Three decolonising books on Africa yesterday, today and tomorrow

Give Africa the place it deserves

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In the 17th century, Howard French writes, “an unbreakable bond between blackness and slavery” first emerged on the island of Sao Tome.

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepL.

Looking for strong arguments in the decolonisation debate, MO* journalist Kris Berwouts stumbled upon three books in different languages, by authors from different backgrounds (an African, a European, and an African-American). All three want to put Africa back at the centre of its history.

Sunday, May 29, 9.30pm, somewhere between Tienen and Brussels. In my small, non- ceremonial car, I take Howard French back to his hotel near la Grande Place. He has arrived that morning from his home in New York to give a lecture at Brussels Town Hall the next day on ‘The empowerment of Africa.’ He has just warmed up with a talk to some expert speakers. Despite jet lag, French is on edge.

Not only does he know African current affairs very well — he was Africa correspondent for The New York Times for many years — but he has just about rewritten the continent’s history. In ‘Born in blackness’, he makes a brilliantly argued case for recognising Africa’s immense contribution to modernity. As reveals the extensive subtitle of his book: ‘Africa, Africans, and the making of the modern world, 1471 to the Second World War’.

Moreover, he is already working on his next book — on colonisation. A few hours after his arrival in Belgium, he was already walking around the Africa Museum in Tervuren. He wanted to know more about the commission studying the colonial past, King Philip’s visit to Congo, and Lumumba’s tooth.

It turned into an interesting conversation. The evening did not last long, as Howard was tired. Arrive Sunday morning, return to the US Tuesday morning, meanwhile the lecture and a few much appreciated media appearances. I’m happy to take him to Brussels. We chat about his book, about Africa, and about blues.

Development thanks to Africa

Born in blackness is written in a particularly clear, razor-sharp language. It became an overwhelming rewriting of history. French demolishes the official, Eurocentric reading of history. The book starts from the great voyages of discovery. French describes how the empires in West Africa, which were in no way inferior to their European counterparts, generated fascination in the north; how contacts were sought and made.

In the classical reading of history, a new era comes about because of the European desire to push on to Asia, to eliminate the middlemen for spices. In this, Africa is an obstacle, with no added value, ambition or achievements of its own. French turns it upside down: he unfolds the documented vision that in Europe, and particularly on the Iberian peninsula, there was a rapidly growing fascination for the wealth of the Mali empire.

Especially the pilgrimage of the legendary king Mansa Moussa captured popular imagination. In 1324, he travelled to Mecca via Cairo, in the company of 60,000 courtiers and 18 tonnes of gold, which he distributed along the way.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Portugal was a young kingdom and sent out a mission along the coast of West Africa. The intention was to develop a direct relationship with Mali and Mansa Moussa. Impressed by the prosperity they found, they established peaceful trade relations with the inhabitants. Thanks to those missions, they managed to develop navigation techniques and cartography. With Fort Elmina, in present-day Ghana, they built the first European fortress on the African continent.

An important turning point in history occurred on Sao Tome in the 17th century. In the centuries before, sugar had become a luxury product with which huge sums could be earned. The small island had the volcanic soil and an ideal climate for sugar cultivation. Only labour power was lacking.

Sao Tomé set the milestones of history. It first experimented with plantation economics, which would later be expanded on a much larger scale on the US mainland. Furthermore, chattel slavery emerged. In that type of slavery, the enslaved person becomes fully owned by the slaveholder. He/she is dehumanised and considered property.

This was new, and moreover coincided with the skin colour of that “property.” For French, an unbreakable link between blackness and slavery emerged on Sao Tome, which was also widely disseminated shortly afterwards. For him, what happened on Sao Tomé was the most important economic development before the industrial revolution.

It is remarkable how islands play an important role in French’s view of world history. In 1630, the English occupied Barbados and copied Portuguese manufacturing methods there. French sees in this the germ of the British empire. Afterwards, they replicated this in much larger Jamaica, and even later in what would become the United States.

Between 1730 and the French Revolution, France created much opulence on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. From there, a rebellion arose in 1791, which held out against three European armies and led to the first black republic, Haiti, which wrote a ban on discrimination and slavery into the constitution. France’s military and financial efforts against the Haitian rebellion forced Napoleon to sell French possessions in the Americas to the fledgling United States, which thus doubled its surface.

In the 1790s, cotton production was started there, with slaves and plantations driving it. This grew to gigantic heights in a few decades, and was essential in the genesis of the industrial revolution.

In this way, French develops an alternative vision of how the forces came about that eventually created the West. At every step, Africa and Africans were central to that development. For Howard French, it is clear: world history and modernity were created by people of African origin.

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, written by Howard W. French, is published by Liveright / W&W Norton & Company. 512 pages ISBN-10 1631495828

The “colonial exchange”

In June, I revisited the Africa Museum in Tervuren in the company of expert and author Paul Vossen. He studied Tropical Agriculture and worked for decades in Africa, notably in Botswana, Burundi, Congo, and in several Sahel countries. After retirement, he obtained a degree in Conflict and Development, and now guides at the Africa Museum.

