Historian and all-around Black icon Olivette Otele rose historical European figures from the grave in her latest nonfiction book African Europeans, documenting their contributions from ancient to contemporary history. While these figures of African descent, mixed-race, and other identities remain scarce in the history books, their lives remain interesting and vital to the narrative of Europe we wish to tell.
Here are just nine African Europeans that were wiped from history.
Saint Maurice became one of the first Black saints in European history, defying our current understanding of white European’s feelings towards African Europeans of the time. He was a Malmuk, by our definition a “white African Muslim of European descent,” and commanded Roma troops in the Theban legion.
When he was asked to worship the Roman god of Jupiter, as was customary for Roman soldiers, he initially agreed, and later refused due to religious reasons. For his resistance, he and soldiers that supported him were executed in 287 CE.
Septimus Severus was born into a wealthy family in 145 CE in Tripolitania, modern-day Libya. He moved to Rome and became friendly with the ruling elite, and became a Roman senator in 169 CE. Appointed later as a tribune and sent to posts around Syria, Severus rose to the title of governor and returned to Rome after the assassination of Emperor Pertinax by soldiers to seize power.
“It appears that he was a clever politician who did not hesitate to make alliances with those who might threaten Rome’s position,” wrote Otele.
He largely distanced himself from his African lineage, while expanding territory to the north, south, and east. He even had his close personal ally, Plautianus, killed for the attempted overthrow of his position as emperor.
Marcus cornelius fronto
Marcus Cornelius Fronto “rarely presented himself as African.” Born around 100 CE in what is now Constantine, “he is known as one of the most eloquent orators that Roman education ever produced.” Fronto participated in politics briefly before getting hired as a tutor to the emperor’s sons. He was respected and loved by those he tutored and appeared to be just as fond of them
As a person born on the outskirts of the Roman empire, he “felt the need to overcompensate but excelled in an environment that encouraged assimilation,” becoming a master of Latin.
Unlike other African Europeans, he expressed a desire to return to Africa, and never criticized Africa, but always wrote about Rome and its military victories in a positive light.
Alessandro de medici
Alessandro da Medici was a member of the famous and historically powerful Medici family, and eventually became the first Medici duke of Florence. His mother is thought to be a free African woman, although she was referred to both as a Moore and a slave.
Interestingly, Alessandro wasn’t attacked for his blackness, but for issues with his sexuality and ruling style. Described as “a cruel tyrant, a monster and a murderer” by his dissenters, those he supported thought him to be generous, though his “incessant quest for pleasure” dampened his image in the eyes of other elites, as he was expected to show restraint as a powerful ruler. He relentlessly pursued women who didn’t have the choice to refuse him and ruined their reputations in the process.
His reputation as a tyrant could have been based upon the way he came into power. The Medici’s used an army to return to power after being forced to leave Florence, and Pope Clement VII appointed Alessandro as the city’s leader. He would ultimately be assassinated by his cousin Lorenzino in 1537, only for his successor, Cosimo I, to have Lorenzino assassinated in 1548.
While not necessarily an African European, and more so an enslaved African in Europe, Ursola’s story illustrates the struggles of many slaves in Valencian households.
Owned by Francesc Martinez, Ursola went to work for other people as a laundress to earn money towards purchasing her freedom after they had reached an agreement that she could do so for forty lliures.
When she eventually gathered the required sum, Martinez revoked the offer because she apparently hadn’t returned to his home enough to “make him bread every day,” which was a clause in the contract that she had to fulfill.
She was thus denied her freedom.
Born Johannes Latinus in 1518 as a slave in Granada, he rose in the social ranks due to his “mastery of Latin.” He followed his master, the third Duke of Sessa, to the University of Granada where he would go on to earn a Bachelor’s degree while still enslaved in 1546, and his Master of Arts degree in 1557.
He earned the name Juan Latino due to his exceptional understanding of the Latin language and went on to become a lecturer on grammar.
This name could have acted as a back-handed compliment to Latino’s skills, as the term “Ladino” referred to a enslaved people fluent in Castilian. Latino’s fluency in both Latin and Castilian thus could have poked fun at his intellectual achievements. Other theories believe that Latino preemptively renamed himself, expecting this joke to be made about his skill.
Sarah Baartman can loosely be considered an African European, just for her influence and grip on French masculinity. Anatomist Georges Cuvier became fascinated with Baartman and ideas of comparative anatomy drove him to relentlessly study her body. She was even paraded around for Europeans to ogle at her miraculous “difference” as a means of entertainment.
While she has been labeled as a helpless victim, others point out the “surprising agency” she had in certain areas of her life. The timing of her popularity as the so-called “Hottentot Venus” came after Napoleon’s numerous losses when France was clouded with the shame of his failures.
The spotlight placed on her and her “deformed” body was used to entertain and comfort the “bruised French masculinity,” and give French women a confidence boost around the time when Europe was on the verge of obsession over Black women’s bodies and sexuality. Baartman’s whole existence in the European mind ultimately revealed a weakness in the psyche of French men and women that couldn’t be overcome without a subject to poke fun at.
The French plantation owner Guillame-Pierre Taverneir de Boulogne made the unique decision to give his mixed-race son his last name. Joseph Boulogne thus traveled to Paris with his enslaved Senegalese mother Anne, or Nanon, and father after being born in 1739.
Joseph received a nobleman education and was placed under the tutelage of a master fencer, who was also in charge of his education. He went on to master arms and become a skilled equestrian, even joining elite French salons of the time, but he truly excelled at music.
After learning under the previous music teacher of King Louis XV, he became one of the first French composers to write string quartets. His concerts attracted Europeans from all over, but he still met opposition. Mozart visited Paris in 1778, around the time that Joseph was the best composer in the country. Yet, Mozart refused to see him or attend his concerts.
Joseph even led troops for the revolutionaries during the French Revolutionary War, emerging with a sterling reputation. Soon after the war, sickness weakened him so much that he could no longer work, and he died in 1799.
When Napoleon came into power, he banned Joseph’s music. He didn’t receive his due credit until the 21st century when leaders of the country acknowledged his accomplishments around the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in France.
Jeanne Duval “defied social norms” through her work as a sex worker and model, in addition to becoming poet Baudelaire’s “muse and lover.”
French society often demonized Duval, blaming Baudelaire’s unsavory lifestyle on her, though some claim that he wouldn’t have become the fantastic poet he was without her influence. Their relationship “tainted him and blurred gender and identity norms,” in French society, making Baudelaire fail the ideals of whiteness and Frenchness in their eyes.
Professor Robin Mitchell writes: “Because Baudelaire’s defenders could not find a way to incorporate Duval and other Black women into the definition of Frenchness, they demonized her and expunged her from the record as much as possible.”