the European city tours of slavery and colonialism

<span>A tour group will pass a replica of a Dutch East India Company colonial ship moored in Amsterdam’s Oosterdok.</span>Composite: Alamy/Jennifer Tosch</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″ data- src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=A tour group passes a replica of a Dutch East India Company colonial ship moored in Amsterdam’s Oosterdok.Composite: Alamy/Jennifer Tosch

Wandering between a large number of tourists and workers on their lunch break in Plaza Puerta del Sol in Madrid, we stop in front of the almost 3 ton statue depicting King Carlos III on horseback. Playfully nicknamed Madrid’s best mayor, Carlos III is credited with modernizing the city’s lighting, sewage systems and garbage collection.

Kwame Ondo, the tour guide behind AfroIbérica Tours, offers another, albeit little-known, story about the monarch. “He was one of the biggest slave owners of his time,” says Ondo, citing the 1,500 slaves he kept in the Iberian peninsula and the other 18,500 in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. As noble families tried to keep up with the monarch, the number of enslaved people in Madrid increased to around 4% of the population in the 1780s.

It’s a nod to the kind of conversation – one that is often neglected or willfully ignored across the continent – ​​that Ondo and his fellow Europeans slip into everyday life. From Barcelona to Brussels, London to Lisbon, a cohort of guides have trained their lens on Black and African history, outlining how colonialism and slavery shaped the continent while reshaping the stories it tells. Europe about itself. While California debates reparations bills aimed at redressing generations of discriminatory policies, and the UK pays tribute to slave traders and colonists, similar conversations are not evident across much of the continent .

“We’re not building anyone’s mattresses,” says Ondo. “This is history hidden in plain sight.”

It is a statement that reflects his own life in some ways. Born in Equatorial Guinea – the last Spanish colony to claim independence, in 1968 – he grew up in southern Spain, steeped in a post-imperial culture that had long since ceased to remember its actions in the “forgotten colony”. of. Spain.

However, Ondo and his family in Spain strongly opposed this omission. “It was a conscious decision by European powers to disassociate themselves from history,” says Ondo. “But history comes back to you.”

Eleven hundred miles away, Jennifer Tosch, who launched Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam in 2013, echoes the sentiment. The year before, Tosch had come to the country as an international student from the US with one Dutch connection; with family roots that go back to Suriname, she had family that had lived in the Netherlands for four generations.

Her efforts to explore this connection – the result of what she calls “willful forgetting” or “colonial amnesia” – convinced her of the need to bring the city’s hidden history to light. -enormous.

“Imagine me sitting here on courses, being told that your history didn’t count, that you weren’t worth it,” she says. “Didn’t you see anything here that would bring you closer to understanding your past. It didn’t sit right.”

Aiming to take visitors and locals on a journey past the headstones which include the image of a servant, a Black child and the dark figures with exaggerated features once used to denote pharmacies, there was doubt first thought of by the people of the Netherlands who were colored. .

“Like: ‘No, there was no Black history here; no, there was no Black presence until much later’,” she says. “So the questioning of the concepts of belonging and citizenship and identity was intertwined with my mission to prove that we are here. And that our stories matter.”

Eleven years later, the conversation on Black history and colonialism in the Netherlands has changed. In 2023, King Willem-Alexander apologized for his country’s role in slavery but refused demands for reparations, despite research suggesting that his ancestors deserved the modern-day equivalent of €545m (£466m) from slavery.

The apology was an “extremely bad moment”, says Tosch, although it was carefully timed to link it to the growing attention being paid to this history. In other words, it was more a credit to the vital work being done by many to uncover history than any royal initiative, she says.

In Berlin, this kind of change feels a long way off, says Judge Mvemba, who founded Decolonial Tours in 2022.

Locals who take their tours are often surprised that the German colonial empire was once ranked as the third largest in Europe. “They haven’t learned anything about Germany’s colonial history, some of them don’t even know that the Berlin conference took place in Berlin,” she says, referring to the 1884-85 gathering where European imperial powers clashed with African rule. “I think it’s also a matter of pride for them how those colonial continuities live among us.”

Mvemba, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and raised in Germany, gives a strong example: Berlin’s African quarter, conceived in the late 19th century as a place where the city could host a permanent zoo that would showcase both wild animals . and people to celebrate the German colonial project.

Although the zoo never happened, it echoed again more than 100 years later, when a zoo in Bavaria tried to attract visitors by creating an “African village” that included performers and artisans.

The initiative went ahead despite widespread protests from anti-discrimination groups, says Mvemba, pointing out how Germany – a country often lauded for dealing with its recent history – has failed to come to a meaningful reckoning with its colonial history. “So really, these tours are about showing people and realizing that we’re still living those colonial biases or reproducing them,” she says.

These efforts to connect the dots between the past and the present come at a critical time for the continent, says Julia Browne. In 1994, she launched Walking the Spirit Tours, guiding locals and visitors to Paris through the history of those who enabled slavery and confronted colonialism.

“The book opens another chapter exploring the history of France – and the history of Europe as well – and facing the facts, putting it right in front of people so that people can’t deny it,” she says. “And especially at this time, with the rise of the right wing, the voices just keep getting stronger and stronger.”

In countries such as Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, far-right parties have struggled to become key players in politics. In France and Germany, nativist parties are steadily climbing up the polls, pulling mainstream parties to the right as they compete for voters’ attention.

“They have a certain rhetoric and storytelling that creates fear in people, that creates fear of what was called ‘the other’. And it implies that people don’t belong unless they are of European origin,” she says. “But it is important to listen to the other side, this is not the truth.”

She points to the Place de la Concorde, which will be shown to the world this summer during the Olympic Games. “But what else is there? There is a place called Hôtel de la Marine. It’s a gorgeous building that’s been restored, but it’s where the system of slavery and colonialism was managed,” she says, describing it as the “administrative headquarters” of the country’s colonial empire before it was written into history as the place where the decree to end slavery in the colonies was signed in 1848.

Nearby, there is the Tuileries Garden. “It was then that the National Convention first abolished slavery in the colonies, but Napoleon also reinstated it,” says Browne. “If you’re a person of colour, or if you’re of island or colonial African origin, these places are part of your history.”

In Madrid, Ondo’s walking tour begins to end after crossing a crowded plaza where people were once sold to the highest bidder and visiting a church filled with tourists who seemed to have nothing to do with the symbols that of slavery carved into its stone walls.

His last stop, however, is the ever-changing roster of African restaurants in the city centre. It is a destination with a dual purpose: to showcase the vibrant array of restaurants, including Senegal and Equatorial Guinea, that have emerged in recent years, and to reinforce how the stories of the past continue to color life in Madrid today.

“This isn’t really a thing of the past, it’s something that’s still going on right now,” he says, pointing to the power still wielded by the companies whose families are profiting from slavery. , by the companies that are profiting from slavery. the extraction of resources from the global south was replaced by colonial empires, and the EU’s crackdown on those who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean in small boats.

“It’s a never-ending process,” says Ondo. “It’s a fundamental change to the same questions 200 years ago. Projects like mine and many others open up a conversation about these things.”

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