Anton Wilhelm Amo, A Black Philosopher in 18th Century Europe

Who brought a Nzema Boy to Holland in 1703, How He Became a Professor of Philosophy in Germany and Why He Went back to Ghana.

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Jan Steen, Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten, ca. 1659–1660

In 1753 a Dutch slave ship of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie moored at Axim, a costal town in modern day Ghana. The private company was founded in 1720 but the Dutch, through their West Indies Company, had, on and off since 1620, monopoly over the area, which Europeans called Gold Cost or Guinea.

The surgeon on that ship was David Henri Gallandat, a Swiss-Dutch in charge of the health of both slave traders and enslaved Africans. He was an exceptionally experienced surgeon who would, 15 years later, publish a widely circulated guide for slave traders. It opens with the following Machiavellian statement.

[…] I will only remark here, that there are many endeavours which would appear to be impermissible, should they not be possessed of a particular profit. Witness here the Slave Trade, which one can only acquit of unlawfulness by the profit which it brings to the merchants. This remark, however, should certainly not be stretched to support the objections which some maintain against this trade; objections, which are almost all grounded in prejudices.

David Henri Gallandat, Necessary Instructions for the Slave Traders (Middelburg 1769)

Through the 40 pages of the pamphlet, it is striking to see how much concern Gallandat shows for the physical and mental well-being of the slaves without, at any time, doubting the legitimacy of the trade itself. Despite engaging in the commerce of his people, there was at least one African in Guinea at the time that Gallandat respected and admired. When the physician died in 1782, his biography contained the following note:

While he (Gallandet) was on this trip to Axim on the Gold Coast in Africa, he went to visit the famous Mr. Antony William Amo, a Guinea-African, Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Arts. He was a negro, who lived about thirty years in Europe. He had been in Amsterdam in the year 1707, and was presented to the Duke Anton Ulric who gave him later to his son August Wilhelm. The latter made it possible for him to study in Halle and in Wittemberg. In the year 1727 he was promoted Doctor in Philosophy and Master in the Liberal Arts. Some time after this his master died. This made him so depressed that it influenced him into returning to his fatherland. Here he lived like a hermit, and acquired the reputation of a soothsayer. He spoke different languages including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and High and Low German. He was skilled in astrology and astronomy and was generally a great sage. He was then about fifty years old. His father and one sister were still alive, and resided at a place four days’ journey inland. He had a brother who was a slave in the colony of Suriname. Later he left Axim and went to live in the fort of the West Indies Company of St. Sebastian at Chama.

Winkelman, Biography of David Henri Gallandat, Discourses published by the Zeeland Society of Sciences in Vlissingen (Tome IX, Middelburg 1782. Page XIX / XX)

Amo was 30 years older than Gallandat, and it is possible they had met in Germany but it seems implausible that, as some suggest, they could have been friends then. This precious paragraph is the fullest primary account we have of Amo’s life, yet it contains some inaccuracies and ambiguities that William Abraham, another Ghanaian Philosopher who studied in Oxford at the turn of 1960, was able to trace and clarify in an article published in 1964, two years after he was convinced by Kwame Nkrumah, then president of Ghana and a philosopher himself, to come back home to head the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Ghana.

Most of what follows is based on Abraham’s publication.

We are relatively sure that Amo was born in or near Axim in 1703; the reason of his departure from his native is less certain. Some posit he was captured or sold into slavery, but it is more likely, as Abraham writes, that he was sent to Europe to be brought up as a predikant of the Dutch Reformed Church. The fact that he was able to keep his Ghanaian name, Amo, points to a non violent nature of the separation.

However this came to be, we know from courts records that Amo was presented to Duke Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel in 1707, when he would have been 4 years old. Apparently, no guardian could be found for him in Netherlands and was therefore sent off to Germany, in Lower Saxony.

This twenty-ninth day of July has been baptized a little Moor in the Saltzthal Castle Chapel, and he has been christened Anton Wilhelm. His Godfathers are all of them very noble Lordships.

