Book Review: African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele

By Amy-Jane Humphries

With African Europeans, Olivette Otele, Professor of the History of Slavery and Memory of Enslavement at the University of Bristol, deftly weaves from past to present to tell the untold stories of the people of Africa and Europe. By restoring these stories to their rightful place in the histories of these continents, Otele provides a more complete picture of our past. It is a reminder that Africa and Europe, and their peoples, have been intwined for millennia. However, this book is much more than a work of history—it is also a manifesto for our times. The book challenges many of the ideas that surround questions of identity, heritage, and the historical presence of people of African descent in Europe. Otele uses the past to illuminate the path to a better future and demonstrates that it is only by understanding our past that we can help to build a world that is truly equal and breaks the “destructive patterns of violence and subjugation” (p.219) that have, and regrettably continue to, ruin too many lives. African Europeans is a work that seeks to resolve the problem that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it; it is history-writing at its finest.

Much work has been done on the lives of people of African descent in Europe, but this research often focuses on specific geographical areas. African Europeans encompasses the entirety of Europe and is therefore relatively unusual within the context of this scholarship. Even more ambitiously, the book covers two thousand years of history. Otele takes her readers as far back to the Kingdom of the Kush, where Queen Amanirenas (r. 40 – 10BCE) led her armies against Roman invaders in a bloody, five-year conflict.In tracing the stories of African Europeans through time, Otele also examines the present and more recent past. African Europeans is a book of this moment. It was published in 2020 against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, protests against police brutality, and the toppling of the statue of the slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol. In many ways, therefore, this work is a turning point not only in academic scholarship but also in the realm of public history. By restoring to the historical narrative the lives of African Europeans whose stories had been left untold by previous generations of historians, Otele unequivocally demonstrates that there is a long, shared history between the peoples of Africa and Europe, one which should be remembered. That Otele has achieved all of this within such a short volume is her real triumph. It is well-paced, engaging, and highly readable which makes it a book that anyone can pick up, enjoy, and take something meaningful from.

Chapter One examines the interactions between Europe and Africa during the Classical period. While examining Italy, Egypt, and Ethiopia, Otele discusses the lives of St Maurice, Emperor Septimus Severus, and the Queen of Sheba. The Queen of Sheba is particularly interesting because, in European artistic representations of her, she is often shown as a white woman which “plays into the perception that otherness may not have mattered in instances where Africans, especially women, were at the top of the social ladder” (p.30). However, her otherness is not entirely eroded by her status and throughout the 19th century she was frequently depicted as “an African European temptress” (p.30). The changing depictions, Otele states, provide “an insight into social, cultural, and scientific changes in Europe” (p.31) and allow us to “analyse the European gaze on Africans” (p.30) Chapter Two moves the narrative further into medieval Southern Europe where African Europeans could be free or enslaved. Chapter Three then explores Western and Central Europe during the Renaissance. In both chapters, Otele demonstrates how racism and racialism were developed and then justified in the eyes of European thinkers of the period. In telling the stories of African Europeans such as, Jacobus Capitein, however, Otele demonstrates that these ideas were challenged by the very fact that these people defied the classifications imposed upon them. Chapter Four explores the lives of people born in Africa who had African and European parents. It also looks at the relationship between race and gender by studying the Signares of Senegal and the Ga women of Ghana. Otele uses the experiences of these women to examine the legacy of colonialism in contemporary Dutch society, a method she then uses in Chapter Five as she explores the lives of Afro-Germans and Germany’s role in the colonisation of Africa. In Chapters Six and Seven, Otele brings her readers to the modern period to discuss the overarching themes of identity and citizenship, and the problems of racism and racialism against a backdrop of contemporary activism. 

By Otele’s own admission, the phrase ‘African Europeans’ is a “provocation for those who deny that one can have multiple identities” (p.8). The notion that a person can have one identity, in this case African or European, is entirely belied by the experiences of the individuals whose lives she explores in this book. Theodor Wonja Michael is a key example of this. He was an Afro-German during one of the most tumultuous periods in world history and, as a young man during the Second World War, Theodor was affected negatively by both parts of his identity. In the eyes of many white Europeans, he was at once too German and not German enough. Otele concludes his story by stating that Theodor passed away in 2019, a fact which brings him startlingly close to us. His life is a profound reminder that the past is never as far away from the present as we might think.

Otele also seeks to undo the narrative of exceptionalism which has skewed the way African Europeans have been written about by their contemporaries and by later historians. As Otele concedes, they are exceptional because they have left evidence behind of their lives which is not true for most people in history (p.5). Exceptionalism has a darker quality to it, however—one which leads to the implication that ‘exceptional’ African Europeans are not representative of Africans and that it is only by the virtue of their proximity to Europeans that they managed to achieve what they did. Otele breaks down the narrative of exceptionalism simply by telling these untold stories. The people whose lives she details are exceptional, but they are not a departure from the norm, they are the norm – just as the presence of Africans in Europe, embodying dual identities, is not unusual, it is simply part of the long history of both continents.

There is, as Otele states, a “need to expand knowledge about the histories of the people of African descent … [and] revise the teachings of colonial history in the Global North” (p.12). African Europeans addresses both, but it is not exhaustive. Just as Otele leaves the shaping of a new future to all of us, it is for other scholars to follow in her footsteps and take her research further. For queenship scholars, we might begin with the handful of rulers that Otele mentions. African Europeans is by no means a work that studies queenship but it does study people and what Otele emphasises is the importance of looking at these women within their wider contexts and appreciating the multiplicity of identities that they influenced their lives. Just as the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston felt like a watershed moment in Britain, this book is a turning point, and it will craft new histories of both Europe and Africa—histories where stories are no longer left untold.

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