The events seem so long ago. Leading up to the day Britain seems focused on other matters such as finally resolving the problems associated with the Boer War through granting responsible government to Transvaal, and dealing with the storming of Parliament by over 60 womensuffragettes. And yet a hundred years later in 2007 – the UK government would unleash a massive national year-long commemoration, with a series of high profile events, beginning on 27 March with service at Westminster Abbey to Mark the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, overseen by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and attended by the head of state, key political figures, including the Prime Minster, as well as leading dignitaries.
Why had an issue which seemed so long ago in 1917, suddenly become urgent and worthy of national acknowledgement a hundred years later? The main reason would have been the End of Empire and the return of those who had been enslaved and colonised to the seat of power, in Britain. A hundred years earlier 1907 Britain had been in the thick of its empire building. Led by the recently deceased
Cecil Rhodes, inspired by his vision of Anglo Saxons as “the first race in the world”, it had taken over
in the previous 17 years vast territories in Southern Africa, displacing many of the local population. A
large chunk of the new territory was named after Rhodes himself, with a major new city, Salisbury,also named after a sitting Prime Minister. It was still ravenously looking forward to taking over more
land. Pacifications were on-going elsewhere- a colony like Nigeria would only be declared in 1914.
The business of empire was profitable and looked like it would go on indefinitely, until all the corners
of the earth were pacified and under the control of European powers.
However, over the next hundred years, two devastating wars put a stop to these dreams and colonialism and empire were in retreat globally. As the independence flags went up in the colonies, the dominant history of empire would immediately be challenged. Narratives of exploitation and resource pillaging would replace the colonial paternalism of the ‘white man’s burden’. In the metropolitan centre, the return of the children of colonialism and empire would force the centre to confront its own central myths, particularly those undergirded by white supremacy. The process of this confrontation accelerated after the fall of the last white African colony in 1994.
South Africa was important symbolically for the African World – being the last theatre in which Europeans had the power to codify the inferiority of the African in a constitution. For over 400 years this had been the norm all over the world. Haiti in 1804 had struck the first blow against this absurdity. Its revolution and new constitution had declared the African free, equal and master of his/her destiny. The dominoes would begin to fall in the other theatres: personal freedom from enslavement coming first, followed by political freedom, then national freedom and independence. At each stage the fight was to remove the next huge indignity and obstacle in each location. The process continued step by step, country by country. By the 1960s, the civil rights fight in the US was complete, in the 1970s the Portuguese African colonies fell, swiftly followed by Zimbabwe, leaving only South Africa. In 1994 with the fall of South Africa, the ‘Age of African Enslavement and Constitutional Second Class Citizenship’, was at an end.
Since then globally people of African descent have begun to look back at that period when white supremacy was in the ascendant: 1) to challenge the dominant narratives of what happened; 2) to acknowledge and pay homage to victims and other fallen of the period; 3) to seek repair/reparations for the damaging legacies.
These contestations have taken various forms. Enslavement Remembrance Days and calls for reparations have grown since the early 1990s, at African Union and CARICOM levels, as well as at grassroots levels. Narratives are challenged through the growing movement to remove statues and other symbols celebrating slaveholders and other promoters of white supremacy. In South Africa, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protests amplified this challenge. In the United States of America, the recent protests about the removal of the statute of General Lee is the latest challenge, causing President Donald Trump, to wonder whether George Washington would be next. Given that Washington owned slaves, would there now be pressure to change the name of the nation’s capital?
Trump raises an important question which will not go away. Unlike Germany, the UK and United States did not lose a war, and have not had to examine the underlying ideology that drove their slavery and colonial enterprises. Germany had to confront Nazism, disinterring it from the body politic. The US and UK are finding it difficult disinterring white supremacy and its symbols from the body politic. As people of African descent have our freedoms entrenched and gain further political and economic voice – the pressure for this to happen will remain unabated. People of African descent may have been defeated in the past, but they will simply no longer put up symbols in public spaces that daily reinforce their inferiority. That moment has passed.
The 400 years plus period that constituted the ‘Age of African Enslavement and Constitutional Second Class Citizenship’, wasin the end a period of shared history. To date we have mostly heard only the dominant narrative of that period. One party defined it, including giving meaning to and imposing the symbols and what constituted heroic acts. Now a rebalancing is in process, what was shared and buried, is now emerging to the light. What are the important narratives, symbols and heroes on the African side? If as Trump asserts that George Washington remains a hero and deserves being named for the capital of the nation, what then Nat Turner? If one is admissible to occupy a public space, why not the other in this shared history? Are the only admissible African symbols and heroes, personalities such as Mary Seacole, who were handmaidens for imperialism? If Washington can be honoured for violently resisting British colonialism? Why cannot Nat Turner, for violently resisting slavery?
There are a number of challenges here as we go forward. First is the recovery of the buried African part of this shared global history over the last 400 years; second is the conversation with the wider world about a consensus about this shared history, including new shared narratives, symbols and heroes acceptable to all; finally is perhaps the biggest challenge, how we reconstitute the long view of African history, so that in the end the last 400 yearsof ‘Age of African Enslavement and Constitutional Second Class Citizenship’, is situated in its proper context, against the broader millennia of African history. This will begin to happen in anycase as the Atlantic West declines, as the Asia East rises, and a new chapter of the world begins to be written.
Onyekachi has worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary maker. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.
Onyekachi is the co-founder of African Remembrance Day, held on 1 August to commemorate the African victims of enslavement. He has written widely on Africa and her global diaspora. His publications include Under the Tree of Talking: Leadership for Change in Africa (ed) and Empire Windrush: 50 years of writing about black Britain (ed). He is a trustee of the African social justice platform, Fahamu, which publishes Pamabzuka.