Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Black History Month in Europe 2007: Amo's Ghost

Updates on our Black History Month in Europe project

This is the 3rd entry in a series of blog posts about the history of Africans and black people in Europe. If you are a first-time visitor you may want to start with Part 1 and Part 2 of the series and then come back here to continue reading this article.

I know that some of you may be wondering “What about the contribution from the German team members? Where are the German points of view that you promised?” Well, if you ever worked with Germans you know that sometimes it takes awhile before they feel their product is ready for release (Angst!). But have no fear, as my team members on the project are ready to go. Here’s the latest news about our present status:

One of the main contributors to our BHM-E 2007 team project, Patrick (our resident historian & teacher of history), has finished his first article titled:

Ein afro-deutscher Historiker:
Was ich im Geschichtsunterricht und im Geschichtsstudium über die Geschichte von Schwarzen in Deutschland bzw. Schwarzer Deutscher gelernt habe!

Translation (English)
An African-German Historian:
What I have learned in history instruction at school and university about the history of black people in Germany and black Germans.

Patrick has composed a 5-page masterpiece, auf Deutsch (in the German language). I must translate Patrick’s article so that we can publish in two language versions (English & German) for our international readers. Needless to say that Patrick’s piece for the BHM-Europe 2007 Project is a “Hammer”. This is a must-read article so please stay tuned to Jewels in the Jungle for notice about the pending release date. Having to translate five pages of German is not my idea of a “fun weekend”, but it must be done.

Patricia (the university student specializing in American Studies) and Jörg (the scholar over at the Atlantic Review) are also ready, almost. I refuse to translate Patricia’s work because she is more than capable of doing that all by herself. Ditto for Jörg. Jörg has whittled away (editing, revisions, more revisions) at his articles so much that there may be nothing left for publication. “Cut it loose into the blogosphere Jörg, it’s ready Man.”

So that’s it for updates on the project and now to get down to the main business of the day. “Yes Virginia, there were black people in Europe going way, way back in time. Long before Columbus set sail for the New World the Portuguese had brought the first black Africans to Lisboa in 1441. As a matter of fact, there were more than 32,000 Africans in Portugal alone by the mid-16th Century.”
Ref: Breaking the Silence – Slave Routes - Portugal

After posting my article about the 18th century African philosopher Dr. Anton Wilhelm Amo I began asking friends and acquaintances in Germany if they knew anything about this important historical figure. Not a single person has been able to answer yes so far, not one. However, several people I have spoken to about Anton Wilhelm Amo are very interested in learning more about him and the history of people of African descent in Germany and Europe. It appears there is a knowledge vacuum in a country with one of the most celebrated educational systems in the world – Deutschland. No wonder school students in several German states perform so poorly on the PISA tests (PISA = Program for International Student Assessments).

Granted, teaching the humanities (history, philosophy, literature, art, etc.) to young people has always been a challenge for educators. That’s why my favorite teacher from the past, Ms. Smith of the JMT Elementary School 4th Grade Class of 1961-62, used to keep her “attention getter” handy (a blackboard pointer). She’d whack you with that baby too if you weren’t paying attention or acting up in the back of the class while she was trying to teach our class something important. Lot’s of guys from my old 4th grade class still have the scars to prove it too (I’m lying). Actually Ms. Smith never used a pointer or a paddle on us (a common practice in some schools back then); she used her brains instead. Ms. Smith inspired us to be passionate about learning using her fresh, effective teaching methods and her fervor for teaching young, under-privileged children.

Ms. Smith was the first teacher that I can remember to get our ragtag band of bright but mischievous children in my elementary school class to become interested in languages and history and culture. It was a sensation back in those days to have a class of 9 and 10 year-old schoolchildren that could sing and recite prose & poetry in the French language. It was a really big deal if these same schoolchildren were black, half-black, half-blooded Native American, and poor white kids from working-class families.

