V&A trail: Africans in Europe

Chosen by our African Heritage Gallery Guides, this selection of extraordinary objects invites you to take a closer look at European depictions of race, enslavement, pride, freedom, equality and activism. Each piece testifies to a Black presence in Europe of hundreds of years – while today people of African descent still have their nationality, or European roots, questioned because of the colour of their skin. These objects show Africans who crossed continents to Europe mostly through forced migration, trade and trafficking. They also highlight a period when Europeans felt able to illustrate 'the African' in art.

These objects can all be found in our Europe 1600 – 1815 galleries (Level -1). Click on the links to find the objects on our digital map.

Stop 1: Advertisement for playing cards with revolutionary symbols, 1793
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 1

Advertisement for playing cards with revolutionary symbols
Advertisement for playing cards with revolutionary symbols, Jacques Coissieux, 1793, France. Museum no. E.409-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For conservation reasons, this object is kept inside a cabinet. Please ask a member of staff to open it for you.

Text by Donata Miller, V&A African Heritage Guide

Printed in Paris in 1793, the year of King Louis XVI's execution, this sheet of playing cards reflects the ideals and hopes for a new revolutionary French society. The royal figures of the King, Queen and Jack have been replaced by personifications of 18th-century revolutionary values, which highlight the importance of law, genius and liberty. The new Republic's virtues included the Equalities of Rights, Ranks and Colour – here Equality of Colour is represented in the form of a freed, formerly enslaved Black man, holding a rifle with broken shackles at his feet. What role is he expected to take within this new revolutionary society?

Nature (front and rear view), porcelain figure group
Nature (front and back view), porcelain figure group, Louis-Simon Boizot, 1794, France. Museum no. C.361-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Donata Miller, V&A African Heritage Guide

This porcelain figurine shows a mother breastfeeding both a white European and a Black African baby, who are holding hands. At first glance, it appears to be a symbol of hope, celebrating the proposed abolition of enslavement in the French colonies in 1794. But all is not as it seems. Look closer on the side of the African child and you'll see a bare rocky outcrop with a snake twisted at the base of the sculpture. By contrast, on the side of the European baby is a fertile tree trunk sprouting leaves and a dove perched on top. Despite the revolutionary fervour around civil rights when this figurine was made, there were later attempts to reinstate slavery in the French colonies, including Haiti in the Caribbean, where leader Toussaint Louverture led the battle against French control.

Stop 3: 'A Black Youth' or Bust of a Young Man, 1700 – 50
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 2a

'A Black Youth' or Bust of a Young Man
'A Black Youth' or Bust of a Young Man, unknown maker, 1700 – 50, Venice, Italy. Museum no. 451-1869. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Stella Kemi Akintan, V&A African Heritage Guide

Marble busts depicting Black Africans were popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were produced widely in Venice and Rome, often taking pride of place in wealthy homes. This example is sculpted with sensitivity and realism, suggesting it was based on a real person rather than a generic caricature. The sitter's pose is regal, conveying confidence and strength. His clothes suggest he may have been a Venetian gondolier. Visitors to the gallery often liken him to Shakespeare's Othello!

Stop 4: Dessert baskets with figures of America and Africa, 1765 – 75
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 3

Dessert baskets with figures of America and Africa
Dessert baskets with figures of America and Africa, Johann Friedrich Eberlein, 1765 – 75, Germany. Museum nos. C.2559-1910 and C.2560-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Joy Johnson, V&A African Heritage Guide

Europe's insatiable desire for sugar and other tropical goods buoyed the transatlantic slave trade for centuries. European dessert tables groaned with sugared delights, piled high in decorative porcelain bowls that were often commissioned on demand for the French market. These two dessert bowls are decorated with Black figurines representing Africa and the Americas, amplifying the luxurious and exotic associations with sugar. The households which used such figurines often 'employed' African people as domestic servants, though they were often unpaid.

