By Cedric L Joseph
Africa’s first task was to establish that, like other societies, it had a past and was part of the known global community. For too long the African past had been hidden from the history of the world. An assortment of denials, myths, prejudices and falsehoods, reflecting nineteenth century Enlightenment and the primacy of classicism, wove a deceptive fabric of the African past. The prevailing view was that western civilization was the racial heritage of ancient Greece, and that Africa was a “special case” diverging from the rest of humanity in matters of evolution and in its genetic make-up. It followed that Africa had neither history nor documents or written sources, and that its acclaimed oral traditions were inadequate and unreliable evidence.
This was the core of what came to be described as the Eurocentric view that gained widespread, though uncritical, adoption and dictated western curriculum. To explain the involvement of the northern part of Africa in the affairs of the ancient world, the theorists severed Africa into two geographical zones. They produced as existing from the dawn of history a ‘white Africa’ and a ‘black Africa’ separated by the Sahara by drawing a line between the civilization of ancient Egypt/Nubia and the peoples residing south of the Sahara. Further, to cultivate the idea of separation, they presented the Sahara as impenetrable and impeding contact between the peoples of the two zones.
From about the early eighteenth century, documents on Africa were being discovered and translated by Europeans to open an alternative viewpoint. However, it was only recently, from about the middle of the twentieth century, that the established view of western civilization being founded upon ancient Greece would be vigorously contested. The first disputations presented Egypt as an African and Negro civilization and confronted Eurocentric projections with a vigorous and insightful, though not without some exaggeration, Afrocentric alternative. So much was at stake that the ensuing debates were fraught with personal and professional risks for those Africans and their descendants outside of Africa who joined them.
This International Year for People of African descent, in its main objective to raise awareness of the challenges facing people of African descent, offers an opportunity to review this saga of how the African past has come to be told amidst the well fortified denials of African achievements. Recounting this evolution of the African past is not an argument for any special racial/ethnic consideration anywhere, nor is it a petition for any special ethnic preoccupation, particularly in Guyana whose presence in this appraisal is quite conspicuous. It is simply to set the record straight and place in perspective the legacy and fortunes of people of African descent. As Chiek Anta Diop, the eminent Senegalese historian, anthropologist and physicist has observed, it is no less a reminder of European explanation of its historical past and culture that is considered normal. Yet, when Africa does likewise, to seek to reconstruct the personality of its people distorted by colonialism, that is considered backward and alarming.
The first salvo came from the unlikeliest of quarters. George Granville Monah James, philosopher, theologian, and mathematician was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (now Guyana) in the late nineteenth century. Details about his date of birth, early life and education are not known. He left the colony for the United Kingdom and attended the University of Durham where he obtained the degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Theology and the Master of Arts. He then undertook research towards a Doctorate at London University and later moved to the United States where he continued post graduate work at Columbia University.
Having obtained a teaching certificate in the State of New York he taught Greek, Latin and Mathematics in the state’s school system. Similar appointments followed in North Carolina and Florida. He was then appointed Professor of Logic and Greek at Livingston College in Salisbury, North Carolina for two years. Further professorships followed: for ten years in Languages and Philosophy at Johnson C Smith College at Charlotte, North Carolina; two years in Mathematics and Dean at Georgia State College, Industrial College, Georgia; one year in Social Sciences at Alabama, A& M College, Normal, Alabama; and five years in Social Sciences at Arkansas State College. Pine Bluff, Arkansas.i
It was there at Arkansas State College, in 1954, that James published his magnum opus, Stolen Legacy, questioning, what he termed, the so-called Greek philosophy which he declared to be a misnomer since there was no such philosophy. It was, he contended, stolen Egyptian philosophy and the offspring of the complex religious system called the Mysteries lifted from the ancient Egyptians who were black. He further asserted that all the philosophers, both pre- and post-Socratic, had obtained their ideas from the Egyptians. James was also a Freemason and drew heavily from Masonic influences and the works of established European and American scholars: Eduard Zeller, William Turner, Eva Sandford and others.
James’s book created a furore and received wide circulation. No one, black or white, had submitted such an extensive thesis before contesting the conventional view of European thought. Further, the mysteries of Freemason were a white preserve and to ascribe a black origin was courting trouble; in the Deep South, it was dangerous. James’s thesis, however, was very popular and informed courses on the ‘Africans in Antiquity’ in American schools and colleges occasioning many lively debates.
