Problems in Studying the Role of Blacks in Europe
Allison Blakeley, May 1997
Editor's note: Allison Blakely's article below and the essay by Gretchen Gerzina on "The Black Presence in British Cultural History," mark the end of Robert Blackey's tenure as contributing editor of this column. In almost 15 years of service, Blackey has brought in, developed, and refined more than 140 articles and forums on teaching. We thank him for his many contributions and achievements.
There is a risk in asking 20th-century questions of earlier times because today's terms of discourse may not find a meaningful context there. It is likewise problematic to project onto European history social and cultural constructs that have evolved in the United States, and perhaps nowhere else, in quite the same form. Such is the dilemma we face in considering the influence of blacks in European history for a primarily American audience.
A discussion of the influence of black Africans on Europe and on Europeans is complicated by the absence of a universal definition of black. In general, the designation black in Europe, unlike in the United States, has been reserved for those of dark color, not the broader definition based on known black African ancestry. Consequently, awareness of a black population in Europe has been limited by the fact that when interracial marriage occurred, subsequent light-complexioned generations might never be referred to again as black. Hence the debate over whether Alexandre Dumas père, who had African ancestry through his paternal grandmother, was black. Consistent with the predominant European attitude, he emphatically rejected the notion that he was. Besides, in his France-as in all the other European societies-class was far more important than color, at least until the 20th century. The great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, who took pride in his African ancestry, shrugged off aspersions cast on that score, but took great offense at those who did not respect the centuries of nobility on his father's side.
Is it legitimate, therefore, for a historian to count these two 19th-century literary giants as evidence of an African influence? Has racial thought in Europe had the same degree of significance as in the United States? Have blacks in Europe experienced a kind of positive "invisibility" in contrast to the destructive American type chronicled by Ralph Ellison? On the surface the European racial definition seems more egalitarian. However, the history in question suggests also the possibility of an attempt to ignore or minimize the influence of a group considered sufficiently undesirable to have been excluded by law from European countries at various times. For teachers and students of history a resultant practical problem is the absence of clear references to race in documents such as census data where it might be quite useful. Moreover, among scholars, few have found the experience of blacks in Europe to merit special attention; and even those few of African descent who have achieved high status have done so by following the accepted conventions and by avoiding drawing attention to either their African heritage or to African characteristics in their societies. This has been left to blacks in former colonies, not in Europe. The remainder of this brief essay by one such outsider uses selected examples from continental European societies to discuss some of the other issues that must be confronted in studying the influence of Africa and Africans on continental Europe.
Africa and Africans have had an influence on European thought and culture far disproportionate to the size of the small black population (which, for example, approached 150,000 in the Iberian peninsula in the 16th century, and by the 18th amounted to just several thousand in France, a few thousand in the Netherlands, and several hundred scattered through Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia; only in the 20th century would the combined numbers reach the hundreds of thousands). The most striking example of that disproportionate influence can be seen in the 20th century, in Soviet Russia, which as part of its messianic role chose Black Africa and blacks in America as symbols for the Communist championing of the downtrodden; elected blacks as honorary members of the Moscow City Council; and named a mountain after Paul Robeson. A strong case can also be made that blacks have had influence in and on Europe primarily as symbols of European achievement, rather than in their own right. A graphic example was the curious widespread use of "Moors' heads" in the coats of arms of hundreds of European towns and families in medieval and early modern Europe. European attitudes about Africa and Africans have played a significant role in helping Europeans to define themselves.
For purposes of this discussion, it will be useful to begin with a look at how leading European thinkers framed the main questions involved here. Immanuel Kant, an Enlightenment luminary, wrote in his "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime":
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man.
Kant's essay is his global inventory of all the world's cultures, which concludes that Europeans surpass nearly all of the others in most regards. Thus Africans, who rank among the lowest in his mind, help to define what he terms the European character. His conclusions also suggest how difficult it would be for him to accept any notion of a positive influence by blacks.
