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For a new history of African worlds before the 19th century
Bertrand Hirsch
Traduction de Noal Mellott

The study of Africa’s “ancient” history is, at first sight, not in very good shape. This blunt remark calls for explanation.

Ancient history in Africa refers to studies of a long, in fact very long, period spanning what, in the history of the European world, is classically divided into ancient, medieval and modern. These chronological categories, which, as we know, are mere intellectual constructs, are just as valid — or invalid — for Africa as for Europe. The fact that, as a matter of pure convention, they are not used mainly reflects the relative absence of the history of Africa south of the Sahara in institutions of learning and research in France. The first chair of the history of “ancient” Africa was created at the Sorbonne in 1960. Fifty years later, it is still the only chair clearly devoted to this period, which, unfortunately, used to be called “precolonial”.

Half a century of research

During this half a century, the intellectual and academic history of studies conducted in French on ancient Africa — a story still to be written — has evolved. To make a long story short, a pioneering phase of growth and intellectual excitation that lasted into the 1980s has been followed by a period of relative disinterest. This clearly stands out in a field of study that was a major focus of research, namely: the history of societies in the Sahel from the 8th till the 16th century.

The attraction for this zone can be set down to the French presence in the countries there, a heritage of the colonial era, but it also had to do both with the determination of the new elites in these independent lands to write and appropriate a history that reached back before the discovery of this region by Europe and also with the willingness of historians to “decolonize” their discipline and make a break with the history established under colonial rule. A starting point in this process was the research conducted at IFAN, which Raymond Mauny formulated in Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain au Moyen-âge d’après les sources écrites, la tradition et l’archéologie (published in Dakar in 1961, p. 14):

There comes a point in every discipline and field of research when a pause, a temporary halt, in the usual course of study is needed in order to assess the results already achieved and so as to start afresh with an overview that, by recording the current state of knowledge on the question, serves as the basis for subsequent studies and facilitates research for our successors.

It seems to us that this time has come, after several decades of excavations, detailed historical studies and translations of medieval manuscripts (few of which have yet been put to use) and at a time when the changed political status of west African countries will entail the writing of new history books.

The two events marking the end of this phase were (premature?) attempts to present such an overview: UNESCO’s General history of Africa (in particular volumes II, III and IV, respectively: Ancient civilizations of Africa, 1980; Africa from the seventh to the eleventh century, 1990; and Africa from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, 1985), and the exhibition on the Niger River Valley organized by Jean Devisse (The catalog was published in 1993). Significantly, the three indicated volumes established a new dialog between history and other disciplines in the human and social sciences: between history and archeology (thanks to the findings in Tegdaoust and Djenné), between history and anthropology (After the opposition of ethnologists to the thesis of the historicity of African societies, a genuine anthropology emerged with a historical dimension, to name but a few: Claude Tardits, Emmanuel Terray, Claude Meillassoux and Jean Bazin), between history and the disciplines that study manuscripts (owing to a new way of looking at written texts, whether of native or foreign origin, and at sources in Arabic, which finally became accessible to scholars who do not speak Arabic thanks to Joseph Cuoq’s collection, Recueil des sources arabes concernant l’Afrique occidentale du viiie au xvie siècle (Bilad al-Sudan) published in 1975 by the CNRS) and, too, between history and linguistics. Nor should we omit mentioning what was considered the most innovative field and would remain so for nonspecialists, like a “trademark” for African history. I am referring to the current of thought and debate surrounding oral sources (Jan Vansina, Claude-Hélène Perrot, David P. Henige…). The reference most frequently used and cited is still the work done by the British anthropologist Jack Goody on the relations between orality and literacy, precisely because it was the only study with a scope reaching beyond the African continent.

A desert?