That the ancient Egyptians were black was not a novel idea. The ancient Greeks were quite familiar with black people whom they called Ethiopians: Herodotus, however, described Ethiopians and Egyptians separately referring to the latter as “black-skinned and (having) woolly-hair”. The French philosopher, historian and traveller, Constantin François Chassebœuf, known as Count Volney, (visiting Egypt during 1783-85), Frederick Douglass, Edward Wilmot Blyden and W. E. B. Du Bois had already written about the black peoples of ancient Egypt and their accomplishments. But it was Marcus Garvey, in the 1920s, who first ventured “that ancient Egypt gave to the world civilization and that Greece and Rome have robbed Egypt of her arts and letters, and taken all the credit to themselves.”ii
The publication by Martin Bernal in 1987 and 1991 of his two volumed book, Black Athena; The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, enlivened the controversy. Bernal was an Englishman. The issues now raged on the “Afrocentric myth of ancient history”; the ethnicity of ancient personages, whether Socrates and Cleopatra were black; whether ancient Greek philosophy is stolen Egyptian philosophy; and the origins of Freemasonry. Not surprisingly, recriminations were met by counter recriminations and allegations about racism were liberally traded.
Invited to review Bernal’s book in late 1991, Mary Lefkowitz responded first with an article. Then in 1995, she took on in a major way the idea of a stolen legacy in her book titled: Not Out of Africa, and sub-titled, “How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as History”. The title really says it all. Lefkowitz excoriated every conclusion of James’s, and Bernal’s for good measure, and faulted James’s use of the sources. James remains a tragic figure. He died mysteriously in the year of the publication of his book and four decades later received the sharpest censures.
No biography has been written about him and the black College where he last worked and wrote his book is reported as having no memorial in his honour or copy of his book in its library; appropriately, the book is available at the two main libraries in Georgetown.iii
A more profound approach to unravelling the history of ancient Egypt/Nubia would come from Africa almost contemporary with the publication of James’s Stolen Legacy. This mission would become the life work of Chiek Anta Diop of Senegal, heir to a noble past reaching back to the ancient kingdom of Ghana on the banks of the river Senegal; modern Senegal would produce a number of scholars and Egyptologists in this period of research and refinement. Diop was of the aristocratic Moslem Wolof family, believed to be the only independent Moslem group in Africa that had held out against European colonization. In 1946, Diop went to Paris to become a physicist and studied, in addition, history, Egyptology, linguistics, anthropology, economics and sociology. He also commenced his research into ancient African history.
In 1951, he submitted a thesis for his Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Paris in which he asserted that the people of ancient Egypt were black and that Egyptian language and culture had spread to West Africa. As everywhere, this was a highly controversial matter in France and his dissertation was rejected. Diop’s response was to publish the critical ideas of the dissertation in 1955 as “Nations nègres et culture”, (Negro nations and culture), and to enter the controversy in a very bold way. It was not until 1960, supported by an eminent team of sociologists, anthropologists and historians, that he obtained the doctorate.
Diop may not have been aware of James’s Stolen Legacy at this time of his doctoral research. But he certainly knew of it when he published: Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology in 1981 as it is mentioned in the bibliography. Diop covered similar ground in the relation of ancient Greece to ancient Egypt without aligning with the contention of theft on the part of Greece. Diop’s argument was that ancient Egypt was an influential component of a “southern cradle” of civilization that was indigenously rooted in the Nile valley. While he did not claim that the rest of Africa followed an Egyptian model, he had no doubt that Greek culture benefited from a superior Egyptian civilization though not simply being an offspring of Egypt’s. In Diop’s evaluation, the Greeks formed that part of the “northern cradle” that grew out of its particular climatic and cultural conditions.
What Diop specifically challenged was the Eurocentric classification, or more accurately the splitting of the African peoples into narrowly defined categories as opposed to the expansive definitions of the Caucasian group. For example, within the Nilotic region alone, the range of peoples designated as “Negro” includes a wide range of physical variability from light brown with aquiline noses to jet black skin and frizzy hair. It was this racial splitting that situated a ‘white’ Africa in the North in contact with the Mediterranean and its peoples and a ‘black’ Africa south of the Sahara. From this deduction came the association of ancient Egypt with the Mediterranean and Greek civilization, and black Africa detached by the Sahara from this heritage and from history.