It should be obvious that Mr. Hume, the devout empiricist, was in this instance not very empirical at all. For his part, Kant never traveled farther than 100 miles from his native home in Königsberg on the Baltic Sea during his entire 80 years of life. Johann Herder, one of Kant's best university students there, articulated even more clearly what it would have taken for blacks to impress those who accepted the Hume-Kant assessment, when in his own Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man he wrote: "The Negro has ... never once conceived the design of improving or of conquering Europe." It should be noted that there was opposing Enlightenment opinion on the subject, which offers an alternative explanation for limits to lofty black achievement. The Abbé Raynal, one of the most prolific philosophe writers, wrote that blacks only appeared to be inferior because of the circumstances that had been forced upon them. However, it was Kant's evaluation of the ability of blacks that was the predominant view among the leading Enlightenment thinkers and has prevailed in European thought ever since. This remained true even though Kant himself eventually arrived at a more positive assessment of blacks and blackness in his later philosophical reflections. How does a history teacher, who perhaps has just in an earlier lesson impressed upon students how important an intellectual figure Immanuel Kant is, now persuade these same students that even they can correct Kant on this particular subject? One possible way is to simply use him as an example of how even powerful intellectuals are still human beings, and can be wrong.
Kant's sentiments appear all the more arrogant in light of three interesting examples of blacks with distinguished careers in nearby Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands. The saga of Anthony William Amo should have been familiar to Kant because Amo gained fame in Germany for his philosophical studies. Born on the Gold Coast around 1700, he was taken to Amsterdam by the West India Company when he was about 10 years old and was presented to the Duke of Wolfenbüttel. He was baptized in Wolfenbüttel in 1707 and given the names Anton and Wilhelm in honor of the reigning duke and his son. A grant from the duke allowed Amo to be educated to a point where he was able to enter the universities at Halle, in 1727, and Wittenberg, in 1730, where he became skilled in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Dutch and concentrated on philosophy. In 1734 he was awarded the doctorate degree from the University of Wittenberg with a dissertation on "De humanae mentis apatheia" ("On Apathy in the Human Mind"). In his philosophical work he was a rationalist, devoting special attention to mathematical and medical knowledge in the context of Enlightenment thought. He became a lecturer at the University of Halle and later at the University of Jena until the 1750s.
Among the few fairly prominent black figures in Dutch history who at least briefly caught the public eye, the earliest was the former slave Jacobus Capitein, so named because a Dutch captain brought him to Leiden, where he was put into school, mastered several European languages, and eventually became a predicant after completing theological training at the University of Leiden in 1742. He became famous as author of a treatise that defended slavery as an avenue to redemption for Africans. His portrait, usually accompanied by didactic poetry, circulated widely, advertising that blacks could be transformed by Christianity and Western civilization. Prior to going off to what was to prove a disastrous mission in his homeland on the Gold Coast, he preached a number of times in Holland to audiences who flocked to see this novelty.
The first black to attain high recognition in Russia was Abram Hannibal, the African slave who became a favorite of Tsar Peter the Great and was the maternal great-grandfather of Pushkin, the single most revered figure in all of Russian culture. Brought to Russia at the beginning of the 18th century as part of a group of young black prospective servants, Hannibal, under the tsar's sponsorship, went on to attain a high level of education in France and, after returning to Russia, eventually advanced to the rank of major general in the army engineers. He brought back to Russia a personal library of 400 books, one of the largest and most up-to-date in the empire, and himself published a two-volume compilation on geometry and construction techniques. The owner of several estates, complete with serf labor, he served from 1743 to 1751 as Commandant of the city of Reval on the Baltic, not far from Kant's Königsberg. He later directed major canal and other construction projects.
The cases of Hannibal, Amo, and Capitein are particularly germane to the present discussion because there is correspondence showing that their patrons deliberately supported their development as Enlightenment experiments to determine whether blacks could be formally educated to excel in European arts and sciences. How then do we explain the virulence of the negative assessment of the abilities of blacks by some of the most respected thinkers in Western civilization, an assessment still invoked in the late 20th century by those seeking to legitimize theories asserting black inferiority? A closer consideration of the historical background of the Kantian view can clarify the limitations on African influences on Europe and provide some further direction for teachers.
