One of the oldest chestnuts around in academic circles is arguing about whether an author is responsible or culpable for the use of their ideas or words. If you’re out of things to talk about, that’s always a conversation you can start up. So I read Lefever and I think to myself, “Man, I’m planning to argue in what I’m writing now that the importance of African sovereignty is over-estimated, and that a lot of the responsibility for postcolonial African misrule lies in local rather than global structures. I’m planning to argue that you have to listen seriously when some Zimbabweans today tell you that life was better under Rhodesian rule, though you have to understand the full complexity of what’s meant when people say that. (Much as Jennifer Cole has argued that you have to think very carefully about what’s going on when people in Madagascar seem not to think much about colonialism in the ways they imagine or retell history.)” I think about that when I read Lefever because I wonder, “If I argue those things, is that going to be the intellectual equivalent of handing a loaded gun to an infant?”
I think the least successful and yet most common manner that an academic can engage in wider public discourse is by fact-checking, but sometimes you have to do it because the errors aren’t inconsequential. Lefever has England emancipating African slaves 79 years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation. I’m not even sure what he thinks he’s talking about there. Even if he miscalculated the 1807 abolition of the slave trade, that wasn’t the abolition of slavery in British colonial territories (1833) and neither of those dates were dates on which those goals were meaningfully accomplished in fact as well as on paper. This isn’t a merely factual error: it has an effect on what Lefever is substantively arguing.
In 1809, a woman named Mary Bateman was convicted of murder and witchcraft. A huge crowd gathered in Yorkshire to see her execution. Afterwards, many paid for a close-up view of her corpse, and at least one account claims that strips of her skin were sold as charms.
Lefever has Africans “missing the Renaissance, Reformation, Magna Carta and Industrial Revolution”. This is first off flatly stupid on both philosophical grounds and empirically wrong. The Industrial Revolution didn’t miss Africa: it happened in the Congo. It happened in the Witwatersrand. It happened in the slave ports of West Africa. It happened in the spice plantations of Zanzibar. For that matter, the Renaissance and Reformation didn’t miss Africa. It’s a question of what those processes did to you, for you and with you, not whether you were part of them or not.
This is what Africanists are driving at when they talk about “multiple modernities”. While I may agree with Frederick Cooper that “modernity” has become an empty place-holder word, I think the point of calling it “multiple” is still important. It’s why I bring up Mary Bateman. An idea like witchcraft isn’t a thing which once existed in the distant past of the West, but still exists somehow in Africa. It’s a simultaneous invention: British missionaries who preached in Africa against witchcraft and against accusations of witchcraft were speaking within their own experience of recent history. Some of the translations and transactions between African and European societies in the 19th and early 20th Century were not crossing wide gulfs of time and epistemology, but narrow cultural and philosophical distances. This is not to say that narrow distances aren’t sometimes hugely meaningful in their own way, the same way that the “uncanny valley” in human vision makes computer graphics more and more sharply unreal the closer and closer they get to photorealism.
That’s both an empirical and epistemological correction to Lefever. He’s not just wrong on the specifics of his dates and his names and his categories, but the generalities. The problem of misrule and illiberalism in postcolonial Africa isn’t a problem distinctive to Africa. Both 32 degrees and 75 degrees are temperatures, part of the same scale of measurement, and it can always get colder or hotter no matter where you are. If we talk about corruption or good governance in Africa, it’s partly because we also struggle against it in other places: these are words and ideas given meaning by a global history, born out of simultaneity.
[Note: Bateman wasn’t executed until 1809; I updated the entry to reflect this.]