African history of hit and myths

September 8, 1995

The practice of history in the conventional western sense is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Africa, says the Nigerian historiographer G. Akin Akinola.

The specialist in African histography and senior lecturer in history at the University of Ibadan says that the first African historians to work in the written western tradition were trained by Christian missionaries. "Previous history came out of an oral tradition, and they were concerned that unless this history was recorded in writing it would pass into oblivion."

Notable pioneer practitioners included the Rev Samuel Johnson, a Yoruba, whose history of his people was published in 1897, and Carl Christian Reindorff, who produced a history of the Ashanti.

Literacy and colonialism created fresh demands and resources for history as the colonial powers created document-generating bureaucracies and sought to learn more of the past of the people they were ruling. The next step came with the historians who had a professional western training, many from the University of London. "They were trained in western practice and methodology and also tended to a western mind set which meant one had to rely on documentary sources."

Even so many African historians, wanting to provide an African counterpoint to a record which would otherwise be dominated by Europeans, still find some value in the old, oral sources. "They are of value provided that you are aware of their limitations and don't expect too much. This tradition is not concerned with such things as separating myths from what really happened," he says.

As well as these sources, historians can use accounts left by western travellers. "While colonialism only arrives in force in the 19th century, there is contact in coastal regions as early as the 15th century. And while you again have to be aware of the limitations and prejudices of observers, travellers like Richard Burton left brilliant accounts of their journeys."

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