When we speak of Black History Month, we are offered palliatives [especially in the United States] about the virtues of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X- and Mandela as the icons of Black History almost to the exclusion of any other data. This is almost as myopic as the Eurocentric view that African history began with the incursion of European imperialists in the 15th century. African history goes back to the dawn of humanity when the first human being stepped out on the primeval Rift Valley, setting in motion the cycle which produced the Pyramids and the incomparable civilizations of Egypt, Kush, Aksum and Meroe, the savanna Empires and kingdoms of West Africa, the ruler of Mali Mansa Musa (whose distribution of wealth on his way to Mecca devalued gold for decades,) Queen Nzinga of Angola (who fought the Portuguese in the 16th century,) Shaka Zulu, Benhanzin of Dahomey, Samory Ture and other heroes and heroines too numerous to mention.
In African history examples of Africans working together for their collective well-being overshadow the unnatural divisiveness that seems to afflict so much of modern Africa. On January 21st 1824 a British Army marching on the Ashanti capital of Kumasi was intercepted at Bonsaraso and utterly destroyed. The British commander General Sir Charles McCarthy was so devastated by the unthinkable defeat by ‘natives’ that he committed suicide. The Ashanti took his head to their capital Kumasi and made a cast of McCarthy’s skull in pure gold. On March 1st 1896 at Adowa, Emperor Menelik II [the founder of the city of Addis Ababa] of Ethiopia defeated an Italian army, killing 5,000, driving the remnants of the 25,000-man army to the Red Sea and force-marching the prisoners to Addis Ababa. Italy paid a ransom of 10 million lira for their freedom.
At the close of the 18th century, enslaved Africans in Hispaniola [Haiti] revolted against their French tormentors and in one bloody night slaughtered 30,000 colonists. The definitive history of the Haitian Revolution was written by an African from Trinidad, C.L.R. James and entitled Black Jacobins. The Revolution produced one of the greatest military geniuses of all time-Toussaint L’Overture- who built an army of enslaved men who took their freedom in their own hands, fought and defeated three armies: the French, Spanish and English-the best of their day. The fact that enslaved Africans kidnapped and forced to work under the most appalling conditions of brutality, thrown together speaking different languages were able to organize and raise a disciplined army that defeated the best armies that Europe could field and founded a country stands as an epic achievement of the ceaseless African liberation struggle.
This was the only successful slave revolt in history. Another important fact about the Haitian Revolution- George Washington, the paragon of virtue and democracy sent $400,000 in arms and aid [about $4 billion in today’s currency] to French planters to help suppress Africans’ fight for freedom. The other paragon of American Justice and democracy, Thomas Jefferson who believed that ‘all men were created equal’ refused to recognize the new Haitian republic for 25 years and encouraged the French to extort reparations of billions in today’s money from the nascent republic which effectively crippled early development and condemned Haiti to permanent poverty. Yet withal, Haiti’s slave revolution dealt the first crippling blow to the insidious doctrine of white supremacy. And they did it all by themselves.
Historically, divide and conquer has been used with disastrous effect by Africa’s enemies. When the Belgians penetrated the twin Kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi, they came upon two feudal monarchies in which a cattle-raising aristocracy ruled a farming underclass. The Belgians immediately divided the people of the Kingdoms. They issued identity cards to the Tutsi, [who originally migrated from Ethiopia] designated them as rulers in perpetuity because of their ‘European’ features and profiled the Hutu as a despised ‘negroid’ inferior race. This set the stage for ongoing conflict between the two communities culminating in the 1994 internecine massacres.
Kenya, South Africa in immediate post-apartheid years, Angola, Zimbabwe, both Congos, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi are among the salient examples of external forces manipulating African peoples to fight against themselves. These social eruptions are then disseminated widely and repeatedly by the Western media as arguments for re-colonizing the Continent. The Kenyan nationalist Dedan Kimathi organized the Land Freedom Army in response to the excesses of British white settlers who expropriated African lands and made Kenyans slaves in their own country. The British dubbed the movement a ‘tribal, atavistic’ revolt. Nevertheless, the uprising was a genuine peasant revolt, the precursor of all African Liberation movements.
Africans, despite the portrayals by Hollywood as gentle subservient sub-humans, did not suffer slavery lightly; slave revolts were numerous and brutal wherever Africans were brought. Some revolted as soon as the slave ships hit shore and escaped to the interior where they formed alliances with the indigenous people, built fortified communities called quilombos and fought back. Several of these quilombos in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador,. Jamaica, Guyana and elsewhere kept the flame of resistance burning. One of the most famous of these communities was the Republic of Palmares in Brazil which lasted for a hundred years; among others were the maroons in Jamaica, the Garifuna in Honduras, the Djukas in Surinam, never submitting, ever resisting.
African History is an ongoing, diverse and rich history, replete with triumphs and defeats, great moments of transcendence and moments of soul-crushing despair, but above all a history that celebrates the indomitable human spirit. African History Month is a rebuttal hurled in the face of white historians and archaeologists, who to justify the enslavement and exploitation of a people erased Africa’s history from the record books or distorted the facts with statements such ‘Africa had no history before Europe colonized the Continent.’
Africa has experienced in the space of little over a hundred years events that took centuries to evolve in other regions. From imperialism to colonialism, resistance to liberation, nationhood through a period of warring states to the present search for Continental unity. It is an oft-cited maxim that a people who do not know or ignore their history lose their way and become vulnerable to the attacks of their enemies. African history is a well we must all drink from to sustain us against the forces that seek actively to destroy us. In a world that is evolving at frightening speed, we need to sustain ourselves with knowledge of who we are and who we are not.
We are not Francophone or Anglophone or easterner or westerner, but Africans, spring from the same sacred soil subject to the same exploitation and bigotries that have divided our Continent since the first European stepped on our land and claimed it in the name of his King or Queen, renaming our sacred rivers and lakes, destroying and disparaging our spiritual beliefs and stealing our land. African History month must be the door that leads us back to ourselves and the path to empowerment and renewal. It must inspire us to resurrect our sacred heroes and erect larger than life statues to their memory and examples of sacrifice and fighting spirit which have sustained the African peoples against relentless enemies, and galvanize us to construct unity in which lies our redemption. Black History Month leads from the first human right up to Barack Obama. Is African History Month relevant? Resoundingly, yes! It is as relevant as the blood in our veins and the spirits of our immortal Ancestors.
By Amengeo Amengeo
Specialist in Spanish, Latin American, Caribbean as well as African History. He has also been a journalist, civil servant and graphic artist
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