Saltzthal Chapel register in the Staatsarchiv at Wolfenbuttel

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Anton Ulrich, 1633–1714

Anton Ulrich, of the House of Welf, was an admirer of King Louis XIV of France and a known supporter of scholarship and the arts, towards which he spent handsomely. For example, he hired the philosopher Leibniz as a librarian, who would inspire some of the work of Anton Amo (and later Abraham himself). One of the few aspects which would put him at odds with his peers was his Catholicism: his most serious work was titled ‘Fifty Reasons or Motives why the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion ought to be preferred to all the Sects this day in Christendom’.

Duke Anton was also a proponent of Enlightened Absolutism, the form of government which Frederick the Great (ruler of Prussia from 1740) would later defend in the famous homonymous essay. The Age of Enlightenment, the pride of the Western tradition, identified reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy and popularised the ideas of liberty, progress, tolerance, and fraternity. Even the most Enlightened Europeans (including Kant, and Hume) stopped short of understanding these ideas as applying to Africans as well, but they still allowed, in the first half of the century, an environment where Amo and a few other African protegees could study on almost equal footing with their European peers.

Another famous example, which preceded Amo by a few years, was that of Ibrahim Gannibal (or Hannibal) who was kidnapped by the Ottomans in Eastern or Central Africa and eventually presented to Peter the Great of Russia. He studied in Paris and became a military engineer, general, nobleman and a prominent member of the imperial court of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth. It is also worthy of note that Gannibal was the great grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, one of Russia’s greatest poets.

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Abram (Ibrahim) Petrovic Gannibal

The patronage granted to Amo by the Duke continued, after his death, with his son and successor August Wilhelm (who also increased his lavish expenditure for art and entertainment). He probably sent Amo to a grammar school in Wolfenbuttel in 1717, where he got a full classical education, and later on to the University of Helmstedt, which the late Duke Anton had attended. The cessation of this university centre and consequent loss of its papers explains the absence of records from this period of Amo’s life.

The subsequent life sign we have from him is his matriculation into the University of Halle, where he took master level courses in Law, presumably after the bachelor degree at Helmstedt. At that point, the Wolfenbutten court had also stopped financing his studies and Amo sought and obtained to be matriculated gratis into Halle. The centre had been founded only in 1694 and attracted many who professed intellectual freedom and humanist faith. If at Helmstedt Amo found an hostile and clerical environment and deep disagreement with ideas we know he held, Halle proved a more sympathetic place.

Here [in Halle] resided for some time an African called Antonius Wilhelmus Amo who was in the service of this Royal Highness the reigning Duke of Wolfenbuttel, and as he had before then thoroughly studied the Latin language, he very diligently and with great success studied here with the School of Private Law. In consequence, he became most accomplished in that field. So with the knowledge and consent of his patrons who up to that time had kept him, he registered with the Dean von Ludewig publicly to defend a dissertation under him. In order that the argument of the dissertation might suit his status and circumstance, they gave him the theme “de jure Maurorum in Europa “ : in other words, “about the rights of Africans.” Therein not only has he shown basing himself upon law and history that the kings of the Africans were at one time vassal to the Roman Emperor, and that every one of them had an Imperial Patent, which Justinian too had granted, but he also especially examined to what extent the freedom or servibility of Africans in Europe, who had been bought by Christians, was according to laws commonly accepted at that time.

Weekly Newspaper of the University of Halle, 28 November 1729

It is notable how Amo tried to convince his examiners of the injustice of the conditions of Africans in Europe not on the basic of morality, piety or religion, but by showing how the Europeans, in not recognising the inviolability of African individuals, where breaking the Roman Law, to which Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightened Europe prided itself to descend from. In other words, Amo sought to show not that Africans were adequate as human beings, but that Europeans were inadequate, at least as law abiding citizens. No copy of this dissertation has ben found so far, but it was mentioned in Gottfried Ludewig’s Universal Historie in 1744.

