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Article

Since antiquity and through the modern era African societies maintained contacts with peoples in Europe, the Near and Far East, and the Americas. Among other things, African peoples developed local forms of Christianity and Islam, contributed large amounts of gold to European medieval economies, and exported millions of slaves through the Sahara, and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Despite this, by the 19th century historians and philosophers of history thought Africa was a continent without major civilizations, whose peoples passively rested at the margins of history. These ideas persisted into the 20th century when historians undertook the challenge of writing histories that explained how communities around the world were connected to one another. In their early iterations, however, these “world narratives” were little more than histories of the Western world; Africa continued to be largely absent from these stories. After World War II, increasing interest in the history of African societies and a more generalized concern with the study of communities that were both mis- and under-represented by historical scholarship called for a revision of the goals and methods of world historians. Among the most important critiques were those from Afrocentric, African American, and Africanist scholars. Afrocentric writers argued that Africa had in fact developed an important civilization in the form of Egypt and that Egypt was the foundation of the classical world. African American and Africanist writers highlighted the contributions that peoples of African descent had made to the world economy and many cultures around the globe. Africanists also questioned whether world historical narratives, which meaningfully accounted for the richness and complexity of African experiences, could be achieved in the form of a single universal narrative. Instead, historians have suggested and produced new frameworks that could best explain the many ways in which Africa has been part of the world and its history.

Article

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.

Article

People of African descent who migrated from their “homelands” constituted, and still constitute, important forces in many African cultures outside of their “homelands” as well as in many other cultures outside of the African continent. Historically, the migration of people of African descent from their “homelands” is mainly linked to the pre-20th century Muslim or Asian trade and the Atlantic trade as well as to the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system. Even before the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system deepened the crises in African states and resulted in the migration of skilled and unskilled Africans to places like the United States, Canada, Britain and the Middle East, some scholars had written on people of African descent in several parts of the world. Although the earliest among those who wrote on the subject before the 1980s did not employ the term “African diaspora” in their analysis, an increasing number of scholars who wrote after 1950 have used the term in question in their study of people of African descent in various parts of the world. The relevant literature written after 1950 features disagreement over the meaning of the concept “African diaspora” and point to diverse methodologies that are useful in working on the subject. This particular literature can be divided into three broad categories: works that deal with the Old African diaspora, works that deal with the New African diaspora and works that deal with both the Old and New African diasporas. The historiography shows that works situated in all of these three categories mainly offer competing view over three fundamental questions: why did Africans leave their “homelands” and settle elsewhere? What was the impact of this process on the societies they left? How did Africans who left their “homelands” integrate into their host societies or preserve their unique identities; or, more broadly, what was the impact of their arrival on the host society they entered? Despite the rapid strides that have been made since the 1960s in regard to addressing these questions or in regards to the scholarly study of the African diasporas in general, there is still no firm definition of the term “African diaspora.” Moreover, there are still other gaps in the scholarly knowledge of the subject.

Article

Africa’s economic history went through various stages, beginning with Stone Age hunter-gatherers, through the Iron Age and the development of agriculture, to sedentary communities with growing and varied economies, bigger and more sophisticated political states, and growing trade activities. Between the 7th and 19th centuries, several large states emerged in the Sahel and in eastern and southern Africa. Key to their rise and prosperity was a growing population and agriculture as well as expanding trade, either through the trans-Saharan trade to the Mediterranean or across the Indian Ocean to Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. Africa’s fortunes dipped with the onset of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which ravaged the continent and led to Africa losing millions of people to the New World. Following the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Europe partitioned and colonized the continent and presided over varied economic regimes. These were settler colonies, peasant-agricultural colonies, and concession company colonies. Of the three, settler colonies developed most, although at the expense of the African majority. Independence came after the Second World War and Africa entered its postcolonial phase. After a promising start in the decade of the 1960s, African economies went into decline in the 1970s, necessitating governments to borrow from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to revamp their economies. The structural adjustment programs they were required to implement as a condition for the loans proved to be deleterious to African economies. African economic history scholars have generally shied away from the continent’s very early periods, preferring to focus on the period after the 15th century which has more documented history. They have used three analytical approaches: classical economics, dependency theory, and Marxist paradigms. Each of the three approaches has some shortcomings. Recently, the New African Economic History approach is using cliometric techniques to study Africa’s economic past. More economics than conventional economic history, it has attracted some from more history-based scholars as ahistorical.

