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The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.
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?
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.
Pastoralist societies arose in the arid and semi-arid western regions of southern Africa over the last 2000 years. These were both Bantu-speaking and Khoekhoe-speaking groups who practiced diverse combinations of carnivorous and milch pastoralism but also maintained some dependence on hunting and gathering, with varying but generally minimal reliance on agriculture. Historical sources provide many insights into pastoral culture and husbandry practices, but archaeological and ethnographic evidence is critical to the understanding of precolonial pastoralism. Most research has concentrated on the Cape Khoen, but increasingly, a broader view has come to include archaeological and ethnographic evidence from other parts of the region, casting new light on the origins and growth of pastoralism in southern Africa.
A. C. S. Peacock
In the mid-16th century, the Ottoman empire expanded to encompass parts of the modern Sudan, Eritrea, and the Ethiopian borderlands, forming the Ottoman province of Habeş. The Ottomans also provided aid to their ally Ahmad Grañ in his jihad against Ethiopia and fought with the Funj sultanate of Sinnar for control of the Nile valley, where Ottoman territories briefly extended south as far as the Third Cataract. After 1579, Ottoman control was limited to the Red Sea coast, in particular the ports of Massawa and Suakin, which remained loosely under Ottoman rule until the 19th century, when they were transferred to Egypt, nominally an Ottoman vassal but effectively independent. Politically, Ottoman influence was felt much more broadly in northeast Africa in places as distant as Mogadishu, at least nominally recognized Ottoman suzerainty.
Between 1800 and 1900, West Africa’s coastal states struggled to maintain autonomy in the face of imperial overtures from European trade partners. Simultaneously, these states coped with an overwhelming buildup of domestic slaves, some of whom rose to unprecedented higher political and economic positions. One particular individual, King Jaja of Opobo, came to the fore as an extreme example of how slaves became more capable of taking advantage of the changing political, religious, and economic landscape of the Eastern Niger Delta during this period.
Born Mbanaso Ozurumba in the Igboland village of Umuduruoha in 1821, Jaja, as he would become known to his European trading partners, traversed the domestic slave systems of Southeastern Nigeria and arrived in the Delta trading state of Bonny in 1833. He obtained tremendous wealth and political influence through the burgeoning palm oil trade, ultimately becoming the head of one of Bonny’s most influential canoe-houses. Due to an internal dispute with a rival canoe-house in the late 1860s, Jaja removed his followers to a previously uninhabited island and cut off Bonny’s access to the lucrative interior oil markets. From 1871 on, Jaja monopolized the palm oil trade in the region to become the most influential trader from his new position as king of the island community, which he would name Opobo. However, by 1884, the relationship between Jaja and his British trade partners deteriorated, leading to Jaja’s exile in the West Indies. Political pressure forced the British to return Jaja to Opobo. Unfortunately, the once-powerful slave-turned-king died while trying to return home in 1891.
David K. Wright
Understanding paleoclimates has been an important component of archaeological research for over a century. Human settlement, mobility, and subsistence activities are predicated on interactions with the natural world, and by reconstructing the broader environmental context, archaeologists can recognize the primary external catalyst of cultural change. Modern paleoenvironmental reconstruction methods employ techniques developed over the last century as well as those that are at the frontiers of scientific inquiry. Archaeologists intent on providing basic environmental context must first describe the sedimentology of surficial deposits in order to understand landform evolution. Furthermore, descriptions of soils, which form in stable, weathered sedimentary deposits, are critical indicators of past climate. Soils are first described in excavation test units using macro-scale classification schemes, but increasingly microscopic techniques such as soil micromorphology in thin sections and DNA sequences of endemic microbiota are being used. Various types of plant and animal communities hosted in archaeological deposits also provide critical environmental details as they are often temperature and precipitation dependent. Generally speaking, the simpler and smaller the organism is, the more restricted its habitat tends to be. Therefore, microfauna and floral remains often provide the greatest level of precision in environmental reconstruction. Finally, light stable isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen can be assayed from a wide variety of organic matter, and they provide specific information about biotic communities and precipitation that are useful to understand paleoenvironments. The simultaneous integration of multiple lines of evidence is being performed in archaeological research projects across the African continent and provides the best means to fully comprehend the framework in which human biological and cultural evolution occurred.
