'For black lives to matter, Africa mus' matter'

'For black lives to matter, Africa mus' matter'


Wednesday, July 08, 2020

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“For black lives to matter, Africa mus' matter,” so said Burna Boy, Nigerian Afrobeat (aka dancehall) singer at the 2020 BET Awards last month. Burna Boy's apt comment establishes the key link in the relationship between Africa and its Diaspora. The Black Lives Matter movement has turned the spotlight on both the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial past.

Reparation for the transatlantic trade in African bodies, and the forced extraction of labour from them in plantation slavery which enriched Europe and the United States, is now a global issue. Reparation was made to the Jewish people after the Second World War. It is now time for repair for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

The enslavement of millions of African people, many of them children, women and young people, was mankind's longest-sustained crime against humanity in the modern era. This crime against black humanity took place from the fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth centuries. Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery establishes the groundwork for Caribbean underdevelopment, and Hilary Beckles has built on Eric Williams' work in Britain's Black Debt- Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide.

On top of this, in the 1880s when European countries met to carve up the African continent in Berlin, European states continued their predatory acquisition of the continent's resources and labour. Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is compelling in its analysis of the historical evidence on how colonialism arrested and reversed development in Africa.

Supporters of Black Lives Matter in Belgium have defaced the statue of King Leopold II, and the current King Phillipe of Belgium has expressed regret. An expression of regret is an insult to the memories of some 10 million people from the Congo who were killed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The people of the Congo, from whom our own kumina and tambu traditions are derived, endured slave labour on rubber plantations owned by King Leopold II. King Phillipe, the current King, has a moral obligation to apologise and pay reparation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The global movement for reparation rejects expressions of regret and demands an apology and reparation to the people of the Congo.

The reason for Belgium to apologise and engage in a process of repair is that in the late nineteenth century King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the Congo as his personal estate. King Leopold was king of the Belgians from 1865-1909 and the Sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885-1908. Leopold's colony in the Congo was larger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy put together. The United States and European countries recognised Leopold II's control of the Congo and the Congress of Berlin ceded this huge colony to him.

But there were protests at the carving up of Africa and atrocities of the Belgians in the Congo in many parts of the world. Prominent among the critics was the American writer Mark Twain, whose powerful satirical work King Leopold's Soliloquy poured scorn on the monarch's “mouth full of Bible” justifying his civilising mission. This brilliant short work can be downloaded and read here ( http://diglib1.amnh.org/articles/kls/twain.pdf). More recently, Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa provides a wealth of evidence on the holocaust in the Congo. Students of literature would also be familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was set in the Congo.

In Jamaica, condemnation of Belgian atrocities was led by Dr Robert Love, a Bahamian who settled in Jamaica and became a black member of Jamaica's Legislative Council. Love was influenced by the work of Trinidadian pan-Africanist Henry Sylvester-Williams, who organised the 1900 pan-African Conference in London attended by delegates from Africa, the Caribbean, the UK, and the United States. The United States was represented by the African American scholar-activist Dr W E B DuBois, who was instrumental in drafting an 'Address to the Nations of the World', calling on Europe to address racism, to grant self-government to colonies in Europe and the West Indies, and political and other rights for African Americans. Love followed up with organising the pan-African Association in Jamaica in 1901, and this organisation held meetings on August 1, Emancipation Day, to elaborate plans for furthering the freedom of Africans in Africa and the Diaspora.

And there was Dr T E S Scholes, a Jamaican who lived and worked in the 'Congo Free State' in the early 1890s. He documented and protested the brutal and inhumane treatment of the Congolese by the Belgians. Scholes had received his MD from the University of Brussels in 1893, so he was familiar with the Belgians and their racial prejudices.


The Congo became independent in 1960. With independence political leaders who challenged old and new forms of economic and political subjugation such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana were overthrown in military coups or assassinated, as was the case with Patrice Lumumba of the Congo. Patrice Lumumba was killed in 1961 in a plot involving the collaboration of the US's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — evidence of which exists in declassified documents — the Belgians and Mobutu Sese Seko who later became president.

The raw material that brought wealth to Leopold II was rubber. The predation of Africa's resources has continued. Today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is resource-rich with the world's second-largest river; fertile soil; as well as deposits of copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, oil and coltan. But its minerals enrich corporations which mine the tantalum derived from coltan used in cellphones, DVD players, laptops, hard drives, and gaming devices.

We must continue to put the spotlight on the sources of underdevelopment and inequalities in Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, and the black communities in the United States and Europe, and work towards reparatory justice and social, cultural, and economic transformation.

Professor Rupert Lewis is a research fellow at the P J Patterson Centre for Africa-Caribbean Advocacy at the University of the West Indies. He is also a member of the National Council on Reparation. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or rupertlew@gmail.com.

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