Diop did not consider the Sahara as the barrier which Eurocentric scholarship had made it. The genetic, physical and cultural features of indigenous African peoples were evident both north and south of the Sahara. Influences moved into and out of Egypt along the routes through Nubia and the Sudan. Moreover, a Sahara that was once fertile attracted and rejected peoples as its climatic cycles varied. Early accounts of the Sahara by contemporaries never considered the Sahara as a barrier and narrated the frequent intercourse and movement of peoples between the north and the south. Later scholarship and anthropological findings have supported Diop’s thesis on the primary unity of the Nile and Sahara region and the genetic similarities between Egypt and east Africa.
For his vigorous promotion that the Egyptians were black, Diop would encounter frequent denunciation as a racist. His work, however, had raised fundamental questions about the cultural bias pervading scientific research. Diop’s was both Africanist and strongly political at home. He had founded at least three political parties and was firmly committed to building a united and federated Africa. In this pursuit he became a threat to President Leopold Senghor who had him arrested and imprisoned and his party banned. In the end, it was fitting that Senegal later recognized him by naming its leading university in his honour.
Turning to documentary evidence: from about the eighth century, at the beginning of the Islamic expansion, south of the Sahara became exposed to Arab military, mercantile and intellectual interests. The written history, in Arabic, of West Africa commenced at the time that the Dya’ogo dynasty of the Kingdom of Tekur accepted Islam around 850A.D. The kingdom of Tekur was situated on both banks of the river Senegal and was known to Arab historians as Bilad al-Tekur, the land of the Black Moslems. Empires grew out of this region during the medieval period: the early empires of Ghana, which is dated c.600 AD, antedated the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD, the Mandingos of Mali, Kanem-Bornu and Songhay. They attracted the Arab travellers, historians and geographers who, beginning from the eleventh century, left fulsome and perceptive accounts.
The accounts became more numerous from about the thirteenth century and contained eye-witness reports and traditions recorded in Arabic by both Arab and African scholars particularly during the heyday of Timbuktu in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Portuguese travellers who were also in frequent contact with these kingdoms left valuable reports. Taken together the accounts were of considerable value to later research about the Moslem rulers and the peoples of Africa and have been accepted to be as good of their kind as anything produced by medieval Europe.iv Basil Davidson describes this period 600 AD to 1600 as one of the grand periods of African history.
The works of some observers of accepted reliability that have survived colonial pillage and destruction include: Abu ‘Ubayad al- Bekri, (1014-1094), known as al-Bekri, was the first to write about the empire of Mali, which he called Malel. He was born in Huelva, in southwestern Spain. A century later, Abu Aba Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi, (1099-1166?), known as al-Idrisi, also born in Spain at Ceuta, though spending most of his years in Sicily, expanded al-Bekri’s work. al-Idrisi was also an extensive traveller, geographer and cartographer. He created the map of Africa, essentially of the north, the Indian Ocean and the Far East that was regarded as the most accurate map of the world in pre-modern times.
There followed Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304-1368), known as Ibn Battuta, perhaps, the most extensive traveller of mediaeval times with as many miles to match Marco Polo’s. He was born in Tangier, Morocco, from a family of legal scholars. He wrote accounts of China, the east coast of Africa and of Mali. He has provided some of the best accounts of the coast of East Africa, the inter-regional trade in Africa, the trade across the Indian Ocean reaching into the Maldives and the development of a currency in the form of the cowrie shell.
Also, Ahmad Ibn Yahha Ibn Fadl Allah al-Umari (1300-1384), known as al-Umari. He was born in Damascus and was a secretary to the Mamluk Court in Egypt between 1340-1348. His “Description of Africa excepting Egypt” is considered one of the main sources of the history of mediaeval Africa.
The most outstanding historian of mediaeval Africa is Abu Zayad ‘Abdu r-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), known as Ibn Khaldun. He was born in Tunis, then a thriving metropolis of the Maghrib, and came from a family of Yemeni Arabs distinguished for its public service and contribution to literature. He was also a great traveller, historiographer and historian and held high offices in Seville. In December 1378, he completed the draft of his Universal History (Kitab al-‘Ibar) in Tunis and followed with a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1382. The kitab is regarded as the most detailed socio-historical study of the Maghrib, both of the dynasties, the Berber tribes and their kingdoms, ever written. His work also contains some celebrated passages on the Malian empire; it was Ibn Khaldun who gave history the undisputed list of the kings of Mali of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
Two Tarikhs, Tarikh es-Sudan and the Tarikh al-Fattish, written in the seventeenth century at the famous university of Timbuktu have survived. The Tarikh es-Sudan, or History of Sudan, is a chronicle written in Arabic by Abd-al Rahaman al-Sadi, born in 1594, and completed in about 1655. The Tarikh al-Fattish, the Timbuktu Chronicles, 1493-1599? is believed to have been written by Muhammad al-Kati with some eye-witness accounts of Songhay from the reign of Sonni Ali, 1464 -1492 to the early Malian Empire. Al-Kati was born in northern Mali in 1468 the son of an Arab father, the descendant of Arab settlers, and an African mother.
