Black History Abroad

When we think of Black History, we usually assume the conversation is about African Americans. But there is also a rich vein of achievement among blacks in Europe. Brought to the Continent by the slave trade or as children of Europeans and black women, these men and women managed to make a mark that often challenged prevailing views of racial inferiority.

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  • Memnon (2nd century, C.E.)

    Memnon was one of several protégés of the wealthy Athenian businessman and philosopher Herodes Atticus. His name was probably inspired by Memnon, the Ethiopian ally of Troy as described in Homer’s Iliad. Although few details of his life are known, his origins as a black African are established by a surviving portrait head. This, as well as his connections with Greek philosophy, attest to the high intellectual status sometimes achieved by blacks in the ancient Mediterranean world.

  • Saint Maurice (3rd century, C. E.)

    Maurice was a soldier of the Theban Legion of Egypt. He was martyred in present day Switzerland for his conversion to Christianity. In the first part of the 13th century he became a symbol of the aspiration of the Holy Roman Empire to universal hegemony. His cult was widespread throughout northern Europe, especially in the Germanic regions. He is the patron saint of a parish and church in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

  • John Blanke (16th century)

    The presence in Tudor England of John Blanke is an early example of the role blacks played in the aristocratic courts of Europe. As well as personal servants and horse grooms, many blacks served as musicians. Most commonly, they seem to have played the trumpet or large kettle drums. This tradition continued throughout the early modern period.

  • Alessandro de Medici (1510-1537)

    He was known as “The Moor.” Officially, the illegitimate son of Lorenzo de Medici and the slave Simunetta, he may actually have been the child of Giulio de Medici, who went on to become Pope Clement VII. As the first Duke of Florence, Alessandro was the first “black” head of state in modern Western history and ancestor to several of the royal lines of Europe.

  • Henrique Dias (1605-1662)

    Born a slave in Pernambuco, Brazil, he became an outstanding soldier. He led a force of blacks and whites to block the Dutch effort to take over Brazil and changed the course of Latin American history. He was decorated by the king of Portugal and a regiment in the Brazilian Army was named after him.

  • Louise Marie-Therese, Black Nun of Moret, France [1664-1732]

    Louise Marie-Therese was reputedly the daughter of Nabo, a black servant at the court of France, and Maria Theresa of Spain, the Queen of Louis XIV. She was occasionally visited by the queen at her convent. Though the circumstances of her birth have never been confirmed, she was often mentioned in memoirs and other writings of the period, by illustrious people such as Voltaire and Madame de Maintenon.

  • Abram Petrovich Hannibal (1696-1782)

    Born in Eritrea, he was brought to Peter the Great as a gift. Abram studied math and languages in Paris, fought in the French military and returned home to become commanding general of the Russian army. He was the maternal great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, the most revered figure in Russian culture.

  • Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703-1759)

    Kidnapped from Ghana and sold into slavery in Amsterdam, he was the first black African known to attend a European university. He earned a doctorate in philosophy at Wittenberg University in 1734. He became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Halle and later at the University of Jena until the 1750s. He returned to Ghana late in life, possibly because of racial harrassment and died there.

  • Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

    He was born on a slave ship on its way Europe, worked as a butler for the Montagu family, and then became an actor, composer and prolific letter writer. He was the first black man to vote in Britain and became a symbol of humanity for the anti-slavery movement.

  • Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)

    Also known as Gustavus Vassa, he was an anti-slavery campaigner and writer. He was probably born in Nigeria, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Virginia. He eventually bought his freedom and moved to England, where he wrote an autobiography in 1789 and become a crusader against slavery.

  • Chevalier de Saint George (1745-1799)

    This son of a nobleman and a black woman was born in Guadeloupe, educated in France, become one of Europe’s greatest swordmen. He was also an outstanding musician and composer who led the most important orchestras of Paris before the French Revolution.

  • Toussaint L’Ouverture (1760-1802)

    Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture had the distinction of leading the first successful slave revolt in history. He was born in Haiti and served as a coach driver on a plantation in the northern part of the island. With the outbreak of the French Revolution, he joined the general uprising of black slaves. In a long succession of campaigns and shifting military alliances, he secured all of Haiti. He succeeded in defeating  Napoleon’s later attempt to re-establish slavery. Shortly after, in 1802, he was taken into French custody and died in a Paris prison less than a year later.  Haiti declared its independence in 1804.

  • General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806)

    He was the son of a nobleman and a Haitian slave. Educated in France, he rose in the military to be the first black general in the French Army. He fought in Italy and Spain before losing favor with Napoleon for objecting to the reinstitution of slavery.

  • Francois Fournier de Pescay (1771-1845)

    He may have been the first black surgeon. Born in Bordeaux, France of Haitian and French ancestry, he rose to chief surgeon of the French military, and later practiced in Brussels, Belgium, where he founded the Medical Society.

  • George Bridgetower (1780-1860)

    He was born in Poland, the son of a black man and a Polish woman. He was an accomplished violinist who premiered works by Beethoven.

  • Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837)

    The great-grandson of the black Russian General Abraham Hannibal was born in Moscow and published his first poem at 15. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern Russian literature and remains Russia’s most revered poet. He died from wounds suffered in a duel with his wife’s alleged lover.

  • Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

    Son of black French General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, he became a leading literary figure in 19th-century France. He was the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

  • Felix Eboué (1884-1944)

    He was born in Cayenne, French Guiana, and became France’s top colonial administrator in Africa. He joined De Gaulle’s Free French during World War II and began the process for liberating French colonies by holding a conference in Brazzaville in 1944. He was the first black man buried in the Pantheon, the resting place of France’s political and literary giants.

  • Trevor McDonald

    He started his career in his native, Trinidad, as a newspaper and radio reporter and worked for the BBC in England. He became Britain’s first black anchorman and for years was called the most trusted man in the United Kingdom.

  • David Adjaye

    He was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian diplomats and raised in England where he became a leading architect. He has designed Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art and homes for star clients like Ewan MacGregor. Last year, his design was selected for the National African-American Museum on the Washington Mall. Click here to visit his site.

  • Lewis Hamilton

    Son of a black man and white woman, he was born and raised in England. Hamilton was was the youngest and the first black Formula One World Champion.

  • Michäelle Jean

    She is the first black governor general of Canada.  A native of Haiti, Jean is the British Queen’s official representative in Canada.

  • Chris Ofili

    Ofili is a British-Nigerian artist who incorporates traditional elements into his designs. He ran afoul of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for using elephant dung in a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

  • Tidjane Thiam

    Chief executive of Prudential, Great Britain’s second-largest insurance company, is the first black head of a listed company in Europe. He is a native of the Ivory Coast and was educated in France.

  • Marie NDiaye

    Marie NDiaye, the first black woman to win France’s highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for her novel, Three Powerful Women, in 2009.

  • Rama Yade

    She was recently voted the most popular member of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration. Yade is currently minister of sports, something of as a demotion after serving as minister for human rights. Her popularity has shielded her from the fallout of occasionally disagreeing publicly with Sarkozy’s right-of-center UMP party.

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