The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s.
With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.
For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures.
Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.
Dmitri van den Bersselaar
Business records are documents routinely produced by employees and management of commercial businesses. They may be part of internal processes or produced to communicate with stakeholders or to meet legal requirements. They usually include a mix of qualitative (reports and correspondence) and quantitative (detailed accounting data) material. Depending on how complete the material is, documents may relate to: strategic management; accounting and financial data; operational matters; legal issues; trademarks; marketing; personnel files; and labor and welfare issues. Business records add a different dimension compared to information from government and colonial office sources by providing a private sector perspective on key episodes of colonial and postcolonial history, including strikes and protests, the relationship between the (colonial) state and business, and decolonization. Historians have used business records as sources for histories of business and trade in Africa, for studies on industrialization and development, and also to inform studies on colonialism and political history, as well as economic, social, and labor history. Business records may be kept in company archives, where they are not always easy to identify or access, kept in public repositories, or privately held. Many business archives have been weeded, whereby documentation relating to special activities, challenges, and crises has been retained, while routine documentation of interest to economic and social historians has been destroyed. Other collections appear to have disappeared altogether when companies went out of business or were taken over by others.
Migration has been a central factor in African history. It is likely that the human species started spreading on the planet within and outside of Africa between 2 and 2.5 million years ago. Although the earliest stages of human migrations are the subject of intense debate, most hypotheses concentrate on movements that occurred in the African continent. In historical times, African migrations can be divided into two broad sub-fields looking at, respectively: people moving because they were forced to and people choosing to move on their own free will. Africa has been the source of the largest forced migrations in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distance forced migration of people, even though it happened over a shorter period than the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades. Within Africa, trade across complementary ecological zones and the seasonality of production propelled free migrations of traders and workers involved in long distance trade. Following the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, free labor migrations rose in importance. European colonialism introduced the need for cash that was often only accessible in cities and areas of cash crop production. It was also responsible for the introduction of new forms of forced labor required for the building and maintenance of colonial infrastructure. The rise of development as a rationale for the government of African societies influenced migrations in multiple ways through national and international policies aimed at channeling people’s mobility. In the last two centuries, African migrants have been unfolding projects of self-development by traveling to places where they hoped to find better opportunities. Yet contemporary trafficking and displacements caused by wars, intolerance, and natural catastrophes attest to the continuing relevance of violence as a key aspect of the experience of African migrants.