Constructing a continent

Studying African history has allowed me to appreciate the challenging nature of constructing a continent almost entirely through the eyes of European historians. Given the backdrop of colonial domination, it seems ironic that the story of African liberation has been defined by European observers rather than Africans themselves. In fact, the very definition of ‘Africa’ had been created by its interaction with other civilisations, demonstrating the long history of European intervention which increasingly became racially defined during colonisation. Western colonisers pushed to conceptualize and classify Africa in order to create an African race and identity.

Said’s framework of ‘Orientalism’ demonstrates Western obsession in defining themselves upon inferior, “feminine” societies, which perhaps helps us to identify why colonisers felt the need to label, identify and invent boundaries in an unfamiliar land. Has European intervention stigmatised Africa forever? Does the Pan-African movement symbolize European ignorance and their failure in truly representing African people? These questions reflect the combination of two contrasting historical viewpoints in Modern African History, the European perception of indigenous societies and the emergence of the “African perspective” emphasising traditional African structures. It’s this aspect of controversy and complexity surrounding the construction of Africa during colonisation which has particularly fascinated me about African history, especially given that the repercussions are still visible today.

Sarah Chaudry


About perspectivesonafrica

Research and news about Africa
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2 Responses to Constructing a continent

  1. This is a really interesting piece and I think something that all those who work in African history or politics should consider. What do you consider the role of European Africanists to be? Should we never attempt to speak for Africans, even through the use of oral sources? Should European histories of Africa only focus on European involvement- or is that self-defeating and should everyone, African, European, Austal-Asian be able to write about each and every culture after having done the necessary research because only through that work can we open up different interpretations of societies?

    Aidan Stonehouse

  2. Sarah Chaudry says:

    I do not think that European historians should not be able to explore African history or attempt to reconstruct their colonial past because of course any historian should be entitled to study any given field. I think their perspective is highly valuable and can indefinitely be used to create a fairly accurate portrayal of African history through primary sources. However, I can’t help but feel there is an ‘unspoken’ history of native Africans. My reading of African history so far has been clouded by a European approach, focusing on colonialism and the colonisers failures and ‘invented’ constructions which have shaped and corrupted Africa today. This negative perspective, while by no doubt is true in many places, has helped to reinforce a global African stereotype which has tended to ignore pre-colonial history and has clouded any positive aspects of African history. So, while I would never say Europeans cannot write any useful contributions about any other cultures, I merely wanted to point out the European dominated perspective on a continent which has so much diverse and cultural history is lacking in a fundamental response from Africans themselves. A greater African perspective would only enhance and develop Modern African history and perhaps create more contradictions and difficulties with the current European approach to African history.

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