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“What Do You Mean There Were No Tribes in Africa?”: Thoughts on Boundaries—and Related Matters—in Precolonial Africa

  • Donald R. Wright (a1)

I made a mistake teaching my course on precolonial African history this past fall. I vowed (to myself) to be absolutely honest. I decided to admit to students how little historians know for certain about much of Africa's early history. I focused on the evidence, emphasizing how little there is for determining what occurred several centuries ago—let alone 2000 years ago—in sub-Saharan Africa. I gave one lecture—downright sterling, I thought—in which, in the first part, I taught about “Bantu Expansion” as I had done in my first year on the job, way back in 1976. I had read Roland Oliver's 1966 article in the Journal of African History, which had made everything clear to me once upon a time.

With that as a basis I laid out an entire scheme about how these humans, who spoke related languages, had populated nearly all of sub-equatorial Africa since the beginning of the modern era. I had maps on overhead projection (copies handed out) showing when the Bantu migrated where; I spoke of the evidence for it all, even reading from Ptolemy's Geography and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea; and recalled how clear it all was to myself and the students, who wrote down nearly every word and made notations on the maps.

Then, in the second part of the lecture, I talked about how incorrect it all was (student pens here coming to rest)—how our reading of some of the linguistic evidence was faulty, how we read things into Ptolemy and the Periplus because they fit the scheme, and how subsequent archeological evidence has simply proved most of the neat scheme wrong. I concluded with an honest, if pessimistic, note that, because of the paucity of evidence, there simply is a lot about early African history that we will not be able to know.

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1 Oliver, Roland, “The Problem of Bantu Expansion,” JAH 7(1966), 361–76.

2 Jan Vansina draws attention to researchers' temptations to interpret evidence in such sources as the Periplus “according to their own a priori vision of the past in question,” and shows how grand interpretations can turn on the translation of a single word in that source in Slender Evidence, Weighty Consequences: On One Word in the Periplus Maris Erythraei,” HA 24 (1997), 393397.

3 Wright, Donald R., The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (Armonk, NY, 1997).

4 Quoted from Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (New York, 1995), 123.

5 Gray, John M., A History of the Gambia (London, 1940), 123.

6 Goody, Jack describes such a typical state of the West African savannas in Technology, Tradition, and the State in Africa (London, 1971).

7 I base my estimate of the century of Juffure's founding on the statement of a village elder, Bakary Tall, in 1974, that the village was built originally by one Sampa Tall “455 years ago.” Such statements are dubious, but a date in the first quarter of the sixteenth century would correspond with a time when European trade in the Gambia River was increasing and might indeed have lured such a Muslim/commercial family as the Tails to settle near the riverbank. Tail's interview is in Donald Wright, R., Oral Traditions from The Gambia: Volume II, Family Elders (Athens, Ohio, 1980), 139–43.

8 Landing Jammeh, interview, 3 December 1974, Brikama, The Gambia.

9 John Thornton provides a thorough discussion of land use, as related to slave ownership, in West Africa in Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (2d. ed.: Cambridge, 1998), chapter 3.

10 Quinn, Charlotte A., Mandingo Kingdoms of the Senegambia: Traditionalism, Islam, and European Expansion (Evanston, 1972).

11 The World Factbook (Washington, 1998) (http://www.odci.gru/cia/publications/factbook/country-frame.html).

12 Wright, Donald R., “Koli Tengela in Sonko Traditions of Origin: An Example of the Process of Change in Mandinka Oral Traditions,” HA 5 (1978), 257–71.

13 Landing Jammeh, interview, 3 December 1974, Brikama, The Gambia.

14 I include this phrase, “to the best of my understanding,” because I still am not sure I understand how this society operated some time in the past. Indeed, part of my point in this essay is that evidence is obscure for how these African people identified themselves. Such historical evidence that we have tends to be what is left by Europeans who encountered Africans, and the Europeans had their own notions about personal identity and ethnic solidarity, which must have colored what they saw and recorded.

15 This occurred following a formal interview I had with Manneh on 2 January 1975, in Bunyadu, The Gambia.

16 Various authors add to our understanding of these artisanal groups in Conrad, David C. and Frank, Barbara E., eds., Status and Identity in West Africa: Nyamakalaw of Mande (Bloomington, 1995).

17 Jerre Samateh, interview, 14 December 1974, Tubab Kolong, The Gambia.

18 This calls to mind Achebe's, Chinua classic novel, Things Fall Apart (London, 1959), read by millions of young persons around the world. Set in southeastern Nigeria, which, we are told, is “Iboland,” the novel contains no mention whatsoever of things “Ibo.” Personal identity is with the family, the clan, the village, and the nine villages of Umuofia. Villages fight against one another, persons marry among the villages, but nowhere do the late-nineteenth-century persons involved appear to identify themselves as “Ibo.” It seems clear, however, that “Ibo” will be one of the “Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” that the colonial official is going to write about in his planned book.

19 See, for example, Macklin, R.W., “Queens and Kings of Niumi,” Man 35 (1935), 6768; or George Lorimer, “Report on the History and Previous Native Administration of Niumiside, and more especially of Lower Niumi, Together with Recommendations as to the Future Administration of Lower Niumi and Suggestions as to Possible Future Relations of This District with Upper Niumi and Jokadu Districts,” Gambia Public Record Office 2/2390, Banjul.

20 Murdoch, George Peter, Africa: Its Peoples and Their Cultural Heritage (New York, 1959).

21 The advertisement for “The Real Africa” is on the page facing the inside back cover of the program of the 1998 Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, held in Chicago, 29 October-1 November 1998.

22 Reader, John, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York, 1998), 615.

23 Ibid., 616.

24 Rendall to Hay, Dathurst, January 17, 1834, Public Record Office (PRO), CO 87/10.

25 Mark, Peter, “Constructing Identity: Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Architecture in the Gambia-Geba Region and the Articulation of Luso-African Ethnicity,” HA 22 (1995), 307–27.

26 Accounts for James Fort in the River Gambia, 1733, PRO, T70/1451.

27 Gambia Castle Charge Book, 1736, PRO, T70/1451.

28 Evidence for this is in Accounts and Charges, James Fort in the River Gambia, 1734, PRO, T70/1451.

29 Yurco, Frank J., “Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White?Biblical Archaeology Review, 15 (Sept./Oct. 1989), 2429; Keita, S.O.Y., “Studies and Comments on Ancient Egyptian Biological Relationships,” HA 20 (1993), 129–54.

30 Southern Africa, of course, gives us that wonderful example of the creation of an ethnic identity—that of Zulu—over the past two centuries, though the most recent work, Hamilton's, CarolynTerrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (London, 1998), forces one to wonder if creation of the Zulu identity was more the result of Shaka's efforts or those of colonial officials, historians, and modern nationalists who followed him.

31 Kevin Shillington's nicely-written and professionally-produced text, History of Africa (rev. ed.: New York, 1995), has carefully-bounded maps of “The Kingdom of Ancient Ghana” (82), “The Almoravid Empire” (with a division for “Northern Almoravids”) (91), “The Empire of Mali,” (95), and “The Songhay Empire” (102).

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