Decolonising the narrative of Africans in WWI

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On Armistice Day, Kings’ Africa Research Group (part of the War Studies department) held the opening lecture ‘Mis-remembered: Africa and Africans in and after the First World War’ in their lecture series Africa Week.

Attendees included students of sixth form, undergraduate, and postgraduate level, and lecturers from a range of international institutions.

This lecture comes among university-wide discussion of decolonising and internationalising the university – in terms of its teaching, curricula, staff diversity and international relationships. This topic was the focus of the first AKC lecture following reading week, “The University Challenge: How to be International” and is the focus of the KCLSU-associated student society, Decolonise KCL.

The lecture, led by Dr. Daniel Steinbach, covered the broadly untold histories of the continent’s colonial subjects and their experiences in the First World War.

Those included were the 500,000 combatants recruited in colonies to fight for the French army, 250,000 South African labourers recruited to work for the British, and the prisoners of war from these populations that were recruited by German forces and used for anti-colonial, anti-British and anti-French propaganda.

After Europe, Africa was the most affected continent by the second world war, with no region being left untouched, Dr. Steinbach explained, noting how novels, memoirs, and films surrounding Africa in the First World War began to shift the involvement of Africans into the background, focusing instead on the Eurocentric vision of a ‘Gentlemen’s war’ that their presence, and their mistreatment from European soldiers, contradicted.

The lecture’s latter half was dedicated to the conflict of how to commemorate African’s involved in the First World War. Dr. Steinbach noted that, on one hand, these thousands of people fought and died for Britain and France and should be recognised for doing so. However, he also noted that claiming them as British and French subjects also undermines their autonomy and is a colonial statement in itself.

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