Response to Western colonialism: Ottoman legacy in Africa

Response to Western colonialism: Ottoman legacy in Africa

While colonialism may have declined in practice, but its residue remains.

Just consider how inhabitants from Ghana, Senegal, Congo, Algeria and Madagascar speak French, while Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa speak another western language, English. Colonialism’s legacy continues to permeate almost all aspects of life on the continent. With its fifty-two countries, Africa continues to fight against western imperialism.

Historically, colonisers have always found a way to legitimate their colonial activities by arguing that they were developing the ‘Dark continent’.  Yet, the Ottoman State managed to administer northern Africa—as far as Ethiopia—for more than four hundred years without a single person being forced to speak Turkish or to convert to Islam.  Instead, the Ottoman State established schools at the Cape of Good Hope in order to educate neglected Muslims on the continent.

In this regard, we should look at the alternative stories to understand what went wrong on the continent while Ottomans were establishing close relations with the local communities in Africa.

One interesting forgotten figure was the Muslim politician, Ahmed Ataoullah Effendi, who was born in Cape Town in 1865 from a Malay mother and Turkish father. Ahmed Ataoullah studied in Cape Town, Mecca and Istanbul, and eventually became a Professor of Islamic Studies before returning to South Africa in 1881. Due to his father relations with the Ottoman government, he established an Islamic school in Kimberley to teach Muslim pupils. While Ahmed Ataoullah dealt with educational activities in South Africa, he decided to stand for the Cape parliament elections in order to represent the rights of the victimised people of South Africa. Due to his religious identity, he was considered Black, regardless of skin colour. For the historian Ahmed Davids, “Ahcmad Ataoullah Effendi was thus arguably the first ‘Black’ politician in South Africa.” In fact, the political struggles faced by South Africa’s first ‘Black’ politician inspired the writers of Imvo Zazanbsuntu, a Xhosa newspaper, to discuss some of Ahmed Ataoullah Effendi’s political challenges in 1893.

Ottoman cartographers, moreover, were also the first to acknowledge the Khoikhoi in their official maps. While many Western cartographers indicated South Africa as a Cape Colony, the Ottoman statesmen preferred to name the territory according to the name then given to the local inhabitants, “Hottentot.”  While this term is currently regarded as derogatory, what is interesting is that the Ottoman cartographers acknowledged the inhabitants rather than just the territory.

The Ottoman State was not only helpful towards Muslims, but also saved Jewish people from anti-semitism in Europe. When the Ottoman Empire lost its northern provinces, Russia not only occupied the Ottoman provinces but also deported its Muslim and Jewish minorities from Romania and Moldova. As a result, the Jews and Muslims migrated south, as far as Anatolia. Some Jewish families, however, decided to move to Africa. Despite their migration to African countries, Ottoman Jewish families remained loyal to the Ottoman State, in large part due to Turkish respect and acceptance towards non-Muslim communities. A South African newspaper, for example illustrated this by addressing the fact that the Cape Town Jewish community was praying for the Ottoman commander responsible for saving Jewish families against Russian and Bulgarian soldiers.

According to the article, Turkish soldiers gave their blankets to Jewish children. However, this was not only one-sided. When the Ottoman State was trying to save its Balkan provinces, Jews from South Africa sent donations to the Ottoman Navy. Haim Galanti, from Johannesburg, collected these donations from South African’s Jewish community and submitted them to the Ottoman consul-general. This is yet another salient example of the remarkable mutual friendship between these two communities.

In the same vein, for many years, the Ottoman State protected many Middle Eastern cities from the Western colonizers. While Portugal was trying to occupy the East African shores, only the Ottoman State helped the local Emirates without any expectations of receiving something in return. This clearly shows that there was an alternative way to treat these nations. In fact, this approach can also be seen in the Ottoman constitution which was based on the Holy Qur’an (Sharia law) and traditional customs. One of the traditional sayings that has endured is, “İyilik et denize at, Halik bilmezse Malik bilir”, which means cast one’s bread upon the waters. Even if human beings do not see a good deed, God is aware of it.  In contrast, in the case of the African continent, countries that were colonised were forced to assimilate the ways of their colonial ‘masters’.

England and France are the two Western powers with the most problematic history on the African continent. Much later, Germany followed suit with its brutal treatment of Namibia’s native population at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since then, the descendants of the Herero and Nama nations have demanded reparation from the German Government. Instead of negotiating with the local people in Namibia, however, Germany chose to open the world’s biggest art museum in Cape Town.

Of course, countries have different agenda when it comes to how and why they choose to engage with African nations. England still wants to show its interest in the old continent. Sending a Muslim ambassador to Sudan is another way of showing interest in the region.

Another imperial power, China, is currently the biggest economic power, spreading its influence on the continent from Mozambique to Algeria. Building the biggest mosque in Algeria, whilst arguably needed, is unlikely a simple act of charity.

Although the information provided is based on statistical data, it is of course not accurate to conflate the colonial histories of Tunisia, Senegal and South Africa. Neither the historical background nor the economic structure of the countries would permit this. Since the 1960s, however, Africa has been unlocking its economy and political systems in order to respond to its foreign threats. For example, acting as a protector of West Africa can be seen as yet another excuse to influence the political landscape in a region. In this regard, the English and French forces are controlling the region under the false guise of this argument.

Prof. Chitonge emphasizes that the industrialization of Africa is necessary for national economic growth. For this to happen successfully, he argues, it is necessary to rid the continent of Western colonialism in all its guises. Chitonge emphasizes that agriculture should be developed to a high stand for industrialisation, and for this reason, it is necessary to avoid relying on foreign capital from International banks such as IMF. In the move towards industrialisation, raw material processing can only be beneficial if it serves the African economy. In his study, Chitonge emphasizes that Western capital entered African countries through the process of globalisation, and this should be controlled by the state. Although the agricultural sector is more prominent in Africa compared to other continents, its efficiency is lower, and the technology is not sufficiently used.

Looking at the continent in its current state, it seems Africa must find ‘African solutions for African problems’ in the words of the Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey. Africa has both the power and potential to do this with the help of others across the continent.

Halim Gençoğlu

Historian Halim Gençoğlu is the author of four books and several articles in African Studies. He was born in Türkiye in 1981. After his Bachelor's degree in Historical Studies, he completed his second Master’s degree in Religious Studies and Doctoral Studies in Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town. Dr Gençoğlu continues his academic research as a postdoctoral fellow in Afro-Asian Studies and contract staff in African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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April 2024