the European city tours about slavery and colonialism

<span>A tour group passes a replica of a colonial VOC ship, moored in the Oosterdok in Amsterdam.</span><span>Composite: Alamy/Jennifer Tosch</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 978fb1eb5e7″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 78fb1eb5e7″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=A tour group passes a replica of a colonial VOC ship, moored in Amsterdam’s Oosterdok.Composite: Alamy/Jennifer Tosch

We dodge through the crowds of tourists and workers on their lunch breaks in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square and stop in front of the nearly three-ton statue of King Carlos III on horseback. Carlos III, playfully nicknamed Madrid’s best mayor, is credited with modernizing the city’s lighting, sewerage and waste disposal.

Kwame Ondo, the guide behind AfroIbérica Tours, offers another, albeit lesser known, fact about the monarch. “He was one of the largest slave owners of his time,” Ondo says, citing the 1,500 enslaved people he held on the Iberian Peninsula and the 18,500 others he held in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. As aristocratic families tried to keep up with the monarch, the proportion of enslaved people in Madrid grew to an estimated 4% of the population in the 1880s.

It is a nod to the kind of conversations – one that is often neglected or deliberately ignored across the continent – ​​that Ondo and his counterparts in Europe are steadily embedding into everyday life. From Barcelona to Brussels, London to Lisbon, a cohort of guides has turned their lens on black and African history, exposing how the continent has been shaped by colonialism and slavery while reshaping the stories Europe tells about itself. As California debates reparations laws intended to offset generations of discriminatory policies, and Britain pays tribute to slave traders and colonialists, similar conversations have been conspicuously absent from much of the continent.

“We don’t lift anyone’s mattresses,” says Ondo. “This is history hidden in plain sight.”

It is a statement that in a way reflects his own life. Born in Equatorial Guinea – the last Spanish colony to claim independence in 1968 – he grew up in southern Spain, steeped in the culture of a former empire that had long since forgotten what it had done in what has been called the ‘forgotten colony’ of Spain. Spain.

However, the existence of Ondo and his family in Spain provided a powerful counterbalance to this forgetting. “It was a conscious decision by the European powers to break away from history,” says Ondo. “But history comes back to you.”

Eleven hundred kilometers away, the sentiment is echoed by Jennifer Tosch, who launched Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam in 2013. The year before, Tosch had arrived in the country as an international student from the US with a special Dutch connection; with family roots dating back to Suriname, she had family who had lived in the Netherlands for four generations.

Her attempts to investigate this connection were futile – the result of what she describes as “deliberate forgetting” or “colonial amnesia” – and convinced her of the need to bring the city’s hidden history to the attention of the masses.

“Imagine sitting here during class and being told that your history is not included, that you don’t matter,” she says. ‘That you couldn’t see anything here that would bring you closer to an understanding of your past. It just didn’t sit right.”

As she prepared to lead visitors and locals past the plaques depicting a servile black child and the dark figureheads with exaggerated facial features once used to signify pharmacies, the idea was initially met with skepticism by people of color Dutch. .

“Like, ‘No, no, there was no black history here; no, there was no black presence until much later,” she says. “So questioning the notions of belonging, citizenship and identity were intertwined with my mission to prove that we belong here. And that our stories matter.”

Eleven years later, the conversation around black history and colonialism in the Netherlands has changed. In 2023, King Willem-Alexander apologized for his country’s role in slavery, but did not respond to demands for reparations, despite research showing that his ancestors earned the modern-day equivalent of €545 million (£466 million) had earned from slavery.

The apology was a “quite a turning point,” Tosch says, albeit carefully timed to fit in with the growing attention paid to this history. In other words, it was more a tribute to the crucial work many had done to uncover history than any royal initiative, she says.

In Berlin, such a shift still seems far away, says judge Mvemba, who founded Decolonial Tours in 2022.

Locals who make their tours are often surprised to discover that the German colonial empire was once the third largest empire in Europe. “They never learned anything about Germany’s colonial past, some don’t even know that the Berlin Conference took place in Berlin,” she says, referring to the 1884-1885 meeting in which European imperial powers fought over control of Africa. “I think it is also shocking to them how those colonial continuities simply live among us.”

Mvemba, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and raised in Germany, points to a powerful example: Berlin’s African Quarter, designed in the late 19th century as a place where the city could house a permanent zoo that could exhibit both wild and wild animals are stated. and people to celebrate the German colonial project.

Although the zoo never came to fruition, its echoes resurfaced more than a hundred years later, when a zoo in Bavaria tried to attract visitors by creating an “African village” of artists and craftsmen.

The initiative went ahead despite widespread protests from anti-discrimination groups, Mvemba says, suggesting that Germany – a country often praised for its efforts to deal with its more recent past – has failed to meaningfully take into account its history of colonialism. “So really these tours are about making people think and realize that we are still living with or reproducing those colonial prejudices,” she says.

These efforts to connect the dots between the past and the present come at a crucial time for the continent, says Julia Browne. In 1994, she launched Walking the Spirit Tours, guiding locals and visitors to Paris through the history of those who made slavery possible and confronted colonialism.

“It opens a new chapter in the book about exploring French history – and European history too – and facing the facts so people can’t deny it,” she says. “And especially in this day and age, when the right wing is on the rise, the voices must become increasingly stronger.”

In countries such as Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, far-right parties have broken through and have become important players in politics. In France and Germany, nativist parties are steadily rising in the polls, pulling mainstream parties to the right as they compete for voters’ attention.

“They have a certain rhetoric and storyline that creates fear in people, creates fear of what used to be called ‘the other’. And it gives the feeling that people don’t belong if they are not of European descent,” she says. “But it is important that the other side is heard: no, this is not the truth.”

She points to the Place de la Concorde, which will be shown to the world during the Olympic Games this summer. “But what else is there? There is a place called Hôtel de la Marine. It is a beautiful building that has been renovated, but it was there that the system of slavery and colonialism was managed,” she says, describing it as an “administrative headquarters” for the country’s colonial empire before it was written into history as the location where the decree abolishing slavery in the colonies was signed in 1848.

The Tuileries Gardens are nearby. “It was there that slavery in the colonies was first abolished by the National Convention, but also re-established by Napoleon,” says Browne. “If you are a person of color, or have origins in the islands or in colonial Africa, these places are part of your history.”

In Madrid, Ondo’s walking tour begins to end after crossing a busy square where people were once sold to the highest bidder and visiting a church teeming with tourists seemingly oblivious to the symbols associated with slavery found in the stone walls are carved.

His last stop, however, is at a rotating selection of African restaurants in the city center. It is an ending with a dual purpose: to showcase the vibrant collection of restaurants, including Senegalese and Equatorial Guinean, that have emerged in recent years, and to amplify the way the stories of the past shape life in Madrid today keep coloring.

“None of this is really a thing of the past, it is something that is still going on right now,” he says, pointing to the power still wielded by those whose families benefited from slavery over the corporations that have done. displaced colonial empires in extracting resources from the global south, and the EU’s crackdown on those who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean in small boats.

“It is a process that never ends,” says Ondo. “It’s a transformation of the same problems from 200 years ago. Projects like mine and many others open a conversation about these things.”

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