Uncovering the trailblazers who strove to decolonize Africa

Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Illustration of the African continent in which characters of African origin appear.

One of the most exciting things a historian can do is bring to light previously overlooked change-makers. Faculty of Arts associate professor Meredith Terretta, who recently uncovered how activist lawyers played a major role in the struggle for decolonization in Africa, can attest to this.

After receiving funding in 2016, Terretta set out on a four-year project to research the history of lawyers from the African diaspora who challenged colonial law by representing African clients. These advocates understood that Black defendants appearing in front of European magistrates would not get a fair trial.

We often associate African decolonization with the 1960s. But looking through lawyers’ records, correspondence and case files, Terretta found that many had begun making legal arguments against colonialism as early as the 1900s. They exposed racial discrimination, argued for the protection of Africans’ land rights and assisted Africans, most often unsuccessfully, in claiming rights equal to those of the colonizers.

These lawyers do appear in historical scholarship, but usually as part of local, territorial or national stories. Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, has written about Black lawyers in South Africa’s history, for example. Terretta has found that considering the lawyers together, across linguistic and territorial lines over a longer time period, reveals their involvement in a deliberate legal practice that challenged the racial and economic inequities of colonial law.

On the international stage, advocate lawyers assisted African clients in making petitions to the League of Nations, the international body that supervised the administration of a number of mandated territories across Africa after World War I.

Dr. Meredith Terretta

Dr. Meredith Terretta, Associate Professor in the Department of History and Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights at the uOttawa Human Rights Research and Education Centre.

“The League of Nations had promised to change a number of things about colonialism,” says Terretta. “The petitions presented by African claimants demonstrated that, in fact, the League of Nations’ mandate territories were being administered almost exactly as colonial territories, and that all the promises of a new age of greater rights for African inhabitants had not come to fruition.” The law, even in these internationally supervised settings designed to reform colonialism, clearly did not work for everyone. It privileged white colonialists.

According to Terretta, advocate lawyers and their defendants worked together across imperial boundaries, and even across languages. After World War II, they formed trans-regional solidarities with white European lawyers, many of them Jewish, who defended African political activists and detainees in colonial courtrooms.

“In some of the scholarship written by French historians, you never know that many of these anticolonial lawyers were Black. I think it’s very important to know that these lawyers faced racial discrimination even as they argued for African clients. The involvement of white, particularly Jewish, lawyers in the history of anticolonial cause lawyering underscores the importance of international and interracial solidarities at the time.”

Here is some key biographical information about a few of the activist lawyers in Terretta’s research.

Henry Sylvester-Williams
Henry Sylvester-Williams

Born in Trinidad in the late 19th century, Henry Sylvester-Williams studied law at Dalhousie University in Halifax before completing his degree at Kings College, in London, England. In 1903, he moved to the Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa) where he became the first Black barrister called to the bar. His legal practice focused on advancing the interests and the rights of Black Africans living in the colony, disputing land claims that were being filed against Black landowners.

Sylvester-Williams quickly came to realize that the law was far from neutral in the Cape Colony. Judges easily threw cases out for minor procedural matters, such as not showing up on time in court. He also practised in Transvaal, a province under Afrikaner control outside of Cape Colony, where he argued several cases all the way to the Privy Council in the United Kingdom. Ngcukaitobi’s The Land is Ours tells the history of Sylvester-Williams’ and other Black lawyers’ practice in white-ruled South Africa.

An interesting fact: Henry Sylvester-Williams was among the founders of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) in 1895.



Kojo Tovalou Houénou

Source: New York Library Digital Collections

Kojo Tovalou Houénou

Originally from Dahomey (present-day Benin), Black activist lawyer Kojo Tovalou-Houénou was educated in France and became a very prominent critic of the French colonial order in the 1920s. He was involved in founding activist rights groups within France, such as the Ligue universelle pour la défense de la race Noire in 1924.

Considered an assimilé by the French, Houénou was free to travel the country and to practise law. He knew French colonial policy inside and out.

But everything changed when he started arguing that Africans in the French colonies should have equal citizenship and rights in the French empire. He argued that if equal status could not be conferred on all the inhabitants of the French empire through citizenship, the association should be abolished and Africans should be free to rule themselves.

In the early 1920s, it was still quite early to be making those arguments, and in 1925, the French government disbarred him, prohibiting him from practising law in France and across the empire, a story recounted by Lorelle Semley in To Be Free and French: Citizenship in France’s Atlantic Empire.




Marcel Manville

Source: Archives numériques du MRAP

Marcel Manville

Born on the island of Martinique in 1922, Marcel Manville received a PhD in law in Paris. He became active not only in defending the rights of Africans, but also in creating movements to help Black French citizens living in the Caribbean.

He argued that, although they were French, Black citizens living in the Caribbean were discriminated against and excluded on the basis of their racial identity

Marcel Manville also helped create the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l'amitié entre les peuples in 1949 and was later part of a collective in Paris to defend members of the Front de libération nationale, a political party that demanded the independence of Algeria.






Earle Edward Seaton

Source: Bermuda National Library and Archives

Earl Edward Seaton

Bermudan-born British lawyer Earl Edward Seaton moved to Tanganyika (which later became Tanzania) to set up his practice in 1948. As Tanganyika was a United Nations trust territory, the principles of human rights should have applied to it, but British administrators failed to implement them even though they had signed a trusteeship agreement making them legally binding.

In the early 1950s, the British government wanted to displace over 3,000 African farmers and their families from the most fertile land on the slopes of Mount Meru and turn it over to European settlers. Their reasoning was that African farmers were not qualified to treat their cattle for sleeping sickness and didn’t know about sanitation, so they could not develop the land and produce crops to the fullest potential.

Seaton took on the Meru farmers as clients and argued for their rights before the United Nations General Assembly Fourth Committee and Trusteeship Council. When the British claimed that they would be resettled in a place that was just as good, Edward Seaton asked that the Europeans take these other lands themselves.

The UN refused to intervene and left the matter to the British-administered courts in Tanganyika. Seaton was unsuccessful, and the 3,000 Meru farmers, along with their families and livestock, were violently removed from their land by British colonial officers. To return to their lands, the farmers would have to buy them back.



Fadilou Diop

Source: Yaya Cissokho

Fadilou Diop

Fadilou Diop, originally from Senegal, was a human rights lawyer who practised across borders. He travelled to Cameroon in 1970 to represent the last active Cameroonian revolutionary, Ernest Ouandié, who was on death row at the time. Ouandié had commanded a revolutionary army fighting a neocolonial government in Cameroon.

People feared that he was being tortured in prison. Diop sought to lead his defence, arguing that the prisoner had the right to be represented by a lawyer. Diop was not allowed to meet with Ouandié and was quickly deported from Cameroon. Ouandié was executed on January 15, 1971.

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