Africans in the Americas often provided racial ideologies for modern nationalist and anti-colonial movements in Africa and Europe as well as in the Caribbean and the United States. These ideologies were rooted in similar racial identities drawn from colonial, enslaved, and post-emancipation experiences. This entry will focus upon anti-colonial movements, organizations, and prominent figures from the 1800s through the present.
Century of Emancipation, 1790s–1880s
Beginning in the early fifteenth century, the five major European powers of Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain established colonies in the Americas. Although all of these colonial powers appealed to God to rationalize theories of empire, they differed in their dependency on the state or civil society to run their American colonies. The former characterized Spanish colonialism; the latter, the British Empire. With the establishment of Creole (American-born) populations by the late eighteenth century, together with important shifts in political and economic power, New World colonies moved toward independence through a series of wars of national liberation.
In 1776 thirteen American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. In 1804 Haiti declared its independence from France. In 1821 Mexico achieved its independence from Spain. The following year, Brazil won its independence from Portugal. By the 1820s, most of the mainland Americas had achieved their independence from European colonial powers. With the exception of Haiti, however, the rest of the European Caribbean would have to wait until the twentieth century for its colonial independence.
One indispensable feature of European settlement in the New World was the establishment of colonial slavery. Scholars estimate that between nine million and thirteen million African slaves survived the transoceanic slave trade and eventually arrived in the Americas between 1450 and 1870. Most of these imported Africans ended up in the Caribbean and Brazil. The sources of slaves changed over the centuries, beginning in West Africa, and moving slowly southward to southwest Africa. Two-thirds of these slave imports were young men used primarily in the plantation production of crops such as sugar, tobacco, rice, wheat, indigo, and other commodities. Although shipboard conditions were disgusting, ship crews brutal, and water scarce, many Africans fought back. Revolts were common on slave ships. In one Dutch sample, 20 percent of voyages had slave rebellions; nearly half of all revolts on French slaving voyages during the eighteenth century were successful. The coming together of different ethnic groups in these revolts made these the first anti-colonial struggles by Africans coming to the Americas.
Although the major slave trading nations of Britain and the United States abolished their slave trades in 1807 and 1808 respectively, other colonial powers like the Portuguese and the Spanish continued to trade in slaves through the mid-nineteenth century. Furthermore, the abolition of the Anglo-American slave trade encouraged the development of continental slave trades from older plantation crop regions like the Chesapeake, Barbados, and Bahia, to newer areas like Mississippi, Trinidad, and São Paulo. It also led to the development of an Afro-Creole slave populace. Three-fourths of the slave population in Jamaica were native-born in 1834, while most of the 3.9 million enslaved Africans in the fifteen slave states of the United States in 1860 had been born there.
The overthrow of this centuries-old system of colonial slavery was relatively quick. Between the 1790s and 1880s, around 6.5 million slaves of African descent gained their freedom in the Americas. The first period between the 1790s and 1820s linked slave emancipation and anti-colonial struggles in the French Caribbean as well as Spanish colonies in South America. The great era of emancipation, however, occurred in the following decades in the Anglo-Atlantic. The legal abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834 to 1838, together with the military defeat
of the slave-holding South in the American Civil War by 1865, freed over 4.5 million enslaved people. In addition, the 1848 European revolutions liberated nearly 200,000 slaves in the French, Danish, and Dutch West Indies. Twenty years after the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, the effective end of colonial slavery in the New World was accomplished. Brazil legally ended slavery in 1888 and became a republic the following year. The Spanish ended colonial slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873, and Cuba did so in 1886. As a result of two major anti-colonial struggles during the 1870s, together with U.S. military intervention after 1898, Cuba finally achieved its political independence from Madrid.
Although there were complex reasons for the overthrow of colonial slavery in the nineteenth century, it is important not to overlook the critical role of Africans in the Americas as fugitives, soldiers, spies, strikers, arsonists, and national liberation fighters.
"Africa for the Africans," 1914–1920s
At the same time that slavery and colonialism were coming to an end in Brazil and Cuba, European powers were scrambling for new colonial possessions in other parts of the world. Between the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, the European powers parceled up the African continent among themselves, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia. Their most important motives included broad economic interests of profit and the prospect of new markets, together with strategic concerns and geopolitical interests.
