Mar 27


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
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
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
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
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
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
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. •

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