In his influential book, Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966), Jan Vansina described the rise of the kingdoms of the south-central African interior from the 15th century. These include the Luba (the mulopwe titleholders), Lunda (the nuclear Lunda, also termed Rund, of the mwant yav titleholders), Lunda-Ndembu, Chokwe, Pende, Luvale, Luluwa, Kanyok, Luba-Kasai, Kuba, Eastern Lunda, Yeke, and the Bemba. New analyses of oral traditions as well as the study of art, archaeology, ethnographic fieldwork, linguistics, and documentary sources haverevised understandings of these polities and added details. Historians have considered the context of the production of primary sources, in particular art and oral traditions, which were created during a transformative 19th century, when trade and violence contributed to the centralization of power for some polities and the disintegration of others. With subjects questioning the power of sovereigns, art, oral traditions, and oral praises projected royal genealogies and the qualities of kingship into a vague antiquity. The study of historical linguistics has also provided inroads into understanding the dissemination of political institutions and titles along with tentative accounts of their historical depth. Ethnographic fieldwork has further elaborated on the functioning of political systems and religious ideas. These diverse primary sources complicate the historiography of central African kingdoms; they also indicate the spread of alternative political and religious affiliations during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular Luba fertility associations and Lunda fictive kin alliances.
The use of oral tradition is a distinctive and essential element in many fields of African studies. History must acknowledge it; literature sees it as the medium for much of the indigenous creative endeavor across African cultures; anthropology and its cousin disciplines rely upon oral information for their understanding of traditional societies. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition as a source across disciplines involves two efforts: first, a survey of the reported oral tradition as available and documented in past periods, and second, a review of the principles and practices involved in the collection, analysis, and presentation of the oral tradition. The paucity of written records has been grounds for dismissal of the notion of African history—most notoriously in the case of Hegel, who in ignorance wrote off the home of the human species—and more recently a cause of pride among African intellectuals who have asserted the value of the oral tradition in the face of skepticism rooted in prejudice and too often in overt racism. An appreciation of the value of the oral tradition threads its path between extremes and occasional controversy. The era of the smartphone has made the documentation (and creation) of oral tradition almost too easy. Past generations made do in different ways. Their reports should not be dismissed, but studied; they are the available background to information collected in the modern era. Accurate collection and critical analysis are the essential tools for the understanding of oral tradition.
Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200 bce onward, groups of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers were in constant contact in southern Africa. A widespread European settlerist view, based on deep-seated stereotypes of warring races and “tribes,” is that they were permanently in conflict: historical evidence shows that in fact they interacted and intermingled in a range of different ways. Interactions became yet more complex from the mid-17th century as settlers from Europe gradually encroached from the southwest Cape Colony into most of southern Africa. In some areas, settler graziers sought to wipe out groups of hunter-gatherers, and to break up pastoralist groups and enserf their members; in other areas, particularly in the shifting colonial frontier zone, mixed groups, including settlers, made a living from raiding and trading. In the 19th century, groups of settler farmers sought to subjugate African farmers, and seize their land and labor. Contrary to a common view, they had only limited success until, in the later 19th century, Britain, the major colonial power in the region, threw its weight decisively behind British settler expansion. Other Europeans—traders and missionaries in particular—worked with Africans to make profits and save souls. Some Africans sought to resist loss of land and sovereignty; others sought to take advantage of the colonial presence to seek new political allies, loosen ties to chiefs, find wage work, produce for the market, join churches, seek a book education, and incorporate Christian ideas into their politics. Even before they came under colonial domination, many chiefs sought to move from a long-established politics based on alliance making to a politics based on what Europeans called “tribal” rule.
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.”