Mali at the height of its Mandingo civilization covered the entire Sudan-Sahel region of West Africa, included many peoples and cultures2 and attracted Moslem visitors and writers. Sundiata established the empire during 1230- 1255; although sixteen kings had already preceded him. His widespread achievements and conquests have been captured and developed, both in legend and in history. D T Niane, also of Senegal, has observed that if Ibn Battuta in1353 and Ibn Khaldun in 1376 had not mentioned the great conqueror in their works, it was likely that European historians would have gone on regarding him as a mythical or legendary ancestor.
By any standard, the accounts which have survived of the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325 by the Malian King (Mansa) Musa 1, (1307-1332), are fascinating. The preparations for the pilgrimage were elaborate and special contributions were levied from every trading town and province. Although the details given by Arab writers may be exaggerated, the emperor was said to have left with 60,000 porters and 500 servants or slaves decked in gold, each carrying a golden staff weighing over 500 mithkal, about 3 kg. He also took with him 80 packages of gold dust, each weighing 3 kintars or 3.8kg. al-Umari, the chronicler of the time, stated that he made so many gifts of gold to every court emir or holder of office in Cairo that the Egyptian market was depressed for over twelve years.
The pilgrimage was remarkable in several ways and had some significant consequences. First, it indicated the size and power of the Malian empire with an estimated population of forty to fifty million people over some four hundred towns and a huge economy with significant output of gold, the largest producer of precious metals at the time, copper, horses and kola-nuts. It also brought Mali into closer contact with Egypt, the merchant cities of Italy, the Maghrib and Portugal. It led also to the establishment of black embassies/consulates in Cairo and the Maghrib to cater to the needs of pilgrims on their way to Mecca.
Such a pilgrimage would require a high level of organization and planning. One would not be remiss to compare it with the visit of a modern Head of State and the associated paraphernalia. A contemporary European enterprise, Catholic Europe’s inspired Crusades to recapture Jerusalem from the Moslems, revealed much confusion and disorganization.
While in Cairo, Mansa Musa narrated an engaging account about his predecessor, identified as Mansa Abubakari 11, who had died at sea, and whom he said “would not listen to those who told him it was impossible to get to the other side of the surrounding sea, and obstinately persisted in this purpose…” al-Umari would give a larger account of the two voyages; quite historic when Europe at this time, apart from the Portuguese, hardly ventured beyond the Mediterranean. Abubakari had set out with two hundred ships to explore the Atlantic stocked with food, gold and water to last for two years. One ship returned and its captain gave an account of the voyage up to when they encountered in mid-ocean something like a river with a violent current. The ships ahead sailed on, disappeared and did not return; he (the captain) in the last ship did not enter the current and turned back.
Abubukari decided to investigate the report for himself. Accordingly, he set sail, around 1311(1312), with two thousand ships, one thousand of which were equipped with provisions, and a large party across the Atlantic and never returned. Some one hundred and eighty-one years later, Columbus, who knew of Abubukari’s voyage, would set out to “discover” America.vi
These dramatic events inspired the research of the Guyanese anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima that led eventually to his book, They came before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, published in 1977. Publication re-opened an old controversy about the presence of Africans in the Americas. Ten years after publication, Van Sertima would admit that his work became so contentious that it attracted the most extreme and vicious criticisms from high places, from many who had read it superficially or had not read it at all. Van Sertima would describe these Malian voyages of the fourteenth century as being among the first proven “return” journeys in that they brought American things to Africa, like native American cotton to Cape Verde, which lies just off the Malian (Guinea) coast.
