History Opinions & Features February 05, 2021 at 07:30 am

The story of how a 19th-century Cameroonian man became a Polish insurgent after WWI

Nii Ntreh February 05, 2021 at 07:30 am

February 05, 2021 at 07:30 am | History, Opinions & Features

Sam Sandi, second from left in the front row, was a member of an elite Polish intelligence squad in the Army. Photo Credit: Warsaw 1939 Foundation

“When you live on Polish soil, you have to fight for this land!”

If this sentence of defiant patriotism was ever truly uttered by a Black man who found himself in Poland during that country’s war with Russian Bolsheviks, then we can only wonder how much this African had come to love his adopted home. This was the whitest part of Europe and yet, an African found a home?

The patriotic cry was reported in the World War I era newspaper Ziemia Lubelskiej. The writer is thought to have marveled at the sight of two Black men doing their bit along with soldiers of the Greater Poland Army to assert Polish sovereignty post-World War I. They were described as “honest” and “hardworking”. One of the two men was Sam Sandi, a former soldier in France’s colonial regiment during World War I.

Sandi was fighting under another flag after World War I. The story of how he would go to war for Poland against an archenemy is not a complicated story. However, the accounts that stand of Sandi’s life in Poland are somewhat idyllic, and that is what can be a little mesmerizing because he was after all in Warsaw, one of two “black people within its walls”, that report in Ziemia Lubelskiej said.

Little is known of Sandi outside of his life in Europe. What we do acknowledge is that he was born in Cameroon in 1885 when that country was a French colony. France, like other European colonial powers, conscripted colonized men to fight European wars borne out of European politics. But Sandi was captured by the Germans in Wielkopolskie, a western province in neighboring Poland.

After Germany and the Allied Powers had been defeated, Sandi found himself back in Poland and cut off from the French army that had signed him into the Great War. He had been freed by Polish insurgents with whom he sought company in cold, wild Europe. His story is often told in conjunction with Jozef Diak’s, another African who fought for France but ended up in Poland after 1918. Compared to Sandi, we have dug up far less about Diak. He is West African with some theories alleging he was from Senegal but historians are not sure. It also remains a mystery if Diak was the other man between the “only two Black men” in Warsaw.

There is yet another man, August Browne, a Nigerian man who fought for Poland during the time of the Nazi invasion. But Browne’s time was different for while he most likely faced fire, Sandi and Diak were non-combatant soldiers. Aleksandar Przybylski noted in “Iron Man, Dandy and Horned Devil” that Sandi and Diak were most likely drivers and cooks.

Sandi was described as a handsome man who was “tall and muscular”. Przybylski wrote about Sandi’s looks and ways:

If we were to look for any faults in his beauty, it was only a small strabismus in his left eye. Sandi was also extremely elegant, even with a certain inclination towards dandyism…He wore well-cut suits, tasteful pocket squares and hats…He was a stickler. To the extent that when he bought a new item, underwear or shirt, before putting it on, he had to wash and iron it himself.

His marriage to Łucja Woźniak was met with disdain by her modestly privileged parents who were not in favor of their daughter’s union with a Black African. Although Sandi would later be welcomed into the family towards the end of his life, Woźniak’s parents were very much products of their time.

In many ways, modern anti-Black racism was arguably birthed at the start of the end of the 19th century when after slavery, European exploitation during colonialism contemporaneously established the economic and political hierarchy that continues to define the relationship between the manumitted Black individual and the white individual. In America at the time too, Jim Crow was in the fullest swing, alienating Black people from decent economic opportunities.

What would happen in the whitest part of the world at this period would have been worse. It is a part of the world that was not confronted with an intimate appreciation of the humanity of Black people. Still, Sandi persisted with his life in Poland where he was baptized as a Catholic and took on the name Jozef. He also fathered two daughters, Gabrysia, who died in childhood, and Krystyna, by his wife Lucja.

He became a wrestler in Warsaw, fetching promoters money through his victories and by the sheer accident of being a Black man in ferocious combat. Wrestling bouts were part of a circus and this added to the need to have fun at the fights. Soon, and just before Germany’s resurgence thanks to Nazi leadership, Sandi became an entertainer who performed feats of endurance in a number of Polish cities.

When he went into his fifties, Sandi could no more wrestle and became a bouncer at a popular club in Poznan, Western Poland. He also made a little more money as a fortune-teller, perhaps taking advantage of the mystical fascination people had with a Black man in Poland.

Sandi died in 1937 from a cerebral hemorrhage that would have been plausible for a wrestler in their after-work life. His blood though continues to run in many these present times through his second daughter Krystyna whose grandchildren are said to live in Germany and Poland.

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