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Putting Africa in World History and Vice Versa

Erik Gilbert
Arkansas State University

    Over the last five years or so I have put in a lot of time pondering Africa's place in world history. I was trained as an Africanist, but my interest in world history goes back to high school when I bought a used copy of William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples for a quarter. I read the book over the course of a week and was utterly amazed. I was then, and to a lesser extent am still, highly susceptible to the surprising-new-angle-that-explains-everything-in-a-novel-way type of argument that Plagues and Peoples makes. Being new to the world of history beyond the textbook, it even crossed my mind that this McNeill guy might be a crank—the Erich von Daniken of disease. I was relieved to learn during my undergraduate years that this was not the case.
    My early encounter with McNeill planted the seed of an interest in world history that lay dormant during my graduate training at Boston University, but germinated once I began working on my dissertation. My dissertation was on the East African island of Zanzibar and its maritime links to the western Indian Ocean. It became apparent to me that Indian Ocean historians were uninterested in East Africa, despite its obvious connection to the Indian Ocean. The most egregious example of this is K.N. Chaudhuri's Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean, which is an otherwise brilliant book that includes East Africa in its maps but otherwise ignores it.1 Other major works on the Indian Ocean (at least those written before the early 1990s when I was in graduate school) were similarly unwilling to include East Africa in their narrative. As I started to look at other classic works of world history, McNeill, Stavrianos, Braudel, etc., I realized that the problem was not limited to Indian Ocean studies. The early, field-defining, works of world history had very little to say about Africa once human origins had been dealt with.
    At the same time, I was reading the literature on the Swahili coast. These works had much to say about East Africa—of course—but were a bit touchy about the rest of the Indian Ocean. The Africanist scholarship on the Swahili emphasized their Africanness, but downplayed their regional connections. The most extreme example of this is the late James Allen's work which portrayed the Swahili living with their backs to the sea; a body of water he said served to provide food and carry away waste, but little else. So, if Chaudhuri had wanted to integrate East Africa into his vision of a unified Indian Ocean world, Africanist scholarship did not give him much to work with.
    The troubled relationship between Africanist scholarship on the Swahili coast and the more world history-oriented scholarship on the Indian Ocean is a microcosm of the larger challenges posed by the encounter between African History and world history. If Africanists can claim, with as least some justification, that world historians have ignored Africa, then world historians can make an equal claim that Africanists have been reluctant to embrace the world historian's macro- perspective. So there are two problems. The first is how to get Africa into the world history narrative and the other, perhaps more challenging problem, is how to get Africanists to better employ the tools and perspectives of world history.  4
    Admittedly, the situation is better than it was a decade ago. African topics are now much better represented in the world history narrative than they were then. Yet Africanists still grumble that the continent is underrepresented in textbooks, teaching, and in the broader conceptualization of world history. As evidence I would cite the heavy attendance and participation at the two panels at the 2003 African Studies Association called "Globalizing Africa." So despite the real changes in the way Africa is represented in world history, there is a lingering perception on the part of Africanists that Africa needs to be better represented.
    Interestingly, this perception is not limited to academics. This spring I had the pleasure of having lunch with Minnejean Brown Tricky, one of the Little Rock Nine, who was on campus for a speaking engagement. When she learned that I was an Africanist who taught world history, she immediately asked how I dealt with Africa in my world history course. Her daughter had taken a world history course the semester before and the instructor had never once mentioned Africa. It seems clear that some students and parents—or at least well-informed and politically aware students and parents-perceive that Africa does not get adequate time in the classroom.
    World historians share this perception. I presume that World History Connected is doing a special issue on the topic for this reason. I also expect that one of the major themes at the 2005 WHA conference in Morocco will be Africa in world history. In fact, we seem to have reached a point where the problem of Africa's exclusion from world history has become an uncontested, a priori assumption in the field.
    What I would like to do in the following pages is to consider the extent of Africa's exclusion from world history, the reasons for it, and what, if anything, can be done to satisfy the apparent desire of Africanists and world historians to get more Africa into the narrative. I will also have a few words to say about the experience of writing an African history textbook with a world history emphasis (co-authored with Jonathan Reynolds).2 Finally, I will look at Africanists' reluctance to engage world history on its own terms, which I contend is one of the reasons that Africanists perceive that their area is shortchanged by world historians.