There were other great teachers that I remember from my youth but Ms. Smith was the best and we (her students) owe her Big Time for her efforts. I have a love for world history and cultures, literature, and languages to this very day thanks to this fine lady and many of her colleagues of the former Missouri State Association of Negro Teachers. Unfortunately, Ms. Smith was relieved of her teaching position (fired) after only a year on the job due to unbearable pressure and harassment from certain influential community members (suckas) who didn’t like her and/or approve of her new teaching methods.

So enough already about St. Louis and U.S. American History. I promised not to do that while focusing on Black History in Europe this month.
I want to share with you a list of many unanswered questions that I still have about this important philosopher, doctor, lawyer, and university professor: Anton Wilhelm Amo.

1. Who was this guy Anton Wilhelm Amo and what were his impressions of Europeans and European life between 1707-1747?

2. How did he arrive at the Burg (a small castle) of the Herzog (Duke) of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel from Holland? A gift? Give me a break. Was he a gift from a 18th Century Gold Coast king or chief to the Dutch merchants who then carried Anton off to a strange new world (Europe in 1707), or was he captured by the slave traders of the Dutch East India Company and carted off to the Netherlands in chains?

3. Who exactly made the decision to raise Anton within the walls of the castle at Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, to raise him like “one of the family” and educate him at the finest schools and universities of the time? Was his upbringing and education some kind of “experiment” or did Duke Anton Ulrich (or his wife) see promise and genius in this young boy from West Africa? How did the aristocracy receive and treat Anton at court? How did the servants and lower-class people (serfs, farmers, etc.) around the Burg treat him? Did they honor him with respect and wonderment or despise him with jealousy and hatred, fear and superstition?

4. How did Anton get along with his peers at school and at play as a young boy and a young man? Did he have any friends? Did he ever fall in love? Did he travel extensively or was he basically restricted to the area around the Burg until he was sent off for his studies at the Wolfenbüttel Ritter Akademie (an academy for Knights) and the universities of Helmstedt and Halle (Halle-Wittenberg) and Jena? (Note: follow links to review the rich histories of these famous universities)

5. Did Anton keep a journal or a diary? If yes, where are these documents today? Did Amo’s close friends and colleagues and students write in their journals and diaries about him? The French Roman Catholic bishop and abolitionist Abbé Henri Grégoire (1750-1831) referred to Amo’s writings in his “De la litérature des nègres” (1808). Did the great German jurist (lawyer) and philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), who wrote extensively about the royal Houses of Hannover and Brunswick, actually meet the young Anton Wilhelm Amo? Where is all of this stuff? Lost, burned, or forgotten?

6. Was the Roman Catholic Church or the Protestant Church involved with his upbringing and education? What faith and religion did Anton Wilhelm Amo practice, Protestant or Catholic? The Duke Anton Ulrich converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1709. The Reformation had started in 1517 in nearby Wittenberg and many decades of violence and atrocities followed that religious breakaway movement. The German territories where Anton Wilhelm Amo lived and worked were firmly in Protestant hands by the beginning of the 18th Century. See map.

7. What really caused Amo to give up his professorship at the University of Jena in 1746-47? Was it that he lost his sponsorship from Anton Ulrich due to the duke’s death or was it due to the rising tide of xenophobia, racism, and abuse amongst his fellows and students? When he returned to Guinea and Ghana in 1747, how was he able to communicate with his father and sister and the people of the region if he could not speak the language of his birthplace or languages of the many tribes in this region of West Africa? Have any monuments been erected to pay homage to this great historical figure in Ghana?

8. Was Amo the only African black living in Germany in the 1700’s or were there other Africans in royal households who lived a similar lifestyle? Where are the African women and children in this 18th Century German story? There is no mention of them anywhere in the references to Anton Wilhelm Amo that I have read so far. Did the African women and children stay behind in 18th Century Holland or were they shipped off to the New World to labor on the plantations?

9. Why have German historians, scholars and educators, writers and filmmakers, German press and news & entertainment media networks and last but not least Germany’s political and business leaders kept this important figure in German history hidden from the world for so long? Are they ashamed of Anton Wilhelm Amo or just ignorant of his existence and the role he played in 18th Century German history?

