Introduction – Emergence:

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African historiography, in all its forms – political, economic, social and intellectual – emerged under colonial context. It was thrusted by Europeans, some of whom had scholarly inclinations as historians, anthropologists and ethnologists etc. Many in this group wanted, but were not quite successful,to establish a proto-existence of African history. Examples include Elizabeth M. Chilver and Phillis Kaberry who did a lot of research in British Cameroons. Their work focused more on recounting European activities in Africa as well as on constituting data on African ethnicities, than on affirming the pre-colonial existence of African historiography.

Other European propellers of African historiography such as missionaries, administrators including some adventurers/tourists and sailors had no scholarly/academic aptitude to prove the existence of pre-colonial African historiography. For these, the study of African history and culture was done to better control, govern and/or interact with Africans. They did not aim at creating African history, but to study Africa as primitive societies. It was mostly from tis group that falsehoods and half-truths got enmeshed into earlier studies of African history.

Whatever the case, both groups of early European visitors to Africa–the scholars and non-scholars – had a presumptive but false Eurocentric view that Africa did not have much of a history to showcase prior to the European encounters.This remained a significant falsehood spread through Eurocentric writings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This presumptive derived from their lack of understanding about the functioning of history in African societies before the European encounter. In traditional African societies, history functioned more as a political exercise than as an academic one. It served as an instrument in the hands of the powerful classes in society who can impress monarchs by recounting the good deeds of the past, such as military campaigns. The lives of heroes were also recounted to teach moral lessons to the community.

The Eurocentric presumption that Africa did not have a history prior to the European encounter in the nineteenth century also derived from the absence of written sources in much of the continent. Throughout history, there has been a traditional preference for societies with written records, such as those of Europe. Before the 19th century, Europeans knew little about Africa. As a result, Eurocentric historians (historians that believe strongly on Europe’s benevolence towards subject groups such as Indians and Africans) claimed that Africa had no history. Of course, they were wrong. Africa has always had a history, but Europeans were not aware of it for two reasons:

  • First, Europeans were unable to penetrate the continent before the 19th century because of environmental obstacles such as diseases and unnavigable African rivers with many rapids and waterfalls, but also because Africans had equitable military technology to prevent Europeans from entering the continent.
  • Second, despite the presence of languages such as Hieroglyphics in Egypt and the Northeast, and Ajami script in parts of West Africa, Africans did not have a written record of their history. Hieroglyphics and Ajami script were pictograms that made it difficult to record much, and were not used in much of the continent.

As a result of both reasons, much of African history was either kept in oral form by the grio or griot (the historian of the court), or was available in some written form in the libraries and archives in some parts of North Africa and the Middle East, brought there by Middle Eastern historians such as Ibn Battuta who visited and recorded the history of some societies in Africa. Because Europeans lacked access to both African oral sources and Middle Eastern sources, they concluded that Africa lacked history, and set out to write what they knew about the continent. The result of this European contumacious ignorance was half-truths, misinformation and distortions on the history of Africa. Modern historians of Africa are now faced with the problem of correcting the numerous Eurocentric distortions in African historiography.

Before the nineteenth century European encounter, much of African society was not western educated or western-literate.As a result, history depended very much on the memory of the old. As mentioned earlier, the only standard form was what the historians of the court (the grio or griot) recounted. The view of the historian of the court was considered authentic and legitimate because it was believed that only he alone knew all about the history of a particular polity. Because history relied only on the memory of the griot, African societies were monolithic in thought as there were no contradictions and other views in check.

The structure of African societies themselves was another impediment to the development of African historiography. The two types of states that existed in traditional African societies were the decentralized and centralized states. As long as African states were segmented and organized along ethnic lineages, then African historiography, by its very nature, was also circumscribed or limited to individual political organizations, reflecting the segmented structure of the society. History in the centralized states – many of these located in the interior of the continent – became more developed than in the decentralized states that were located at the coast. Thus, when Europeans came to the coast of Africa, it was easy for them to fleetingly conclude that Africa had no history.

Complications of interpreting traditional theology in Africa – where people’s daily lives and activities were tied to natural theological sequences integrated in tradition – was a major setback to recreating a fairly accurate African past. Correcting African-induced setbacks as well as Eurocentric distortions, falsehoods and misinformation in African history necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. As a result, modern African historians now utilize useful tools in many other disciplines such as archeology, forensic anthropology, linguistics and oral history in their attempt to recreate a near-accurate picture of African history before the European encounter. The result is what we refer to as African Studies.