What is the current state of affairs? The aforementioned fields of study now seem to have become a desert more or less abandoned by French research and — but for other reasons — by our African colleagues. The number of historians in France working on the precolonial history of Sahelian societies is next to naught; and few anthropologists have made an outright commitment to ancient history. In the Sahel, the social and political “demand” is no longer for knowledge about this ancient heritage but, instead, for information about the contemporary period. In the meantime, the pauperization of universities and research centers are forcing many colleagues, who have written outstanding dissertations on the pre-19th-century history of their homelands, to become part of the brain drain.

Let us not paint a too gloomy picture however by magnifying, in hindsight, the pioneering period so as to turn it into a golden age. Counterbalancing the relative decline in studies published in French on Africa south of the Sahara is the investment made by colleagues who publish in English in the fields of: history, the critique of Arabic sources (Nehemiah Levtzion and John Hunwick, among others), archeology and oral traditions. A historiography in which the French language was dominant has tipped toward another historiography, a rupture that will eventually be beneficial for our understanding of African societies.

During the past twenty years, subjects and fields of research have diversified, thanks in particular to the CNRS and French universities, which have supported the ancient history of Africa south of the Sahara by recruiting several young researchers and research professors. New horizons have opened for historians in zones that, till now, were visited mainly by English-speaking academics: the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa, or eastern and southern Africa. This might be a sign, perhaps unconscious and individual, of the desire to definitively break with the French colonial heritage by choosing areas located outside what used to be the French empire.

“Ancient” and “contemporary” history

After this half century, we can draw a conclusion that reaches beyond national or continental bounds: “contemporary” African history — from colonization till the present — exercises an ever stronger sway. This is, by the way, the only chronological category that is taken for granted even though it is as questionable as the others.

The practices of historians working on “ancient times” differ significantly from the methods used to study the contemporary world or current events. I would like to point out three differences:

  • Historians of periods before the 19th century use fragile evidence. They work on fragmentary, incomplete sources, especially in the case of societies without written traditions. From the outset, they are aware of how very little they actually know. They value sources, and constantly reinterpret them.

  • Given such fragile sources, these historians must work in close relation with other sciences investigating the same time periods: archeology, linguistics, philology, paleography, codicology, art history, anthropology, etc. As they know, each of these disciplines has a vantage point that is not the same as the historian’s. They also know that, for the time being, it is an illusion to imagine assembling all these “data” and that the only way to advance might be to work together by “constructing” the same subject of research in the “field”.

  • Like any other field of history, the history of ancient Africa must be able to make a critique of itself. Historiography is an absolute necessity given the long period during which the West denied that Africa had a history. This history can but raise questions relevant at the time of its writing; it cannot provide a response to an urgent “social” demand. These historians are wary of “expertise” and current approaches (economics, developmentalism, politics…) that might be relevant during an era of globalization but that throw a very dim light on the past.

For these reasons, our new on-line journal will give priority to the “long” history of Africa and give a new turn to the dialog with archeology, linguistics, anthropology and the disciplines that study texts. This determination motivates our editorial board, which, mainly made up of historians, is at the origin of this new publication.

For a critical historiography

We recognize that Africa, as a continent, is a rather recent idea. The mapping of the continent by Europe dates back to the end of the 15th century. An awareness of African unity emerged much more recently with the rise of pan-Africanism in the 19th and 20th centuries. For historians who study ancient periods, Africa is a category that needs to be constantly brought under question. It brings to mind a stock of knowledge and clichés about the “dark continent” that go back to Ancient times but have little value when the focus shifts to the history of African societies.

What historians perceive are African worlds, with few or no interconnections but with more relations to the worlds surrounding them than is usually imagined. The Sahelian world and, through it, the worlds of the savanna and of the rainforest entered into relation, via the desert, with northern Africa and the Mediterranean basin. The upper Nile and the Horn of Africa had relations with the eastern Mediterranean lands via the Nile valley and the Red Sea, a route that brought contacts with Arabia, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, in particular for areas along the eastern coast of Africa and in Madagascar.

