While many of those who have written about South Africa have included reference to past events, it was only from the early 19th century that attempts were made to present a coherent picture of South Africa’s past. From the early 20th century professional historians, for long all white males, began to present their interpretations of the way in which the country known from 1910 as the Union of South Africa had evolved over time. In the Afrikaans-speaking universities there emerged an often nationalist historiography, while the major English-speaking historians presented a more inclusive but still often Eurocentric and mainly political view of the South African past. From the 1960s a conscious attempt was made to decolonize South African historiography by looking at the history of all the country’s peoples, but the historical profession remained almost exclusively white and the few black works of history were largely ignored. Many of those who were most influential in taking South African historical writing in new directions were South Africans who had left the country and settled abroad. In the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age of South African historical writing, shaped in part by the influence of neo-Marxist approaches from the United Kingdom and the United States, many new topics were explored, including the relationship between race and class and between capitalist development and apartheid. By emphasizing resistance to racial segregation in the past, South African historical writing assisted the process leading to the end of apartheid. By the time that happened, South African historical writing had become very nuanced and varied, but only to some extent integrated into the historiography of other parts of the African continent.
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.
In 1652 the Dutch East India Company founded a “refreshment station” in Table Bay on the southwestern coast of Africa for its fleets to and from the East Indies. Within a few years, this outpost developed into a fully-fledged settler colony with a “free-burgher” population who made an existence as grain, wine, and livestock farmers in the interior, or engaged in entrepreneurial activities in Cape Town, the largest settlement in the colony. The corollary of this development was the subjugation of the indigenous Khoikhoi and San inhabitants of the region, and the importation and use of a relatively large slave labor force in the agrarian and urban economies. The colony continued to expand throughout the 18th century due to continued immigration from Europe and the rapid growth of the settler population through natural increase. During that century, about one-third of the colony’s population lived in Cape Town, a cosmopolitan harbor city with a large transient, and overwhelmingly male, population which remained connected with both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. The unique society and culture that developed at the Cape was influenced by both these worlds. Although in many ways, the managerial superstructure of the Cape was similar to that of a Dutch city, the cosmopolitan and diverse nature of its population meant that a variety of identities and cultures co-existed alongside each other and found expression in a variety of public forms.
Many societies in pre-1800 Africa depended on orality both for communication and for record keeping. Historians of Africa, among other ways of dealing with this issue, treat languages as archives and apply what is sometimes called the “words and things” approach. Every language is an archive, in the sense that its words and their meanings have histories. The presence and use of particular words in the vocabulary of the language can often be traced back many centuries into the past. They are, in other words, historical artifacts. Their presence in the language in the past and their meanings in those earlier times tell us about the things that people knew, made use of, and talked about in past ages. They provide us complex insights into the world in which people of past societies lived and operated. But in order to reconstruct word histories, historians first need to determine the relationships and evolution of the languages that possessed those words. The techniques of comparative historical linguistics and language classification allow one to establish a linguistic stratigraphy: to show how the periods can be established in which meaning changes in existing words or changes in the words used for particular meanings took place, to assess what these word histories reveal about changes in a society and its culture, and to identify whether internal innovation or encounters with other societies mediated such changes. The comparative method on its own cannot establish absolute dates of language divergence. The method does allow scholars, however, to reconstruct the lexicons of material culture used at each earlier period in the language family tree. These data identify the particular cultural features to look for in the archaeology of people who spoke languages of the family in earlier times, and that evidence in turn enables scholars to propose datable archaeological correlations for the nodes of the family tree. A second approach to dating a language family tree has been a lexicostatistical technique, often called glottochronology, which seeks to estimate how long ago sister languages began to diverge out of their common ancestor language by using calculations based on the proportion of words in the most basic parts of the vocabulary that the languages still retain in common. Recent work in computational linguistic phylogenetics makes use of elements of lexicostatistics, and there have been efforts to automate the comparative method as well. In order to compare languages historically, two important issues first have to be confronted, namely data acquisition and data analysis. Linguistic field collection of vocabularies from native speakers and linguistic archive work, especially with dictionaries, are principal means of data acquisition. The comparative historical linguistic approach and methods provide the tools for analyzing these linguistic data, both diachronically and synchronically. Nearly all African languages have been classified into four language families, namely: Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Afroasiatic, and Khoisan. The Malagasy language of Madagascar is an exception, in that it was brought west across the Indian Ocean to that island from the East Indies early in the first millennium ce. Malagasy as well as several languages with an Indo-European origin, such as Afrikaans, Krio, and Nigerian Pidgin English, are not part of this discussion.
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
In precolonial Africa, relations between women and men were varied, changing, and culturally specific, yet there were some common themes. Most African societies attempted to attain forms of heterarchy, which meant they often created several centers of authority and aspired to establish communities where gender relations between women and men were equitable. Additionally, throughout history most Africans determined status by the amount of labor a group or individual could control, and in a historically underpopulated continent, this meant that motherhood and giving birth to children was very important. The result is that women, as both biological and social mothers and as grandmothers, were highly respected throughout the history of the continent. The earliest ancestors of modern humans originated in Africa, and so the history of women starts earlier in Africa than anywhere else, probably around 200,000 bce. Anthropologists of early humanity have proposed that the most successful human families in the earliest eras were based on family units that situated grandmothers at the center, a family structure found in many parts of Africa in the early 21st century. Around 5,500 years ago, a small group of Bantu-speaking people migrated from West Africa and over time populated large portions of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Heterarchy and gender equity were features of most Bantu-speaking societies. Their worldviews were manifested in the matrilineal social structure that most Bantu societies preferred until recent history. Even the earliest empires in Africa, Nubia and Egypt, were organized matrilineally. The West African Sahel empires from 700 ce were also matrilineal, and there is a long history of Muslim African female rulers. However, with the creation of empires and more centralized societies, hierarchy among some societies replaced heterarchy. This change motivated a shift in gender relations: Women from elite lineages maintained their status, while other women tended to lose their traditional positions of authority as mothers and elders within their clans. Overall, the Atlantic slave trade severely challenged heterarchical social relations and threatened women’s authority and status in West Africa. Another element of this period is the transference of African gender relations to the Americas. During the 19th century, as Europeans arrived in greater numbers, they imposed new gender ideologies as they began to structure how the rest of the world viewed Africans. From the so-called White Man’s Burden to Social Darwinism, new definitions of the Other placed African women at the bottom of this new social order. While women played key roles in the long term history of Africa, the Western analysis of African gender dynamics began to inform colonial policies, dominate world opinion, and shape academic research.