African Europeans

An Untold History


By Olivette Otele

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A dazzling history of Africans in Europe, revealing their unacknowledged role in shaping the continent

One of the Best History Books of 2021 — Smithsonian

Conventional wisdom holds that Africans are only a recent presence in Europe. But in African Europeans, renowned historian Olivette Otele debunks this and uncovers a long history of Europeans of African descent. From the third century, when the Egyptian Saint Maurice became the leader of a Roman legion, all the way up to the present, Otele explores encounters between those defined as "Africans" and those called "Europeans." She gives equal attention to the most prominent figures—like Alessandro de Medici, the first duke of Florence thought to have been born to a free African woman in a Roman village—and the untold stories—like the lives of dual-heritage families in Europe's coastal trading towns.
African Europeans is a landmark celebration of this integral, vibrantly complex slice of European history, and will redefine the field for years to come.





Modern-day Ethiopia presents us with various stories of exile or migration that date back centuries. However, scholars and students are more familiar with stories related to either empire and colonisation or Ethiopia’s role in the world wars. Among the latter are stories of the Italo-Ethiopian wars. The exile of the emperor Haile Selassie is an example of a colonial story which became a European local story—relating in this case to the city of Bath in England in the second half of the twentieth century. Italian and Abyssinian forces entered into combat in October 1935, and the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, was invaded by Italy’s fascist troops in 1936. The ruling emperor, Haile Selassie, was forced to leave his country the same year and stayed abroad until 1941. Selassie settled in Bath and made a home in the city for a few years. One could contend that, for a while, he became an adopted African European. His attachment to the city was such that he gave his home, Fairfield House, to Bath for use by the local community when he went back to Ethiopia. This positive example of Afro-European collaboration is well remembered in Britain, in particular by the British Rastafarian community in Bath and beyond.1 This community, along with people living near the house, has been highly involved in preserving Haile Selassie’s home, history and memory. However, the links between modern-day Ethiopia and Europe—Italy in particular—were established long before nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial wars. This story started with the relationship between Meroe and Egypt, specifically between Ethiopian queens and Egypt’s Roman governor, in 23 BCE.

Histories of the ancient Nubian kingdom of Kush and its capital, Meroe, clearly demonstrate that many of the encounters that took place centuries ago between Europe and Africa were far from peaceful. The Greek geographer Strabo of Amaseia (c. 62 BCE–24 CE), author of a seventeen-book Geographika which covered the history and topography of thousands of places, is one of few narrators whose work provides us with detailed accounts of the relationship between the Kushites and the Roman Empire. One of Strabo’s most notable contributions in this respect concerns the Candaces or Kandakes (often known as Queens of Ethiopia), who fought against Roman invasion. In one of his volumes, he gives a striking account of how the Roman Gaius Petronius moved to attack the city of Napata, the royal seat of the Candace, only to find that she had already left for a more secure stronghold.2 Accompanied by an army of thousands of men, the Candace launched an attack on the Roman garrison, but Petronius managed to prevent the invasion by entering and securing the fortress before the queen and her army ransacked the place. Local inscriptions have shown that this queen was in all probability Amanirenas (reigned c. 40–10 BCE). We learn through Strabo that the Kushites had threatened Roman holdings in Egypt; prior to this attack Amanirenas had, with the support of the Kushite prince Akinidad, defeated Roman troops in the city of Syene and on the islands of Elephantine and Philae. In response, Petronius had invaded the strong city of Premnis and taken a fortress before he was confronted with Amanirenas’s army.

What followed was an extraordinary series of negotiations, in which the Kushites sent ambassadors to engage with the Romans. Petronius demanded that the statue of Caesar that had been toppled be repaired, and eventually the Kushites capitulated. They finally signed a peace treaty in 21–20 BCE. These encounters demonstrate that the Roman Empire was well established in certain parts of the African continent, and one could contend that the inhabitants of these places were African Europeans. The episode with Amanirenas also shows that the balance of power was not always tilted towards the Roman Empire.