Amo left Halle in 1729 as soon as he finished his thesis but before he could be awarded his degree, when a wave of clericalism took over the University of Halle. He joined the University of Wittenberg in September of the following year. Here, Amo was finally granted the degree of Master of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts (which in a few years would be known as Doctor of Philosphy) based on his examinations at Halle.

To understand why the divide between clericalists and anti-clericalists (the free-thinkers) was so important to drive students and professors to and away from study centres in an Europe where essentially everyone was a believer, the following passage provides a good picture.

[…] the medical men have ranged themselves in two sects these days, if we can speak in such world. First there are the Mechanists, and second the Stahlians. Of them the former endeavour to maintain that the vital actions in the human body originate and for the most part act in health as in sickness mechanically, and by use of the body’s physiology. They say even that the medicaments applied act in a mechanical way in the body; and hence that the soul contributes little or nothing to all this. To this, the Stahlians state the opposite view: namely that the human soul is the prime mover in the body, and that the body through its physiological structure is only a mobile instrument; also that the medicaments applied are only stimulants which prompt the soul to motion.

Nikolaus Hironymus Gundling, Vollstandinge Historie der Gelehrh (Frankfurt/Leipzig 1734)

In Wittenberg Amo learnt medicine, physiology and psychology. His teacher, and examiner of his second known thesis in April 1734, was martin Gotthelf Loesher, a friend of Ludewig, who had examined him in Halle.

Amo gave lectures, examined students and earned two more master degrees. We do not have many details of the one for medicine, but copies of the dissertation that earned him the degree of Master of Science are available today in the libraries of various universities in Germany and Ghana. It is entitled “De humanae mentis Apatheia seu sensionis ac facultatis sentiendi in mente humana absentia et ear um in corpore nostro organico ас vivo praesentia” (“Of the apatheia of the human mind, namely the absence of sensation and the faculty of sense in the human mind, and their presence in our organic and living body”). In the thesis, which confirmed him as a Mechanist, Amo critised the Descartian mind-body dualism (the French philosopher had died just 50 years before the Guinean reached Europe). He accepted that it was possible to talk about mind and body, but argues that it is the body that feels, while the mind is apathetic.

Whatever feels, lives; whatever lives, depends on nourishment; whatever lives and depends on nourishment grows; whatever is of this nature is in the end resolved into its basic principles; whatever comes to be resolved into its basic principles is a complex; every complex has its constituent parts; whatever this is true of is a divisible body. If therefore the human mind feels, it follows that it is a divisible body.

Anton Wilhelm Amo, On the Apatheia of the Human Mind (Halle 1729)

Loesher attached the following note to Amo’s thesis (a second note was attached by the University Rector).

We proclaim Africa and its region of Guinea planted apart at a very great distance from us, formerly the golden coast, so called by Europeans on account of its abundant and copious yield of gold, but known by us as your fatherland, in which you first saw the light of day, the mother not only of many good things and treasures of nature but also of the most auspicious minds, we proclaim her quite deservedly. Among these auspicious minds, your genius stands out particularly, most noble and most distinguished Sir, seeing that you have excellently proved that felicity and superiority of your genius, the solidity and refinement of your learning and teaching, in countless examples up to now and even in this our University with great honour in all worthy things and now also in your present dissertation.

I return to you still complete and absolutely unchanged in any respect that which you have worked out with proper contentiousness in an elegant manner supported with erudition, in order that the power of your intellect may shine forth all the more strongly henceforth.

It now only remains for me to congratulate you wholeheartedly on this singular example of your refined scholarship, and, with a more abundant feeling of heart than words can convey. I solicit for you all good fortune, and to the Divine Grace and also to the Highest and Most Noble Prince Ludwig Rudolph, for whose health and safety I shall never tire of worshipping the Divine Majesty, I commend you.

