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Anton Wilhelm Amo

at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Anton Wilhelm Amo is considered the first and, for a very long time, the only Afro-German academic. He studied in Halle and Wittenberg, where he received his doctorate in 1734. His Halle dissertation was devoted to the legal status of black people in Europe (De iure Maurorum in Europa), the Wittenberg dissertation to the subject of the body and soul (De humanae mentis apatheia). Amo worked in Wittenberg, furthermore in Halle from 1736 on and in Jena in 1739 as a lecturer in philosophy.

In 2019, Martin Luther University founded a working group, now active as the Rectorate Commission "Anton Wilhelm Amo", dedicated to the memory of Anton Wilhelm Amo.

(This website is still under construction.)

On the life of Anton Wilhelm Amo

According to Ottmar Ette, a biographer and interpreter of Amo's work,(cf. Anton Wilhelm Amo. Philosophieren ohne feste Wohnsitz, Berlin 2nd ed. 2020), he was born around the turn of the century in 1700 in what is now Ghana and was enslaved as a child. Via Amsterdam, he presumably arrived at the court of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel as a "human gift" from the West India Company, where he was baptised Anton Wilhelm in 1707 after the Duke and his son. He later named himself in the academic context as follows:

Excerpt from Amos' nostrification application to the Faculty of Philosophy in Jena.
W. Siegmund-Schultze et al. (eds.), ANTONIUS GVILIEMUS AMO AFER AUS AXIM IN GHANA, Halle (Saale), volume facsimiles, P. 276.

Excerpt from Amos' nostrification application to the Faculty of Philosophy in Jena. W. Siegmund-Schultze et al. (eds.), ANTONIUS GVILIEMUS AMO AFER AUS AXIM IN GHANA, Halle (Saale), volume facsimiles, P. 276.

Excerpt from Amos' nostrification application to the Faculty of Philosophy in Jena.
W. Siegmund-Schultze et al. (eds.), ANTONIUS GVILIEMUS AMO AFER AUS AXIM IN GHANA, Halle (Saale), volume facsimiles, P. 276.

After a thorough education, the Brunswick court made "its" Anton Wilhelm study at the University of Halle at the Faculty of Philosophy and at the Faculty of Law from 1727 onwards, where he completed a first disputation on the topic "De iure Maurorum in Europa" in 1729. From 1730 he studied and taught (as Magister legens) at the Faculty of Philosophy in Wittenberg, where he was awarded a doctorate in philosophy in 1734. His dissertation thesis is dedicated to the body-soul topic (De humanae mentis apatheia). On 21 June 1736, Amo was admitted to the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Halle as a lecturer. Three years later (1739) he also taught in Jena. Little is known about the following years. Racist hostility in a mocking poem cast a shadow over Amo's situation towards 1747. During this time he is said to have left Germany for West Africa. He lived at least until 1753 in Axim, later in Shama, where his gravestone can also be found, which records the year of death as 1784.

The University of Halle and Anton Wilhelm Amo

'Rediscovery' of Amo in 1916

Wolfram Suchier (1883-1964), a librarian at Halle at the time, can be regarded as the person who (re)brought Amo's memory to public attention in 1916 with an article in the Akademische Rundschau. He referred to Amo as a "student and as a private lecturer in Halle, Wittenberg and Jena in 1727/1740" and introduced him with the racialising term "Moor" (German: "Mohr"). Amo was presented as a special person with an outstanding history and thus saved from oblivion or concealment.

Amo's life and work as an object of research in the 1960s

In 1968, Burchard Brentjes (1929-2012), then a university lecturer on the archaeology of the Near East in Halle, presented a comprehensive collection of studies and sources on Anton Wilhelm Amo. Amo is introduced as "Antonius Gvilielmus Amo from Axim in Ghana" and as a "student, doctor of philosophy, Magister legens at the universities of Halle, Wittenberg, Jena" and as the first "African at a European university". A few years later, Amo appears as "The Black Philosopher in Halle", as the subtitle of Brentjes' small monograph published in 1976 indicates.

1975: Placement of a bronze plaque in memory of Amo at the Universitätsring

In 1975, a bronze plaque in memory of Anton Wilhelm Amo was placed next to "Universitätsring" in Halle in the immediate vicinity of the sculpture "Free Africa". "Dedicated to the memory of Anton Wilhelm Amo", the plaque identifies him as "the first African student and lecturer in philosophy at the universities of Halle, Wittenberg and Jena 1727-1747". The proximity of the bronze plaque to the bronze sculpture "Free Africa" (1965) by Gerhard Geyer (1907-1989) still creates a problematic and misleading connection between the re-traditionalised black figure couple and the Afro-German academic Amo (for the interpretation and further contextualisation of the sculpture, see below)

Establishment of the Amo Lectures and the Amo Prize since the 1990s

List of award winners

Since 1994, the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg has awarded the Anton Wilhelm Amo Prize annually for outstanding theses. The choice of Amo as the name-giver of this prize is intended to emphasise that the Martin Luther University is open to all people, regardless of religion and culture, skin colour and origin.

List of award winners
Anton-Wilhelm-Amo-Preisträger_innen ab 1994.pdf (149.1 KB)  vom 29.03.2021

List of Amo Lectures

Since 2013, the series "Amo Lectures" of the research cluster "Society and Culture in Motion" has published guest lectures held at Martin Luther University by important scholars, which are jointly organised under this title by the two research focuses "Society and Culture in Motion" and "Enlightenment, Religion, Knowledge" and are dedicated to Anton Wilhelm Amo.

Previous Lectures
Liste der Amo-Lectures seit 2012.pdf (41 KB)  vom 29.03.2021

International Amo Conference Halle 2018

A Work of Art as a Monument? On the current place of remembrance of Anton Wilhelm Amo in Halle

"Free Africa"
(Bronze sculpture 1965)
by Gerhardt Geyer ((1907-1989)
Location: Halle (Saale), Universitätsring
(Photo: Uni Halle/Markus Scholz)

"Free Africa" (Bronze sculpture 1965) by Gerhardt Geyer ((1907-1989) Location: Halle (Saale), Universitätsring (Photo: Uni Halle/Markus Scholz)

"Free Africa"
(Bronze sculpture 1965)
by Gerhardt Geyer ((1907-1989)
Location: Halle (Saale), Universitätsring
(Photo: Uni Halle/Markus Scholz)

Creation and installation of the "Free Africa" group of figures

The work of art "Free Africa" was created by the Halle sculptor and graphic artist Gerhard Geyer (1907-1989) on behalf of the state in order to highlight Ghana's anti-colonial path. Geyer was inspired by a study trip he undertook in 1961 to the newly independent and then socialist-oriented states of Guinea and Ghana.

The sculpture was originally supposed to be sent to Ghana, but this failed for various reasons. The decision was finally made to install the figures in Halle. In 1965, the sculpture was ceremoniously unveiled. Already at the unveiling, a reference - albeit still very vague - was made to Anton Wilhelm Amo. Also in 1975, when the bronze plaque commemorating Amo was placed on the Universitätsring, a reference to Gerhard Geyer's group of figures and the theme of "Free Africa" came up. This connection is also visually manifested in Burchhardt Brentjes' Amo biography of 1976. (cf. there Fig. 22) The sculpture was thus ultimately brought into an interpretive framework that creates a link between two originally independent themes. This connection, which is still visible today, is the starting point for contemporary critical voices that advocate the memory of Anton Wilhelm Amo.

Description of the artwork

The sculpture depicts a pair of figures: A Black woman with a head  wrap and a festive dress and standing sideways behind her a Black man with a  long skirt and bare upper body. Their hands clenched into fists, they stand  upright, have their heads raised and look towards the horizon.

