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Article

Colonialism in West Central Africa  

Florence Bernault

The article considers a large region comprising Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea.1 From the 1880s onwards, Central Africa was colonized by Spanish, French, German, Belgian, and Portuguese powers. Here Africans generally suffered a harsher kind of rule than in West Africa, as colonialism brought little capital and investments, and imposed brutal forms of extractive economy. Foreign powers, moreover, proved reluctant to dialogue with African elites. Yet, the colonial era was also a moment when Central Africans initiated radical political revolutions and capacious social changes, achieving independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the period under consideration, moreover, important cultural creations in the form of music, popular painting, photography, and fashion became influential in the rest of Africa and beyond.

Article

Combat Games in the Black Atlantic, 17–19th Centuries  

Matthias Röhrig Assunção

Combat games are attested in Africa from the time of the transatlantic slave trade and throughout the 19th century. In the agricultural societies in the rainforest of West and West Central Africa, wrestling was the most common form, while pastoral societies in the savannahs of central and southern Africa excelled in stick fighting. Fist fighting, slap boxing, and kicking also constituted the base of combat games in some locations. The enslaved Africans and their descendants made use of these bodily techniques in the plantation societies of the Americas and the Indian Ocean. The new oppressive context of slavery led to adjustments of techniques and practice. Stick fighting was widespread in Brazil and the Caribbean, whereas wrestling only became important in the United States. The previously rather marginal techniques of kicking and head butting became central to capoeira, ladja, and moring, even though it is difficult to establish precise genealogies. Bodily techniques were onlys one aspect of the complex cultural reinvention of combat games in the Atlantic world. African religious practices such as protections from supernatural forces and broader cultural meanings were incorporated into African-derived and creole combat games. While keeping some of their former social function, combat games in the “New World” also acquired new, contradictory meanings as either tools of resistance, spectacle for monetary gains, or even instruments of oppression. They provided an early example of globalization of bodily techniques and cultural meanings, and the most successful ones, such as capoeira, continue to expand worldwide to this day.

Article

Digital Sources in Europe for African History  

Marion Wallace

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.

Article

Political Economy of Textiles in the Atlantic Slave Trade  

Kazuo Kobayashi

Textile production was among the most important manufacturing sectors in precolonial West and West-Central Africa, enabled by the availability of local sources of fibers. Although the origins of this manufacturing are difficult to trace, the spread of cloth production was linked to Islam and consumer politics, followed by specialization of cloth production within the region over time. Textile production was usually based on the household division of labor: women were responsible for the primary activities of carding and spinning in cotton textile production, while men were in charge of weaving and finishing processes, such as embroidery. Male weavers used narrow strip (or band) horizontal looms to manufacture textiles, but in some areas, female weavers used vertical looms to produce textiles from cotton or raffia mixed with cotton. Some weavers were professional, full-time workers, whereas part-time weavers engaged in cloth production in the non-agricultural, dry season. Cloth strips served not only as material for clothing and interior decorations of houses and palaces but also as a currency in the regional economy. From the 15th century, the Portuguese came to West Africa and joined the coastal trade as middlemen who would be trading locally woven textiles from one place to another along the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic slave trade brought in increasing amounts of textiles from overseas, and in the 18th century, Indian cotton textiles became the flagship commodity whose quality met consumer preference. The impact of the influx of textiles from overseas on local cloth production remains a topic of debate. Although the dependency theorists claimed a negative impact, there is no evidence to support such a claim.

Article

Political History of Cameroon  

Emmanuel M. Mbah

First visited by the Portuguese in the 1500s, Cameroon was eventually colonized first by the Germans from 1884 to 1916 and later by the French and British until independence in 1960 and 1961. The division of the former German colony between the French and the British after Germany’s defeat during World War I laid the foundation for a complex postindependence history of Cameroon. This complexity, chaperoned by two presidents, has witnessed a trajectory that starts with a federation and continues with Cameroon becoming a republic that was increasingly challenged by separatists of the former British section. External challenges from a war with Nigeria over Bakassi as well as conflicts with Boko Haram have only made the process of nation-building more complexed.

