The Zamani Reader

A History Blog from a History Student


Summer/Fall, 2017

Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part II of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part II is called “Archaeological Sources,” 3-104.

CHRISTOPHER R. DECORSE AND SAM SPIERS. “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 29-42.


This review paper is the first part of a two-part series about non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based upon a reading of five essays that provide case studies for working with sources in archaeology and material culture. To begin this paper, I would like to summarize what the anthropologist James Denbow concludes about archaeological source materials in his introduction to the “Archeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History. Writing in the year 2004, Denbow states that the discipline of archaeology has traditionally “served history in a ‘validationist’ role,” meaning that practitioners often took their leads from the documentary record and engaged with archaeology as a way to track and confirm stories that they found in written sources.[1] By now, however, researchers are using archaeological methods in a way that is much more expansive. Instead of a supporting role, material culture plays an equal role alongside oral traditions and written records in the process of historical inquiry. Generally, this means acknowledging the fact that archaeology, like these other two modes of inquiry, suffers from “inherent biases and limitations.” It also means recognizing that archaeology has the potential not only to validate, but to amend old theses and even to propose new ones. [2]

Archaeology and the Study of African History – Conclusions from the Case Studies

For the study of African History more specifically, the rise of material culture as an equally valid mode of historical inquiry carries special meaning. The study of archaeology allows historians to move the geographic and temporal boundaries of analysis beyond areas that were only covered by literary sources. With archaeology, so-called “non-literate” times may be used as a vantage point from which to interpret the historical events of later eras that left behind written records. This is done in Laura Mitchell’s chapter on the spatial geography of Dutch, white settler-colonialism in the Cedarberg frontier of South Africa during the eighteenth century.[3] Mitchell uses mapping techniques to literally overlay sites of Khoisan material culture that date back to the Late Stone Age—identified mostly through rock art and the presence of stone tools—with land-grant data taken from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. What Mitchell discovers is that these maps occupy the exact same spaces. Her research suggests that scholars should not understand the colonial war that Khoisan people waged against Dutch settlers in 1739 as a general confrontation over contested resources, but as an engagement over the right to access and control very “specific pieces of land” that were both environmentally strategic and spiritually sacred to the Khoisan people.[4]

In addition to expanding the geographic and temporal bounds of African History, archaeology allows historians to effectively combat lingering stereotypes about the primitive, primordial, or unchanging African society. This theme comes out in several of this week’s readings. Akinwumi Ogundiran’s piece, for example, brings a much greater definition to the precolonial history of the Yoruba-Edo region (today western Nigeria and Benin). Ogundiran uses the archaeological record to outline “six cultural historical phases” that defined the area from 500 BC to 1800 AD. The result is a “long-term chronological scheme” that historians can now use for “understanding the origins, changes, and continuities of the cultural institutions in the region over time.”[5] Ogundiran bases his historical schema off of changes that are visible in the material culture of the region. One piece of evidence, for example, that testifies to the ascendancy of a confederacy-style political structure in the region during what Ogundiran defines as the Early Formative Period (500-800 AD) is the proliferation of defensive embankments, ditches, and ramparts. To mention just one additional example, Ogundiran tracks Ile-Ife’s rise to political and cultural dominance during the Classical Period  (1000-1400 AD) through its monopolization and exportation of several new artistic traditions, like terracotta ceramics, potsherd architecture, brass casting, and glass-bead production.[6] Continue reading “Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana”

Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part III of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part III is called “Documentary Sources,” 169-238.

PHILIP D. CURTIN ET AL. Part I of Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Part I is called “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century, 3-139, omitting the section on Olaudah Equiano, 60-98.

STEPHEN D. BEHRENDT, A.J.H. LATHAM, AND DAVID NORTHRUP. Part II of The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Part II is called “Extracts from the Diary of Antera Duke,” 133-220.


