Arts and Culture

Black historical figures who shook the world, from a warrior queen to a Mexican president

A depiction of multiracial 16th-century Lisbon

Black history is world history ... a depiction of multiracial 16th-century Portugal. Image: Berardo Collection, Lisbon

Joseph Losavio
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February marks Black History Month in the United States and Canada, a time to reflect on the ways Black people have contributed to society. But the contributions of Black people don’t just apply to Black history, or even simply American or Canadian history. Black people have impacted politics, culture and the economy around the world; Black history is world history. Here are seven figures that show that the story of Black people has always had global impact.

Mansa Musa: the richest man in history

Mansa Musa, shown in the Catalan Atlas
Mansa Musa, shown in the Catalan Atlas

Mansa Musa (also known as Musa I of Mali) was the ruler of the sprawling Mali empire, which stretched from the Atlantic coast in what is now Senegal to near the southern border of present-day Algeria. Mali's exports of gold, copper, salt and ivory made the empire, and Musa I, immensely wealthy; so wealthy that many believe him to be the richest person who ever lived. A devout Muslim, he undertook his hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 and, while stopping to visit Egypt, gave away so much gold that the commodity’s price in the country plummeted, not recovering until more than a decade later. His entourage supposedly included 80 camels carrying 300 pounds of gold each and 500 slaves clutching golden staffs, and horses bearing all types of luxury goods.

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Musa's legacy extends far beyond fantastical tales of incalculable wealth. He brought architects and scholars back from his pilgrimage and built mosques and universities, famed the world over, and developed sophisticated cities like Gao and Timbuktu. By the time he died in 1337, the Mali empire was widely known as a complex, advanced civilization. In the subsequent decades, while Europe was struggling through the Hundred Years’ War, Mali prospered.

Nzinga Mbande: warrior queen of Angola

A contemporary illustration of Queen Nzinga in negotiations with the Portuguese
Queen Nzinga in negotiations with the Portuguese

Sometime around 1583, Nzinga Mbande was born into the royal family of Ndongo, the kingdom that comprised half of what we now know as Angola. Her life coincided with increased European encroachment in Africa, and her homeland was caught between Portuguese slavers on one side and traditional enemy states on the other. A skilled diplomat, she was dispatched by her brother, the king, to negotiate with the Portuguese. In a now-famous moment, she was refused a chair by the Portuguese royal representative. To prove the power she commanded and the respect she deserved, she motioned for an attendant to fall on their hands and knees, and serve as her chair for the rest of the negotiation.

Through her shrewd diplomacy, she was able to secure guns and military assistance from the Portuguese, while avoiding having to provide slaves from among her own people. In 1626, Nzinga became queen when her brother died, and the Portuguese attempted to seize control of the kingdom. She fled, founding a new kingdom, Matamba, in the interior of Africa, welcoming runaway slaves, and leaning again on her diplomatic skill to ally with neighbouring countries and the Dutch to harry the Portuguese. While she focused on successfully turning Matamba into a commercial powerhouse, she continued to battle the Portuguese, leading troops into battle well into her 60s. By 1657, the Portuguese had had enough and signed a peace treaty returning Ndongo to the queen. Nzinga died 1663 at 80 and is considered to be a founding mother of Angola and a symbol of anti-colonial resistance in Africa.

Alessandro de' Medici: the 'Black Prince of Florence'

Alessandro de' Medici, as portrayed by Jacapo Pontormo
Alessandro de' Medici, as painted by Jacopo da Pontormo

Renaissance ruler, son of a pope, scion of one of the most famous families in history, Alessandro de' Medici was likely Europe's first Black head of state when he ruled Florence as its first duke in 1532 at the age of 19. Born to an African Medici household servant, at the time his father was publicly known to be Lorenzo de' Medici II, though most historians believe his real father to be Lorenzo's cousin Giulio, a cardinal of the Catholic church who went on to become Pope Clement VII. A patron of the arts and architecture like many Renaissance rulers, he was relatively well-liked by his subjects. However, he was deeply hated by the elite Florentine families who left the city in exile, cut off from power as Alessandro consolidated his rule, ending Florence's oligarchic republican government in favour of absolutism.

Despite attempts to bolster his popularity among the nobility, including a marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V's daughter at the behest of Clement VII, Alessandro's reign ended in 1537 when he was assassinated by his cousin Lorenzino (known to history as Lorenzaccio, or "bad Lorenzo"). Lorenzino lured Alessandro with the promise of a tryst with a widowed noblewoman, only to stab him to death in anger over his power-grab. Despite his short reign and ignominious death at the hands of republican-minded Lorenzino, Alessandro was the foundation for more than two centuries of hereditary Medici rule in Florence.

Abram Petrovich Gannibal: Russia's African imperial

A bust of Abram Petrovich Gannibal in Petrovskoye
A bust of Abram Petrovich Gannibal in the Russian town of Petrovskoye

Few stories are as improbable as Abram Petrovich Gannibal (also known as Hannibal), the African boy who made it through the Ottoman slave markets in Constantinople to the court of Peter the Great, emperor of Russia. Originally thought to be from Ethiopia – likely because of the association with the legendary Abyssinian Guards gifted to the Russian court by their fellow Orthodox Christian emperor – he was actually probably from the area that is modern-day Cameroon. Brought to Moscow in the early 1700s by his Serbian noble master, Peter the Great took a liking to him, freed him and made him his godson. He served as Peter's valet and studied engineering and math in France, where he became a captain in the army.