As far as gender roles are concerned, the stories of the Candaces challenge certain assumptions. The Candaces had always valiantly protected the Meroitic kingdoms as fiercely as kings. Although the term ‘Candace’ refers to the mother of the heir to the throne or to a royal wife, these women were warriors in their own right. Beside Strabo’s accounts of Amanirenas, other stories are found in the writings of Greek historian Dio Cassius and in the Romance of Alexander.3 Amanirenas was by no means the only Candace who fiercely protected the integrity of her kingdoms. The subsequent Candaces of Kush, Amanishakhete and Amanitore, followed in her footsteps.

These stories give us an insight into the way the relationship between Europe and Africa was built over time in areas where there was no strict delineation between the two continents. The term ‘Europe’ was used by merchants, soldiers and scholars to refer to their travels in various areas corresponding roughly to our modern understanding of the continent. It appeared in the sixth century BCE, and it included the regions around the Aegean Sea. The word ‘Africa’ has many possible etymologies, but one of the earliest uses dates back to 146 BCE, when the term appeared as ‘Africa Proconsularis’. It referred to a Roman province in today’s Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. The dispute about the etymology of the word matters because the term is thought to have come from a tribe that lived in the north of the continent, now Libya; if this is true, the hypothesis presented by various scholars, including Flavius Josephus, about the Latin or Greek basis of the name is ideologically dubious and Romano- or Grecocentric. Irrespective of such debates, the trade, war and political collaboration through which the populations of these continents came into contact with each other all defined their geographical borders. They shaped the journeys of the various historical figures in this volume.

When we examine the history of these places and their peoples, the question of otherness that is present throughout this study takes various forms. Otherness and othering played a role in delineating geographical spaces. The regions known as the Latin West, which included north-west Africa, Gallia and Italia, comprised several Muslim societies. Yet by the eleventh century, these societies had been grouped into entities that obscured their diversity of beliefs and social practices. Geraldine Heng notes that although names such as Agarenes, Ismaelites, Moors and Saracens were used to refer to Arabs, Christian Arabs were not defined in the same way. As time went on, the term ‘Saracen’ survived and came to be associated with negative traits.4 Heng contends that those categorised as Saracens because of their religion did not respond in kind and homogenise all Christians, but instead recognised the diversity of regions and societies dominated by Christianity. ‘Islamic historiography in Arabic and other languages, it seems, continued to specify territorial, national, and ethnoracial differences when they referred to Europeans as “Romans, Greeks, Franks, Slavs,” and so on’.5

The next step towards racialisation was the attribution of specific characteristics to groups of people. This was achieved with the assertion that the birth of Islam was based on a lie and the prophet was ‘a cunning, deceitful, ambitious, rapacious, ruthless, and licentious liar’.6 As these traits characterised the prophet, all Muslims allegedly shared such negative attributes. Accounts of this nature circulated around the Mediterranean.7 By the eleventh century, Muslims were presented either as horrifying animals, as in the French epic poem La Chanson de Roland, or as prone to indulging in shameful sexual exploits.8

Those who defined themselves first and foremost as Christian also perpetuated a narrative that informed racialisation. Crusaders, as Heng notes, carried a banner that symbolised their attachment to Christ. They perceived and defined themselves as the ‘Christian race’. The step from racialisation through religion to othering based on skin tone also took place in literature. Heng provides an edifying example with a Middle English romance, The King of Tars. In the story, a fair princess is forced to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim king. The child born from the union turns out to be an inhumane monster, only saved and physically transformed through baptism. The father, who is defined as black, also becomes white after baptism and decides to convert his subjects.9 Intermarriage was not an entirely fictitious practice. It was only in the second half of the eleventh century that marriages between European Christian noblewomen and Muslim kings became less common. However, Christian slave women were still kept in harems, so customarily that five Nasrid sultans of Granada had mothers who were enslaved Christians. Most of these women had been enslaved either during Islamic conquests or through a slave traffic which specifically sought white-skinned women.10 Slave traders came from very different regions: the Vikings enslaved and sold Irish people, the English traded in human beings with the Franks, and the Venetians sold people from Central Europe. Some of these enslaved people ended up in the regions along the Mediterranean, with a large number taken to Egypt.11 The notion of African Europeans therefore takes on a different meaning when we consider the provenance and trajectories of all the people included in this group.

