African written history?

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,509
Benin City, Nigeria
#51
Just to clarify, I'm not referring to Africa south of the Sahara. I hear numerous accounts about written scripts found in Sub-Saharan Africa. From the Mali Empire, Songhai, and Hausa kingdoms and all of the Swahili states that minted their own coins bearing Arabic scripts. And of course the Ethiopians who still use their own indigenous script to this day. I'm already well aware that there were plenty of literate states in S.S Africa. However any and every time there are any references to the history of Africa (including the previously mentioned states) it seems to always reference North African, Arabic, or European sources. Were the S.S. nations simply not using their script for recording history? Was it used specifically for math, science, and religion? Timbuktu has over 700,000 manuscripts dating from the 1200s yet all references I see about the empire come from Egypt, Morocco, and griots. Why not refer to the 700,000 scripts in Mali? The Swahili coast were very advanced with stone buildings, sewage systems, sail ships and used Arabic writing systems. Where are all of their books? Were they not used for recording history? Yet again... where are the written accounts of these places? The Gedi Ruins are lost to history due to lack of written records. Why?

Read the section titled "Internal Sources" in chapter 8 ("Arabic Sources for African History", by John Hunwick) of the book Writing African History (2006). It contains some information about relevant internal sources for areas south of the Sahara (besides those in Ge'ez).

But the best answer to your question is that most of the relevant sources were either lost or destroyed (during invasions). We have clear contemporary written evidence from outside observers for the existence of numerous scholars in Ghana, Kanem, and Mali, and we have evidence that some of their scholars who went to North Africa were held in high esteem there because of their piety and learning, yet none of the relevant works (whether of a historical nature or not) from these scholars survive. For example, shortly after his pilgrimage, some of Mansa Musa's scribes composed a book and sent it to the sultan of Egypt, but that book is now lost.

Even when talking about later (later than the time of Ghana or Mali) written internal sources, probably not that much has survived. For example, the historical work written by Masfarma Umar ibn Uthman, describing the exploits of the Bornu sultan Idris Katakamarbe is lost. And a 16th or 17th century book by a certain Baba Goro called Pearls of Beauties Concerning What is Related About Some Kings of the Sudan (or alternatively, The most beautiful pearls from the history of certain kings of the Sudan) is also lost.

(I realize that the poster is banned now, but I provided an answer just in case he ever checks on his thread at some later time.)
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,509
Benin City, Nigeria
#52
The sorry fact of it is that we will know more about the Maya than we will about a great deal of sub-saharan Africa, and this is due in large part to the paucity of written sources. While parts of sub-saharan africa have a great deal of archaeological sites, without the word to breathe life into them, we merely have ghosts and legends preserved by those who live around them.
There are only four surviving Maya books (the Dresden, Madrid, Paris, and Grolier codices) and most of the material in them is not actually concerned with history.

Much of the understanding of the Maya peoples that scholars have is from oral traditions (including oral traditions that were written down in the Latin alphabet a few centuries after the Spanish conquest).
 
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mansamusa

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
3,308
#53
Africa is a big place. History is a long time period. Many African countries lack written sources for the ancient period. Other African countries have written sources that are numerous but not properly recorded, especially for the Medieval era. Christian Medieval Nubia for instance has a number of written sources in Old Nubian, Greek, Coptic and Arabic; up to 2000 have been recorded; while approximately 3000 are unaccounted for, scattered in museums all over the world:

http://digitalcommons.fairfield.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=djns

If I remember correctly Medieval or pre-modern East Africa also has numerous sources written in Swahili or Arabic. Here is a review on the work being done on collecting and cataloging African documents written in Arabic and Arabic scripts: http://www.africanstudies.northwestern.edu/docs/publications-research/working-papers/hunwick-2005.pdf
 
Aug 2016
247
The United States
#54
There are only four surviving Maya books (the Dresden, Madrid, Paris, and Grolier codices) and most of the material in them is not actually concerned with history.

Much of the understanding of the Maya peoples that scholars have is from oral traditions (including oral traditions that were written down in the Latin alphabet a few centuries after the Spanish conquest).
I think you are forgetting the sheer mass of archaeology we have to fall back on. Most of the knowledge we got from the Spanish chroniclers were again mostly within the grandfather's grandfather's generation - and mostly were myth and legend before that. Much of what we know about their society was what was written about their immediate past, and anthropology attempting to use more modern maya to fill in the blanks about their past. Archaeology, however, provides clear context and gives a direct lineage dating back to the BCE.

