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.
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...
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...