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Book Review


William Worger, Nancy Clark, and Edward Alpers, eds., Africa and the West: A Documentary History, 2nd edition, Volumes 1 and 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xvii + 292; xviii + 302. $49.90 (paper).


     When teaching broad African history surveys, the choices for compatible primary document readers are very limited. The only real competitor for Worger, Clark, and Alpers' book is Robert O. Collins Documents from the African Past (Markus Wiener, 2001), which contains seventy-one selections including five from the period prior to that covered by Africa and the West.1 Primary readers with narrower approaches but survey potential are also available--Trevor Getz, ed., African Voices of the Global Past (Westview Press, 1914) and David Robinson and Douglas Smith, eds., Sources of the African Past (iUniverse, 1999)--but neither has the breadth of Africa and the West.2


The two volumes of Africa and the West boast 133 documents, although this is actually an undercount, since many of these "documents" are actually multiple related pieces. The total is closer to 170 sources, and this does not even include the fifty two "illustrations," some of which are valuable primary sources themselves. Five of the documents are not technically primary sources: three are historical fiction and two are secondary reconstructions of events. (Note that the authors make no claim that all the documents are primary sources.) Regarding the size of the documents, the editors have chosen to "present selections lengthy enough to enable the reader to capture a sense of what each author intended. We have avoided cutting texts to select certain lines of interpretation…." The extensive nature of the collection, the substantial word count within each source, and the density and difficult nature of many, means that nearly all teachers will need to spend some time selecting a portion of the documents to cover through a semester or school year, rather than being able to assign the book as a whole.

     Worger, Clark, and Alpers reasonably argue that full geographical coverage of Sub-Saharan Africa is impossible, although they very nearly achieve this goal. They also defend a preponderance of documents from the two "countries" of Ghana (about 12% of the total) and South Africa (more than 20%), because of those regions' exemplification of African encounters with the West and the relative richness of their available archives in English. Here the authors underplay their own coverage of what I would call "Greater Nigeria," which is just as generous as the "Ghanaian" case. A very broadly defined East Africa (including both upper Niles, the Great Lakes, and KiSwahili-speaking areas) also garners about 12% of the volumes' pieces. Excluding the Cape, Southern African sources (today Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola) add up to 8%, the Congo basin 6%, the Senegal basin 4%, and the Windward Coast 4%, as well. The upper Niger watershed is covered by fewer than 2% of the documents, an equitable choice considering the title of the volumes. (These percentages do not add up to one hundred because a number of the documents are not about a particular place, or are set outside Africa.) If we ignore North Africa, the only regions that are truly neglected are Somalia, Madagascar and the smaller Indian Ocean islands (mentioned only indirectly), and Equatorial Africa between Nigeria and the Congo, which is represented by a sole document. Chronologically coverage is dominated by nineteenth and twentieth century material, roughly 80% of the collection and almost evenly divided between those two centuries. About 15% of the documents come from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, and the remaining handful were composed in the twenty-first. Considering time and space, the most significant absence is the shortage of early modern East African documents. East Africa in the modern period is amply covered, but Portuguese action and Swahili reaction in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is omitted, and that elides a rather different encounter from the West-West African model, one where a slave trade is not really central to the story and where European sustainment of empire was more militant early on.3

     The books offer fifty-two black and white "illustrations," and three additional secondary maps that are not indexed with the others. Not all of these images are useful (Prince Henry the Navigator's portrait?), but most tend to emphasize the arguments made implicitly by the selections of the primary texts. For example, there are four pictures of African laborers working, one shot of the colonial class structure made literal, half-a-dozen images of atrocities, and several photographs that reflect political-diplomatic events: treaty signings, surrenders, and parliaments opening. A few diagrams and charts reveal interesting technological-bureaucratic aspects of the Partition or continued rule of Africa, such as the schematic of a punitive army's marching column. Some of the illustrations are scans of data from the pages of nineteenth-century non-fiction books. Two pictures featured are mis-located in the text: a drawing of Maji-Maji prisoners appears in the second volume when the related document is situated in the first volume. Nnamdi Akiziwe's photograph (Volume 2, Figure 10) is not near either of his included writings. The illustrations include three primary, or historic maps--an inset of Mansa Musa from the fourteenth-century Catalan Atlas (with a helpful translation); a 1546 European depiction of the hemisphere; and a nineteenth-century map of sportsmen's megafaunal targets. These are presented as documents to analyze Western conceptualizations of Africa, though the sixteenth-century map unfortunately is too small to be much use in this fashion; another inset would have had more utility here. (One appendix points the way to three excellent primary map collections online, which include map images that can be inspected closely.) The three unindexed secondary, or historical maps--South Africa's homelands (undated), "A lake of oil beneath Africa" (1997), and a "Political map of Africa, 2008"--are presented as unproblematic evidence, not sources to be unpacked themselves. The expense involved in publication was probably the reason for the dearth of cartography, but the shortage of historical maps locating the geography of the Africa-West encounter in the first volume is a substantial shortcoming, particularly when most readily-available secondary source maps of Africa on the web are ahistorical or asynchronous, and so many place-names in the documents are no longer in common use.

