Exploring Sub-Saharan African History

 I am currently taking a brief course, “Sub-Saharan African History to Colonialism,” to learn about such history “from many angles: anthropological, historical, geographic, cultural, and religious. From human origins through the populating of the continent, the great civilizations, the slave trades, to the beginning of European domination.” Offered by the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), the course’s instructor is Tom O’Toole, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.

Why does this Euro-American septuagenarian take this course? Foremost, I know virtually nothing about this history and want to know more. I also realize that I have various direct and indirect connections with Africa.

The most immediate precipitating cause is reading the discussion of the names of African and African-American intellectuals and historical figures that were discovered at Howard University by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and recounted in his book “Between the World and Me” and my realizing that I did not know virtually any of these people. This book also has prompted me to research and investigate my own notions of race, including my recent posts about statements from the American Anthropological Association about race’s non-scientific basis and historical and cultural background. Further posts about notions of race are forthcoming.

I learned more about one of these figures of African history this spring when my 10th-grade grandson wrote a History Day paper on Mansa Musa, who was a 14th century Emperor or King of Mali. Moreover, one of my sons knows more about this history from his having studied African history and Swahili at the University of Minnesota and from spending a semester in Kenya with a program of the National Outdoor Leadership School and then a week on his own living with a Maasai tribesman in that country.

Coates also legitimately castigates the U.S. history of slavery and its lasting impacts on our country. This has underscored my interest in the importation of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. This was part of Lawrence Hill’s fascinating novel “The Book of Negroes” (“Someone Knows My Name”), about which I have written. Moreover, I have visited Matanzas, Cuba and Salvador, Brazil, which were major ports of importation of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in those countries.

I have a number of friends from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana) and visited Cameroon on a mission trip from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. There I learned about the country’s having been a German colony (Kamerun) in the 19th century and then having French and British administration under League of Nations mandates after Germany was stripped of its African colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Forty-plus years later Cameroon became an independent country with the joinder of the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Yet life today in the country is still affected by the language and cultural differences from the French and British governance and less so by the previous 30-plus years of German rule.

I also have visited Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focused primarily on observing their magnificent wildlife and nature, but also the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during the years of apartheid. In addition, I had the opportunity to see and hear Mandela speak at a 2003 celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships held at Westminster Hall in London and to see him escorted through the Hall’s audience, only 10 feet from me and my wife, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The visit to South Africa also included stopping at Cecil Rhodes’ Cottage and Museum at Mulzenberg overlooking False Bay and the Indian Ocean at the southwest corner of the country. (My interest in Cecil Rhodes, the Founder of the Scholarships, and his 19th century involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) stems from being a Rhodes Scholar who was “up” at Oxford, 1961-1963, and from my gratitude for being a beneficiary of his largess.)

While co-teaching international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, I learned about the International Criminal Court, whose initial cases all came from Africa, thereby prompting some resistance from African leaders who thought this was anti-African discrimination. (I have written many blog posts about the ICC.) Previously I had been a pro bono lawyer for two Somali men’s successful applications for asylum in the U.S.

Other indirect connections are provided by three Grinnell College classmates. One became a professor of African history. Another served in Africa with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, where he met his English wife serving in a similar British program and where they both frequently return to participate in a project of preparing and distributing audio textbooks for blind students. The third classmate, also in the Peace Corps, served in Mali, where he was involved in smallpox eradication. In addition, one of my Grinnell roommates from Chicago now lives in South Africa.

All of these direct and indirect connections with Africa provided additional motivation to learn more about its history. In a subsequent post I will attempt to summarize the key points of this brief exploration of African history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial

In July 2003 the Rhodes Trust[1] hosted gala celebrations of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships. My wife and I were privileged to be there.

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall
Palace of Westminster

The main event was held in London’s Westminster Hall, which is part of the Palace of Westminster. Other parts of the Palace are the Chambers for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. When it was built in 1097, the Hall at 240 feet by 68 feet was the largest hall in Europe; in the reign of King Richard II it obtained a clear-span wood-beam roof. Here were held the trials of King Charles I, Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes and the Earl of Strafford, all of whom were condemned to death. The Rhodes event in 2003 was the first (and, I think, still the only) time it had ever been used for a non-state occasion.[2]

As we were standing in a queue to go through security to enter the Hall, a BBC reporter quizzed me about the significance of the relatively few Rhodes Scholars who were in the George W. Bush Administration. I, however, declined to see any significance to that fact other than to note that Scholars usually were interested in trying to improve people’s lives through government programs.

The audience of over 1,000 Rhodes Scholars and their spouses were treated to interesting speeches from Lord Waldegrave, the Chairman of the Rhodes Trustees;[3] “Nicky” Oppenheimer, the Chairman of DeBeers, the diamond mining company started by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa in the 19th century;[4] Bill Clinton, the former U.S. President; Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of the U.K.; and Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa.[5]

Lord Waldegrave commented on the recent creation of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, a joint venture of the Rhodes Trustees and the Nelson Mandela Foundation to support aid and education in South Africa. An overarching theme of the centennial was the closing of the circle by joining together the controversial 19th century white entrepreneur (Rhodes) and the 20th century post-apartheid black South African leader (Mandela).[6]

Oppenheimer drew chuckles from the audience when he said that he was confident that the Founder (Cecil Rhodes), looking down from above, or perhaps looking up from below, would be proud of the accomplishments of his Scholars.

