An interview with Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman by Aaron Salzer, of science.ORF.at
Translation from German by Dr Jeff Bowersox and Daniel James
Reprinted with permission for Maangamizi Awareness Month
Two hundred years ago, the "slave trade" was abolished at the Congress of Vienna. But this was owing less to Enlightenment philosophy than to political and economic considerations. For the "great white" philosophers of the Enlightenment were little concerned with European enslavement of African people. This has consequences down to the present day: the philosophical canon has been "whitewashed."
This is the claim of philosopher Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman at University College London, in conversation with science.ORF.at. In Coleman, scholarly interests and biographical background are intertwined. He crosses out his name, because of the history of slavery hidden behind it. According to Coleman, the historical hopes of white "slave owners" to continuously expand their property in enslaved Africans is inscribed in his name.
"Persons racialised as white virtually bred "slaves." They gave European surnames to the "offspring" of enslaved African women, and, thus, a sort of emblem to lay claim to their possession. Today no one "owns" such children anymore, but the hope to lay claim to their possession lives on in the European surnames."
"Africans Are Philosophers"
In the context of the Congress of Vienna, European power relations and borders were reorganised. In the course of this, the "slave trade" was outlawed worldwide. But abolition of the "slave trade" was only gradually implemented around the globe in the decades thereafter and not until 1888 was Brazil the final state to abolish the actual institution of European enslavement of African people.
Britain was the state that demanded the abolition of the "slave trade" at the Congress—just as that Empire had already done through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. After the resolution was passed, the Great Powers gave themselves a pat on the back and described it as a sudden insight into the principles of humanity and universal morality, says Coleman. They, thus, no longer presented themselves as enslavers, but as emancipators.
On closer consideration, this, as well as other things, reveal themselves as a "whitewashing" of history: Besides the euphemistic emancipatory representation, there is also the idea that, although "great white men" once put forward the arguments justifying slavery, they afterwards changed their mind, promising to help Africans and declaring that slavery is morally wrong.
But "Africans are philosophers. From the moment they were abducted they argued philosophically that it was unjust," Coleman says. But they weren't listened to, and even today they are missing from the canon of Eurocentric curricula and are not valued as philosophers.
Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes or Rousseau philosophised and spoke about slavery, but not really about the European colonial enslavement of African people. If they did, it was in a supposedly universal political sense as the opposite of freedom, or metaphorically, as in Wollstonecraft, who meant "enslaved" wealthy, "white middle-class women." "She didn't really want to get her hands dirty with the actual enslavement right before her eyes."
"Slave Breeding" Instead of "Slave Trade"
A central mark of difference to other forms of enslavement, such as those of antiquity, was "slave breeding," something that David Hume—a philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment—had already identified. Coleman explains that a legal change in 17th century England—Partus sequitur ventrem—made "slave breeding" possible because, from this point onward, the societal status of women was passed on to their children.
This change not only broke with English tradition, according to which the status of a child was dependent on that of the father, but also made possible that persons racialised as white could increase the number of those enslaved by them by sexually abusing African women: the enslaved thus reproduced themselves. They were, so to speak, "bred" on site, such that the Great Powers realised they no longer needed to "resupply" from Africa, Coleman explains.
Hence, it was convenient for the colonial powers to speak of the "slave trade" rather than of enslavement, at the Congress of Vienna. Under the pretence of social progress, it was indeed forbidden to buy and sell people, but not to own people: enslavement wasn't abolished, and the European empires could still enrich themselves on the basis of the enslavement of persons.
In the course of this, economic competition between the countries played an important role. After all, colonizing the world was about the question: "Which European nation is on top; which nation is the whitest?"
The Haitian Revolution
A further reason to outlaw the "slave trade" was the African revolution in Haiti which began in 1791, led to the abolition of enslavement two years later, and reached its climax in 1804. The Africans founded a republic, renamed Saint Domingue as Haiti (its indigenous name), and declared all citizens of Haiti to be Black - actions that were astonishing for the time.
"This shocked the European empires. They thought: we have to change something about slavery, we have to stop the "slave trade" or else we will have revolution throughout the Caribbean," says Coleman. The "slave trade" was thought to disturb "seasoned negroes" with revolutionary Africans.
The European empires also regarded the Haitian revolution as shocking and unbelievable because, here, African people had undertaken something that, according to Immanuel Kant, was impossible: The "great" Enlightenment philosopher thought that African people were incapable of organising and administering themselves rationally. In Haiti, however, that is exactly what they did.
A Colonial Administrator Shapes the Image of Africans
This understanding of the "incapability" of African people fit the contemporary Zeitgeist: Edward Long, a British colonial administrator in Jamaica, had deeply influenced the idea of what an African was and could ever be. In his 1774 History of Jamaica, he described African people from a perspective of colonial arrogance. He thought that "negroes" had been rightfully enslaved, because they were akin to "orangutans," explains Coleman. "Long thought they were like apes, had the same colour—brownish-black—and behaved in an uncivilised manner. They spoke strange languages, couldn't write (in European languages), didn't participate in intellectual conversations and didn't have the technologies that "we" have."
