It has been quite a while since I wanted to write a piece about “Africans’ Portrayal Throughout History”. The current complicated social expectations and research that needed to be done in addition to personal reasons, made this linger in the air. I hope my effort to illuminate parts of history that have been ignored due to hidden political agendas, is presented in this post rightfully.
First Appearance of Africans in Art
The East Stairs of the Apadana at Parse (Persepolis) in Iran
The East Stairs of the Apadana at Parse (Persepolis), decorated by reliefs showing delegates of the 23 subject nations of the Persian Empire paying tribute to Dariush I of Hakhamaneshian(Darius I of Achaemanian). The reliefs were made in the first half of the 6th century BC, as part of the original design by Dariush (Darius the Great). Its construction was completed by (Khashayar Shah) Xerxes I. Among them, there are carvings of African delegates(Nubia) with their traditional dress.
On the other hand, ancient Athenians were always amazed by the presence of Africans in the ranking of the Persian army during Khashayar Shah(Xerexes). There are wine pitchers, perfume bottles and vases from the Greco-Persian war era depicting the Persian-African soldiers.
Paintings of the Magi/ Wise Men
It is also said that Africans appeared in European paintings from the Renaissance(14th to 17th Century) onwards. But, the very first image of an African is related to one of the magi (wise men) from the bible. Interestingly these magi were also from Persia/Iran.
“Understanding the ‘wise men’
The term ‘wise men’ is perhaps the best English equivalent of the Greek word for Magi. The magi were a Median Kurdish priestly caste or tribe who rose to prominence in ancient Persia (today’s Iran).
Their religion, Zoroastri-anism, originated around the Sixth Century BC after the Median Zoroaster (the name itself possibly means “dawn star”). Zoroaster was a religious reformer of ancient Persia and the founder of this pre-Islamic religion. This religion taught the worship of the god Ahura Mazda as the source of all good and required the practice of good thoughts, words and deeds, and the renunciation of evil.
The magi were held in awe as highly educated scientists and scholars who could interpret and even control demons. The Greek words magos, magoi, magi, from which we derive our word magic, is essentially untranslatable into English because it was the name of this certain group of people.
The magi were very skilled in astronomy and astrology, which was a great preoccupation with them. In their interest in the stars they did not make much distinction between the science of astronomy and the superstition of astrology. The two were rather well blended by that time.
They were also occultists of sorts and were involved in divination activities which we would call sorcery. That is why the word magi was corrupted through history into the English word magic or magician which is a synonym for sorcerer. Nevertheless, the magi were originally a pagan, priestly tribe of people from the Medes and Persians for which there are many historical references to confirm this. However, the magi mentioned in Matthew’s account were different as we shall see.”J. Timothy Unruh, Astronomer
Africans’ Presence in Renaissance Europe
Africans’ presence in Renaissance Europe was not only limited to slaves. There are some paintings of free Africans in European Clothes indicating the presence of none slave Africans in the Renaissance era.
A Quick History of Slavery*
Slavery in Persia/Iran
We know that slavery or enforced labour was widespread in the ancient world in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa but enslavement had not been based on race. Ancient slavery consists of a mixture of debt slavery, punishment for crime, prisoners of war, child abandonment, and children born to slaves.
By the start of the Persian Empire in 539 B.C., Cyrus the Great freed the slaves in the Empire, declared that all people had the right to choose their religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script. Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder, this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder is in the United Nations. (A Brief History of Human Rights)
Unfortunately, after the Greek, Muslim and later Mongol invasion of Persia/Iran, so many of the ancient customs of Persians/Iranians, which originated from Zoroastrianism beliefs, gradually lost their importance. The invader’s customs including slavery were promoted in Iran/Persia once again. And the modern slave trade, which began as early as the 15th century, introduced a commercialized and inherited system of slavery to the world.
Slavery in Europe
The main European countries involved in slaving were Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Britain began large-scale slaving through private trading companies in the 1640s. The London-based Royal African Company was the most important and from 1672 had a monopoly of the British trade. (European traders)
The cruelty of the slave trade was supported by the governments. The slaves were treated like cargo and slaves ships were insured. There is one famous case of the crew throwing more than 130 live slaves overboard to save water and later asking for compensation from insurance.
*Please be aware that Wikipedia articles regarding slavery in Ancient Persia are not trustworthy sources. It has been clearly a systemic approach to reduce the importance of Cyrus the Great in history and therefore the importance of Iran since Alexander’s invasion of Persia. This approach has been reinforced once again in recent years after Islamic Revolution in Iran by both the Islamic government from the inside and some foreign governments from the outside, each following a different agenda which is either promoting Islamic Iran or enslaving a nation to looting their wealth. after all, there are different ways to enslave people.