In the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the end of World War I in 1918, anti-colonial and national liberation struggles gained momentum in Ireland, Egypt, Vietnam, India, Iraq, and elsewhere. These events had a critical impact upon Africans in the Caribbean and the United States, in particular through the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) under the leadership of Marcus Mosiah Garvey. This Jamaican-born printer, journalist, and activist founded UNIA in Kingston on July 20, 1914. In 1917 Garvey relocated to New York City, where he headquartered UNIA. His personal charisma, together with messages of racial pride, Christian faith, and economic uplift, contributed to the formation of a mass movement eventually credited with one million followers in the United States and several million adherents in forty-two nations and colonies. In a 1921 speech at his Liberty Hall headquarters in New York City, Garvey called for "Africa for the Africans," an important manifesto for anti-colonial and domestic liberation movements.
That same year, however, the Garvey movement faced mounting pressures from the failure of its shipping line, federal government investigation and harassment, and internal dissension. The opposition from black critics took ideological and organizational forms. Hubert Henry Harrison, born in the Danish West Indies, immigrated to New York City where he became involved in socialist politics. In 1917 Harrison inaugurated the Liberty League of Negro-Americans on a platform of international solidarity, political independence, and class-race consciousness. With the failure of this body, Harrison joined UNIA, serving as editor of its newspaper, the Negro World. After increasing disillusionment with UNIA, he founded the International Colored Unity League, which called for racial unity and an independent African-American state within the United States.
Another radical black critic was Cyril Briggs. Born on Nevis in the British West Indies, Briggs migrated to the United States in 1905 and obtained work as a journalist. Between 1918 and 1922, he ran the journal the Crusader, which espoused revolutionary socialism and black self-determination. The newspaper became the official journal of the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB), a semisecret militant internationalist organization serving as the first black auxiliary to the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). The ABB only had a few hundred members, but it was one of the first black organizations to call for armed self-defense of African Americans. Most importantly, these figures and organizations represented the earliest domestic expression of an anti-colonial ideology in the United States.
Colonialism and Anti-colonialism, 1930s–1940
The era of the Great Depression and World War II witnessed important new colonial and anti-colonial developments. During the early 1930s, the U.S. militarily occupied Haiti. W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP's) journal The Crisis, challenged this colonial aggression. In 1935 Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini ordered 500,000 Italian troops to invade Ethiopia. This small nation on the horn of East Africa was important to people of African descent around the world for several reasons, including its ancient Christian roots, its independence during the European scramble for Africa, and its importance to followers in the Garvey movement. The African-American response varied. Several support organizations sprung up quickly in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Black volunteers came forward for the defense of Ethiopia, but were reportedly dissuaded by official U.S. pressure to stop recruitment and by a potential legal violation of U.S. citizens serving in foreign armies. Most important, black Communists in Harlem, along with some Garveyites, formed the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, which organized a "Hands off Ethiopia" campaign. This campaign represented a noteworthy anti-colonial movement by African Americans.
An important ideological expression of this anti-colonialism was the "internal colony" model. As a result of African-American initiative, the 1928 meeting of the Communist International in Russia resolved that black people in the American South constituted an oppressed nation with the right to their own self-determination. Although the latter proved unlikely, this ruling allowed African Americans to promote race politics, opened up the CPUSA to black members, and provided an influential model for a future generation of black radicals. According to Spanish Civil War volunteer and lifelong communist Harry Haywood, there was "no substantive difference in the character of Black oppression in the United States and the colonies and semi-colonies." "In both instances," explained Haywood, "imperialist policy was directed towards forcibly arresting the free economic and cultural development of the people, towards keeping them backward as an essential condition for super-exploitation" (Haywood, 1978, p. 323). Not all black radicals agreed. British West Indian and revolutionary Marxist C. L. R. James thought that African Americans represented the vanguard of the American labor movement rather than a separate rural nation. Fellow British West Indian and revolutionary Marxist Walter Rodney later argued that the "internal colony" model failed to explain "the characteristics of a working class in a colony" (Rodney, 1990, p. 105).
