Decoding the myth of the savage African

Representation of what lots of people think is a savage and of what people think is a civilized person
Representation of what lots of people think is a savage and of what people think is a civilized person

How did the notion of ‘savage African’ appeared, thing that makes that a lot of people amongst our brothers and sisters have for a long time considered our kindred who live in our villages and our regions as savages and non-civilized, in opposition with the city living people who would apparently be more civilized than people from the villages and regions?

First of all, it is important to remember that when the first European explorers arrived in Africa, they didn’t find savages in Africa or non-civilized people that they after civilized.

The German anthropologist Leo Frobenius (1973-1938) who made about a dozen expeditions in Black Africa between 1904 and 1935, made us a brief description, an overview of what was Africa when Europeans arrived, according to the tales and descriptions of Africa told by the first explorers:

‘When they (European navigators) arrived in bay of Guinea and landed in Vaida, the captains were very surprised to find well-structured streets lined on a long distance by two rows of trees: they crossed during several days a countryside covered with magnificent landscapes, inhabited by men and women dressed with bright suits that they have made themselves! More on the south, in the kingdom of Kongo, a seething crowd all dressed with silk and velvet, big states well organized and in their very details, powerful sovereigns, and wealthy industries. CIVILIZED TO THE BONE! And it was the same all thing in the countries of the Eastern coast like Mozambique for example’.

When they arrived, the European explorers found people who had their suits, cultures, traditions, behaviors, spirituality, etc., people who already had their own civilization and who were ‘civilized to the bone!’

The tales of the foreign explorers, who were very numerous to explore the African continent, are very important in order to enable considering the situation of the inner lands. Those here are still summarized by Frobenius in the same book:

‘The revelations made by the Portuguese navigators from the 15th to the 18th century, give the proof that Black Africa which extended in the south of the desert of the Sahara was still flourishing, IN THE SPARKLE OF HARMONIOUS AND WELL STRUCTURED CIVILIZATIONS’

City of Loango, in Kongo, as seen by the Europeans when they arrived.
City of Loango, in Kongo, as seen by the Europeans when they arrived.

So, how did the notion of ‘savage Africans’ appeared?

The notion of ‘savage Africans’ appeared in the beginning of the European slave trade, for in order to justify the attacks and the inhuman treatments inflicted to Blacks, it was necessary to make them inferior.

This way Leo Frobenius still tells us in his book, that : ‘The European CONQUISTADORES – conquerors – destroyed this flood – of the African civilizations – as they were progressing (…) the enslavement of Blacks never was a resting business. It demanded to be justified. Then the Negro became a semi-animal, merchandise… the idea of the ‘savage Negro’ is the invention of Europeans which has, in consequence, dominated Europe until earlier this century.’

Leo Frobenius tells us then that it was the European conquistadores who after having attacked and managing to destroy great number of African civilizations, invented the ‘savage non-civilized African’ notion, in order to justify slavery.

The first reason of the invention of the notion of savage African by the Europeans is the justification of slavery.

During the slavery period, there were lots of resistances in Africa and in the West Indies. The Europeans also called savage the Africans or Blacks they did not manage to ‘civilize’, it is to say Blacks who, in spite of all the threats and tortures they suffered, refused the European civilization – conversion to Christianity, forced adoption of customs and usages of Europeans – and continued to practice their African rites in secrecy.

It was the same thing during colonization. The savage term has been used to justify colonization – civilizing mission. In fact, during the colonization, there were also several resistances. This way, the Africans who have resisted the colonization and the penetration of the Europeans in Africa for a long time, and who refused the European civilization – conversion to Christianity, forced adoption of the customs and usages of Europeans – , who have fundamentally refused to abandon their cultures, their traditions, their spirituality, etc., were qualified of ‘underdeveloped savages’ because they refused colonization.

This way, the places where Africans managed, in spite of colonization, to save their way of life, customs, cultures inherited by ancestors became villages with populations who were considered as ‘non-civilized’ by the Europeans.

The second reason why the Europeans invented the notion of ‘African savages’ is to appoint African peoples who have done everything to save their authenticity and who have resisted them.

These are stereotypes that Blacks living in the cities have integrated and they have for a long time considered as savages the people who live in the villages, considering themselves as civilized – because they have accepted the European way of life.

What is then an African savage according to those who invented this term?

A savage is somebody who doesn’t have the same civilization or culture as the Europeans – reason why Europeans want to civilize -, and who fundamentally refuse the Western culture when it is imposed – by slavery, colonization – in order to save their authenticity.

So, savages? Or civilized?


By : African History-Histoire © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

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