I write this at Wittemberg in Saxony, in the month of April, A.O.R., 173

Gotthelf Loesher

This note is in stark contrast, for example, with a footnote which the Scottish Hume appended to one of his essays and which now features prominently in the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront:

I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient GERMANS, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

David Hume, Of National Characters (1753 edition)

The Jamaican scholar Hume is referring to might have been Francis Williams, born in Kingston, who is said to have attended Cambridge somewhere between 1710 and 1720, supported by the Duke of Montagu. There are no records of Williams at Cambridge but he was certainly a well educated man and a renown poet.

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Francis Williams, 1745

Between 1734 and 1736 Amo returned to Halle, where the free thinkers were growing in strength again. Duke Wilhelm had died in 1731 without children and was succeeded by his brother Ludwig Rudolph. Ludwig died shortly after in 1735, him also without heirs. This worsened Amo’s financial situation and social standing, as his connection to the court of Wolfenbuttel was now tenuous and disappearing.

Antony William Amo, Master of Philosophy and the Liberal Arts, born in Guinea in a coastal province of Africa, has put forward a petition in which he asks that that same right of delivering public lectures in certain parts of philosophy be given to him among us, as he used to enjoy in the area of Wittenberg. When this request had been communicated to each person, it was with great pleasure that this facility was granted to this learned but poor man who had indeed only recently lost his most serene benefactor.

Halle University Records, 21 July 1736

In Halle, Amo gave lectures on Leibniz, on Christian Wolff and more generally on philosophy and law. He also wrote a book, published in 1738 under the title “De Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi” ( “On the Art of Sober and Accurate Philosophising”), readable today in Germany, Russia and Ghana. The mechanistic nature of the text angered the clericals at Halle and possibly pushed him to leave the centre once again, this time in favour of Jena. Despite his brilliance as a scholar, Amo’s financial situation was worsening. He was forced not only to mention this in an appeal made to the Faculty of Philosophy requesting permission to give public lectures as a university lecturer, a sizeable source of income, but to also request the deferral of the payment of a fee that such appointments incurred.

Following a practice of doing good service for the state, pricked on by the sharp dart of poverty (for I have a poor home), I have, to the best of my ability, been teaching philosophy at home in both the universities of Wittenberg and Halle, and have quite often engaged in public disputation, and have performed these tasks with diligence. Therefore, you, gentlemen of outstanding reputation in the world of letters, I hope that you will pay the same attention to me in this, your famous seat of the Muses. Once you have kindly shown me this indulgence, I shall thank you for your action, and shall never grow tired of praying to heaven that you, my excellent patron, may enjoy forever a most desirable happiness.

Antonius Guilielmus Amo Afer, Philos, et art. liberal. Magister legens et. Jur. cand.” (Halle, 27 June 1739)

The last known record of Amon’s permanence in Germany is of a satirical recitation reported in Halle in 1747, ‘A Comic student, the false academic virgin and Magister Amo’s proposal’. In it Amo was made fun of by having him fall in love with, and be rejected by a female student. The date suggests that Amo stayed in Germany till at least 1747, or shortly before.

Anton Amo returned to Ghana between 1743, when his supervisor Ludewig died (the master referred to by Winkelman) and 1753, when Gallandat met him. Circumstantial evidence suggest he did not return before 1747 but not much more can be said. The reasons of his decision to return to Germany are inferential, but it is safe to assume that his financial situation, not supported anymore by the Wolfenbuttel court, was dire. His identity would also have made it difficult for him to travel far away to seek employment; as a matter of fact, there are no records of him ever leaving Lower Saxony, except for an unsubstantiated claim made by Blumenbach in 1787 that after Jena he became a counsellor to the king in Berlin (presumably Frederick the Great). The second half of the century also saw an intensification of warfare in Europe, in a crescendo that will lead to the revolutionary uprisings and the rise of Nationalism in the 19th century.