During the same period, Europeans also provided boys originating from Central Europe, Eurasia and the Caucasus to Dar al-Islam. Those boys were raised to be integrated into the military forces, which were composed predominantly of enslaved people. They were known as the Mamluks. In time, they became members of an elite group who could buy their own Mamluks and marry slave women who had originated from their own land or the daughters of other Mamluks, thus creating a ‘military race’.12 Heng demonstrates that premodern Egypt was dominated by Muslim Circassian Mamluks. Within a couple of centuries, they became the rulers of Egypt and enforced a strict delineation between themselves as a unique category of people from the Caucasus and other ethnic groups, forbidding marriages across these racial lines. The usefulness of Mamluks was undeniable. They were ruthless warriors and ethnically distinct, and their presence was encouraged in modern Egypt. Fifteenth-century travellers provide accounts of Mamluks from Hungary, Germany and Italy living in Cairo.13 However, those Mamluks by their existence blurred the racial markers that tend to characterise Europeans and Africans. They were, in today’s terms, white African Muslims of European descent.

Mamluks were not the only soldiers who broke barriers and influenced multiple worlds. The legend of Saint Maurice provides an interesting lens through which to further understand human geography. By the third century CE, Roman presence in the Thebes region had been strengthened by the incorporation of conquered populations into the Roman army. Their influence extended south, and the legacy of this era takes various forms. The figure of Saint Maurice is particularly revealing in this respect. One of the most famous images of Saint Maurice is a statue in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. The statue dates back to the thirteenth century, long after the birth of Saint Maurice in the third century CE.

Understanding how Saint Maurice became known as a saint sheds light on the formation of European hagiography. It also provides us with information about the place of saints in medieval art. Saint Maurice’s story was transmitted from generation to generation. He became a legend over the centuries, and yet historians have very few details about his early life before joining the Roman troops. It is thought that Maurice was born near present-day Egypt and enrolled in the Theban legion posted there, by what is now the Sudanese border. He was allegedly sent to crush an insurrection in Gaul as a commander of Roman troops, and was asked to ensure that his troops pay their dues to the god Jupiter before battle, as was required of all Roman soldiers.14 He initially agreed, but then changed his mind for reasons that may have been linked to religious freedom. The emperor Maximian sent troops to arrest Maurice and the most loyal of his soldiers. They were all executed in 287 CE. Maurice’s origins have been the source of extensive scholarship. Most volumes tend to look at the legend’s transformation over time, but a more modest number of studies examine its basis.

The starting point of the story is a letter from Eucherius, bishop of Lyon, to another bishop called Salvius, written around 450. Eucherius gave an account of Theban soldiers who had been killed in the Alps at the order of Maximian.15 However, the accuracy of the account has been challenged. Denis van Berchem notes that there was a soldier named Maurice of Apamea whose martyrdom in Syria was erroneously conflated with the suppression of the uprising in Gaul under Maximian’s reign. This story could have been confused with the story of Maurice of Thebes.16 Other explanations have been provided in the work of military historians. The Theban Legion referred to by Eucherius could have been misleading—he mentions Thebaei, which was the name of a specific Italian military unit in the fourth century.17 We also learn from Eucherius that the original story came from Theodore, who was bishop of Octodurum in the late fourth century. Eucherius had taken Theodore’s story and made it his own. Historians have suggested that the account of Maurice was a political story crafted by Theodore and aimed at encouraging people to rebel against usurpers.18 As far as the relationship with Thebes is concerned, inscriptions recording work carried out by Theban soldiers under the command of one Mauricius circa 367–75 were found in Egypt near Syene. It would not have been unusual for the same Mauricius, or Maurice, to be sent up north near to today’s Eastern Europe. The legend of Maurice spread up north itself, and reached the Rhine Valley. It became part of the region’s history.

