Historiography and Methods of African History
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0011
- LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
- LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0011
The study of African history as an independent and autonomous focus of scholarship is a recent development. Until the late colonial period, it was widely believed among Western historians that Africa, south of the Sahara, had no “civilization” and thus no history. Others insisted that even if there were events of a historical nature, such a history was unknown and unknowable, since African societies, for the most part, were nonliterate and as such left no records that historians could study. The era of decolonization and the immediate post-independence years witnessed a growing rank of Africanists vigorously reject this Eurocentric and anti-African historical epistemology that privileged civilization and written sources as the only rational bases for historical scholarship and that denied the possibility of civilization and history to small-scale and nonliterate societies dominant in Africa. Using an array of sources, these scholars were successful in showing that Africa not only had a history but that its history and the writing of it date back to ancient Antiquity. Ancient and classical writers wrote about Africa, even though their writings were unsystematic. They were followed by Islamic and Arabic writers, who left first- or secondhand accounts of African states and societies that have continued to prove valuable for scholars of African history. The next phase of African historiography was dominated by European traders, travelers, as well as missionaries and other adventurers, whose accounts of Africa, while generally tendentious and Eurocentric, remain major sources for the reconstruction of the African past. European conquest and domination spawned a new era of colonial historiography that justified European imperialism and espoused the ideology of a savage Africa in need of European civilization and tutelage. With decolonization and independence came the era of nationalist and liberalist historiography which rejected the notion of a barbaric and static Africa “without history.” It sought to restore autonomy and initiative to the Africans, as well as authenticity and respectability to the historicity of the African past. Rejecting the privileging of written sources, it argued for and adopted the disciplined, rigorous, and corroborative use of a variety of sources and multidisciplinary methods from archaeology, ethnography, anthropology, linguistics, and art history to oral traditions.
The nature, dynamic, and development of the subject of African historiography have attracted the attention of many scholars. Afolayan 2005 provides us with a succinct chronological overview. Jewsiewicki and Newbury 1986 examines the sociopolitical conditions that shaped the development of historical writings in Africa. Falola 1993 examines the development of Yoruba, Christian Mission, and West African historiography. Ki-Zerbo 1981 is an edited volume that provides the most comprehensive and detailed exploration of different aspects of the subject. Ranger 1976 calls for a new historiographical approach that emphasizes current relevance and usability, a position forcefully castigated by Neale 1985 but welcomed conditionally by Temu and Swai 1981, which was sharply critical of the poverty of ideas inherent in a whole generation of postcolonial historical scholarship in Africa.
Afolayan, Funso. “African Historiography.” In Encyclopedia of African History. Vol. 2. Edited by Kevin Shillington, 626–633. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005.
A succinct overview that traces the development of African historiography from the earliest written records to the postmodernist accounts of the present. For general readers, undergraduate, and graduate students.
Falola, Toyin. African Historiography: Essays in Honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1993.
Examines the importance of oral tradition as a historical source and explores pertinent issues in the development of Yoruba, Christian Missions, and West African historiographies. For general readers and college-level students.
Jewsiewicki, Boghumi, and David Newbury, eds. African Historiographies: What History for Which Africa? Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1986.
A collection of essays, by prominent practitioners, reflecting on the social and political conditions shaping the production of historical writings in and on Africa in the first two decades after independence. For specialists and college-level students.
Ki-Zerbo, J., ed. UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 1, Methodology and African Prehistory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
The most comprehensive and detailed collection of commissioned essays written by pioneers and leading authorities on the subject of the methodology and historiography of African history and prehistory. Readable and accessible to everyone, but a must for graduate and advanced scholars.
Neale, Caroline. Writing Independent History: African Historiography, 1960–1980. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.
Shows how post-independence history writing was predicated on a desire to achieve intellectual decolonization. Also shows how this writing rejects the prevailing notion of primordial savagery for the continent, creates and reaffirms African self-respect, and restores and establishes the continent’s claim to historical Antiquity and civilizations. For general readers, undergraduates, and graduate students.
Ranger, Terence O. “Towards a Useable African Past.” In African Studies Since 1945: A Tribute to Basil Davidson. Edited by Christopher Fyfe, 17–30. London: Longman, 1976.
A sobering assessment of the remarkable progress made in the study of the African past from 1945 to 1975. Examines the continuing crisis in African historiography and disillusionment among emerging African historians to make a case for methodological refocusing and sophistication and for more relevant historical approaches. For a general readership.
Temu, Arnold, and Bonaventure Swai. Historians and Africanist History: A Critique: Post-Colonial Historiography Examined. London: Zed, 1981.
A biting critique of the postcolonial liberal historical scholarship in Africa, focusing especially on its weak empiricism, its absence of theory, its divestment of itself from the canons of historical professionalism, and its lack of rigor and relevance to pressing contemporary issues on the continent. For specialists and graduate students.
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