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10 Prominent Black Africans in Renaissance Europe

The idea of black skin color as a natural mark of inferiority was adopted mainly in Europe in the 16th century by Spanish and Portuguese slave traders justify the trade. This idea went on to usher in the greatest injustice in human history. Millions of Africans were shipped across the world and sold into servitude, treated less than humans. These evil men, however, unknowingly created a more diverse world now appreciated by most people except a few racists of course. While historical documents from Roman Europe did not focus much on race when identifying people, black people were interacting with Romans. They were serving in the army and rising to the highest status in society before the world descended into the darkness of the slave trade, and racial inferiority was justified. Here is a look at ten prominent black Africans that thrived in these dark times proving the world wrong.

Juan Latino (1518 – 1594)

Black Africans Juan Latino

This one of the most famous Spanish poets despite having been brought up and educated as a slave. He was brought to Spain with his mother at the age of 12 to the house of the Spanish war hero Fernando De Cordoba. They later moved to Granada. Together with young Gonzalo, the famous Duke of Sesa, they went to grammar school where young Juan graduated as an excellent Spanish and Latin speaker and poet.

He went on to the University of Granada, getting his bachelors degree in 1546. While his former little master was campaigning in Italy, Juan went on to write many poems still read and referenced today. He was later adopted as a lecturer in the University of Granada teaching music and poetry. He is also one of the earliest writers who argued that there was no justification for the enslavement of Africans.[1]

John Edmonstone (1793 – 1822)

John Edmonstone

It is tough to imagine that Charles Darwin, one of the greatest scholars of all time, was taught and inspired by a former black slave from Guyana. John Edmonstone was born on a plantation owned by a Scottish politician named Charles Edmonstone. Charles brought his former slave with him back to Glasgow to learn taxidermy after he earned his freedom in Guyana. John was taught Taxidermy by his old master’s son-in-law Charles Warton as the best method to preserve birds.

John later moved to Edinburgh to make a life for himself stuffing birds at museums and teaching students. He was a lecturer at Edinburgh University when Charles Darwin came there in 1825. John Edmonstone personally taught Darwin taxidermy, a crucial part of Darwin’s future achievements.[2]

Beachy Head Lady (250 – 350)

Beachy Head Lady

The discovery of this mysterious woman changed the former beliefs about the position of black Africans in Roman-Britain. The only trace of black people in Britain was thought to be the 16th century Elizabethan Negroes who got expelled from Britain for lawlessness. However, this discovery proved that Roman Britain was multicultural and that black people were not necessarily a servitude community in that society.

In 1953, the lady’s skeleton was unearthed, but the mapping of age, race, and state of health got done until 2014. Thanks to the Heritage lottery fund aimed at establishing the ancestry of skeletons at Eastbourne Borough Council’s Museum. The scientists agreed that the woman grew up in Essex and her burial alongside other royals in the court suggested she was a woman of significant standing despite her sub-Saharan origin. That has led to further research on the role of the black soldiers and mistresses of Roman Soldiers recorded in scattered accounts of history which many people never took seriously.[3]

Fanny Eaton (1835 – Unknown)

Fanny Eaton

The art of Modelling in the early 19th century London was portrayed mainly as a white affair until the revelation of Fanny Eaton as one of the favorite muses and models of Victorian London. She was the daughter of a slave woman in the Caribbean who moved to London for an unknown reason. It is believed to have started modeling at the royal academy where Fanny caught the eye of many great painters.

In the short period of her career, she features in paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, and Joanna Boyce. Rossetti writes the most famous account of her beauty to Ford Madox Brown, another renowned artist of the mid-19th century. The appreciation of a black beauty model in such a time when racial injustice and oppression of women’s rights was so rife is a total eye-opener to everyone.[4]

Ignatius Sancho (1729 – 1780)

Black Africans Ignatius Sancho

He is famously the first British black man to vote after he achieved that status in 1774 as an independent householder having become free from slavery and married with seven children. His history is quite sad. He was born on a slave ship to a mother who died while he was an infant. His father committed suicide to avoid enslavement, and Sancho was sold into slavery at a young age. He was the slave of three sisters in Greenwich who believed in keeping him ignorant to ensure he remains obedient.