It is likely Amo felt the walls of his world closing in on him, both socially and economically, and decided to return to his fatherland. Considering he had left Ghana at a tender age, I wonder which language he would speak to his father once back home.

There is no information on Amo’s life in Ghana beyond what is contained in Gallandat’s biography. Winkelman mentions he had acquired the reputation of a soothsayer and a great sage. According to him, and we have no reason to dispute this, Amo re-joined with his father and sister, who were living four days away from Axim in the inland. It is interesting for the biographer to have said, after this, that Amo moved, as if out of choice, to St. Sebastian, the fort originally built by the Portuguese and now of the West Indies Company at Chama (Shama); that is unlikely.

The only possible explanation is that Amo’s ideas about slavery and vitalism, both those which he was known to have published in Europe and those which he may be presumed to have accounted in Ghana, had made the Dutch so anxious about his harmful effects on the flourishing slave trade at Axim that they sent him as a prisoner to a lesser fort.

There is no further record of Arno. An expedition under Professor Donatie is known to have toured the Guinea coast sometime after April 1759 making nature study observations, but there is no mention of Amo in any of Professor Donatie’s works. The diaries of the two governors of the fort at Chama in the 1750’s, Mr. Sandra and Mr. Soyer, both of which would presumably contain additional information, have not yet been found. The fort, in any case, was in ruins by 1769, by which time Amo was presumably dead.

William Abraham, The Life and Times of Anton Wilhelm Amo, Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, Vol. VII (Ghana, 1964)

Abraham further gives us the last known handwritten words of Amo:

The last document bearing Amo’s hand which has so far come to light is an album of his friend Gottfried Achenwall from Elbing, the inventor of statistics in Germany, which according to the title page contained memorials of men who had attained eminence in science and learning. Amo signed the book on 5 May 1740 in Jena and appended a quotation from Epictetus which was his personal motto: “He who can accommodate himself to necessity is wise and has an inkling of things divine”

William Abraham, The Life and Times of Anton Wilhelm Amo, Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, Vol. VII (Ghana, 1964)

At the foot of this is:

The truth is, Amo’s philosophical work was ignored by other Jena-based German intellectuals such as Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. It was only due to the advocacy and influence of Nkrumah (who was a Nzema like Amo) and William Abraham in the 1960s that German institutions began recognising the figure and scholarship of the philosopher and polymath Anton Wilhelm Amo Afer.

A full size statue has been dedicated to him in 1965 at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

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Except for his first dissertation at Halle, which we have not found, it does not appear Amo has written about race, Africans or the slave trade. We also don’t have accounts of his personal racial experiences. We have to imagine that if the topic has not been commented on in writing by him or his acquaintances, that was not because he did not experience prejudice. His education and scholarship was entirely within the European tradition but Anton Amo always referred to himself as an African and kept throughout his life his African name. He wanted to be known as African, as further confirmed by the addition of Afer (a Roman surname in reference to Africa) to his name towards the end of his sojourn in Germany.

Amo became a major voice of an Enlightenment that refused to recognise his humanity and ended his life in the very place Hume thought suited him: outside of history. Revisiting and unearthing his story has a revitalising and ground effect on us. Lives and struggles of pioneering Africans such as Anton Amo, or Christian Cole, the first known Black graduate from Oxford, remind us that Freedom and Equality for Black People is never a new idea or an unexperienced state, even in the midst of white people.

Amo’s life is another example of how, time and time again, Black People have defied the expectations of both those who preceded and those who would follow them. After all, what is this defiance so worthy of celebration, this dangerous presence that still today transforms black children, drivers, shoppers and migrants into frightening figures, this revolutionary stance that cost the lives of many in the African continent and outside; what is this radical motion we are seconding if not the simple consideration: Why should we not find a Black woman or a Black man anywhere we would find any other human being?

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Research student in computer science with a background in maths and an interest in all things human. Lived in Nigeria, Italy and UK; currently in Oxford.

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