In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Military History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Materials
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Colonial Armies
  • Anglo-Boer Wars
  • First World War
  • Second World War
  • Wars of Liberation

African Studies Military History
John Lamphear
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0146


Until fairly recently, most African military history was portrayed in terms of antithetical stereotypes. Until about the mid-20th century, Western observers often described a “dark continent” of incessant conflict waged by savage warriors. The independence era brought radically different perspectives, however, as Africanist scholars, seeking to refute allegations of rampant violence, often depicted African warfare as harmlessly ritualistic. For many years, while informed reconstructions of African social, economic, environmental, and gender history appeared, the scholarly attention paid to African military history was generally sparse and superficial. To many, African military studies were deemed politically incorrect, and few Africanists could be considered (or indeed would consider themselves) military historians. From about 1965 to 1980, there was a brief surge in academic interest in military history, during which some studies still regarded as pioneering classics were written. Many of those focused on the 19th century, and especially on resistance to imperial conquest. But in certain parts of the continent, notably North Africa, African military history was written not just by Africanist scholars but by classicists who examined it within the context of the ancient Mediterranean world, and Islamic and European historians who viewed it in terms of comparative global themes: struggles for religious ascendancy, the spread of gunpowder weapons, and the Military Revolution. As burgeoning conflict beset the continent in the post-independence era, attention to military studies increased, often with the goal of effecting conflict resolution. From the 1990s, as horrific “ragged” warfare became ever more prevalent, a veritable flood of investigations appeared, most written by social scientists rather than historians. Also, to an extent far beyond other sub-fields, African military history often has been written not for an academic readership but for varied audiences. Much of this historical writing has taken the form of popular history aimed at general readers or military buffs, and other studies have been written for specialized audiences such as professional soldiers, war gamers, or students of uniformology. While academics have typically denigrated such works, some popular histories have represented important milestones in the evolution of African military historiography and have immensely impacted wider perceptions of African warfare. What many would deem the minutiae of military costume or the intricacies of combat performance sometimes hold valuable keys to understanding broader aspects of African military culture and ethos. This article strives to reflect the rich, diverse historiography of African military history by providing the reader with a wide range of studies chosen to enhance an appreciation of this vast and complex topic. It is also hoped that the bibliography will help the reader to appreciate that the study of Africa’s military heritage, far from being aberrant or irrelevant, in fact illuminates a vital, ongoing thread of the African historical experience.

General Overviews

Not surprisingly, most of the relatively few general surveys of a topic as vast as African military history are limited in spatial and/or chronological scope. Thus, Uzoigwe 1977 is concerned only with precolonial sub-Saharan Africa, Smith 1989 with just precolonial West Africa and Lamphear 2003 with sub-Saharan Africa through the post-independence era. Edgerton 2002 includes North Africa but his coverage is only from 1791 onward. A rare effort to examine the entire continent from early times to the present is Reid 2012. A fundamental concern of these sources is to identify essential characteristics of African warfare and to establish basic themes in African military history.

  • Edgerton, Robert B. Africa’s Armies from Honor to Infamy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002.

    Unlike most other treatments, it argues that there was sharp discontinuity between traditional African conflict and that of the post-independence era.

  • Lamphear, John. “Sub-Saharan African Warfare.” In War in the Modern World Since 1815. Edited by Jeremy Black, 169–191. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    Provides a broad overview of African military history together with a discussion of historiography. Also emphasizes logistics and argues that low-intensity “raiding war” that involves civilians as much as military forces, typified African warfare in past and current conflicts.

  • Reid, Richard J. Warfare in African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139043090

    Based on themes proposed by earlier treatments, this book provides an ambitious survey of warfare throughout much of Africa. It interprets recent African conflict in terms of the deeper historical past, emphasizes how warfare fundamentally shaped African states, and contains a thoughtful conclusion that is certain to spark debates.

  • Smith, Robert. Warfare and Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

    Originally published in 1976, this book examines West African military activity up to the late 19th century and is regarded as a pioneering milestone in African military history scholarship. It downplays the influences of outside forces and stresses African initiative.

  • Uzoigwe, Godfrey N. “The Warrior and the State in Precolonial Africa.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 12.1 (1977): 20–47.

    DOI: 10.1177/002190967701200103

    Critically surveys major works in African military history published up to that time and advances fundamental notions about African warfare that would shape subsequent discourses.

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