Article

Slavery and Resistance in West Central Africa  

Esteban Salas

The institution of slavery in West Central Africa predated the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century, though there is limited information about its nature and extent or the gender and age dynamics prior to that period. Slavery in different West Central African societies in the 16th and 17th centuries was broadly defined as the legal and social outsider status of people originating from different states or chiefdoms and brought under captivity as a result of raids or wars, the payment for taxes from tributary states and chiefdoms, punishment for crimes such as adultery in royal circles, or direct purchase. This has been identified as lineage slavery and was distinct from the Atlantic slave trade. Yet, the characteristics of slavery changed throughout the centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, local captives could become part of the kin of their owners after a process of integration in their new host society. They turned into insiders, even in instances in which they retained their enslaved status. However, from the 17th century, the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade and Portuguese colonialism resulted in a growing demand for captives, transforming the relations between captives and enslavers. The increasing presence of enslavers and their demand for different supplies, such as foodstuffs, resulted in a greater demand for labor in Portuguese colonial settlements, vassal chiefdoms, and autonomous states. Violence increased and individual kidnapping became the main method of enslavement, though warfare persisted as a method of capture well into the mid-19th century. Relations of dependency were increasingly disrupted and local captives became more vulnerable to deportation to other areas of West Central Africa and different parts of the world. Furthermore, the risk for insiders to be enslaved, re-enslaved, or deported increased, contributing to the redefinition of the meaning of slavery. Finally, following the prohibition of slavery by Portuguese colonial law in 1876, other forms of forced labor resembling slavery in varied ways emerged and were practiced until the third quarter of the 20th century. Resistance persisted throughout.

Article

Spirits and Healing in West and Central Africa: A New Synthesis  

Wyatt MacGaffey

Though seemingly innocent, descriptive, and even commendatory, both “spirits” and “healing” are problematic terms in the history of African studies. Rather than identifying well-bounded domains of African life, both of them have evolved from the history of European attitudes toward Africa. “Spirits” often give rise to problems of well-being that “healing” is called upon to solve. Despite this close connection, spirits have been the primary subject matter of religious studies, whereas healing is among the concerns of anthropology. The study of African religion has thus come to be divided between two disciplines embodying the distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” the irrational and the rational, developed in Europe during the Enlightenment. Anthropology itself has long divided social life into the separate domains of religion, politics, and economics, assigning the study of each to a different discipline with its own preoccupations and specialized vocabulary. This ethnocentric template misrepresented African societies whose institutions were unlike those of Europe. In the forest zones of West and Central Africa a particular set of beliefs and practices regulated the use of power for personal and collective well-being. Power, or the ability to effect change for good or ill, was and is still thought to be derived from forces called “spirits,” which are in fact as much material as spiritual. Following special procedures, gifted persons obtain power from an otherworld that is simultaneously the earth itself and the land of “the living dead,” who are buried in it. The uses of such power to kill or to cure, for collective or private benefit, define a contrast set of four roles—called for convenience chief, priest, witch, and magician—whose functions are simultaneously moral, political, economic, and therapeutic. This system is open to novel revelations within a stable cognitive framework, and adapts to new conditions. Different ideologies and practices of social regulation are found in other parts of Africa.

Article

The Kisama Sobados in West Central Africa, 16th and 17th Centuries  

Flavia Maria de Carvalho

The population of Kisama, south of the Kwanza River in what is today Angola, was composed of formerly enslaved individuals who escaped and resettled there to avoid deportation to the Americas. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, several battles took place in the territories of Kisama, as the Portuguese military, following instructions they received from Portuguese crown officials, sought to subdue local leaders. Slavery was one of the motivations for many of these military attacks, as was the punishment of Kisama leaders who hosted fugitive slaves. Kisama acquired a reputation as a safe haven for fugitives and anyone who resisted Portuguese advances, which led to increased attacks from colonial forces. This region was politically fragmented into groups led by several leaders, whom the Portuguese referred to as sobas. These leaders used defensive strategies that guaranteed the autonomy of Kisama territories until the final decades of the 19th century. Sources from the 17th and 18th centuries describe Kisama’s sobas as rebels and fierce enemies of the Portuguese colonial administrators who successfully cut off land communication between the two Portuguese colonial towns of Luanda and Benguela. The sobas maintained their political autonomy until the first decades of the 19th century, when they fell under colonial rule. The protagonism of the people of Kisama is important in the history of Angola, particularly the history of resistance among west Central Africa peoples. Because Kisama was an obstacle to Portuguese advances in west Central Africa, it should be considered one of the most important areas of insubordination and resistance to Portuguese domination before the 20th century.

Article

Women in Cameroon  

Harmony O'Rourke

Cameroon is a nation-state in West Central Africa. Historical evidence about the precolonial period has revealed the diverse ways women valued their motherhood and fertility, knowledge of agriculture production, membership in secret societies, and their role in transitioning deceased women and men through dance and ritual. Women exercised varying levels of power and experienced a spectrum of belonging as wives, mothers, concubines, slaves, queen mothers, and political intermediaries. Near the turn of the 19th century, political centralization and the expansion of long-distance trade produced new forms of inequality for women as wealth became more concentrated in the hands of elite men who sought to control women’s labor and sexuality. With colonial rule and postcolonial nationhood in the 20th century, Cameroonian women were increasingly integrated into a capitalist political economy that supported local patriarchal authority, changed women’s relationships to land, and engendered new socioeconomic inequalities. At the same time, women worked to check gendered disempowerment through secret societies, cooperative groups, schooling, religious conversion, changes in marriage and family structure, entrepreneurship, and new avenues for political engagement. In so doing, Cameroonian women transformed gender roles, struggled against new forms of discrimination, and altered lines of difference among themselves.