Article

Religion and healing are useful scholarly constructs in summarizing, consolidating, and interpreting a myriad of details from the historic African-Atlantic experience. For heuristic purposes, religion is understood as the worldviews, rituals, and supernatural beings that represent ultimate reality; healing is the understanding of, and responses to, affliction and misfortune, and the struggle to achieve wholeness. Combining religion and healing in an overview of the African diaspora experience will consider the following: original African worlds in four regional contexts in Western and Western Central Africa (e.g., Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Southern Guinea, Kongo-Angola); the traumatic middle passage refracted in the “broken mirrors” of memory; how this memory is mixed and reinterpreted with the New World experience of slave markets, plantations, maroon settlements, and during post-slavery, post-empire times; scholarly models of continuity and transformation; and modern constructions of religion and healing.

Article

David Birmingham

Agostinho Neto was an Angolan medical doctor who was born in the agricultural hinterland of Luanda City in 1922 and died in a Moscow hospital in 1979. He had been assimilated into Portuguese colonial society by gaining a school education at a Methodist mission station where his father was the minister, and he proceeded to university studies in Lisbon. There his radical politics fell foul of the dictatorial police, and after a spell in prison he escaped, via London, to become an itinerant political exile in Africa. There he became a guerrilla commander leading small bands of soldiers who fought a gainst both a Portuguese conscript army and rival political movements seeking independence for Angola. In 1974 the Portuguese colonial empire imploded, and Neto found himself leader of the largest nationalist movement in Luanda, the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola; MPLA). On November 11, 1975, he became Angola’s president as the last Portuguese governor-general sailed away on a gun-boat under cover of darkness. Neto’s four years in the presidential palace were not happy ones. Rival political movements not only challenged his legitimacy but also made unholy military alliances with South Africa, Congo, and the United States. He also alienated his domestic constituents, and when they attempted a coup d’état he rounded on them with all the ferocity that he had experienced himself when being persecuted by the Portuguese political police. His health rapidly deteriorated, and two years later he was flown to Moscow, albeit too late, to seek a cure.

Article

Southern Africa has experienced significant environmental changes since the breakup of the Gondwana supercontinent, starting around 180 million years ago. These environmental changes broadly reflect the interplay between tectonic and global-scale climatic drivers, which in combination result in changes to the properties and dynamics of land surface physical and ecological processes. The preserved record of such processes can be used as proxy indicators to reconstruct past environments and climates. In southern Africa, different types of proxy indicators have formed and are preserved in different geographical areas, broadly corresponding to their individual climatic and geomorphic contexts. Three significant time intervals over which landscape evolution have taken place are the Phanerozoic, the late Quaternary, and the last 200 years. A critical outcome of this analysis is that the record of environmental change in southern Africa is highly variable and only partly preserved, and that there are spatial and temporal gaps which mean that it is difficult to construct a continuous or unambiguous environmental history either for all areas of the region or for all time intervals. Changing physical drivers and environmental controls over time, including land surface feedbacks, are now being supplanted by a stronger imprint of human activity in the Anthropocene.

Article

Sandra Swart

Animal history in Africa—the multi-species story of the continent’s past—as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” is both recent and tentative, but as an integrated theme within the broader historiography it is both pioneering and enduring. Historians of Africa have long engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history and, of course, at the same time, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation. African animal histories should resist the imposition of intellectual paradigms from the Global North.

