JAN VANSINA. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

MELVILLE J. & FRANCES S. HERSKOVITS. Selections from Part II of Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1958. Part II is called “The Narratives,” 124-324.

Introduction

This review paper is the second part of a two-part series on non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based on a reading of selected narratives from the anthropologists Melville and Francis Herskovits’ 1958 work, Dahomean Narrative, with a bit of comparison to the revised version of the anthropologist Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History. I would like to begin by using Vansina’s work to define what “oral tradition” means in comparison to “oral history.” Oral tradition is defined simply as “reported statements from the past beyond the present generation.”[1] Put a bit differently, the “truly distinctive characteristic of oral tradition is its transmission by word of mouth over a period longer than the contemporary generation.”[2] While oral histories typically pertain to events that took place during the life of the person who is being interviewed, oral traditions extend beyond the lifespan of a single individual; instead, they represent the preserved beliefs of a particular culture, people, or society. Vansina devoted much of his career to the systematic study of oral traditions in African History. He first published Oral Traditions as History in 1959 and then updated the text in 1985. He wrote this guide to introduce historians “to the usual set of rules of historical evidence as they apply to oral traditions.”[3]

Oral Traditions as History is a taxonomic guide for beginners who are looking to use oral traditions as primary sources in their research. Vansina breaks oral traditions down into a series of categories, each with its own set of general rules and principles. There are so many different genres and forms, including epics, tales, proverbs, riddles, myths, testimonies, reminiscences, songs, poetry, genealogies, historical gossip, commentaries, verbal art, and more. While some oral traditions are intended to deliver news, others are intended to be more interpretative; and while some traditions are casual and improvisational, others are solemn and relatively unchanging. Historians must be aware that many traditions vary with the performance and performer. Most of them are culture-bound, fluid, and have undergone both conscious and unconscious alterations.[4] Furthermore, when an historian engages with a particular oral tradition, they must learn to account for the present and the past. As Vansina says, every oral tradition is “the creation of a profile of past history which is the historical consciousness of the present.”[5] Despite these obstacles and quite a few more, Vansina argues that oral traditions are an essential primary source for the study of African history. “Without oral traditions,” he concludes, “we would know very little about the past of large parts of the world, and we would not know them from the inside.”[6] It is with this idea in mind that we turn our attention to the case study from this week’s reading: Dahomean Narrative by the Herskovits’.[7] Continue reading “Oral Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Study from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin”