Reconstructing African History: The Use of Colonial Sources

At a recent seminar a problem was raised that has troubled me ever since I wrote my MA thesis several years ago. The uneasy proposition surrounded to what extent it was ever possible to write the history of the various peoples of Africa (or indeed anyone else) through the writings, memoirs and reports of colonial officials, explorers and missionaries. The answer of course may seem obvious; it is never possible to re-create the world of a community through the eyes of others. Particularly in a re-telling characterised by an ‘imperialist’ western gaze. To a large extent it is necessary to concur. Western officials, of whatever nationality, religion or political belief inevitably carried with them a schema which organised their interpretations of the African world around them. Of course this is well-worn scholarly territory and chimes with ‘post-colonial’ theory and ‘orientalism’. And yet scholars continue to use predominantly western sources to make (sometimes sweeping) assumptions about pre-1900, as well as twentieth century Africa.

Why do they do this? And is it ever valid? Well, to make sweeping statements, no. But, it is necessary to remember that the historian often works with the minimum of tools. I regret the paucity of African sources in my MA on southern Sudan and have tried to redeem myself with generous usage of oral histories and traditions, indigenous newspapers and translated documents within my PhD thesis. The question remains, however, whether the predominant use of colonial sources within the MA prevented me from saying anything at all about Sudan in the early twentieth century. Was I only able to reconstruct the British impression of Sudan’s southern communities and nothing more? Possibly. But in areas where, for whatever reason, written sources are inaccessible and oral testimony unavailable (or particularly confused) is it not necessary for the historian to work with what is available? Moreover, where indigenous voices do glimmer through the layer of colonial silt should they be ignored on the basis that their roots lie in a western document? Perhaps a careful reading, acknowledging both the colonial framework of the piece as well as your own western perception, may yet obtain some insight into everyday Ugandan or Sudanese life that may otherwise have remained buried.

Or perhaps colonial documents may only be used to describe the role of colonial actors and not their impact.

Aidan Stonehouse

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9 Responses to Reconstructing African History: The Use of Colonial Sources

  1. Zoe says:

    Hi Aiden,

    I share your concerns about reconstructing people’s past through ‘the eyes of others’ as you have put it. Particularly in Southern Sudan where even the British documents can be sparse, and it is clear that the authors of many reports, letters and monthly records were deeply confused about the societies they were writing about! But those people were writing in response to things that were happening and problems they perceived. Hold a mirror against these sources and it can tell us something (I hope).

    I think the way to go is by triangulating as many different sources and methods as you can; archival, oral histories, ethnography, visual sources. It’s hard work but you do being to see what it might have been like. I really like Henrietta Moore and Meghan Vaughan’s book ‘Cutting down Trees’ for this. It shows what you can do with some seriously intense research.

  2. Jill Karlik says:

    Would it be in order for me to quote your opinions in a chapter I am writing for a compendium? The deadline for submission is today, but it’s good to show the debate is alive.

  3. Gregor Dobler says:

    To add a few thoughts: the problems are obvious, and might hamper us even more severely than when, for example writing a history of poor people from sources written about them by the elite, simply because the rift of understanding often was even greater.
    But that works differently for different types of history. Constructing a history of sexuality, of religious dissent or of personhood from colonial sources might prove all but impossible. Writing a history of political strive, of economic or ecological change, of gang culture, even of consumption is probably easier, as many good books show. Domination needs information, and in spite of their lack of understanding, colonial sources are often obsessed with cataloguing, counting and describing, and honestly try to come to that kind of understanding which enables meaningful acts of domination.
    Furthermore, ‘colonial’ sources are not always so colonial, neither. The knowledge expressed there is gathered by intermediaries, filtered through translators, conveyed to the administrators by secretaries, chiefs and middlemen. That does not make them objective, of course, but often they are not so far removed from an equally partial source we would get if the chief himself had written a memorandum.
    Lastly, colonial sources are partial, but they represent an important social actor: the thoughts and actions of the dominant are clearly relevant for writing the history of the dominated, as well.
    So I am making a rather banal and commomsensical point: ‘colonial sources’ are useful, but their usefulness varies according to types of question you ask, questions the writers asked and uses you put the sources to. The difficult task ist of course to evaluate a source according to these questions, but that is a task all historians have to face.

  4. Dear Zoe and Gregor,

    Thanks for your contributions! I agree almost entirely with both of your sentiments. Clearly the most important thing is to access as wide a range of sources as is possible on any given event as you suggest Zoe. And Gregor I think you are absolutely right in suggesting that certain themes within the historical narrative are more accesible through the use of colonial sources. I wrote my post because despite the wide ranging literature on all of these ideas it still suprises me how often historians appear to resist the insights of other disciplines. I’ve read a number of fairly recent works which make sweeping generalisations about African communities based solely on European insights! Do we think that history lags behind other disciplines in embracing new ideas?

  5. Rashid Bett says:

    explain the alternative sources used to reconstruct africa history

  6. kbarry85 says:

    Hi Aidan, I do agree with Zoe and Gregor – it’s important to use as wide a range of sources as possible, but I am loathe to dismiss thorough archival research because of the perspectives we can uncover within colonial documents.
    I am a fan of multi-disciplinary study as I feel that’s the best way to avoid writing histories that perpetuate colonial dynamics of power, and reduce the chances of perpetuating colonial (mis)understandings and perceptions of Indigenous communities. I think historians who utilise anthropological theory and method can produce really interesting histories. I kind of see this as an extension on, or an adjunct to, oral history.
    Doing this requires historians to step out of the musty libraries, where the worst we might expect is a nose full of dust and an almighty paper cut. Mildly terrifying! But well worth the effort.

  7. festus says:

    thanks for your contribution

  8. Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it.
    Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! However, how could we
    communicate?

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