Africa excluded?
    As a graduate student I once heard William McNeill say that the biggest challenge of writing world history was not deciding what to put in, it was deciding what to leave out. World history, if it is to be anything but encyclopedic, requires an analytical lens that allows one to decide what to include and what not to include. McNeill's own approach, which used a great books/civilizations model, was one that mostly excluded Africa. Yet in all fairness, when Rise of the West was being written the existence of the imperial states of the West African savannah was only just coming into the historical consciousness, and historians still considered the Swahili towns of East Africa to be Arab trading colonies. So perhaps, given the state of contemporary scholarship, McNeill was justified in excluding Africa.
    More recently, the state of the scholarship has changed and it is harder to justifiably keep Africa out of the story. Archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists and historians have demonstrated that Africa—like Eurasia—had its states, empires, language expansions, migrations, crop and animal domestications, long-distance trade, mass religious conversions, and cross-cultural encounters; the list could go on. Almost any conceivable analytical lens a world historian might choose could include African examples. Given this new knowledge, there is really no excuse for newer books not to have something to say about Africa. But how do we judge what the appropriate amount of coverage is?
    It is here that we approach dangerous ground. Doing history to be fair to various constituencies is a sure path to pabulum. I am reminded of Lynne Cheney's critique of the National World History standards that used the "times mentioned" yardstick. Why is the Magna Charta mentioned only x number of times when the Popul Vuh (or fill in your favorite youth-corrupting text) is mentioned y number of times? One can very quickly enter the realm of the ridiculous in trying to get the "right" amount of coverage for each region or subject. The other factor to keep in mind here is that one's own field is never adequately represented in any synthetic work. Anyone who has ever worked on a textbook will know that the easiest way to figure out who the "anonymous" reviewers are is to see what they think you need to say more about—inevitably it is their own area of specialization. "This is a fascinating account of the rise of the imperial state in Ethiopia, but it totally fails to take account of comparable developments in 13th century Bulgaria."3 11
    But the question remains—is Africa underrepresented in the literature? Does world history give Africa a fair shake? A quick perusal of the world history textbooks lying on the floor in my office turns up quite a bit of Africa. Most textbooks and, for that matter, much of the synthetic, non-textbook literature, include the African origins of humanity, Africa's primary role in the upper Paleolithic, and African crop and animal domestications. Most say something (though without much accuracy) about the Bantu Expansion. All look at Nile Valley civilizations (part of Africa lest we forget), the rise of imperial states in West Africa, and most have something to say about the Swahili. Great Zimbabwe usually crops up too. Most include the expansion of Islam in West and East Africa. All include the Atlantic slave trade, European imperialism, African resistance and decolonization. One might argue about emphasis or presentation, but that seems like a reasonable level of coverage. By what yardstick can we say that Africa is excluded? Compared with the pre-Columbian Americas (especially with North America), or with Southeast Asia and Oceania, such coverage seems acceptable and perhaps even over-generous.
    What then are Africanists thinking when they say that Africa is not part of the world history narrative or that world history lacks an African perspective? What is missing from the above list of African topics that show up in world history books is what we might call l'Afrique profonde. Africanists are uneasy with the Africa represented in world history in part because they know that a big portion of Africa's huge and varied past is not captured by such a list. In other words, what Africanists mean when they say that Africa is underrepresented in world history is that the Africa outside the world of states and empires and contacts with the non-African world is excluded. And this is true. Rare is the textbook that says anything about the world of the central African forests or the stateless societies of West Africa. These are places that generated no written records, had little contact with the non-African world prior to the slave trade, left behind no monumental architecture, and did not participate in any of the world religions. These are places that were quite isolated compared with the much more cosmopolitan worlds of the West African savannah or the Swahili coast. Typically, world historians have been interested in cross-cultural interactions and so have always sought out subjects like the Swahili coast or Songhai rather than the Igbo or Masai. So when Africanists say that Africa is not represented in world history, what they really mean is that they are uncomfortable with the analytical lens that world historians use. 13

