This gargantuan volume was published as a Festschrift to commemorate the monumental contribution to African history of Adam Jones, who was until his retirement in 2016 the professor of African history at the University of Leipzig. Many Festschrifts are a decidedly mixed bag, predictably reflecting the specific research interests of a professor and his (until recently, almost always ‘his’) students. The greatest tribute to Jones here is the extraordinary range and quality of the thirty-six main chapters, plus introduction and ‘finale’. Chapters are written by many leading practitioners, including Robin Law, John Thornton, David Henige, Lize Kriel, Odile Goerg, Andreas Eckert, Joel Glassman and Ulf Engel. Ten discrete sections address many of the most important themes in African history over recent decades, encompassing oral tradition, sources for pre-colonial history, African encounters with Christian missions, the African press, colonial encounters and intermediaries, memory and the politics of history and the question of data by which to measure African economic policy and performance to the present day. Twelve chapters are in German, one in French and the remainder in English, reflecting Jones’s own career, as a research student first at the Centre for West African Studies at the University of Birmingham and, from 1980, in a number of positions at German research institutes, culminating in 1994 with his appointment as Professor of History and Culture at the University of Leipzig’s Institute of African Studies. In the wake of the German Democratic Republic’s collapse, Jones defended what had been a large conventional Area Studies department from further cuts, partly by demonstrating the relevance of African history to both wider themes of global history and by engaging in inter-disciplinary collaborations. It is impossible here adequately to review the sheer scale and diversity of the volume, so this review (drawing upon the exemplary introduction by the editors) explores a few chapters which reveal and reflect key achievements in Jones’s career. The opening section deals with the vexed question of ‘Oral Tradition’ and its role in African historiography. John Thornton provides an exemplary analysis of oral and written sources for the Kongo kingdom, exploring Kikongo clan origin texts from the early twentieth century. While Jan Vansina’s advocacy of oral tradition originally asserted its value as a way into the African past, Thornton demonstrates that Kikongo elites saw Kikongo sources as vital in giving their history and culture the prestige they associated with writing. Modern traditions, Thornton concludes, are a poor basis for understanding the kingdom’s history, whereas written Portuguese sources from the sixteenth century provide a much clearer glimpse into the deeper past. One of Jones’s key achievements has been the painstaking collection and editing of written source materials. In this spirit, Robin Law provides new insight into Ǫyǫ historical traditions, via the French journalist Jean Hess, only recently brought into the historiographical domain. This, however, contrasts sharply with the findings of earlier histories, specifically those of Samuel Crowther in the nineteenth century. Law thus demonstrates the continuing validity of historians’ search for documents that may shed light on Vansina’s ‘floating gap’ between origin histories and more recent periods, but which continue to be challenged by disagreements in historical interpretation. David Henige broadens the analytical framework in his brilliant critique of ‘geomythology’, the pseudo-scientific historicisation of cataclysmic impacts on Earth of meteors, relying in part on the Old Testament as a legitimate historical source. Henige critiques the uncritical reliance of such science on the oral narratives of societies, such as those of Polynesia and Hawaii, that ‘remember’ such events and their failure to appreciate historical methods that have problematised popular genealogies, such as that which purports to record an unbroken Hawaiian royal succession back to the fourth century BCE (p. 79). Henige notes, in a perversely empowering call to arms for the historical method: … the work of historians is inescapably based on information about only a tiny proportion of what has actually happened in the past. Complete information is not available, even for events that occurred the day before yesterday, so coverage across time and space is certainly less than one percent. Nor have historians any sensible notion of whether the surviving sources are among the best or among the worst that were produced at a given time and place. Still, they have no alternative but to press on, hoping to find new evidence or, in lieu of that, making as strong a case as they can with the extant residuum. (p. 88) Throughout the volume, the problems of identifying the provenance and origins of source material, and Jones’s insistence on tracing a source back to its origins (p. 95), emerges in relation to a wealth of historical problems. Case-studies of source items—ivory carvings, travel accounts, letters of the West India Company and Hausa fashion photography (the latter a specific enthusiasm of Jones)—are unpacked to reveal contested histories and historiographies. In later sections, similarly revealing, but potentially problematic, sources enable the analysis of property rights in late nineteenth-century Tanganyika (Geert Castryck); press coverage of Creole weddings in Sierra Leone (Odile Goerg); the role of petitions in Cameroonian political expression (Andreas Eckert); and the use of Togolese records to explore and problematise the category of the ‘intermediary’ in colonialism (Joel Glassman). More contemporary oral histories are also instructively examined by Dmitri van den Berselaar, Jones’s successor at Leipzig, in an exploration of his work on the lives of middle-class employees of the United Africa Company in West Africa: the potentialities of such narratives of company-linked achievement are identified alongside the limitations of exploring messy lives through the framework of a ‘company history’. Turning to more recent history, Sara Pugach uses the archives of Jones’s own Leipzig University, previously Karl-Marx-Universitӓt, to explore the experiences of the thousands of Africans who studied in the GDR during the Cold War. The final chapters in the book bring the analysis up to date: Robert Kappel offers an instructive analysis of the German state’s current Africa policy, a chapter (and, it appears, a policy) that has nothing to say about the legacy of Germany’s colonial history in Africa. Helmut Asche provides a useful analysis of Africa’s growth prospects, making excellent use of available data to critique simplistic narratives of ‘Africa rising’, while also questioning the political use made of the sources we have available for understanding Africa’s contemporary realities in much the same way as Jones has done for its history. While this review can only touch upon the insights and richness contained within this monumental volume, it has hopefully demonstrated the extraordinary range and depth of the themes and topics covered. The book is then clear evidence of a historically specific career of enormous significance—one that few future historians of Africa are likely to equal. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 28, 2018
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