This web blog on the Middle Passage has been offering a fuller explanation of the history of enslaved Africans than the traditional one many have known.  Of course, history tells the story of past events from a specific point of view; usually from the perspective of those who claim victory. Telling a people’s history is a matter of the power of persuasion as much as the recounting of information. For example, the biography of Richard Nixon, RN, tells a different version of his resignation than the one told in All the President’s Men by Woodward and Bernstein. When there is an attempt at re-telling, there are frequently charges of “revisionism!”  The writers of the Middle Passage blog claim that revision is necessary if it means a more accurate and complete account of historical facts. Change is traditionally resisted. As this web blog re-examines the history of Africans, especially in the Diaspora, we anticipate reaction.

A good example of examining history in a new light is the ground-breaking exhibit in Baltimore at the Walters Art Museum: The African Presence in Renaissance Europe. Anyone in the Baltimore-Washington area during the holidays should make an effort to see it. Reinforcing some of the ideas that the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project has explored in other posts since its inception, this exhibit sheds light on traditional misperceptions about Africans. It explores the story of why Africans became the enslaved people of choice for Europeans after the fifteenth century, touches upon ethnic studies, and most importantly illustrates who determines how history is written. This exhibit makes a profound argument for diversity in all disciplines, since narrow interest appears to often trump truth-telling. One of the contributors to the exhibit’s catalog is Professor Kate Lowe who is an established expert in the field of Africans in Renaissance Europe.  Professor Lowe’s observations in this area help put the visual examples of the exhibit into historical context.

We are cautioned always when reviewing history and attempting to explain present day circumstances that we not define the past by our current experience. But, even those organizing this exhibit have addressed some on-going concerns through museum-sponsored activities and discussions. Among these are classic questions:

  • How did the construct of race and racism develop?
  • Why is so much of this presence of Africans in Europe unknown to us?

Historians like Lowe are exploring those questions, and uncovering a wealth of material.

On our blog in some previous posts, we have tackled answers to these questions as a process of natural progressions, many of which were framed by European national self-interest. Our arguments were not restricted to the Renaissance exclusively, but relied heavily on that period. In one post we described the process of enslaving Africans as the “perfect storm” — from historical, social, cultural and economic viewpoints. At the time, Europe was emerging from the “Dark Ages” in relation to the accessibility of information and knowledge. This was also when nation states were forming. Wars were changing the landscape as well. Constantinople which previously had been Western Europe’s source for slaves, mainly from the Balkan or Slavic regions of Eastern Europe, fell to Islamic rulers in 1453. This enabled Portugal to become the primary source of enslaved people for the west. The Iberians focused geographically on the closer African continent to exploit since the Mediterranean became increasingly under Ottoman control. As a further consideration, the Bubonic Plague had just ended, but not after a major portion (at a minimum twenty-five percent) of the European labor force had been wiped out. Also, international merchant systems were developing alongside the increasing exploration of distant lands by better-equipped ocean-going vessels.

Now to address the African presence in Europe: There were always slaves and Africans in Europe since the beginning of record-keeping. In the Roman Empire, the term “slave” defined a person of inferior status, a non-citizen. Until the Renaissance, most slaves were from Europe, so the association was purely by class, geographic region, and legal status. There also was a tendency or an acceptance in these societies for manumission. If fortunate, the freed European slave could blend into the majority population. There were other personal features that reinforced a person’s status: knowledge of and familiarity with the dominant culture, education, language, marketable skills, religion, and dress. Such was not the case with an enslaved African.

The idea of perceiving “difference” was the topic recently of a 60 Minutes feature story about an on-going Yale University study of toddlers. Just how do humans differentiate the “other?” Researchers found that behavior, attitude, and choices by even very young humans can be attributed to perceived affiliation. To accept diversity and to accept the “other” may not be natural, but a learned process. Renaissance Europe serves as a perfect example of how this human tendency, if unchecked, operates with outcomes that affect us to this day.

Until the Renaissance, Africans were not routinely visible in great numbers or in groups in Europe. At the beginning of the 15th Century, as the business of human trade in Africans was expanded by Portugal and Spain, the numbers of sub-Saharan Africans mushroomed. They came in ships by the hundreds intended for enslavement and immediately were defined as such. The one immediately distinguishing feature was their color. Because they reflected an array of cultures, languages, adornment, and religious practices which were not known or acceptable to the dominant Christian society, their “otherness” now defined them as not civilized, not having a national European identity.

The opposite of “civilized” is “barbaric.” Sub-Saharan Africans especially were easily categorized then as uncivilized savages, exotic at best. Even when black African slaves were manumitted, guilds and religious societies excluded them, although there were some exceptions made for mulatto offspring in such areas as food guilds (bakers). If economically successful, they were fishermen, sailors, inn keepers, and independent small business people. In these European societies they typically, if free, were more likely to be poverty stricken and marginalized because of limited social and economic opportunities based upon discrimination, prejudice, and appearance. Males, in particular, were denied families and marriage. As an aspect of enslavement and inferior status, traditional African names were not recognized or permitted. When the numbers of persons of color increased in each European nation, treatment and behavior towards them was characterized by commonplace prejudice, discrimination and exclusion. They were defined as “the other.”

Even today in the United States there is a measure of when the scale tips on integration. Diversity is fine as long as it does not exceed a certain percentage (less than ten percent). Above that level, “the other” is perceived as rampant and taking over. Those standards may have been set indirectly during the European Renaissance. By 1521, Portugal officially established the legal inferiority of black Africans as their presence in Lisbon had exceeded ten percent. In 1598, in an effort to address the poor black residents of London, Elizabeth I proclaimed that they be removed from the country.  She wrote, of  “…diverse blackamoors brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already too manie.” Genoa, Italy, home of Christopher Columbus, was by the end of the 15th Century a major slave trading port for Europe. There were numerous complaints that the city was being overrun by black Africans. This Italian city’s role during that time as a major European slave trading hub can be attributed to Bartolommeo Marchionni who worked closely with the Portuguese according to Cambini bank records.

Those Africans who were ambassadors, scholars, pilgrims, and “acceptable” were treated as isolated and exceptional – sound familiar? Eventually, it was very easy to deliberately eliminate their presence from the national histories as the Germans, Brits, French, Russians, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and Italians formulated and recorded what they determined to be their national, cultural, and political identities.

Throughout European history, Africans were participants, influential contributors, and leaders. They were members of the Roman Legions who sailed to Great Britain to subdue the Picts and Britons under African Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. Prince Alessandro de Medici, who ruled Florence for almost a decade and whose family is included in the Walters’ exhibit, is another example. Anton Wilhelm Amo, the famous German philosopher born in Ghana, must be added to the list of the unacknowledged. The Roman Catholic Church had such African notables as St. Benedict of Palermo, St. Augustine of Hippo, Popes St. Victor (189-199AD), St. Miltiades (311-314AD), and St. Gelasius (492-496AD). There were Moors (North Africans and Arabs) ruling Spain and Portugal for centuries; and there is the little known fact that Queen Victoria’s grandmother, Charlotte Sophia, the devoted wife of King George III, was of black African descent by way of the Portuguese Sousa line. During the Enlightenment, military general and engineer, Abram Hannibal, an African slave of Tsar Peter the Great and maternal great grandfather of the iconic writer Pushkin, played an integral part in Russian imperialism.

The questions is does all this make a difference? We think that it does. What would happen if in the next century Barrack Obama was not identified as an African American? Would people view this nation and its history in a different way?  What does it mean to folks of color living in Europe today who think that they and their cultures are new experiences, except in terms of colonialism, for this tip of Eurasia? Again, we promote the telling of the full story.