Article

Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué

From 1958 to 1961, Kom women in western Cameroon cast aside their regular domestic and agricultural duties to engage in a revolt against British administrative interference in agriculture—normally their domain—and the alleged plan by the ruling political party, the Kamerun National Congress (KNC), to sell Kom land to Nigerian Igbos. In keeping with the practices of anlu, a centuries-old women’s organization generally deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, women interfered with burial rituals; hurled insults at men in public; demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets; set up roadblocks; destroyed and burned property; and defied both traditional and British authorities in the Bamenda Grassfields of western Cameroon. Their tactics included stripping naked in front of men. While local men considered the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent and thus understood the seriousness of the revolt, flabbergasted British officials had no idea what was to come. By seizing control of resources and demonstrating in public, Kom women disturbed local political power, and protested against British rule in the Southern Cameroons. They were a crucial force in the victory of the Kamerun National Democratic Party (KNDP) in 1961, which brought a restoration of political order at the time of independence.

Article

The meaning and context of gender is contested even in the 21st century. No generalizations about gender are applicable through time or across space. Even where gender roles are defined by particular cultural norms, they are not static, and an individual may pass through several gendered social transformations in a lifetime. Sub-Saharan African rites of passage into adulthood are sometimes marked by gender-specific physical mutilations such as circumcision, dental modification or scarification, together with other forms of symbolic marking that invariably adopt a binary gender system as the norm. The initiations are largely designed to instruct initiates about behavior appropriate for men and women of reproductive age belonging to a specific community. Some aspects of initiation rites may be detected archaeologically through skeletal alterations, rock art motifs, and props such as scarified dolls. Concepts of gender are also connected to the last rite of passage: burial. Through this, people gain access to the ancestral world. In some parts of Africa such as Mali, men and women are buried with the artifacts they owned in life, while in Ethiopia, stelae mark the gender of the deceased. Elsewhere, as in the Stone Age of southern Africa, gender-undifferentiated grave goods are placed with men, women, and children, suggesting a genderless ancestral world. Gender roles can be identified in some archaeological sites in parts of Africa, and these roles sometimes appear to have altered through time. Gender roles changed with environmental shifts, and certain tasks such as big-game hunting disappeared as a result. In other cases, gender roles were revised because of social pressures imposed on specific communities.

Article

Beverly J. Stoeltje

The queen mothers of Asante are linked together with chiefs in a dual-gender system of leadership. The symbol of authority and leadership in Asante is a stool (like a throne in England). Throughout the polities of Asante, each queen mother occupies her own stool, and each chief occupies his own stool, representing the authority of chieftaincy in a town or a paramountcy. This political model shapes Asante like a pyramid: queen mothers and chiefs of towns and villages at the base, paramount queen mothers and chiefs at the next level with authority over those of towns and villages, and the king of Asante, the Asantehene, and the queen mother of Asante, the Asantehemaa, at the top ruling over all of Asante. The king of Asante occupies the Golden Stool, the symbol of the Asante nation, which holds the souls of the Asante people according to popular belief. Although the position of queen mother has survived challenges, the relative salience of specific features of her authority has varied. Colonialism ignored queen mothers, and yet Yaa Asantewaa led a war and became a symbol of Asante identity. When the global women’s movement provided inspiration, queen mothers joined together to reclaim their authority.

Article

Daniel B. Domingues da Silva and Philip Misevich

Over the past six decades, the historiography of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade has shown remarkable growth and sophistication. Historians have marshalled a vast array of sources and offered rich and compelling explanations for these two great tragedies in human history. The survey of this vibrant scholarly tradition throws light on major theoretical and interpretive shifts over time and indicates potential new pathways for future research. While early scholarly efforts have assessed plantation slavery in particular on the antebellum United States South, new voices—those of Western women inspired by the feminist movement and non-Western men and women who began entering academia in larger numbers over the second half of the 20th century—revolutionized views of slavery across time and space. The introduction of new methodological approaches to the field, particularly through dialogue between scholars who engage in quantitative analysis and those who privilege social history sources that are more revealing of lived experiences, has conditioned the types of questions and arguments about slavery and the slave trade that the field has generated. Finally, digital approaches had a significant impact on the field, opening new possibilities to assess and share data from around the world and helping foster an increasingly global conversation about the causes, consequences, and integration of slave systems. No synthesis will ever cover all the details of these thriving subjects of study and, judging from the passionate debates that continue to unfold, interest in the history of slavery and the slave trade is unlikely to fade.

