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Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.
Pedro Aires Oliveira
The dissolution of Portugal’s African empire took place in the mid-1970s, a decade after the dismantling of similar imperial formations across Europe. Contrary to other European metropoles, Portuguese rulers were unwilling to meet the demands for self-determination in their dependencies, and thus mobilized considerable resources for a long, drawn-out conflict in Angola, Guinea, and Mozambique from 1961 to 1974. Several factors can explain Lisbon’s refusal to come to terms with the “winds of change” that had swept Africa since the late 1950s, from the belief of its decision-makers that Portugal lacked the means to conduct a successful “exit strategy” (akin to the “neocolonial” approach followed by the British, the French, or the Belgians), to the dictatorial nature of Salazar’s “New State,” which prevented a free and open debate on the costs of upholding an empire against the anti-colonial consensus that had prevailed in the United Nations since the early 1960s.
Taking advantage of its Cold War alliances (as well as secret pacts with Rhodesia and South Africa), Portugal was long able to accommodate the armed insurgencies that erupted in three of its colonies, thereby containing external pressures to decolonize. Through an approach that combined classic “divide and rule” tactics, schemes for population control, and developmental efforts, Portugal’s African empire was able to soldier on for longer than many observers expected. But this uncompromising stance came with a price: the armed forces’ dissatisfaction with a stalemate that had no end in sight. In April 1974, a military coup d’etat put an end to five decades of authoritarianism in the metropole and cleared the way for transfer of power arrangements in the five lusophone African territories. The outcome, though, would be an extremely disorderly transition, in which the political inexperience of the new elites in Lisbon, the die-hard attitude of groups of white settlers, the divisions among the African nationalists, and the meddling of foreign powers all played critical roles.
Noémia de Sousa (1926–2002) is traditionally designated as the founding mother of Mozambican national poetry. She was the only woman poet in Mozambique to play a major role in shaping the cultural imaginary of the Portuguese African nationalisms that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Her early life as a woman of mixed African, European, and Goan racial heritage, and the education this racial status afforded her, drew her into writing and journalism in opposition to the colonial regime of the Portuguese New State. Her first and only poetry collection, Sangue Negro (Black blood), was completed and circulated clandestinely in 1951. She was subsequently exiled to Lisbon, and from there to Paris, returning to Portugal in 1973, shortly before the April 1974 Revolution. The contents of Sangue Negro were circulated, in the original and in translation, largely through specific selected poems in African nationalist anthologies. Divided into five sections, the poems of Sangue Negro mix oral and literary tropes and influences. They deal with issues of racial hybridity and colonial assimilation, African American and Pan-Africanist influences in Mozambique, Portuguese Neorealism and Marxist resistance, autobiographical memories and testimonies, and the specificity of women’s political voice. The literary establishment’s reception of de Sousa in 1960s Mozambique was generally dismissive. Her work was also afforded relatively minor status in foundational anglophone accounts of the Lusophone African canon, such as those by Russel Hamilton and Patrick Chabal. The Marxist sociologist critic, Alfredo Margarido was an important exception in this regard and an early champion of her work. In the 1990s, de Sousa was progressively validated and incorporated into the canonization of black, Pan-Africanist, and Negritudinist writers by critics such as Pires Laranjeira in Portugal. Since the 1990s she has received more in-depth, gender-informed attention in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, the United States, and the United Kingdom, consolidating her international status as a pioneering woman’s voice in Africa’s literary history of national liberation struggle. Her poetry collection Sangue Negro was reprinted by the Mozambican Writers’ Association (AEMO) in a new edition in 2001, for the first time since the 1951 original.
The West African savannas are a major area of independent plant domestication, with pearl millet, African rice, fonio, several legumes, and vegetable crops originating there. For understanding the origins of West African plant-food-producing traditions, it is useful to have a look at their precursors in the Sahara during the “African humid period” between 10,500 and 4,500 years ago. The Early and Middle Holocene Saharan foragers and pastoralists intensively used wild grasses for food but did not intentionally cultivate. Due to increasing aridity in the late 3rd millennium
The robust, sustained interest in the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been a defining feature of the intersection of African studies and digital scholarship since the advent of humanities computing in the 1960s. The pioneering work of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, first made widely available in CD-ROM in 1999, is one of several major projects to use digital tools in the research and analysis of the Atlantic trade from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, computing technologies have also been applied to the exploration of African bondage outside the maritime Atlantic frame. In the 2010s,
The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources.
Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region.
The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.
There are copious resources for the study of African history on the internet. They include manuscripts and documentary archives, maps, museum collections, newspapers, printed books, picture collections, and sound and moving images. The websites of European institutions provide a good proportion of this content, reflecting the long, entangled, and troubled histories that connect Europe and Africa, as well as new partnerships with African institutions.