Themes and Content

Worger, Clark, and Alpers intend that their documents tell "the story of the colonial encounter" from the "beginning of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first." The editors assert repeatedly (and their documents also reflect) that the relationship between the West and Africa in this time has been an exploitative one that has benefited Westerners while hurting Africans, and this statement indicates also that they believe the "colonial" encounter has not yet ended. This viewpoint, which I am sympathetic to, perhaps lends itself to an unrelentingly grim selection of readings, one that does not do justice to the triumphs of Africans.

     The two volumes are each divided into two roughly chronological thematic parts, which are further divided into four chapters each, all but two of which contain more than half-a-dozen and as many as two dozen documents. Volume 1, Part I investigates the era of the slave trade, the chapters addressing the subjects of "Beginnings," "The Business," "The Slave Experience," and "The Impact of Abolition." Volume 1, Part II encompasses the "Conquest" through chapters on "Assessing … Costs and Benefits," "Technology," "African for Africans?" and increased "Motivations" for the Scramble. Volume 2, Part I covers colonial rule through "Methods," the interwar years, the Second World War, and "No Easy Road to Decolonization." The final part concludes with the coverage of the era of independence, regarding "African Ideologies," colonial legacies of both "Authoritarianism" and "Exploitation," and the oddly hopeful (and maybe Whiggish) title, "The Continuing Transition to Freedom." The titles largely, but do not always, describe the thrust of the chapters' documents. The book also occasionally veers away from the central theme of "Africa and the West." I will discuss this issue below.

     Considering the collection with regard to how it might be used in teaching African history, Africa and the West provides material for some historiographic approaches better than others. As befitting the title, the collection's treatment of diplomatic history is first rate, and it takes pains to include African voices and participation in the processes of international statecraft. Alongside their European analogues, we get to read African arguments for and against the slave trade, African leaders disputing treaties and European illegalities, and Africans' engagements with pan-Africanism. Students who suspect Africans of being unsophisticated thinkers or passive victims will be disabused of these notions. The authors miss one opportunity, however, to further their thesis about African agency, neglecting to include the brief accounts of the Ethiopian emissaries who traveled to Europe in 1306 and 1402.4 The other foundational (and related) branches of historiography, political, legal, and military, are likewise well-represented here. The military history, it should be noted, tends toward the realm of the "New" military history, offering sources that provide the social history of soldiers and descriptions of the institutions of warfare, rather than much in the way of narratives about campaigns. African intellectual history also features in the latter three parts of the volumes.

