Ancestor Duse Mohamed Ali, Pioneer Pan Africanist: Someone You Should Know
By Dr. Josef Ben Levi
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
Ancestral Scholar, Duse Mohamed Ali was born November 21, 1866, in Alexandria, Egypt to Abdul Salem Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and a Nubian mother whose name is not known but, who was a national of Sudan .At a very young age, Ali had been sent to study in England under the tutelage of Captain Duse of the French Army, a classmate whom his father had studied alongside at the French Military Academy. In April of 1882, at the age of fifteen, Ali discontinued his studies and returned to Egypt. Soon after his return, both his brother and father were killed during the Urabi Uprising and the British Bombardment of Alexandria that took place later that year. Soon after the death of his father and brother, his family was evacuated to Sudan. He returned to England, thereafter, to pursue an acting career which would last for twenty-four years.
Before the death of his father , Ali intended to study to be a doctor but, subsequently, decided that he wanted to act and write. After completing his studies at the University of London, Ali began to perform in London and the British Isles in such productions as Othello and the Merchant of Venice. Ali established a stage career as a touring Shakespearean actor, performing in North America and the British provinces. He wrote and produced various plays, including "The Jew’s Revenge" (1903), "A Cleopatra Night" (1907), and the musical comedy "Lily of Bermuda" (1909). In London, Ali founded the Hull Shakespeare Society. He became frustrated with his acting career because of his being type-cast into various stereotypical roles including, most often, the "black slave" and the "wicked Muslim". Despite these roles, Ali was the only English-speaking actor from the Middle East performing in English theater.
Following his acting career, Ali developed an interest in politics and became a freelance journalist. Many of his early articles focused on British policies towards his native Egypt. Because of illness, he sought warmer climates and began traveling the globe to the Caribbean, India (Bombay), China (Hong Kong) and, the United States. His travels further acquainted him with global affairs. Between 1909 and 1911, he published several articles that challenged imperialism against Africans and Asians. Ali published his first book in 1911 titled, In the Land of the Pharaohs: A Short History of Egypt from the Fall of Ismail Pasha to the Assassination of Boutros Pasha.
In 1912, Ali launched The African Times and Oriental Review, the first newspaper in England owned and published by a Black person. Through this publication, he developed relationships with a number of Black intellectuals, including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey. He became particularly close to Garvey and joined Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association where he served as the foreign secretary and the head of African Affairs. Ali left the UNIA following Garvey’s deportation, in 1927, from the United States.
After a number of failed business attempts in the United States and Europe, Ali relocated to Lagos, Nigeria where, in 1933, he founded The Comet . With a circulation of 4,000, the newspaper was soon ranked among the top publications in Nigeria during this time. In 1944, he sold The Comet to Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Zik’s Press Limited. Ali's early fame, as an international scholar, occurred after he published a short history of Egypt, reportedly the first such work written by an indigenous Egyptian in modern times. The book, The Land of the Pharaohs, received critical acclaim when it was published in 1911. In its introduction, Ali states that he was inspired to undertake the historical account because of the “continual growth of misrepresentation in the English Press touching on Egyptian affairs.” He goes on to state that “Roosevelt's Guildhall peroration has proved the last straw of a most weighty bundle” — referencing U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on Great Britain and Africa at Guildhall in London.
In his 1910 speech at Guildhall, President Theodore Roosevelt asserted that ,in Egypt, Britain’s treating all religions with fairness caused an anti-foreign movement in which “murder on a large or small scale is expected to play a leading part.” The British government’s response to the speech was to send Lord Kitchener to Egypt as Consul-General to suppress what was seen as a socialist tendency among the young Nationalist party in Egypt. "The London Spectator" reported on the Guildhall speech stating, “We thank Mr. Roosevelt once again for giving us so useful a reminder of our duty.” It was this series of events that led Ali to embark on addressing the historical account in his book, The Land of the Pharaohs.
