Did the Power of the Printed Word Truly Liberate Africa?

Image of the Week: A French sculpture draws a connection to the invention of the printing press and the end of human bondage, but the reality was far more complicated.

Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, The Benefits of Printing in Africa, circa 1840. Plaster, 85 by 147 cm.  Museé des Beaux-Arts, Angers, France

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In the lush tropical setting of Africa, two groups of well-dressed Europeans sweep in to liberate a large number of black slaves from bondage. The presence of a compact printing press in the precise center of the composition, as well as that of the plow at the extreme left, is indicative of the profound and beneficial changes intended by these men for the native inhabitants. They oppose the tyranny of the chains attached to the battered tree trunk on the right side of the relief.

The frenzied event is one of four panels modeled in plaster that represent the benefits of printing for the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and America. They were produced by the prolific 19th-century French sculptor Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, then highly regarded for his numerous monuments to great men but less well known today.

Bronze versions of these scenes enliven the faces of the pedestal of a monumental statue to the great German printer Johannes Gutenberg. The imposing, large-scale work was commissioned for a prominent public square in the French city of Strasbourg, an important cultural center of the Alsace region bordering Germany along the Rhine frontier. The monument was dedicated in 1840, the 400th anniversary of the approximate date of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg. The reliefs, each featuring the printing press as its central element, illustrate the impact of this epochal technology throughout the globe. For the Eurocentric world, at least, the impact of the rapid, relatively cheap diffusion of knowledge was truly transformative.

David d’Angers’ image of the rapturous reception of the printed word by native Africans projects a privileged sense of mission whose goal was to bring the people of the continent under the aegis of European principles of freedom and moral enlightenment. Yet this inspired act of benevolence carried with it a far less salutary agenda of exploitation at best patronizing and at worst marked by the ironic submission of native will to the bringers of a colonialist agenda. The ostensibly benign origins of this process began here—only to accomplish, as will be seen, quite different ends in actual practice as the European “century of progress” continued.

The reliefs were intended to explicate the importance of the printing press for world civilization, represented by the four continents. Europe is characterized by its great pantheon of writers, whose works had issued from the press ever since its inception. The importance of the invention of the press for America is established by the printing of the Declaration of Independence by Benjamin Franklin. The Asia panel reveals the liberating effect of the press against superstition and backward religious beliefs. Only in Africa does there seem to be no native tradition of literacy. Instead, a state of human bondage has repressed the education of its people, an impediment now overcome by the precipitous introduction of the printed word.

The earnest scene of liberation expunges the institution of slavery and bestows the Western ideals of liberalism, democracy and “correct” moral guidance in its place. In this way Africans clamoring for freedom and literacy will be brought into the fold of European enlightenment. Within the high-flown rhetoric of the relief, the miraculous advent of the printing press does indeed accomplish its intended transformative purpose. Mothers celebrate with their babies, slaves are unchained and young people receive the blessing of literacy, if provided only in the form of religious tracts handed out by missionaries.

The act of liberation itself takes place to the right of the printing press. Three men kneel at the feet of the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, liberal political scientist the Marquis de Condorcet and activist cleric the Abbé Grégoire. The only named white figure to the left of the press is William Wilberforce, the English parliamentarian instrumental in the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Ironically, the profession of freedom for Africans on a French monument at this time rang hollow. In 1840 the liberation of slaves in French possessions in the West Indies, although often advocated, still lay eight years away. The ideal of emancipation expressed in the panel seems oddly limited to the abolition of the slave trade, and not of slavery itself. Nowhere on the relief appears the ardent figure of Victor Schoelcher, the long-suffering advocate for the absolute emancipation of slaves in the French colonies.

Instead, the inclusion of Condorcet and Grégoire—two older, more conservative promoters of gradual emancipation in the French colonies—stamps the relief with a more cautious, if not hypocritical, tone of reform. In fact, Condorcet explicitly denied the equality of blacks and whites and even advised in a seminal pamphlet from 1781 that freedom for slaves should come only after a long delay of 70 years, a time that would have come more than 10 years after the dedication of the Gutenberg monument and three years after the French state actually abolished slavery. For his part, Grégoire not only took the same position favoring delayed emancipation but also avowed that all other prominent abolitionists of his generation, including Clarkson and Wilberforce, felt likewise.