The voyages may also be considered as additional supporting evidence of a long established presence of Africans on the American continent. Van Sertima has concluded that archaeological evidence, like the colossal African type stone heads found by the Mexican, José Melgar in 1862, the seminal work of the American, Leo Wiener, Africa and the Discovery of America published during 1917 to 1922, and of the German, Alexander von Wuthenau established a pre-Columbian Negroid Egyptian/Nubian presence during the first millennium BC in the Olmec civilization.vii
A number of these mediaeval accounts, the two Tarikhs for instance, became available during the early nineteenth century. Their translations, notably by French scholars, began in the early twentieth century; excavations became more frequent corroborating the available texts but still being subject to censures and opposition. At least one French colonial servant involved in finding the Tarikh al-Fattish in Timbuktu (circa1896) was banned by the French authorities from returning to the territory.
Even when the most graphic evidence of an African past became known, the sceptics did not yield argument. Neither Islamic influence, nor any other external influence ever reached equatorial, central and the southern regions of Africa during the ancient or mediaeval times. Yet huge stone monuments of the kind known in ancient Egypt dot the landscape. These are the remains of the flourishing kingdoms of Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe; Muena Mutapa in Zimbabwe and Mozambique; Mapungubwe in South Africa and Mmamagwa in Mashatu, Botswana. These ruins lie relatively close to each other at or near the confluence of the modern frontiers of the four countries and suggest some degree of contact. Together they respond to the Eurocentric argument about the absence of written records and the absence of a history.
Construction of these monuments began some time during the eleventh century, say, contemporary with the Norman William conquest of Saxon England. From the sixteenth century the Europeans first became aware of the monuments and from the early nineteenth century the monuments were exposed to the most exhaustive archaeological excavations and radio carbon dating procedures. Some expeditions sought merely to justify colonial theories and speculations about the nature of the African past. Many, though not all, of these exercises upheld the prejudices that black Africans were unable to build in stone, let alone without the use of mortar. This was the genius of the Romans only. They were, however, some rigorous and definitive work, during 1905-1906 by David Randall-MacIver and especially by Dr Gertrude Caton-Thompson in 1929 who concluded that the Zimbabwe site was of Bantu origin and mediaeval date; and that the builders spoke one of the Shona languages.
Cecil Rhodes and other Rhodesians continued to dispute the Shona origin of the monuments and to maintain that they were the product of external influences like the Phoenicians who, despite their extensive voyaging, never reached this far south into the continent. As for the Mapungubwe monuments, these were excavated by the University of Pretoria in 1932 and the findings and artefacts were locked away and kept secret until they were found in 2002 after apartheid South Africa had been removed. It is now well established and recognized that the civilizations of Zimbabwe, Muena Mutapa, Mapungubwe and Mmamagwa developed in the south before the sixteenth century from local African influences and has no trace of European or any other design.
It was inevitable that at some stage an African would wish to pull together all the known strands of the African past for the benefit of humanity as much as for Africa and the people of African descent. It was Amadou-Mahter M’Bow of Senegal who would approach this mission with his customary self-assurance and inspire the compilation of the General History of Africa in eight volumes. He was the first African to head a United Nations Organization, UNESCO, 1974-1987, and saw the Organization as integral to completing this task of global education.
M’Bow had volunteered for military service in the French army during World War 11. He later studied in France and returned to Senegal as a teacher and chairman of the first Commission established to reform the history and geography curriculum in some West and Central African countries. In 1953, he commenced working at UNESCO in a literacy programme and, when Senegal attained its independence, he returned to serve as Minister of National Education and Culture. In 1966, he became a member of UNESCO’s Executive Board and in 1970 Assistant Director General for Education of UNESCO.
M’Bow shared the strong distaste of other African nationalists with the way the African past had been treated by international scholars. He was dismayed with what he saw as their theoretical and methodological simplifications arising from their restrictive analysis of world history. He felt the need to highlight the historical data to give a clearer picture of the evolution of the different peoples of Africa in their specific social setting. There already existed a vast range of sources and widely scattered documentation in need of professional aggregation. Further scientific archaeological work would continue. Above all, the value of oral tradition, despised by the experts, but emerging as a reliable source had to be accorded its proper place.
Thus, the thirteenth Session of the UNESCO General Conference (1964) instructed the Director General to undertake the drafting of the General History of Africa. Then in 1970 the Executive Board established a thirty-nine member International Scientific Committee to commence the work: two-thirds of its members were to be African and one-third non-African and they would assume intellectual responsibility for the History. Among the members appointed by M’Bow were Dr Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, who served from 1976-1978, when he resigned shortly before his death in 1980 and Professor Walter Rodney, who served from 1979 up to the time of his death in1980. Both individuals were distinguished for their indisputable scholarship and contribution in the definition of Africa and of the people of African descent in the evolution of civilization.
