INDEX ON CENSORSHIP 2 1986
Cameron Duodu How bias maims African history
And how the UNESCO General History of Africa is countering the preponderant European view
To be taught one's own history by foreigners — as happened in Africa during the colonial era and after — is a sure way of maiming that history for life. It is widely agreed that prejudices absorbed in one's formative years as a child almost never leave one's subconscious. If that is the case, many Africans will never be able to eradicate the view of their own history that was passed on to them by the so-called 'historians' whose racist views were camouflaged as objective history, to be learnt and remembered. The history we were taught was essentially of two types. One dealt with European history, and was by and large a chronicle of greatness. There were people like Alexander 'The Great' and William 'The Conqueror' strutting across Europe and imposing 'order' and 'civilization' on those who opposed their advance. But in the second type of history, that which related to ourselves, there were 'fierce' tribesmen like Chaka the Zulu or the Kings of Asante who fought against other tribes for no reason, and who resisted with murder, the benign advance of missionaries and the civilising colonial officers who followed them.
These 'tribesmen', we were taught, fought merely because they were 'warlike'. This posed some sort of problem for us, for we were descended from these 'tribesmen', and yet we knew we were not warlike! The dehumanising message in this 'history' made us revolt against it. Fortunately for us, it was so badly taught that it did not stand much of a chance of sticking in our minds. It was replete with dates — dates of the deaths of kings, of the building of forts, of battles, and of the introduction of laws that made no sense to us. If we had to master these dates in order to pass examinations, we dutifully did so. But most of us approached them in the timehonoured fashion of 'chew, pour and forget'.
And perhaps that is the greatest damage the 'historians' have done to us -- making us lose interest in our own history. For there is much in it that is both instructive and fascinating.
I first stumbled across 'real history' when I attended a 'New Year School' organised by the University of Ghana's Institute of Extra-Mural Studies in the early nineteen-sixties. Much original research work was going on at the University at the time, and one of the people making original discoveries ran a seminar which was simply mind-blowing, as far as I was concerned. He was Ivor Wilks, whose work was to culminate in the publication of Asante In The Nineteenth Century (Cambridge). Wilks had taken the trouble to learn Arabic as well as Asante, and he was coming across contemporary descriptions of Asante culture in Arabic texts which depicted the Asante Empire as every bit as 'civilised' as the European one that came to submerge it. Asante was trading with Europe by the land route to the north long before the Europeans reached Asante by the sea. So well organised were the trade routes that some words from the north became permanently incorporated into the Asante language; e.g.ponko (horse). Asante used to send ambassadors to neighbouring states, who studied the protocol of those countries before they left. The Asante Kings, in their turn, were used to receiving foreign emissaries, and dealt with all and sundry on equal terms. They knew how to procure arms, even from potentially hostile traders, and their trade in gold was so advanced that it was well established in Arabic records from Timbuctu to Cairo. For someone like me who had been taught that our 'tribal' trade was of the 'silent trade' variety, where the 'savages', afraid of each other, left what they had brought and went to hide, then came back to inspect what the others had brought, and took it away if it was satisfactory but left it if it was not, until it had been made acceptable by the addition of other goods, 'Ivor Wilks' descriptions of the caravan routes through Djenne to the North African coast produced a revolutionary effect on my view of the origins of our society.
Also carrying out research into Ghana and West African history at the University of Ghana was A. Adu Boahen, who has now edited the 7th volume of the UNESCO General History of Africa, under the title Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880-35 (Heinemann). The book is largely written from an African point of view: 'in exercising their right to take the historical initiative, Africans themselves have felt a deep-seated need to re-establish the historical authenticity of their societies on solid foundations', wrote the Director-General of UNESCO, Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, in a preface to the book.
The book contains such dissertations as the following — 'Africa and the colonial challenge' by Adu Boahen; 'European partition and conquest of Africa' by G. N. Uzoigwe; 'African initiatives and resistance in the face of partition and conquest' by T. O. Ranger; and similar accounts of African resistance and initiatives in North Africa, Central Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. There are also chapters on individual subjects of interest, such as the Colonial Economy. It is a mine of information, much of it the fruit of original research by wellknown academics. The focus is essentially Afrocentric, and so it has not escaped criticism. Professor Roland Oliver, reviewing the book for the London Times Literary Supplement (9 August 1985) raised the colonial red herring once again. 'We are all very well accustomed to what African political rhetoric has to say about colonialism,' he wrote. 'However tedious we may find it, we understand that it is addressed to the serious purpose of building up national unity by recalling the one major unifying experience in the history of most African countries, namely, the experience of being ruled by outsiders of another race. Much more interesting is what African historians, mostly trained in the Western tradition of historical scholarship, are telling the present generation of African school teachers, and through them, the next generation of African politicians and military men, about the history of the colonial period.'