Article

Koen Bostoen

The Bantu Expansion stands for the concurrent dispersal of Bantu languages and Bantu-speaking people from an ancestral homeland situated in the Grassfields region in the borderland between current-day Nigeria and Cameroon. During their initial migration across most of Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa, which took place between approximately 5,000 and 1,500 years ago, Bantu speech communities not only introduced new languages in the areas where they immigrated but also new lifestyles, in which initially technological innovations such as pottery making and the use of large stone tools played an important role as did subsequently also farming and metallurgy. Wherever early Bantu speakers started to develop a sedentary way of life, they left an archaeologically visible culture. Once settled, Bantu-speaking newcomers strongly interacted with autochthonous hunter-gatherers, as is still visible in the gene pool and/or the languages of certain present-day Bantu speech communities. The driving forces behind what is the principal linguistic, cultural, and demographic process in Late Holocene Africa are still a matter of debate, but it is increasingly accepted that the climate-induced destruction of the rainforest in West Central Africa around 2,500 years ago gave a boost to the Bantu Expansion.

Article

Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, better known as “Boko Haram,” is the most violent phenomenon of the Nigerian Fourth Republic. It is responsible not only for a regional food crisis that has devolved into famine in some areas, but also the displacement of millions and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The insurgency in Nigeria began as a dissident religious sect’s venting of local grievances in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State. The movement was founded at the turn of the century by Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafist preacher notorious for his rejection of Western education and government employment. Boko Haram only gained significant international attention in the aftermath of the 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the remote town of Chibok, but the group did not always employ such deplorable tactics. Although policymakers in capitals the world over have been eager to emphasize the group’s connections to international terrorist groups, the movement is localized and often more akin to an African insurgency than to a prototypical terrorist organization. The group’s initial years were characterized by relatively benign activities like the provision of social services, punctuated by occasional bouts of criminality that, over time, escalated into a series of targeted assassinations that provoked federal government response. A series of violent actions ultimately transformed Boko Haram from a largely nonviolent fundamentalist religious movement into the lethal and resilient force it is today, known internationally for its brutality: notably, the group’s interactions with the Nigerian security sector, categorized by indiscriminate state violence; leadership changes within the insurgency’s ranks that elevated Abubakar Shekau following Mohammed Yusuf’s execution; and regional trends in weapons flows and ideological currents.

Article

Resistance to slavery within African societies was as complex and heterogeneous as slavery itself. For enslaved Africans and their descendants taken by force to Europe’s colonies in the Americas, antislavery was an existential struggle. Among European states, Britain was among the first imperial powers to pass laws abolishing its slave trade (in 1807) and slavery in its colonies (in 1833). Antislavery was a transnational phenomenon, but Britain made suppressing the Atlantic slave trade an element of its foreign policy, employing a Royal Navy squadron to search for slave ships, pressing African leaders to sign anti-slave-trade treaties as a condition of trade and coordinating an international network of anti-slave-trade courts. And yet, for many leading British abolitionists, “Africa” was an ideological sandbox—an imagined blank space for speculation and experiment on the development of human societies and the progress of “civilization.” In the 18th century, early British critics of the transatlantic slave trade argued that “Africa” presented an unparalleled commercial and imperial opportunity. Although the slave trade—and the plantations in the Americas that slave ships supplied with labor—were profitable, some argued that slave-trading regions could, with enough investment, produce goods and commodities that would be many times more lucrative. Moreover, if Britain were the first European power to abolish the slave trade, it might also be among the first to gain a territorial foothold on African soil. Over time, these arguments coalesced into the concept of “legitimate commerce.” A combination of Christian teaching, slave-trade suppression, and commercial incentives would persuade slave-trading polities to give up the practice and instead produce other goods. Legitimate commerce intertwined with a theory of civilization that held that any society that enslaved people was so degenerate in its social development that nearly any reform or intervention was justifiable. By the end of the 19th century, antislavery became a justification for European conquest. There were at least three broad reform projects launched by British officials and merchants in Africa in the name of antislavery. First, drawing on critiques of the slave trade from the 18th century that emphasized the commercial potential of legitimate commerce, antislavery activists and politicians argued for replacing the slave trade with new kinds of export-oriented commerce. Second, in two colonies, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Britain and the United States experimented with the possibility of using Black people from the African diaspora as settlers and missionaries. In Sierra Leone, more than seventy thousand people, usually known as “Liberated Africans,” were repatriated from slave ships into the small colony. Third, in the mid-19th century, as the transatlantic slave trade declined, Britain and other European powers invested heavily in African plantation agriculture, particularly in cotton and palm oil monocrops.

