Sources/Conjecture on the Social History of Pre-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa

Feb 2017
203
Canada
#1
The reading I've done on Africa to date suggests to me that the pre-colonial history of sub-saharan Africa is quite incomplete.

Just wondering if anyone can reference me to some sources or good reading on this topic that are less political/geographical, more 'what was likely happening on the ground' in pre-colonial times.

Or if not, maybe explain some of it briefly?

I suspect there would have been a huge number of hunting/gathering tribes, not unlike those found in the Americas and Australia. Wondering if there is much else to say or that can be known about this period/region.
 
Sep 2018
9
Canada
#3
The reading I've done on Africa to date suggests to me that the pre-colonial history of sub-saharan Africa is quite incomplete.

Just wondering if anyone can reference me to some sources or good reading on this topic that are less political/geographical, more 'what was likely happening on the ground' in pre-colonial times.

Or if not, maybe explain some of it briefly?

I suspect there would have been a huge number of hunting/gathering tribes, not unlike those found in the Americas and Australia. Wondering if there is much else to say or that can be known about this period/region.
Voltaires Hat, I am not sure what you mean by "quite incomplete." Also, are you talking about primary documents or secondary documents?

If you mean that the pre-colonial history of Africa is patchy and very scanty, that would depend on the period in which you are interested in reading about. There's a lot of information about sub-Saharan Africa from the Trans-Atlantic Slavery era, though much of it is written by Europeans.

On the pre-Trans-Atlantic Slavery era, the information is thin, and some of it is very unreliable. Here are some source books you might want to look at:

1) Africa and the West: A documentary history, Vol.1 From the Slave Trade to Conquest 1441-1905, edited by William H. Worger, et al.

2) Documents From the African Past, edited by Robert O. Collins. (Has excerpts from sources describing the continent from as far back as the first century AD.)

3) Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History edited by N. Levtzion and JFP Hopkins. (these sources can be unreliable the farther back you go--some are more myth than history)

4) Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, translated by Said Hamdun and Noel King.

5) Tarikh al Sudan, by Al Sadi, translated by John Hunwick (the classic work on the Bilad al Sudan, or Land of the Blacks, written by a Songhai nobleman.)

6) Tarikh al Fattash: the Timbuktu Chronicles 1493-1599, by Mahmud Kati and the Kati family, translated by Christopher Wise and Hala Abu Taleb. (another classic work written by a 16th century Timbuktu scholar and members of his family)

7) UNESCO General History of Africa Vol IV: Africa from the twelfth to the Sixteenth century, edited by D.T. Niane. An overview written by many scholars, and it is online here:
https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/file uploads /general_history_africa_iv.pdf

There's more, but this is a good start.

If you are interested, I have an African history blog that takes a hard and unsparing look at the causes of the African predicament. If you have a weak stomach and are looking for anodyne or feel-good accounts of the African past, my blog is not for you. But if you want a different, and truthful take on the whys, please come.
hauda.org
 
Likes: Voltaires Hat

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,570
Benin City, Nigeria
#4
The reading I've done on Africa to date suggests to me that the pre-colonial history of sub-saharan Africa is quite incomplete.

Just wondering if anyone can reference me to some sources or good reading on this topic that are less political/geographical, more 'what was likely happening on the ground' in pre-colonial times.

Or if not, maybe explain some of it briefly?

I suspect there would have been a huge number of hunting/gathering tribes, not unlike those found in the Americas and Australia. Wondering if there is much else to say or that can be known about this period/region.
Elias Saad's Social History of Timbuktu, Georges Balandier's Daily life in the Kingdom of the Kongo and Edna Bay's Wives of the Leopard are three books that you might want to read as a starting point. All of these have a lot of information about "what was likely happening on the ground".


