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The Zamani Reader

On West Africa, Britain, and the West Indies in the Eighteenth Century

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Melville Herskovits

Oral Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Study from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin

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”

“A Presumptive Evidence?” An Introduction to the Historiography of African Provenance Labels in the Early Modern Era

Images: The engraving on the left supposedly depicts a “Coromantyn” person living in the Dutch colony of Suriname in the late-eighteenth century. The picture on the right supposedly depicts a “Congo” person living in South Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century. Both images show an interest in labeling African provenance in the early-modern era.

Epigraphs: “There is a vast difference in the…dispositions of the Negroes, according to the coasts they come from.” – B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners, 1793[1]

“…good subjects are frequently found in cargoes of the worst reputation, and bad ones in those of the best. The country, therefore, forms only a presumptive evidence of quality, which may mislead…”- Anonymous, Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, 1803[2]

Introduction: Mandingo. Jollof. Ballum. Kissy. Temne. Coromantee. Chamba. Asante. Papaw. Nago. Dome. Igbo. Moco. Angola. Mungola. Kongo. For scholars who work on both slavery in the Americas and the Black Diaspora in what historians often define as the early-modern era (1490s-1830s), at least some of these words will be familiar. They are words that appear to a varying degree in the documentary record of the Atlantic colonies, from English-speaking New York to Dutch-speaking Suriname and Portuguese-speaking Brazil. More precisely, historians call these terms ethnic, national, or provenance labels. They are words that were used by both blacks and whites to differentiate between Africans in the Americas. As contemporary authors indicated, these labels were associated in the minds of early-modern writers with what we generally call ethnicities or nationalities, but what contemporaries more often referred to as “countries,” “nations,” and sometimes even “races.” Even more important, these labels were associated with provenance: areas of the African coast out of which slaves embarked on the Middle Passage. For example, Mandingo was used for people from Senegambia on the Upper Guinea Coast; Ibo for those from the Bight of Biafra on the Lower Guinea Coast; and Congo for those from Congo-Angola in West-Central Africa.[1]

Provenance labels are common in the documentary record of the early-modern period. As the historian Michael Mullin has written, “ordinary people identified Africans as members of particular societies more carefully than scholars have given them credit for doing.” From the engravings that were featured in travel narratives like that of John Gabriel Stedman in 1796, to the black-and-white photographs that were taken by J.T. Zealy in 1850, the evidence demonstrates that many people in the early-modern period had a desire to see beyond monolithic categories like “African,” “black,” or “negro.” Instead, they expressed an interest in representing difference among Africans in both visual and literary forms. However, as the two epigraphs featured above show, these same contemporaries often disagreed about how reliable provenance labels really were for determining the origin, culture, or behavior of an African person who was brought into American slavery.[2] Continue reading ““A Presumptive Evidence?” An Introduction to the Historiography of African Provenance Labels in the Early Modern Era”

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