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Approaching African History

Approaching African History

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Approaching African History
    Book Description:

    Africa is a huge continent, as large as the more habitable areas of Europe and Asia put together. It has a history immensely long, yet the study of that history as an academic discipline in its own right is little more than fifty years old. Since then the subject has grown enormously, but the question of what this history is and how it has been approached still needs to be asked, not least to answer the question of why should we study it. This book takes as its subject the last 10,000 years of African history, and traces the way in which human society on the continent has evolved from communities of hunters and gatherers to the complex populations of today. Approaching that history through its various dimensions: archaeological, ethnographic, written, scriptural, European and contemporary, it looks at how the history of such a vast region over such a length of time has been conceived and presented, and how it is to be investigated. The problem itself is historical, and an integral part of the history with which it is concerned, beginning with the changing awareness over the centuries of what Africa might be. Michael Brett thus traces the history of Africa not only on the ground, but also in the mind, in order to make his own historical contribution to the debate. Michael Brett is Emeritus Reader in the History of North Africa at SOAS.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-064-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Part I The Problem of African History

    • 1 The Problem of Definition
      (pp. 3-7)

      From a camel to a weasel to a whale: Polonius, following Hamlet’s description of a cloud which by its nature was changing all the time, might well have been the historian of Africa, attempting first to outline then to understand what has happened on the continent. The continent itself is huge, as large as the more habitable areas of Europe and Asia put together, its satisfying shape is reminiscent of its greatest mammal, the elephant. At the same time its history is immensely long, from the evolution of humanity to the present day. As Roland Oliver used to say to...

    • 2 Solving the Problem: The Search for Information
      (pp. 8-11)

      The problem of the sources for African history is integral to the problem of African history itself. The problem arose when Africa and the world finally coincided with the imposition of European rule upon the whole of the continent at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century. For the first time, the continent was consciously united; but its unity in the eye of the beholder, whether European or African, was based upon ignorance of the African past. It was commonly assumed that because for the most part it had no written records other than those of the...

    • 3 Solving the Problem: The Writing of African History
      (pp. 12-16)

      If Africa be the elephant, then the different students of the African past, each with his or her own specialism, are the blind men who each have hold of a different part of the beast – trunk, tusk, ear, belly, leg and tail – and have in consequence quite different tales to tell. Proverbially, in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king; but who might this be in the case of Africa? Which of these various students has the eye to see the whole, however imperfectly? Imperfection begins with historical knowledge itself, which is derived from surviving...

  6. Part II The Making of African Society


      • 4 From Hunting & Gathering to Herding & Farming
        (pp. 18-30)

        To turn from the problem of African history to what can now be said about events over the past ten thousand years, is to turn in the first place to Phillipson’s archaeology for information and to Iliffe’s geography for the beginning of understanding. Throughout the length of human history, which goes back much further into the past, the position, shape and relief of the continent have not significantly changed. The same, however, cannot be said of its climate, which has fluctuated over what, geologically speaking, are astonishingly short periods of time: as little as five thousand years, or from one...

      • 5 From Herding & Farming to Cities & States
        (pp. 31-39)

        Writing in North Africa and Egypt at the end of the fourteenth century CE, Ibn Khaldun stands out as a mediaeval historian with a modern approach to his subject. The subject is the history of the world under the title of the Kitab al-‘Ibar, the Book of Instruction in the deeds of those peoples who have risen to power. The approach is explained in the Muqaddima, the introduction to his great work. The work itself is written in the encyclopaedic tradition of Islamic learning to which Ibn Khaldun belonged, covering religion, philosophy and science, language and literature, history and geography....

      • 6 The Peopling of the South
        (pp. 40-46)

        Language, race and culture, in the sense of what we make and do and think, may be independent variables, but equally, they may overlap, if never fully coincide. To turn from the evolution of cities and states in Zone II to the appearance and spread of herding and farming in Zone III, in Africa south of the Equator, is to see the way in which archaeology and linguistics combine to demonstrate a progressive repopulation of the continent from the Equator down to the Cape, by farmers speaking the same basic language: Bantu, after its word for ‘person’. The difference from...


