Scholars, paupers, artists, fighters: Black lives in Europe since 1500
“The Black man should no longer be confronted by the dilemma, turn white or disappear;
but he should be able to take cognizance of a possibility of existence.”
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1968
(transl. Richard Philcox)
All-White Europe is a fiction, a historically inaccurate but persistent one. Historians trace the presence of people from Africa in Europe back to antiquity, however, references to Black lives on the continent are often restricted to slavery and colonialism. In reality, Black life trajectories in Europe are diverse and varied but largely disregarded in historical narratives. Scholars, paupers, artists, fighters: Black lives in Europe since 1500 is an exhibition at the European University Institute which aims to challenge White historical imagination by presenting a selection of twenty Black people from European history.
‘Blackness’ and ‘Europe’ are notions that resonate with our contemporary intellectual framework but may seem incongruous when discussing times in which these terms had little meaning. Still, referring to historical figures as ‘Black Europeans’ is not about imposing an anachronical identity but simply rather suggests we consider these individuals who spent most their lives on the continent – regardless of social status or nationality – as members of past European societies.
The changing face of racism
The historical experience of people of African descent in Europe was inherently linked to the changing perception of Blackness and the development of Western racial theories. The transatlantic slave trade, which expanded in the sixteenth century, contributed to dehumanising Black bodies which were progressively perceived as commodities. In the Enlightenment era, European thinkers taking up the task to categorise and classify the world around them contributed to the emergence of the modern idea of ‘race’ as an allegedly natural division of humanity.
Across the nineteenth century, Enlightenment racial taxonomies developed into a set of racial theories. While scientific racism, social Darwinism and, later, eugenics meant to demonstrate the purported superiority of White people, the popularisation of these beliefs served as a moral justification to European imperial expansion. In short, the process of racialisation that relegate Black people to the lowest status of inferiority evolved through time and racism took various historical forms, becoming both the cause and the result of colonialism, segregation, immigrant exclusion and racial violence in general.
The downfall of European colonial powers after the Second World War did not stamp out racism. In fact, according to Achille Mbembe, the twenty-first century is witnessing a resurgence of racial thinking reflected notably in genetics research, securitarian politics and migration management. Racial injustices are not the same as they were in the past. Far from being limited to hate crimes and White supremacy rhetoric, contemporary racism is also structural and systemic and, acts in the shadows within Western societies. Quietly, it discriminates against the ‘Other’ (the “Other of Europe as Self” as Spivak famously put it) who is then left with Fanon’s dilemma to either ‘turn White or disappear.’
Challenging European Whiteness
It is impossible to know how many Black people lived in cities and villages in Europe during the last five hundred years. Black lives were not well documented and did not leave many traces. Yet, the scarcity of the archives alone does not explain the ‘lack of colour’ in the writing of European history. Black presence in Europe has not just been overlooked, it has been deliberately concealed. Indeed, the advent of modern racism and ethnocentric nation-building have played an essential role in the ‘Whitening’ of European history. The recent ‘rediscovery’ of Black characters in European classical art collections (see, for example On being present in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Le modèle noir in Musée d’Orsay), is a significant example of the way the existence of Black folks has been intentionally left out modern imagery of Western culture.
Furthermore, since the early period of European integration, which coincided with African decolonisation, a pan-European raceless White identity (that is, an identity which refuses to see race) has been shaped through various cultural policies. European ‘imagined community’ remains implicitly malleable: one might argue that eastern and southern Europeans were able to ‘become White’ in the political sense that they have been granted access to the dominant ruling class. Yet, the promotion of European shared history and cultural heritage for most part left Black people and other racialised minorities out of the picture.
Remembering Black lives: an EUI exhibition
In Western historiography, as Olivette Otele noted in 2021, “Africans who were valuable enough to be remembered were those who had been deemed exceptional.” Acknowledging this bias is crucial considering that the problem of exceptionalism obscures the experience of Black ‘ordinary’ lives in Europe. The EUI’s 2023 Black History Month exhibition, unfortunately, cannot escape this bias either. The portrait there of Cattelena d’Almondsbury, a Black rural woman from early modern Britain whose life was retraced based on her probate inventory, is the only example of an ‘ordinary’ person in this exhibition.
The other nineteen historical figures who are featured followed rather singular life paths. First, there are individuals – most of them male children born into slavery between 1500 and 1800 – who were integrated into the higher classes of European societies. Juan Latino was raised by an early modern Spanish noble family, owners of his enslaved parents. Abram Petrovich Gannibal and Adolf Badin were both enslaved children: the first was adopted by Tsar Peter the Great and the latter offered to the Queen of Sweden who educated him along her children. As for Alessandro de Medici and Władysław Franciszek Jabłonowski, they were aristocratic offspring born of (illegitimate) interracial unions.
Second, there are Black Europeans who distinguished themselves in various areas despite the racial prejudices they encountered. Among them are French writer Alexandre Dumas, British nurse and entrepreneur Mary Seacole, Italian boxer Leone Jacovacci, Russian painter Lydia Fedorovna Arkhipova and French theater performer Rafael Padilla.
The exhibition includes as well people remembered for their political commitment to racial justice: German Enlightenment thinker Anton Wilhelm Amo, who opposed the racial component of European philosophy; Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, well known for their mobilisation against slavery in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century; and Paulette Nardal and Anton de Kom, who distinguished themselves for their role in the anticolonial struggles in France and the Netherlands, respectively. Finally, there are the distinctive paths taken by twentieth-century activists such as Jane Vialle, Theodor Wonja Michael, Fasia Jansen and Olive Morris, who bear witness to the complex and multifaced history of antiracist movements in Europe.
Imagining Black Europe
Learning about the history of Black lives in Europe is a way not only to reshape our historical imagination but to trigger a reflexion on contemporary racial realities. To quote Paul Gilroy’s 1993 book The Black Atlantic, “striving to be both European and black requires some specific forms of double consciousness” not because one’s mixed heritage could not form a coherent identity but because pervasive racist and nationalist discourses do not allow one to do so. Therefore, for those of us born in the continent who are constantly asked where they are ‘really’ from, Black Europe appears as both a useful category of analysis and an empowering political tool.
Representation matters. But it should be borne in mind that adding ‘diversity’ into historical narratives is not an end in itself. Despite the potential redemptive power of such an enterprise, revising representations is only a small symbolic step in the fight against a persistent system of oppression. Addressing systemic inequalities requires a deep questioning of the role played by contemporary political and research institutions in the perpetuation of these injustices. How which this challenge will be tackled by a White-dominated academia remains to be seen.
Daphné Budasz is a PhD researcher in history. Her thesis investigates cross-cultural intimacy, intra-imperial migration and race in British East Africa. She is the founder of BHM at the EUI and co-founder of the Decolonising Initiative. Besides academic publications, she works on history and antiracist projects such as Postcolonial Italy: Mapping Colonial Heritage.
Click here for more information about Black History Month (February 2023) at the EUI.