Stop 5: Flask, between 1600 and 1700
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 5

Wooden scent flask with carved stopper in the shape of an African man's head
Scent flask, unknown maker, 1600 – 1700, probably made in Germany. Museum no. 1267-1872. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Joy Johnson, V&A African Heritage Guide

This carved wooden flask was probably made to hold perfume. Scents, especially those associated with Africa like musk and jasmine, were very popular in the French Court in the 17th century. Even today, for me just the aroma of such fragrances can ignite my senses and create the allure of rich and distant lands, and men with blue-black faces! The flask's stopper is in the shape of an African male turbanned head. Wealthy owners of such finely carved items like this often employed African boys as high-status domestic servants.

Stop 6: The March, 1718 – 1724
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 5

The March, tapestry
The March, tapestry (with detail), designed by Philipp De Hondt, woven by Judocus de Vos, 1718 – 1724, Belgium. Museum no. T.283-1972. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Kim Sheldon, V&A African Heritage Guide

This tapestry, made in Brussels in the early 18th century, is a reminder of the integration of African men within the ranks of European armies. Tapestries, like large paintings, were supposedly 'mirrors of society', but people of African descent were often lost in the crowd or represented in submissive roles. Yet in the centre of this tapestry, an African man is shown in an active rather than a passive role. For me it confirms the very real fact that African people have a long history of living amongst Europeans in Europe.

Stop 7: Bust of a Boy, about 1705 – 10
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 7

Bust of a Boy
Bust of a Boy, Joannes Claudius de Cock, about 1705 – 10, Netherlands. Museum no. A.18-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Nkechi Noel, V&A African Heritage Guide

This bust of an African toddler is rather striking, particularly as it is a sympathetic rendering carved in white marble. In the 1700s, it would not have been uncommon to see ships unloading enslaved Africans, alongside spices and fabrics, in the bustling Dutch port of Antwerp, where the sculptor worked. The sculpture is a stark reminder of the loss of innocence and inhumane bondage of the slave trade, and the importance of including all of our voices in retelling collective historical narratives.

Stop 8: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella in the Brussels Ommegang, 1616
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 7

Three details from the Ommegang showing the camel driver, drummer and servant to King Psapho of Libya
Three details from the Ommegang showing the camel driver, drummer and servant to King Psapho of Libya, Denys van Alsloot, 1616, Belgium. Museum no 5928-1859. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Kim Sheldon, V&A African Heritage Guide

Look closely to discover three people of African descent within this painting of a grand procession called the 'Ommegang', held in Brussels in 1615. The camel driver represents people with darker skin, referred to by Europeans as 'Moors'. The drummer points to the fact that early musicians of African descent were in Europe at this time, including John Blanke, a trumpeter in the Tudor courts of Henry VII and VIII, and Ferdinand Christian Ali, a drummer in the Austrian court. Lastly, a young African boy with an umbrella of feathers can be seen fanning King Psapho of Libya, highlighting the African presence in traditional European events like this.

Stop 9: Illustrations of the Dress of Different Countries – Boa Vista, about 1680
Map link: Europe 1600 – 1815, Room 7

Illustrations of the Dress of Different Countries – Boa Vista
Illustrations of the Dress of Different Countries – Boa Vista, Johannes de Ram, about 1680, Netherlands. Museum no. 25001:21. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Text by Margaret Raffin, V&A African Heritage Guide

During the 17th century, European audiences were intrigued by representations of newly discovered countries. This etching is from a set of illustrations featuring costume from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Here a Dutchman is shown trading ivory tusks and enslaved Africans, with an African man dressed as the artist imagined him. The setting is Boa Vista, an island off the coast of West Africa. By 1650 the Dutch were responsible for enslaving 30,000 West Africans on sugar plantations in Brazil.

Background image: 'A Black Youth' or Bust of a Young Man, unknown maker, 1700 – 50, Venice, Italy. Museum no. 451-1869. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London