In late 2021, he published the fascinating book Jullie rijkdommen voor onze beschaving. De onzin van de koloniale ruil (Your riches for our civilisation: the nonsense of colonial exchange), on a topic that is very much on our minds in this era. He describes colonisation and the unequal exchange that was its backbone, but also deals with the pitfalls of the post-colonial period.

In doing so, Vossen does not limit himself to Africa. The clear added value of this work is that many disciplines creep in: landscapes and rivers fuel the analysis, and agriculture obviously plays an important role as well. Vossen approaches inequality partly from the perspective of environmental history — he himself is an avid practitioner of this relatively young science. It studies the historical interaction between people and the physical environment they depend on for food, a roof over their heads and clothes on their bodies. For every natural environment makes certain demands on society for it to survive sustainably.

Central to Vossen’s argument is that the turn that colonisation took from the late 18th century onwards was a consequence of Western European countries applying their achievements to subcontinents where it was not at all permissible from an environmental historical point of view. Colonisation was imposed from the belief that people and society could be moulded, based on the conviction “We know what is good for you.” But the natural resources in the colonised areas required different management strategies and forms of society. Vossen substantiates the hypothesis that the colonial exchange, “our civilisation for your resources,” was nonsense.

In the final chapter, Vossen develops a counter narrative: can we learn anything today from the mistake of “colonial exchange”? He explores some striking parallels between the strategies of colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the methods used today to introduce ideas and visions, shape societies, or enable neocolonial exploitation. The common thread: other people and societies must be shaped in their own image and likeness.

Apparently, we still know better what is good for others. But it won’t work now either. According to the author, the only sustainable way forward implies recognising, valuing and respecting diversity. Enlightenment? Gladly, but it must not radiate in one direction. We must also be open to achievements and insights from outside Western Europe. Preferably from the four corners of the world, which Vossen has also clearly travelled himself.

Jullie rijkdommen voor onze beschaving (de onzin van de koloniale ruil), written by Paul Vossen, is publisshed by ed. Skribis – Mirto Print. 290 pages. ISBN 9789463969888

Finding our own paths

Saturday June 25, in the early evening, I am in Senegal on reportage. I am spending the weekend on the island of Gorée off the coast of Dakar. The island is famous for its role in slavery. I post a picture of Gorée on Facebook, and Dutch journalist Marnel Breure responds, ‘You know that that famous slavery past is mostly based on made-up memories, right?’

I didn’t know that. The official narrative about the island is proving controversial, to say the least. Though many international public figures have visited here: Obama visited the slave house, Pope John-Paul II came here to ask forgiveness for slavery. Invented or not: this remains an important site for mourning and commemoration.

On one of the squares, near the monument to the liberation of slavery, I sit at sunset reading Afrotopia by Felwine Sarr. He is a Senegalese academic, professor of economics at the University of Saint-Louis in Senegal, musician and writer of literature and essays. He co-wrote the report ordered by French President Macron on the presence of African art in French museums. Based on that report, 26 masterpieces of Benin court art were returned last year.

In Afrotopia, Felwine Sarr asks Africa to take control of its existence. Africa does not need to catch up with anything or anyone, and should stop following the paths others have mapped out for her. Above all, Africa must become aware of its potential and pursue full decolonisation, first and foremost through a fruitful confrontation with itself.

For Sarr, it starts with the question, ‘What kind of society do Africans want, in all their diversity?’ What balances need to be struck between different domains: political, economic, cultural and symbolic? ‘The economy we know today is unsustainable and leads to disorder’, he believes. ‘We urgently need to move towards a new relationship between the economy and life.°

Sarr invites the continent to a thought exercise that is not gratuitous: ‘We must prepare for the future, invent our own future based on our own values and our own reality. We must stop mirroring concepts that came about in a different context, with a different geography. We need to distance ourselves from known schemes. First deconstruction and then reconstruction.” African intellectuals must take up their role in a creative way, he believes.

The Senegalese economist dislikes the opposition between Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists. He abhors the kind of development in which Africa is invariably labelled “underdeveloped,” defined by backwardness and failure; in which modernity is seen as something external that the continent must import; and in which African traditions would act as a brake.

Africa needs to reinvent itself on its own terms, and on the basis of its own values. In this, for Sarr, the African city is the laboratory par excellence, in which the reinvented Afrotopia will emerge. He invites the reader to delve into the maze of Africa’s metropolises, in cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, Cairo and Dakar, to share in the creativity of the informal economy. The place where Africa and human life once originated will produce its own meanings and realities, and eventually become once again the spiritual lung of the world.

Afrotopia, written by Felwine Sarr, is published by Univocal. 128 pages. ISBN 9781517906917

Original article (Dutch): Geef Afrika de plaats die het verdiend

This article was produced with the support of the Pascal Decroos Fund for Special Journalism.

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