September 29, 2023


Arts Eternal

Chronology of African History – 20th Century (1902 – 1950)

It is the purpose of this article to provide the general reader with a comprehensive picture of world’s greatest civilization originating in Africa, a continent leading modern scholars today refer to it as the ‘the cradle of civilization’. This chronology seeks to address sophisticated and intelligent readers who had never previously read anything serious about Africa, from the earliest times to the most recent.   Most black people have lost their confidence, their true identity, because their history has been neglected, falsified and sometimes concealed. Diana Crawford Carson has been instrumental in the compilation of the chronology as she spent many hours synchronizing facts from many sources and verifying the language usage. Note: the century headings generally refer to the first date mentioned. Example: an entry covering the 14th to the 18th century will be found under ’14th Century, 1300s’. The numbers in the left hand column are arbitrary, to help those using the indexes. All information has been resourced; resources are listed after the main text, just before the index.

The 20th century, 1900s,   (1902-1950)

128                 1902   Benin, on the west coast of near-equatorial Africa, and formerly known as Dahomey, was controlled at this time by the French.

129                 late 19th – early 20th century     Interest in Africa and African culture was rising, and an American University, Emory University, acquired a widely comprehensive collection, known as the Carlos Museum’s collection, of late19th century and very early 20th century art objects, in many forms. This collection, largely from West Africa (Benin [see 64], Nigeria, and the Grasslands of the Cameroons) with additional artefacts from the central parts of equatorial Africa, now mostly Zaire, offers an extraordinary opportunity to gain valuable insights into the various cultures, and their artistic development.

130                 1913   Oral tradition preserved much of the literature of many parts of Africa, with an accuracy little known or appreciated in ‘white’ countries. The story of Liyongo, a contender for the throne of Shagga (or Shaka Zulu) was transcribed by Muhammad bin Abubakaro. His work is titled (in English) ‘The ‘Epic of Liyongo Fumo’, translated from the original ‘Utendi wa Liyongo Fumo’..

131                 early 1900s   The prolific South African Xhosa writer, Samuel E K Mqhayi, established his native tongue as a suitable language for literature. Xhosa (also known as Khosa), sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘the click language’, had not previously been viewed by English speakers as fit for literary purposes. This writer clearly proved the error of that view. Other novelists of that time cogently portrayed black Africans as fully human, moral people, sophisticated in their own cultures; these novelists included Thomas Mofolo and Solomon Tshekisho Plattje. These writers, and others, were part of the rising protest against the European racial stereotyping of Africans. Writers of the early 1900s and long since that period helped to lead the protest against the indignities put upon indigenous African by the attitudes of, and oppression by, white South Africans.

132                 1903   DuBois, the prolific black American (with more than 2000 publications to his name) was seen as a strong support of the ‘Pan-African’ ideals, including the importance of recognising common roots among the descendants of the Diaspora, the dispersed black Africans, ‘children’ of those millions of Africans sold into slavery throughout the world, over a period of many centuries.                                                        

133                 W E B DuBois’ 1913 publication, and perhaps the best-known of all his works, was ‘The Souls of Black Folks’, which encouraged awareness of the need for a sense of identity and unity among black Americans. DuBois (1868-1963), whose autobiography is also profoundly notable, and a fellow writer, Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1896-1973) were both literary and social leaders, unifying black people, and helping concerned white people better to understand the issues being raised. These writers, and many more black writers and other black activists, supported the black pride movement. (In French, this was later called ‘Negritude’, a term little used after the middle 1940s.)

134                 1914 At this time, the only African countries free of European colonial control were Ethiopia in the east and Liberia in the west. The rest of Africa remained under European dominance.

135                 1914-1918     By the beginning of the ‘First World War’ in Europe, all African nations (except Liberia and Ethiopia) were victim to claims by the colonial European powers. This war, WWI, with the defeat of militant Germany and Germany’s subsequent loss of its African territories, proved the invalidity of the beliefs in European invincibility and white superiority. Despite the fact that France and Britain took control of the former German colonies for a time, no longer did African peoples (or the rest of the non-white world) accept the white nations’ claim to have the right to rule the world. France and Britain fully expected that the post-war League of Nations would help the colonies achieve independence.

