On February 26, 1885 the three month long Berlin Conference came to an end with the signing of a document which the participants signed: “In the Name of God Almighty. Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India; His Majesty the German Emperor, King of Prussia; His Majesty the Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, etc, and Apostolic King of Hungary; His Majesty the King of the Belgians; His Majesty the King of Denmark; His Majesty the King of Spain; the President of the United States of America; the President of the French Republic; His Majesty the King of Italy; His Majesty the King of the Netherlands, Grand Duke of Luxemburg, etc; His Majesty the King of Portugal and the Algarves, etc; His Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias; His Majesty the King of Sweden and Norway, etc; and His Majesty the Emperor of the Ottomans.”
The conference began on November 15, 1884 where a group of white men representing 14 countries, parceled out portions of the African continent for their exploitation. No African was present as these men divided African communities and families, established new borders, entrenched injustice and colonial exploitation. Ironically the group signed this pact to destroy the lives of millions of Africans, for generations; “In the Name of God Almighty.” The Belgians would eventually blame their King for the atrocities they carried out on the Congolese. Admittedly Leopold was the ruler but it was the ordinary Belgians who were committing the horrendous acts of chopping off the hands of men, women and children in the Congo when they did not produce rubber fast enough to please the greedy Belgians.
With the wholesale colonizing of the African continent (except Ethiopia) the Europeans forced the Africans to speak the language of the colonizers and to adapt their culture and belief systems. Those Africans who quickly learned to speak the European language of their colonizers were rewarded with 2nd class citizenship in their countries (Europeans awarded themselves 1st class positions.) Those Africans who did not speak the European languages, gradually became 3rd class (and lower) citizens. The European languages began to displace African languages and there are “educated” members of these now formerly colonized African nations who choose not to speak the language of their ancestors.
As they did during the centuries of chattel slavery, Africans resisted the occupation of their land. However they were tricked by the wily Europeans who in some cases first sent in their missionaries and traders pretending that they were concerned for the Africans’ “immortal soul” or that they were there to trade. The military and the adventurers always followed in those cases. In other cases the Europeans were very up front that they were on the Africans’ land to exploit and pillage. In such cases the Europeans had the advantage being better equipped with the tools of destruction. Most Africans who had access to weapons were hampered with ancient front loading muskets which fired three rounds per minute and had to be loaded while the shooter was standing. The Europeans had the advantage of the new breech loading guns which had up to four times the firing capacity of the old muskets and could be loaded while the shooter was in a prone position making him less of a target while he was re-loading.
With the Maxim automatic machine gun, patented in July 1883 and unveiled in October 1884 the Africans were seriously out gunned in any fight. The Maxim could fire 600 rounds per minute, equivalent to the firepower of approximately 30 of even the new breech-loading rifles. Therefore by 1914, the year of the first European tribal conflict, also called the Great War or World War II, 29 years after the signing of the Berlin Conference document, white men and women occupied the African continent except for Ethiopia. The Italians had tried to colonize Ethiopia but were soundly thrashed in 1896.
The Europeans were determined to exploit the Africans and the natural resources of the continent. The Europeans swarmed into the continent occupying the most fertile land and establishing plantations coercing the Africans into supplying cheap labour. Africans were also forced into providing cheap labour as Europeans extracted the minerals from the African soil and sent the wealth to enrich Europe and Europeans.
Africans were systematically stripped of their land and in some cases of their sense of self as the colonizers taught them that their beliefs and culture were inferior and should be abandoned. They were inundated with alien beliefs, cultures, religions and languages leaving many Africans psychologically damaged.
Chinua Achebe in his 1958 published book Things Fall Apart writes of the disintegration of the Igbo (of Nigeria) society when the British colonized Nigeria and forced Africans to adapt to European culture and Christian beliefs. Africans suffered psychological damage when Christianity was introduced into their indigenous culture and belief systems. This is not surprising when people were told of a loving supreme being that the white Christians worshipped which was very much at odds with the brutal violence of some of the white practitioners of the Christian religion.
During African Heritage/Black History Month and this year of the International Year for People of African Descent we can think of ways to deal with the internalized stuff that we all struggle with to various degrees. Enough with the dancing, singing and only providing entertainment as examples of who we are as a people. As survivors of enslavement and colonization there is a bit of that enslavement of the mind/colonization of the mind that we imbibed, or received through a process seemingly similar to osmosis, because this has been handed down through generations of ignoring the physical and spirit injury our ancestors suffered. Many of us are ashamed of our history not recognizing that the enslavement and colonization to which our ancestors were subjected is not our shame to own, it is the shame of the perpetrators and those who continue to benefit.
It is important, imperative for us to write our truth so that our descendants do not continue to view themselves through European lens, through a white supremacist lens. The African belief systems are as valuable as any European systems. Various beliefs from European pagan culture are normalized while African beliefs are trivialized or ridiculed. When Europeans write about civilizing missions to Africa we must challenge and deconstruct those myths. Europeans went to Africa to exploit. European greed continues to haunt the African continent in the form of mining companies exploiting the minerals and the people of the Congo.
There has been a movement during this month to honour “One Ancestor A Day” which does not have to stop now that we are at the end of February. George Washington Williams (October 16, 1849 – August 2, 1891) and William Henry Sheppard (1865–1927) were two African American men who travelled to the Congo and worked to expose the atrocities that the Belgians visited on the people of the Congo. Which ancestor are you learning about today?