To understand how the story travelled, we need to look at how political and religious aspirations changed the history of this region. The erosion of the Roman Empire and the invasion of Roman-ruled provinces by the Goths, Lombards and Franks were followed by a relative stability with the accession to power of Charlemagne in 800 CE. After Charlemagne’s death, his territories were divided into what was later known as France and Germany. In the south of the continent, King Frederick II—King of Sicily, self-proclaimed King of Jerusalem, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220—was excommunicated three times by the pope. Yet he is also remembered as a cosmopolitan monarch who was said to have welcomed Jews, Turks, Arabs and Africans to his court. His tour of the Germanic region in 1234 is said to have caused a stir because of the noticeable number of African soldiers present in his army.19 Frederick even appointed the African Johannes Maurus as Lord Chamberlain for the kingdom of Sicily.20 Black musicians, servants and distinguished guests, alongside the legend of Saint Maurice, would have influenced and redefined the European gaze towards Africans at the time. African presence in European courts during the Crusades was modest in extent but consistent and long-lasting enough to be remembered and represented in various paintings. However, as Effrosyni Zacharopoulou has argued, this rather positive outlook on the influence of Maurice and other black people in European courts should not obscure another reality. The Pope and cardinals resented the fact that although individual scholars and esteemed guests accepted and recognised the power of the Christian church, Ethiopia resisted the influence of the pope; even Christian Nubia would eventually give way to the reign of a Muslim king supported by Mamluks in 1323.21

In the second half of the tenth century, representations of Maurice the African appeared up north under the reign of Emperor Otto I. The emperor, also known as Otto the Great, defeated the Huns at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955 and began a campaign of conversion that later took a significant turn with the foundation of the archdiocese of Magdeburg. By erecting a statue of Saint Maurice, Magdeburg Cathedral clearly stated that the place was a crossroads and a spiritual reference for the expansion and celebration of the Christian faith, as well as a powerful symbol of the status of the Roman church. Saint Maurice, now a patron of the Holy Roman Empire, was the mark of things to come. Beside religious and political considerations, Magdeburg was to be a central point for agriculture and trade. The figure of Maurice clothed in chain mail, an emblem of imperial insignia holding a reproduction of the Holy Lance, protected traditions embodied by European medieval knights. His African features did not pose any problems for contemporaries, as he was himself the expression of the common values across boundaries that were embodied by the strong Roman Empire. The popularity of the patron saint was so vast that the name Maurice became popular among the ruling elite, and first-born children were often named after him. Town centres and various other places also took on the name Maurice.22

In all depictions, Maurice is represented as an African and his features have been kept. Stefan Lochner’s altarpiece Dreikönigsaltar (c. 1440, Cologne), Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Bladelin Altarpiece (1452–55), and later on Albrecht Dürer’s Adoration of the Magi (1504) bring the story of the three magi together with the figure of Saint Maurice. In each of these paintings one of the three magi (either Caspar or Balthasar) has become a Berber, a moor or a black African. The veneration of the magi and that of Maurice are merged in Lochner’s painting, where an African is seen carrying a ‘Maurice Flag’.23 Balthasar appears as a black magus in several paintings, such as the work of Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder and other masters, in the sixteenth century, while Saint Maurice appears again in Matthias Grünewald’s depiction of The Meeting of SS Erasmus and Maurice (c. 1520–25). The veneration of both Maurice and the magi continued and led to numerous local representations of these figures in German territories. Later, Magdeburg once again pushed boundaries by creating a bust of Saint Maurice’s imaginary sister, Fidis, under the leadership of Cardinal Albrecht in the first half of the sixteenth century.