African history and world history
    Only a few Africanists are also world historians, and it is not coincidental that a majority of those who have embraced world history—Ned Alpers, Phillip Curtin, Pat Manning, David Northrup, and John Thornton, for example—have made slavery and the slave trade their focus. Joseph Miller, who is interested in world history but who is also a critic of the field as presently constituted, is also a scholar of the slave trade. Outside the ranks of slavery specialists the interest in world history rapidly diminishes. Some of the reasons for this stem from the unique history of the field as it emerged in universities across the country.
    African history is a relatively new field and it is one that had to fight long and hard for acceptance in the profession. As recently as the 1960s, the primary disciplinary lens thorough which Africa was studied was anthropology. Africans, according to this perspective, lived in tribes. These tribes were discrete, bounded, and static. Indeed their purpose was the replication of an ancient culture. Change, and hence history in Africa, was introduced by outsiders and imposed on Africans by Arabs, Berbers or, in recent times, Europeans. In the wilder versions of this vision of the past, Phoenicians, lost tribes of Jews, and even errant Roman legions also figured as agents of change in African societies. Thus the study of African history was a study of outside influences on Africans and the processes by which change was introduced to the unchanging tribal world of Africa. This emphasis on outsiders as agents of change was reinforced by the traditional historian's preference for written documents. Since African societies did not produce them, the only way to get at African history was to read the documents produced by Arabs and Europeans. Such an approach was deemed acceptable because it was they who were seen as the agents of change anyway.
    The modern version of the field emerged in the 1960s as the work of Basil Davidson, Kenneth Dike, John Fage, Roland Oliver, and Jan Vansina made two crucial breakthroughs. First, these scholars began to look at other, non-documentary types of evidence. Second, they began to see Africans as historical actors rather than passive recipients of change from external sources. Both of these new perspectives took years to take root within the field and even longer to convince people outside the field of their validity.
    Since the 1960's, the emphasis on African agency has been a persistent theme in African history at all levels. Most textbooks use it implicitly as a major theme and much research in the field in the 70s and 80s (and to a lesser extent, even now) was/is directed to showing that it was Africans, not outsiders, who were responsible for various innovations. Thus we find people arguing (usually persuasively) for Africans as active participants in the Atlantic slave trade, as independent discoverers of iron making, or as crucial players in setting the terms of the colonial encounter, to name only a few examples.
    It is this emphasis in African history that makes many Africanists instantly uncomfortable with the 'cross-cultural encounters' approach to world history. What to world historians are intriguing exchanges and change-generating encounters between Muslim North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans, or between Europeans and Africans, look to African historians like the first step down a slippery slope toward the old style of imperialist African history. In fact, when the chapter drafts of our textbook were sent out for review, one of the more disgruntled responses was that by focusing on African interactions with the non-African world, we were simply reviving the old and bad approach to history and robbing Africans of their agency. That was certainly not what we had intended, but it was how some of our reviewers perceived it. Indeed, the first published review of our book had the same complaint; by focusing on cross-cultural encounters we were giving too much weight to the influence of outsiders.
    In addition to their discomfort with the 'cross-cultural encounters' approach, some Africanists are also uncomfortable with world history's emphasis on states and empires in Africa. It is rare to see a world history text that does not mention Ghana, Mali and Songhai as examples of "African achievement." "You see," the text implies, "Africans were able to build empires just like Eurasians. Sure, they did so later and less often than many Eurasians, but they did do it." While it seems unlikely that the authors of such texts intend to be patronizing, this emphasis on states and empires is nevertheless problematic. If African states and empires are compared to Eurasian achievements in empire building, what does this suggest about the many other parts of the continent where states were much smaller in scale or even non-existent? Did they fall short? Were people in the Congo basin or much of West Africa who lived mostly in micro-states not up to snuff? Many Africanists are uneasy with the implications of this, and world historians should be too. 19

African history and Area Studies
    Area Studies developed during the Cold War as way of dividing the world into areas that were thought to have an internal analytical coherence. If the historical study of the West is usually divided up into nation-states, the areas in Area Studies were meant to form similar, though larger, units of analysis. Thus we have South Asian Studies, Latin American Studies, East Asian Studies, Middle East Studies and African Studies, among others. Almost every one who does African history in the U.S. was trained in an African Studies Center based on the premise of treating Africa as a coherent place, a sort of nation writ large. It might have a multiplicity of languages, peoples, and religions, but it had an essential common culture. I learned this at the last possible minute of graduate school. During my dissertation defense I said that I thought Zanzibar and the Swahili coast had more in common with its non-African Indian Ocean neighbors than it did with much of Central and West Africa. At that point I was asked, rather sternly, what I thought an Africanist was. I was informed that one of the basic principles of African Studies is that there was a commonality and coherence to Africa and that I was arguing against one the field's underlying ideas. I diplomatically conceded that I was probably wrong. 20
    This emphasis on Africa as a historical place is major obstacle to including Africa in world history. It is difficult to imagine a journal issue dedicated to the question of Asia in world history. It is equally difficult to imagine a critique of world history's emphasis on Chinese empires because it misrepresents the lives of Asians outside the empires. In short, it is easier to incorporate Asia into world history because neither world historians nor Asianists try to make sense out of Asia in its entirety. By contrast, the idea that Africa is a valid single unit of analysis is what leads us to be concerned about the whether appropriately representative regions of the continent are getting into the narrative. If we were to concede that there are multiple Africas—East, West, Central, Southern, Northern, the Horn—each with its own historical and cultural dynamic, then it would be much easier to incorporate the sub-regions into the broader narrative.4 To a certain extent, this has already happened with North Africa. Although the African Studies Association claims North Africa as part of its turf, and some excellent work has been done on North Africa by Africanists, in practice most work on North Africa is done by Middle East Studies people. So there is precedent for not viewing the entire continent as a single unit of analysis. 21
What can be done?
    In order to better incorporate Africa (or the various Africas) into world history, I offer two broad and interlinked proposals. First, in addition to using the cross-cultural interactions approach, we should make greater use of comparative history. Second, we should find new ways of sub-dividing African history into more practical units of analysis so that the various sub-units can be incorporated into the broader narrative without having to be representative of some abstracted African reality. 22
    Interestingly, Phillip Curtin, the first Africanist to embrace world history, was more interested in comparative history than in the cross-cultural interactions approach that currently dominates the field. Comparative history offers advantages for Africansts and for world historians. From the Africanist perspective it allows one to do world history without creating the impression that the only interesting things that have happened in Africa are the result of the interventions of outsiders. Curtin's work on trade diasporas used African examples as archetypes against which he compared other trade diasporas. Thus events that took place entirely within the confines of West Africa could be cast in global light. 23