      • 7 Men & Women
        (pp. 48-58)

        The archaeological dimension of African history may cover the whole of the continent the whole of the time, providing the hard evidence which is otherwise wholly or largely lacking for Iliffe’s colonisation of his especially hostile region of the world. Its great problem, however, is to argue from material effects to mental causes; although the physical remains may demonstrate what was done, and when and how, the evidence they provide for the reasons why is necessarily indirect and ultimately inconclusive. While those reasons may plausibly be inferred from the remains of herding and farming, for example, the inferences themselves are...

      • 8 From Kinship to Kingship
        (pp. 59-67)

        ‘Of all the questions that have preoccupied historians of [West] Africa, perhaps the most vexing has been that of the origins of states. Are states indigenous developments, or the result of external influences?’Thus Robin Horton, discussing the subject of stateless societies in the first volume of Ajayi and Crowder’s History of West Africa. It has certainly been a major concern of the archaeologists, who in answer to Horton’s question have distinguished between central and marginal states. Connah’s ‘productive land hypothesis’ associates the appearance of states with the development of complex societies, to which they are both central and indigenous. But...

      • 9 The Mind of Africa
        (pp. 68-77)

        “Sir, good morning.” The quotation is from Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion of ‘Old Gods and new’ in his In My Father’s House, but the title is taken from W. E. Abraham’s The Mind of Africa. Abraham’s work, published in 1962, was written in the optimism of African independence to announce the contribution that African ways of thought could make to the future of the continent and the world. Thirty years later, in 1992, Appiah’s work returned to the same subject in the light of the disappointment with the way in which the political kingdom coveted by Kwame Nkrumah has failed...

      • 10 The Empires of the South
        (pp. 78-88)

        McCaskie’s reading of Asante history comes as near as the historian may hope to get to the rather dangerous dictum of Collingwood in The Idea of History, that the historian who studies a civilisation other than his own can apprehend the mental life of that civilisation only by re-enacting its experience for himself. It is certainly far away from the approach of Eva Meyerowitz in The Akan of Ghana, who used the same ethnographic evidence to trace the Akan, and thus the Asante, to an origin ultimately in Ancient Egypt. But the kind of experience he describes was variously repeated,...

  7. Part III Africa in the World


      • 11 Ancient, Mediaeval & Modern
        (pp. 90-101)

        For the historian, to turn at last from the evidence of archaeology, linguistics and ethnography to the written record is to find himself or herself on the familiar ground of history as traditionally conceived and principally practised wherever that record is sufficiently full. Its advantages are considerable. By comparison with archaeology, the written record supplies the names of people and places, and an account of their actions. By comparison with ethnography, it supplies the kind of linear chronology on which events can be plotted and their sequence established, not to speak of the evidence required by McCaskie on the Asante...

      • 12 Ancient Egypt & Nubia
        (pp. 102-113)

        Below the Fourth Cataract, in the middle of the great S-bend of the Nile between Khartoum and Aswan, where the river flows south-westwards before turning back towards the north, the isolated crag of Jebel Barkal stands by the west bank. Flat-topped and sheer-sided, it is distinguished by a pillar of rock standing clear of the cliff face, which seemed to the Ancient Egyptians and the Nubians they conquered to be the cobra on the brow of the Pharaoh. The mountain was thus sacred, the home of the god Amon and the focal point of Napata, the region that has given...

      • 13 The World of Greece & Rome
        (pp. 114-122)

        It was not only the writing of Meroe that had died out by the fourth century CE. That of Ancient Egypt itself fell into disuse at about the same time, after a life of some three and a half millennia. The reason for the demise of the hieroglyphs is apparent on the one hand in the Rosetta Stone, which enabled them to be deciphered in the nineteenth century, and on the other in Manetho’s list of dynasties, which supplied a basic account of Ancient Egypt in the intervening fifteen hundred years. Inscribed at the beginning of the second century BCE...

      • 14 Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers
        (pp. 123-132)

        The title is taken from Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, in which he described how ‘the long, acquisitive arm of imperial Rome’ reached out over thousands of kilometres, not only to affect the history of the lands it touched, but also to leave a record, archaeologically and in writing. As far as Africa is concerned, it is with the written record that the importance of its outreach begins, and indeed ends. While Christopher Ehret’s An African Classical Age. Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000B.C. to A.D.400 is a reminder of how much of the continent...