Ali, an avid community organizer, founded the "Anglo-Ottoman Society" ,in London, and the "Indian Muslim Soldiers’ Widows’ and Orphans’ War Fund". He was active in the "League of Justice of the Afro-Asian Nations" and the "African Progress Union", an association of West Indian and African exiles founded in London ,in 1913. In addition to community activism, Ali published works in the London-based weekly, "New Age", at that time edited by Alfred Richard Orange, writing articles on Egyptian nationalism and global pan-African oppression.
From July 26th to July 29th,1911, the "First Universal Races Congress" was held at the University of London, featuring speakers from various countries to discuss how to improve race relations and combat the racism impacting global African communities in the world. Ali helped with the arrangements for the event and met a number of the prominent West African merchants and professionals in attendance at the four-day event. With the help of Sierra Leone-born journalist, John Eldred Jones, Ali soon thereafter published the first political journal produced by and for Black people — The African Times and Orient Review. This pan-African journal , launched as a monthly publication in June 1912, was described as a “monthly devoted to the interests of the colored races of the world.” The Oxford Companion to Black British History described the journal as a "militant magazine" that was committed to the exposure of various colonial injustices.
The August, 1912 issue of the African Times and Orient Review included a letter by J.E. Casey Hayford titled “ A Tribute from Africa”. Hayford was a Ghanaian lawyer, educator, writer, and statesman, who would go on to lead the first meeting of the National Congress of British West Africa in London in 1920. In 1911, Hayford had published the novel Ethiopia Unbound. By 1927, Hayford was elected to the Ghana Legislative Council.
When the Jamaican-born Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. arrived in Britian ,in 1912, he became closely associated with Ali. In fact, Ali would become a mentor to Garvey as a staff member of the African Times and Orient Review. Garvey never converted to Islam, but it is said that he learned a number of the basic tenets of Islam from Ali. He also learned a lot from Ali about Pan-Africanism, the struggle of African people around the world against European oppression.
From July to December of 1913, the London-based African Times Orient Review was published monthly. From March 24 to August 18, 1914, it was published weekly. By the time the Great War (World War I) broke out on July 28, 1914, the journal was banned by Britain in India and its African colonies. The British government reported Ali as a ‘notorious disseminator of sedition.” In November 1917, a British colonial official stated that “in the old days the magazine was considered to be of doubtful loyalty, owing to Duse Mohamed’s pan-Ethiopian program.” The journal stopped publishing after October 1918. The Great War ended November 11, 1918. Ali’s publication was relaunched as Africa and Orient Review, was published from January 1920 to December 1920.
In 1920, after closing the London-office of the Africa and Orient Review , Ali arrived in the United States.. In Detroit, he founded the "Universal Islamic Society". He never returned to Britain. In the U.S., Ali worked with Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association /UNIA movement based in Harlem, New York. He was a contributing writer for the UNIA’s "Negro World" publication and is noted as the head of its Africa section. In July 1921, Ali traveled to Nigeria and was welcomed at the Shittah Mosque at Lagos but, would soon return to the United States. In 1922, wearing his characteristic fez hat, Ali made many appearances among Detroit’s Black Muslim community. It is often speculated that Ali’s presence in Detroit impacted W. D. Fard Muhammad’s development of the Nation of Islam out of Detroit, which was founded in 1930. He may have also had a relationship with Noble Drew Ali and the rise of the Moorish Science Temple of America. The Moorish Science Temple of America is reported to have been established in the United States as early as 1913. There is undoubtedly a lot of room for scholarship in this area. By June 1928, a final single journal issue is reported to have been published By Ali in New York under the title, “Africa”.
Professor Khalil Mahmud of Ibadan University, who wrote the introduction to In the Land of the Pharaohs, 2nd edition (1), suggests that Ali’s knowledge of African history, geography etc. were profound influences on Garvey, as was perhaps, Duse’s heritage as a Muslim; Mahmud suggests that the Garveyan motto ‘One God, one aim, one destiny,’ may have resulted from the influence on Garvey of Ali’s Muslim heritage, his contributing articles on African issues to the Negro World and, heading a department on African affairs. Ali had come to the United States to promote his vision of economic Pan-Africanism, seeking to establish a commercial link between West Africans and US Africans. In the 1920s, he unsuccessfully secured US African financing to enable West Africans to produce farmers to secure markets and exports to the United States, wresting control from major British firms, such as Lever Brothers. In the 1930s, he failed to gain Euro-American capital for the same purpose.