136                 1920s Anti-colonial tensions, and growing African striving for independence, led to more than one Pan-African Congress, meeting in Paris. Missionary-educated Africans, and a small elite of Africans who achieved European or American higher education, were among the elite of the African leaders. These talks at the Paris Congresses were given even greater urgency by strikes in the Gold Coast (not yet restored to its historic name, Ghana), Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, all located on the coast in British West Africa.

137                 1920s-1930s   Literature again revealed a great deal about the growing anti-colonial and black nationalist attitudes in Africa. Many missionaries had helped to integrate traditional praise songs, poems and prayer forms, adapted into Christian teachings, along with the introduction of missionary-familiar hymns, all translated into the indigenous vernaculars. Missionaries encouraged writing, as well as censoring and controlling numerous avenues of publication and distribution of the writings of black Africans. The overall effect was encouraging to young (and older) black writers in Africa. The first African to earn a PhD was Ali Mostafa Mosharafa of Egypt, who received his PhD (1923) and Doctorate also in Mathematics (1924) from the University of London. Also in this decade (1926), the first eight indigenous Kenyans were ordained into the Presbyterian ministry.

138                 1925   A classic novel, Thomas Mofolo’s third, written in his vernacular, Sotho, was a challenging tale of ‘Chaka (or Shaka) the Zulu’. Chaka was a 19th century Zulu leader, militant as necessary at times. 

139                1930   Mofolo’s book was followed soon after by a book on a related topic, this time a historical romance about Chaka’s lieutenant, Mzilikazi. Written by Tshekishu Plantje, this fine work includes some Bantu praise songs.

140                 1930s The growing number of independence-seeking francophone African writers led to the birth of the so-called ‘Negritude’ and Pan-African movements in Paris. (‘Negritude’, a French word, was used before and perhaps up to 1945, to refer to the developing and increasingly proud recognition by black people – in Europe and the United States – of their history, and their cultural and social heritage. This movement is now more frequently referred to as ‘the black pride movement’.) There were many eloquent writers, poets, and speakers, spreading their message of freedom of government and of spirit, in France, throughout Europe, and even to America.The worldwide depression increased worker dissatisfaction in Africa (as well as other parts of the world). It affected the colonies, leading to restlessness with the colonial powers, and both strikes and uprisings, even revolts, in those areas. All this encouraged African nationalists to redouble their organizational efforts.

141                 1930s, continued    The ‘Negritude’ movement originated (see 137)   in the Parisian bohemian period of jazz and other aspects of cultural openness, where French colonial Africans found freedom to create, to paint, and write. Many of this movement were students, completing their education in Paris. These intellectuals from many parts of Africa and the Caribbean already had much in common, even as together they began to explore their shared roots, and their shared experience of destructive victimization and loss of identity under the divisive and oppressive European colonization rules, practices and imposed foreign education. This awareness of shared losses strengthened the intellectuals’ determination to speak out strongly against the evils of colonization, and seek their special African identity and traditional culture, or cultures.