Tony Blair & Bill Clinton

Clinton joked that it was a sign of progress that all of the politicians that day felt safe in the Hall where King Charles I and Sir Thomas More had been tried and condemned to death. He and the other Scholars, he said, had been “enriched, enlarged and changed” by their time at the University of Oxford, and many of them had made “great contributions across the globe in public service, the arts, the sciences, business, the military, religion and other fields.” Clinton also applauded the new Mandela Rhodes Foundation to “bring some of Rhodes’ wealth back to its origins to help build a new South Africa.”[7]

Blair, putting his glasses into his breast pocket, said that President Mandela had just told him that he never reads a speech so Blair reciprocated by saying he would not read the speech that the Foreign Office had written for him. Blair recalled that when he was a student at Oxford, an Australian or New Zealand Rhodes Scholar had encouraged Blair to go into politics. Blair said that Mandela “is a person who, probably more than any other political figure, certainly in my lifetime, establishes the triumph of hope over injustice.” Blair also challenged the international community to do more to tackle the scourge of HIV and AIDS in Africa and the developed world to lift tariffs to help African exports.

Nelson Mandela

Mandela gave the concluding speech. He noted that Rhodes had made his fortune in South Africa and imagined that he would endorse the “decision to develop human capacity in modern-day South Africa, enabling that country to continue being a competitive presence in the world as it was in those fields within which he operated during his times.” Indeed, Mandela said, he was “certain, Cecil John Rhodes and I would have made common cause.”[8]

When all the speeches were finished, everyone on the speakers’ stage walked the over 200-feet length of the hall through the audience. Mandela, then nearly 85 years old, was frail, and to help him make the long walk, his right arm was held by Tony Blair; his left, by Bill Clinton. They brought tears to our eyes as they passed six feet from us on their journey through the Hall.

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery, London

My wife and I then joined many others walking down Whitehall to the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square. In the Gallery’s Tudor Rooms Rhodes Scholars from the early 1960’s gathered for conversation, drinks and music from a string quartet.

Other groups of Scholars met in other parts of the Gallery and in the Banqueting Hall on Whitehall.

Dinner at Worcester College

We then went by train to Oxford, where each college held special black-tie dinners honoring their Rhodes Scholars.

Worcester College put out all the college silver and crystal for its Rhodes Scholar dinner. Everyone had an assigned place for the main courses and a different place for dessert. For the main course I was seated across the table from Julian Ogilvie Thompson, a South African Rhodes Scholar who was a director and former executive of DeBeers and the Anglo American gold and diamond mining company.[9]

After dinner I talked with David Kendall, who was at Worcester, 1966-68, and who in 1993 began legal representation of President and Mrs. Clinton in various matters, including the 1998-99 impeachment proceedings against Mr. Clinton.[10] David and I had met in the Spring of 1966, just after he had been elected as a Rhodes Scholar from Indiana’s Wabash College. Illinois Governor Otto Kerner had studied at Cambridge University and that Spring hosted a Cambridge-Oxford Boat Race Dinner at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. I joined a group that bused to Springfield from Chicago for the dinner, and David was a special guest on the bus and at the dinner.

Conclusion

These spectacular events reminded me of how fortunate I was to have been selected as a Rhodes Scholar and to have had the amazing experience of an Oxford education. Thank you, Cecil Rhodes.


[2] Wikipedia, Palace of Westminster, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Westminster.

[3] Wikipedia, William Waldegrave, Baron Waldegrave of North Hill, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Waldegrave,_Baron_Waldegrave_of_North_Hill.

[4]  Wikipedia, Nicky Oppenheimer, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicky_Oppenheimer; Wikipedia, DeBeers, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Beers.

[5] Russell, Mandela celebrates 100 years of Rhodes, (July 3, 2003), http://www.independent.co.uk; Johnson, Mandela, Clinton Celebrate with new Rhodes-Mandela Foundation (July 6, 2003), http://africanamerica.org.

[6] Earlier the Rhodes Trust had held centenary celebrations in South Africa.

[7] Bill Clinton, Speech: Rhodes Trust Centenary Celebration (July 2, 2003), http://www.clintonfoundation.org. I previously noted Clinton’s acknowledging his family’s embarrassment that he had not earned an Oxford degree in his two years at Oxford while congratulating his daughter Chelsea’s Oxford degree that summer. (See Post: Reading PPE at Oxford (June 6, 2011).

[8] Nelson Mandela, The Patron’s Founding Speech (July 2, 2003), http://db.nelsonmandela.org/speeches/pub_view.asp?pg=item&ItemID=NMS1073&txtstr=westminster.

[10]  David Kendall Biography, http://www.wc.com/dkendall