Aubrey Bloomfield and Sean Jacobs
The Internet and social media increasingly are becoming sources about the African past and present in ways that will influence to some extent how history will be learnt and the form that methods of historical research will take. Social media have increasingly dislodged print journalism as “the first rough draft of history” and tended to democratize and hasten information sharing and communication. Historians are working through difficult debates about the Internet as a source archive, the usability of websites, and related matters. The debate over online resources and their use in historical and other studies on one level remains unresolved. Nevertheless, online sources add another rich layer to narratives, stories, and perspectives that are already being recorded or told, and in this regard they will add to the storehouse of empirical data to be crunched by future historians.
Joseph C. Miller
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a prominent producer of doctorates in African history since 1963. As of 2017 the institution had granted more than 110 degrees. Philip D. Curtin and Jan Vansina, both pioneers in launching the field, led the program until 1975 and were joined in 1969 by Steven Feierman. Together, they supervised an initial cohort of graduates, several of whom became leaders of the then still-formative field, particularly in its methodological infrastructure, as well as in economic and demographic history, slavery in Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, and medical history. The distinguishing features qualifying a diverse array of individual intellectual trajectories as a coherent “school” include a focus on epistemologically historical approaches anchored in the intellectual perspectives of Africans as historical actors and often also as they engaged broader commercial Atlantic and Indian Ocean and world contexts; smaller numbers of more recent doctorates had subsequently sustained these orientations.
Former graduates of the program, William W. Brown, David Henige, and Thomas T. Spear, returned after 1975 to update this framework by bringing social theory and cultural history to bear on the African historical actors at the program’s core. Since 2005, a third generation of faculty members, Neil Kodesh, James Sweet, and Emily Colacci (all students of Wisconsin PhDs teaching at other institutions), have added contemporary approaches to the Wisconsin school’s continuing commitment to Africans’ distinctive epistemologies as they engaged the flows of modern global history. Professionally, Madison graduates have, accordingly, led the ongoing effort to bring Africa in from its initial marginality—as the continent seen as uniquely without a history—into the historical discipline’s core. An aphoristic summary of the Wisconsin legacy might be “Africans’ worlds and Africans in the world.”
Accounts written by foreigners—especially Europeans—about what they saw in Africa constitute one of the major sources for African history between c. 1450 and c. 1900. Some were published, while others remained in manuscript form. Unlike the ethnographic monographs of the early 20th century, they were generally written in a spontaneous and unsystematic manner, usually with a narrative structure, although in some cases an implicit “questionnaire” seems to have lain behind what was recorded.
Historians of Africa must apply the rules of source criticism to such material. These include an obligation to examine the extent to which the material is really “primary” (rather than derived from sources that already existed and still exist today); what stereotypes and fixed ideas may have shaped the author’s perceptions and writing; how the expectations of the intended readership—including a desire for exoticism or sensationalism—may have influenced the content and style, in some cases even resulting in straightforward fabrication posing as authentic description; and whether the author’s personal background—for example, financial interests, ideology, or gender—could have led him or her to perceive and write about Africa in a certain way. Certain types of data contained in travel accounts, such as quantitative or linguistic information, require cautious analysis. Some travel accounts were accompanied by engravings or other iconographic material, and although it is tempting to use these simply as illustrations, they must be subjected to the same kinds of source criticism as are applied to the written accounts themselves.
Despite these caveats, travel accounts are an indispensable source, whose full potential still remains to be discovered.
In the second half of the 19th century, French imperial expansion in the south of the Sahara led to the control of numerous African territories. The colonial rule France imposed on a diverse range of cultural groups and political entities brought with it the development of equally diverse inquiry and research methodologies. A new form of scholarship, africanisme, emerged as administrators, the military, and amateur historians alike began to gather ethnographic, linguistic, judicial, and historical information from the colonies. Initially, this knowledge was based on expertise gained in the field and reflected the pragmatic concerns of government rather than clear, scholarly, interrogation in line with specific scientific disciplines.
Research was thus conducted in many directions, contributing to the emergence of the so-called colonial sciences. Studies by Europeans scholars, such as those carried out by Maurice Delafosse and Charles Monteil, focused on West Africa’s past. In so doing, the colonial context of the late 19th century reshaped the earlier orientalist scholarship tradition born during the Renaissance, which had formerly produced quality research about Africa’s past, for example, about medieval Sudanese states. This was achieved through the study of Arabic manuscripts and European travel narratives. In this respect, colonial scholarship appears to have perpetuated the orientalist legacy, but in fact, it transformed the themes, questions, and problems historians raised.
In the first instance, histoire coloniale (colonial history) focused the history of European conquests and the interactions between African societies and their colonizers. Between 1890 and 1920 a network of scientists, including former colonial administrators, struggled to institutionalize colonial history in metropolitan France. Academic positions were established at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France. Meanwhile, research institutions were created in French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française [AOF]), French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Équatoriale Française [AEF]), and Madagascar between 1900 and the 1930s.
Yet, these imperial and colonial concerns similarly coincided with the rise of what was then known as histoire indigène (native history) centered on the precolonial histories of African societies. Through this lens emerged a more accurate vision of the African past, which fundamentally challenged the common preconception that the continent had no “history.” This innovative knowledge was often co-produced by African scholars and intellectuals.
After the Second World War, interest in colonial history started to wane, both from an intellectual and a scientific point of view. In its place, the history of sub-Saharan Africa gained popularity and took root in French academic institutions. Chairs of African history were created at the Sorbonne in 1961 and 1964, held by Raymond Mauny and Hubert Deschamps, respectively, and in 1961 at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, fulfilled by Henri Brunschwig. African historians, who were typically trained in France, began to challenge the existing European scholarship. As a result, some of the methods and sources that had been born in the colonial era, were adopted for use by a new generation of historians, whose careers blossomed after the independences.