      • 15 Christianity in the World of Late Antiquity
        (pp. 134-143)

        The sign was the Christian Cross, which gave victory, so he believed, to the Emperor Constantine in 312 CE, and began the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. It was a conviction, in his case, halfway between the Classical notion of a father-god such as Jupiter, who presided over the natural order of the world and gave victory to his favourites, and the Biblical notion of a god with a message, who required a missionary to deliver it, a people to believe in it, and by extension, a statesman to institute it as the divine...

      • 16 The Arabs & Islam
        (pp. 144-154)

        The Arabs who invaded Syria and Iraq in the 630s were not only the last and most successful of the barbarians to overrun the Roman frontier, but the last and greatest of the heretics. As followers of a new man ‘sent from God’ in the Biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity, they differentiated themselves from both as the champions of a final revelation. And as his followers, they differed from the rest of the barbarians in the faith that turned them from tribesmen into the members of a disciplined community with a mission to conquer and rule the world. By...

      • 17 Islam, the Sahara & the Land of the Blacks
        (pp. 155-165)

        This instruction from the Qur’an stands for the challenge of the faith to the order of state and society established in the Arab empire by the end of the ninth century. Over the next three hundred years Islam became the first worldwide civilisation, stretching beyond the borders of the Arab empire to Tropical Africa and the Far East at the height of the prosperity of Lombard’s Golden Age of Islam. Politically, however, the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries were years of revolution, which saw the break-up of the Arab empire and the failure of successive attempts to reconstitute it. Both...

      • 18 Islam & Christianity in the East
        (pp. 166-175)

        As the graves at Igbo-Ukwu show, archaeology will always have an advantage over the texts collected by Levtzion and Hopkins in their Corpus, since it will continue to provide fresh evidence for our approach to African history. For that approach, on the other hand, the texts in question provide a contemporary written record vastly superior to the meagre account of sub-Saharan Africa in Antiquity, in their reference to persons, places and events below the horizon of the Classical world. Geographically, however, their own approach to the subject remains within the confines of the Classical picture of the world. Coming after...

      • 19 Ibn Battuta & Ibn Khaldun
        (pp. 176-188)

        With the takeover of Egypt from the Fatimids by Saladin, the Kurdish lieutenant of a Seljuk Turkish dynasty, the Seljuk invasion and conquest of the Middle East reached its maximum extent. In Egypt itself, the takeover exemplified Weber’s model of the patrimonial state, when the military finally abolished the dynasty they had served, and took its place. In the world at large, it proved to be the beginning of the end for the Caliphal principle which over the past five hundred years had inspired the imperial dynasties which laid claim to the empire of Islam. The invasions of the old...

  8. Part IV The Unification of Africa


      • 20 The Age of Empire
        (pp. 190-201)

        The Muslim and Christian states of Africa with which Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun were familiar in the fourteenth century CE: Marinid Morocco, Hafsid Ifriqiya, Mamluk Egypt, Solomonid Ethiopia, Mahdali Kilwa, Mali under its Mansa and Kanim/Borno under the Saifawa, were the final products of the Middle Ages in Africa, from the time of the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the fourth century CE and the Arab conquest of the African portion of his Roman empire in the seventh. Beyond the boundaries of their knowledge, the list overlaps with the states or polities of which they were not aware,...

      • 21 An Islamic Africa
        (pp. 202-213)

        Around the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century, the previous age of empire came to a close. Both Spain and the Ottoman Sultanate were impoverished by the spiralling cost of unprofitable wars, aggravated by the great inflation attributed to the influx of silver and gold from the Americas. Morocco, which had destroyed the empire of Songhay, fell apart once again in the succession dispute which followed the death of Ahmad al-Mansur in 1603. Portugal, annexed by Spain following the death of its king in Morocco in 1578, failed to maintain its monopoly of trade with West Africa and...

      • 22 Between the Americas & the Indies
        (pp. 214-228)

        Historians have not looked kindly upon the Ottoman empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comparing the growing weakness of its central government and the traditional nature of its economy with the growing power and wealth of western Europe. Admiration for that growth, however, has been matched by growing criticism of European imperialism, and in the case of Africa by denunciation of the slave trade that fed the sugar industry that contributed so much to the prosperity of England in particular. When we come to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in other words, the study of African history moves beyond...


