Biography in the African context can take many forms, from brief entries in a biographical dictionary or obituary in a newspaper to multivolume studies of single individuals. It can encompass one or many subjects and serves both to celebrate the famous and illuminate obscure lives. Biographies can be instructional as well as inspirational. Sometimes, it is hard to draw a line between biography and autobiography because of the way a work has been compiled. An attempt is made to understand this vast range of forms, with reference to social and political biography. The main focus is on work produced since the 1970s, with examples drawn from all regions of sub-Saharan Africa (although Southern Africa is better represented than others, as is English-medium material). Matters that preoccupy biographers everywhere, such as the relationship between writer and subject and the larger relationship between biography and history, are raised. Biography can be an excellent entry point into the complexities of African history.
For scholars of African history, anthropology offers a number of valuable and invigorating methodological avenues, from engaging directly in ethnographic fieldwork to analyzing anthropological data compiled by others. Given the asymmetries of written documents and the biases of archival material for Africa, anthropological methods and sources offer a different type of access to those who, for various reasons, tend not to appear in other forms of documentary record. The materials of past ethnographic research—texts and material objects, produced and collected by anthropologists and their assistants as well as by missionaries, government officials, travelers, and others—constitute one of the largest categories of written source material. However, the contexts in which such research was conducted can present certain challenges when using these materials as sources. For example, the complex entanglements between colonial governance and the making of anthropological knowledge make it imperative for historians to be aware of the discipline’s intellectual history and how its ways of seeing and ordering have shaped portrayals of Africa’s diverse cultures.
Methodologically, historians are also experimenting with field methods that draw heavily on ethnographic techniques. The emergence of historical ethnography has developed a rich, syncretic approach, in which communities’ own relationships with, and understandings of, the past are brought to the fore. Although ethnography is known for its immersive and long-term fieldwork, elements of the technique can also be incorporated into other historical methods. This is in part a matter of approach, rather than of different source material. For example, engaging ethnographically with archives can offer different insights into issues of governance and the production of knowledge.
Amidu Olalekan Sanni
Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew.
The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.
Founded in 1916, the School of African Studies at the University of London provided training in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages and history to colonial officers. Over more than a century, the transformation of African history at the SOAS from an imperial discipline to one centered on African experiences reveals challenges in the creation, use, and dissemination of ideas, or the politics of knowledge. The school, as the only institution of higher learning in Europe focused on Africa, Asia, and Middle East, has had to perform a balancing act between scholars’ motivation to challenge academic skeptics and racists who dismissed Africa and British governmental, political, and economic priorities that valued “practical education.”
In 1948, the University of London took steps to create an international standing by affiliating several institutions in Africa. Over several decades, many historians preferred to teach in Africa because the climate in Britain was far less open to African history. SOAS convened international conferences in 1953, 1957, and 1961 that established the reputation of African history at the SOAS. Research presented at these meetings were published in the first volume of the Journal of African History with a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation. The first volumes of the journal were focused on oral history, historical linguistics, archaeology, and political developments in precolonial Africa, topics covered extensively at SOAS.
SOAS grew considerably up until 1975, when area studies all over Britain underwent a period of contraction. Despite economic and personnel cuts, SOAS continued research and teaching especially on precolonial Africa, which has periodically been feared to be subsumed by modern history and not fitting into visions for “practical” courses. In the late 1980s, the school introduced an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in African studies that requires African language study because so many students were specializing in Africa without it. This measure reveals the lasting commitment to engaging African voices. African history at the SOAS has also continued to be a humanistic enterprise, and in 2002, it was reorganized into the School of Religion, History, and Philosophies. It remains to be seen how Brexit might affect higher education. While cuts in education could hurt African studies more than other area studies as they often have, strained relations between Britain and continental Europe might make African countries more important to Britain in the coming years.
In the second half of the 19th century, French imperial expansion in the south of the Sahara led to the control of numerous African territories. The colonial rule France imposed on a diverse range of cultural groups and political entities brought with it the development of equally diverse inquiry and research methodologies. A new form of scholarship, africanisme, emerged as administrators, the military, and amateur historians alike began to gather ethnographic, linguistic, judicial, and historical information from the colonies. Initially, this knowledge was based on expertise gained in the field and reflected the pragmatic concerns of government rather than clear, scholarly, interrogation in line with specific scientific disciplines.
Research was thus conducted in many directions, contributing to the emergence of the so-called colonial sciences. Studies by Europeans scholars, such as those carried out by Maurice Delafosse and Charles Monteil, focused on West Africa’s past. In so doing, the colonial context of the late 19th century reshaped the earlier orientalist scholarship tradition born during the Renaissance, which had formerly produced quality research about Africa’s past, for example, about medieval Sudanese states. This was achieved through the study of Arabic manuscripts and European travel narratives. In this respect, colonial scholarship appears to have perpetuated the orientalist legacy, but in fact, it transformed the themes, questions, and problems historians raised.
In the first instance, histoire coloniale (colonial history) focused the history of European conquests and the interactions between African societies and their colonizers. Between 1890 and 1920 a network of scientists, including former colonial administrators, struggled to institutionalize colonial history in metropolitan France. Academic positions were established at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France. Meanwhile, research institutions were created in French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française [AOF]), French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Équatoriale Française [AEF]), and Madagascar between 1900 and the 1930s.
Yet, these imperial and colonial concerns similarly coincided with the rise of what was then known as histoire indigène (native history) centered on the precolonial histories of African societies. Through this lens emerged a more accurate vision of the African past, which fundamentally challenged the common preconception that the continent had no “history.” This innovative knowledge was often co-produced by African scholars and intellectuals.
After the Second World War, interest in colonial history started to wane, both from an intellectual and a scientific point of view. In its place, the history of sub-Saharan Africa gained popularity and took root in French academic institutions. Chairs of African history were created at the Sorbonne in 1961 and 1964, held by Raymond Mauny and Hubert Deschamps, respectively, and in 1961 at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, fulfilled by Henri Brunschwig. African historians, who were typically trained in France, began to challenge the existing European scholarship. As a result, some of the methods and sources that had been born in the colonial era, were adopted for use by a new generation of historians, whose careers blossomed after the independences.