This article is part of Tortoise’s File on The Future of History, which considers what history should look like in the 21st Century – as a subject of study, but also an area of action and protest. To see the rest of the File’s contents, please tap here.
History can be a hostile environment for Black people. We are often portrayed as historical actors without a script; as passive empty vessels who are grateful recipients of change, and not agents of change ourselves.
Take, for instance, the abolition of slavery in Britain; we know of men like William Wilberforce and his valiant efforts to abolish slavery. But less is known about the Black men and women who penned the haunting accounts of their experiences of slavery; accounts which convinced the abolitionists to take up their positions in the first place. People like Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Ottobah Cugoano should surely receive at least some of the plaudits that history has bestowed on Wilberforce.
A reckoning in history is required – and very much underway – to illuminate these underrepresented tales of courage. Why? Because historical stories of heroism beget present-day acts of heroism. Here is my own list of some lesser-known historical figures, chosen to help broaden the conversation about our collective past:
Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803)
Known as the “Black Napoleon”, Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture was a military general with a deeply philosophical mind that was shaped, in part, by Enlightenment ideals. Louverture would help to thwart successive European invasions that sought to re-enslave the Haitian people, and, against all conceivable odds, he ended up victorious. He would go on to pen a constitution based on the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all – but, this time, the “all” included African peoples. Haiti would become the second free republic in the “New World” after the USA.
Aba Women’s Riots (1929)
The women of southeastern Nigeria, who rose up against the suffocating policies of the British Empire in 1929, represented the first significant challenge to British rule in West Africa. The local rulers installed by the British attempted to impose taxes on the women, many of whom were market vendors, in large part to diminish their position in society. The women mobilised and agitated as they quashed the efforts to enact the new rules. Today they would be described as feminists; these women were fearless in their refusal to capitulate to Edwardian notions of gender roles. Their successful revolt would lead to reforms that saw women appointed to the native court system.
The Negritude Movement (1930-1970)
The largely Paris-based Negritude movement consisted of poets, writers and artists. Its creation in the 1930s represented a watershed moment in which intellectuals from across Francophone Africa and the diaspora raised “Black consciousness” by rejecting European hegemony and embracing African cultures and languages, which millions had previously been forced to unlearn. Intellectuals like Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor and Alioune Diop created urgent works of literature and art – an act which placed them under the merciless gaze of Western intelligence agencies, who in turn tried to meddle in their lives. Despite this, the work of the Negritude Movement gained support from influential Europeans such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso. Their Pan-African outlook would go on to embolden the leaders of African independence movements.
Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961)
Patrice Lumumba’s fight for Congolese independence from the Belgian colonialists is a haunting story and one that illustrates the depths to which Western powers would go to undermine idealistic postcolonial leaders. Lumumba was a politician, an intellectual, a Pan-Africanist, and a man who tried his best to reject the trappings of ethnic politics in pursuit of a united Congo. His murder, orchestrated by Western intelligence agencies, would make him a martyr. Today, Belgian streets and public squares are named after Lumumba, as the country begins to reflect on its dark past.
Combatants in the Battle of Adwa (1896)
Among Ethiopians today, knowledge of their ancestors’ defeat of Italian colonialists is a source of national pride. As African states fell in the late 19th Century, Ethiopians of all colours and creeds rallied around Emperor Menelik II and thwarted the Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa. The shockwaves from the battle were felt in Europe: it ended dreams of a new Roman Empire and led directly to the collapse of the Italian government. Today, the victory at the Battle of Adwa is still celebrated in Ethiopia, every year in early March, as a reminder of the heroism of the men and women who fought off their would-be subjugators.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was known as the “Mayor of Christopher Street”, after an area of New York City’s West Village. A veteran of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, she played an important role in establishing the Pride movement as we know it today. Johnson was unapologetic in her identity and relentless in her support of others – at a time when it certainly wasn’t easy. Homosexuality was still deemed a mental disorder in America until the 1970s, and LGBTQ people were often subjected to terrible police brutality. It was in this environment that Johnson helped found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and later became a prominent AIDS activist.
Few things evoke notions of heroism like stories of exploration. Generally, explorers have been depicted as fearless, white Europeans who “discover” – paradoxically – already inhabited lands. However, throughout history, Black people have done their share of exploring, too. Take, for instance, Mansa (Sultan) Abu Bakr II of the Malian Empire, who in 1311 left the West African kingdom with a convoy of 2,000 ships in search of the limits of the Atlantic Ocean. Or Mathieu Da Costa, who was the first man of African descent to set foot in Canada in 1619. Matthew Henson was the African-American pioneering explorer of the Arctic in the early 20th Century. All of these individuals, and many more, have largely been consigned to the footnotes.
Frank Crichlow (1932-2010)
The Windrush docked in Tilbury, not far from London, in 1948 – and brought with it immigrants from various Caribbean countries. After the initial euphoria subsided, the Black community faced a new reality: a racist backlash. People like Frank Crichlow became instrumental in establishing a sense of community, and providing places to congregate for the newcomers and oldtimers alike. Crichlow had to ward off repeated police attempts to shut down his famous Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill. His struggle against police harassment culminated in the trial of the so-called “Mangrove Nine” in 1970, a trial that exposed racism in Britain’s police forces decades before the Macpherson report in 1999. Crichlow also helped to set up the Notting Hill Carnival, a longstanding testament to his impact.
Marielle Franco (1979-2018)
Marielle Franco embodied the community she served. Born and raised in Rio’s favelas, Franco devoted all her waking hours to Afro-Brazilian and LGBTQ causes. Black people in Brazil tend to exist at the bottom of an unwritten but still omnipresent caste system: they are disproportionately killed by police; more likely to face severe poverty than any other demographic. Franco’s career grew in tandem with the rise of the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. Her assassination – allegedly at the hands of former military police with links to Bolsonaro – means that, for tragic reasons, her story will feature in history classes long into the future.
Black British health workers
Healthcare workers have never been so important – nor, judging by the ceremonial round of applause that accompanied Thursday evenings through lockdown, more appreciated. The applause should certainly stretch to the Black women who have played a vital role in healthcare for decades – and, in fact, were instrumental in filling vacancies after the National Health Service was founded in 1948. Around 3,000 trained to be nurses in 1954, meaning that many were on the front line in time for the 1957 Influenza Pandemic. As the history of our latest pandemic is written, and the toll on BAME health workers is laid bare, the contributions of Black women working in medical and non-medical roles must be remembered.
Illustrations by Tim Vyner, Photography by Getty Images