The literature on African Pentecostalism is relatively vast and growing rapidly, but it is, unfortunately, caught in the circle of trying to define what African Pentecostalism is, and how it is what it is. How does African Pentecostalism constitute itself in relation to its sensibilities? How does it bear witness to its form of religiosity as a spirituality that is continually affected by African traditional religions, by economic exigencies and political developments in Africa, and by traditions, doctrines, and the gospel message of Christianity? What does it mean for Africans to express or modify Pentecostalism? How does one capture the style by which African Pentecostals leave their marks on Pentecostalism? The question of how African Pentecostalism defines itself is ultimately a question about Africa bearing witness to itself in African Pentecostalism, and about Pentecostalism expressing itself in an African context.
The study of this religious movement, then, is not only about African Pentecostalism, but also about Africans bearing witness to their particular mode of being Pentecostal. It tells the story of the multi-directional openness of African Pentecostal social life without applying a constrictive universalizing framework to the fragmentary nature of African Pentecostalism. The movement is an assemblage of practices, ideas and theologies, and interpretations of reality, whose tangled roots burrow deep into the past, present, and future segments of African temporality. African Pentecostalism, like any other human endeavor, is full of fragments, and to understand it scholars must think in parts rather than in unified cultural wholes.
Ajume H. Wingo
The heyday of African socialism as the animating force behind African political developments has passed. Yet, like other political doctrines of great revolutionary movements, its name and principles continue to be invoked by political and social leaders today. As recently as 2005, the Rev. Johnson J. Chinyong’ole of the University of KwaZulu-Natal argued that the principles of African socialism should guide the Anglican Church’s efforts in reducing poverty in Tanzania.
As part of the zeitgeist of early postcolonial Africa, the traditions and principles of African socialism have had a profound impact on how Africans have seen and shaped their world. An understanding of the central tenets of African socialism helps to explain the unique ways in which Africans have responded to and appropriated features of Marxism, socialism, and capitalism, as well as to illuminate distinctly African traditions of communalism, philosopher-kings, aestheticism, and perfectionism in politics.
Robert Gordon and Jonatan Kurzwelly
Much has changed since photographs were used simply as apt illustrations and depictions of reality. The field of visual history has now become an important and legitimate area of rigorous enquiry. Photography and photographs as source material for research is now a widespread practice in history, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences and humanities. Both the historical trajectory of this medium in Africa, as well as some important theoretical and methodological issues which Africanists should be aware of, are introduced here. Photography is heavily imbricated in the rise of modernity. Different visual eras are delineated as technology and accessibility of the medium became easier to use and more accessible, moving on a continuum from daguerreotypes featuring mostly portraits and landscapes done by professionals largely for the elite to carte d’visite to postcards and stereoscopic-cards which decline with the introduction of spool photography epitomized by the inimitable Kodak, led to access by the broad middle class. After several innovations featuring 35 mm cameras and slides, digital photography arrived and made the medium even more accessible with smartphones leading the proverbial gaze to be turned into a glaze.
Alongside the historical development of photography, it is necessary to understand the different theoretical and methodological implications in the study and uses of this medium. Photography in itself can be understood through materialist, idealist and social constructivist ontological approaches. Whereas the latter is predominant in history and social sciences, a complementarity of different perspectives should be applied when using and assessing photographs as sources. For purposes of historical research the meaning of a photograph is established largely through contextual information about the image, its making, its different uses, and distribution. It is also important to consider how meaning is established in relation to other photographs or texts (i.e., through intertextuality). Issues include the assessment of images, ways of evaluating their credibility, and the questions scholars might ask in interpreting the meanings of the images, including identifying the provenance of the image, as well as the context in which the image appears. Was it intended for public or only private distribution? Was it in an archive, album, used in a publication, as a postcard and how might it be captioned? What affective meaning might it convey? How might one detect a fake? Besides using archival images, photography might also be used for photo elicitation and other experimental or participatory research methods.
Complexity flourished in several regions north and south of the Zambezi during the second millennium
Political power was closely entwined with economic wealth in these regions. Economic commodities, however, varied. In the Greater Shashe-Limpopo region and on the Zimbabwean plateau, cattle were important objects in the accumulation of wealth. In these economies cattle had intrinsic value but were also used to facilitate other forms of wealth generation, such as trade and mining. Cattle keeping played a less significant role north of the Zambezi. In the Upemba basin, salt and metal production furnished important trade goods, but trade in these products did not drive the development of complexity. In contrast, the expansion of Maravi political power was entangled with Indian Ocean trade networks.
At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements.
Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France.
Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.