These representations of origins, appearance and colour in medieval and early modern arts could be interpreted as an acceptance of otherness. Alongside such representations, the equation of blackness with evil seemed to be linked to ideas of morality rather than to black Africans. Yet this era saw a shift in perceptions. Scholars have argued that the notion of race that was defined in the nineteenth century was invented in the Middle Ages. David Theo Goldberg has contended that in the last part of the Middle Ages:

race was emergent rather than fully formed, incipiently invoked to fashion nation formation in the early moments of national elaboration as racial consciousness began to emerge out of—and later can be said to have taken over if not to have replaced—the mix of public religious constitution, the symbolics and architectonics of blood, the naturalizing dispositions—the metaphysics—of hierarchical chains of being, and the ontological orderings in terms of supposedly heritable rationalities.24

Other scholars have noted that a city such as Nuremberg, which saw a vibrant development in engineering, mathematics and navigation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was paradoxically governed by a relatively conservative religious interpretation of and approach to history. It was believed that the world was divided into several main parts that owed their existence to Noah’s lineage. Many thought, for example, that Noah’s son Ham, who saw his father’s naked body and was consequently cursed, was the forefather of North Africans. However, no links were made between his colour and the idea of inferiority. Dürer’s Head of a Negro (1508) and The Negress Katherina (1521) are artistic achievements because the artist managed to capture the nuances of expression of Africans, who had often been rendered different through the colouring of their features. Connections made between evil and blackness were striking, but evil characters were not necessarily depicted with African features in the sixteenth century.

Nonetheless, medieval Europe regulated the lives of those it perceived as ‘other’ and a danger to the majority group. The persecution of the Jewish community in the Middle Ages, for example, has been well documented. In England, a series of measures aimed at making the Jewish community more visible were passed. In 1215, the Church in England wanted Jews and Muslims to wear clothes that would differentiate them from Christians. In 1218, Jews were made to wear a badge. By 1222 they had to wear a revised version of that badge that had been crafted by the authorities in England, and by 1290 they were forced to leave England altogether. Alleged ritual murders of young Christian children were attributed to the Jewish community. References to those rituals were found in fiction, which was often conflated with reality and had dire consequences for Jews. In 1255, for example, ninety-one Jews were arrested and, under the order of King Henry III, one was executed following the accidental death of a young boy. The Jewish community were also othered through perception of their physical attributes, as represented in the King’s Remembrancer Memoranda Rolls.25 The rolls presented the Jews as a recognisable community, who could be identified through ‘Jewish faces’ that closely resembled caricatures.

Heng highlights that the question of race was fundamental to the formation of European identity. She notes that cultural creation in the medieval period was very much in line with this formation. For example, thirteenth-century mappae mundi such as the Hereford Map not only displayed places, but also contained objects, animals and people. Their representations of Europe are characterised by civic centres, cathedrals and examples of urban planning, while the rest of the world is noticeably lacking in these. Asia and Africa are populated by monsters, people with visible disabilities and creatures that are both animal and human, as well as ‘troglodytes, cynocephali, sciapods’ and other populations deemed abhorrent to Europeans.26 However, Europeans were by no means defined as a homogeneous group that enjoyed the benefits of higher intellect. Ireland and its people were portrayed as a lower race that needed a firm hand to improve themselves. Heng notes that there were several configurations of race and racial hierarchy that existed in pre-modern and modern times. Medieval England had specific views about its neighbours. ‘Caricatured as a primitive land—an undeveloped global south lying to the west of England—Ireland was accordingly positioned as a project in need of evolutionary improvement and instruction, in order to force the “savage Irish”… to emerge one day from their barbaric cocoon into a state of enlightened civilization’.27

The colour black, as an entity that represented inferiority and the ugliness of human experiences on earth, was a component of Christian notions of good, evil and the redemptive opportunity for salvation through atonement for one’s sins. Africans were black or of dark skin. They were the colour of evil, but they could repent, be saved and even become patron saints. The representation of Africans varied greatly between different settings in Europe. One of the facades of Notre-Dame Cathedral in the city of Rouen, France, clearly shows the execution of Saint John the Baptist being carried out by an African. The image dates to 1260. It forms a stark contrast with The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a 1608 painting by Caravaggio, which shows a white man reaching behind his back for a knife as he presses the saint’s head to the floor.

