Global Mappings

Pan-African Conference in 1900

Article #461

Origins of the movement for global black unity

Ramla Bandele, Article Author

By the turn of the twentieth century, the European imperialist project of conquest and political domination of Africa neared completion. Although later Euro-centric historians and administrators viewed this conquest as inevitable and easy, that was not the way it seemed to the ruling governments in 1900. The last decade of the nineteenth century was marked by many expensive military campaigns to subjugate "recalcitrant" indigenous political leaders who mounted wars of resistance that often surprised the European invaders because of their professional organization and the effectiveness of their strategy and tactics. By 1900, only two African nations had escaped subjugation: Abyssinia (Ethiopia), which had roundly defeated the Italian army in 1896, and Liberia, which had deployed diplomacy and its historic alliance with the United States to stave off imperial encroachment.

From the beginning, imperial conquest faced stiff opposition from concerned multi-racial pressure groups in the western hemisphere and Europe as well as from the Islamic and western educated indigenous elites in African commercial and administrative centers. By 1900, significant contacts existed between groups in the colonies and the European metropolitan centers where vocal antiimperialist forces had formed, including Indian and Irish nationalists, emergent Socialist parties, the British Liberal Party, the Aborigines Protection Society, the Anti-Slavery Society, the Society of Friends (Quakers), and the Native Races and Liquor Traffic United Committee. Within this wider context, a number of concerned African, African American and West Indian intellectuals, who visited the United Kingdom periodically, entered into a lengthy dialogue with black leaders and students based in the United Kingdom. While the composition of this group shifted constantly as visitors returned home and students completed their courses, the dialogue continued through black-owned newspapers that flourished in the United States, the West Indies, West Africa, and other places. Among the leaders who contributed to the evolution of this discourse were: Bishop James Johnson (a prominent Nigerian clergymen), F. E.R. Johnson (ex-Attorney-General of Liberia), Benito Sylvain (a prominent Haitian leader who then served as Aide-de-Camp to Emperor Menelik of Abyssinia), Mrs. M. T. Cole, Henry F. Downing (ex-United Sates Consul of Loanda in Angola), and Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad. They established the African Association in 1897 with a mandate to encourage unity and cooperation among Africans; to promote and protect the interests of all subjects claiming African descent in the West Indian and African colonies by circulating accurate information on all subjects affecting their rights and privileges as subjects of the British Empire; and by making direct appeals to the Imperial and local Governments.

The first item on the African Association's agenda involved the organization of a world conference of black people for the exchange of ideas and information concerning the general and individual situation of black peoples and to formulate strategies to protect their interests and improve their social, economic and political conditions. The Pan-African Congress took place in Westminster Town Hall, London from July 23rd to the 25th, 1900. It was timed to take place just before the Paris Exposition in order to allow tourists of African descent to attend both events. Estimates of attendance vary from 35 to an unspecified "hundreds". Among the organizations represented at the congress were the Government of Abyssinia, the African Association, and the Afro-West Indian Literary Society. The famous Sierra Leonean composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, performed.

Bishop Alexander Walters, considered by scholars of African American history to be one of the most notable leaders of his generation, a prominent leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and president of the National Afro-American Council, presided over the meetings. His account of the proceedings is one of our most important sources on this event. Numerous papers were presented. Here we will consider very briefly some of the more significant papers. Rev. Henry Smith presented a historical paper on the African origins of human civilization, a theory that had some currency at the time but became discredited with the rise of Euro-centric theories of African history. Now, however, archaeologists and linguists have shown how accurate Smith's view was. The Liberian, Frederick Johnson, using his country as his main example, extolled Africans for their bravery, industry, and capacity for self-government. Several papers discussed the need for greater equity in race relations in the United States. Although most speakers praised Britain for her sense of justice and fair play in governance, Benito Sylvain struck a discordant note when he attacked Britain's aggressive imperialist policy of military intervention in Africa during the last fifteen years.

