Tag Archives: African History

Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti

Shetler, Jan Bender. Imagining Serengeti : a History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present. Ohio University Press,, 2007. Print. New African Histories Series.

Landscape as “humanized” not just through material transformations but memory and culture.

Classic restatement of the methodological dilemma of the Africanist historian: any time you want to deal with culture, subjectivity, narrative, etc. you’re either stuck ‘reading against the grain’ of an archive that refuses to acknowledge the historicity of African societies and landscapes, or you’re forced to get more and more hazy and speculative before 1800 or so. Not so hard for the environmental historian who is comfortable with the “longue duree” but hard for the person who is trying to trace imaginaries, representations, stories, etc.

Ch. 1: origin traditions as a way of imagining and charting landscape and environment.

Serengeti as described by ecologists in the rhetoric of wilderness: absent of humans. But this is as Shetler points out simply untrue for at least the last 2000 years and likely true for much, much longer. It’s always untrue in some sense in East Africa: humans and African mammals are clearly co-evolved. What happens if we learn in this case to always talk about landscape and environment in terms where humans are always present? One possibility is that the discourse of “humans despoil environment” has to shift dramatically away from implications of “Africans always despoil” and towards the landscape of dubious tropes about African modernity (overpopulation, depraved poverty, etc.).

Ch. 2 is really in some ways a very clever reclamation of ‘archaeology’–rather than the excavation of a single vacant site, using the material remnants of old networks of food production and exchange, indexed against memory, to infer a social structuring of the landscape.

Ch. 3 Sacred Landscapes

Lists of place names + specifications of rituals
Generation-set as responsible for maintenance of place
Power of place created by presence of ancestors
Different sort of ideology of preservation–the proposition that the land has to be unchanged at the site of power
Walking the land as a mnemonic of ritual (but maybe walking is an evidence of a more quotidian set of everyday connections: ritual is maybe what’s left when the everyday is taken away)

A bit of the tendency of ethnohistorians to ennoble memory by the fact of it being memory. E.g., Nata and others remember sites in association with wealth & power, but this is surely both something that is meant in terms of contemporary Kenyan politics to strike a claim to land (with it, we were rich; without it, we are poor supplicants) and it as much an erasure as a memory (e.g., there is no reason to think that wealth was equitably distributed in the past among these groups, but in these memories, any sense of social conflict within the groups drops out)

Spirits can mark beneficial places; but elsewhere in Kenya other ethnic/linguistic groups may use spirits to mark places as dangerous or unsettled.

Again, the strong association here between ancestors (embisambwa, ancestors w/specific place & power associations) and Serengeti land has got to be given some charge or valence by the absence of the people remembering from the land that’s remembered.

Specific instructions about how to treat land and animals at sites

Encirclement as a precolonial understanding of territory and boundaries–potentially really powerful combination with Nugent’s Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens for thinking about ethnogenesis and territorial control.

Good for students to “read out” a politics of environmental history/political ecology.

Olufemi Taiwo, How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa

Taiwo, Olufemi. How colonialism preempted modernity in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. Open WorldCat. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Don’t think sociocryonics is going to catch on–it’s a bit of an awkward neologism that relabels a concept well established in Mamdani and others.

But otherwise, the intro and first section are really gutsy: they come straight at the problem and Taiwo is not afraid to characterize the literature in broad but cutting terms right at the outset.

The definition of modernity in the book as a whole is interesting and fairly clear, focused more on political and legal structures and their accompanying Enlightenment conceptual apparatus than on capital or political economy. “Subjectivity, reason and progress”.

“One possible answer is to say that Africa is hostile to modernity and its presuppositions…a related response is to say that Africans are congenitally incapable of working modernity. Neither explanation is plausible. They are racist to boot. But their implausibility does not stem from their racism. The problem is that such explanations tend to ignore history.” p5

This is ultimately a rather West African (and Western Cape) centered history of missionary modernity-it doesn’t work very well for East Africa or Central Africa or the rest of southern Africa except for Xhosa and Tswana experiences. There’s a counterfactual here that the creation of “self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing” mission modernity would have spread continent-wide had it not been for colonialism, and I’m not sure that holds entirely true.

