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(1895) T. Thomas Fortune, “The Nationalization of Africa”

In 1895 T. Thomas Fortune, then editor of the New York Age, and founder of the Afro-American League in 1890, was considered one of the leaders of African America.  That year he gave an address at the Congress on Africa which met in Atlanta in connection with the Cotton States Exposition.  His address appears below.
Mr. President, and Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congress:

The map of Africa is no longer a Chinese puzzle. Its geographical mysteries have been solved. Its mighty lakes and rivers have been traced to their source, and fiction and cupidity have unlocked hordes of treasure by the side of which that of King Solomon’s mines was as the vastness of the Atlantic’s waste of waters to the smallest stream that, like a silver thread, wanders down the mountain side and sighs itself away into the sands of the desert. Railroads are spanning its immense distances, steamboats are navigating its waterways, and the electric wire has brought it into talking distance with Europe and America. Its limitless agricultural and mineral resources are being developed for the comfort and the happiness of mankind. Vast States have sprung into being, as if by magic, controlled by European colonists, so that already a South African confederacy has worked its way into the brain of Cecil Rhodes, whose empire is cemented with more human blood and tears than the East Indian empire wrenched into the British Government by the crimes of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings.

Never in the history of mankind has a continent been so rapidly subdued and its waste places made the habitation of civilized governments and its savage inhabitants brought into contact and under the control of civilization. More has been accomplished along these lines in Africa in the past quarter of a century than was accomplished by European colonists in America in the first one hundred and fifty years of their desperate struggles here to subdue the aborigines. Steam and electricity and gunpowder are responsible for this phenomenon. They are conquering forces against which no other forces can prevail. The savage, with his primitive weapons of defense, falls before them as the mists vanish before the all-powerful and all-searching rays of the sun. He must relinquish his sovereignty and his wealth of all sorts when these forces confront him. The heroism of the Ashantee or the Zulu warrior, fighting in defense of his fireside and his country, is wasted when his assegai is opposed to the maxim gun or winchester rifle, or even the old Colt’s revolver. We have seen this in the subjugation of the North American Indians, and we are now witnessing it in the case of the Africans.

The extent to which the continent of Africa has been spoliated and delimitated by Europeans is shown in the fact that of 11,360,000 square miles of territory, all of it has been absorbed or is claimed except the 9,700 square miles controlled by Liberia on the west coast. France and Great Britain have already made efforts to absorb this residiurn, and we have no reason to suppose that when they get ready to absorb it and resolve it into a colony they will not do so. In the philosophy of our civilization might makes right in practice, however much we may disclaim it in theory. In this, as in many other of the Christian virtues, our precept and our example are radically at war.

If the conquest of Africa shall proceed in the next seventy-five years as it has done in the past twenty-five, the whole continent will be as completely under European control, after the lapse of a century, physically and mentally and morally, as it is possible for conquerors to impose their conditions upon the conquered. The vast population of Africa will be brought under Christian influences in new forms of government and habits of thought and of conduct. The whole life of the people will be revolutionized. Ancient beliefs and superstitions and tribal relations and dissimilarity of vernaculars will, in the course of time, be transformed entirely. The demoralizing heterogeneousness which now prevails over the whole continent will give place to a pervading homogeneity in language, in religion, and in government.


The physical and mental forces now dissipated in tribal wars, in savage methods of industry, will give place to peaceful administration of government and to concentrated methods of industry. The nationalization of the continent will proceed along these lines as naturally and as surely as did that of Great Britain and Ireland, and as did the Germanic States under the masterful direction of Kaiser William, Prince Bismarck and Count von Moltke. Experience, as the great Virginian proclaimed, is the only light by which we can be guided in a matter so speculative. We can reason only by analog Human development proceeds along a straight line.

A common habitation, a common language, a common religion are the necessary bases of homogeneous citizenship and of autonomous government. They are not possible without these. No government has successfully prevailed without them. It may be that Rome, whose legions overran the world, failed in the end because of the too rapid absorption of alien races possessing dissimilar languages and religions. Absorption was too rapid for proper assimilation, and the mistress of the world perforce died of strangulation. And what a fall was there when “the Niobe of nations”, borne down by the massiveness of its own strength, torn by dissensions from within and surrounded by barbarous hordes from without, her proud eagle, which had circled over the nations of the earth, plucked of his pinions, lay prostrate in the dust, even as Milton’s arch fiend which had braved the host of heaven. When so great a giant among the nations of the earth can fall to so low an estate as to furnish the nations of the earth with bootblacks and fruit-venders and organ grinders, what nation, what people can hope to escape the handwriting on the wall, however vaunting their pride, however herculean their strength? Pride goes before a fall, and death lurks in the frame where health is accounted a heritage. “Oh, why should the spirit of the mortal be proud !“

The surface of the earth is capable of sustaining so many people. The population of the earth today is very little greater than it was a century ago. It will be but a little greater a century hence than it is now. The pressure of population upon subsistence is insistent and relentless. The supreme struggle of mankind is one of life, of subsistence, of preventing death by starvation or exposure. All other objects of life are subordinated to this one. It is the sleepless agent of colonization. It has penetrated the utmost bounds of the globe. It has wrenched from the weak their fertile valleys and luxuriant hillsides; and when they have protested, when they have resisted, it has enslaved them or cut their throats. It has invented all weapons of defence and of offence. It has invented all the machinery to increase the productivity of effort at a minimum cost, of whatever sort.