The congress resolved to set up a permanent Pan-African Association, with headquarters in London and branches overseas. It meant to convene a congress every two years in some large city in Europe or the United States or an independent black state. Its next meeting was to be in the United States in 1902, followed by one in Haiti in 1904. The African Association merged with the new Pan-African Association and called on other black organizations to affiliate with the new body. The following officers were elected for the headquarters branch: the Right Reverend Alexander Walters as president; Reverend Henry B. Brown as vice-president; Dr. R. J. Colenso as general treasurer; Benito Sylvain as general delegate for Africa; and H. Sylvester Williams as general secretary. In addition, officers were elected for overseas branches in the United States, Haiti, Abyssinia, Liberia, South Africa, Nigeria, and Jamaica. Of these officers, the most noteworthy were the scholar, W. E. B. DuBois (secretary for the United States branch), the Lagosian merchant prince and newspaper proprietor, J. Otonba Payne (vice-president for the Nigerian branch); and the Jamaica Legislative Council Member, the Honorable H. R. Cagill, vice-president of his colony's branch. Future plans envisaged branches in Cape town, Rhodesia, the Gold Coast, Trinidad, Canada, Orange River colony and the Transvaal.

The aims and objectives of the Pan-African Association were: to campaign for effective legislation to secure civil and political rights for Africans throughout the world; to encourage educational, industrial and commercial enterprise among peoples of African descent; to produce information and statistics about peoples of Africa and African descent; and to raise funds. Moreover, the delegates hoped to establish a united front of independent black African states, an objective that would later be resuscitated by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.

Concrete results of the congress were few, however, and the high hopes for effective Pan-African unity failed to materialize. Its most important legacy was the adoption of the "Address to the Nations of the World", authored by Walters, Brown and DuBois, which began with the now famous sentence: "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." It urged an end to color and racial prejudice and was sent to the political leaders of all countries and colonies that had populations of African descent. In addition, it sent a separate memorial to Queen Victoria calling on Britain to respect the integrity of black sovereign states, to grant African and West Indian colonies equality with white British colonies, and succession of discrimination against nonwhites in South Africa. After a long delay, this memorial received a polite acknowledgement from the Colonial Office, but the issues raised were largely ignored by British imperialists, except for tacit recognition of the independence of Haiti, Liberia, and Abyssinia.

While the Pan-African congress was well reported in the London papers, only one British journalist believed that the ruling class should see the meeting as a harbinger of pending resistance and racial conflict. The editor of the influential Review of Reviews, W. T. Stead, concluded that the meeting represented part of a worldwide revolt of people of color against white domination.

Although branches of the Pan-African Association were established in Trinidad and Jamaica in 1901, they became moribund within a year. The other branches in the United States, Europe and Africa never became active. In the United States, the Pan-African Congress was largely forgotten until the mid-1940s. Even DuBois, an active participant in the London congress, overlooked this pioneer meeting when he mislabeled the Pan-African Congress of 1919 as the "first." Although in Africa, there was also no branch activity, some of the personalities (Bishop James Johnson, Otonba Payne, and Attoh Ahuma) involved in the dialogue begun by the African Association and continued by the Pan-African Association went on to found various organizations that further elaborated some of the ideas voiced by the Pan-African Congress.

The 1900 Pan-African Congress is important because it deployed the term "Pan-African" as part of its organizing principle for the first time to bring together leaders of black opinion for the common cause to protect the interests of independent and colonized Africans and peoples of African descent. It also contributed the ideas of race unity and a common political organization, which became part and parcel of the later Pan-African Congresses. It started one of the most important dialogues in global black history.


Connections to other articles

Williams, Henry Sylvester
Pan-African Congress in 1919
The Years 1900-1929
The National Congress of British West Africa
Pan-African Congress in 1923
Pan-African Congress in 1921
Pan-African Congress in 1927
Bruce, John Edward


Bibliographic Sources

Henry Sylvester Williams: Imperial Pan-Africanist, Hooker, J.R., Rex Collings, Ltd., 1975
Negro Congress Held in Harlem, New York Times (NYT), New York Times, 8626
Henry Sylvester Williams and the Origins of the Pan-African Movement, 1869-1911, Mathurin, Owen Charles, Greenwood Press, 26627
PanAfrican Conference, London Times, , July 24, 1900
PanAfrican Conference - 2nd article, London Times, , July 25, 1900
Report of the Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, , London: The Pan-African Association, 1900
The Revolt Against the Paleface, Stead, W. T., , August 1900
My Life and Work, Walters, Bishop Alexander, New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1917

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