“What is crucial is that when Africans were inserted or they inserted themselves into the discourse of modernity, they ran the entire gamut of possible reactions. But the most sophisticated among them wanted to marry the best of their indigenous inheritance with the best that the new forms of social living enjoined by modernity had to offer. This is what exercising agency is all about.” p. 13 [The problem here is perhaps that Taiwo is assuming that in general modernity was embraced, adopted or practiced agentively–but it’s possible to say that this was not only not true in Africa but not true anywhere, that no one ever chose it but always instead had it done to them.

Contrary to Mamdani, sees colonialism’s contradictions as “genuine” and a product of its philosophical underpinnings.

“In spite of all the prattle about communalism, not even the scholars who was eloquent about their commitment to so-called African values and traditions build their houses or live in spaces that pay any serious attention to those values and traditions…contemporary Africans end up with spaces and landscapes that are superficially modern but lack the enlivening soul that makes their counterparts in other places such beauties to behold and celebrate.” p. 14

“The underdevelopment of African agency has contributed to the persistence of sociocryonics at the present time. Evidence of the persistence abounds in many of the recent accounts of the relationship between Africa and modernity that focus on such ‘peculiarly African’ themes as ‘witchcraft’ and ‘village’…We have repeated affirmations of African difference and an almost uncritical embrace of ahistoricity in their understanding and explanation of African phenomena. Many feel that to embrace things Western is to abandon African authenticity. It is no less a sociocryonic momemnt for being popular with African scholars.”. p. 14-15

“I assume that the modern way of life represents a leap forward in human history and that the gains it offers, had they been on the table in colonial Africa, would have made for a better life and a more salubrious history than that bequeathed by colonialism as it operated in Africa. This is an acknowledgement that Africans are almost forbidden to make.” p. 16

“We shall see the inevitability paradigm that often characterizes the discourse of colonialism in Africa–things could not have turned out otherwise than they did–is inadequate, if not wrong. The key lies in showing the intimate even if conflicted connection between colonialism and the much larger complex from which it emanated: modernity.” p. 23.

“The modern era is the era of subjectivity, of the sovereignty of the individual, of no taxation without representation, of knowledge, of progress, of science and technology, and, most of all of the equality of human beings and of their entitlement to respect for the dignity of their person and all that pertains to it.” p. 39

Some clear connections here with Appiah’s approach to cosmopolitanism. Also a clear riposte to the “multiple modernities” literature: modernity is one thing, it’s an outgrowth of the Enlightenment project, and it is both material and intersubjective.

Lugard once again functions as the exemplar of ‘indirect rule’ (aka in Taiwo ‘sociocryonics’).

Not necessarily much clearer than Mamdani about the motives or intent behind colonialism, but at any rate neither analysis really takes much interest in the classic view of colonialism as motivated by the self-interest of globalizing capitalism, etc. Does dovetail on Mudimbe a bit in asserting that Africa was in some absolute sense defined by difference not just from Europe but from all other colonies/non-Western persons. That inevitably is going to lead you back into an assertion of European difference–that Europeans had a particular prior way of imagining blackness and black subjects.

In some ways this is also a repudiation of the Non-Aligned Movement/Bandung/postcolonial theory/etc. assertion of an essential similarity between “the Rest” (vs. “the West”) in the expansion of Europe.

Despite the limits of taking coastal W. Africa in the 19th Century as a proxy for the continent, the argument Taiwo makes about missionaries and modernity is really bold and exciting stuff. Even where it’s “wrong”, I can really see it pacing a serious revival of 18th/19th Century African history, which is often mired in the grinding aftermath of the numbing empiricism of the literature on the slave trade.

The arguments about law and constitutionalism in the later part of the book feel to me like something of a detour. I understand why he goes there (not the least because it’s part of his training and his past scholarly work) but it’s a plodding discussion by comparison with the exciting writing in the earlier part of the book. I also think in some ways the most subversive argument in the existing literature that he needs to deal with is not nationalism/Afrocentrism (which he is clearly poised to critique) but the growing tendency to break down or decompose the power of the colonial state and to question the degree to which “sociocryonics” was a totalizing system. (He may not agree with Mamdani on much but on this point they actually align.) The last chapter on globalization, on the other hand, is really subversive and interesting.

