Anton Wilhelm Amo – the African philosopher

Statue in Halle commemorating the life of Anton Wilhelm Amo, depicting an African man and woman

It was the briefest of mentions in Simon Winder’s Germania (here I am starting another post with a reference to that book, but I did love it) that first brought this man to my attention: Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (see previous post), among various other achievements, “...employed the Ghanaian polymath Anton Wilhelm Amo...”. Ghanaian polymath? No further details were provided, but this description was so intriguing that I had to find out more. A quick google revealed that his life and work were fairly well documented, and that he was indeed a historical figure of some significance: Amo was the first African known to have attended a university in Germany and went on to have a career as a university lecturer. During my search, I came across several blogs that set out to (re)discover and publicise notable people of colour in European history, and I read one post that made a particular impression on me; the text is as follows:

There was a time when coming across articles, research findings and academic essays showing evidence of Africans (and people of African descent) living in Europe before the 18th century used to genuinely shock me. There are persistent ideas that shadow the topic of Africans in Europe’s past, for example that they were all slaves, or that they all occupied a low status. Or that they must have all been men. There is also a fairly widespread belief that Black people only started appearing in Europe as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonial activities in Africa. In truth there have been Africans in Europe since the heydays of the Roman Empire.

 – from “Africans in European History” on Kalamu ya Salaam's blog neo•griot

If I was honest, I too had been surprised at the idea of a black African being allowed to be anything other than a lowly servant in early 18th century Europe, let alone attending university and becoming an academic. There is a definite parallel here to the theme I explored in my post on Anna Rosina de Gasc – the idea that a particular narrative about a certain group of people, e.g. great artists being men, Africans in pre-20th century Europe being servants – can become so dominant that we are shocked to learn of any cases that deviate from it, and yet these alternative narratives absolutely do exist, even if they are far less common. This can have wide-reaching effects – the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said that “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Anton Wilhelm Amo’s career, certainly up until its latter stages, is a very compelling example to challenge the prevailing narrative of slavery, disempowerment and oppression.

Records show that Anton Wilhelm Amo was baptised in the chapel at Anton Ulrich’s Salzdahlum palace in July 1708, with the duke and his son August Wilhelm as godparents. A member of the Nzema people from what is modern-day Ghana, he had been taken to Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company at around the age of 4 and later given as a “present” to Anton Ulrich, at whose court he grew up. At the time, dark-skinned people were regarded as status symbols; richly dressed in expensive liveries, they were intended to serve as living proof of their master’s international trade connections and far-reaching influence. And Anton Ulrich, proud owner of that extensive art collection, knew all about how to acquire and use status symbols to enhance his reputation on the international stage. However, we may hope that the young Anton Wilhelm was spared the indignity of being viewed solely as an exotic novelty: Anton Ulrich had more ambitious plans for the little African boy who had come into his care. Presumably the duke noticed early on that this lad was a bright spark and had the potential to go far, and thus took it upon himself to ensure the boy received an extensive education. His motives for doing so may have been partly altruistic, but there were certainly other factors as play: he probably viewed Amo as a kind of experiment to establish the extent to which a black African could be educated, in line with Enlightenment ideas about the potential of all human beings to be elevated and improved by education. Amo’s name appears on the duke’s payroll a few times between 1716 and 1720, although it is not clear from records exactly what his role at court was. However, the energetic, lively handwriting with which he confirmed receipt of his pay shows that he was not a half-educated servant, but rather, someone who was used to putting pen to paper and had thus already enjoyed the benefits of an education by this stage.

There are many examples of portraits depicting black servants, often dressed in opulent liveries. This one by Georg David Matthieu (Anna Rosina de Gasc's first husband) shows the page boy Caesar alongside Duchess Louise Friederike von Mecklenburg-Schwerin, 1772

Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to give us a picture of Amo’s early life at the Wolfenbüttel court – my imagination is having to cling to scraps, such as the records showing that Amo borrowed a library book by Dürer in 1723. If you have been reading my blog, you will know by now that I thrive on these little titbits. The 23-year old Anton Wilhelm, strolling back to the Schloss in Wolfenbüttel after a session browsing amongst all those ivory-coloured tomes in the ducal library, big parchment-bound copy of Durer’s de anthropometria under his arm, whistling a jaunty tune...

A drawing I did of the Trinitatis Church in Wolfenbüttel, built in the early 18th century at the time that Amo was living in the town. (Sorry for the tenuous link - you can tell I was a bit short of visual material for this post. I sat outside on a chilly Autumn day for two hours to do this picture and came down with a cold the next day, so I'll be damned if I don't get some mileage out of it...)

Me outside the Schloss in Wolfenbüttel where Anton Wilhelm Amo grew up. He may or may not have amused himself by pretending to be a statue...

Where was I?  Ah yes, Amo and his education. In 1727, he left the Braunschweig region to study philosophy at the University of Halle, which at that time was very progressive, and wrote a disputation on the rights of Africans in Europe. He later moved to the University of Wittenberg, where he studied logic, metaphysics, astronomy, history, law, theology, politics and medicine (yes, I did copy and paste that list from Wikipedia). Oh, for the age of the polymath. There is something comforting about a time when the body of human knowledge was compact enough that one individual could have a handle on pretty much everything. Amo was not just a polymath, but a polyglot too: alongside German, he also knew Latin, Greek, French, Dutch and Hebrew. Incidentally, tales of people mastering multiple languages are always rather sobering for me, because I know what immense amounts of time and effort went into mastering one, just one, foreign tongue, and I quail at the thought of going through all that again in an attempt to master a second. Let alone a third, fourth and fifth...

In 1730 he obtained the academic title of Magister – his godfather August Wilhelm was present at the ceremony – and a doctorate in philosophy followed in 1734. His thesis was entitled On the Absence of Sensation in the Human Mind and its Presence in our Organic and Living Body. I will not attempt an explanation of his philosophical arguments here, ostensibly for reasons of space, although it probably has more to do with the fact that I am unqualified, and feel a slight sense of panic when confronted with phrases like Cartesian dualism as my brain scrabbles around trying to remember what that is. Suffice to say, the man was a pretty smart cookie. (This now legendary utterance originates from my mum’s fifth grade teacher, who used the pithy epithet to describe Archimedes, which then turned out to be one of the few fragments of knowledge she retained from her school days). And he was held in extremely high regard at Wittenberg; when the Elector of Saxony visited the university in 1733, Amo had a starring role in the festivities, heading the student delegation and reciting an official poem to the Elector. This event is described in detail in an official report. The students were assembled in readiness to receive the monarch, and standing in the middle of them was “Mr Amo, an African ... as commander of the whole student body, dressed in black, holding a cane in his hand, with a wide, white sash across his waistcoat bearing the coat of arms of the Electorate of Saxony, opulently embroidered in gold and black silk...”. I’m grateful to the author for painting such a vivid picture of Anton’s outward appearance – I can just picture him standing up there proudly in that splendid outfit. As for his face, though, that really is left to our imagination since, sadly, there do not seem to be any surviving images of him. So I hope you will forgive me for posting an article on the Braunschweig Portraits blog that does not, in fact, feature a portrait.

But it wasn’t all ceremonial pomp and lofty philosophising for Anton. Like other Africans in Germany at the time, his friends probably wouldn’t have been fellow Africans, since these were few and far between – rather, it seems he could frequently be found socialising with German colleagues in the pub. Evidence of this can be found in the town archives of Wittenberg, where the name of a certain Mr Amo appears on the lists of drinkers at the Ratskeller who had not paid their bills!

Anton Wilhelm Amo lectured at the universities of Halle, Wittenberg and Jena; there are numerous records of lectures given by him, the last of these dating from 1739. There is a poignancy to this, as Amo’s fortunes had clearly begun to change for the worse: he was aligned with a progressive philosophical movement (associated with Christian Wolff) that was increasingly being rejected by the academic establishment, as conservative religious views became more prevalent. Amo was not willing or able to change his beliefs in order to curry favour with the establishment, making his position as an academic increasingly difficult. Added to this were the deaths of some key patrons and supporters, leaving him lonely, vulnerable and prey to financial difficulties. To make matters worse, he experienced increasing racism around this time. Accounts of his life do not mention significant racist treatment up until this point, and during the Wittenberg years he had taken to routinely signing his name “Amo Guinea-Afer” (Amo the Guinean), evidence of his self-confidence and pride in his racial heritage. But around 1747, and approaching fifty years of age, he appears to have fallen in love with a white woman, who then rejected him. This episode was the subject of two poems published in a newspaper which exposed Amo to public ridicule: one of the poems is supposedly written by the lady in question, who justifies her rejection of him by referring to his “wildness”, saying she could never love a black African and advising him to return to the country of his birth. This was perhaps the final straw – shortly afterwards Amo did indeed leave Germany to return to Africa, the continent he had left over four decades previously. His situation must have been fairly desperate for him even to contemplate, let alone follow through with, leaving the country and the culture that he had known virtually all his life, for an uncertain future in a land that he could only have the faintest memory of. Perhaps despite being fully integrated into German life, he had always felt a sense of being “other”, of not quite fitting in. And yet, when he returned to the country of his ancestors, it was reported that he lived as a hermit, and was believed to be a prophet or soothsayer – there too, he was regarded as foreign and other. A not uncommon problem for immigrants, the feeling of not quite belonging in either culture. Writing these pieces, I spend a lot of time reading about my subjects, so that I begin to feel a certain personal attachment to them. Thus the end of Amo’s story makes me quite sad. But I hope that perhaps he found some pleasures in his new African life – and that his wisdom and philosophical outlook helped to sustain him in his later years.

Braunschweigisches Biographisches Lexicon, H.-R. Jarck, 2006

Germania, Simon Winder, 2010
Schwarze Teufel, edle Mohren, Peter Martin, 1993