The Zamani Reader

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


West African history in the Eighteenth Century

Surveys of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — A Classic Work by Philip D. Curtin

PHILIP D. CURTIN. The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850, Vol. I. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.[1]


The primary reading for this week is The Image of Africa. It is a classic study by the historian Philip D. Curtin about British ideas and action related to West Africa from 1780 to 1850. This is also the first in a series of two weeks that will focus on British perceptions of Africa in the early-modern era. Published in 1964, The Image of Africa belongs to a generation of works that emerged during the professionalization of African History in the 1950s and early 1960s. As David William Cohen, Stephan Miescher, and Luise White explain in the introduction to their 2001 edited volume, African Words, African Voices, the field of African History had its precedents, however, it emerged as an academic discipline “after the Second World War, when Europeans and Africans were awakening to nationalist rhetoric from many arenas across the continent and the world.”[2] It was in this era of African decolonization, when a host of new researchers were starting to study contemporary African cultures, that Curtin turned his attention to the years before 1850. What he discovered was a relative Golden Age of interest in African societies on par with his present generation. “Relative to their knowledge of the world in general,” Curtin explains, “eighteenth-century Europeans knew more and cared more about Africa than they did at any later period up to the 1950s.”[3] Building off of this initial observation, The Image of Africa seeks not only to explain Britain’s remarkable interest in Africa before 1800, but also to trace its hardening and decline by the 1850s.

Before I discuss some of the ways that The Image of Africa contributes to eighteenth-century African History, it would be helpful to outline both the scope and the thesis of the book. Curtin breaks The Image of Africa into three distinctive parts that correspond to major developments in Britain’s ideas about the continent. The first part focuses on British views of Africa and Africans in the eighteenth century, and it is entitled “The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa.”[4] The second part is entitled “The Age of Exploration and Disappointment,” and it covers the years between 1795 and 1830.[5] Finally, the third part is entitled “The Age of Humanitarianism.” It stretches from about 1830 to 1850.[6] Afterward, in a two-page postscript, Curtin shares his conclusions about “the most striking aspect of the British image of Africa in the early nineteenth century.”[7] He argues that detachment from “African reality, as we now understand it” is the common denominator that underlies all British ideas about Africa during the period of this study. Whether approaching Africa through a discourse of “medicine, race, history, or political and economic development,” European authors manufactured the image of Africa from within a European worldview and largely “to suit European needs.” By the 1850s, this image had hardened into a series of racial and cultural stereotypes. This stagnation was the defining feature of Britain’s attitude toward Africa during the age of imperialism and the colonial era, until it began to change once again in the 1950s.[8] Continue reading “Surveys of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — A Classic Work by Philip D. Curtin”

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)


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