Less debatable was the U.S. federal government's firm opposition to black radical thought and activity. Garvey had been jailed on questionable mail-fraud charges in the 1920s. During the 1950s, intellectuals, artists, and organizers like C. L. R. James and Claudia Jones were expelled from the United States as a result of state-sponsored anti-communist witch hunts. Ironically, much like earlier slave rebel leaders who were transported out of the country rather than executed, these black radicals ended up starting new organizations and influencing national liberation struggles elsewhere. Jones went to London, where she edited the West Indian Gazette ; James joined the anti-colonial movement in Trinidad and Tobago as editor of The Nation.
During the 1930s, there were a series of anti-colonial rebellions throughout the Caribbean. In 1937 Albizu Campos led a nationalist uprising in Ponce, Puerto Rico. But the most serious revolutionary unrest occurred in the British Caribbean between 1935 and 1938. Sugar-worker strikes and revolts broke out in Saint Kitts, British Guiana, Saint Lucia, and Jamaica. Coal workers and dockworkers struck in Saint Lucia and Jamaica. There was a revolt against the increase of customs duties in Saint Vincent, while a strike by oil workers evolved into a general strike in Trinidad. There were even rumors that an armed rebellion was planned for August 1, 1938, the centennial of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. A "West India Royal Commission Report" later concluded that the colonies had developed "an articulate public opinion." Scholar and future Trinidadian prime minister Eric Williams put it more bluntly: "The road to revolution had been marked out" (Williams, 1970, p. 473).
Meanwhile, a Pan-African politics was being developed in London, the heart of the British Empire. African
merchants and black students had often visited London in the past. During the 1930s, however, numerous black intellectuals could be found there: George Padmore and C. L. R. James from Trinidad; Harold Moody of Jamaica; T. Ras Makonnen from British Guyana; Nnamdi Azikiwi of Nigeria; Kwame Nkrumah from the Gold Coast; P. K. I. Seme of South Africa; and Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya. These black intellectuals were responsible for the formation of several important social and political organizations, including the West African Students Union in 1925, the League of Colored Peoples in 1931, and the International African Service Bureau in 1937. These radicals and their organizations played an important role in raising consciousness about colonial conditions and developing a solid anti-colonial ideology. African American artist Paul Robeson, for instance, befriended Nkrumah, Padmore, and Kenyatta, all of whom were to have a profound impact upon the artist's racial politics and identity with African liberation struggles. Two points are worth emphasizing concerning these black radicals in the metropole (the center of imperial power). First, many were influenced by their early years of study, travel, and politics in the United States. Padmore, Azikiwi, Seme, and Nkrumah came to the United Kingdom from the United States, while James left England for the United States in 1938 or 1939 and stayed until he was deported in 1950. During his ten years in the United States, Nkrumah noted that of all the books he studied, "the book that did more than any other to fire my enthusiasm was Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey published in 1923" (Nkrumah, 1957, p. 45). Second, these black intellectuals recognized that the project of anti-imperialism had to be centered in the metropole.
This period also saw important intellectual and cultural anti-colonial expressions. African-American writer Arna Bontemps's historical novel Black Thunder, published in 1936, linked slave revolts in Haiti and Virginia in a clear expression of literary Pan-Africanism. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction (1935), James's Black Jacobins (1938), and Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944) provided pioneering scholarly attempts to understand the role of slavery and working-class slaves in the making of the modern world. Walter Rodney later explained the significance of these works, produced during the revolutionary ferment of the 1930s, for his generation during the 1960s. These books were "about black people involved in revolution, involved in making choices, involved in the real movements of history" (Rodney, 1990, p. 15).
One of the most important consequences of World War II was the beginning of the end of European colonialism. Between the late 1940s and early 1960s, older colonies in the Caribbean and Asia, together with newer ones in Africa, successfully gained their national independence. In the case of the British Caribbean colonies, the movement toward independence was accompanied by debates over federation versus national independence, with the latter eventually triumphant. Although Cuba had won its independence from Spain, it remained economically dependent upon the United States. Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement against the U.S. puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista led to the installation of a new regime in 1959. The reasons for decolonization were varied and complex, but included the exhaustion of war-ravaged colonial powers, the emergence of mass protest movements, and the rise of anti-colonial leadership.