About Balandier's book I should include the caveat that it's somewhat outdated by now so it gets certain important things wrong (see for example this brief review). However despite those errors, Balandier's book is still informative about social history in some areas and it is also an easy read. A more thorough work (which also serves as a corrective to certain errors in Balandier's book) which describes the history of a social and religious movement in a precolonial African kingdom that you might find interesting is John Thornton's book The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,570
Benin City, Nigeria
#5
If you are interested, I have an African history blog that takes a hard and unsparing look at the causes of the African predicament. If you have a weak stomach and are looking for anodyne or feel-good accounts of the African past, my blog is not for you. But if you want a different, and truthful take on the whys, please come.
hauda.org
Hello ohsee. I take it from the blog that you're Igbo, from Nigeria, or perhaps your parents are from Nigeria, since your profile says you're from Canada. In which case, daalu! (I assume that's a proper greeting, but you can correct me on that - I don't know much more than a few Igbo words).

Now I have to ask, is that really an "African history blog"? I mean, you do uncritically cite Archibald Dalzel as a source - something which someone with a bit more familiarity with the subject (Dahomey) would not do without any caveat - and you often diverge into the history of other parts of the world.

I think that if you really have an interest in Dahomey, and in the history of the region that it was located in, an important study that you should read is Robin Law's book The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750: the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on an African society. Despite the title, the book is not simply an analysis of the slave trade and its impact. It discusses much more than that. The author takes a very meticulous approach to his use of sources and is able to construct a detailed and basically objective picture of the societies in that region (a region corresponding to the modern Republic of Benin) over the course of two centuries as a result. Simply reading (or quote-mining from) Dalzel is not good enough to gain an understanding of what Dahomean society was like, for a number of reasons which multiple researchers on that state have noted.

To give an idea of what I mean, in I. A. Akinjogbin's book Dahomey and Its Neighbours (1967), the author mentions (on p. 137) how a certain David Mills, a former governor of Cape Coast Castle who visited an important Dahomean town in 1777 "admired what he saw so much that he said he would have settled in Dahomey had it not been for the consideration he had for his friends and family." Mills stated of the Dahomeans there that "The natives both males and females are most civil, good kind people I ever saw" and that "the country appears amazingly populous, and they appear happy, contented and cheerful". There is really no way to reconcile this with the sort of picture that Dalzel paints of Dahomean society and life of course, but Mills' firsthand experience - which is from around the same time that Dalzel's book was published - cannot just be denied or dismissed. It was a complex place with its negatives and positives, and although my own personal view of Dahomey is considerably more negative than positive, it is also clear to me that one needs to seek some sort of balance and not simply go with everything found in "extreme" accounts without any scrutiny of those sources.

Akinjogbin's book is a bit too pro-Dahomean, although still highly informative and with several parts of the book still being basically objective. Dalzel's book from centuries earlier is too anti-Dahomean to give a realistic picture, although some of his negative views do have some basis in reality despite his agenda. I think that it's best to read Law's book to get a more objective and balanced picture however, since he tackles the subject without an agenda in favor of or against the places he writes about.

I will not comment on your attempt to portray your people (the Igbo) as basically having been cannibals, except to say that Basden never actually saw anyone eating human flesh. He just made inquiries and interpretations, but the actual act was somehow unseen by him despite all the years he spent among the Igbo people. Maybe it existed, but then it must have been on such a small scale for him to never see it happen and only find out about its supposed existence second or third hand.

Regarding the Aztecs (that you mention in your blog) and the issue of cannibalism, I think you should read this:

The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse.

It gives some insight into the biases at work in some of those accounts. It's doubtful that "industrial scale cannibalism" really existed in Mexico.

As for Walter Rodney's book on Africa's underdevelopment, there are multiple things in it that I disagree with, but one certainly does not have to look at Rodney's book to make an argument about certain issues caused by colonialism. I've never referenced it even once on this forum for example (because it is not especially relevant to any argument I might make, in addition to being simply wrong in certain facts) and I have mentioned colonialism multiple times on this forum.