It was, therefore, but natural that the congested population of Europe should seek an outlet in North and in South America and the islands of the sea and in Asia and in the Australias; and it is but natural that the same congested population, in the desperate pursuit of something to eat and something to wear, should now be seeking an outlet in the virgin continent of Africa, whose vast areas of territory and hordes of population have been the despair of geographers and ethnologists and philologists and antiquarians alike. The book of mystery having been unlocked, mankind has made indecent haste to master its contents. No fear of burning sun and expansive wastes of deserts and savage beasts and black men, the fabled genii of the Arabian Nights’ entertainment, has deterred them They are plunging into the forests and the sandy deserts, braving the deadly miasmas, more fatal than “an army with banners’, fearful that the pearl of great price shall escape them. If we are to give credence to the doleful croakings of many ravens in this country, we should stand in wonderment and awe at the spectacle of caravan after caravan of white men and white women, the flower of Europe’s children, winding in a long procession into the black continent, ultimately to impose their civilization upon the continent and to mingle their blood with that of the 300,000,000 children of the sun, the despised black children of the family of races. Their conduct should be inexplicable to these ravens, who insist that black blood and white blood will not mix, although it has so far done so in the West Indies and the United States, that these countries have a yellow streak running through them so thick and so long that only those hopelessly inflicted with blindness fail to see it and to properly account for its existence and to deduce from it the fact that reason, sympathy, affection, and not the color of the skin or texture of the hair, arc the tests of the brotherhood, of the unity, of the human race.

“Skins may differ, but affection dwells in black and white the same.”

Europe will continue to pour its hungry and ambitious and adventurous children into the continent of Africa in the future as in the past, but there will come a time when self-preservation will dictate a restriction or cessation of the infusion. But even before that time shall have been reached, the white races of Europe who are now subduing savage tribes and laying the foundation of empires upon the ruins of savage villages and imposing their yoke upon the natives, their language and their religions and their forms of governmental administration and their system of commerce and industry—even now the European minority in Africa are beginning to be absorbed and assimilated by the vast black majority. This is inevitable. A minority race in contact with a majority race is doomed to absorption and assimilation. It is the primal element of nationalization.

The minority race must exterminate the majority or be exterminated or absorbed by it. This is an iron law. It has been verified in the history of every race and of every nation. It will be verified in the history of Africa. It will be impossible for France to recover Alsace and Lorraine because the population has become Germanized in blood and language and religion. The minority Frank has been absorbed and assimilated by the majority Teuton, even as the invading and conquering Saxon minority was by the conquered Angle majority, and even as the imported and enslaved African black is being absolved by the heterogeneous white races of the United States. The inevitable destiny of the European whites in Africa is absorption and assimilation by the African blacks as surely as the ultimate destiny of the African blacks in the United States is absorption and assimilation by the American whites. I know that to many this is an abhorrent view of the question, but we are dealing with the philosophy of recorded history and the invariable laws of human conduct and not with the prejudices of men. Men are governed by the laws regnant in their environment. They do not make the laws; they cannot control them. If they do not like them, they are free to take themselves into a more congenial atmosphere. If the whites of America did not want to absorb the blacks, they should have left them in Africa; if the European whites do not want to be absorbed and assimilated by the blacks they should remain out of Africa. The matter is a very easy one to decide before the first step is taken; beyond that point it is controlled by “the divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may”. The rigid laws and rules and regulations already adopted by the English, the Germans, the French and the Belgians in Africa to keep the natives in their place will prove as ineffectual to their purpose as such laws and rules and regulations now prove in the United States. The amalgamation of the European in Africa will proceed as surely towards the development of a national type of man as the amalgamation of alien races has proceeded in the United States for two centuries towards the same end. Here we absorb and assimilate the Indian, the European, the Asiatic and the African and grow strong in mental and physical prowess in the process. Indeed, our national strength is to be found in the homogeneity of its heterogeneous race elements, in its common language and in its common religion. The nationalization of Africa will proceed along the same lines as that of the United States is proceeding. What manner of man will be evolved from the process, what sort of national power he will represent, we are already able to judge, inferentially, by the results being worked out in the nationhood of the people of the United States. The intermingling of so many race elements work for national and spiritual and material strength in Africa as it has done in all the instances with which history has concerned itself.

I believe that the nationalization of Africa will be along English lines, as that of the United States, in its language, from the basic point of view, in its system of government and in its religion. The English language is the strongest of all languages, the most elastic in its structure, the most comprehensive in its use as a vehicle of human thought and expression. The English system of civil government is the best that has been devised, because it allows the greatest possible freedom to the citizen consistent with the safety of the state. The Christian religion is destined to supplant all other religious systems of belief, because it is the best code of moral philosophy ever given to man as an inspiration or as a development, an evolution of the social life of a people.

The English-speaking people are to-day the strongest force in Africa, from the European point of view. They will disappoint the truth of history if they do not ultimately effect a confederation of all the other European forces, including the native forces comprised in each of them. They will be forced into this federation in self- defence, as the American colonists were. History repeats itself. The nationalization of the African confederation which is a foregone conclusion from the facts in the case, will be the first step toward bringing the whole continent under one system of government. Language and religion may not produce a homogeneous people, as stated by the Hon. John H. Smythe yesterday, but habitat, language, and religion will do it in Africa, as they are doing it in the United States.

It is written in the Holy Book that Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hand to God. Is it in the power of men to make of no effect the divine prophecy? Perish the thought. There shall yet be evolved out of the conflicting race elements on the continent of Africa a civilization whose glory and whose splendor and whose strength shall eclipse all others that now are, or that have gone before into the shadows, locked in “the double night of ages”, from which no traveler returns in gladness or in sorrow.


Adelaide Cromwell Hill and Martin Kilson eds. Apropos of Africa: Sentiments of Negro American Leaders on Africa from the 1800s to the 1950s (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1969).
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