OPINION: By Magezi Kirinjju
Could Christopher Columbus & Adolf Hitler be Africa’s forgotten Independence “HEROES”? Uganda celebrated its 59th Independence on October 9, 2021; a major milestone for citizens and Africans in general. As a country, we have come a long way, sometimes great a journey and at times a perilous journey, nevertheless; it is our journey, led or misled by us.
It’s unfortunate to hear some elite Ugandans demean this self-rule, they probably should find out from indigenous Australians, Americans, and Canadians what it means to be subjugated by foreigners in your own home.
Africans could easily have become “indigenous” themselves had it not been for the unintended and unrelated actions of two Europeans who lived 400 years apart.
Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo), born in Genoa Italy in the year 1451 and died in 1506 in Valladolid, Spain aged 55 and Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria in the year 1889 and died in 1945 in Berlin aged 56. These men’s legacies, positive or negative are firmly stamped on humanity, putting them among the most recognisable humans that ever lived. For Africa, their legacies will live for eternity.
Christopher Columbus, though Italian, exploration voyages to the Americas were sponsored by Catholic monarchs of Spain. He believed that one could get to India by sailing westwards but for long, nobody believed him until the Castilian monarchs’ Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II agreed to sponsor his travel westwards.
Columbus set off from Palos de la Frontera, Spain in August 1492 with three ships; the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria along with a crew of 90 men. He arrived in the Americas on October 12, having spent three months in the Atlantic Ocean. He made landfall in what is today’s Bahamas in 61 days. Believing that he had actually arrived in India, he called inhabitants “Indians,” which was, of course, wrong but somehow the name stuck till this day.
The discovery of the Americas by Columbus opened the way for European countries to colonize and exploit those lands and their peoples. Trade was established between Europe and the Americas but the most brutal and enduring trade was Slave Trade. One hundred and twenty years after Columbus landed in the Americas, the first enslaved Africans arrived in England’s colonies on a Dutch ship in 1619.
These slaves who arrived in Virginia in 1619 had come from the port of Luanda, the Capital City of present-day Angola which was a Portuguese colony, and most of the enslaved Africans are believed to have been captured during the war between Portugal and the Kingdom of Ndongo that was raging at the time.
Therefore, as bad as it sounds, European pre-occupation with enslaving Africans in the New Found Land prevented them from focusing on taking over Africa for almost 300 years from the 1600s when the slave trade began to the 1800s when it was abolished after the British passed an Act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade in 1807.
The probability that Europeans would have at some point between 1492 and 1619 thought about entering deep into Africa and colonizing, annihilating and taking over lands is very high. Thanks to Christopher Columbus, this devastating prospect was put on hold for over 300 years.
The only adverse effect that Africa suffered due to Columbus’s actions was the slave trade because the New Found Land needed manpower to grow cotton and sugarcane. Remember Europeans had decimated the populations of Americas in conquests and transfer of new and rare diseases to them. This meant carrying Africans to replace them on farms.
On the other hand, Adolf Hitler delivered the final and decisive blow to European efforts to take over Africa and make Africans “indigenous communities” as Aborigines of Australia or Mohican and Mayan of North America are referred to today.
When the slave trade ended in the 1800s, Europeans turned their focus on the African hinterland when people like John Speke, David Livingston, Richard Francis Burton, Henry Morton Stanley, Heinrich Barth, Frederick Russell Burnham, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Mungo Park descended on the continent attracted by her untapped potential.
These Europeans had learned from their experience in the Americas and Australia that it’s much more profitable to defeat indigenous tribes, occupy and enslave them on their own land. And indeed by the 1800s, Canada, the USA, Brazil, Argentine were all occupied by Europeans who ironically had gained independence from fellow Europeans back home in Europe. This meant Europe, having been dislodged from the Americas turned her attention on occupying Africa with its vast potential but the weak military capacity to hold them off.
Hence the need for Scramble for Africa aka the Partition of Africa that was characterized by physical invasion, occupation, division, and eventual colonization by seven Western European powers in 1881. By 1900 a significant part of Africa had been colonized by mainly Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy who established colonial state systems.
But when Europe was beginning to consolidate its hold on Africa, World War I, also known as the Great War started after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The war raged on from July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918. During the conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire named “The Central Powers” fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States named “The Allied Powers.” The Allied Powers won but close to 16 million soldiers and civilians died.
At the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, Germany was forced to surrender territories, disarm and pay for the war damages. The treaty’s terms caused immediate outrage and lasting bitterness in Germany.
It’s on this bitterness that Adolf Hitler rode on to become Chancellor in 1933 by exploiting the popular belief that Germany had been humiliated. He promised economic recovery, national revival and that Germany would return to international prominence through a revision of the Treaty of Versailles.
Luckily for Africa, Hitler was not interested in colonies and much of the colonial business was left to his subordinates, his administration was based on a racist ideology of pure Arian race. Remember German colonial history in Africa that run from 1884 to 1918 had already killed tens of thousands in modern-day Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Namibia. Most of these colonies were lost to the victorious “Allied Forces” after World War 1.
Hitler’s interests lay inside mainland Europe and if he had any desires for Africa, he believed in subduing Europe first and avenging the humiliation suffered in World War 1.
In September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, an act that made Great Britain and France declare war on Germany, marking the beginning of World War II. We must keep in mind that by this time, only Ethiopia was an independent country in Africa. Most ominous was that while the majority were colonies, others like South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique had been fully occupied by colonialists. The slow but steady encroachment and conquest of Africa was moving north, even Kenya had lost vast fertile lands to the British.
But when World War 2 started, the resources Europeans were committing to conquering Africa were diverted to the war effort at home. This resulted in the degradation of the military might and economic ruin for Europe by the end of the war.
On the other hand, Africans in the colonies got recruited into armies of warring factions and got empowered both mentally and militarily in the process. They realised the fallibility of the “invisible” Whiteman. They came back home ready to liberate themselves from colonial rule.
And indeed, World War 2 ended on September 2, 1945, with the defeat of Germany, Japan and Italy by “Allied Forces” and twelve years later, Ghana became the first African country to gain independence from colonial rule on 6th March 1957.
Therefore, while the actions of Christopher Columbus led to the genocide of communities in the Americas and the slave trade of Africans, they also diverted Europe’s focus on Africa which could have resulted in conquest, genocide, occupation and subjugations of Africans. This gave Africans a window to learn the intentions of these white ruthless invaders.
Adolf Hitler’s actions on the other hand were extremely racially motivated leading to the deaths of millions of Jews in a holocaust and further deaths of over 100 million in World War 2, but they also disrupted the conquest, occupation, genocide and total subjugation of Africans. His actions gave Africans just five years to recover, regroup and fight against colonial rule culminating in the 1994 release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa that marked total independence of Africa.
Magezi Kirinjju is a Ugandan by Nationality and a Political commentator.