I think that making a blog to attack the argument of Rodney's book amounts to fighting a shadow. Although one of his other books (which is also a bit outdated and which does contain some errors as well), History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, remains something of a classic, I think that the book of his that you have devoted a blog to grappling with, is not really that important. The field of African history has already moved on well beyond what he wrote in that book and nobody even has to reference that book to highlight any issues caused by colonialism. Obviously Africa, like much of the rest of world, was not some paradise, but debunking (or trying to debunk) Rodney, will not somehow prove that colonialism caused no major problems.

Another book you might want to look at (because it takes a diametrically opposite position to what you seem to be arguing for) is How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa (2011) by Olufemi Taiwo. The author's perspective is quite unique and I didn't find myself agreeing with everything in the book. But his approach and perspective is quite distinct and different from Walter Rodney's arguments and you might find it interesting.
 
Sep 2018
9
Canada
#6
Hello ohsee. I take it from the blog that you're Igbo, from Nigeria, or perhaps your parents are from Nigeria, since your profile says you're from Canada. In which case, daalu! (I assume that's a proper greeting, but you can correct me on that - I don't know much more than a few Igbo words).

Now I have to ask, is that really an "African history blog"? I mean, you do uncritically cite Archibald Dalzel as a source - something which someone with a bit more familiarity with the subject (Dahomey) would not do without any caveat - and you often diverge into the history of other parts of the world.

I think that if you really have an interest in Dahomey, and in the history of the region that it was located in, an important study that you should read is Robin Law's book The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750: the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on an African society. Despite the title, the book is not simply an analysis of the slave trade and its impact. It discusses much more than that. The author takes a very meticulous approach to his use of sources and is able to construct a detailed and basically objective picture of the societies in that region (a region corresponding to the modern Republic of Benin) over the course of two centuries as a result. Simply reading (or quote-mining from) Dalzel is not good enough to gain an understanding of what Dahomean society was like, for a number of reasons which multiple researchers on that state have noted.

To give an idea of what I mean, in I. A. Akinjogbin's book Dahomey and Its Neighbours (1967), the author mentions (on p. 137) how a certain David Mills, a former governor of Cape Coast Castle who visited an important Dahomean town in 1777 "admired what he saw so much that he said he would have settled in Dahomey had it not been for the consideration he had for his friends and family." Mills stated of the Dahomeans there that "The natives both males and females are most civil, good kind people I ever saw" and that "the country appears amazingly populous, and they appear happy, contented and cheerful". There is really no way to reconcile this with the sort of picture that Dalzel paints of Dahomean society and life of course, but Mills' firsthand experience - which is from around the same time that Dalzel's book was published - cannot just be denied or dismissed. It was a complex place with its negatives and positives, and although my own personal view of Dahomey is considerably more negative than positive, it is also clear to me that one needs to seek some sort of balance and not simply go with everything found in "extreme" accounts without any scrutiny of those sources.

Akinjogbin's book is a bit too pro-Dahomean, although still highly informative and with several parts of the book still being basically objective. Dalzel's book from centuries earlier is too anti-Dahomean to give a realistic picture, although some of his negative views do have some basis in reality despite his agenda. I think that it's best to read Law's book to get a more objective and balanced picture however, since he tackles the subject without an agenda in favor of or against the places he writes about.

I will not comment on your attempt to portray your people (the Igbo) as basically having been cannibals, except to say that Basden never actually saw anyone eating human flesh. He just made inquiries and interpretations, but the actual act was somehow unseen by him despite all the years he spent among the Igbo people. Maybe it existed, but then it must have been on such a small scale for him to never see it happen and only find out about its supposed existence second or third hand.

Regarding the Aztecs (that you mention in your blog) and the issue of cannibalism, I think you should read this:

The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse.

It gives some insight into the biases at work in some of those accounts. It's doubtful that "industrial scale cannibalism" really existed in Mexico.

As for Walter Rodney's book on Africa's underdevelopment, there are multiple things in it that I disagree with, but one certainly does not have to look at Rodney's book to make an argument about certain issues caused by colonialism. I've never referenced it even once on this forum for example (because it is not especially relevant to any argument I might make, in addition to being simply wrong in certain facts) and I have mentioned colonialism multiple times on this forum.