The Influence of Slavery on the Development of African Historiography:

The transatlantic slave trade, particularly from the sixteenth-century, brought Africa into serious trade contacts in commodities but most importantly in slaves with Europe. The need for cheap human capital, to feed the sugar plantations of the new world as well as satisfy other European labor requirements, resulted in many forms of conflict on the African continent. It was not unheard of for young African men, women and children to be kidnapped by African, European and Arab slavers who initially roamed communities for slaves. Later, Arabs and Europeans bought African slaves from African warlords, brigands/gangs and/or ruling elites who remained the only ones capable of maintaining the type of militias and military precision required in slave-raiding in different parts of the African continent.[1]

European greed for slaves eventually transformed African polities into conflict-ridden slave enterprises by a process that has been aptly referred to as the gun-slave cycle. Because the most feasible way of acquiring guns for protection in Africa during the transatlantic slave trade period was through the sale of slaves, the European sale of firearms to African polities “created conflict and undermined the authority of African rulers” as well as mandated African “participation in the slave trade…even if the ultimate goal was simply to acquire firearms to defend yourself against conquest and potential enslavement.”[2]The transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery dehumanized Africans on all sides of the Atlantic, eroded the African personality, and misrepresented African societies.


How European Colonialism (19th and Early 20th Centuries) Influenced African Historiography:


In the nineteenth-century, Europeans no longer needed African labor in Europe and the New World plantations; African labor was now needed onsite for mineral extraction, and on agricultural production on plantation scales for European industries and global markets. This marked the beginning of the European colonization of Africa. It was an extension of European greed that hinged on the continuous exploitation of African resources and human capital, and was precipitated by global economic forces spiraled from nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. European invasions to forcefully occupy the continent were marred by recurrent and bloody conflicts.[3] Many parts of the continent were characterized by instability that resulted from the wars of pacification waged by European invaders on African polities during this period.

Once the European wars of pacification ended in the early-twentieth century, misrepresentation of African societies continued on a grandiose scale. European colonizers not only misrepresented African societies, but also forcefully transferred initiative in African affairs to Europeans. Thus, African historiography took the form and content assigned to it by Europeans; simply put, Africans were being defined.

On a positive note, European colonialism enabled African groupings to form larger units during the partition at Berlin. Furthermore, a majority of African states have benefitted from the European languages bequeathed to them. The imposition of these languages meant that African historiography could now develop in any area with a common language. The elites who learned these languages were the ones that had access in either recreating or, in some cases, creating African history.

Colonial education affected African historiography negatively and positively. Having conquered Africa, education was heavily influenced by Europeans. They imposed their own history on Africans; thusEuropean history, not African history, was taught in African schools. Elites had to conform to European ideals and had to become more like Europeans to be accepted in European society. The colonial system of education did not encourage African expression; it facilitated the emergence of a small elite whose role was to serve as agents to the colonialists. And these looked to Europe and not to Africa. In a nutshell, therefore, education aimed at legitimizing colonial structures.

In a unique way, however, colonial education was a blessing in the development of African historiography because it resulted in the creation and development of sources. Europeans created historical sources by keeping records of their activities as administrators, missionaries and explorers. For good or bad, these written sources now constitute a veritable foundation for discussions about the African past.


Nationalism and the Growth of African Historiography:

African nationalism, both before, during and after the Second World War aimed at restoring African independence, autonomy and sovereignty; it also aimed at restoring a lost sense of direction.

Long-term triggers of nationalism:

  1. Political Discontent:

Nationalism and the struggle for independence in Africa was the result of political dissatisfaction due to the loss of hegemony/sovereignty to Europeans. Political states in Africa had been dismantled, Africans were deprived of their citizenship rights and they lost the right to express themselves under colonial dictatorships.

  1. Economic Discontent:

Africans were dissatisfied with losing their land and being forced to work on same land for the colonizers for free or for less than minimum wages. While land expropriations were common in all colonial territories, Africans in settler states were the most affected. Compelling Africans to pay taxes to colonial governments was not only vexing, but also questioned the legitimacy of colonial rule. In summation, land expropriation, labor exploitation, capital transfer and colonial taxation were the vexing economic issues that rallied Africans toward nationalism and decolonization.