Afriques: Africa in the plural — African worlds, the title of our journal.

For a long time, the history of Africa was considered (and perhaps considered itself) to be an underprivileged part of the discipline of history. Not only is it still a relatively young field of study, but it has also had to cope with the special status assigned to the “dark continent”. When stating that we are undertaking research on the history of such and such an African society during the “medieval” period, how often have we not heard, “But what documents are you working on?” When announcing a trip to the “field”, how many times have we not heard that we could only be conducting interviews with venerable old men sitting in the shade of a big tree? These distorted ideas, though not of malicious intent, are related to a persistent set of preconceived ideas, namely: that Africa is a continent without written sources (apart from foreign ones), with a fuzzy historicity (as expressed in a speech by none other than the French president), with a static peasantry, with peoples agitated by ethnic strife, etc.

Beyond the much needed, critical “deconstruction” of the Western world-view — for which the continent provides a laboratory case — what can the history of Africa contribute to history in general? It can bring what has been forgotten or kept out of sight: ancient African societies provide what might be the widest panorama of social and political organizations — an unmatched “grammar” for political science ranging from big state formations ruling vast territories in differentiated ways to complex, segmentary, lineage-based societies. The discovery of the latter dates back to E. Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer in 1940, which shed light on politics in a society that, till then, was seen only in terms of an indistinct segmentation and violent vendettas. Between these two poles, we come upon a wide variety of political forms (kingdoms, city-states, chiefdoms, etc.) with permeable borders. As much can be said about “religion”, given variations ranging from monotheisms to local, territorial cults that manage relations with the invisible realm and ancestors; or about “mythology”, which, given its luxuriance and despite Luc de Heusch’s efforts in the Bantu zone, has not yet encountered its Claude Lévi-Strauss or Georges Dumézil. A colossal reversal of perspectives is to be accomplished: African worlds might, indeed, have the most to contribute to our understanding of human societies over time.

Beyond the much needed, critical “deconstruction” of the Western world-view — for which the continent provides a laboratory case — what can the history of Africa contribute to history in general? It can bring what has been forgotten or kept out of sight: ancient African societies provide what might be the widest panorama of social and political organizations — an unmatched “grammar” for political science ranging from big state formations ruling vast territories in differentiated ways to complex, segmentary, lineage-based societies. The discovery of the latter dates back to E. Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer in 1940, which shed light on politics in a society that, till then, was seen only in terms of an indistinct segmentation and violent vendettas. Between these two poles, we come upon a wide variety of political forms (kingdoms, city-states, chiefdoms, etc.) with permeable borders. As much can be said about “religion”, given variations ranging from monotheisms to local, territorial cults that manage relations with the invisible realm and ancestors; or about “mythology”, which, given its luxuriance and despite Luc de Heusch’s efforts in the Bantu zone, has not yet encountered its Claude Lévi-Strauss or Georges Dumézil. A colossal reversal of perspectives is to be accomplished: African worlds might, indeed, have the most to contribute to our understanding of human societies over time.

The keyword in our approach is “critique”. A critique of sources, of documents, of our way of looking at our discipline and its history, of the dialog with neighboring disciplines — a critique for breaking with the soft consensus that too often prevails in studies on Africa (an offshoot of “Africanism”, a postcolonial ideology that has seen better days).

As a last point, I would like to comment on this journal’s form. We are, in part and along with others, heirs to Afrique & histoire, a journal published by Éditions Verdier. The latter, which had the objective of making African history into a full-fledged part of the discipline of history, had to stop publication with its seventh issue in 2009. With this experience under our belt, we want to explore the new possibilities offered by an online journal with free access. Two issues are planned per year, but articles can be posted when they are ready. We hope to benefit from the possibilities for making a large volume of data available, in particular for posting graphics or voluminous source materials. We intend to create a network between those who — we hope they will be numerous — share our conviction about the key place that the history of African worlds must take.

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