According to Coleman, Long thought that one would be doing them a favour in enslaving them and forcing them to work, in order to "civilise" them. Thinkers and writers influenced by Long's ideas were dubbed "orangutan" philosophers—dubbed by the "Sons of Africa" —a movement opposed to enslavement.
"The Sons of Africa"
A leading member of the "Sons of Africa" was Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, who had been abducted on the West African coast. Later, he was the first African who penned and published arguments against enslavement in English.
The most notable thing about this was that his writings weren't narratives or biographies, like those of his colleague Olaudah Equiano, but rather philosophical arguments that were rooted in the European ideas of the Enlightenment, beginning with John Locke, one hundred years earlier, in the 17th century.
Cugoano committed himself to Locke's idea that each person owns himself. Accordingly, his philosophical argument was that this also applied to Africans and, therefore, African persons couldn't be owned by other persons. Through enslavement, African people had been dispossessed of themselves, argued Cugoano. With this, he came to a conclusion implicit in Locke's thought - one that Locke himself had not drawn. For Locke once wrote: "Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves."
"Try to find Cugoano in a philosophical syllabus," Coleman notes. You will fail. Similarly, if you search for "philosophers" in Google Images, you will find only ""white men," usually with beards."
According to Coleman, the philosophical canon is socially constructed and unjustly excludes Africans like Cugoano or Anton Wilhelm Amo, an African philosopher who lived in (what is now) Germany, in the 17th century. They were virtually written out of the history of philosophy. It has been recounted that enslaved Africans did not write anything worth reading, and much less anything of philosophical value. And if they did write anything, it was only "stories." But this is false.
These authors were philosophers, insists Coleman: Alongside Cugoano and Amo and the "Sons of Africa," Frederick Douglass, as well as African women such as the African British Mary Prince or the African American women Sojourner Truth, Harriet Ann Jacobs, and Sarah Parker Remond are also to be included or, better, intruded into the canon .
With the British campaign "Why is my curriculum white," the related South African campaign "Rhodes must fall" and the British solidarity campaign "Rhodes must fall Oxford," efforts are currently being undertaken to recover those voices that have been stifled and to challenge institutionalised whiteness, especially in Eurocentric curricula.
How deeply rooted racist views still are can be seen in the fact that there are still "orangutan" philosophers around. Take, for example Michael Levin, an emeritus professor of New York University, who, among other things, defended the 1994 book The Bell Curve, which attempts to establish a relationship between intelligence and "race."
About Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman
Heir to enslaved, emancipated, and self-emancipated AfriKans in Jamaica, born and bred in Brum, educated at Oxford (Double First, in Greats), Paris (Entente Cordiale Scholar), and Michigan (MA and PhD, in Philosophy), Nathaniel is a philosopher, working in ethical, moral, social, and political philosophy, with a focus on the gendered and racialised injustice of "slavery." Nathaniel is a Fellow of the University of London's Institute of Commonwealth Studies and he is UCL's, and Britain's, first and only philosopher hired with the specific mandate to research, teach, and engage the public on the Critical Philosophy of "Race." Each year, Nathaniel has taught a senior undergraduate seminar in "The philosophy of anti-slavery." Nathaniel's teaching is led by his groundbreaking cross-disciplinary and counter-Eurocentric research for a monograph, accepted by UCL Press, entitled Why Was "negro slavery" Wrong?. Since February 2014, Nathaniel has led UCL's co-productive collaboration—"Enriching Public Discourse; Empowering African People"—with the African Reparations Transnational Community of Practice. Since September 2014, Nathaniel has led the drafting of "Liberating the Curriculum"—UCL's response, in its successful application for the Equality Challenge Unit's new Race Equality Charter Mark, to questions about the white domination of UCL's curriculum. Much of the work that underpins this official response has been developed by two student-led social movements, currently asking, previously, "Why isn't my professor black?" and, currently, "Why is my curriculum white?"—both social movements are supported by UCL Dismantling The Master's House. UCL invented National Eugenics and Nathaniel recently presented, at "Thinking Chinese," a eugenics-critical analysis and evaluation of Francis Galton's 1873 letter "Africa for the Chinese." Nathaniel was hired by UCL on a one-year-long contract in October 2013; this temporary contract was renewed in October 2014; Nathaniel has been told that this contract will end definitively in October 2015.
- Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, Ph.D.
- Philosophy is dead white and dead wrong
- Philosophy has to be about more than white men
- It's time to take the curriculum back from dead white men
- The Amo Project
Dr. Coleman will respond to comments (below). Please identify yourself so we can have a conversation. Anonymous comments will not be posted.