     From the approach of the social history of work, as a source for labor history, Africa and the West is mostly outstanding. Readers encounter the histories of workers including slaves, sailors, servants, soldiers, students, Boer peasants, merchants, miners, unionists, clerks, railworkers, and two brief glimpses into women's unpaid labor. Outside of unfree labor, the social history of rural Africans, admittedly sometimes distant from direct encounters with the West, does not feature heavily in the documents. For cultural history, there are some strengths and some omissions. The documents chosen allow us a bit of access to missionaries' minds and Africans' engagement with Christianity in the early modern and colonial period, but then stories of Christianity disappear after independence, leaving out a major source of the encounter with an aspect of the West for many Africans in recent times, the true period of evangelical success in the continent. Similarly, the cultural history of the materiality of African economies is robust in the first volume, but fades from view in the second. A reader of the collection will understand recent trends in globalization from the perspective of politicians and Western agencies, but not from shoppers and shopkeepers, "the perspective of those who lived its history." In other words, the informal economies of the modern mitumba and market women are ignored. A comparison of conceptualizations of "legitimate" commerce in the nineteenth (included) and twentieth- and twenty-first (absent) centuries, would have made for a useful intellectual exercise. Like Christianity, of course, material culture has been a major source of recent African-Western encounters. Perhaps it was beyond the ears of the creators, but a few African hip-hop lyrics--the influence of the African-diasporic West--would have served as a pleasant augmentation to the political poetry decrying post-independence authoritarianism. The onus of extracting gender history will be entirely on work done in the classroom, and the international discussion of female genital mutilation, perhaps a readily available topic for addressing feminism "encounters," is neglected. Various environmental approaches that would situate Africa as a site of environmentalist longing or the destination for Western tourists are also not addressed by the existing documents. Some of the most amazing documents, a pair of colonial examinations given to African pupils, provide a wonderful insight into the mind of the colonizer, but other than Afrikaners, the cultural history of European settler experiences is omitted.

     In a few portions, the books' documents are repetitious and feel redundant. There is at least one defense of the institution of slavery in each of the first four chapters, including African and European points of view. The chapters on the business of slavery and the experiences of slaves overlap in several instances. And the authors provide a handful of examples of boilerplate treaties and charter company documents which, while fascinating and helpful to understand the legal (or the pretense of legality in the) processes of empire, do not differ from each other greatly. There seem to me to be too many fairly general politicians' speeches which proffer vague solutions to African problems, of no more utility than making the argument that politics is similar everywhere. Students might examine the minute differences in these pieces to examine change over time in rhetoric or action, but otherwise the recurring documents seem unnecessary. As mentioned earlier, some of the labelling or organization is partly misleading. While having a number of clever oblique approaches to its subject, the documents of Volume 1, Chapter 6, "Technology Increases the East of Conquest (1840-64)" do not always hew to the stated theme. Instead, the reader gets justification for political control (suppressing the slave trade), Nongqawuse's cattle-killing (whose introduction does not address the gendered revisionism of the event), and the constitution of the Transvaal Republic. Churchhill's description of the slaughter at Omdurman (in Volume 1, Chapter 8) and a selection from West African Warfare (Volume 2, Chapter 1) would better fit here. The documents chosen to exemplify Rhodes' dreams of empire have little to do with Africa itself. The final Part, "The Emergence of Independent Africa," perhaps as it should, does not always adhere to the overall theme of Africa and the West, addressing postcolonial instances only tenuously connected even to the legacies of empire or the activities of neo-colonialism.

     Overall, Africa and the West is a delight to investigate. The structure and organizational essays interspersed between the sources are greatly useful for situating most of the documents in an ongoing narrative of African history, concisely addressing themes of Africanist concern. The little moments where the documents echo one another across centuries in unexpected ways serendipitously offer opportunities for teaching moments. With some paring down and selection before-hand, Worger, Clark, and Alpers' volumes will serve nearly all broad African history surveys needing a primary reader.

Michael McInneshin is an assistant professor of African, Imperial, and Global History at La Salle University. He recently published "Early Modern Empires and Arboreal Environments" in the World History Bulletin 29.2 (Fall 2013). He can be contacted at



1 Collins' book is a selection of about two-thirds of the sources from his African History in Documents (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1990), a three volume series of primary material divided geographically: Western, Eastern, and Central and South African History. There is no thematic structure to Collins' readers, other than what can be discerned from the lengthy introductory essays.

2 Getz' volume offers six thematic chapters (African experiences with the slave trade, industrial revolution, Scramble for Africa, World Wars, independence struggle, and feminism) where each author knits together a series of very brief primary documents in a secondary essay. Robinson and Smith offer a look at five political events (largely the formation or consolidation of the states of the Zulu, Basutho, Baganda, Sokoto Caliphate, and Asante) through extensive sequences of primary documents.

3 Perhaps the same case might be made for the military history of intra-European struggles in the Atlantic littoral, including Angolan warfare.

4 David Northrup, Africa's Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3-4




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