Sancho, however, met the Duke of Montagu while working as a slave and the duke educated him teaching him to write letters and poems. He later lived with the duke’s wife after his death; He had run away from his “owner” after begging the widow to take him on as an employee. He later got married to a West Indian woman and together started a grocery in Westminster. As a business owner and a popular writer, Sancho became the most famous black man in Westminster. He was the first black man to have his obituary published in an English newspaper.[5]

Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein (1717 – 1774)

Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein

This man is believed to have been the first black missionary from Europe back to his homeland in Africa. He was captured from his parents from the Gold coast at a young age and sold to a Dutch captain, Arnold Steinhardt. Arnold later gave him away as a gift to Jacob Van Goh. Van Goh brought him to the Netherlands and took him to school as a free man. He was a great student and a religious man baptized and famed for his achievements in school.

He attended Catechism at the local reformed church before proceeding to Leiden University to learn theology. He became a perfect speaker of Dutch, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and even wrote an outstanding dissertation on slavery and Christian liberty. The piece became the basis for the banning of slavery throughout Europe. He later went to Africa as a missionary, but he died at the age of 30 before achieving much.[6]

William Cuffay (1788 – 1870)

William Cuffay

He is one of the greatest fighters for workers rights in Victorian London with great success despite being the son of a slave. He was born to a former slave then working as a naval cook in Chatham and grew up to get work as a tailor’s apprentice himself. His career was, however, more political than tailoring. He was forced to join a tailor’s union in 1833 which went on strike a year later leading to Cuffay losing his job. He then joined the tailors Charter association getting elected into office in the top five-member bench which made him a chief advocate for workers’ rights.

His downfall, however, started when he joined the three-team leadership of the land company, which was considered a radical group against the government in London. Later, he got arrested on charges of conspiracy against the government for which he was sentenced to 21 years of servitude in Tasmania in a sham trial. He continued to fight for workers’ rights in Tasmania, leading to reforms in servant-master laws on the Island as well.[7]

Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)

Mary Seacole

She is the Crimean war hero and the Black British Version of Florence Nightingale except, being black, she could neither vote nor be accepted into professions. She was of the mixed-race having been born to a Jamaican mother and taught to be a nurse because her mother was a traditional healer. She managed to travel to Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas to perfect her art as a nurse but was refused a request to be assigned as a nurse for wounded soldiers in Crimea.

She then bravely self-funded her trip there and set up a makeshift hospital near the camps with food and medicine for injured soldiers. Many officers described her as a lifesaver, although the British government wanted no part in it even when she came back from the war sick and broke. However, well-wishers made a fundraiser for her to pay for treatment and got her back on her feet. She managed to write memoirs of her adventures, although her most significant drivers to fame were the touching tales of the British soldiers she helped.[8]

Abraham Petrovitch Hannibal (1696 – 1781)

Abraham Petrovitch Hannibal

He is one of the greatest Military engineers from ancient Russia whose life started as a slave in the court of Peter the Great. Peter left Little Abraham in France to learn mathematics and Engineering at the military school in Paris, which allowed him to deploy in the French army against Spain in 1718. He returned to Russia before his adoptive father’s death in 1725 after which he was sent on Russian military operations in Siberia and in China to measure the great wall.

Empress Elizabeth recalled Hannibal to Russia in the military advisory in 1743 until the 1750s when she made him a general in the Russian army. He was the engineer of many famous castles and naval bases in Russia including the Ladoga Canal in St. Petersburg.[9]

Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797)

Black Africans Olaudah Equiano

Equiano’s slave story started in Modern Nigeria when he alongside his sister were abducted and sold to slave traders then put on a ship bound for Virginia. In Virginia, a naval captain named in his book only as Pascal bought him for £40. They spent most of the time at sea where Equiano was able to learn how to read and write. The captain later sold him to a merchant Robert King on the Island of Montserrat where he was able to trade on the side and raise enough money to buy his freedom. He then started working as a free man on the ships traveling to many places.

He had a tough time fighting for the rights of slaves and trying to get the total abolition of slavery. Sometimes he was abducted as some slavers tried to re-enslave him, having to escape by a canoe in one instance. He later married an Englishwoman and settled in London where he published his book and started the “Sons of Africa” Movement to fight for the rights of black Africans in Britain and abroad. He was Britain’s most famous antislavery campaigner.[10][11]

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