Moreover, these anti-colonial movements in the postwar world demonstrated significant interconnections among individuals, organizations, and ideas. On the one hand, the first generation of black leaders—Nkrumah, Eric Williams, and the others—had been influenced by living, working, and studying in the United States, especially through their contacts with African Americans at historically black colleges like Lincoln University and Howard University. On the other hand, anti-colonial struggles had a significant impact upon African Americans and the Black Freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Penny von Eschen argues that African Americans "not only shared an oppression with colonized peoples," but saw that "their fate in the United States was intertwined with the struggles of those peoples" (von Eschen, 1997, p. 22). The national liberation of Ghana (1957) and Cuba (1959) provided constitutional and revolutionary models of change. Numerous African-American activists like Amiri Baraka, Vickie Garvin, Robert Williams, and Angela Davis were impressed with what they saw in Cuba. Algeria (1962) and Vietnam (1975) provided contemporary examples of the successful challenge of imperial domination. China's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) offered the prospect of revolutionary transformation by people of color on the world stage. As Robin Kelley puts it, "a vision of global class revolution led by oppressed people of color was not an outgrowth of the civil rights movement's failure but existed alongside, sometimes in tension with, the movement's main ideas" (Kelley, 2002, p. 62).
There were also important intellectual and cultural expressions of decolonization during this era. Frantz Fanon, a Martinican-born psychiatrist who later joined the Algerian national movement, wrote Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). These two anti-colonial works were to have a critical impact on the Black Freedom movement in the United States, as well as on anti-colonial and black-consciousness movements around the world. Furthermore, popular festivals such as Kwanza, together with new expressions in clothing, hair-styles, and music, drew from an affinity with an African cultural heritage. Indeed, anti-colonialism even entered the world of sports. World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and risked imprisonment in 1967 for refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military to fight, in his own words, "other poor people" in Vietnam.
Although many new nations had thrown off their old colonial rulers, they found it harder to shrug off a global world of trade, markets, and capital investment. Direct rule by imperial powers was replaced by economic dependency on former colonial powers. This was the context for the rise of social revolution and the emergence of opposition to neo-colonialism, especially in the Caribbean nations of Jamaica and Grenada.
Michael Manley, son of the prominent Jamaican anti-colonial activist Norman Manley, won the 1972 election and was reelected in 1976 for a second term as prime minister. He campaigned on a platform of anti-colonialism and socialist reconstruction with his slogan "Better must come." Once in office, Manley established links with Castro's Cuba and began educational and land reforms. Most importantly, he challenged the economic power of foreign-owned industries by either assuming public control or, as in the case of the powerful bauxite-mining and alumina industries, greatly increasing their payment of taxes to the state. The U.S. government expressed concern at Manley's anti-Yankee rhetoric and his socialist activities, and the United States refused loans and attacked Jamaica's credit rating. Despite the economic slump, Manley was reelected in 1976. The following year, Manley took on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and refused the austerity of its loan conditions. But Jamaica needed credit and foreign company jobs. Manley found it difficult to pursue his socialist agenda while avoiding dependency on foreign capital. By the 1980 election, Manley's compromises had alienated his radical supporters while not satisfying his liberal opponents, which resulted in a crushing defeat for him and the PNP.
In March 1979, the New Jewel Movement (NJM) led by Maurice Bishop seized power in Grenada. Much like Manley, Bishop began to court Castro's Cuba. Washington became concerned that Grenada offered another "communist" alternative in the Western Hemisphere. The self-destruction of the NJM government and the execution of Bishop by firing squad provided the reason for U.S. intervention. On October 25, 1983, the United States landed six thousand marines and installed its own regime. This military intervention met strong condemnation by Americans of African descent in the anti-colonial tradition of the 1930s and 1950s.