Article

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

Peter R. Schmidt and Kathryn Weedman Arthur

Several trends in the historical scholarship of Africa require recognition and remediation. The first is a quickly shrinking interest in African history of the past two millennia, with a shift in emphasis to early hominins and to the modern period. The precolonial history of Africa, once a subject of considerable excitement for historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists, is fading from interest. The high cost of interdisciplinary research is one reason, but a deeper, more alarming cause is the rapid erasure of oral traditions by globalization, disease, and demographic changes. Archaeologists and heritage experts are faced with a need to find innovative means to investigate and recover historical information. One proven path is partnerships with communities that want to initiate research to document, recuperate, and preserve their histories. Community approaches in other world regions have shown important research results. Adapting some of the philosophy and methods of other experiments as well as innovating their own approaches, archaeologists and heritage managers in Africa are increasingly involved in community projects that hold out significant hope that the quickly disappearing oral and material history of Africa can be preserved and studied into the future. Two case studies—one from the Haya people of Tanzania and the other from the Boreda Gamo of Ethiopia—illustrate that long-term and trusting partnerships with local groups lead to important historical observations and interpretations. Such collaborations also lead to thorough documentation and preservation of historical sites and information that otherwise would be lost to posterity. Moreover, they account for the ability of local groups to initiate and to conduct their own research while recognizing local control over heritage and history.

Article

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.

Article

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, Slave Voyages (the online successor to the original Slave Trade Database compact disc) joined many other projects in and outside the academy that deploy digital tools in the reconstruction of the large-scale structural history of the trade as well as the microhistorical understandings of individual lives, the biography of notables, and family ancestry.

Article

Disease control and public health have been key aspects of social and political life in sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial. With variations across space and time, many societies viewed disease as the result of imbalances in persons and societies and combined the use of materia medica from the natural world, spiritual divination, and community healing to redress these imbalances. While early encounters between African and European healing systems were still marked by mutual exchanges and adaptations, the emergence of European germ theory-based biomedicine and the establishment of racialized colonial states in the 19th century increasingly challenged the value of African therapeutic practices for disease control on the continent. Initially, colonial states focused on preserving the health of European soldiers, administrators, and settlers, who were deemed particularly vulnerable to tropical climate and its diseases. Around 1900, however, they started paying more attention to diseases among Africans, whose health and population growth were now deemed crucial for economic development and the legitimacy of colonial rule. Fueled by new insights and techniques provided by tropical medicine, antisleeping sickness campaigns would be among the first major interventions. After World War I, colonial health services expanded their campaigns against epidemic diseases, but also engaged with broader public health approaches that addressed reproductive problems and the social determinants of both disease and health. Colonial states were not the only providers of biomedical healthcare in colonial Africa. Missionary societies and private companies had their own health services, with particular logics, methods, and focuses. And after 1945, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) increasingly invested in health campaigns in Africa as well. Moreover, Africans actively participated in colonial disease control, most notably as nurses, midwives, and doctors. Nevertheless, Western biomedicine never gained hegemony in colonial Africa. Many Africans tried to avoid or minimize participation in certain campaigns or continued to utilize the services of local healers and diviners, often in combination with particular biomedical approaches. To what extent colonial disease control impacted on disease incidence and demography is still controversially debated.