Editor’s Note: This article was initially published under the pseudonym Sandrine Thomas. Since then, the author has requested to change the authorship to her original name Evangeline Holland.
The close of the nineteenth century saw a cementing of ideals among the African Diaspora. From history, we learn strictly about Jim Crow and the “Scramble for Africa,” which not only erases the humanity of black peoples of this period, but also pries their autonomy from their hands and paints them as victims of circumstance, or worse, passive receptacles of degradation. A deeper look reveals a surprising texture to the turn-of-the-century, where African-Americans, West Indians, and Africans exercised their rights as citizens of their respective countries while at the same time, working to forge a uniquely “African” culture on which to find strength and unity.
The result of this was the birth of the Pan-African movement. According to its leaders, “Pan-Africanist philosophy held that slavery and colonialism depended on and encouraged negative, unfounded categorizations of the race, culture, and values of African people. These destructive beliefs in turn gave birth to intensified forms of racism.” Not surprisingly, the figure most identified with the movement was a London-based, West-Indian barrister named Henry Sylvester-Williams. London of the late 1890s was a hotbed of nationalistic fervor, not simply that of the pomp and bombast of British Imperialism, but of refugee Russian nihilists and Bolshevists, of Irish Home Rulers, and Indian revolutionaries. Its status as the financial, political, and industrial center of the world (though America and Germany vied for supremacy over mighty Albion) attracted those seeking power and position, and colonized peoples saw immigrating to London as the means for a better life.
However, it was in America that a distinct African nationalism was born, and his brief residence in the United States certainly inspired Williams’ burgeoning awareness of African heritage in the context of the highly racialized society. Williams returned to England in 1896, where he became interested in politics and established the African Association the following year. In 1898, Williams spoke out in favor of a conference “in order to take steps to influence public opinion on existing proceedings and conditions affecting the welfare of the natives in the various parts of the Empire, viz., South Africa, West Africa and the British West Indies”. The ripples this statement caused reached the ears of Booker T. Washington, who played a double game with his white patrons as the “Wizard of Tuskegee.” Washington quietly lent his support, and after meeting with Williams, the scope of the conference was revised to include “the treatment of native races under European and American rule”.
Edward Wilmot Blyden’s writings ran concurrently with Williams’ movement and strengthened the thought of an African diaspora. A Sierra Leone Creole and of Liberian nationality, Blyden was adamantly pro-African to the point of rejecting Euro-American ideals and professing that black Americans should leave America and take up residence in Africa. Blyden had aroused consternation and scandal in 1887 when he published Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, which pushed the idea that Islam was a unifying force in Africa and Christianity, as introduced by European colonizers, was demoralizing. Ironically, the scandal this book provoked in Britain was not so much over its contents, but that a black African had the scholarship and learning to write such an erudite and convincing book.
Buoyed by and armed with thoughts such as Blyden’s and the writings of people like W.E.B. DuBois and Anna Cooper, the first Pan-African Conference took root in the summer of 1900. Thirty-seven delegates attended the conference, among them Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Alcindor, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer and Du Bois, and the focus of a great many speeches delivered were aimed at the governments of world powers to introduce legislation to bring about racial equality. The Bishop of London took this one step further, echoing the sentiments of Irish and Indian nationalists of the time, urging self-government for colonized peoples.
During the conference, its objectives were laid:
1. To secure to Africans throughout the world true civil and political rights.
2. To meliorate the conditions of our brothers on the continent of Africa, America and other parts of the world.
3. To promote efforts to secure effective legislation and encourage our people in educational, industrial and commercial enterprise.
4. To foster the production of writing and statistics relating to our people everywhere.
5. To raise funds for forwarding these purposes.
In the aftermath of this conference, Williams worked hard to promote the agenda of the Pan African Congress. He managed to establish branches in the United States, Trinidad and Jamaica, and a journal The Pan African. Though membership remained small, the numbers included a significant number of white allies, all of whom did their part to battle against prejudice, imperialism and racism.
The ideals of Pan-Africanism manifested itself in movements for African independence from the Cape to Cairo long before the half-century mark, and reached its height with the rise of Marcus Garvey in the late 1910s and 1920s. Throughout the twentieth century, five more Pan African Congresses were held, each one urging for the same goals: equality, independence, and unity. Today, this movement may not appear very influential; after all, imperialism continued unabated until the 1950s and 1960s (and in some cases, the 1980s and 1990s), and uniting the African Diaspora is naïve. However, it was and remains incredibly inspiring, for it shows that blacks of the Victorian and Edwardian eras were not victims and they did not accept marginalization, and interestingly enough, that they possessed the education and means to speak against oppression.
Evangeline Holland is a writer of edgy, innovative historical romance and contemporary romance and blogs at Edwardian Promenade.