The first point that should be noted is that Kant was not basing his evaluation on the historical experience of blacks in Europe. There had been blacks who had achieved distinction as early as Moorish Iberia, and later in Spain and Portugal, the European societies that first saw a large influx of blacks. Most of these notables were mulattos: for example, Cristóbol de Meneses, a Dominican priest; the painters Juan de Pareja and Sebastian Gomez; and Leonardo Ortiz, a lawyer. Among the few dark-skinned blacks who achieved high status was Juan Latino, a slave from Africa who through his master's benevolence was educated at the University of Granada. There were also some other signs of respect for blacks during these centuries. In 1306 an Ethiopian delegation came to Europe to seek an alliance with the "King of the Spains" against the Moslems. King Anfós IV of Aragon considered arranging a double marriage with the Negus of Ethiopia in 1428. And the Portuguese sent Pedro de Corvilhao to Ethiopia in 1487 on a similar mission.
Meanwhile the actual living experience of blacks in Europe appeared to be marked by smooth integration into European society, with the role of lower-class blacks determined very much by that of their masters or employers. The 140,000 slaves imported into Europe from Africa between 1450 and 1505 were a welcome new labor force in the wake of the Bubonic Plague. On the whole, the blacks in Christian Iberia were not limited to servile roles; but they were also not influential as a group. The new slave population in Portugal worked in agriculture and fishing. Free blacks living in Loulé and Lagos in the southern edge of Portugal owned houses and worked as day laborers, midwives, bakers, and servants. Most were domestic servants, laborers (including those on ships and river craft), and petty tradesmen. Some free blacks, especially women, became innkeepers. Blacks in Spain served as stevedores, factory workers, farm laborers, footmen, coachmen, and butlers. Male and female domestics apparently lived well compared to other lower-class people. Slaves could work in all the crafts, but could not join the guilds. A few Africans active in the Americas during the early Iberian expansion were among returnees to Portugal and Spain from America and Africa from the 16th to the 18th centuries. These included free mulatto students, clerics, free and slave household servants, sailors, and some who attained gentlemen's status. The use of many black women slaves as domestics and concubines led to mulatto offspring who received favored treatment, and in some instances, attained middle-class and even aristocratic status.
In surveying the later experience of blacks in the northern, central, and eastern European societies, there is a striking similarity to the patterns in Iberia, but with smaller populations before the 20th century. In those societies it became fashionable for the wealthy to employ blacks as decorative house servants and in ceremonial roles such as military musicians. The Dutch entry into the African slave trade, beginning in the 17th century and eventually accounting for the removal of about half a million Africans to the Americas, magnified the image of blacks as a servile race in Dutch society. This was one of the factors reinforcing a low esteem for blacks in other parts of Europe as well by the 18th century.
The basis for denigration of blacks must also be sought, however, in underlying notions within European cultures. Images of blacks and attitudes about blacks were present in Europe long before there was a significant physical presence. In visual arts, religion, epics, and legends, the Middle Ages provide a fascinating array of vivid illustrations of this point. There is a persistent pattern of ambivalence in the attitudes of white Europeans toward blacks that has survived over the centuries, always containing both positive and negative features, but usually tilting toward the latter. Imagery based upon religious themes illustrates especially well the ambivalence in question. Black saints were proclaimed in parts of medieval Europe when the Holy Roman Emperors, beginning with Charles IV's ascension in 1346, adopted blacks into the iconography of their realm. The statue of St. Maurice in the chapel of St. Kilian at Magdeburg and the 17th-century bust and older relics of St. Gregory the Moor at the church of St. Gereon in Cologne testify to the strength of these notions. This special recognition aimed not only to acknowledge the contribution of African martyrs to the Christian cause, but also to amplify the scope of the German emperor's realm and affirm the relevance of Christianity to all peoples.