142                 1930s, continued    As these mature students and others among them were finding ways to communicate their understandings, feelings, history and hopes, they sometimes spoke of Africa as a woman and Africa before the European colonizing invasion as a Garden-of-Eden-like Utopia. An extraordinary Senegalese poet, Leopold Sedar Senghor (born in 1906), later to become the first president of his homeland in 1960, was an especially skilful communicator and leader, even a militant communicator, who strongly supported the ‘Negritude’ adherents, in their protests against colonization; they were especially resistant to French attempts at assimilation. These attempts were very strongly put down by the francophone Africans who, though fluent, always strongly preferred to speak their own vernacular, reaffirming their identity as not-French. This literary intellectual group attracted other highly able writers, including three outstanding poets: Leon-Gontran Dama, and the brothers Biragao Diop and David Diop. A fourth significant poet in this group was Aime Cesaire, from the island of Martinique, an overseas department (one of the 26 ‘regions’) of France. Cesaire stated, in an interview in 1967: ‘We lived in an atmosphere of rejection, and we developed an inferiority complex.’ The desire to establish an identity begins with ‘a concrete consciousness of what we are -… that we are black…and have a history…[that] there have been beautiful and important black civilizations…that its values were values that could still make an important contribution to the world.’ It is interesting to note that most of the present population, which is close to half a million people, are descended from African slaves; slavery was banned there in 1869. All Martiniques have full French citizenship.

143                 1936  Zanzibar, a Swahili city, celebrated the 25th anniversary (‘Silver Jubilee’) of the noted poet Sultan Kalif bin Harub, by printing a postage stamp, honouring him and his work.

144                 1939-1945    During the 2nd World War, some of the main theatres of war, other than on the European continent, were in North Africa, Southeast Asia, and Pacific Islands, the latter particularly involving the USA against Japan. Many other important non-European war sites, however, were in European colonies. With the end of the war, there were many power-problems faced by the smaller nations even though now free from war, and from the German invasion. Freedom was ‘in the air’ for those nations, both European and African, and the spread of freedom (‘decolonization’) for at least some of the former colonies became inevitable. The next decade saw many changes in some nations colonized by European states (including those nations colonized by Britain).

145                 1947   An innovative magazine, ‘Presence Africaine’, was published in France under the editorship of Alioune Diap. This journal, celebrating many aspects of the non-white, then-called-Negro people, was among the first in this field. ‘Ebony‘, in the USA, was also beginning at about the same time but, because of the language difference, these magazines appealed to different readerships.

146                 1947   India and Pakistan, British colonies for some decades, achieved their independence from Britain. Mahatma Gandhi, a qualified Indian lawyer, at one time in South Africa, was among many instrumental in leading these nations to freedom. Gandhi became India’s first president. When the British granted independence to India and Pakistan, this greatly increased the pressure for decolonization (freedom and independence) in other colonies. In this same year, 1947, the records show that a second African received his PhD in Mathematics. This was A M Taylor, a Ghanaian, at Oxford University.

147                 1948  Once the publishing world realized the economic potential, as   well as the social benefits, of publications in this field, other publications came on the market, as well. One notable addition was the ‘Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache de langue francaise’, again a French publication, perhaps partly because France was deeply involved in some African nations, and also because black immigration into France was already strong. This ‘Anthology of New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French’, edited by Senghor, presented many writings of French-speaking black African and Caribbean poets.

148                 1950s  Jomo Kenyatta, a name the mission-school educated Mr Johnstone Kamau Ngengi assumed as he worked towards freeing his nation from the English, led a lengthy campaign for Kenyan freedom.  Kenyatta was imprisoned by the British in 1952, and held until 1961.

149                 1950 and beyond   ln literary matters, perhaps the USA led the way, with autobiographies, histories, poems, novels, short stories and thrillers by black authors, helping to establish a strong market in the USA and internationally, for their works. Elmore, DuBois, and Baldwin are among the many American black notables whose works were significantly to the fore during this period, in the USA, and far beyond. In Africa, Xhosa writers included South African A C Jordan and, in other African languages and English, Alex La Guma and Bloke Modisane; the poet Rolfus R R Dhlomo, and Lewis Nkosi, playwright and literary (and other) critic. A third African, Chike Obi, earned a PhD in mathematics in 1950.

150                 1951  In Tanganyika (present day Tanzania), Shaaban Robert was being recognized as the leading poet and essayist of Kiswahili, in East Africa. Kusadikika’  (‘To Be Believed’), his best-known work, is a profound analysis of the current political situation and movements in his land. An allegorical work, it owes much to Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, an 18th-century British serious fantasy.