    Perhaps the most interesting recent use of comparative history on a global scale is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's book Civilizations.5 In it he organizes the world's civilizations by environment rather than chronology. He defines civilization as any group of people who have transformed their environment, so almost no one is left out of the "civilization" category. This makes his treatment of African history particularly interesting. To take but one example, he uses Mali and Songhai as case studies, but in a very different way than others have done. Instead of putting them in a chapter on Africa or even West Africa, they are in a chapter on grasslands. They share the chapter with the North American plains Indians, the Indians of the Pampas, and the Steppe peoples of Eurasia. So instead of appearing as late-developing members of the Old World civilizations, the people of the West Africa Sahel are described as the only grassland civilization that was urban. The result is rather different perspective than one is accustomed to, whether one is an Africanist or a world historian.

    In our textbook we end each chapter by trying to cast the chapter's topic in "Global Perspective." (Textbook publishers are convinced that we academics like to have little features like this that are consistent across chapters. Toss one or two of these into your proposal—acquisitions editors have a near Pavolovian response to it.) Most often, this means some sort of comparison with another part of the world. For example, our chapter on colonial conquest ends by looking at Indonesia, New Zealand, and Thailand and their experiences with colonialism. Additionally, our chapter on the arrival of Islam in East Africa compares the spread of Islam in East Africa to the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in Southeast Asia. 25
    One thing I wish we had done more of is intra-African comparisons. We do compare the creation and growth of the Omani empire in East Africa to the near contemporaneous expansion of Afrikaner states in southern Africa, but there is much more that could be done with this. Why, for example, were Swahili city-states so different from the states of the West African savannah? Why is the colonial state so much stronger in East Africa than in West Africa? These types of questions are important because they make the point that intra-African comparisons can be world history too. 26
    This brings me to the second proposal. If we can start to treat Africa as a place that is as historically and culturally diverse as Asia, then not only are intra-African comparisons genuine world history, but so too are cross-cultural encounters between various groups of Africans. Just as intra-Asian encounters are treated as world history, intra-African encounters might be treated in a similar way. Thus the Fulani encounter with the Hausa is as much world history as the Mongol encounter with China. Both involve the conquest of a settled, urban, farming people by pastoralists, followed by a long period of uncomfortable mutual accommodation. That both the Hausa and the Fulani were "African" is really no more significant than the shared "Asian-ness" of the Mongols and the Chinese. 27
    Employing these two approaches would go along way toward making Africa a better fit in world history, and would also allow Africanists to make better use of the analytical tools world historians have devised. Comparative history allows one to examine the Africa outside the major states in ways that cross-cultural world history often ignores. Thus world historians could take at least a small step toward accommodating Africanists' concerns about the exclusion of big parts of the continent. For Africanists, comparative history offers new ways to look at old problems in African history, without having to flirt with the denial of African agency.
    Similarly, resisting a model of a single, undifferentiated Africa in world history will allow much more nuanced presentations of Africa's past and will also put an end to tired debates about things like whether the Egyptians were African or not. It would also open up a whole new set of questions for Africanists to explore about cross-cultural interaction within Africa, while also allowing intra-African comparison. In the end, there is much that a more nuanced treatment of Africa has to offer world historians and much that Africanists can learn from using a world history perspective.

Biographical Note: Erik Gilbert teaches African history and Global history at Arkansas State University. He has done research in Tanzania, Kenya, and Yemen and is the author of Dhows and the Colonial Economy of Zanzibar, 1860-1970 (2004) and co-author (with Jonathan Reynolds) of Africa in World History (2003).


1 Quibblers will note that there are a couple of passing references to the Swahili town of Kilwa.

2 Erik Gilbert and Jonathan T. Reynolds, Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003).

3 Please direct all correspondence on the existence or non-existence of an imperial state in 13th century Bulgaria and/or its comparability to Ethiopian imperial history to Lynne Cheney, c/o Office of the Vice President.

4 The regions I mention here are not clearly more coherent regions than Africa as a whole. But they would make a starting point for a more nuanced analysis, albeit an imperfect one.

5 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations (London: Macmillan, 2000).




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