The main readings for this week are documentary sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. Two of these sources were written by West African peoples themselves, while the third was written by a European man yet based off of his interactions with a West African. Additionally, two of the sources appear as excerpts in Africa Remembered, an edited volume compiled by the historian Philip Curtin. They come from the book’s first part, entitled “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century.”[1] The first source is the published slave narrative of a Fulbe Muslim trader named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1734). The second is a series of letters from a Fanti missionary, slave factory chaplain, and sharity school teacher named Philip Quaque (1766-1811). In addition, the diary of a prominent Efik chief and slave trader named Antera Duke Ephrim constitutes the third source (1785-1788). Taken together, these three documentary sources not only represent different regions of Africa but also different experiences with the slave trade and different genres of writing. Finally, chapters taken from Sources and Methods in African History, compiled by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, provide context for analyzing these narratives.

In his introduction to the “Documentary Sources” section of Sources and Methods in African History, Thomas Spear explains why historians of Africa have been more reluctant to critically engage with written primary sources than scholars of other fields.[2] Documentary sources for studying African history, particularly from the long eighteenth-century, are both rare and problematic. As the African philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe has demonstrated in a detailed theoretical and historiographical critique, called The Invention of Africa, these sources often reflect ‘Western epistemologies’ such as ‘discourses on African primitiveness.’ These epistemological frameworks typically fail to engage with how African peoples thought of themselves and their own societies.[3] As Spear explains, the problematic nature of documentary sources has led African historians to devote their energies to developing alternative materials for understanding he African past. These innovative departures are epitomized by scholarship like that of Jan Vansina. An historian and anthropologist of Africa, Vansina devoted much of his career to developing a guide for fieldworkers who want to employ oral traditions as a primary source for understanding both the past and present of African societies. Vansina’s work, written up in 1959 and then updated in 1985, has demonstrated that oral traditions are a complex, diverse, and necessary component of historical research in African societies. They are not just a medium to be turned to when written materials are unavailable.[4]

Inspired by the innovative methods of anthropologists like Vansina and the cogent critiques of philosophers like Mudimbe, many scholars of Africa are starting to revisit the historical potential of documentary source materials, especially when these materials are interpreted in new ways. In a series of three essays on written source materials of the nineteenth-century, Christian Jennings, Kristin Mann, and Meredith McKittrick offer case studies that suggest why “documentary sources remain vital to our historical understanding, no matter who produced them and how and why they did so.”[5] These authors reaffirm the view that, just like oral traditions, written source materials can spark historical revelations about African societies when historians approach them with thoughtful questions. For example, in revisiting early Church records from East Africa in the 1840s and 1850s, Jennings demonstrates that missionaries had a much better understanding of the cultures of Massai and Iloikop pastoralists than later historians were willing to concede. The missionaries had interpreted these Rift Valley societies through the lens of their own prejudices, like Mudimbe explains, but they also based their ethnographic work on local informants from within the communities. As a result, when their works are carefully studied, they have the potential to affect some of our most longstanding historical assumptions—in this case, about the evolution of Massai identity. It is with this view in mind that we turn to our three readings from the eighteenth century.[6]

Continue reading “Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke”

Syllabus for Independent Study — “West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century”

Dear readers,

The 2017-2018 school year is starting this Wednesday, September 27. Even though I completed all of my graduate seminar work last spring, I will be taking one more class this fall. This class is an independent-study course (also known as a directed-readings course) in order to fulfill the requirements for my minor in African History. Getting a minor is one of the three main benchmarks for third-year students in the PhD program at Davis. (The other two benchmarks are passing the comprehensive examinations and proposing the dissertation prospectus.)

Every student in the UC Davis doctoral History program must complete a minor. To do this, students select a field of History that is different from their major field. Then, they find a professor who is willing to supervise their minor project. The student meets with that professor for a designated period of time–usually a quarter or so–and they discuss the contours of the field while they read some of its major works. Afterward, the student conceives of and writes up a syllabus for a hypothetical undergraduate course in that field, as well as a “justification paper” that explains the choices they made in creating the syllabus. He or she then submits both of these materials to their minor professor and, hopefully, the professor approves of them and grants the student their minor. (By the way, a student cannot move on to their dissertation prospectus unless he or she has successfully completed the minor, so this part of the process is kind of crucial.)

Overall, the purpose of the minor field is to make students more versatile, both in their knowledge of History as a discipline and in their prospects for a job after graduation. Studying a second field in detail gives students greater perspective on their own field of research. Also, having a syllabus in a secondary field ensures that graduating students will have another option about what they can teach once they are placed in a new job. As I am told, the syllabus is a helpful tool to have when job hunting. Obviously, universities hire new faculty with the intention of having them teach in their major-field areas; yet, a graduate might come off as a more-competitive candidate in the interview room if he or she can present and explain a syllabus of their own creation for another field of History entirely. Ideally, the university would see an added benefit in hiring a professor who feels comfortable teaching in more than one field of History.

So, what am I doing? At the end of last year, I finally came to the conclusion that I would pursue my minor in African History. I approached one of the UC Davis History professors who specializes in African History at the beginning of the summer, and I asked if they would supervise my minor project. Thankfully, they agreed, and they recommended that we take this independent-study course together to prepare. I spent the last month of the summer drafting a syllabus for this course and, after some revisions with the professor, a working version is finally complete. I have attached the syllabus to the bottom of this post for you to see. The course is called “West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century.” I have removed some of the sensitive information, like the name of the professor as well as the time and dates of our meetings. Nonetheless, you will be able to see all of the good stuff: our overall vision for the course, the themes we have decided to focus on, and the works we have decided to read. I might be providing some week-to-week video updates on the course throughout the fall. We’ll see…

Thanks for reading. Best wishes,

West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century — An Independent Study Proposal (TZR Version 2017)


Discussion of Sasha Turner’s Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica

SASHA TURNER. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 316. $45.00. Hardback. ISBN: 9780812249187.

Contested Bodies with BorderNote: Please keep in mind that the purpose of my video book-discussion series is only to introduce viewers to historical works by covering their material in broad strokes and in a casual way. Works by academic historians are generally very dense, complex, nuanced, and multi-faceted. It is impossible for me to do justice to all of the interesting dimensions, sub-arguments, and components of each work that I have chosen to feature. In general, my objective is to say something meaningful about the background of the author; the geographic and temporal focus of the book; its thesis, key concepts, title, and structure; its primary source material and its historiography; and, finally, to provide a brief discussion of what I consider to be the scholar’s most-significant findings and interventions. I have decided not to offer any criticism of the works. That does not mean I believe these works are flawless, only that I want to emphasize their contributions to the field. Thanks for watching.

Review of Ogenga Otunnu’s Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979

OGENGA OTUNNU. Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979. African Histories and Modernities. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. xv, 369. $109.00. Hardback. ISBN: 978-3-319-33155-3.

According to Ugandan native, historian of Africa, and scholar of global refugee and forced migration studies, Ogenga Otunnu, nations of the world can be classified according to four typologies of state power. They can be despotically and infrastructurally strong, despotically and infrastructurally weak, despotically strong but infrastructurally weak, and, most ideally, despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. Since its creation as a predatory, kleptocratic, despotic, and conflict-ridden state at the onset of the African colonial period, in 1890, Uganda has oscillated among the first three typologies but it has never achieved the fourth. In Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979, Otunnu explains this situation by analyzing the history of Uganda from the precolonial period to the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. He argues that Uganda suffers from a severe and persistent crisis of legitimacy or a “legitimation deficit.” This deficit is shared by the state, its institutions, its incumbents, and their challengers. It is the result of factors that are contemporary and historical as well as foreign and domestic. Most importantly, this deficit remains “the most significant factor accounting for the intense political violence” in the country today (1, 321). Addressing this crisis is vital to stemming political violence and turning Uganda into a rights-based and developed nation that is inclusive, representative, and respectful of its citizens.

The work under review here is the first installment in a two-volume series about the origins, persistence, and effects of political violence in Uganda. (Otunnu’s second book has the same title, is due out in 2017, and will take the narrative from 1979 to 2016.) The dates featured in this title—1890 to 1979—form the core of Otunnu’s chronological focus. Three eighty-page chapters explore Uganda’s colonial era (1890-1962), the Obote regime (1962-1971), and the Amin regime (1971-1979). And yet, Otunnu wisely sets the stage for these three main sections with an opening chapter that surveys the history of several polities in precolonial Uganda, from roughly 1500 to 1889. The societies analyzed here—Bunyoro-Kitara, Buganda, and Acoli—showcase the diversity of social and political structures that were inherited and/or disrupted by the British colonial regime. Otunnu traces, for instance, how a kingdom like Buganda evolved form an independent monarchy in the precolonial period to an agent or “mask” of British imperial power in the colonial period. Similarly, Otunnu demonstrates a traditional system of legitimacy that the Ugandan state has yet to successfully revive. As he argues, the many precolonial and decentralized polities of Acoli in the north fit the ideal model of a state that was despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. As such, Acoli was characterized by democratic traditions and practices, government accountability to civil society, widespread feelings of legitimacy, and a lack of both corruption and violence.

Continue reading “Review of Ogenga Otunnu’s Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979”

Announcement: The Zamani Reader Moves in Some New Directions

My name is Devin Leigh, and  I am a graduate History student and teacher’s assistant at the University of California Davis in Yolo County, California. Occasionally, I also teach classes as an adjunct History instructor at Solano Community College (SCC) in Solano County, California. The Zamani Reader (abbreviated as TZR) is a blog that I created in 2014 to be a free and open forum for sharing my academic work in the field of History.

In the past, TZR has featured posts about History in a variety of formats, including academic book reviews and précis, personal reflections, notable quotes, news and announcements, class lectures, interviews, recommended resources, links to online materials, and feature-length articles. The featured articles have ranged from research prospectuses to bibliographical essays, historiographies, and research papers. Recently, at the start of summer, 2017, I decided to take TZR to a new level. I have explained my decision in the paragraphs below:

I first created TZR on Saturday afternoon, February 1, 2014. It evolved out of my experience writing posts for a different blog, known as The Lakefront Historian, when I was an MA student at Loyola University Chicago. During the first three-and-a-half years of running TZR, I treated the blog as a supplement to, and a release valve for, my more-formal studies in graduate school. As such, I never adhered to a very reliable or consistent posting schedule. Instead, the only way I felt that I could make a blog work with my commitments in school was to partner it with my academic course-work, adapting and posting materials as I completed them for my professors. This strategy meant that, while my posts often aligned closely with my personal research interests, they more-generally reflected the assignments that I was given by my professors at any particular moment.

Recently, I passed over a threshold in my journey towards my doctorate degree. During the 2016-2017 academic year, I started conducting research for my potential dissertation project. Since I plan to publish this research in a more formal venue some day, I chose not to post about it on TZR. Then, in the spring of 2017, I finished with my graduate course-work entirely. As a result, I am no longer being assigned and producing papers for school that I can re-post on TZR. Rather, I am focusing my time on studying for my comprehensive examinations and preparing for my dissertation prospectus, both of which, god willing, are supposed to occur in the fall of 2018 . If I successfully complete these two stages of the PhD process, then I will begin several years of intensive research and writing for my dissertation project. Like much of the work that I undertook in the 2016-2017 academic year, I will be saving these writings for publication in a forum other than TZR. This means that, in order for TZR to survive and even thrive in an organic way, it will have to be adapted to meet these new circumstances.

In order to adjust TZR to this next phase of my career and to ensure that the project is continually moving forward, I have chosen to take the blog in a couple of new directions. For the first time ever, TZR will begin accepting submissions for outside content starting in the fall of 2017. (Please see the “Submissions to the Blog” page for more information.) Hopefully, this new aspect of TZR will help the website continue featuring new material, while also making the site more dynamic by expanding the diversity of its voices and by making its production much more interactive. Second, I am planning to produce material in a couple of new forums. In particular, I am hoping to begin producing video blogs that discuss some of the books I am reading for my comprehensive examinations. For me, these new directions are a fresh reminder that TZR is a continually evolving project.

For more information about TZR, please check out some of the pages cataloged beneath this one, browse older posts in the “Search the Archives” section, or send me a message via the “Contact the Author” page. Thanks for supporting TZR, and best wishes.

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