  1. Social Discontent:

Africans under colonial rule were disillusioned with their treatment by colonial authorities. Punitive expeditions on villages for non-compliance with colonial rule, imprisonment for minor offences, mass rape and abuse of African women, corporal punishment, whipping, extra-judicial killings, open racism and many other acts of cruelty were some of the reasons for this disillusionment.


Immediate Triggers of nationalism

  1. The Great Depression of 1929:


From the beginning of colonial rule up to 1929, African economies had been structured by European colonialists to meet the demands of capitalism. In this sense, Africans in all colonies were regrouped for mineral extraction and cash/plantation crop production to serve the needs of European industries and markets. The depression of 1929 exposed the limits of capitalism as Africans were abandoned to suffer because of their overreliance on the capitalist system introduced by European colonizers. Africans suffered during the depression years (1929-35) mostly because their economies had been structured to produce minerals and other tropical commodities, while neglecting subsistence or food crop production for local consumption. The problems were dire in two areas: export-import trade andthe collapse of commodity prices. The few examples below illustrate the difficulty.

  • Export-Import Trade (consequences for Africa):
  • From 1929 to 1931, for example, the total value of export-import trade for the four British West African colonies dropped from £ 56 million to £ 29 million.


  • In British East and Central African colonies, it dropped from £ 40 million to £ 21 million.


  • In the 14 French West and Equatorial African colonies, it dropped from £ 30 million to less than £ 18 million.


  • Trade in the Belgian Congo fell by more than half in those 2 years.


  • Collapse of Prices (the case of the Belgian Congo):
  • In 1932, the money paid to cotton producers fell by two-thirds in the Belgian Congo.
  • For rubber producers it fell by more than 90% from 1929-1932.

The depression did not end colonial rule but created tensions that led to the Second Word War, with transformations that would shake the colonial system in Africa. The experience of the depression also taught Africans lessons about over-reliance on colonial economic structures. The experience of the depression gave Africans more resolve to fight for independence.


  1. The Italian Invasion of Ethiopia (1935) and the Second World War (1939-45):

During the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, Italy had tried but failed to conquer and colonize Ethiopia when the Italians were defeated at the battle of Adowa (Adua) in 1896 by Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia. Until 1935, Ethiopia remained one of two African polities that were not colonized by Europeans (the other being Liberia).

But the development of a fascist/racist dictatorship in Italy in the 1930s affected the status quo of Ethiopia. The Italian leader – Benito Mussolini – promised revenge on Ethiopia for the 1896 defeat and in 1935, Italian troops invaded Ethiopia. The first hostilities took place at Walwal in the Ogaden. Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian Emperor, appealed for help from the League of Nations, but the League failed to stop Italian aggression in 1935. In the second hostilities at Adigrat that same year, the Italian troops had an edge and were able to take over parts of Ethiopia, which stayed under their control until 1941 when that victory was reversed by allied invading forces during World War II.

The implications of the invasion of Ethiopia were felt throughout Africa, especially because Ethiopia had not been colonized and was a beacon of hope for all Africans. The Italian invasion happened at a time when Africans were beginning to believe that colonialism was about to end. They had been proven wrong by this new European encroachment. Ethiopian Defense Funds were organized throughout Africa and abroad. African Americans were particularly concerned and some even volunteered to fight in Ethiopia. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia renewed the spirit of anti-colonial nationalism throughout Africa.

The spirit of anti-colonial nationalism was further awakened during and immediately after World War II by African troops who had served in combat alongside white soldiers in different parts of the world, and had witnessed the invincibility of the white/European soldiers. Upon their return home, many of these African soldiers became politically active in the decolonization protests in their respective colonies as well as in narrating their experiences that would add to our understanding of African historiography. Some of them even used anti-Fascist/anti-Nazi propaganda in their struggles to decolonize the continent from European rule.



  • Decolonization efforts in Africa were also influenced by African students abroad, especially in Britain and France – further globalizing African experiences, hence history.
  • In Britain, for example, there was the formation of a West African Students’ Union (WASU) by the Nigerian LadipoSolanke. WASU was heavily involved in the politics of African nationalism and was under colonial supervision.
  • African student organizations also found friends and allies among European liberals, socialists, and communists. Pro-African organizations active in the 1920s and the 1930s in Europe included the Union Inter-Coloniale (left wing), and the League against Imperialism.
  • Then came the sixth Pan-African Congress of 1945 (just before the war ended) in Manchester, England. In light of the struggle for independence in Africa, this Congress was unique in a number of ways:
    • First, it signaled a new form of Pan-Africanism attended by a great number of continental Africans.
    • Second, the Congress was also attended by many future African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere.
    • Next, at the Congress, members demanded nothing less than independence.
    • Finally, this Congress was the foundation for the ideas that led to the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.
  • Even before the end of World War II, Africans in many colonies had begun organizing large political movements. In 1944 in Nigeria, for example, there was the launching of a big nationalist party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC); its President was Herbert Macaulay while its Secretary General was NnamdiAzikiwe. The formation of political parties was continued in many colonies. At the end of the Second World War, mass independence rallies and movements were organized throughout Africa; the continent was ripe for independence and nothing could stop it.

African nationalism and pan-Africanism were challenges to European hegemony in Africa when Africans began strategizing on their thoughts and actions:

  • Africans needed to legitimize and legalize their actions.
  • They needed to give respectability to their actions.
  • History would provide answers to the search for means to legitimize their actions.
  • They had to prove that before Europeans they had civilizations.
  • They looked back to history for these.
  • History provided the solution and became the panacea for politics and national life.
  • At independence, new leaders insisted on African history in school syllabi.
  • Other educational reforms followed, although at a slower pace.
  • Pan-Africanism had served toconnect Africans to, and with, African Americans
  • African nationalist embraced pan-Africanism for support.
  • The experience that African Americans had gone through under slavery and their struggles for civil rights inspired Africans.
  • E.B. DuBois and others, for example, brought their skills to the aid of Africans.


  • The establishment of African Universities from 1945 marked a significant milestone in the development of African historiography.
  • African universities became the greatest tools in the hands of scholars for the rebirth of historicity.
  • The universities were regional with an African character; for example, Dakar, Ibadan, and Makerere universities.
  • They all emphasized African history in their curricula.
  • They bred elites who had mastered the mechanics of Europeans.
  • They became centers for the development of African cultures (brought Africans from different countries and backgrounds.
  • They began producing a caliber of dynamic intellectuals, who went beyond the colonial experience, who refused to conform to Europeans, refused to look at Europeans as superior, and refused to be defined by Europeans.
  • This dynamic spirit would now become the second stage in the development and evolution of African historiography – independence and beyond.


Independence and African Historiography:

Independence came with much enthusiasm that precipitously morphed into disappointments and wasted opportunities. The spirit of African nationalism and pan-Africanism that characterized the decolonization period dissipated shortly after independence, and was replaced by dictatorships focused on graft and enlightened self-interest. Erstwhile Eurocentric questions about the ability of Africans to administer themselves – and in a sense, a challenge to African historiography – began to receive renewed interest as renowned nationalists were being transformed into corrupt dictators presiding over one-party political regimes swarmed with nepotism. The problems facing Africa today are manifold:

  • The prolonged economic crisis hasintroduced urgent questions about addressing/redressing the problems of unemployment and poverty.
  • Other socio-political and economic issues include: recurrent conflict, diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, HIV AIDS, Ebolaand waterborne diseases, the struggle to democratize, gender inequality and environmental problems.

Unfortunately, Africa’s problems are too many, and have come at a time when its Universities no longer have the resources to pursue research into the search for solutions. This has opened the door, again, for foreign interpretations of African problems by outsiders, which is leading to renewed foreign intervention. The continent is regressing to where it was a century ago.




[1]George Klay Kieh, Jr., “Introduction: From The Old to the New Globalization,” in George Klay Kieh, Jr., (ed.), Africa and the New Globalization, (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009), 4. See also Jeffrey Herbst, “Africa and the Challenge of Globalization,” Paper Presented at the Conference on Globalization and Economic Success: Policy Options for Africa,” (Singapore, November 7-8, 2005), 1.


[2]Erik Gilbert and Jonathan T. Reynolds, Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004), 167.


[3]See A. AduBoahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 34-57.


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