The written record goes far beyond books.

The history of the antique world in the old Roman Empire, Persian Empire, and India can be done almost entirely without consulting the books because of the sheer massive number of engravings, coinage, and other archaeological findings that have writing on them. It would not be as full as with the books, and would have a number of pitfalls, but there is an entire subdivision of historian that do not even consult the textual evidence, but still rely extensively upon the written record provided in the things that were left behind.

And I think you will agree with me if I say that the Spanish chronicles of the Maya and the inscriptions the Mayan left behind are more valuable to the historian than a discussion with the surviving Mayan communities today with regards to their more distant past, as there are clear limits upon what a modern day oral tradition can provide for the past.

I should also specify exactly what I am referring to in my earlier post: preliterate or illiterate societies with limited to no direct contact with literate ones. So, not West Africa, not Ethiopia and surrounding areas, and not several of the Swahili City States.
 
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Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,509
Benin City, Nigeria
#55
I think you are forgetting the sheer mass of archaeology we have to fall back on. Most of the knowledge we got from the Spanish chroniclers were again mostly within the grandfather's grandfather's generation - and mostly were myth and legend before that.
It is true that there is a lot of information (especially written) from archaeology. However, while I don't really disagree with the logic of what you're saying here or in your previous post, I do question the idea that the Maya oral traditions that were written down following the Spanish conquest haven't contributed hugely to the understanding of Mayan society that historians have.

Much of what we know about their society was what was written about their immediate past, and anthropology attempting to use more modern maya to fill in the blanks about their past. Archaeology, however, provides clear context and gives a direct lineage dating back to the BCE.

The written record goes far beyond books.

The history of the antique world in the old Roman Empire, Persian Empire, and India can be done almost entirely without consulting the books because of the sheer massive number of engravings, coinage, and other archaeological findings that have writing on them. It would not be as full as with the books, and would have a number of pitfalls, but there is an entire subdivision of historian that do not even consult the textual evidence, but still rely extensively upon the written record provided in the things that were left behind.
What you say here might be true for the Roman Empire (though I have my doubts - I got the impression that much of Roman history was outlined and given clear context in books; Roman history experts can correct me on this), I'm not sure there is any other society where one could get a reasonable idea of that society's history without consulting either oral traditions about history or books.

And I think you will agree with me if I say that the Spanish chronicles of the Maya and the inscriptions the Mayan left behind are more valuable to the historian than a discussion with the surviving Mayan communities today with regards to their more distant past, as there are clear limits upon what a modern day oral tradition can provide for the past.
I agree. However, it's not really an apples to apples comparison here with regard to Sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-saharan Africa hadn't been dominated by outsiders for 500 years at the time that oral traditions were collected and written down.

I should also specify exactly what I am referring to in my earlier post: preliterate or illiterate societies with limited to no direct contact with literate ones. So, not West Africa, not Ethiopia and surrounding areas, and not several of the Swahili City States.
When you exclude west Africa, the horn of Africa, and Muslim east Africa, you're left with the non-Muslim parts of central Africa, non-Muslim parts of east Africa and southern Africa.

Parts of non-Muslim central Africa that were situated at the coast or near the coast did have contact with literate societies that left us some records about those people - they had extensive contact with western Europeans from the 15th century onward. Actually, the greatest quantity of historically useful material about Sub Saharan Africa from European writers is actually that which concerns western central Africa (rather than west Africa proper). There were also some historically important writings (in European languages) from western central Africans themselves, some of which are now lost, although others are being discovered in archives in central Africa and in Europe.

For southern Africa there are European (mostly Dutch and Portuguese) and some Arabic sources on certain places or kingdoms there.

But for the most part (with a few exceptions) only parts of southern Africa and a significant chunk of central Africa (the parts further away from the coast, such as the Lunda or Bachwezi kingdoms) and non-Muslim east Africa (places such as Rwanda) fall into the "no direct contact with literate societies" pattern.
 
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Aug 2016
247
The United States
#56
Ah, I think I found the root of our misalignment. The recorded oral tradition from the 15th century onward is a written record. Once they come into contact with literate civilization - not necessarily that they themselves are literate - that we reach the limits of our reliable knowledge. Herodotus' collected oral traditions were useful to the grandfather's grandfather of that period, for instance. At that point, written record of history is established.

So I am not excluding those who came into contact with Western Europeans, as I intended my comment to be pre-European contact as eventually the entirety of Africa will come under direct contact with Europeans. I am holding that contact and writing about that contact as demarcation of the outer periphery of our knowledge on those societies, with reliable knowledge in any real detail beyond broad strokes of society to that fading rapidly pre-contact. More modern oral traditions are not to be placed at equity with the written records, provided there is enough of it to provide a somewhat nuanced account. Where written records is not at all extensive, or so bias as to be almost worthless, then more modern oral traditions are increasingly valuable.

I am sorry if this was not implicit in my earlier posts.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,509
Benin City, Nigeria
#57
Ah, I think I found the root of our misalignment. The recorded oral tradition from the 15th century onward is a written record. Once they come into contact with literate civilization - not necessarily that they themselves are literate - that we reach the limits of our reliable knowledge. Herodotus' collected oral traditions were useful to the grandfather's grandfather of that period, for instance. At that point, written record of history is established.
Okay. I see what it is that you're saying now.

So I am not excluding those who came into contact with Western Europeans, as I intended my comment to be pre-European contact as eventually the entirety of Africa will come under direct contact with Europeans. I am holding that contact and writing about that contact as demarcation of the outer periphery of our knowledge on those societies, with reliable knowledge in any real detail beyond broad strokes of society to that fading rapidly pre-contact. More modern oral traditions are not to be placed at equity with the written records, provided there is enough of it to provide a somewhat nuanced account. Where written records is not at all extensive, or so bias as to be almost worthless, then more modern oral traditions are increasingly valuable.

I am sorry if this was not implicit in my earlier posts.
I don't disagree, and it seems that I just misunderstood what you were really saying. I do agree with the idea that, in the vast majority of cases, the further back in time one goes, the less detailed and useful oral traditions are to historians.
 
Aug 2016
247
The United States
#58
Okay. I see what it is that you're saying now.

I don't disagree, and it seems that I just misunderstood what you were really saying. I do agree with the idea that, in the vast majority of cases, the further back in time one goes, the less detailed and useful oral traditions are to historians.
And that is ultimately why I argued that the oral tradition is not equal to a literary one, as the written word allows for greater antiquity of thought and understanding. Relying solely on the oral tradition, or suggesting that the oral tradition is just as valid as any older written account, is not good for any understanding that goes back more than a few generations as myth enters into what is remembered.

Towards this argument, a number of recorded oral traditions from five hundred years back are almost infinitely more valuable from one acquired today when discussing the history of events that occurred six hundred years ago.
 
Jun 2016
22
NJ
#60
Just to clarify, I'm not referring to Africa south of the Sahara. I hear numerous accounts about written scripts found in Sub-Saharan Africa. From the Mali Empire, Songhai, and Hausa kingdoms and all of the Swahili states that minted their own coins bearing Arabic scripts. And of course the Ethiopians who still use their own indigenous script to this day. I'm already well aware that there were plenty of literate states in S.S Africa. However any and every time there are any references to the history of Africa (including the previously mentioned states) it seems to always reference North African, Arabic, or European sources. Were the S.S. nations simply not using their script for recording history? Was it used specifically for math, science, and religion? Timbuktu has over 700,000 manuscripts dating from the 1200s yet all references I see about the empire come from Egypt, Morocco, and griots. Why not refer to the 700,000 scripts in Mali? The Swahili coast were very advanced with stone buildings, sewage systems, sail ships and used Arabic writing systems. Where are all of their books? Were they not used for recording history? Yet again... where are the written accounts of these places? The Gedi Ruins are lost to history due to lack of written records. Why?
the safekeeping of the mali manuscripts is a recent endeavor. people just havent assimilated all that knowledge yet, havent read it translated it, put it on wikipedia, or other sites, (idk i just like wikipedia sometimes), etc.


they also have yet to digitize all of the manuscripts like you see with other texts from Europe, you know??? eh???
 

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