Black saints appeared across Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, mainly in the form of sculptures. Erin Kathleen Rowe has studied the emergence and significance of black saints in the medieval and early modern Church, and in particular Black Madonnas such as Our Ladies of Montserrat, Guadalupe, Tindari and Le Puy.28 How these saints came to exist has been the subject of long debates amongst scholars. While some argue that the Madonnas were initially white and the degradation that occurred over time changed their original colours, others note that as colour changes occurred, those saints came to be venerated as black Virgin Marys. Further scholars contend that the Madonnas were intentionally created black, while other versions of Mary were white with black hands, to symbolise the transformation from sinner to saint, the struggle of all believers, and the transformative power of the Catholic Church—or simply that spiritual beauty could accompany ‘less aesthetically pleasing’ black skin.29 Rowe demonstrates that these female appearances had in fact been preceded by male black saints in late antiquity. Born in Abyssinia in the fourth century, Moses, also known as Moses the Black, the Ethiopian and so on, became an important figure in Western Castile. His former life as a thief and a sinner was used to show how a black man could become white and be saved after he had repented. Rowe looks at the careful editing of Moses’s story and suggests that:

the authors used the story to bolster a specific view of the aesthetics of blackness, and their decision to streamline Moses’s life into a narrative of blackness, humility, and self-abnegation underscored the saint’s lesser status—even lesser humanity. The themes echoed here—prejudice against black skin, the association of black sanctity and excessive humility, the interplay between interior and exterior—recurred in early modern hagiographies of black saints.30

A slow shift also occurred as many Europeans came into contact more often with Africans. Stories about the role played by the Ethiopian Prester John, a legendary king said to have ruled over an Eastern Christian nation, travelled and provided a hopeful platform for the expansion of Christendom. The representation of black saints took a new turn in the second half of the fifteenth century. Ideas about the blackness of sinners, as represented in the sculptures of black saints, or recognition of the role of black figures such as the magi in the foundations of Christianity were slowly replaced by a worldlier black presence. This was caused by the establishment of links between Ethiopian monks and Rome, Constance and Florence, and by the possibilities offered by potential alliances between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which were supported by Pope Eugene IV.31 In the sixteenth century Southern Europe saw the emergence of a number of black saints, amongst them the Sicilian Franciscans Benedict of Palermo and Antonio da Noto.

Benedict of Palermo, also known as Benedetto da San Fratello or Benedictus de San Philadelphio, was born in Sicily to sub-Saharan parents. His mother was a free woman, while his father was an enslaved African. Both were devout Christians and raised their children to abide by Christian values and support the Church. Consequently, young Benedict became a hermit then joined a Franciscan brotherhood, before entering a convent near Palermo.32 The story of Antonio da Noto differs greatly from that of Benedict. We learn from Antonio Daza’s 1611 history of the Franciscans that Antonio, who was born in North Africa, was ‘black as people from Guinea, Xalose and Manicongo but also a Moor, born and raised in the law of Muhammad.’33 He was captured by Sicilian pirates and sold into slavery on Sicily, where he converted to Catholicism. Rowe has paid close attention to this source and notes that the question of conversion was discussed by Daza, who emphasised the salvatory aspect of Antonio’s conversion to Christianity.34


  • “Ms. Otele, a black scholar at Britain’s University of Bristol, takes a broad view of her subject. Sometimes, the African Europeans of the title are, as one might expect, people living in Europe, but on many other occasions, they are blacks or people of mixed-race who have lived elsewhere, in other far-flung quarters of the Atlantic world. Her book is equally sprawling in terms of time, moving back and forth across the centuries, from antiquity to the present… Some of Ms. Otele’s most interesting material is future-looking, asking questions about the ambivalence experienced by blacks in contemporary Europe.”—Wall Street Journal
  • "This brisk, nuanced synthesis reminds us that there have been Africans in Europe for millenia."—Stephen Carter, Bloomberg Opinion, The 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2021
  • “Magisterial....A story of violence and exclusion but also extraordinary destinies and achievements. Particularly admirable is Otele’s command of the subtleties of identity formation and change over time, as well as her marvellous cast of women characters, such as Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s muse and lover.”—Sudhir Hazareesingh, The Guardian, The Best Books of 2020
  • “A fascinating history, with a memorable cast of characters, of Africans who had a vital presence in European life….Though this is a work of synthesis, it’s an unusually generous and densely layered one. Otele is not just concerned to tell the life stories of her protagonists, but also to follow their changing portrayals after death – as well as explaining how and why they’ve been differently interpreted by generations of previous scholars.”—The Guardian (UK)
  • “In a sweeping history extending from the classical world to the twentieth century, Otele masterfully analyzes the changing relationship between Africa and Europe through the lives of individual Africans who in some manner dealt with Europeans....Otele argues convincingly that the hardening of racist European views about Africans was the inevitable result of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent colonial occupation of the continent. But even in this more recent hate-filled period, Otele finds examples of Africans or people of African descent who achieved prominence in Europe against the odds.”—Foreign Affairs
  • “Her cast of characters is as broad as her canvas, and by redrawing the centuries-long story of African immigration, her book changes how European history is understood.”—Christian Science Monitor
  • "Superbly researched....This richly layered history brims with stories of how African Europeans contributed to the culture, politics and language in the countries they lived in."—Prospect (UK)
  • “Intricately researched by renowned historian Olivette Otele, this is a much-needed addition to existing narratives of European history. It corrects the myth that the presence of Africans in Europe is recent and shines a light on their true and lasting contributions to the continent.”—Ms. Magazine
  • “In this sweeping chronicle, scholar Olivette Otele challenges white-centric narratives of European history by tracing African people’s presence on the continent from the 3rd century to the 21st. African Europeans artfully examines changing conceptions of race and how these ideas have shaped both real-world experiences and accounts of the past.”—Smithsonian, The Ten Best History Books of 2021
  • “A brilliant telling of a story that’s been too long overlooked.”—The New European (UK)
  • “[Otele offers] insights into BIPOC in Anglo-American history and explores how marginalized people built communities despite obstacles and anti-Blackness… In African Europeans, Otele shows the collapse of borders to give us a better image of movement and people in a Europe that is not quite as white as has been ingrained in western thinking.”—Public Books
  • "A brilliant, important and beautifully written book that forces us to think about the past differently."—History Today
  • "A thrilling, informative read."—LSE Review of Books
  • “Renowned historian Olivette Otele exposes the real truths behind the presence of Africans in Europe, disproving the theory that Africans only recently resided on the continent. She uncovers the long history of Europeans of African descent dating all the way back to the third century.”—The Root
  • “Fascinating…explore[s] the complex and intertwined histories of people of African and European descent from the third century to the present day.”—African Business (UK)
  • “The breadth and depth of Otele’s research are impressive, as are the vivid characters who populate these pages….The author analyzes the many manifestations of racism they have faced and how that prejudice and oppression can have generational effects….Otele is also highly attuned to the role of gender in her history, and she consistently draws attention to the ways in which African women have been treated in European countries. By detailing such a wide variety of experiences across a vast geographical and cultural landscape, the author causes us to rethink the way we consider the terms ‘African’ and ‘European.’…A thorough, dynamic, accessible narrative that pulls together disparate strands into a unique, fresh history.”—Kirkus