      • 23 A History in Change
        (pp. 230-242)

        If ever there were winds of change in Africa before 1960, they blew around the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century. Historians may disagree about the character and consequences for the world of the American, French and Industrial revolutions, their claim to have created the world in which we live today. In Africa they were nevertheless connected with the series of events which Hrbek, in his attempt at a periodisation of African history, is not alone in regarding as a division between the old and the new, between Oliver and Atmore’s medieval Africa and the modern age. The...

      • 24 After Napoleon
        (pp. 243-253)

        In the approach to African history, the lasting achievement of Baker and his fellow explorers was to put the interior of Africa literally on the map, while in the eyes of their fellow countrymen they were shedding the light of Europe upon the Dark Continent, with all that this implied of superiority and inferiority. As Rotberg points out in Africa and its Explorers, in the eyes of the Africans they encountered, they were judged by what they were good for. Unsuccessful as it was, Baker’s attempt to annex Bunyoro for Egypt in 1872 was nevertheless a token of something quite...

      • 25 The Reconfiguration of Africa
        (pp. 254-265)

        In 1883, the British management of the state created by Muhammad Ali was not the original intention; it followed the failure of the puppet regime, set up by the British and the French in 1879, to resist the Egyptian nationalism which had developed along with the growth of that state. The decision to take it over rather than withdraw was nevertheless taken to protect the commercial and strategic interests of Britain. As such it was in line with previous British acquisitions to the south of the Sahara, made since the abolition of the slave trade and the wars against Napoleon...

      • 26 The Reorganisation of Africa
        (pp. 266-275)

        The omission from this Foreword to An African Survey is ‘south of the Sahara’; the volume excludes North Africa and Egypt, as well as, with regret, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia and Italian Africa. But it might well have extended to the whole of colonial Africa, since the significant facts or features with which it deals were common to the French empire in North Africa and that of the British on the Nile; they were the categories into which the activities and concerns of all colonial governments fell, from the peoples they ruled to the manner of their government, to...

      • 27 The Reaction of Africa
        (pp. 276-288)

        William Blake’s couplet, in Songs of Innocence and Experience, accompanies his etching of a youth threatening an old man with a spear. In the volume that was never written by Lord Hailey and his team, a description of the way in which Africans had adopted and adapted the political philosophies of Europe to demand both equality and independence from their European superiors would have headed the list of contents. The section of the Survey which deals with education certainly states that in contrast to a traditional upbringing designed to reproduce the traditional community from generation to generation, the European kind...

  9. Part V The Arrival of African History


      • 28 The Resurgence of Africa
        (pp. 290-300)

        John Gunther’s Inside Africa, which opens with this statement, was published in 1955, the year before the independence of Tunisia, Morocco and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1956, followed by that of the Gold Coast in 1957, began the rapid end of European empire in Africa. The work of an American journalist, it aimed to describe the whole of the continent for the benefit of a Western readership in need of information about a part of the world that had suddenly come to the fore. He wrote it as a traveller who had visited all of its countries, which he described...

      • 29 Africa in Contemporary History
        (pp. 301-312)

        As summarised so far in this book, the account of the African past down to the achievement of independence in the 1950s and 1960s has been written in the historical present, that is, in the period since the Second World War, when the history of the continent was established as a subject of historical research in accordance with the criteria of modern historiography. Inevitably, as a period of historical writing, this present itself is a part of the past, just as the anthropological present stretches from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. In much the same...

      • 30 Approaching African History
        (pp. 313-331)

        The problem of contemporary history is nothing new, although it brings into focus the dependence of history upon the historian and the dependence of the historian upon history. The dependence of history upon the historian is of the nature of historical knowledge, the only way in which the past exists beyond those of its remains that have survived. In the case of African history, the gaining of that knowledge has been the great challenge of the time. The arrival of African history after the Second World War as a subject for research and teaching at university level was the culmination...

  10. Bibliography of all authors & works cited in text
    (pp. 332-343)
  11. Index
    (pp. 344-356)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 357-357)