I think that making a blog to attack the argument of Rodney's book amounts to fighting a shadow. Although one of his other books (which is also a bit outdated and which does contain some errors as well), History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800, remains something of a classic, I think that the book of his that you have devoted a blog to grappling with, is not really that important. The field of African history has already moved on well beyond what he wrote in that book and nobody even has to reference that book to highlight any issues caused by colonialism. Obviously Africa, like much of the rest of world, was not some paradise, but debunking (or trying to debunk) Rodney, will not somehow prove that colonialism caused no major problems.

Another book you might want to look at (because it takes a diametrically opposite position to what you seem to be arguing for) is How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa (2011) by Olufemi Taiwo. The author's perspective is quite unique and I didn't find myself agreeing with everything in the book. But his approach and perspective is quite distinct and different from Walter Rodney's arguments and you might find it interesting.
Thanks Ighayere. I am deeply impressed by the breadth and depth of your knowledge of African history (I've skimmed a few of your posts). Are you a professional historian by any chance? And are you Nigerian? Your moniker sounds like you could be from what used to be the mid-West of Nigeria, Edo perhaps?

Yes, I am Igbo, born and raised in Enugu. "Daalu"is "thank you"; "Nno" is "welcome" in General Igbo; in my Agbaja Wawa dialect of Igbo, "welcome" is "dehjeh."

Yes, it is an African history blog. I cite other sources and places to show how African history relates to the general human story. I believe that we cannot understand African behavior unless we understand how people have behaved around the world at different times.

Yes, biases. I am sure you know that we are all biased to one degree or another, and "objectivity" is a chimera. Also, you know that every era believes its paradigms to be manifestations of The Truth, whether it be in history or science. Regarding Archibald Dalzel, you will notice that I said "according to...", my not-so-subtle way of suggesting that this is what he said, and I was not there with a calculator counting bodies, so I cannot speak for the veracity of his claim or numbers. However, while we can quibble about Dalzel's numbers, surely you do not doubt that Agaja Trudo sacrificed war captives after taking Whydah? Human sacrifice of war captives is well-documented through the region. And I have not learned this only from the history books.

Of course, one has to take a "balanced" view (assuming that is at all possible). However, as one who has seen many horrific things in my life, my bias is to believe the worst about the the most terrible predator on the planet, the human animal, irrespective of colour, culture and creed. In the final analysis, it comes down to what you want to believe and what your experience teaches you to believe.

I am aware of some of the books you mention, and will seek them out, especially Olufemi Taiwo's book. I am curious to see how he lays out what seems to me to be a counterfactual history, a prediction of what could have been, while avoiding the mistakes of Rodney. My bias toward such "histories" is that we simply cannot know what could have been.

In any case, I like your posts and believe I will profit immensely from reading all of them. Ranka dede (respect).
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,570
Benin City, Nigeria
#7
Thank you for the compliments and also for the explanation about greetings.

Yes, I am from what was once the Mid-western region of Nigeria. Specifically, I am Edo (Bini), from Benin City.

I am not a professional historian. My background is in a completely different field actually. I have just read a lot of sources, articles, and books on African history (especially west African history) out of personal interest.

The conquest of Whydah - which had been a densely populated city state with Savi as its capital prior to the conquest - was, according to contemporary European accounts, hugely destructive not only in terms of the amount of property taken or destroyed and the number of buildings that were destroyed, but also in terms of human lives lost. William Snelgrave published the most popular account of the conquest (although there is actually a more accurate account of the war that Robin Law provided in his 1988 article, "A Neglected Account of the Dahomian Conquest of Whydah (1727): The 'Relation de la Guerre de Juda' of the Sieur Ringard of Nantes" ). Snelgrave's account, like the other European accounts, emphasizes the sheer brutality of the unexpected and highly destructive conquest, noting that the Dahomeans had killed some of the Whydans even after they had fled from the Whydan capital without attempting to resist ("Many thousands of these poor People that sheltered themselves up and down the Country among the Bushes, perished afterwards by Sword and Famine").

