Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.
Toyin Falola and Abikal Borah
Since the late 1950s, the field of African historiography has undergone many changes. While discussing African philosophies of history, one must acknowledge shifts within the discipline of history and the Afrocentric vision of historical scholarship as two constitutive processes through which different historiographical trends have come into being. It is difficult to take an essentialist position on African philosophies of history, because Africa has been at the center of various transnational and global processes of historical formation. As a result, the scope and scale of African historiography signals a variety of entanglements. The imperative lies in recognizing such entanglements in the longue durée of Africa’s past, to dislodge the narrowly framed imagination attached to African historiography. Considering the complexity of the terrain, it would be appropriate to view African philosophies of history and historiography from three different vantage points. Firstly, historical scholarship centering on Africa has produced critiques of the post-Enlightenment philosophy of history in Europe and elsewhere. This strand highlights the interventions posed by African historiography that decenter a globalized philosophical tradition. Secondly, the inclusion of African indigenous epistemological formations into historical scholarship has transformed the scope of African historiography. This shows shifts in the methodological approaches of historical scholarship and highlights the question of access to the multiplicity of Africa’s past. Thirdly, Pan-Africanism and Afropolitanism expanded the scope and scale of the African philosophy of history by thinking through the transnational and global connections of Afrocentric thought. In other words, Afrocentric historiography attends to the ideas of globalism and cosmopolitanism within its scope and scale.
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.
Marie-Albane de Suremain
The colonial condition in Africa has been revisited by all of the main historiographic currents of thought, from a heroizing, highly political and military history of colonization primarily considered from the colonists’ standpoint, to a much more complex and rich history integrating the colonized perspective. This history has been enhanced by contributions from Postcolonial Studies and Subaltern Studies as well as from New Imperial History and perspectives opened by its global interconnected history.
At the intersection of these issues and methods, colonial studies offers an innovative reinterpretation of various facets of colonial Africa, such as the factors and justifications for colonial expansion; conquests and colonial wars; processes of territorial appropriation and border demarcation; and the organization and control of the colonies. In these fundamentally inegalitarian societies, accommodation and social and cultural hybridization processes were also at work, as well as multiple forms of resistance or subversion that paved the way for African states to win their independence. In addition to the role played by the First and Second World Wars, the emergence of nationalist and separatist movements helps to clarify the multifaceted nature of these independences, when approached from a political as well as a cultural and social perspective, while questioning the durability of the legacy of the colonial phase in African history.
The Dakar School, as the historians of Cheikh Anta Diop University (the University of Dakar) were called, had a brief French antecedent in Yves Person, whose teachings communicated to students the importance of African oral sources. He himself worked primarily on such sources from the 19th century. The Dakar School was then taken over and given its name by the young Guinean historian Boubacar Barry, who had been based in Senegal since the 1960s. Research collaborations between Cheikh Anta Diop University and the University of Paris 7 (today known as Paris-Diderot) then became active through exchanges involving both instructors and doctoral students. The Senegalese department strengthened over time, thanks to well-established historians, a number of them being non Senegalese scholars expelled from their own country by dictatorial regimes such as Boubacar himself or others who taught several years in Dakar such as Sekene Mody Cissoko, a well known Malian historian, or Thierno Moctar Bah from Guinea. After Boubacar Barry, the department was headed successively between the years 1975 and 2000 by Mbaye Gueye, Mamadou Diouf, Mohamed Mbodj, Penda Mbow, Ibrahima Thioub, and Adrien Benga, among others. They and their colleagues understood how to maintain and reinforce the quality and cohesion of an original and diverse research department over the course of many years, one that was simultaneously independent of any political power and rather opponent to any authoritarian State and tolerant toward its colleagues. Among them, several scholars are currently enjoying late careers in the United States, while Ibrahima Thioub has become vice chancellor of Cheikh Anta Diop University. However, their succession has been consistently assured by their own doctoral students. Nowadays, does the “Dakar school” still exist? Yes because historians remain proud of and faithful to this innovative past, no because Senegalese historians are now part of the world wide international community of historians.
The goal of African history is not only to establish a chronology of events but also to recover the past from the local African perspective. The challenge is how to recover local ways of knowing and being in societies far different from the perspectives of both the contemporary scholar and the authors of many of the sources used to write history. For written documents, the question is how to extract meaningful data from sparse, biased, or unreliable texts. In a historical context, a documentary source is writing, whether ink or inscription, on material such as paper, papyrus, ceramic, stone, or any of the other surfaces upon which, in relation to Africa, Africans and travelers to Africa have chosen to write the continent’s history. While more and more written evidence from precolonial Africa is coming to light, the relative dearth of documents remains a major challenge for scholars seeking to investigate Africa’s past. This paucity also means that those sources available should be examined especially carefully with an eye to bias and to context. Such careful, grounded examination has not always been a strength of the field, which was initially divided between scholars who dismissed documentary sources (perceived as written by outsiders) as unreliable, and those who uncritically accepted them as eyewitness observation. Neither approach is helpful for historians seeking a nuanced understanding of Africa’s past. Used critically, written documents can provide a window into how human actors understood themselves, their history, specific events, and the world around them, which is difficult to discern in the absence of textual or visual representation. Scholars have developed to major strategies to utilize the unique strengths of documentary sources whilst minimizing their weaknesses. Firstly, historians pay close attention to local context, cultural bias, and pre-existing genealogies of knowledge about Africa and Africans evident in textual sources. Secondly, historians triangulate between different kinds of historical methods and sources such as archaeology, linguistics, ethnography, oral tradition, and even genetics and palynology.
There is no escaping the fact that the history of science took European places and people, broadly construed, as its original object of study. There is also no escaping that in African history, scholars interested in science, technology, and to a lesser extent environmental knowledge have concentrated the bulk of their investigative energies on developments since European (and North African) conquest. This focus on the period since the 1870s has tended to foreground dynamics relating to colonial rule and state-building, extractive economies and development, and decolonization and geopolitics. A handful of Africanists in the history of science have explicitly worked to cross the colonial divide, often taking single topics deeper back in time. The field as a whole, however, still needs to debate more systematically what the overarching narratives and benchmark phenomena should be for the precolonial periods. It also needs to grapple more explicitly with methodological tensions that arise from a focus on human agency and specific places (and the languages this requires) versus a focus on ideas, tools, and phenomena that transcend local or state containers (and the trade-offs this produces). As historians of science extend their reach into Africa’s pasts and bridge the colonial and post-colonial divides, it raises thorny questions about different approaches. Among others this includes how we produce histories of science, why they matter, and what we ought to bear in mind as we do. To this end, four goals are advanced here simultaneously: First, is the aim to open a dialogue with historians of science working outside Africa about ways Africanist scholarship speaks to and could be incorporated into the field as a whole (encouraging non-Africanists to consider the blind spots of “global” histories). Second, is the objective to draw attention to the pitfalls and benefits of different research methods and theoretical assumptions, especially as they relate to expert knowledge (an analysis that may be most useful for students entering the field). Third, is the ambition to explore a set of topics that connect deeper time periods to more recent developments (topics that invite critical scrutiny from specialists and generalists alike). Finally, is the desire to foreground the many different ways people across sub-Saharan Africa have initiated, responded to, and been incorporated into the production of knowledge. Africa has been a site of rich and varied epistemological and material experiments for millennia—some deleterious, some beneficial, and all imbued with different kinds of power. Acknowledging this long-standing history can serve to correct stereotypes that suggest otherwise. It can also contribute to debates within the history of science as the field continues to move away from its original focus on Europe and Europeans.
Jonathon L. Earle
Intellectual historians of Africa are principally concerned with how Africans have understood and contested the contexts that they inhabited in the past, and how ideas and vernacular discourses change over time. As a particular approach in historical methodology it is closely associated with cultural history, and its evolution followed the emergence of political history writing during the 1960s and social history during the 1980s. The first innovative works in African intellectual history were concerned with pan-Africanism and Négritude. These studies were followed by histories of religious ideas and social dissent. Historians have since offered varying descriptions of Africa’s “intellectuals.” For some, Africa’s colonial intellectuals were mostly missionary-educated literati, while others emphasize Africa’s rural intellectual histories and the importance of studying “homespun,” or vernacular historiographies. African epistemologies and knowledge production have also remained a central concern in the study of African intellectual history. To illuminate Africa’s intellectual registers, historians interrogate different topics, regions, and temporalities. Historians of precolonial Africa use historical linguistics to understand the intersection of ideas about public healing and social organization. Scholars of the colonial period challenge many of the earlier assumptions held by colonial researchers and policy makers, who had cast African communities as primordial, conquered peoples. Intellectual historians, by contrast, explore the constantly changing arenas of ideational disputation and political contestation within African societies. Intellectual historians of gender have shown how ideas about production, masculinity, and femininity have informed competing nodes of authority. By the early 21st century, global intellectual historians began demonstrating how Africans reworked European political ideas into local vernacular debates about the past, and how Africans have shaped the making of the modern world. To write Africa’s intellectuals histories, scholars draw from a range of sources, which are often maintained in institutional archives, public libraries, and private homes. These sources—textual, oral, and material—include letters, diaries, annotated libraries, vernacular newspapers, grammars, novels, oral histories, linguistic etymologies, sculptures, clothing, paintings, photography, film, and music.
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew.
The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.
Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and independent scholars have used oral history and life history, two slightly different but complementary methods, in order to help researchers develop a deeper understanding of the past in Africa. While both methods are best employed when analyzing late-19th-, 20th-, and early-21st-century history, these methods have also been used in histories of slavery and with survivors of trauma, displacement, and marginalization. Oral history is quite effective in gathering the histories of nonliterate populations, or people who are considered marginal to the larger society. While the study of oral history and life history has been powerfully fruitful in Africa, researchers must take care to consider both the benefits and limitations of these approaches. Is an oral history account the ultimate example of an unmediated African voice or do both individual and group memories reflect the selective memory that occurs as a result of the power dynamics evident in any society?
David M. Gordon
Archives used in Africanist historical research include those of the colonial state, postcolonial national archives, missionary archives, personal papers, political party archives, and the archives of corporations and international agencies involved in African affairs. Africanists historians generally accept that these archives are not transparent renditions of the past; they represent and even reproduce power relations related to colonialism and its legacies. Nonetheless, careful readings have enabled Africanist historians to understand the structural order and logic these archives (the archival grain), and thus demonstrate colonial (or other) power relations implicated in the collections. Reading archives against the grain can also reveal alternative voices and agents, however. Even as discussions of archival methodologies have been limited, archives have remained crucial sources for key trends in Africanist historical writing, including the representation of colonial hegemonies as well as African voice and agency. To advance such readings, Africanist historians develop post-positivist readings of archives that appreciate silences, dissonances, and conflicts within archives and documentation. Through a process of archival fieldwork, including a careful combing of archives, reading of files, and transcribing of select documents, historians have become adept at appreciating the grain of archives and reading the archive against this grain. The digitization of archives and digital research methods, including electronic search engines, full-text searches, online archives, and digital photography, challenge aspects of traditional archival fieldwork, holding benefits and potential setbacks for the critical appreciation of archival documentation. These challenges have sharpened with the changing role of physical documentation along with an increase in smaller archives that enable serendipitous and hodgepodge archival investigations.
Founded in 1916, the School of African Studies at the University of London provided training in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages and history to colonial officers. Over more than a century, the transformation of African history at the SOAS from an imperial discipline to one centered on African experiences reveals challenges in the creation, use, and dissemination of ideas, or the politics of knowledge. The school, as the only institution of higher learning in Europe focused on Africa, Asia, and Middle East, has had to perform a balancing act between scholars’ motivation to challenge academic skeptics and racists who dismissed Africa and British governmental, political, and economic priorities that valued “practical education.”
In 1948, the University of London took steps to create an international standing by affiliating several institutions in Africa. Over several decades, many historians preferred to teach in Africa because the climate in Britain was far less open to African history. SOAS convened international conferences in 1953, 1957, and 1961 that established the reputation of African history at the SOAS. Research presented at these meetings were published in the first volume of the Journal of African History with a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation. The first volumes of the journal were focused on oral history, historical linguistics, archaeology, and political developments in precolonial Africa, topics covered extensively at SOAS.
SOAS grew considerably up until 1975, when area studies all over Britain underwent a period of contraction. Despite economic and personnel cuts, SOAS continued research and teaching especially on precolonial Africa, which has periodically been feared to be subsumed by modern history and not fitting into visions for “practical” courses. In the late 1980s, the school introduced an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in African studies that requires African language study because so many students were specializing in Africa without it. This measure reveals the lasting commitment to engaging African voices. African history at the SOAS has also continued to be a humanistic enterprise, and in 2002, it was reorganized into the School of Religion, History, and Philosophies. It remains to be seen how Brexit might affect higher education. While cuts in education could hurt African studies more than other area studies as they often have, strained relations between Britain and continental Europe might make African countries more important to Britain in the coming years.
While many of those who have written about South Africa have included reference to past events, it was only from the early 19th century that attempts were made to present a coherent picture of South Africa’s past. From the early 20th century professional historians, for long all white males, began to present their interpretations of the way in which the country known from 1910 as the Union of South Africa had evolved over time. In the Afrikaans-speaking universities there emerged an often nationalist historiography, while the major English-speaking historians presented a more inclusive but still often Eurocentric and mainly political view of the South African past. From the 1960s a conscious attempt was made to decolonize South African historiography by looking at the history of all the country’s peoples, but the historical profession remained almost exclusively white and the few black works of history were largely ignored. Many of those who were most influential in taking South African historical writing in new directions were South Africans who had left the country and settled abroad.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age of South African historical writing, shaped in part by the influence of neo-Marxist approaches from the United Kingdom and the United States, many new topics were explored, including the relationship between race and class and between capitalist development and apartheid. By emphasizing resistance to racial segregation in the past, South African historical writing assisted the process leading to the end of apartheid. By the time that happened, South African historical writing had become very nuanced and varied, but only to some extent integrated into the historiography of other parts of the African continent.
Gregory H. Maddox
The Dar es Salaam School of African History refers to the work of a group of historians based at what became the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Led initially by Terrance O. Ranger, the scholars of the History Department there in the late 1960s focused on researching and writing a new history for a newly independent nation. The works produced focused on the idea of Africans making their own history and on the rise of anticolonial nationalism. They most immediately argued that common oppression by colonial states created the conditions for the development of organic national movements for liberation. This later aspect led this type of history to be called nationalist history.
By the late 1960s, historians at Dar es Salaam had developed a critique of nationalist history that used Marxist theory to explain the domination of Africa under colonialism and its continued subjection in the postcolonial era to the capitalist world system. Led at first by Walter Rodney but taken up by a number of younger Tanzanian historians, this movement led some to call it the New Dar es Salaam School. The proponents of this consciously radical approach to history argued that nationalist historians had romanticized African nationalist movements and failed to identify them as heirs to the opporesive and exploitative nature of colonialism. They concluded that independence represented only the first step in the true liberation of Africa. Both of these approaches to history have had significant influence on the study of African history across the continent.
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.