By 1999 the eight volumes of the General History were published in several languages. The Cambridge University Press was also in the process of publishing its History of Africa, four volumes having appeared between 1975-1978, and the remaining volumes during 1982-1986. Undertaking the publication of the General History was not a superfluous exercise. For there was no comprehensive work of the African past that showed the real face of African societies as a collective whole and reflected the perspective of African authors about their heritage.
Not surprisingly, M’Bow would encounter strong polemics from the western powers who raised issues about the Organization’s budget and expenditure without any apparent direct linking to expenditure incurred by the General History. Linkage there was. For M’Bow embarked on another policy proposal to establish a New World Information and Communications Order. This was more than anticipated for, if the new order were to project the same authority and influence as the western order had monopolized, it would be intolerable to the west. The upshot was that the United States, under President Reagan, the United Kingdom, with Mrs. M Thatcher as Prime Minister, and Singapore under Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew left the Organization. M’Bow, who was re-elected unanimously for a second term in 1980, failed to muster support for re-election to a third term in September 1987 and had to depart the Organization. A number of African states still continued to vote for him; the withdrawing states would later return.viii
In the long historiography of Africa, M’Bow ranks with Diop, and with Du Bois, in their life-long pursuit and commitment to locate the African past and its legacy on a just plane. This is the heritage, in M’Bow’s estimation, that has kindled the strong assertions of identity among the people of African descent: in the resistance of slaves being shipped from Africa; in the slave revolts particularly in the Caribbean, in their struggle for freedom, equality and independence in the various theatres in the New World; and in the support extended to Africa in its national liberation and pursuit of unity.
In this latter category, the presence of West Indians among the Pan Africans is exemplary. George Padmore (Malcolm I. M. Nurse) of Trinidad and Tobago stands with the renowned W.E.B. Du Bois in the annals of the Pan African Congresses convened to end European colonization of Africa and to foster economic, political and intellectual cooperation among independent African states. Du Bois organized the first Congress in 1919 in Paris, simultaneous with the Peace Conference at Versailles, to end the European war. Padmore, along with his colleague C.L.R. James and the Guyanese physician, Dr Peter Millard, organized the fifth, the most successful, in Manchester, England in October 1945. A number of the African delegates attending later became Heads of independent states or of the opposition:
Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Hastings Banda and Obafemi Awolowo. Also prominent among the organizers was Ras Tomasa Rwaki Makonnen, (George T.N. Griffith) of Buxton, publisher, hotelier and financier of African causes.ix
In another era of liberation in southern Africa, President L.F.S. Burnham would commit and maintain diplomatic, financial and other material resources to the Frontline states in their struggle to end colonialism and the apartheid regime in the face of opposition at home.
Within this evolutionary context have the fortunes of Africans transported into slavery been determined. Arriving in the early seventeenth century that body of slaves, joined by other free Africans after emancipation and others from Asia and Europe, settled in what became the former colony of British Guiana. Immediately after emancipation, battered but not subdued, they established a number of villages on the coasts and began the taming of the hostile terrain. The authority, confidence and industry of these formative years have not been exceeded by later generations. Thereafter, succeeding generations would continue the task of construction and transformation, in partnership with other ethnic groups already existing or arriving later into the colony under labour contracts of differing conditions.
For nearly four centuries, so far, people of African descent have made an incalculable contribution in the shaping of the Guyanese society. In the professions and crafts they have deployed both mind and body to the task of surviving in an exacting environment. They have excelled in the professions through merit and competition: in teaching, theology, the law; medicine, nursing, as dispensers, the public service and the postal service; in literature, music, the creative arts and trade unionism where giants have emerged; as artisans and craftsmen, like the legendary sugar (pan)boilers, and provided the manual labour to dig the canals that drained the coast, as their Jamaican counterparts did for the Panama canal, and in the struggle for independence.
No enumeration of African labours is complete without reference to that indomitable figure of African Guyanese society, the unsung and unpaid grandmothers. Along with the washer and ironing women, before technology lightened their load, they literally protected and brought the unit of family through harsh times. Though their memories dimmed, they transmitted visions of Africa, fragments of rituals and of hope, at times of celebration and sorrow, at birth, marriage and death.