This plethora of digital resources enables both specialized researchers and the public to access information about Africa more quickly and easily, and on a larger scale than ever before. Digitization comes with a strong democratic impulse, and the new technology has been instrumental in making libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries much more open. But all is not smooth sailing, and there are two particular aspects of which researchers should be aware.
The first is that there are still huge collections, or parts of collections, that have not been digitized, and that resources have been—on the whole—most focused on items with visual appeal. The twin brakes of cost and copyright restrain the process, and researchers need to understand how what they can get online relates to what still exists only in hard copy.
The second consideration is that digitized resources can be difficult to find. Information about the riches of the web in this area is very fragmented, and exclusive use of one search engine, however dominant, is clearly not enough. As a counter to this fragmentation, a listing of the major websites for African history in Europe is given in a handy guide for researchers, which covers these resources by format and by region of Africa. The listing also provides websites in two particular areas of interest to historians and to the public: the transatlantic slave trade, and the liberation struggles in southern Africa.
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.
Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, that some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.
Writing Africa’s history before the 10th century almost always means relying on sources other than written documents, which increase in number especially from the 16th century onward. Archaeology (including the study of art objects), the comparative study of historically related languages, paleo-environmental studies, and oral traditions provide the bulk of information. Writing Africa’s early history ideally involves collaboration among experts in using each kind of source, an increasingly common practice. Despite the challenges of analysis and interpretation posed by this base of sources, early African history has a depth and breadth akin to the histories made from the written sources in archives. Even so, whereas written documents provide details about individuals and precise dates, the sources for writing early African histories more often provide detail about conceptualization, for example, of time, hospitality, and individualism and about larger, environmental contexts shaping those concepts and shaped by the actions of the people who held them. Translating such concepts and scales of action into accounts accessible to those—including many historians—not steeped in the methodological conventions underlying the analysis of each source is a major challenge facing historians of Africa’s earlier past.
In the first half of the 20th century, Sudan, which included the territories of present-day Sudan and South Sudan, was ruled by a dual colonial government known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899–1956). Britain was the senior partner in this administration, Egypt being itself politically and militarily subordinated to Britain between 1882 and 1956. During most of the colonial period, Sudan was ruled as two Sudans, as the British sought to separate the predominantly Islamic and Arabic-speaking North from the multireligious and multilingual South. Educational policy was no exception to this: until 1947, the British developed a government school system in the North while leaving educational matters in the hands of Christian missionaries in the South. In the North, the numerically dominant government school network coexisted with Egyptian schools, missionary schools, community schools, and Sudanese private schools. In the South, schools were established by the Anglican Church Missionary Society, the Roman Catholic Verona Fathers, and the American Presbyterian Mission. Whereas Arabic and English were the mediums of instruction in Northern schools, the linguistic situation was more complicated in the South, where local vernaculars, English and Romanized Arabic were used in missionary schools.
The last colonial decade (1947–1957) witnessed a triple process of educational expansion, unification, and nationalization. Mounting Anglo-Egyptian rivalries over the control of Sudan and the polarization of Sudanese nationalists into “pro-British” independentists and “pro-Egyptian” unionists led the British authorities in Khartoum to boost government education while giving up the policy of separate rule between North and South. In practice, educational unification of the two Sudanese regions meant the alignment of Southern curricula on Northern programs and the introduction of Arabic into Southern schools, first as a subject matter, then as a medium of instruction. Missionary and other private schools were nationalized one year after Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt (1956).
Egypt’s trade in the Ottoman period with the Sudanic kingdoms to its south waxed and waned according to political conditions at either end of its trade routes. During the 16th and 17th centuries, powerful kingdoms developed in the area of Sinnar (near modern-day Khartoum) and to the west in the area of Darfur. The trade route connecting western Sudan to Egypt, known as the Forty Days Road, was ancient, probably dating to the Pharaonic period, but it experienced a remarkable revival in the 17th century when the Keira sultans of Darfur consolidated their rule in western Sudan and engaged in trade with Egypt in order to obtain luxury goods. In the following two centuries, trade between Egypt, Sinnar, and Darfur flourished, the pattern being that Egyptian, Syrian, and European-made goods were exchanged primarily for Sudanic exports of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers, and livestock. Sudanese merchants, known as jallaba, came to Egypt and Egyptians settled in the Sudan as a result of these developments. Asyut was the town in Upper Egypt chiefly benefiting from the revival of the caravan trade, but the primary trade destination was Cairo, whence most merchants went.
In 1820, the Egyptians invaded the Sudan and trade between the two countries fell under a different set of rules and regulations. Initially monopolized by the government, items in the trade began to be sold by individual traders, and after 1839, when the Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, was forced to withdraw from lands his army had conquered in Arabia and the Levant, European free enterprise soon became a major economic force in the Nile Valley. For a brief period, between 1845 and 1860, Egyptian middlemen, working closely with jallaba, profited richly from the Sudan trade, the city of Asyut prospered, but eventually they fell victim to European economic domination.
The Empire of Ghana is one of the earliest known political formations in West Africa. Within the context of a growing trans-Saharan trade, Arabic sources begin to mention “Ghāna,” the name of a ruler as well as of the city or country he ruled, in the 9th century. Repeatedly named in connection with fabulous riches in gold, Ghāna had acquired a preeminent role in the western Sahel and was a leader among a large group of smaller polities. Ghāna’s influence waned, and by the mid-14th century its ruler had become subordinate to the Empire of Mali. Over the course of a complex history of research, the Empire of Ghana became equated with the Soninké people’s legend of Wagadu and the archaeological site of Kumbi Saleh in southern Mauritania was identified as its capital. Yet between historical sources, oral traditions, and archaeological finds, little is known with certainty about the Empire of Ghana. Most questions on this early West African empire remain unanswered, including its location, development, the nature and extent of its rule, and the circumstances of its demise.
The Mali Empire is one of the largest and most widely known precolonial African states. It has featured in films, video games, works of fiction, and its memory is still a profound force in the articulation of social and political identities across Mande West Africa. Founded in the 13th century in the south of modern Mali, it quickly grew from a small kingdom to a vast empire stretching from the Senegambia in the west to Ivory Coast in the south. Before its disintegration in the late 16th century, its connections to distant trade networks stretched from Europe to China and its rulers became famous across the Old World for their wealth. In the absence of indigenous written histories, knowledge of the Mali Empire has been based on a complex combination of oral traditions, medieval Arabic chronicles, European accounts, oral histories, and archaeology. Through a critical analysis of these sources, it has been possible to learn much about Mali’s history, including aspects its social organization, political structure, belief systems, and historical evolution. However, there is much we still do not know, including the location and nature of its capital(s).
By the early 1400s, diplomatic representatives and pilgrims from the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia had traveled to the Italian peninsula for political and religious reasons. In doing so, they inaugurated an era of Ethiopian–European relations that unfolded for more than 200 years: Ethiopians reached multiple locales across Latin Europe to forge political alliances, acquire technology, and pursue religious knowledge. They drew the attention of European observers, especially those with an interest in the overseas. Secular and religious personalities, but also average merchants, began their quests for the Ethiopian highlands, lured by the tales of their visitors who were believed with growing certainty to be subjects of the mythical Prester John, the imaginary Christian sovereign believed to rule the Indies. Their journeys enabled cultural exchanges, technological transfer, and the forging of one of the first Euro-African political alliances, that between the kingdoms of Ethiopia and Portugal.
In the 15th century, Ethiopian pilgrims flocked to Rome, and diplomatic representatives found hospitality in the Venetian Republic and at the Aragonese and papal courts. Concurrently with Ethiopian arrivals in Europe, European adventurers and representatives began reaching Ethiopia, eventually leading to the establishing of Portuguese–Ethiopian relations. The exchanges climaxed with a Portuguese military intervention to support the Ethiopian monarchy against the sultanate of Adal in 1541. In the decades following the conflict, Jesuit missionaries began operating in the country: after a difficult inception in the 1620s, the fathers experienced ephemeral successes, followed by a dramatic expulsion that ended early modern Ethiopian–European relations.
Environmental history highlights the dynamic interaction between the physical environment and human society, respectively framed as nature and culture. Attributing agency to the environment is perhaps the most distinguishing attribute of environmental history as an approach while human society’s struggle to overcome environmental challenges is a major focus of environmental historians. Generally, students of the African past have tended to emphasize that Africa and Africans were more dependent on nature (including climate, geography, natural resources, “natural” population dynamics, disease) than societies elsewhere, especially those in the modern West. Thus, colonial and postcolonial analysts ascribe Africa’s past as the cradle of the human species, its present lack of political and economic development, and its bleak future in an age of climate change not to any African (or human) genius but to the caprices of an undomesticated environment and interventions by outside actors that disturb an environment-people balance. Historians emphasized that political subjugation, agricultural development, and conservation increased African societies’ vulnerability (to malnutrition, drought, and indigenous and exotic diseases, for example) in the face of environmental change because it enclosed and alienated such key natural resources as land, woodlands, wildlife, and water. More recently, historians of Africa have highlighted a more dynamic and interactive relationship between society and environment in Africa beyond the analytical and nested dichotomies of Nature-Culture, Indigenous-Invasive, and Victim/Subaltern-Perpetrator/Ruler. The perspective opens space for considering how societies perceived and shaped their environments physically and mentally in conjunction with other ideas and forces, including a variety of human and non-human agents, further enriching the study of environmental history.
The history of Ethiopia during the 19th century involved three fundamental processes: (1) the Zämänä Mäsafənt (Era of Princes) and its coming to an end under Kassa Häylu, later Emperor Tewodros II; (2) the repeated attempts by Egypt and Italy to colonize Ethiopia, culminating in the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896; and (3) Mənilək’s territorial expansion and conquest of what is now southern Ethiopia during the last quarter of the 19th century in campaigns known as agär maqnat. These three distinct, yet related, processes laid the foundations for the making of modern Ethiopia.
The end of the Zämänä Mäsafənt was a key factor in centralizing state power in the hands of the emperors of Ethiopia. It enabled consolidating the power of the regional lords under the emperor, which in turn played a critical role in confronting Egypt and Italy’s colonial intrusions in the late 19th century. Mənilək’s territorial conquests in the south further strengthened the state, garnering vast human and material resources that played a critical role in the Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa. All three processes worked in tandem: the end of the Zämänä Mäsafənt created a strong centralized state; such a state succeeded in nipping in the bud the colonial invasions of Egypt and Italy; and the successes of the agär maqnat campaigns added to the overall strength of the country. It also laid the ground for the problems of the 20th century, chief among them being the “national question.”
The Red Terror was a period of intense political and inter-communal violence in revolutionary Ethiopia during the late 1970s. This violence erupted two years after the revolution of 1974 and was concentrated in the cities and towns of Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, Gondar, Asmara, and Dessie. In the struggle over the direction and ownership of the revolution, opposition groups of the radical left violently opposed a military regime that itself came to embrace and promulgate Marxist-Leninist language and policies, and that relied heavily on the use of armed force to stifle dissent. While much of the violence was carried out by security personnel, the delegation of the state’s means and instruments of violence to newly formed militias and to armed citizens was a defining feature of the Red Terror. The number of casualties and victims of the Red Terror remains heavily contested and is subject to divergent counting criteria and to definitions of the Terror’s scope in relation to other concurrent conflicts in the region, such as the Eritrean and Tigrayan civil wars; plausible figures suggest more than 50,000 deaths, in addition to many more who were subjected to torture, exile, personal losses, and other forms of violence. To this day, the Red Terror constitutes a period that is remembered in Ethiopia as much for the forms of its violence as for the extent of its harm. Its ramifications, from the support it triggered for the ethno-nationalist insurgencies that overthrew the military regime in 1991, to its role in the emergence of a sizeable Ethiopian diaspora, make the Red Terror an episode of defining and lasting significance in the modern history of Ethiopia.
Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.
Analogical arguments are central to and pervasive within archaeological discourse. Within these arguments, ethnographic analogies are often seen as being particularly problematic exercises in essentialism, which unthinkingly cast reified ethnographic schema back in time and thus perpetuate ideas about primitive indigenes, awaiting colonial contact to emerge from ahistorical primordial obscurity. The shadow of 19th-century social evolutionism, in which forager communities (not participating in agriculture and leading nomadic lifestyles) were represented as particularly primitive, has cast a pall of suspicion over ethnographic analogical models—especially as forager communities continue to feature prominently in such models to this day.
Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies in a variety of ways; these analogies are heuristic constructs tailored to research questions and to the stubbornness of particular suites of archaeological data. Such uses include inducing imaginative and revelatory modes of thinking about past societies, outside of the archaeologist’s usual experiences, as well as a suite of formal and relational analogies that seek to combine ethnographic data with data drawn from the physical sciences to help constrain archaeological interpretation.
Direct historical approaches utilize a collection of ethnographic and historical sources to construct analogies based on a relation of similarity between the communities of people involved; these frameworks, perhaps, carry the greatest danger of unwittingly casting modern populations as “contemporary primitives.” By emphasizing that source-side ethnographic datasets are heuristic tools rather than reflections of some sociocultural reality, such fears may (at least in part) be ameliorated. Saliently, archaeological data must operate as epistemologically equivalent to ethnographic data in order to resist the tendency to cast back a rich, textured ethnographic case study wholesale into the murky waters of prehistory. Only when this status is afforded archaeological data can is it possible to reveal the ways in which past conditions diverged from ethnographic ones.