Recent contributions to this journal have taken various approaches to travelers's accounts as sources of African history. Elizabeth de Veer and Ann O'Hear use the travel accounts of Gerhard Rohlfs to reconstruct nineteenth-century political and economic history of West African groups who have escaped scholarly attention. But essentially they use Rohlfs' work as he intended it to be used. Gary W. Clendennen examines David Livingstone's work to find the history under the propaganda. He argues that, overlooking its obvious problems, the work reveals a wealth of information on nineteenth-century cultures in the Zambezi and Tchiri valleys. Unfortunately, Clendennen does not use this source for these reasons. He uses it instead to shed light on the relationship between Livingstone and his brother.
John Hanson registers a basic distrust of European mediated oral histories recorded and written in the African past. He draws attention to the fact that what were thought to be “generally agreed upon accounts” may actually reflect partisan interests. Hanson dramatically demonstrates how chunks of history, often the history of the losers, are lost, as the history of the winners is made to appear universal. Richard Mohun can be seen to represent the winners in turn-of-the-century Central Africa. His account is certainly about himself. I attempt, though, to use his account to recover some of the history of the losers, the Africans, which Mohun may have inadvertently recorded.
My question is double; its two parts—one historical, one methodological—are inextricably interdependent. The first concerns the experience of the people from Zanzibar who accompanied, carried, and worked for Richard Dorsey Mohun on a three-year (1898-1901) expedition into Central Africa to lay telegraph wire. The second wonders how and how well the first question can be answered using, primarily, the only sources available to me right now: those written by Mohun himself.
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