Yet even some of the most beautiful art depicting blacks had darker undertones. The Adoration of the Magi was the single most popular religious theme featuring blacks in European art. The black king, handsome with noble bearing, was usually depicted as the youngest, presumably symbolizing Africa as the continent just beginning to participate in world affairs. This hint at backwardness is of course the negative aspect. Another biblical theme with a similarly ambiguous message was that surrounding the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, described in a passage of the Book of Acts. Although this may be interpreted as celebrating a missionary role for Christianity, it also implies European cultural superiority. Moreover, this theme becomes even more negative when it is associated with a popular symbol derived from a passage in the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, where the impossibility of an Ethiopian changing his color is mentioned in a discussion of sin and punishment (Jeremiah 13: 22-25). In the emblematic tradition widely published in western Europe during the early modern period, a "washed Moor" was the symbol for futility.
An even older and better known religious theme bearing a negative connotation for blacks was that concerning the Hamitic legend. The convergence of this legend (as well as that on the Ethiopian baptism) with the historic advent of the African slave trade represents just the type of historical fusion that can help explain the depth of modern racism's roots: that is, myth seemingly confirmed by experience. Other imagery concerning blacks drawn more from the historical experience than from imagination might be cited from epics, legends, and literature. An illustrative medieval literary work is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, drawn from the legend of King Arthur and his court, which evolved for centuries in England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The images of the blacks in the story are at times positive and at others negative, sometimes noble, at others ridiculous. Also, precursing a familiar theme of the present day, the males have uncontrollable sexual appetites. The depiction of blacks as tormentors and sexual symbols was also popular. Among Satan's titles in literature and folklore were "black knight," "black man," "big Negro," "black Jehovah," and "black Ethiopian." Such figures as Ruprecht and Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), the sometimes benevolent bogeymen who accompany the Saint Nicholas figure in the Christmas celebrations in Germany and the Netherlands, show that the ambivalence persists.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the apparent assumed inferiority of blacks would become cloaked in supposedly scientific racist theories, such as those of Joseph Gobineau and Adolph Hitler, which consciously echoed the earlier language of Kant. Reservations about the character of blacks, even when not spoken, have been among the reasons for limiting entry of blacks into Europe and for opposing racial mixture. On the other hand, this low opinion has only added to the popularity of blacks as symbols, because the commercial use of blacks as symbols tended to reinforce their dehumanization. In the course of the 19th century, industries throughout the Western world began to adopt trademarks featuring blacks; for example, those for tobacco products, cleansers, coffee, liquor, rice, shoe and metal polish, and toothpaste. Those for raw materials and foods were especially prominent. These trademarks were additional embellishment of imagery already manifested in the popular culture in literature, song, and story. This seems to reflect an association of blacks with the primitive and often with the sensuous. Similar attitudes can also be seen in the appreciation of blacks as athletes and entertainers. The ambivalence of Europeans, like their white American counterparts, toward equal acceptance of blacks in major sports and the exploitation of jazz music in the 20th century are good examples. Thus, deeply embedded stereotypes have continued to overshadow the real role of blacks in European history and culture.
How does a teacher end a course on such a gloomy note without leaving the serious student with a sense of despair? How should an instructor respond to the skeptical white student who suspects that the black professor has biased the selection of information in order to make a point; or to the embarrassed black student who believes the professor is dredging up dated, sordid history that is better left forgotten? One approach is to admit to the first that there are also negative stereotypes about whites; but they are surrounded by enough positive images to leave a more balanced perspective. For both students' objections, resort to a medical school analogy can be useful: examination of a diseased cadaver has great value despite all the difficulties of stomaching it, just as the history of racism must be confronted before it can be properly addressed in the present. It might also be added that what is learned in this examination may be instructive concerning other forms of social bias, beyond that involving blacks and beyond Europe.
—Allison Blakely, professor of European and comparative history at Howard University, is the author of Blacks in the Dutch World (Indiana University Press, 1994) and Russia and the Negro (Howard University Press, 1986).
- US v. Windsor: Historians Discuss the Defense of Marriage Act
- History's Relevance: The DOMA Opinion and the Historians' Amicus Brief
- The Changing Meanings of Marriage: Windsor in Historic Context
- What the Supreme Court Did Not Say in Its Windsor Decision
- Historians' Perspectives on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin