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Travel Writing, Experiences, and Silences: What is Left Out of European Travelers' Accounts—the Case of Richard D. Mohun

  • Kathryn Barrett-Gaines (a1)

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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1. Gerhard Rohlfs in Yorubaland,” HA, 21(1994) 251–68.

2. Similarly, Behrendt, Stephen D. (HA, 22 [1995], 6171) uses an 83-page manuscript from a slave-trading ledger for factual information on the eighteenth-century British slave trade.

3. Historians Beware: You Can't Judge a Book by Its Critics; Or, Problems with a Nineteenth-Century Exploration Record,” HA, 21 (1994) 403–07.

4. Hanson, John H., “African Testimony Reported in European Travel Literature,” HA, 18 (1991) 143–58.

5. My principal sources for this study are two typed manuscripts included in the Papers of R. D. Mohun, 1892-1913, with details as noted in the text. The original manuscript is in the National Archives, Washington, D.C. The longer account, it seems, was intended for publication, as it is typed, and edited, and includes photographs with captions. Text citations herein refer to this latter source.

6. Other adventurers and their written records can help sketch an outline of the general relationship between visitors to Africa and the people they hire or press into service as porters in Africa. One of these writers is William Walter Augustine Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was employed by the Imperial British East Africa Company and published an extended account describing his two years of agricultural observation in East Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Fitzgerald dealt with the enlistment of porters at about the same time that Mohun did, and he devotes quite a bit of his book to them.

7. This study revolves around a non-African visitor to Africa, a common subject in African historiography. But it diverges slightly from the traditional in that its subject is not from one of the world powers which directly colonized Africa.

8. In 1901 Mohun commented on the government improvements he had seen since his last trip into Central Africa in 1894, including clean, organized villages, friendly people, rest houses for travelers along the Congo River.

9. I further suggest that in the nineteenth century, the identity of “American” was not hardened into the natural, almost biological, identity it has since become. Perhaps since America at that time was still very much a young nation of (European) immigrants, it was just as valid for Stanley to consider himself an American as it was for Mohun to consider him not an American.

10. Cummings, Robert, “A Note on the History of Caravan Porters in East Africa,” Kenya Historical Review, 1 (1973), 109. Cummings's work is among the first to focus attention on the transporters of goods as opposed to the goods being transported.

11. The nineteenth-century caravan trade was generally financed by Indian merchant capital, though Indian merchants rarely went into the interior. Arab and Swahili caravan traders acted as “factors” for the Indian financiers (Sheriff, Abdul, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire Into the World Economy, 1770-1873 [Athens, 1987], 108). See also Glassman, Jonathon, Feasts and Riot: Revelry, Rebelllion, and Popular Consciousness on the Swahili Coast, 1856-1888 (Portsmouth, 1995).

12. Swann, Alfred J., Fighting the Slave-Hunters in Central Africa. (London, 1969[1910]), 29.

13. Cooper, Frederick, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1880-1925 (New Haven, 1980), 52.

14. Sheriff, Abdul and Ferguson, Ed, Zanzibar Under Colonial Rule (Athens, 1991), 27.

15. Fitzgerald, W.W A., Travels in the Coastlands of British East Africa and the Islands of Zanzibar and Pemba (London, 1898), 34.

16. Bennett, Norman R., ed., The Zanzibar Letters of Edward D. Ropes, Jr., 1882-1892 (Boston, 1973), 27.

17. Sheriff, , Slaves, 182.

18. Cummings, , “Caravan Porters,” 112. The source for this quote is Perham, M., Ten Africans: A Collection of Life Stories (London: 1936), 99100.

19. Cummings, Robert, “Wage Labor in Kenya in the Nineteenth Century” in The Workers of African Trade, ed. Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine and Lovejoy, Paul E. (Beverly Hills, 1985), 199.

20. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch and Paul E. Lovejoy, “The Workers of Trade in Precolonial Africa” in ibid., 17.

21. Cummings, , “Wage Labor,” 199.

22. Coquery-Vidrovitch, /Lovejoy, , “Workers,” 18.

23. Sheriff, , Slaves, 230.

24. Cooper, , From Slaves to Squatters, 52.

25. While there were women porters and plenty of women traveling in caravans, it seems that most porters in East and Central Africa were men. This is significant, as carrying large loads long distances in Africa is a job largely associated with women. This subject needs much scholarly attention.

26. Swann, , Fighting, 58.

27. Fitzgerald, , Travels, 129.

28. Cummings, , “Caravan Porters,” 111.

29. Swann, , Fighting, 31.

30. Cummings, , “Caravan Porters,” 113.

31. Ibid., 114.

32. Younghusband, Ethel, Glimpses of East Africa and Zanzibar, (London, 1910).

33. Swann, , Fighting, 25.

34. Ibid.

35. In this example the porters were not only taking advantage of Swann's inexperience as a traveler, but of his simplistic views of African people as incapable of trickery.

36. For more detail, see Cooper, Frederick, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa (New Haven, 1977).

37. Brady, Cyrus T., Commerce and Conquest in East Africa with Particular Reference to the Salem Trade with Zanzibar (Salem, MA, 1950), 197.

38. Lyne, Robert Nunez, Zanzibar in Contemporary Times (London, 1905), 35.

39. Mohun wanted to enlist “400 Somalis at Aden.” Although he was told that the British government did not allow recruiting, his special request to allow him to recruit “100 Zanzibaris” was granted. Mohun's having been U.S. Consul at Zanzibar from 1895 to 1897 undoubtedly played a role in an exception that had not been made in four years.

40. He notes the sailing skills of the African members of a ship's crew: The captain of the American Lakes Company's steamer ship had no idea how to handle the boat; “fortunately, the Kota Kota natives in the crew had been in her some time, and could make her go.”

41. Swann, , Fighting, 71.

42. Ibid., 32.

43. Scott, Joan W., “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991), 773–97.

44. Mohun's description of the “Wahuni” indicates that they were a well-disciplined army of about 10-12,000 mutinied rebels. He describes their attack as involving rituals unfamiliar to him, which he likens to a fantasia.

45. Declich, Francesca, “Gendered Narratives, History, and Identity: Two Centuries Along the Juba River Among the Zigula and Shanbara,” HA, 22 (1995), 93122.

46. Cooper, Frederick, On the African Waterfront: Urban Disorder and the Transformation of Work in Colonial Mombasa (New Haven, 1987).

47. The concept of resistance here leans on that elaborated by James Scott in his discussions of what he calls “weapons of the weak” or “hidden resistance.” See Scott, James, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resaistance (New Haven, 1985); idem., Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, 1990).

48. Isaacman, Allen and Roberts, Richard, Cotton, Colonialism and Social History in Sub-Saharan Africa (Portsmouth, 1995), 3.

49. Ibid., 38.

50. Cooper, , On the African Waterfront, xii.

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History in Africa
  • ISSN: 0361-5413
  • EISSN: 1558-2744
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