James R. Brennan
Popular politics have influenced the development of East Africa’s political institutions from roughly two millennia ago up to contemporary times. Among the discernible political dynamics over this time period were pressures to include or exclude peoples from key institutions of belonging, the decisive role of patron–client relationships across all political institutions, the role of generational conflict, the source of political authority based on command of the visible and invisible worlds, and the changing role of indigeneity and “first-comer” status claims. These dynamics can all be found at work in the development of conventional political structures that span this time frame—that is, from the small chieftaincies and kingdoms of the precolonial era; to cults of public healing and medicine making; to engagement with European colonial institutions and the 20th-century creation of “traditional” indigenous authorities; to the growth of associational life that led to political parties, one-party states, and their postliberalization successors. Yet there was also tremendous diversity of these experiences across East Africa, which goes some way toward explaining the differences not only among the region’s contemporary nation-states but even within those nation-states. Popular pressures for inclusion either resulted in the expansion of existing political institutions or created demands for new institutions that directly challenged the exclusionary and often brittle existing political structures.
Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo
The Portuguese colonial empire was the first and the last European empire overseas, from the conquest of Ceuta (1415), in Morocco, North Africa, until the formal handover of Macau to the People’s Republic of China (1999). From the coastline excursions in Africa and the gradual establishment of trade routes in Asia and in the Indian Ocean and the related emergence of the Estado da Índia (the Portuguese empire east of the Cape of Good Hope), to the colonization projects in the Americas, namely, in Brazil, and, in the second half of the 19th century, in Africa, the Portuguese empire assumed diverse configurations. All of these entailed expansionist projects and motivations—political, missionary, military, commercial—with changing dynamics, strongly conditioned by local circumstances and powers. In Africa, actual colonization was a belated and convoluted process, which started and ended with violent conflicts, the so-called pacification campaigns of the 1890s, and the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s. In Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe, the Portuguese enacted numerous modalities of formalized rule, based on political, military, and religious apparatuses. These forms of control engaged with and impacted on local societies differently. However, until the very end, coercive labor and tax exactions, racial discrimination, authoritarian politics, and economic exploitation were the fundamental pillars of Portuguese colonialism in Africa.
Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.
Olivier P. Gosselain
Technical processes—or chaînes opératoires—are heterogeneous cultural aggregates articulating raw materials, tools, knowledge, representations, and agents. The nature and arrangement of these elements stem from a web of social, historical, and ecological relations that not only delineate a sociohistorical framework within which artisans operate, but also determine how individuals shape and give meaning to their daily engagement in the craft. Pottery chaînes opératoires have been the focus of a large body of ethnographical studies in Africa since the beginning of the 20th century, most of them developing within the subfield of ethnoarchaeology. Yet pottery chaînes opératoires may also provide crucial information to historians when analyzed through an approach inspired from historical linguistics and tentatively called “comparative technology.” Pioneered by Haudricourt, this approach combines two levels of comparison. The first consists in a minute comparison of different chaînes opératoires within a given field of activity and geographical area in order to identify similarities and differences in tools, materials, gestures, and the organization of operations. This allows for the identification of specific “technical traditions”; that is, shared ways of doing that stem from a shared set of knowledge. The second level of comparison implies a mapping of the technical traditions (be it whole chaînes opératoires or particular stages or components), with the aim of identifying and characterizing their respective spatial distributions: for example, the effects of aggregation or disintegration, possible boundaries, or interpenetrations.
The relevance of spatial distributions in history-oriented analyses of technical processes is twofold. First, spatial distributions compel us to explore the sociohistorical processes from which they resulted; that is, the set of relations—social, economic, political, and ecological—that determine how artisans interact with each other, share knowledge, use tools and materials, cope with changing situations, or seize new opportunities. Second, spatial distributions may reveal strong and time-enduring connections with various kinds of social identities (e.g., languages, political factionalism, regional affiliation, gender, and ethnicity). When the underlying mechanisms of such connections are appropriately understood, they may be used to formulate hypotheses about past processes, including population movements, the development and evolution of political boundaries, identity negotiations, or socio-economical transformations. Here, chaînes opératoires may prove especially reliable for historians since they are less easily and deliberately manipulated than written or oral documents
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
Histories of South Sudan are rare. Indeed a pre-colonial history of what is actually, geographically, the world’s largest swamp (South Sudan) is challenging and at present impossible without the use of oral histories, along with a very few archaeological and linguistic studies. Only two scholarly accounts lend information about the obscure history of this region of Africa. Oral histories suggest that the very earliest inhabitants of South Sudan were a mound-building folk known to the Dinka as the Luel, and to archaeologists as the Turkwel. Sometime after the later Middle Ages and the fall of the 11th-century Christian kingdom of Alwa, the Western Nilotic Dinka claim to have migrated with their cattle into South Sudan from the Gezira because of fear of slave raiders. The Dinka claim to have found Bari, on the East Bank of the Nile, a historical point that is corroborated by Bari oral histories. Some decades later, the Dinka crossed the Nile following the rich soils that were most favorable to their favorite agricultural food, kec. Over time they penetrated deeply into the western swamps of Southern Sudan. Sometime around the 15th century, another Nilotic people, now known as the Shilluk, thrust northwards beyond the depths of the South Sudanese swamps, settling approximately at the junction of the Nile and the Sobat rivers. Oral histories claim the Shilluk were led to this homeland by a great leader, Nyikang, the first in a long line of kings. The last great ethnic groups to migrate into what is now the boundary of modern South Sudan were the non-Nilotic Azande.
