Sarah Forbes Bonetta (and her husband)
There was a time when coming across articles, research findings and academic essays showing evidence of Africans (and people of African descent) living in Europe before the 18th century used to genuinely shock me. There are persistent ideas that shadow the topic of Africans in Europe’s past, for example that they were all slaves, or that they all occupied a low status. Or that they must have all been men. There is also a fairly widespread belief that Black people only started appearing in Europe as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonial activities in Africa. In truth there have been Africans in Europe since the heydays of the Roman Empire.
Painting depicting black people in the Netherlands in the Middle Ages
A few years ago, precisely in August 2010, an exhibition went live in Yorkshire Museum aimed at exposing the multicultural nature of Roman controlled York. The centrepiece of this exhibition was the “Ivory Bangle Lady”, a wealthy noble whose skull was discovered at a British Roman grave in York in 1901. This skull is dated to the 4th century, and thanks to forensics we know that it belonged to a North African lady. The “Ivory Bangle Lady” is thought to have migrated to York from a warmer climate, and she was clearly high status as muscle markings indicated that she performed few strenuous activities. Further clues came from the kind of trinkets she was buried with: ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads and a glass mirror among other such luxury items. This is one example of a wealthy African woman in European antiquity, and she was probably not alone.
Africans have been present in Europe at various periods in the region’s history. It was in the 8th century that the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by Arabs with the help of indigenous North African armies. With the successful invasion, the number of Africans in Spain and Portugal rapidly increased. These conquerors came to be collectively referred to as Moors, sometimes spelt Maures. It is important to mention that the descendants of Moors are very much alive today as an ethnic group in the Western Sahara. Moors were also present in Shakespeare's works (Othello, the Moor of Venice, of course, but also Aaron, in Titus Andronicus), and in the great writer’s lifetime it was not uncommon to find West Africans roaming the streets of London.
Traditional depiction of Abram Petrovich Gannibal
People of African descent throughout European history occupied a wide spectrum of status and class. There were nobles, scholars, musicians, entertainers, dancers, domestic servants, thieves and much more. Some of the most influential people of African descent in modern European history - that is after the 15th century - tend to have their ancestry ignored by history books. In Italy, Alessandro “il Moro” de Medici was born to a Black servant in the Medici household with Cardinal Giulio de Medici said to be his father. He was the Duke of Florence from 1532 and ruler of Florence from 1530 to 1537. Alessandro de Medici is believed to be the first Black head of state in the modern Western world. In 17th century Russia, Peter the Great was given an African man as a “gift”. This man, Abram Petrovich Ganibal, later went on to become a Major-General, military engineer, governor and nobleman.
If you’ve never heard of him, you will certainly have heard of his great-grandson Alexander Pushkin, the Romantic author who is considered the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Paintings of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III of England, apparently reveal “Negroid” features. Queen Charlotte appears to have been a descendant of Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a “Black Branch” of the Portuguese Royal House. Which means the British Royal Family today may have some African ancestors.
The attachment of Africans to slavery in the European collective mind really gained a foothold in the 18th century when the transatlantic slave trade became central to European economies. Yet even during that period, there were a number of renowned personalities of African ancestry moving in upper societies of countries like the United Kingdom, France and Poland.
Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
Dido Elizabeth Belle, famously captured in the above painting, was the illegitimate daughter of the British Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman, and was raised as an aristocrat in 18th century England. As I child I enjoyed reading The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, yet I was completely unaware that Alexandre Dumas, the French author of these timeless books, was of African descent (the fact that he was seems to irritate members of the far right forum Stormfront, for some reason). His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was mixed-race, born in Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) and is believed to be the first Black general in French history.
Portrait of a Hunter in a Landscape, attributed to Louis Gauffier (1762-1801), is said to be a portrait of General Dumas.
The son of a Wolof slave, Joseph Boulogne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-George, and the “Black Mozart”, was an 18th century composer, conductor and violinist. He was also a famous swordsman. George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish virtuoso violinist, was the son of a West Indian servant of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy and a domestic servant from Swabia in the latter 18th century. He spent most of his life in England and performed across Europe.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta, given as a “gift” to Queen Victoria from the King of Dahomey via Captain Frederick E. Forbes, was renowned for her intelligence and quick grasp of academics, literature, art and music. Queen Victoria, it is reported, was so taken by her that she made Sarah her goddaughter. Sarah spent her life between the English royal household and Sierra Leone.
The list could be endless; the above are only people of African descent who gained fame, fortune and nobility. One can only imagine how many more Africans remain nameless, lost in of history. Like Louis XIV's alleged Black daughter who was erased from the records and sent to spend her life in a nunnery. Or those Black Africans who lived close to the Jews in 16th century Portugal.
Blacks and Jews in 16th century Portugal: Jewish police officers haul away a black man in this anonymous depiction of a Lisbon street scene
It is obvious that Africans have been part of European history for centuries, yet it seems that the only people who are aware of this are those who hold special interest in African history or the history of Africans in Europe. Most modern historical depictions of Europe do not reflect the multicultural reality. And when they do, there tends to be uproar based on the idea that Africans never left the jungle prior to European aid. The history of Africans outside the continent is just another important part of African history that is largely ignored, and one has to wonder why our history is written so that it starts with subjugation, whether slavery or colonialism, and why popular versions of history have tended to airbrush out the contributions of people of African descent to Western arts, sciences and life in general.
The next exciting part to this series will be the other largely ignored history of Africans in Asia and the possibility that Africans reached the Americas pre-Columbus.