Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: A History of Pan-Africanism

Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: A History of Pan-Africanism

Article excerpt

1. ROOTS

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Pan-Africanism has a rich history which dates back at least to the eighteenth century. It came originally from the New World rather than from Africa itself. Crushed by the brutality of slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean, people of African origin naturally yearned for their ancestral homeland and the dignity and freedom it represented - even those who had been born in captivity. Prince Hall, a black cleric in Boston, campaigned unsuccessfully in 1787 for help from the State Assembly in returning poor blacks to Africa. Another black Bostonian, Quaker ship-builder Paul Cuffe, took matters into his own hands in 1815 by setting sail in one of his ships with 40 other black Americans and founding a settlement in Sierra Leone, which the British had established as a refuge for freed and runaway slaves in 1787.

2. PAST GLORY

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The issue of 'repatriation' was contentious, though, particularly among free black Americans in the northern US of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, for example, argued that the idea was a conspiracy to avoid giving American black people their rights. Nevertheless the efforts of the American Colonization Society (largely white liberals) resulted in the establishment of another slave refuge: Liberia. Former slaves also returned to Africa from the Caribbean and Brazil.

Pan-African resistance took other forms, too. The racist idea of white superiority and African backwardness was challenged, for example, by the publication in 1829 of David Walker's Appeal, which drew attention to Africa's glorious history, including that of ancient Egypt. By the mid-nineteenth century these notions were being actively promoted within Africa, too, by James 'Africanus' Beale Horton and James 'Holy' Johnson from Sierra Leone and by the Liberian Edward Blyden, who campaigned tirelessly against racism and British imperialism. Yet all of these early Pan-Africanists were pro-Western: they wanted to create autonomous African nation-states that would develop both economically and educationally along orthodox Western lines.

3. CARVE-UP & CONGRESS

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In 1884 the major European powers convened the Congress of Berlin at which they agreed how Africa would be carved up between them. This naked scramble for Africa gave new urgency to the Pan-African response. In 1886 George Charles, president of the African Emigration Association, declared to the US Congress that his organization planned to establish a United States of Africa. Pan-Africanists convened their own Congress on Africa in Chicago in 1893, at which they denounced the partition of the continent and discussed the French threats to the independence of Liberia and Abyssinia in particular. This new organized solidarity bore fruit in the launch of the African Association in 1897. Its key figure was Henry Sylvester Williams. Williams might be called the grandfather of Pan-Africanism. Born in Trinidad, he studied law in London and it was there that he convened the first Pan-African Conference in 1900. Like all the early Pan-African meetings, the participants at the first Pan-African Conference were drawn almost entirely from the Caribbean, American or European diaspora rather than from Africa itself. The delegates talked of creating a movement campaigning for African people's rights - and sent a petition to Queen Victoria denouncing Britain's treatment of people in its African colonies.

4. GARVEY & DU BOIS

The twin giants of the Pan-African Movement in the first half of the twentieth century were both based in the US: Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois.

Marcus Garvey lived his early life in Jamaica but his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) failed to achieve lift-off until he moved to New York in 1916. In Harlem, however, his ideas about black pride struck a chord almost immediately. By 1920 he was being talked of as the 'Black Moses': he held an international convention with delegates from 25 countries and led a 50,000-strong parade through the streets of Harlem. …

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