I would agree that there was human sacrifice by the Dahomeans after the conquest of Whydah. Most of that was done with the specific purpose of eliminating the "chief Men" of Whydah so that they could not be a source of resistance or plots against the Dahomean conquerors, according to what Snelgrave was told by a Dahomean officer, rather than out of some sort of purely religious or superstitious motive. Basically they were killing the Whydah nobles off as a supposed security measure ("Then I asked him why so many old Men were sacrificed in particular? He answered, it was best to put them to Death; for being grown wise by their Age and long Experience, if they were preserved, they would be ever plotting against their masters, and so disturb their Country; for they would never be easy under Slavery, having been the chief Men in their own Land"). That aspect of the human sacrifices (the killing of the Whydah nobles) was basically just a wholesale slaughter of certain survivors in order to eliminate them as a potential future threat, but dressed up in a religious or superstitious practice.

However apart from those old men (the "chief Men" of Whydah), some other, younger people that had also been executed after the conquest of Whydah I would indeed describe as being killed out of mere religious or superstitious belief, though they were in the minority of those killed. The execution of any one from among the Whydah citizens - whether it was those old men (the nobles) or any of the younger people - would obviously be a war crime by any standards of warfare, especially considering that Whydah had already been conquered and there was not even any ongoing resistance. Unfortunately, the reality is that this was fairly consistent with the destructiveness and ruthlessness of Dahomey's conquests.

The exact numbers of all those killed after the war was already over are not really known, and it should also be noted that there is occasionally an element of the dramatic or sensational in Snelgrave's work as a result of the unreliability of some of his sources/informants (some of the inaccuracies in Snelgrave's account of the conquest of Whydah are highlighted in the 1988 article by Robin Law about Ringard's account that I referred to above), so it is not obvious that any huge numbers from him would not just be more inaccuracies or possible sensationalism.
 
Sep 2018
9
Canada
#8
Thank you for the compliments and also for the explanation about greetings.

Yes, I am from what was once the Mid-western region of Nigeria. Specifically, I am Edo (Bini), from Benin City.

I am not a professional historian. My background is in a completely different field actually. I have just read a lot of sources, articles, and books on African history (especially west African history) out of personal interest.

The conquest of Whydah - which had been a densely populated city state with Savi as its capital prior to the conquest - was, according to contemporary European accounts, hugely destructive not only in terms of the amount of property taken or destroyed and the number of buildings that were destroyed, but also in terms of human lives lost. William Snelgrave published the most popular account of the conquest (although there is actually a more accurate account of the war that Robin Law provided in his 1988 article, "A Neglected Account of the Dahomian Conquest of Whydah (1727): The 'Relation de la Guerre de Juda' of the Sieur Ringard of Nantes" ). Snelgrave's account, like the other European accounts, emphasizes the sheer brutality of the unexpected and highly destructive conquest, noting that the Dahomeans had killed some of the Whydans even after they had fled from the Whydan capital without attempting to resist ("Many thousands of these poor People that sheltered themselves up and down the Country among the Bushes, perished afterwards by Sword and Famine").

I would agree that there was human sacrifice by the Dahomeans after the conquest of Whydah. Most of that was done with the specific purpose of eliminating the "chief Men" of Whydah so that they could not be a source of resistance or plots against the Dahomean conquerors, according to what Snelgrave was told by a Dahomean officer, rather than out of some sort of purely religious or superstitious motive. Basically they were killing the Whydah nobles off as a supposed security measure ("Then I asked him why so many old Men were sacrificed in particular? He answered, it was best to put them to Death; for being grown wise by their Age and long Experience, if they were preserved, they would be ever plotting against their masters, and so disturb their Country; for they would never be easy under Slavery, having been the chief Men in their own Land"). That aspect of the human sacrifices (the killing of the Whydah nobles) was basically just a wholesale slaughter of certain survivors in order to eliminate them as a potential future threat, but dressed up in a religious or superstitious practice.