A critical examination of this motif reveals a deep symbolic ambivalence in the artwork: depicted in the style of socialist realism, the people's clothing and posture can be seen as a figurative attempt at re-traditionalisation against colonial European dominance. It is about anti-colonial political liberation and socialism as a political option as well as a form of artistic expression. Furthermore, the sculpture can be interpreted as a representation of the symbolic equality of men and women in socialism.

At the same time, however, the way in which the two black people are depicted - the man with a bare torso, both people with bare feet and in "traditional"-looking clothing - can also be understood as a reproduction and stabilisation of racist ideas of allegedly "original", monolithic African cultures and populations. This attribution is misleading and problematic and not appropriate for the memorial to Anton Wilhelm Amo as a member of the university.

While there are no surviving pictorial representations of Amo, it can be assumed that he was dressed as a university scholar. Finally, the significance of the Black Woman remains entirely unclear given the present association of sculpture and Amo, unless viewers should mistakenly assume that she was Amo's partner. This makes the woman a mere accessory next to an alleged Anton Wilhelm Amo and thus reproduces sexist structures of dominant memory culture, within which women continue to be ascribed a role that is marginal at best. The association of the sculpture with Anton Wilhelm Amo is thus to be seen as problematic in various respects.

Concern of the rectorate commission

The Rectorate Commission is concerned to enable an appropriate commemoration of Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703-after 1753) and to honour Amo as the first Afro-German member of the university.

Among other things, Anton Wilhelm Amo dedicated himself to the rights of black people in Europe. His criticism was directed at laws that could not be justified rationally and at interpretations of the law that were geared solely to the welfare of the legislators. With his admonition for humanity in jurisprudence, which should always take precedence over strict law in cases of doubt, he proved to be an early advocate of human rights. The memory of his person and his work is part of the university's history and thus of the present.

The tribute to Amos is a reminder that universities must be open to all, regardless of ethnic, religious or other affiliations. It happens beyond stereotyping in the name of freedom from discrimination and with vigilance for unjust power dynamics.

The University of Halle acts in public space and with various groups and institutions. Through active, living and open remembrance of Amo with lectures, award ceremonies, naming ceremonies and an appropriate public memorial, it tries to broaden and at the same time sharpen the view and thus also make today's tensions between social participation and discrimination visible.

The current arrangement of the memorial plaque with the bronze sculpture "Free Africa" is inappropriate and precarious. It will be supplemented in the summer semester of 2021 by a stainless steel plaque that points to a new formation of the commemoration as follows:

"Free Africa" (1965)

by Gerhard Geyer (1907-1989).

The bronze sculpture pays tribute to Ghana's anti-colonial path. Since 1975, a commemorative plaque has also referred to the philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was born in Ghana, deported to Germany as an enslaved person and worked as a private lecturer at the University of Halle between 1736 and 1739.

However, this connection of the sculpture with the person Amo is problematic in today's terms. The Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the city of Halle (Saale) and the Anton Wilhelm Amo Alliance Halle (Saale) have therefore been working on a concept for the commemoration of Amo since October 2019.

It is also suggested that a public place in Halle be named after Anton Wilhelm Amo.

Literature

  • Burchard Brentjes, Anton Wilhelm Amo. The black philosopher in Halle. Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang 1976
  • Ottmar Ette, Anton Wilhelm Amo. Philosophieren ohne feste Wohnsitz, Berlin: Kadmos, 2nd ed. 2020
  • Jacob Emanuel Mabe, Anton Wilhelm Amo interkulturell gelesen, revised and updated edition 2020
  • Walther Siegmund-Schultze et al. (eds.), ANTONIUS GVILIEMUS AMO AFER AUS AXIM IN GHANA - Student, Doctor of Philosophy, Magister legens at the Universities of Halle - Wittenberg - Jena 1727 - 1747, Halle (Saale): Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg 1965, volume facsimiles.

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