Whoever can answer all of these questions above will be doing a great service to the memory of this deserving historical figure, Anton Wilhelm Amo, and to the citizens of the countries that he called home for so many years of his short life.

In my next article I shall move on to the Renaissance (as promised) and focus on great African and black historical figures from that important period in European history. As we part ways with Professor Dr. Anton Amo think about what Cameron Doudu wrote on March 20, 2006 at the popular U.K. Guardian blog “Comment is Free” as he described Dr. Anton Wilhelm Amo’s proper place in European and World History:

Excerpt from “Reading without Prejudice” by Cameron Duodu
Also see Wikipedia info about Dr. Frank Ellis at the University of Leeds

Where a black journalist would dismiss [Dr. Frank Ellis] by asking, for instance, "'What about Alexander Pushkin, Wilhelm Anton Amo [sic], or W E B Du Bois," a white journalist - who may not know anything about these black intellectuals whom I have listed off the top of my head - might think Ellis worth writing about because his views are "interesting". As for academia, it often confuses the right to think and speak freely about racial issues with a right to intimidate black students or even fail them solely on account of their race.

Alexander Pushkin has been described as someone who "single-handedly created modern Russian literature" and the 442,000 entries under his name in Google attest to his status as a Russian poet and writer of the greatest significance. You're not always told, in the references to him, that he was black. But he was.

Wilhelm Anton Amo [sic], a Ghanaian from Axim, (106,00 entries in Google) was taken to Amsterdam in 1708, when he was only four. He attended Halle University in 1727, learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German and Dutch, as well as medicine. In 1729 he graduated from Halle University in law with his disputation "Dissertatio Inauguralis De jure Maurorum in Europa" (Inaugural Dissertation On The Legal Rights of Moors in Europe). In the dissertation, Amo argued, well ahead of the ant-slavery movement, that African kings, like their European counterparts, had been vassals of Rome and that by carrying out the slave trade, Europeans were violating the common heritage of Roman law, which enshrined the principle that all the Roman citizens were free, including those who lived in Africa. He thus antedated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by over 200 years.

In 1730, Amo went to Wittenberg University and in the same year, gained the Doctor of Philosophy degree. In 1733, on the visit of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, to Witttenberg, Amo led the students' procession in the monarch's honour. He taught at the universities in Halle, Wittenberg, and Jena. In 1734 Amo published his second doctoral dissertation, De Humanae Mentis "Apatheia" (On the Absence of Sensation in the Human Mind), a critique of Descartes's dualism, the opposition between mind and body. Descartes, who had died in 1650, is described as "not just any thinker, but a towering figure in European philosophy and mathematics", and this was perhaps "one of the reasons why Amo decided to deal with the subject".

Amo's third major publication was De Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi (Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately) published in 1736, which runs to 208 pages. Amo moved in 1739 to Jena, where he taught at the university. He lectured among others on "the refutation of superstitious beliefs". During the early years of the reign of Frederick II of Prussia, Amo was invited to the court in Berlin as a government councilor. He was also elected a member of the Dutch Academy of Flushing. In 1965, a statue in Amo's honour was erected in Halle and his studies were published in 1968 in German and English editions in Halle by the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. The university has also established an annual Anton Wilhelm Amo Prize.

Considering the prejudice with which the works of Africans in Europe in his time were viewed, Amo's work must have been of a singular distinction for him to attain these honours, both in his lifetime and afterwards. Ellis can count himself lucky if he achieves even a third of what Amo achieved nearly 300 years ago, though, according to Ellis, Amo is "genetically inferior" to Ellis!