Osumaka Likaka, Naming Colonialism

Likaka, Osumaka. Naming colonialism history and collective memory in the Congo, 1870-1960. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009. Open WorldCat. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Smartly conceived, tightly written.

p. 5: Likaka’s advisor told him he has to “stick to written documents”–I think this shows just how long the life of a certain kind of orthodoxy can be as it travels the world, but also the degree to which postcolonial African civic and bureaucratic institutions have adopted the most formal, most reserved, most hierarchical possible forms and manners of common global institutions.

p.8: given the aspirations of the monograph, this is a somewhat frustrating critique of “reading against the grain”, e.g., a very formal reading of how Africans are or are not present in colonial texts. I don’t think Likaka needs a caricature to justify the approach of his study. But I do think his critique of scholarship inspired by Saidian characterizations of “orientalism” is fair enough–lots of those granted overwhelming power to colonizers to “invent” or “imagine” and regarded the entirety of what they “invented” as having no correspondence with the lived world of colonial subjects.

Really interesting mapping of the moral landscape of colonialism as Africans saw it, in that some Europeans could get praise names rather than critical names. This is really important: we’re finally beginning to open up the landscape of colonial rule as morally variegated and full of complex causal and hermeneutical loops.

Ch. 2 the road as the symbols of the corvee and of colonialism as a whole. “The construction of roads made colonialism abusive, created misgivings about promises of economic progress, swelled the hearts of Congolese villagers with anger, and stimulated resistance.” p. 39 Ch. 2 is actually a good compact summary of village-level experience of colonialism, in some ways I’d prefer it for a class over Vansina’s Kuba book.

Love the praise-name chapter: this is wonderfully subtle thinking, worked with a lot of care. “These illustrations show that for all the atrocities of colonialism and the ruthless brutality of its agents, village people appreciated friendship, learning and the new technical skills that improved the quality of their lives and conditions of work.” p. 121 So there are genuine praise-names and then there are those that are closer to James Scott’s “weapons of the weak”–names whose seeming praise masks a sly double-meaning.

“Mister Tall” or “Big Boss”; “Mister Handsome”–emasculating praisenames understood by colonial officials as literal descriptions. Classic “weapons of the weak”, but raises the same questions about trees falling in forests–this communicates a kind of moral understanding between local people but it can’t ever flash over into being known to the colonizer without losing its usefulness. But the colonizer also knows all the time that there is a kind of local or secret knowledge about him, or is at least worried about this–this is the kind of thing White is thinking about a bunch in Speaking With Vampires.

Thomas Packenham, The Scramble for Africa

Pakenham, Thomas. The scramble for Africa. New York: Perennial, 2003. Print.

Good book for talking about history as narrative, particularly for how the alleged need to “tell a good story” allows one to get away with all sorts of stuff. Is one looking through narrative in order to “compose up” an analysis of causality that derives out of the sequence of events? Or is narrative its own reward?

E.g., is there in the detail of a narrative account of the Scramble either a good theory of its causation or a significant argument against various theories? I think both, actually. The narrative account almost intrinsically lends itself to a Robinson-and-Gallagher approach: the peripheral actors seem so dominant in the events, at least as Packenham tells it. But note the two narratives that get mostly boxed out: you could also tell a narrative of interstate relations set in Europe in which the Scramble is an “episode” and you could tell a much more scattered, less coherent story of African initiatives, responses, actions, which is what Boahen et al largely set out to do in the UNESCO history. To tell the story as Packenham does is already loading the dice in favor of a R&G style approach in which the empire arises out of various accidents, dispersed ambitions, personal error etc.

Also though this is a story to appreciate independent of the question of whether it supplies a “causal engine” for European colonialism in Africa. But note again the stories it provides: mostly stories of the empowered or engorged agency of various “Europeans in empire”, which actually has a pretty tight feedback loop into “why Europeans wanted to be in imperial situations”, that they imagined (and so produced) a magnification of their importance in the narrative of events.

Worth thinking about the people and specific events to pull out of this, and which people and events do not emerge as “of the Scramble” even though they are active “in the Scramble”. People: Rhodes, Gordon, Faidherbe, Stanley, Leopold, Colenso, Shepstone, Emin Pasha, Ceteshwayo, Mutesa, Wolseley, de Brazza, Gladstone, Courcel, Gambetta, Disraeli, Umar Tall, Bismarck, Muhammed Ahmad (Mahdi), Kirchner, Kirk, Peters, Samori Ture, Mackay, Lugard, Abushiri, Salisbury, Khama, Johnston, Jameson, Yohannes, Menelik, Chamberlain, Lobengula, etc.

So what kind of people do not appear in such a list and yet are important? It’s a list entirely composed of sovereigns, military leaders, and political leaders–absolutely the classic Great Men. There must be another list that is neither Representative or Average Men in opposite (e.g., not Kas Maine) but people with more oblique roles in shaping the Scramble “on the ground”. People also in places that are not the central agonistic theaters of “the Scramble” but that are important to its unfolding, or where actual conquest happens at some other time or fashion.

Also episodes: Anglo-Zulu War, Pioneer Column/Ndebele Uprising, Race for Fashoda, Jameson Raid, Anglo-Boer Wars, Maji-Maji, Emin Pasha Relief Column, etc.–all of them the same kinds of military & occasionally diplomatic events.

Left out: almost all Africans. Even African sovereigns get almost no psychological representation in this account while there is tons of attention to the psychological interiority of Stanley, Rhodes, Colenso, de Brazza, you name it. There’s plenty of people who can be talked about in this way.

Left out: almost all stories that are “in” the Scramble but suggest there are other dynamics or things going on besides the military/diplomatic events.

Left out: readings of or reactions to the Scramble’s events among various (or any) publics save for a few framing statements.

Left out: any sense of the complexity of the periodization of the story–Faidherbe, for example, creeps in, despite acting years earlier, while the lateness of the actual imposition of administrative authority in many territories is almost wholly unacknowledged.

Left out: any territory where something was happening but it didn’t involve dramatic military showdowns.

Etc. It’s such an antiquated kind of history, even for a popular account. Students were shocked it was written in 1991, most of them assumed it was far older. Question is, could someone write a largely narrative account of the Scramble–or even a more analytic/interpretative account that wasn’t just a new overarcing theory of causation like Cain & Hopkins’ “gentlemanly imperialism”, that would read differently than this? I think yes. Certainly of episodes in the Scramble (Parsons King Khama and Emperor Joe for example.)

John Reader, Africa: Biography of the Continent

Reader, John. Africa: a biography of the continent. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Print.

Often comes pretty close to depicting Africans as uniquely limited by environment–it’s the exact same intellectual framing as John Iliffe’s very similarly titled history of Africa in one sense, but Iliffe tells the environmental story as heroic (African agency and humanity triumphing over a uniquely hostile environment) as opposed to Reader, who tells a story of how Africans are produced by and identical to their environments–all of their societies until the modern period are depicted as a harmonious product *of* environment.

Chaps. 1-4

Geological particularities of Africa, most prominently ancient unchanged landmasses and exceptional deposits of mineral wealth.
Africa the “laboratory of mammalian evolution”.
Stable position in relation to other continents.
Rainforest ecology: rainforests are fragile, soil nutrients drained faster than they accumulate.

“There was nothing new in Africa. The human dynamic was continuous and unbroken.” p. 100

North-south axis rather than east-west, divided into two by equatorial rain forest.
Rainforest not the dominant biome. Desert 40% of land area.

Savannah, wooded plains, grasslands most common vegetation/environment type.

Deep fertile topsoils are rare due to year-round warm temperatures; bacteria and parasites do not have a winter hibernation.

Ecological specificity of plant-animal relationships on continent may turn out to be something that Western conservation of charismatic megafauna was largely inattentive to until post-1945 and maybe not even then.