151                 1952   The London publication of ‘The Palm-Wine Drinker’ (by Amos Tutuola, of Nigeria) introduced an exciting hero-tale from Tutuola’s own Yoruba oral tradition. Possibly this was the first, or one of the first, published books written in African English, more casual than formal English, but a most effective medium.

152                 1953   Among the proliferating writers of this decade, the Guinea-born Camara Laye became one of the most famous, especially for his masterpiece, an autobiographical novel ‘The Dark Child’). Laye was noted for his powerful psychological insights. 

In this same period, there were two outstanding novelists from Cameroon, Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono. Both were very observant and skilful satirists, whose books are both penetrating and powerful. 

153                 1954   Peter Abraham’s autobiography, ‘Tell Freedom’, recounts the severe colonialist racial prejudice he experienced when yet a child, in his Johannesburg, South Africa, homeland. At that time, many South African writers and journalists first found an outlet through ‘Drum’, one of several popular magazines to publish their work.           

154                 1954-1962 The indigenous people of the French-controlled ‘francophone’ colonies continued to struggle for independence from France. This was complicated by the wish of some Africans to keep the economic and cultural ties for their own (African) benefit. The indigenous Algerians, surrounded by a million white settlers, did not share this wish; they wanted freedom. 

155                 1955   Many potential film makers went to Europe for their training, resulting in many interesting short films of European life, seen through African eyes. Credited with being the start of African film making, ‘Afrique sur le Seine’ showed a fresh view of student life. This film, which has been referred to as presenting ‘a pioneering view’, was the work of Paulin Soumanou Vieryra.

156                 1956   This was a year celebrated by two nations, in their new freedom. Tunisia was granted freedom in March, 1956; Morocco was granted her freedom at the end of this same year. (Note: Ethiopia had never been colonized; it had always been free.)

157                 1957   Among the earliest black African states to achieve independence was Ghana. Ghana had been an ancient nation by that name, though for some decades renamed Gold Coast. On gaining freedom, it also regained its historic name. The newly independent Ghana was led by the notable Kwame Nkrumah, freedom fighter, ex-prisoner of the British, and free Ghana’s first president. The British transfer of power followed Gandhi-type strikes, rallies and boycotts of British goods.

158                 1957-1958     In his nation’s new freedom, in Ghana, the much-respected poet and critic, Kofi Awoonor, began a significant collection of African oral traditions (which he translated into English). This collection included Ewe (pronounced as EH veh) dirges, and many other elements of oral traditional history, which otherwise might have been lost to future generations. (see 195)

Being a gifted poet, Awoonor wove these materials into his writings, both poetry and prose, the latter including novels such as ‘The Night of My Blood’ (1958) and ‘This Earth My Brother’ (1971). Throughout his life’s work, Awoonor worked to recover and preserve the important pre-colonial African culture and oral traditions. He believed that it was imperative to reconnect his people with their past creations, if they were to survive as a people.

159                 1958   Things FallApart‘, by the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, attracted many readers, locally and internationally, to his study of the threat to indigenous values from western culture, not only the impact of both past and present colonial structures, education, culture and attitudes, but also the pervasive present influence of many things ‘western’. Achebe’s works, written in ‘African English’, were very popular, drawing, as they were, on the rich oral traditions of his people.

160                        In this same period, African film makersalso relied heavily on the indigenous oral traditions, in both story and poem.

161                 1958   Britain officially granted independence to the (Dutch descent) South African Afrikaners.

162                       The government of South African exiled many black writers, Mphahlele and Abrahams among them; other writers simply emigrated. (see 175)

163                 late 50s – early 60s    The impact of South Africa’s racism, and the impact on many lives, affected the English language writings, and English audiences of such South Africans as Doris Lessing (and her ‘Children of Violence’ books), Nadine Gordimer (novelist and short story writer), and Athol Fugard (playwright). These three writers, and many others, wrote of these and related issues in their many works.