Professor Oliver then asked, 'Are they treating our memory better or worse than we treat that of the Romans?' He complained that 'the whole design of this volume reveals a view of the colonial period which could hardly have emanated from anywhere outside Africa. For example, one whole third is devoted to the theme of resistance to colonial occupation, and whether intentionally or not, the impression is created that hardly anything else happened in Africa between 1880 and 1914'. Why is Prof Oliver surprised? The whole purpose of the UNESCO General History of Africa is to balance the books, so to speak; to tell European historians like Professor Oliver that they have had a field day — not only teaching African history to Africans but also controlling what Africans can publish of their own findings about their own history. The number of rejected theses or proposals for research that exist in Universities in Europe must be legion. Well, now Caliban has found his tongue and he has got UNESCO to finance him! Chinweinzu, a Nigerian academic, wrote an angry letter back to the TLS, pointing out that Professor Oliver could hardly have been unbiased when he reviewed the UNESCO volume, because he knew he had edited a similar work for the Cambridge University Press (Roland Oliver & G. N. Sanderson, editors, The Cambridge History of Africa, volume 6, from 1870 to 1905). Anyway, Chinweinzu argued, even if Professor Oliver was right and the UNESCO book was biased, why not have several 'partisan' histories of Africa, some written from the colonialists' point of view and others from the point of view of the colonised, so that together the various biases can be seen for what they are and facts distilled out of the works to suit the point of view of the researcher? Is there such a thing as a universal history, when history is about men and their deeds and is thus capable of being interpreted in many diverse ways? Robert Harms, reviewing Roland Oliver's own work in the TLS of 20 November 1985, pointed out that the historian Hugh Trevor Roper wrote as recently as 1963, that there was no history of Africa, only a history of the European in Africa. Mr Harms doubted whether any 'serious scholar' would 'agree any more with Trevor-Roper'. He then quoted John Lonsdale as writing in the Cambridge History of Africa that 'there were literally hundreds of European conquests of Africa'.
Mr Harms added: 'Africans experienced not one colonialism, but many . .. Because experiences so diverse and complex are difficult to capture in a continent-wide survey, editors and authors alike seek simplifying schemes that can illuminate even as they distort. The old colonial historiography solved this problem by simply dismissing Africans as barbarous or childlike and focusing on the exploits of the conquerors. It is unfortunate that the Cambridge History contains traces of this approach'. Mr Harms chided Adu Boahen, too, for focusing on African rulers as 'symbols of resistance'. He commented that both the 'colonialist approach' and the African 'nationalist approach' shared the 'assumption that the distinction between Europeans and Africans should lie at the heart of the analysis; they differ only in their assessment of who the good guys were.' That is precisely the point. Mr Harms suggests, however, that it is possible to achieve a certain measure of objectivity. He asks: 'What are the sides? A historical approach would not simply ask, "whose side are you on?" but rather, "how were the sides defined during the period and how did the definitions change?" These questions allow us to move beyond the African versus European dichotomy to examine the distribution of wealth and power within African societies, in order to identify where African and European interests complemented one another, thus leading to alliance, and where they clashed. Such an approach would see not merely two sides but a shifting constellation of interests'. That is perfectly true, but who will ensure that such an approach underlies all the African history that is published? It is because of the preponderance of the European view of African history in published works that the need for the UNESCO project arose. After all, Africans should, by any stretch of the imagination, be more interested in their own history than anyone else can be, and by that criterion alone, ought to have their view more visibly catered for in published works on African history, than has hitherto been the case.
In fact, there ought to be more works like the UNESCO volumes, for publishing is a very expensive business with its own rules, and cannot be undertaken from both a commercial and altruistic point of view at the same time. I find, for instance, that although Asante In The Nineteenth Century by Ivor Wilks was published only about 20 years ago, it is out of print; as far as I know, it was not published as a paperback for ages, so that even while it was available, it could only reach a few people. If it had been published with the assistance of UNESCO, I doubt whether its fate would have been the same. Volume 7 of the UNESCO General History of Africa costs £16.50 while Volume 6 of the Cambridge History of Africa costs £50. One thing is certain — much exciting thought is taking place with regard to African history. So exciting is it that I am certain it will overcome the dullness and stereotyping that marked much of the school teacher's history that we absorbed. The era when only Professor Roland Oliver and his school held sway is over, not to be replaced with another equally warped view of African history, but with an era where so much information is becoming available that even a layman can read between the lines and sort out what might have happened. After all, history has to do with human understanding, and no person has a monopoly of that, however 'learned' he or she may be. •