Relation between human evolution in African environments and human societies in historical time in Africa stressed throughout, with occasionally uncomfortable immediacy (e.g., here lies the older tendency to view Africa as unchanging and Africans as ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’ in their close association with the evolutionary past of humanity). See for example Khoisan languages.

The debate over hunter-gatherers and its intersection with Enlightenment ideas about the foundations of human society. Pretty fair summary of the use of Khoisan in sparring over prehistorical human societies. Includes the round of critique kicked off by Wilmsen et al–this is a good demonstration of the difference between histories of environment/ecology that naturalize and universalize humans and those that insist that what is represented as natural and ecological is in fact sociocultural and historical.

r-strategy; K-strategy

Inching up to an argument that humans in their evolved habitat had firm limits on their numbers and material potential.

Good compressed version of the “agriculture was the beginnings of many burdens and fragilities” argument.

Question in Chs 11-19 in part is “is it possible to care about some of these issues (role of climate in human evolution, origins of agriculture in Africa, evolution of pastoralism, co-evolution of humans and animals, etc.) in a way that doesn’t predispose them to be deterministic preconditions of much more specific social and economic conditions in contemporary Africa? What would concern for such issues ‘in and of themselves’ look like, and is there any reason to demand conformity with such concern?

Diffusion v. parallelism (iron, agriculture, social formations thereof)

Niger River as major site for connecting ecology, environment and sociopolitical formations

pp. 229-230 Reader takes on the proposition that environments always produce harmonious human socioeconomic behavior in which people are always doing that which the environment dictates that they should–but not sure his alternative argument is anything more than a resituating of this point “it was the unpredictability of the delta regime itself which was responsible for the robust subsistence system that its inhabitants developed. In other words, the problems of making a living in the delta were so great that only sound adaptive strategies were effective” p. 230

So it’s not so much that the delta was harmonious and people lived harmoniously in it, but that they adapted to long-term unpredictability by creating resilient systems of urbanization (Jenne-jeno) at which point I’m not sure what the difference is between that and “people always adapt as they should/must”. The alternative seems to me is more, “Sometimes human systems are maladapted to environments and ecologies and yet manage to survive or continue”, which Reader assuredly doesn’t think describes the Delta.

Southern movement of herders, fishermen, cultivators as Sahara dries–another example of this point. Why not just ‘stay put’ and adapt to changing environments when the change is happening at an unpredictable but rather long-term level. This is a general question: if point-to-point migration, transhumanism and defiantly sedentary histories are all “explained” by environmental change, then does environmental change actually explain anything?

Marka rice cultivation and other secret knowledges (p. 232): maybe the issue is partly that some environmental economies have very high expertise burdens

Myths and legends as “ecological abstractions”: e.g., both as evidence OF the ecological character of distinctive cultures and as the means by which those cultures instruct their successors on ecological adaptation. Again, there’s something tautological in here.

“Groups congregated by choice”: but if they congregated because this was the ideal system for managing the long-cycle unpredictability of the delta ecology, isn’t ‘choice’ a strange thing to invoke? Where does ‘choice’ live in this sense?

pp. 229-233 worth working over in detail in class–some very key claims being made here, in a rather modest or backhanded way

Decline and absence become things to explain with or through ecology–but it begs the question of why we perceive or imagine continuity and continuation in other places. “France” in the 12th Century is about as related to the present day “France” as “Jenne-jeno” is related to Djenne Mali.

Ch 24: ok, here we go: this is the clearest summary of the co-adaptation argument about why human populations in Africa have had adverse developmental histories. Diseases that were highly adapted to human beings capped fertility, produced greater disability, and generally slowed economic and technological progress until human populations that had flourished in other environments were able to return bearing ‘foreign ideas of how it should be done’

examples are malaria and tsetse fly

Concept of “carrying capacity” at play in Ch. 25: the difference between the theoretical productivity of land under agriculture and its reality; Reader tries to explain that by reference to environment (e.g., that the ‘real’ carrying capacity is not a product of human failure to exploit or develop it properly but a ‘reality’ of environment that is not immediately evident until the specificity of African environments–soils, climatic unpredictability, disease–are considered.)