In the diaspora, Guyanese of African descent, like other ethnic Guyanese, have been among top achievers in as many professions and fields as possible. Though constituting a minority, their progress has not been stymied by any ethnic weighting or deferred opportunity. The environment has been competitive and economies have endured periods of recession. Further, the said diaspora is being generously replenished by skilled migrants from the homeland community who see themselves as escaping the systemic inequities and injustices. Many go on to progress outside Guyana. Muted suggestions in Guyana about ethnic inadequacy have to be firmly rejected.
Twice in a generation our young men volunteered to fight for King and Country in the two world wars. They fought for freedoms for others which they did not have and were not to obtain for some time. In the first war they encountered open racism, being used as labour battalions rather than as soldiers. When permitted to serve as soldiers, they won a significant number of honours and decorations. They would return home to an unwelcoming colonial authority and their service to the Empire would not be recognized until the late 1990s. On November 6, 2002, H.M the Queen was able to honour “the forgotten contribution of some five million people” from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent.
After some four centuries of toil and sacrifice this International Year finds the people of African descent at the cross-roads. The ruthless application of the Westminster ‘winner-take-all’ system in the polarized politics deprives African descendants, who constitute about one-third of the population, (some 30.2% have declared to be of African heritage, while 16.7% declared as Mixed), of integral involvement in governance and consigns them to the role of ‘opposition’ in perpetuity. No other community of African descendants, either on the South American coast or in the Caribbean, faces such a bleak future and doubtful destiny. Unequal and managed opportunity along with selective procedures situate them largely as supplicants in a society that has emerged from the labours of all ethnic groups.
The assessment by the UN Independent Expert on minority issues, Ms Gay McDougall, an African American, who visited Guyana during July-August 2008, took an approximate line. Moreover, her report, issued in March 2009, further confirmed an earlier report of the Special Rapporteur of July 2003. Having met with a number of representatives including the government, political parties civil society groups and community members, the Expert concluded inter alia that:
“Ethnically based divisions and politics have created two separate and conflicting narratives and perceptions of reality in Guyana. On the part of the Afro-Guyanese, there is a widely held belief that they are discriminated against by an Indian-dominated and supported Government that puts Indian interests to the fore, particularly in resource allocation, government contracts and employment. On the part of the Indian-Guyanese, there is a belief that an Afro-centric political opposition, if in power, would settle political scores and work solely in the interests of Afro-Guyanese.” .
The report was condemned with such vehemence from the administration and from some supporting agencies; indeed UN reports have encountered hard bashing from the administration, one was even dismissed with an expletive. The expert acknowledged, in another report to the Human Rights Council (March 12 and 13, 2009), that the criticism was directed against the scope, methodology, findings and conclusions. Further, that there were “gross inaccuracies” as in the definition of the relations between the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese “as if they are minorities” and “for projecting Guyana as an apartheid ethnically divided society.”
The report was based on fairly dispersed consultations that included communities of, or representing, people of African descent, and reflected some intensely held feelings with candour and sincerity. In its strong and unrestrained rejection of both findings and conclusions, the personal tone was hardly disguised, the administration was essentially dismissing the inner judgment of the African descendants of how they saw their role in the society. In fine, it is their right to free thought and expression that is being disparaged. Two years after the publication, there remain the two separate and conflicting narratives and perceptions; one is hard pressed to gauge any significant diminution in the existing gap.
Yet in the long and turbulent struggle of people of African descent, no issue concerning their dignity and existence will ever fade away unchallenged. Spirited voices have come to the fore when the moderates are stilled. When one such voice sought in an election year to address the urgency of systemic adjustment to bring some equity, allegations about incitement to ethnic violence were raised. And, as is the practice, a, or the, provocateur was let loose to mobilize among the ever susceptible community to isolate and discredit a “brother” who had spoken too fearlessly on the African condition. Thus continues the trend of traducing defiant Africanists: James, Diop and M’Bow.
More disturbing was the incident that followed in May involving the arrest, allegation about involvement in terrorism and narcotics, detention and the release without any explanation of a high ranking member of the Nation of Islam on a visit to Guyana. The event betrayed the inner official thinking on, or disregard for, the rights of people of African descent. The reflexive association of two modern day scourges of society, terrorism and narcotics, with the community of African descent was a bad omen.
At least two approaches confront the, or any, administration. First, the unilateral approach which continues to select from among the African descendants those available for preferment and assumes that they will be seen as representative of the community, and eventually win their respect.
