African Europeans: An Untold History 
by Olivette Otele.
Hurst, 291 pp., £20, October 2020, 978 1 78738 191 9
Show More
Show More

When people talked about ‘we’ or ‘us’, they didn’t mean me. And when I looked in the mirror, I saw it really was true – I looked completely different from the people around me. But did that make me different? Did I feel different? . . . I swung back and forth be­tween rejection, doubt, self-hatred and pride in being different from the others . . . I had no place at all in the world! Neither in German society, nor in Cameroon . . . I had no house, no home, I was a nobody in the family and country where I lived. 

These words​ , reminiscent of W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘double consciousness’, come from Theodor Wonja Michael’s autobiography, Deutsch sein und Schwarz dazu: Erinnerungen eines Afro-Deutschen (2013), translated into English as Black German: An Afro-German Life in the 20th Century. Born in Berlin in 1925, Michael was the youngest son of Theophilus Wonja Michael, a Cameroonian colonial migrant, and Martha Wagner, a German woman who died just a year after his birth. The family – Theodor’s father, stepmother and three older siblings – didn’t have much money. As a young boy, Theodor often performed alongside his father and siblings, put on display in a human zoo that employed Africans who, according to Olivette Otele, were ‘expected to dress and behave like “savages”, making noises and pretending that they were unable to understand German’.

In the late 1920s, Theodor’s eldest two siblings moved to France and responsibility for Theodor and his sister, Juliana, fell to the owners of the show, who took most of their wages. The 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws left the siblings ‘erased from discussions about citizenship, as Germany by then had no colonies or protectorates to speak of’. Michael worked on Propaganda Ministry productions that valorised Germany’s colonial era, but by the early 1940s, was one of many ‘black or dual-heritage German actors classified as stateless in passports issued by Germany’. Unable to serve in the army because of his race, he was sent to a labour camp for foreign workers. In 1945, he was released and soon after married Elfriede Franke – Friedel for short – a nurse from Upper Silesia. Their first child was born in 1947.

After the war Michael learned English and worked as an interpreter and translator for the US army in Germany. He took an economics degree in Paris in the 1960s, then worked in Cologne for Afrika-Bulletin, a magazine covering African affairs. Later, he worked as a civil servant in the German Federal Intelligence Service. In 2018, a year before his death, he received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his contribution as a historical witness: his autobiography offers a glimpse of the experiences of African diasporic peoples in Germany and the ways they were influenced by the connections between Africa, Europe and the wider world.

Michael’s life is one of many recounted in Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History, which documents some of the confrontations and collaborations that have shaped the two continents. She builds on the work of writers such as Allison Blakely, T.F. Earle, Kate J.P. Lowe and Stefan Goodwin, and there are echoes of Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (2019). Rather than documenting in detail the long physical presence of Africans in Europe, Otele synthesises this growing body of work, attempting – in her words – ‘to delve into questions such as identity, citizenship, resilience and human rights’. For Otele, Michael is a typical African European, a term she adopts as ‘a provocation for those who deny that one can have multiple identities and even citizenships, as well as those who claim they do not “see colour”’. The term’s usefulness lies in its capaciousness – Black identities and definitions of race shift across time and place in the historical record (although, as she points out, the term ‘cannot encompass or convey all aspects of black and brown people’s experiences’). Beyond its nod to identity, African Europeans also attempts to help us ‘understand historical changes across Europe and their impact on African Europeans at the time’. There is another aim, too – one which gives Otele’s narrative a particular urgency. The book wants to serve to mitigate ‘racial oppression in the present’.

In 1995, the historian Earl Lewis wrote that African American history needed to be situated in a history of ‘overlapping diasporas’, and Otele bears this in mind throughout her work. She begins with the presence in Africa of the Roman Empire, and progresses chronologically, emphasising the movements of particular individuals, some of whose stories have only recently come to light, such as Louis M’baricu Fall, also known as Battling Siki. Born in Saint Louis, Senegal, and brought up in France, Siki became a professional boxer in 1913. He fought in the First World War in the Eighth Colonial Infantry Regiment and, in the early 1920s, competed as a boxer across Western Europe. In 1922, he became light-heavyweight world champion, but three years later at the age of 28 he was found dead in New York. He had been shot in what was said to be a gangland execution. His remains were returned to Senegal in 1993. African Europeans couldn’t always move around easily within Europe. Freedom of movement has historically been the exception, not the norm, and restrictions such as those caused by Michael’s supposed statelessness have been crucial in constructions of the African diaspora.

Black intellectual traditions developed alongside diasporic communities. Otele sees early figures, such as the emperor Septimius Severus, the politician Marcus Cornelius Fronto and the philosopher Apuleius, as having shaped ‘Africanity’, ‘a contemporary appellation that characterises African cultures by their unity and similarities’. As well as discussing the individuals who serve this account of Africanity, Otele writes about the African Europeans whose lives were described by the scholars who founded Black Studies in the 20th century. Juan Latino, for example, was born in 1518 to an enslaved woman in Granada and educated by his owner, the Spanish nobleman Luis Fernández de Córdoba. While still enslaved, he earned two degrees from the University of Granada and, after his manumission, taught grammar at the cathedral school in the city. In his writings, Latino linked his Christian faith with his Ethiopian heritage. He held the cathedral chair in grammar and Latin for twenty years and married Ana de Carleval, the daughter of the ducal administrator. Although debates about his name and precise origins continue, much has been written about Latino by African American historians, beginning with Carter G. Woodson, who founded what is now known as Black History Month, in the early 20th century.

