Continental Drift

Two continents and two millennia of extraordinary African Europeans.

Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, c.1742 © Bridgeman Images.

Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History begins in 23 BC and ends in the present day, spanning two continents, from Sweden to Senegal, from Portugal to St Petersburg. Inevitably such ambitious scope requires a focus. Otele, who became the UK’s first female Black history professor in 2018, covers the terrain by orienting her study around extraordinary figures from each period. 

Beginning in the Roman era, Otele explores how officials such as Marcus Cornelius Fronto and Emperor Septimius Severus navigated their African and Roman identities. Staying in the Mediterranean, a discussion of 16th-century Florence and Spain focuses on the lives of the Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici and the Spaniard Juan Latino, a Latin scholar and poet who had been enslaved for the first few decades of his life. Otele then moves north to the 17th-century Dutch Republic. As the Dutch invested in global trade, the country’s involvement in Atlantic slavery grew. Like Latino, Jacobus Capitein was also originally enslaved. Born in West Africa, he became one of the first Africans to study in Europe, at the University of Leiden. Eventually, he returned to the Gold Coast as a Reformed Church missionary, yet his legacy is far from clear: published in 1742, his dissertation De servitude, libertati christianae non contraria defended the right of Christians to own slaves.

Otele’s varied cast allows for the exploration of the intersections of gender and race during colonialism, focusing on dual heritage intermediaries like the Signares of Senegal and the 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, whose great-grandfather was from Central Africa. In Germany we meet the journalist Theodor Michael, son of a white German mother and a Cameroonian father, who was imprisoned by the Nazi regime. In the 21st century, Otele explores Black feminist politics in Italy and Sweden and, in a particularly thrilling section, maps out the work of Black British artists, writers, thinkers and activists.  

That the most thorough discussion of Black Britons emerges at the end of the book is intentional. Most of the people that the book features are from continental Europe. British history is a secondary concern. This is important: the book introduces an English-language audience to Black figures who are not well known. It also enables comparison, since so much of the story that Otele tells centres on how the national narratives of many European countries have long been premised on steadfast disavowal of a colonial or slavery past.

The second accomplishment of African Europeans is in the title itself, which Otele describes as a ‘provocation’. As she insists, ‘African’ and ‘European’ are identities that can be held together and, indeed, have been for millennia. The stakes of this argument are clear: Europe is still too often conceptualised as a white space and its history a predominantly white history. In this context, insisting that Europeans can at the same time be Africans and vice versa is important, even revolutionary. 

Yet a question remains as to whether Otele also intends ‘African’ to function as a racial descriptor in a similar way to ‘Black’. If it does, are people from the Caribbean also ‘African European’? The book is not always clear on this point: Jeanne and Paulette Nardal, born in the French colony of Martinique, who became prominent literary figures while living in Paris, are not included within the category, while it is implied that the French football player Lilian Thuram (born in Guadeloupe, now a French department) is. Nevertheless, ‘African European’ is invaluable as a category: it forces us to return continually to the longstanding connections between Europe and Africa. 

African Europeans is an immense accomplishment and an urgent intervention from one of the most important scholars of the African diaspora working today.

African Europeans: An Untold History
Olivette Otele
Hurst 288pp £20

Christienna Fryar is Lecturer in Black British History at Goldsmiths, University of London.