Of interest is that all of these ethnic groups were slave-holding cultures and, with the exception of the Azande, were agro-pastoralists. The Bari were prominent iron-making specialists, as were the highly martial Azande. All of these cultures had social hierarchies, and migration is a connecting theme among the larger societies; none of the present cultures of South Sudan appear to have originated in South Sudan except the Nilotic Luo. By the late 17th century, with the fall of Sultan Sanusi of the Central African Republic, numbers of non-Nilotic peoples fled into various western regions of South Sudan. Additionally, with the fall of the Islamic sultanate of Sinnar and the coming of the Turco-Egyptians in the early 19th century, much of South Sudan had been historically peopled by the Nilotic Luo, whose progeny appeared to have evolved into numerous ethnic groups of South Sudan; groups that would now include the Shilluk-Luo, the Nuer, the Atuot, Anyuak, and various Luo communities that now exist under various names.
Since their inception, precolonial mining and metallurgy gradually became essential social, technological, and even politico-economic pillars of African communities of varying time periods. However, the onset of metallurgy and mining and the associated technology and sociocultural beliefs varied from region to region in a way that defies generalization. Owing to their cultural and geographical location, Egypt, the Sudan, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa share some very broad similarities in their metallurgical histories. This in some cases sharply differs from that of many regions such as West, central, East and southern Africa. Interestingly, these regions too are characterized by technological similarity and diversity. When considered together, the multiple trajectories taken by metallurgy and mining in Africa’s different regions are essential for achieving a comparative understanding of the continent’s rich technological history. Achieving this, however, requires an interdisciplinary approach from documentation through data analysis to eventual interpretation. This contribution combines insights from various disciplines to present an overview of precolonial metallurgy and mining in Africa’s many regions.
While there are a handful of defined methods for working with primary historical sources in archaeology, few archaeologists take these as their main points of departure or rely upon them too rigidly. This is to do both with the highly variable nature of the historical and archaeological material available for certain African contexts, and also with how archaeologists conceive of the relationship between these two bodies of evidence: as antagonistic, supplementary, entangled and subjective, mutually creative, and so on. Some methodologies focus on the potentials for consonance and dissonance between written and material sources. Others utilize oral traditions to provide insights into chronology, memory, historical and political dynamics, and the material aspects of these. Still other approaches focus on how historical and archaeological sources offer complementary perspectives on the local and the global, events and processes, and other shifts in scale. While these methods are diverse and contingent, they are united insofar as archaeologists take their cues from objects and from preoccupations with time and space. Archaeologists see their work concerning primary historical sources not as filling in gaps in written records but as addressing the partialities of the records themselves by engaging with an array of complex questions about meaning, authority, and materiality
The topic of prisoners, ransoms, and slavery in the Maghrib (that is, the lands of the Islamic west—the area that today encompasses North Africa, and historically, also the regions of Iberia and Sicily that came under Muslim rule) is of considerable chronological and geographical scope extending from the earliest establishment of Islamic rule in the region during the second half of the 7th century, persisting to the final decades of the 20th century, and enslaving or otherwise taking prisoner peoples from areas as geographically diverse as West Africa, the southern coastal regions of Europe, and as far north as Ireland and Iceland. The practice of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib are thus of substantial historical significance. Yet, it is only in comparatively recent times that this complex topic has drawn the attention of scholars. Therefore, our understanding of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib, especially during the medieval period, remains in its incipience.