Transatlantic slavery and the legacies of colonialism loom large throughout African Europeans, and Otele illustrates some of the complex ways in which Europeans of African heritage intersected with Western culture and religion. The Afro-Dutch Jacobus Capitein, for instance, born in present-day Ghana, was taken from his family in 1725 and sold to Aarnout Steenhart, a Dutch sea captain who then gave him to Jacob van Gogh, an employee of the Dutch West India Company. In 1728, aged eleven, Capitein was brought to Holland, where he lived with van Gogh in The Hague. Like Latino, Capitein was thought exceptionally intelligent. He was baptised, and studied theology at the University of Leiden. In his dissertation, he outlined his views on slavery and religion, arguing that enslaved people should be baptised, but not necessarily emancipated. He supported the Dutch West India Company’s work when he travelled to West Africa in 1742. African Europeans who had been born free or had their enslavement manumitted were not always abolitionists. Otele also describes the well-documented part played in the slave trade by the Signares in Senegal and Ga women in Ghana, as well as their fate after abolition. Many had owned enslaved people and amassed great wealth through purchasing property and sometimes land. Intermarriage with Europeans, particularly in the case of the Signares, allowed them to build powerful networks of alliance and trade that shaped their involvement with European colonialism.

Linked to these histories of slavery and empire is the difficulty of reconciling colonial legacies in the present. Otele discusses European myopia via concepts such as Paul Gilroy’s ‘postcolonial melancholia’, Gloria Wekker’s ‘white innocence’, Stuart Hall’s ‘ritualised degradation’ and Marianne Hirsch’s ‘postmemory’. She uses these ideas to show the ways in which the history of colonialism informs present-day racism in Europe. The notion that Sweden has no colonial guilt to assuage, Otele writes, is crucial to the country’s reluctance to engage with questions of race and history. In France, colonial amnesia is widespread and when historic examples of French Africans are noted, they are used to portray France in a flattering light. Otele points to the French president François Hollande’s use of Joseph Boulogne in a speech about the abolition of slavery in 2014. Born in 1739 in Guadeloupe to a white French plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman, Boulogne was brought to France with his mother and received a first-rate education. He excelled as a musician and became known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was ‘believed to have been one of the first black freemasons in mainland France’. During the revolution, the National Assembly appointed him colonel of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-Black regiment in Europe (Alexandre Dumas’s father was one of his lieutenants). Although his compositions were banned under Napoleon, Afro-Caribbean communities in France and the Francophone Caribbean continued to spread his work and legacy. Figures such as de Saint-Georges and Dumas show that educated men of African descent, especially those with white fathers, could sometimes succeed in French society. But this underplays the complexities of their lives and ignores more radical and obscure figures. As in other parts of Europe, wrangles over symbolic gestures – such as the Zwarte Piet controversy in the Netherlands, over the use of blackface – can distract from more serious discussions.

As part of her attempt to bring the past to bear on the present, Otele draws attention to the long tradition of African European resistance and its many contemporary expressions. In Italy, for instance, women of African descent have been protesting against European conceptions of beauty through Facebook groups such as Hijab Elegante and Nappytalia. The Afroféministe Mwasi-Collectif, founded in France in 2014 by activists fighting violence against women in the DRC, has expanded its remit to encompass the struggles of Black women across the diaspora. In the Netherlands, resistance strategies include acts of collective historical remembrance, such as those practised by Afro-Surinamese communities during the Keti Koti Festival. African European collective organising is also increasing, whether through student activism, the Black Lives Matter movement or groups such as the European Network of People of African Descent. Also increasing, however, is an ethnonationalism which, as Otele points out, ‘does not leave room for … multiple heritage’. And the acknowledgment of multiple heritage is only the first step.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 44 No. 5 · 10 March 2022

Imaobong Umoren mentions the boxer Louis M’baricu Fall, also known as ‘Battling Siki’ (LRB, 10 February). When he knocked out Georges Carpentier in Paris in 1922, Siki didn’t win the heavyweight championship, as Umoren writes, but the lightheavyweight. The heavyweight crown was quite securely worn at the time by the mighty Jack Dempsey.

John McGill
Quoyloo, Orkney

Vol. 44 No. 7 · 7 April 2022

Imaobong Umoren mentions the Senegalese boxer ‘Battling Siki’, who unexpectedly knocked out Georges Carpentier in France in September 1922 (LRB, 10 February). After that bout, promoters were eager to bring him to England before the end of the year to fight Joe Becket, holder of the British heavyweight title. The egregious Hugh Lowther, fifth earl of Lonsdale, bestower of the Lonsdale Belt and president of the National Sporting Club, had other ideas. On 1 November 1922 he wrote to the recently appointed home secretary, W.C. Bridgeman, confirming that he was doing all he could to prevent the contest, because ‘matches as between white and black men have a detrimental effect on their respective races and they are mischievous and of a far-reaching nature.’ Previous home secretaries, including Winston Churchill and Reginald McKenna, had shared his view that interracial boxing would be ‘contrary to the interests of the nation’. Bridgeman agreed, and the contest was forbidden.

A year later Siki moved to the United States, where his boxing record and personal fortunes rapidly deteriorated. In December 1925 he was found shot dead in the street in New York, aged 28. The man he never met, Joe Becket, had quit the ring in October 1923 after being knocked out at London Olympia by Georges Carpentier; he lived until 1965.

Andy Connell
Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences