of these experiences. The most consistent and longstanding threat to the human species has always been, beside environmental changes, human beings themselves. Yet these human stories have shown that we can also live in a non-exploitative way that diminishes suffering and even increases wellbeing. The decision is ours to make – whether to learn from these experiences, or to ignore them and continue to reproduce destructive patterns of violence and subjugation.”

African Europeans: An Untold History is published by Hurst Publishers.

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