End Excerpt
Note: links to external online sources have been added

Additional online resources and related information:

Short Bibliography of and about Anton Wilhelm Amo’s works:
Source: African Philosophical Bibliography
Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium), Faculté des sciences philosophiques

Henri Grégoire (French priest and revolutionary 1750-1831)
(De La Littérature des Nègres by Henri Grégoire – 1808)

H-Net Book Reviews
On the Cultural Achievement of Negroes by Henri Grégoire – Translated with notes and introduction by Thomas Cassirer and Jean-Francois Brier 1996.
Review by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Stanford University 1998

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA – New York City)
Europe and the Age of Exploration ( ca.1400 – 1700 A.D.)
A Timeline of Art History w/ Thematic Essays
The Portuguese in Africa (1415 –1600 A.D.)
Breaking the Silence – learning about the transatlantic slave trade
Slave Routes – Europe - Portugal

History News Network @ George Mason University

The History Cooperative
- University of Illinois Press, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, National Academies Press

Journal for World History – Vol. 14 Issue 4, December 2003
The Agony of Asar: A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave, Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein (1717–1747)
Translated with comments by Grant Parker. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001.

University of Mainz (Germany) – Johannes Guttenberg University
Black European Studies Project (BEST)
Project director and staff info

University of Massachusetts (U.S.A.) – Amherst campus
Remapping Black Germany:
new perspectives on Afro-German history, politics, and culture

Columbia University Libraries – African Studies database
African History and Culture

University of Illinois - Urban/Champaign campus – Dept. of Archaeology
African Diaspora Archaeology Network

Stanford University Libraries – SULAIR
Africa South of the Sahara
African Diaspora in Europe

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BRE said...

Ms. Shay of Chicago, Illinois, the very fine author of the popular American blog "Booker Rising", has paid us a visit and a compliment at her blog by linking (pointing) to this post. Welcome to the Booker Rising readers and again thank you Shay for your graciousness.

If you haven't visited Booker Rising before, go check it out:

Below is my response to Shay re: the Hat Tip for "Amo's Ghost".

Thank you Shay, and I thought that you had forgotten about us over here.

What I've been able to research (discover) online so far together with my team is really interesting. The beauty of this project is that an African American & 3 Germans are working together to discover things about one another that we didn't know.

Not only did I (and many others back home in the States) not learn much about blacks & Africans in European history at school years ago, but these well-educated, multi-ethnic young people from Germany were not aware of the existence of these historical black figures as well! They were not instructed about this "hidden history" at any level of their education right through advanced university studies at some of Germany's best schools. ZIP, Nada, Nothing. For that reason we've decided to continue writing about Black History in Europe and sharing our research with others online well into March 2007.

Thanks again for your kind words of encouragement. It helps to give the old man strength to keep on digging down into Europa's true history.

Benin said...


Hats off! I am nearly speechless after that moving analysis of Dr. Amo. I love the introduction that you gave him too, your're really good! By the time I got to the last word of it, Man.....I was literally salivating to find out more about this towering scholar from 300 years ago.

So even in Germany many people didn't know what his significance to the German society was? That made me feel saddened a bit, but you're doing a great job at letting everyone know about this multi-faceted genius!

Kayode Asubiojo said...

I got to learn about Dr Amo while researching a presentation I was to make at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2006.
Although I knew his intellectual accomplishments would have to be indelible to get a mention by white Authors, I didn't get to KNOW him until today, shamefully.
As reinforced by white intellectuals, the agenda to trivialise and marginalise Black intellectual history has its roots in the Enlightenment.
But thank God for the blessed memory of H. Johnson, the African -American publishing icon -Publisher of Ebony magazine. I only got to know we have Black Scientists and Inventors in the late 80s, courtesy of Ebony magazine. The point is, you can never fully appreciate the difference your work makes, within a lifetime. Keep on keeping on.

BRE said...

Thank you so much for that wonderful compliment re: this humble post about Anton Wilhelm Amo. It is amazing that after so much time people are still attracted to and interested in learning more about the History of Africans in Europe Blogger Project we started back in 2007.

Amo was certainly a significant figure of his time (in the royal courts and universities of Germany at least) and he was a champion of human rights and human dignity as can be learned from his writings on philosophy and law. May his legacy gain more exposure and understaning worldwide through diligent research about his life, and may his memory live on forever. Again thank you Kayode for your compliment.