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.
The mode of enquiry in African economic history has changed quite radically in recent years. In 1987, Patrick Manning surveyed practices and databases in African economic history and compared empirical strategies of scholars who studied the African past. Current practice, which A. G. Hopkins called “new African economic history,” incorporates econometric methods. The specific methods chosen and the types of source material used have implications for what kind of questions are asked and how they can be answered. The dominant mode of research in current African economic history, responding to some of the new challenges posed by econometric work by economists, is to create new data sets and databases that allow more consistent analysis of economic change over time.
Sharon E. Nicholson
Environmental constraints have large impacts on populations, especially in semi-arid regions such as Africa. Climate and weather have long affected African societies, but unfortunately the traditional climatic record for the continent is relatively short. For that reason, historical information has often been used to reconstruct climate of the past. Sources of historical information include reports and diaries of explorers, settlers, and missionaries; government records; reports of scientific expeditions; and historical geographical and meteorological journals. Local oral tradition is also useful. It is reported in the form of historical chronicles compiled centuries later. References to famine and drought, economic conditions, floods, agriculture, weather events, and the season cycle are examples of useful types of information. Some of the records also include meteorological measurements. More recently chemical and biological information, generally derived from lake cores, has been applied to historical climate reconstruction. Early works provided in most cases qualitative, discontinuous information, such as drought chronologies. However, a statistical method of climate reconstruction applied to a vast collection of historical information and meteorological data allowed for the creation of a two-century, semi-quantitative “precipitation” data set. It consists of annual indices related to rainfall since 1800 for ninety regions of the African continent. This data set has served to illustrate several 19th-century periods of anomalous rainfall conditions that affected nearly the entire continent. An example is widespread aridity during several decades early in that century.
Accounts written by foreigners—especially Europeans—about what they saw in Africa constitute one of the major sources for African history between c. 1450 and c. 1900. Some were published, while others remained in manuscript form. Unlike the ethnographic monographs of the early 20th century, they were generally written in a spontaneous and unsystematic manner, usually with a narrative structure, although in some cases an implicit “questionnaire” seems to have lain behind what was recorded. Historians of Africa must apply the rules of source criticism to such material. These include an obligation to examine the extent to which the material is really “primary” (rather than derived from sources that already existed and still exist today); what stereotypes and fixed ideas may have shaped the author’s perceptions and writing; how the expectations of the intended readership—including a desire for exoticism or sensationalism—may have influenced the content and style, in some cases even resulting in straightforward fabrication posing as authentic description; and whether the author’s personal background—for example, financial interests, ideology, or gender—could have led him or her to perceive and write about Africa in a certain way. Certain types of data contained in travel accounts, such as quantitative or linguistic information, require cautious analysis. Some travel accounts were accompanied by engravings or other iconographic material, and although it is tempting to use these simply as illustrations, they must be subjected to the same kinds of source criticism as are applied to the written accounts themselves. Despite these caveats, travel accounts are an indispensable source, whose full potential still remains to be discovered.
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew. The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.