Sunday April 14, 2024

Europe’s dark past

By Mubarak Ali
June 27, 2018

Various European powers constructed the image of non-European nations on the basis of three elements: rational, religious and civilisational superiority.

The people of Africa became victims of their prejudices. The colour black indicated evil as it was contrasted with white. Black Africans were, therefore, dehumanised and downgraded from a cultural viewpoint. The Europeans measured their civilisation against that of the people of Africa and arrived at the conclusion that most African people were divided on the basis of their tribes. They observed tribal customs and traditions in the absence of state institutions and the legal system.

In the eye of European settlers, the people of Africa were backward, lacked any political sense, and weren’t capable of disciplining their activities. From a religious standpoint, each tribe followed their own deities and performed different religious rituals. European powers considered these tribes to be misguided and enthusiastically wanted to convert them to Christianity. The Europeans not only wanted them to convert and adopt the ‘true religion’, but they also civilised them on the basis of European society.

European intellectuals and philosophers were also fully involved in the effort to build a false image of Africa and its people. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, was of the view that the inhabitants of Africa were far removed from civilisation and were, therefore, at the early stages of human evolution.

Hegel contemptuously referred to Africa as the “Dark Continent” in his lectures on philosophy of history, which were delivered in the 1820s. Trevor Roper, a British historian, believed that the continent had no history because there was no creative movement and action in Africa’s society. The approach adopted by European historians was exceedingly eurocentric. Most of them judged non-Europeans on the basis of their historical process and excluded them from the arena of civilisation. When the African countries were colonised, Europeans appropriated their history and claimed that they had discovered the continent because little was known about most parts of Africa before they entered these territories. They did not make any effort to excavate its archaeological sites. Therefore, Europeans imagined the African continent and its people from their own standards. However, this image was subsequently challenged and African scholars tried to rediscover and reassess the continent and its history.

In 1859, Darwin published his book entitled ‘On the Origin of Species’ that drew attention to the process of human evolution. According to Darwin’s theory, all humans originally belonged to Africa and later migrated to the different parts of the world. This theory has now been verified by geologists, archaeologists, and biologists.

The people of Africa were victimised in the 15th century when America was discovered in 1492 and European settlers in South and North America wanted a workforce to toil away in mines and plantations. As a result, the slave trade flourished and a large number of Africans were captured and shipped to America. There was also a demand for slaves in the Caribbean Island where they were engaged in hard labour to produce sugar. The slave trade had a considerable impact on Africa. Since most people who were whisked off to America as slaves were male, the balance of the population was disturbed in the continent. After this, European powers went on to colonise most African countries. This period is known in history as the Scramble for Africa.

A two-pronged policy of colonisation was adopted. The first strategy involved occupying a country and plundering its resources. The second entailed white settlers – who mostly came to those countries where the climate was moderate and better suited to them – expelling the local population, occupying their land and treating locals as their subordinates. This happened in South Africa and Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). The rich continent and its natural resources depleted as a result of loot and plunder.

Those European countries that were responsible for the Scramble of Africa were Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and Holland. These countries were technologically advanced. They had weapons that were no match to the African bows, arrows and spears. They mercilessly massacred them, usurped their land and forced them to work as slaves in mines and agricultural farms. The brutality of Europeans, in fact, plunged the continent into darkness. It was the Europeans who made Africa a dark continent.

After the Second World War, the African colonies began to resist European powers and started freedom movements. Some of the leaders who emerged during this period were Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jules Nyrere of Tanzania, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, and Mugabe of Zimbabwe. We can also include Nelson Mandela in this list as his African National Congress managed to end the Apartheid government in South Africa after a long and arduous struggle. These leaders created a new spirit of African nationalism and inspired people to work hard in order to build a new Africa.

Besides fostering political consciousness, African scholars and historians are making efforts to restore and reassert the continent’s historical identity. They believe that it is wrong to say Africa has no history. In fact, new archaeological excavation in Zimbabwe, Eritrea and Ethiopia proved that these countries were the sites of prosperous civilisations in the past.

Historians are also making attempts to trace the ancient history of the continent and prove its basis in the ancient past. Bernal’s book ‘Black Athena’ is an important document that projected the historical image of Africa. At present, African historians as well as historians in European countries are taking an interest in discovering the lost history of Africa and repudiating the old assumption that the continent has no history. Although it is quite difficult to eradicate established prejudices, African scholars and writers are actively engaged in efforts to rebuild an African image that is civilised, innovative and depicts the continent’s rich cultural heritage.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.