It was not the Caribbean, however, that saw the greatest mobilization of African Americans on behalf of national liberation struggles. The African-American movement for liberation in South Africa has a long history stretching back to Garvey during the 1920s through the Black Freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This latter freedom struggle helped spawn the black consciousness movement in South Africa during the mid-1970s that was eventually brutally crushed by the apartheid state. In response, hundreds of protests flared across the United States with several hundred arrests. Sporadic protests and continuing violence against South Africans resulted in the organization of the anti-apartheid movement, whose primary aim was to terminate racist segregation through a program of economic destabilization brought about by divestment campaigns. By 1985 to 1986, 120 public colleges and universities had either partially or fully divested their investments in South Africa. The largest divestment was by the University of California, which sold $3.1 billion of its stocks in companies trading with South Africa's apartheid state. U.S. corporations also began to get the message: by 1989, there were 106 companies operating in South Africa, down from 406 five years earlier. The combination of external pressure from sanctions and internal pressure from mass protests led by the African National Congress (ANC) and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) paved the way for South Africa's first nonracial elections in 1994. The election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency and his visit to the United States were cheered by many African-American people, a number of whom had played a not insignificant external role in making the apartheid state indefensible.
There were also important cultural expressions of opposition to neo-colonialism, especially in the musical genre of reggae. Its origins lay in Caribbean calypso and post–World War II American rhythm and blues. Bob Marley and his group the Wailers grew up in post-independent Jamaica. They advocated radical politics in their music from their first hit "Simmer Down" in 1964, through Rasta theology of liberation, to Marley's early death from cancer in 1981. During the 1970s, Bob Marley and the Wailers had supported Michael Manley's policies of social redistribution of wealth through such albums as Exodus and Natty Dread. Marley was an important popularizer of social issues through reggae to Jamaican and Caribbean youth, as well as millions around the world. Much of this music was also reflected in the transnational migration of Afro-Caribbean people between North American, European, and African cities.
Anti-globalization in the Early Twenty-First Century
Anti-colonial movements played an important role in overthrowing colonial slavery, as well as in establishing national independence in the modern world. But there are new challenges for the 150 million Americans of African descent today, many of whom continue to suffer disparate rates of poverty, poor health, and political powerlessness. These problems are compounded, rather than alleviated, by globalization policies stewarded by international financial organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, and the finance ministers of the eight richest nations represented by the Group of Eight (G8). The seeds of a growing opposition might be found in local and national movements, as well as in international movements such as Jubilee 2000 and other debt-cancellation organizations. In addition, belief in the power of African-descended people to overthrow slavery and colonialism points to a capacity to challenge globalization, or at least to one day offer a more humane and decent alternative to its destructive tendencies.
See also Briggs, Cyril; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Garvey, Marcus; Harrison, Hubert Henry; James, C. L. R.; Jones, Claudia; Manley, Michael; Marley, Bob; New Jewel Movement; Reggae; Robeson, Paul; Rodney, Walter
Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848. London: Verso, 1988.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.
Haywood, Harry. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978.
Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938. Baltimore Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Iliffe, John. Africans: The History of a Continent. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d rev. ed. New York: Vintage, 1963.
James, Winston. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America. London: Verso, 1998.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: Free Press, 1994.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon, 2002.
Meriwether, James H. Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935–1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Nkrumah, Kwame. Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah. New York: Nelson, 1957.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed, 1983.
Rodney, Walter. Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990.
von Eschen, Penny M. Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anti-colonialism, 1937–1957. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Wiener, Jon. "Reggae and Revolution." Review of Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, by Timothy White. New York Times Book Review (August 14, 1983): BR11.
Wiener, Jon. "Divestment Report Card: Students, Stocks, and Shanties." The Nation 243, no. 11 (1986): 337–339.
Williams, Eric Eustace. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.
Williams, Eric Eustace. From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492–1969. London: Deutsch, 1970.
Vadney, T. E. The World Since 1945. New York: Facts on File, 1987.
jeffrey r. kerr-ritchie (2005)
"Anti-Colonial Movements." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anti-colonial-movements
"Anti-Colonial Movements." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved February 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/anti-colonial-movements
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