However apart from those old men (the "chief Men" of Whydah), some other, younger people that had also been executed after the conquest of Whydah I would indeed describe as being killed out of mere religious or superstitious belief, though they were in the minority of those killed. The execution of any one from among the Whydah citizens - whether it was those old men (the nobles) or any of the younger people - would obviously be a war crime by any standards of warfare, especially considering that Whydah had already been conquered and there was not even any ongoing resistance. Unfortunately, the reality is that this was fairly consistent with the destructiveness and ruthlessness of Dahomey's conquests.

The exact numbers of all those killed after the war was already over are not really known, and it should also be noted that there is occasionally an element of the dramatic or sensational in Snelgrave's work as a result of the unreliability of some of his sources/informants (some of the inaccuracies in Snelgrave's account of the conquest of Whydah are highlighted in the 1988 article by Robin Law about Ringard's account that I referred to above), so it is not obvious that any huge numbers from him would not just be more inaccuracies or possible sensationalism.
Wow. You are not a professional historian--that's even more impressive. Oga, I salute oh! I'll be asking you a lot of questions, so please be prepared.
 

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,570
Benin City, Nigeria
#9
.However apart from those old men (the "chief Men" of Whydah), some other, younger people that had also been executed after the conquest of Whydah I would indeed describe as being killed out of mere religious or superstitious belief, though they were in the minority of those killed.
I should make a correction to this part of my previous post. It's been a long time since I read through Snelgrave's book in full or read Dalzel's book in full so there was a detail I forgot about this part of the killings. The younger people that were killed were actually from a different country and not from Whydah. They were from another country west of Dahomey, which was called "Tuffoe" in Snelgrave's account and in Dalzel's book, and they were apparently killed as a form of retribution for an attack that some of the Tuffoe people had carried out on some important Dahomean subjects prior to the conquest of Whydah. In Dalzel's History of Dahomy, the following remark gives the background to what occurred (p. 34):

"It is necessary to remark, previous to the detail of what passed, that, at the time when Trudo was employed in the conquest of Whydah, he had sent twelve of his wives from Ardra up to Dahomy, with a number of slaves, carrying a large quantity of goods and fine things, under an escort of five hundred soldiers. On their way, they were attacked by the Tuffoes, whose country is about six days journey from Ardra; who routed the guard, murdered the women, and seized on the treasure. To revenge this outrage, the King had no sooner completed the conquest of Whydah, than he sent out part of his army; who returned the same evening we entered the camp, with eighteen hundred of the Tuffoes prisoners."

Here Dalzel is quoting Snelgrave when he says "we entered the camp". Dalzel then states that many of the Tuffoes were made slaves and many were killed. A comment from Snelgrave included as a footnote in Dalzel's book gives a vague idea of the location of Tuffoe:

"Tuffoe, Tafoe, or Tafu, is an inland country of the Gold Coast, nearly south-west of Abomey; it abounds in gold, and lies about 10 or 12 leagues to the northward of Rio Grande; and at about 60 leagues, or 6 days journey, from Ardra."

Ardra is of course Allada. As for Tuffoe, since he says it was in the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) then it is possible that it was a reference to Twifo in Ghana.

So looking again at the killings that Snelgrave's account describes it seems that the old men (the "chief Men" of Whydah) were killed because the Dahomeans claimed it was necessary to prevent a future rebellion or plot against them, while the younger people killed at that time were prisoners from "Tuffoe" who had been brought to the war camp to be enslaved or killed in retaliation for the murder of the king of Dahomey's wives that had been carried out by some of their countrymen.

After recalling this detail, the picture of Dahomean ruthlessness remains unchanged of course, but my previous description of the killing of the younger people as being merely religious or superstitious was not accurate, since there was clearly an element of revenge involved in the motivation behind it.

Wow. You are not a professional historian--that's even more impressive. Oga, I salute oh! I'll be asking you a lot of questions, so please be prepared.
Thanks, and I'll try to answer what I can.
 
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