To be sure, some people, including the English Arabist Wilfred Blunt, questioned Ali’s Egyptian Muslim heritage, arguing that he knew little, if any Arabic and was unable to recite the Shahada (Muslim declaration of faith). However, the fact that Ali consistently identified as both Egyptian and Muslim throughout his life and was accepted as such by members of the Egyptian community in London- and by other Muslims- suggests that Blunt’s assessment of Ali’s Muslim identity was not shared by all.
Duse Mohamed Ali was a man whose life spanned careers as well as continents. An actor, publisher, editor, and journalist, he travelled across the world, lectured in the United States and worked with Marcus Garvey (1) before ending his days in Nigeria, where he is considered to be a central figure in the growth of a national Nigerian consciousness and the student movement. But Ali is also part of British Black Muslim heritage. He studied in London, was a prominent figure in British-based Muslim circles, and perhaps most importantly, between 1912 and 1920 he published and edited his international paper The African Times and Orient Review from 138 Fleet Street.
In 1931, Ali is reported to have returned to Lagos to watch over business interests in the cocoa industry. He settled in Lagos and was appointed editor of the Nigerian Daily Times. On October 3, 1932, Ali produced the play A Daughter of Pharaoh in the Glover Memorial Hall in Lagos. He also became the editor of the Daily Telegraph in Nigeria. By July 1933, hemhad launched The Comet, a weekly newspaper in Lagos. On June 25, 1945, at the age of 78,Duse Muhammad Ali died in the African Hospital in Lagos after a protracted illness. He is buried at the Okesuna Muslim Cemetery in Nigeria.
Ali, Duse Mohamed (1968; first edition 1911): In the land of the Pharaohs: a short history of Egypt from the fall of Ismail to the assassination of Boutros Pasha. London:
Frank Cass and Co Ltd. Intro to second edition by Khalil Mahmud of Ibadan University, Nigeria.
African Times and Orient Review 1912.
‘Foreword’. Vol. 1, no. 1 published July 1912.
African Times and Orient Review 1912. ‘A word to our brother’. Vol. 1, no. 1 published July 1912.
Duse Mohamed Ali," in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Volume I: 1826-August 1919, edited by Robert A. Hill and Carol A. Rudisell, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Halil Mahumud, "Introduction to the Second Edition, “ In the Land of the Pharaohs: A Short History of Egypt, Second edition, by Duse Mohamed, London: Frank Cass, 1968.
Robert A. Hill, "The First England Years and After, 1912-1916," in Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, edited by John Henrik Clarke and Amy Jacques Garvey, New York: Random House, 1974.
Ian Duffield 1976. Duse Mohamed Ali: his press and public. In K. Niven (ed.) The commonwealth writer overseas.
Ian Duffield 1992. ‘Duse Mohamed Ali, Afro-Asian solidarity and Pan-Africanism in early twentieth-century London.’ In J.S. Gundara and I. Duffield (eds): Essays on the history of Blacks in Britain: from Roman times to the mid-twentieth century. Aldershot: Averbury.
Ian Duffield, "Some American Influences on Duse Mohamed Ali," in Pan-African Biography, edited by Robert a Hill, Los Angeles: African Studies Center, University of California-Los Angeles, and Crossroads Press, African Studies Association, 1987.
Innes, C.L. 2002. A history of black and Asian writing in Britain, 1700-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sherwood, Marika (2011; first published online 2010): Ali, Duse Mohamed [known as Duse Mohamed]. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/59530.
Afriware Books is the official bookstore of Omni-U Virtual University
Duse Muhammad Ali: Biographies of Great African People . by Faheem Judah-El D.D.
Duse Mohamed Ali (1866-1945): An Autobiography of a Pioneer Pan Africanist and Afro-Asian Activies [sic] Coupled with an Introduction by Mustafa Abdelwahid