Bombay Africans: 1850-1910
Whilst many of the museums and galleries in Britain have responded to the bicentenary with exhibition and displays chronicling the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the abolition movement, a number of alternative histories are also presented. These alternative narratives contribute to the representation of the complex and varied history of enslavement, abolitionism and indeed colonisation. The exhibition 'Bombay Africans' at the Royal Geographical Society, London, fulfils this role by displaying an alternative, undiscovered history in its exploration of the roles of the African men and women who helped in the British and European mapping of the African continent. Far from the passive menservants of white British explorers the exhibition presents a picture of dedicated, individuals from Africa who were at the forefront of the development of the modern world. Utilising the vast quantities of maps and illustrations of African regions in the Society's archives the historian Cliff Pereira has worked with local communities, including the Tanzanian Women's Association, the Friends of Maasai People, the Congolese Community in the UK, the Lancaster Youth Group (Bethnal Green), Ghanaian Elders Group and the O-Bay Community Trust, to create a distinctive exhibition.
Discovering a contribution
This distinction is located firstly in the exhibition's specific geographical focus on the East coast of Africa and the slave trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Noting that many African individuals arrived in the Asian subcontinent as traders or travellers, the particularities of the slave trade in the region are assessed. One display board states;
'Slavery in the Indian Ocean was different to the Atlantic: there were more children, with slaves more likely to work as domestics. Slaves could attain social status within Islamic states, and, importantly, could gain freedom.'
The Indian Ocean Slave Trade is an often neglected aspect of history in Britain, where the focus is on the Atlantic system. The exhibition supplements this traditional concentration by emphasising the intricate history of the trade on the East coast of Africa and revealing the extent of the African Diaspora in the Asian subcontinent as the result of this trade. This marks the exhibition's second distinction as not only is it concerned with a forgotten history but it also seeks to remedy the myopia of European histories by focusing on the impact and achievements of African individuals. The role of the 'Bombay Africans', African men, victims of the slave trade, who not only contributed to the western knowledge of their continent, but also combated the slave trade itself is offered to the museum visitor.
The stories of white European explorers and missionaries is intertwined and made to stand side by side with that of the African men and women who enabled their journeys into the African continent. The name 'Bombay Africans' is the name given to Africans who had been rescued from the slave ships operating in the Indian Ocean by Royal Navy Squadrons. In the belief that these people would be safer from the slave traders and receive better opportunities they were placed in Christian missionary orphanages in the Indian city of Mumbai (then Bombay). As many European explorers combined their religious commitments with their interests in mapping and navigating the interior of Africa, the young African men in Mumbai were recruited for this work. Therefore,
'...over the 60 years of African Exploration from 1850, hundreds of Bombay Africans returned to Africa, either independently or with the aid of the missionary societies.'
The explorations of David Livingstone and others are shown to have only been possible through the assistance of these 'Bombay Africans.' The details of these individuals are presented in the exhibition as a powerful counterpoint to the period photographs which depict the white, European explorer with 'native guides' looking on in admiration. In contrast the 'Bombay Africans', such as Abdullah Susi or James Chuma, are represented in the exhibition as on par with Livingstone, with their achievements even recognised at the time by the Royal Geographical Society who bestowed upon both medals of attainment. It is however perhaps less in their geographical achievements that the 'Bombay Africans' are heralded, but in the work by many of these men and women in the anti-slavery campaigns in the East of Africa. The settlements created by the 'Bombay Africans' became for many havens for the disposed and refugees from the slave traders. At places such as Freretown and Rabai large sections of 'Bombay Africans' lived and promoted the abolitionism of slavery through publications of newspapers and leaflets in both Kiswahili and English. Other settlements such as Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) in the modern-day country of Congo are also shown to be the results of the activities of the 'Bombay Africans.' The main roads and railways of present-day Eastern Africa also follow the routes taken by the group in their exploration of the region. The 'Bombay Africans' are thereby presented as changing the very face of the continent. This story of success is however not tempered with the brutal history of colonisation which was enabled by these explorations. The settlement of Leopoldville would itself come to be capital of the Belgian Congo, where a mass genocide of the region's peoples was conducted in the drive for the exploitation of the natural resources. These aspects of history are not however definitely noticeable by their absence. This is an exhibition focusing on achievement, the traditional narrative of the suffering enslaved peoples are therefore not required in this attempt at revisionism.
One of the most significant features of this exhibition is the utilisation of this forgotten history by local community groups who connected strongly with the themes presented in terms of migration and prejudice. This certainly emphasises the importance of 'hidden histories' in the appreciation and consumption of museum exhibitions. This notion of uncovering and exploring that which was unknown or forgotten is highly significant in the formation of identities and a sense of self. One community worker remarked;
'...it is a shame that not many people know about this story ... I never heard or knew that Africans lived in India and I like to follow up the story of those who stayed and what their thinking is ... how much of their culture has remained ...'
Another community worker responded to the exhibition by stating;
'How do you define yourself? As Indian, African, Goans ... this brings to the surface another point that globalisation started way back. This makes us world citizens!'
Reinstating African individuals as prominent in a history of the exploration of Africa, a history which often negates and obscures the roles of Africans or indeed drifts into a realm of colonial history is a significant aspect of the exhibition. The power of these stories of the past to act upon the present and establish African men and women as prominent architects of the modern world should not be underestimated. Indeed, it could be said to be the most important aspect for exhibitions to address in the marking of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.
The above review offers a starting point for debating some significant issues in the histories of slavery and abolition, and in the way those issues are presented in museums and exhibitions. What can such an exhibition teach us - about the social world in which slavery and abolitionism developed, and about the patterns of social inclusion and exclusion that they engendered? What problems arise in presenting and reflecting upon these histories? If you have thoughts to contribute, on these issues generally, or on the exhibition or the review more specifically, please email the 1807 Commemorated project team - firstname.lastname@example.org.