  • “Otele…delivers a concise scholarly history of the presence of people of African descent in Europe….Otele’s profiles reveal the richness and variety of the African European experience. This is a welcome introduction to an under-explored subject.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “Sweeping new history… Particularly powerful is the way Otele leaps between the centuries to lay bare the “connections across time and space” that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the identities and lives of African Europeans.”—Library Journal
  • "Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History is superb. Enlightening and erudite, it deploys awesome range, narrative panache and deep scholarship to overthrow conventional wisdom and show the neglected role of Africans in European history from ancient times."—Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • "Rich in storytelling, discovery, question-making and a way forward, African Europeans covers no old ground. This is new—and European history itself is not complete without this book."—Bonnie Greer, playwright, novelist and broadcaster
  • "This is a book I have been waiting for my whole life. It goes beyond the numerous individual black people in Europe over millennia, to show us the history of the very ideas of blackness, community and identity on the continent that has forgotten its own past. A necessary and exciting read."—Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish)
  • "Yoking together the “African” and the “European,” too often treated as entirely separate categories, Otele skillfully invites her reader to navigate the multiple intersecting worlds inhabited by her characters. This is fundamentally reparative writing that undoes the cultivated ignorance around race and blackness in Europe and shows us what is irrefutably true—that black history is European history, indeed, world history."—Priyamvada Gopal, author of Insurgent Empire
  • "A magisterial book—brilliant, humane and gripping, and a call to arms for an end to violence and subjugation. Otele explores the individual lives of African Europeans against great shifts of history, and the result is a masterpiece."—Kate Williams, historian and broadcaster
  • "This is a book that all must read—now. This story has been lived not just for centuries but for millennia, all the while being consistently suppressed, denied or untold. Searing scholarship and heightened humanity combine to illuminate, appall, explore and ultimately inspire."—Bettany Hughes, historian and broadcaster
  • "The scope of Otele’s research is awesome, as is her unflinching analysis of the shifting prisms through which African Europeans—particularly women—have had to contest their identities. Full of powerful stories with deep roots and livid scars, African Europeans is scholarly, revelatory and important."—Jessie Childs, author of God’s Traitors and Henry VIII’s Last Victim
  • "Fascinating. Otele reconnects us with the men and women who came from Africa to shape European history: rulers, diplomats, slaves and soldiers—above all, our ancestors."—Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster
  • "The first survey this century of the fascinating 2,000-year-long history of Africans in Europe. Otele’s masterful narrative weaves together the lives of prominent figures—St Maurice, Jacobus Capitein, Manga Bell, Paulette and Jane Nardal—with those of everyday people."—Hakim Adi, author of Pan-Africanism: A History
  • "Olivette Otele is a scholar with a vivid intellect and a deep sense of right and wrong. African Europeans forces us to reassess the past so that we can imagine a different future."—Fiammetta Rocco, chief culture writer, The Economist
  • "A nuanced, thoughtful retelling of the stories of African Europeans, with extraordinary scope. Otele triumphs in her commitment to countering the experiences of the privileged with those of the enslaved. This is a learned, impassioned and searingly important history."—Suzannah Lipscomb, historian and broadcaster
  • "Important, exciting and illuminating. Otele takes us through centuries of history we think we know, but shifts the lens onto those who have been deliberately excluded from traditional historical narratives. This book will change how you look at the past and introduce you to wonderful characters with rich and revealing lives."—Janina Ramirez, historian and broadcaster

On Sale
May 4, 2021
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Olivette Otele

About the Author

Olivette Otele is distinguished research professor at SOAS University of London and former vice president of the Royal Historical Society. She is the first Black woman to be appointed to a professorial chair in history in the UK, and her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the BBC’s History Extra, and Times Higher Education

Learn more about this author