Or, second, the consensual approach that stands astride the contending partisan interests and negotiates a consensus to accommodate the vital interests and rights of all ethnic groups enshrining open enquiry, equity, fair play and inclusion; no more, no less.
For there is a real danger of societal dislocation and disruption of the existing peaceful co-existence that is often taken for granted. It lies less in the advocacies for systemic change, no matter how spirited, and more in the festering of the existing two conflicting paths and, for that matter, in any caricature of African descendants being inherently inclined toward terrorism or illegal narcotics.
As the Independent Expert warned:
“A bitter and destructive political environment has infected the wider society and is failing the people of Guyana. It must give way to a climate of truth, reconciliation and compromise. Reforms must be far-reaching and highly consultative…and must lead to concrete, achievable outputs that ensure non-discrimination and equality.”
If the society is to benefit to the fullest from its diversity, it cannot afford to continue to exclude any ethnic group from the decision-making process on matters determining their existence, least of all the people of African descent. It cannot be in the long-term interest of the state. The much vaunted democracy will remain imperfect and underdeveloped. And the good and sensible people on all sides deserve much more.
For people of African descent, in particular, it is timely to probe deep within ourselves. We should re-examine our values, to distinguish between the substance and the superficial; the sense of family that was inherited and the bonds that are waning; and a disillusioned youth who are vaguely aware of the past attainments. The legacy of a noble heritage will be squandered and the toils of our fore parents be in vain if the current generation cannot transcend past achievements. These times of transition and challenge demand discerning and bold leadership that has not been strongly evident, though a current momentum is embryonic and promising. As with the evolution of the African past, the present requires no less insight, courage and commitment.
About The Writer
Cedric L Joseph is a historian and a retired career Foreign Service Officer. He was educated at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has been a Lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Later he joined the then Ministry of External Affairs. He has held senior diplomatic posts including: High Commissioner to Zambia, with accreditation to a number of southern African states and High Commissioner to the Court of St James’s. During 1983-1986, he was Chairman of the Commonwealth Committee on Southern Africa in London which prepared the way for the drafting of the body of Commonwealth sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
He was later appointed Head, Presidential Secretariat and Secretary to the Cabinet during 1986 to 1991.
He is the author of the book: Anglo-American Diplomacy and the Re-opening of the Guyana-Venezuela boundary controversy, 1961-1966.
He resides in Guyana.
i Biographical sketches throughout are taken from Wikipedia’s free encyclopedia and other sources.
ii In “Who and What is a Negro?”(1923). Quoted from Mary Lefkowitz, “Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as History”, (BasicBooks, 1966) p.132.
See also Herodotus, “The Histories”, (Everyman Library, 1910 or 1992), Book Two: 57 and 104.
iii The writer is indebted to Eusi Kwayana, arguably the most outstanding Africanist of his generation, for a passing comment in the mid 1990’s that alerted about James. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, NY, a unit of the New York Public Library, and recognized as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world, with the finest collection of art, artifacts, manuscripts and rare books, has “Stolen Legacy”, in both English and Spanish, in its lists. An e-copy of the book is also available on line. There is also interesting material on another African descendant, Rudolph Dunbar, the distinguished conductor, clarinetist and composer.
iv Basil Davidson, “The African Past”, (Penguin, 1966), p.74, 29.
v General History of Africa, ed. by D.T. Niane, vol iv, (Heineman, UNESCO, 1984), p. 130ff and p.148ff.
See also al-Umari’s description in “Kingdom of Mali—-Primary Source Documents” held by Boston
vi Ibid. p.150-1.
vii Ivan Van Sertima, ed., “African Presence in Early America”, (Journal of African Civilizations Ltd…Inc.1987), p. 7-9,29ff.
viii The writer was Guyana’s Representative to UNESCO during some of these tumultuous years, 1981-1985.
ix The writer met Ras Makonnen at the conclusion of the State Funeral for President Jomo Kenyatta, August 1978, in Nairobi. I was Guyana’s representative at the Funeral and was invited by Dudley Thompson, the eminent Jamaican barrister, scholar and Pan Africanist, who was representing Jamaica, to meet at the home of Cecil “Dusty” Miller, the distinguished Guyanese jurist then residing in Nairobi, for some relaxation.
Also present was the Representative of Trinidad and Tobago. It is recalled that Thompson had organized the defence of Kenyatta during the Mau Mau trials, and Ras Makonnen had been invited by Kenyatta to live in Kenya after the overthrow of Nkrumah.