He returned to Russia in 1723 and was sent by court enemies to the far east, where he was ordered to use his engineering skills to complete a series of tasks, including purportedly measuring the Great Wall of China. Luckily, upon the ascension of Peter's daughter, Elizabeth, to the imperial throne, Gannibal was welcomed back to court, elevated to the nobility, promoted to the rank of general and even made the military governor of Revel (modern-day Tallinn, Estonia). For his service, he was gifted an estate on which to live with his wife, a Scandinavian noblewoman, and their 10 children. Gannibal's legacy lives on, not just through his remarkable life, but through Alexander Pushkin, one of Russia's most legendary poets and Gannibal's great-grandson.

Blanche Bruce: from slavery to the senate

Mississippi Senator Blanche Bruce
Blanche Bruce, Mississippi senator

Born a slave less than 200 miles away from Washington, DC, Blanche Bruce would one day be welcomed into the nation's capital as the first Black man elected to a full term in the United States Senate. Bruce grew up on the Perkinson family plantation in Farmville, Virginia, where his mother was a slave, and his father, Pettis Perkinson, was her owner. Bruce was assigned to be the personal servant of one of his half-brothers – Perkinson's son with his wife – but was treated comparatively well and educated alongside the other children. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he fled the south and attempted to join the Union army, but after his rejection by the still all-white corps, he turned to teaching, later founding the first school for Black children in the state of Missouri.

After the war, he moved to Mississippi as the Reconstruction Era began, where he continued focusing on education for Black and white children. Bruce also became a wealthy landowner and an influential political figure, and in 1874 was elected to represent Mississippi in the Senate, 13 years after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, held the same seat. In the Senate, Bruce was a fierce advocate for the interest of the newly freed slaves and spoke out against the harsh treatment of indigenous Americans and Chinese immigrants. By the end of his term in 1880, white supremacists forces had retaken control of Mississippi, and Bruce left the Senate knowing it was virtually impossible for him to win a second term. He remained in Washington working in a number of government positions and became the first Black person to receive votes for nomination to the vice-presidency, an office not held by a Black person until the 2020 election of Kamala Harris.

Vicente Guerrero: the Americas' first Black president

Soldier and president Vicente Guerrero
Vicente Guerrero, soldier and president

While the United States did not have a Black president until the 2008 election of Barack Obama (the nation's 44th chief executive), Mexico elected a Black hero of its independence struggle, Vincente Guerrero, as its second president. Born near Acapulco to an African father and an indigenous mother, Guerrero would play a key role in Mexico's war to expel the Spanish. In 1810, Guerrero joined the fight to oust Spanish forces from Mexico, first by rallying insurgents in the south-western highlands and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel as he began making major territorial gains. In 1815, he became the commander-in-chief of the rebel army. Through a combination of military prowess and patriotic zeal, he was able to convince the commander of the Spanish forces to join his cause for an liberated Mexico, and by 1821 Mexico had its independence.

By 1829, Guerro's popularity catapulted him to the Mexican presidency. As president, Guerrero supported public schools, science and the arts, taxed the rich and ended the death penalty. Nearly 40 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Guerrero ended slavery in Mexico (much to the chagrin of its increasingly separatist province, Texas). Sadly, these progressive reforms provoked a backlash among the Mexican conservative elite, and after less than a year in office, he was driven from the presidency and executed in 1831. Guerrero is still remembered as a national hero, and several towns and the state of Guerrero are named after him.

Yasuke: samurai unlike any other

Yasuke's journey from slave to samurai seems made for Hollywood, but the imposing African did indeed find himself oceans away from his homeland as the first foreign-born person to achieve the status of samurai. Yasuke was thought to be born in modern-day Sudan, or possibly Portuguese-controlled Mozambique. Brought to Japan by a Jesuit missionary, the burly, 6'2” dark-skinned Yasuke immediately stood out in 1579 Kyoto. His physical presence was matched with an impressive intellect, as he quickly learned to speak Japanese and studied Japanese culture.


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His rapidly growing celebrity caught the attention of Oda Nobunaga, one of the daimyo warlords considered by many to be among Japan's most influential historical figures. Soon after their first meeting (where the daimyo tried to rub off Yasuke's skin, believing it to be ink), Oda Nobunaga appointed Yasuke to be one his closest martial aides, and he was made a samurai, one of Japan's famed feudal warriors. By 1581, Yasuke had joined Oda on his quest to unify Japan, fighting alongside him in several crucial battles. However, Yasuke's time with the daimyo was short. In 1582, Oda was ambushed at his home by one of his own generals and committed seppuku – Japanese ritual suicide. Little is known of Yasuke's story after Oda's death, but his legacy has seen a revival in recent years with an upcoming Netflix anime starring Lakeith Stanfield and a feature film that was slated to star the late Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman.

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