Beyond “Bridgerton”: Facing Up to Slavery in Europe
This history is visible, but only if you know where to look.
Amid the George Floyd protests last summer, a prominent Turkish newspaper reassured the population with an article headlined, “Bizim Siyahlar Türkiye’de Mutlu,” meaning, “Our Blacks Are Happy in Turkey.” The newspaper didn’t interview Afro-Turks, a Black population descended from Africans enslaved by the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. It quoted African immigrants who said they didn’t really experience racism in Istanbul outside of occasional stares or gestures.
Having lived in Istanbul for six years, I’ve definitely heard this before. “How can there be racism in Turkey when James Baldiwn came to Istanbul to escape American racism?” say White expats. Many Turks also see racism as an American problem. There may be discrimination in the country, but not racism, as a Turkish acquaintance once explained to me.
Olivette Otele’s new book African Europeans: An Untold History doesn’t mention Turkey—though it mentions Afro-Greek descendants of those enslaved during the Ottoman Empire—but it does reveal similar strains of collective amnesia about the legacy of African enslavement outside the Americas.
Otele, vice-president of Britain’s Royal Historical Society, meticulously reconstructs the lives of forgotten African Europeans, tracing the intercontinental thread of anti-Blackness from Greco-Roman times to the present. African Europeans is arranged more or less chronologically, but I found myself reflecting on how place shapes anti-Blackness, an ideological virus that mutates and adapts to various contexts and has spread globally.
Unlike Americans, Europeans were largely able to offshore enslavement, which has enabled a collective amnesia about both the source of their national wealth and their deep involvement in America’s so-called “original sin.” Out of sight, out of mind. A prime example is the Netherlands, which was deeply involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of Black and Brown people in colonies like Suriname and Indonesia. This history is visible, but only if you know where to look. In Amsterdam, that’s in art and architecture.
On one of my pre-pandemic trips to the Netherlands, I went on a Black Heritage Tour with guide Jennifer Tosch, who pointed out monuments featuring African faces, and depictions of “Moors” carved into friezes atop stately buildings. At the Rijksmuseum, Black people materialized from the background of Golden Age paintings like the wall-sized crowd-pleaser, “Militia Company of District VIII under the Command of Captain Roelof Bicker” by Bartholomeus van der Helst.
We visited The Black Archives, a museum mentioned in African Europeans, for an exhibition of photos showing anti-racist activism, resistance Tosch told me is largely unacknowledged by the Dutch mainstream. Perhaps they think “their” Black people are happy, too.
But African Europeans also reveals some historical Black complicity in obscuring the realities of racism, colorism, and slavery. African Europeans, especially those who were biracial, benefited from proximity to Whiteness and by emulating it. Many of those who left the written records Otele draws from were educated and enculturated by Europeans and reflect that perspective.
For example, the 18th century writings of Ghanaian born, formerly enslaved Jacobus Capitein, who later became a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, record nothing but love for the Dutch guardian who owned/educated him. Even as early as the second century, writes Otele, Libyan-born Roman emperor Septimius Severus, one of the first Black people in Britain, chose to intentionally distance himself from his African roots.
Interestingly, Otele doesn’t dwell much on Britain until the final chapter, which centers the work of Black women activists, a puzzling omission by an author who is professor of the history of slavery at the University of Bristol—especially when contemporary British racism is so topical.
The Netflix series Bridgerton may be set in a reimagined post-racial Regency England populated by Black royals, but in reality, London alone had as many as 15,000 Black “servants” by the 18th century. Many were brutally enslaved and “often beaten so badly that they died or became crippled,” wrote Akhil Sharma in The New York Times in 2014. As in the United States, this legacy lives on in today’s White-Black disparities in health, wealth, and well-being.
In March 2021, around the time Prince Harry and Meghan Markle opened up to Oprah about racism within the royal family, the United Kingdom’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities issued a report saying, “We no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.” I see the fact that Olivette Otele became the first Black woman professor of history in the U.K. in 2018 as evidence to the contrary.
This sort of hand-waving away of anti-Blackness feels uniquely European to me, the comforting absolution of “white innocence,” a term Otele credits to historian Gloria Wekker. But one troubling section of African Europeans helped me understand this impulse.
I found myself reflecting on how place shapes anti-Blackness, an ideological virus that mutates and adapts to various contexts and has spread globally.
The Senegalese islands of Gorée and Saint-Louis, now tourist destinations, were the main slave ports where Africans were trafficked from Senegal to the New World. They were also home to the Signares, dual-heritage women who built their economy—and colorist class system—from their trade in enslaved Africans. Otele writes that around half of Signare households had six or more enslaved people.
My knee-jerk reaction to that old, frequently weaponized American conservative chestnut, “But Africans held slaves, too,” has always been that African slavery was less violent, less institutionalized. Even if this were true purely for reasons of scale, Otele leaves me wondering: How far would the Signares have scaled up their slave trade if they had the opportunity?
I don’t know what to do with the complicity of people like the Signares, or Jacobus Capitein, who wrote a dissertation arguing that slavery was not incompatible with Christianity, or other problematic African Europeans in the book whose attitudes and behaviors reflected and reproduced European anti-Blackness. I find myself oscillating between judgement and, as Otele seems to, framing their choices as survival tactics.
In addition to the Signares’ story, African Europeans delivers many other “wait, what?” moments that illuminate history many would prefer to dismiss. The chapters on the 17th through 19th centuries were so pithy, I couldn’t resist laying my new knowledge on anyone unfortunate enough to walk by while I was reading them. In Spain, Blackface and mocking “Black speech” occurred as early as the 16th century! Denmark and Sweden were involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade! Did you know how much enslavement was happening on European soil?
There were in fact thousands of enslaved Africans in Europe, from Dutch households to Spanish silver mines. Records from Lisbon show that Bartolomeo Marchionni, a Florentine, owned 1,648 enslaved people between 1493 and 1495, a larger, more coordinated workforce than I expected outside the U.S. and European colonies.
At times, the volume of information in African Europeans feels a bit dense, but it demonstrates how much we still have to learn—and unlearn—about the Black lives that history forgot. Otele chips away at carefully constructed myths of colorblindness and historical innocence that White Europeans—and even Black Americans—sometimes cling to.
Surviving Whiteness complicates resistance, and telling that truth is necessary for a complete narrative. In not shying away from these stories, African Europeans ascends to scholarly meta-activism and storytelling as resistance.