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African History since 1800

Short Paper I
Daniel Colson

"We are the sun and moon, dear friend; we are the sea and land. It is not
our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to
see the other and honor him for what he is."

From Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

Of all the branches of the tree of history, African history and the study of its peoples is, due to
centuries of racial hatred, subjugation, and exploitation, among the most scarred. As a field of
historical study barely a half century old, those writing on the subject must inevitably operate within
the shadow cast by the field's long-term neglect; similarly, those reviewing the authors cannot
competently comment without identifying the subject's proper place within the greater tapestry of the
field. African Perspectives on Colonialism by Albert Adu Boahen, an influential Ghanaian public
intellectual and politician, is a book that attempts to create a new theory of 19th century African
history, one in which the continent is "poised for a major breakthrough" and making profound
economic and intellectual strides until its destruction at the hands of European colonialism (Boahen,
1). By contrast, John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the Continent, a work of much broader scope,
attempts to create one epic narrative of African history from ancient to modern times.
The difference between these two books is more profound than simply a difference in scope,
though; it is a fundamental difference in the agendas of the two authors. Boahen, writing just five
years before his bid for the Ghanaian presidency, is catering to his West African audience in his
exaltation of 19th century African intellectualism and the early stirrings of pan-Africanism, his
forceful demonization of colonialism, and his careful omission of many complicating factors of the
historical account. Reader, as a modern British author, attempts to supplant the long tradition of over-
simplification and unsubstantiated theorizing in African history with his economic, materialist, and
environmental arguments and his highly detailed accounts of specific regions' and individuals'
histories. Boahen's work is an example of historical revisionism better understood as a document of
modern political propaganda, while Reader's is a more genuine attempt at a scholarly, "objective"

In comparing these two works, the first step must be an exploration of each author's general
theory of history, as it is this theory that underpins each author's characterization of African history
before 1900. Boahen believes that the most important developments in 19th century Africa are
"above all social and intellectual" (Boahen, 1). For Boahen, ideas are the central drivers of history,
and, thanks to a 19
century commercial unification, Africa was experiencing a linguistic and
cultural unification and consolidation that allowed the proliferation of a new brand of African
intellectual. This explains why Boahen devotes so much space to discussing Ethiopianism and the
initial stirrings of Pan-Africanism, and likewise why he believed that "by 1880 Africans were full of
optimism and felt quite ready to face any challenge that was thrown to them (Boahen, 22).
Similarly, this is why Boahen argues that the primary impetus for the Scramble for Africa was partly
economic prospect and partly due to an exaggerated spirit of nationalism as European powers all
rushed for colonies overseas to prove that they had acquired a place in the sun (Boahen, 31).
Reader, on the other hand, subscribes to a theory of materialism that economic, technological,
and environmental considerations are the most important drivers of African history and social
change. For instance, Reader highlights the introduction of the crops maize and cassava and the
import of guns to Africa as two incredibly important forces. Due to the unstable environmental
conditions of Africa, Reader argues that "highly stratified political systems evolved directly from the
ecological requirements of cattle-herding, with a strong correlation between political stratification
and the relative size of herds and settlements" (Reader, 443). It was the discovery of diamonds and
gold that spurred the Cape Colony, the discovery of the Congo River system that spurred Leopold II,
the Maxim gun that allowed the easy conquest of African nations, and the destructive effects of
Rinderpest, smallpox, jiggers, and terrible droughts that allowed colonists such easy access to the
In what ways do Boahen and Readers narratives differ, though, given these divergent
philosophies of historiography? Focusing here on 19
century history for the sake of comparison,
Boahen and Reader paint starkly different images of Africa. Boahen depicts the 19
century as a
period of consolidation for African nations in terms of power, sovereignty, and modern development.
With the end of the slave trade, the African economy became a gathering-based economy that
allowed for a more equitable distribution of wealth (Boahen, 4). Such changes led to a profound
change in the African psyche as he was no longer a mere commodity, the African now became a
human being in his own right, himself producing commodities for sale (Boahen, 5). African nations
were developing intellectually, experimenting in the constitutional field, and, thanks to educated
Africans such as John Afracanus Horton and Edward Blyden, were developing new ideas of pan-
Africanism, the African personality, and responding to the attacks of pseudo-scientific racist
literature (Boahen, 9 & 21). After colonization, African nations responded with various strategies of
submission, alliance, and confrontation (Boahen, 39). African nations are never depicted in a bad
light, and even their military losses to European powers are said to be due to being numerically
inferior to the European armies and being insufficiently economically powerful enough to sustain
protracted warfare against colonist forces (Boahen, 56 & 57).
Readers depiction of the African 19
century is much darker than that of Boahens. He focuses
upon the growth in importance of the domestic slave trade after official European abolition and the
demographic and societal growth that was diverted due to the institution, (something never even
mentioned by Boahen). Reader contends that Africans were for the most part powerless in the face of
colonialism, and he focuses upon specific African nations and Regions like South Africa, the Lozi,
and the Asante as case studies. While Boahen naively applauds the dramatic shift to a democratic,
legitimate African economy, Reader writes that the trade in legitimate goods was propped up by a
slavery-based economy, as the principal beneficiaries of the legitimate trade were of course the
same small minority of wealthy rulers and powerful merchants who acquired positions of authority
from the proceeds of the slave trade (Reader, 436). During the 19
century, over 1.7 million slaves
were sold across the Saharan desert (Reader, 431). Slave populations in West Africa alone were
estimated to be about 5 million, necessitating a minimum of 500,000 new slaves per year (Boahen,
Unlike Boahen, who makes broad statements about the general progression of African nations,
Reader looks at the success and consolidation of a few specific African nations, specifically the Lozi
and the Asante. Both of these nations grew by asserting their dominance over other competitive
groups. Reader describes the successful channeling [of] individual competitiveness into the service
of the state as well as the sundry ritualistic practices of the Asante including widespread human
sacrifice rituals (Reader, 425 & 430). In the Cape Colony and during the colonial period, Reader
mostly focuses upon specific individuals in the effect they had upon the colonization process
(Leopold II, Rhodes, Brazza, Cameron, Stanley) with the Scrambles justification being mostly
economic and political. He portrays Africans overall as non-participants (besides in a few specific
cases) in the colonization process due to the massive technological advantages of the colonists (i.e.
the Maxim gun) and the ecological catastrophes experienced by African states (Rinderpest, smallpox,
jiggers, and the spread of the tsetse fly) that prevented them from being able to properly resist the
The incompatible content of these narratives can be better understood given the authorial
agendas of each work. In the Biography, Reader is earnestly attempting to create an objective
account of events. Indeed, as a white European, it seems Reader is confined to the pseudo-objective,
materialist arguments and the hyper-specific narration that dominate his work. Reader is not
attempting to create a grand new theory of African history (except perhaps to assert that even doing
so is indulgent at best).
Boahen, in the context of Reader, clearly tells a highly selective and obfuscated history of the
century. While Africa surely did develop and mature significantly during the 19
century, it is
nonetheless misleading to denote intellectual movements as dominant features of 19
African history. Boahen attempts to posit a new theory of 19
century African history in sixty pages,
a history in which Africa is snatched from the jaws of modernization by colonialism, and in his
attempt fails to demonstrate anything close to sufficient evidence to support his claims. Boahens
work is further vilified by its obvious political utility for its author, characterizing Boahen as a
modern version of his 19
century intellectual counterparts picking up where they were cut off by the
destructive colonialists.
It is important to criticize and discount biased texts like that of African Perspectives on
Colonialism, because such works endanger the stability and cohesiveness of modern African
societies. If the modern struggles of South Africa has delivered any lesson, it is that acknowledging
the multiple and accurate histories present in every African nation is an important part of moving
beyond the divisiveness of those histories. Boahens substitution of older, anti-African texts for his
newer, equally biased and threadbare pro-African interpretation of the rise of 19
century Africa is
injurious to the cause of studying and understanding Africa. While Readers account is by no means
perfect, often focusing too heavily upon the effect of individuals, it nonetheless gives an accurate and
somewhat exhaustive, if scattershot, impression of the period in African history. Boahens writing
purposely misleads. African Perspectives on Colonialism is a fascinating work and is useful for
gaining an understanding of the thinking of contemporary West African intellectuals, but it is by no
means an accurate or scholarly piece of historical research.