Slaves in Aristocratic Portraiture
The slave trade made European families prosperous. One way of demonstrating wealth and status was for the Black servant in the aristocratic home to be shown in portraits. The artist often illustrates a black servant as part of the scenery in the artwork, as an exotic object owned by the aristocratic family that aimed to showcase their wealth, status and whiteness. This was most fashionable from the 17th century onwards among the British aristocrats. (Learn More: The visible invisibility of Black People in aristocratic portraiture by Marjorie H. Morgan)
Using slaves and black people in European art is not only limited to paintings. There are examples of decorative art, furniture and jewellery from these eras with a slavery theme(Read More). You might remember Princess Michael of Kent – wife of Prince Michael of Kent, Queen Elizabeth II’s first cousin- who wore a brooch of an African in the Queen’s Christmas luncheon at Buckingham Palace in the presence of Megan (Read More). After all, Apple does not fall far from the tree!
First Known Painting of an Afro-Iranian in Persia
Persia/Iran is the oldest multicultural country with a variety of ethnic groups residing in it for thousands of years. The first known 17th-century painting from a “private collection” was sold for $515,000 at a London auction in 2021 depicting an Afro-Iranian soldier from the Safavi era. (Read More)
End of Slavery or Change the Nature of Slavery!
It is said that Slavery officially ended in different countries at different times. “1834 The Abolition Act” abolishes slavery throughout the British Empire, including British colonies in North America. The bill emancipates slaves in all British colonies but nearly $100 million in today’s money is paid to compensate slave owners for their losses.
Iran’s slavery officially ended on February 7, 1929, after Reza Shah took power and reduced the power of Islamic clerks. The Iranian National Parliament ratified an anti-slavery bill that outlawed the slave trade or any other claim of ownership over human beings. The bill also empowered the government to take immediate action for the emancipation of all slaves.
Even though the old form of Slavery ended officially in countries all over the world but modern slavery in different forms and names still exists in our societies. Cheap servants, Human trafficking, racism and 9 to 5 employees are all different ways of enslaving nations.
From One Extreme to Another
While with the “Woke Culture” trend some people are trying to spread awareness about racism and social injustice, others are whitewashing history. One example of such is promoting Art depicting slaves and Africans in a more respectful manner. The arts and subjects that were hidden and considered of less importance for centuries are appraised and boldened in the media.
The story of people like “Dido Elizabeth Belle” – a former slave and an illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat – whose painting was hidden in the private collection of her relatives for decades and was forgotten by them, is suddenly revealed and spread all over the media.
Interestingly, the painting’s name was changed from “Lady Elizabeth Murray and Mrs Davinier” in 1796 while it was in storage without a frame to ” Portrate of Lady Finch Hatton sitten in a garden with an open book and negress attendant” in 1904 and then to “The Lady Elizabeth Finch Hatton” in 1910. So for over a century, she was completely erased from the memory of her own relatives. It is just after the episode of the brilliant “Fake or Fortune?” Tv series in 2019 that the painting’s name changed to “Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle”. The family is displaying the paintings proudly in their mansion now.
Final say: is Disney really “awake”?
This whitewashing trail under the name of “Woke Culture” has created a confused generation and a fake history. I grew up with Disney movies like so many others in my generation. I believe “Walt Disney” has created a culture for the wild west with his amazing Disney World. Before Walt Disney, the United States was nothing more than a feral world filled with wild cowboys killing each other or Native Americans or Africans because of land and the colour of their skin.
“Walt Disney” brought hope to this horrible world of the West and all children and adults around the world.
I had read all these stories long before Disney versions came and I had not always liked the original stories or characters.
I hated the stupid Pinocchio who always made mistakes and was fooled by others. When Disney Pinocchio was released, I watched the whole movie for its magical Blue fairy.
I am 47 now and I must confess that it was so disappointing to watch the new live-action trailer with an African bald fairy!
Interestingly, I am Iranian/ Persian and very much used to the Western media portraying Jasmine as an Arab played by a British-Indian actress while she is from Ancient Persia/Iran!
In Iran which is the oldest multicultural country and has Africans as one of its ethnicity groups carved alongside so many other ethnicities on ancient Parse 2500 years ago, we don’t prioritize the colour of people’s skin.
I just don’t understand going from one extreme to another. How ruining millions of people’s childhood dreams would make up for the stupidity and cruelty of others?
On the other hand, we have Ariel the mermaid, a Scandinavian character or Thickebell, a little entitled British fairy, who overnight their ethnicity has changed!
There are so many brilliant Africans throughout history that need to be introduced by making movies about them. How does changing the ethnicity of an established character in history or literature benefit a nation?
It just contributes further to whitewashing history and confusing the next generation.
At the end of the day, I would like to know how an African girl who grew up with Disney’s Tiana may feel if the character is replaced by another ethnicity in the live-action.