Africa as “land-rich” and “people-poor”, compared to Western Europe–e.g., that land is almost never scarce in relation to human communities in Africa until very recent times, that the deep environmental imagination of African societies never casts land as scarce or lacking and is instead deeply drawn to the challenge of fertility

Terracing as another example: it appears where it is adaptive, not where it isn’t; he’s especially engaged by cases where environmental conditions essentially dictate political structures (you don’t have chiefs or centralized states unless you adaptively need chiefs or centralized states)

Elephants and people in a long-term environmental struggle that only favors people in the 1950s; environmental ‘deep histories’ that recast or reinterpret the present as the cultural outcome of a material ‘rationality’ rather than an irrational byproduct of market greed or cultural ideology p. 261-262

Functionalism, p.266: gerentocracy as adaptive necessity for managing cropping/herding/iron economy, another tautological loop–you have cropping/herding/iron because that’s what environment dictates, you have gerentocracy because that’s what that socioeconomic system requires, you have them because gerentocracy secures them and because they demand gerentocracy.

consent/compromise important tropes: that precolonial systems of power made sense, were not maladaptive or out of control. But note p. 267 even “aggression” and “avarice” as they appear in political and economic behavior are ‘controlled’ and related to instinctive cost/benefit analysis, to an intuitive calculation of what is needed and not needed. –society as equilibrium; “imperfections and abuses were contained” p. 269

Trade as the sort of extrinsic disruption to highly adapted human ecologies, but also as having an ecological motivation when the good sought is a physiological necessity (salt). Why not just live where there is salt? A: because then you would be leaving otherwise inviting environments uninhabited–or preferring very harsh environments that just happen to have salt (e.g., Saharan core). Cost/benefit calculations again: raises the question, just how do people DO that? But note even further, it’s not just a calculation of: live where no salt, trade; live where salt, cope; it’s “live where no salt IF there’s an animal (camels) that provides a material precondition of trading for salt”. Which begs the question: why do some people ride camels and produce salt and other people grow crops and trade for it? How does differentiation actually happen? Why does it persist? Path-dependence a possibility? But note if that’s the way we want to talk about it, the specter of non-adaptive or maladaptive social ecologies comes back into view–things that were adaptive and then aren’t but where it’s impossible to shift to another ‘path’ (arguably this is a way to talk about extinction in genetic or evolutionary terms)

“Ecology, not conquest, brought about the fall of Ghana. The herds were too big, there were too many people. The more successful they were, the more certainly their fate was sealed”. p. 284; Arab chroniclers paid more attention to ‘dramatic events’. What do you think it means to say that Ghana ‘fell’? What does an ecological ‘fall’ look like?

How can we explain a trade in gold in ecological terms? (p. 288: because it was easy to do at times when ‘labor demands for food productivity were relatively slight’)–but note how this places drivers of ecologically meaningful change outside of the domain of the ecology being described–why is “Ghana” the unit of the analysis rather than “the ecology of gold production, circulation and consumption”?

Slavery: a third rail in this whole conversation. Rights-in-persons and the management of social violence in kin-based societies; but is slavery ‘ecologically normal’? What to do with a social practice which is not tautologically fit into the environmental picture that Reader is drawing? the dangerous potential to do exactly that

Now “choice” turns back on itself: p. 296. Earlier stresses on how ecological provisions allowed models of political organization that were not coercive but chosen give way to asserting that individuals had to organize in kin groups and communities. Why are “a succession of good harvests” a “distortion”? Same for “large influx of impoverished individuals”? p. 296–all non-equilibrium histories are being pushed to the outside as intrusions on the ‘normal’

Environments as maintained and shaped by humans (Bananas): here is a different emphasis where what Europeans take to be natural, unchanging, providential, is in fact the result of long human shaping of environment, in this case in Asia and then Africa

Clues on what “fall” looks like: the ‘centre could not hold and political authority gravitated to the periperhy’: why doesn’t an environmental history actually tell us, ‘don’t pay so much attention to transient political histories, pay attention to long-term continuities of material and economic practice’ period, in all cases?