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Wealth in People, Wealth in Things – Introduction*

  • Jane I. Guyer (a1)


One of the guiding lodestones for social theorists and social historians across the entire theoretical spectrum has been ‘wealth’: the things people imbue with value, the caches they collect up by every means from prestation to predation, the performative displays they orchestrate, the treasures they store and eventually leave behind, and all the complex cultural constructions whereby such things are counted, praised and imagined as sources and instruments of power. Perhaps no other topic excites comparably and recurrently fresh interest, from the Marxian framework of capital to Veblen's ‘conspicuous consumption’, Schama's ‘embarrassment of riches’, Appadurai's ‘tournaments of value’ and Weiner's ‘dense objects’.



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1 Veblen, T., The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions (New York, 1899); Schama, S., The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York, 1987); Appadurai, A., ‘Introduction: commodities and the politics of value’, in his (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1986); Weiner, A., ‘Cultural difference and the density of objects’, American Ethnologist, XXI (1994), 291403.

2 Rodney, W., How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London, 1972).

3 An example of a collector's brush with the extremely high currency value of fetishes is described briefly in Guyer, J. I., ‘Wealth in people and self-realization in Equatorial Africa’, Man, XXVIII (1993), 250–1. During the period when George Harley was acquiring his famous collection of Dan masks and material culture for the Peabody Museum at Harvard University he had to emphasize in a letter to Dr E. Hooten, the museum director, that ‘the articles of greatest value and rarity are the pottery whistles used by the head of the Poro…’. The transaction he describes for their acquisition makes very clear the utter incommensurability of the value of the objects and a single monetary register, in both systems of value. Papers of the Harley Collection, Harvard University: letter from Harley, George to Hooten, E., 13 09 1932, Document File 30–6. I am grateful to Kathleen Skelly and the former director of the museum, Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky, for access to these documents.

4 The concept is reviewed in Guyer, J. I. and Belinga, S. M. Eno, ‘Wealth in people as wealth in knowledge’, which follows.

5 The most recent anthropological contributions are based on twentieth-century wealth dynamics in Southern Africa, rather than the centuries-long and continuing interface that characterises West and Equatorial Africa. See Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J. L., ‘Goodly beasts and beastly goods: cattle and commodities in a South African context’, American Ethnologist, XVII (1990), 195216; Ferguson, J., ‘The cultural topography of wealth: commodity paths and the structure of wealth in rural Lesotho’, American Anthropologist, LXXXXIV (1992), 5573.

6 Bohannan, P., ‘Some principles of exchange and investment among the Tiv’, American Anthropologist, LVII (1955), 6070.

7 Douglas, M. T., ‘Primitive rationing: a study in controlled exchange’, in Firth, R. (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology (London, 1967), 119–47.

8 de Maret, P., ‘L'évolution monétaire du Shaba Central entre le 7e et le 18e siècle’, African Economic History, X (1981), 117–49.

9 Schoonheyt, J. A., ‘Les croisettes du Katanga’, Revue Belge de Numismatique, CXXXVII (1991), 141–57.

10 Curtin, P., ‘Africa and the wider monetary world, 1250–1850’, in Richards, J. F. (ed.), Silver and Gold Flows in the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Chapel Hill, 1981), 231–68.

11 Iroko, A. F., ‘Les cauris en Afrique Occidentale du Xe au XXe siecle’ (Thèse d'État, Université de Paris, 1987).

12 Rivallain, J., ‘Étude comparée des phénomènes prémonétaires en protohistoire européenne et en ethnoarchéologie africaine’ (Thèse d'État, Université de Paris, 1987).

13 My introduction to an edited collection on the history of money in West African communities includes some of the sources. Guyer, J. I., ‘Introduction: the currency interface and its dynamics’, in Guyer, (ed.), Money Matters! Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities (Portsmouth NH, 1995) 133.

14 Warnier, J.-P. and Fowler, I., ‘A nineteenth-century Ruhr in Central Africa’, Africa, IL (1979), 329–51.

15 Herbert, E. W., Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture (Madison, 1984), 181.

16 Hogendorn, J. and Johnson, M., The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (Cambridge, 1986), 75–6.

17 Dorward, D. C., ‘An unknown Nigerian export: Tiv benniseed production, 1900–1960’, J. Afr. Hist., XVI (1975), 438; Dorward, , ‘Precolonial Tiv trade and cloth currency’, Int. J. Afr. Hist. Studies, IX (1976), 576–91; Johnson, M., ‘Cloth currency’ (Paper presented to the African Studies Association Meetings, 1977).

18 Meillassoux, C., ‘Essai d'interpretation du phenomène économique dans les sociétés traditionelles d'autosubsistance’, Cah. Ét. Afr., IV (1960), 3867.

19 Miers, S. and Kopytoff, I. (eds.), Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, 1977).

20 Examples include Vansina: ‘after centuries of trading…. Whenever possible, wealth in goods was still converted into followers’, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, 1990), 251; Miller, : ‘A wealthy man increased productivity by organizing and controlling people… (by) aggregating human dependents’, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade 1730–1830 (Madison, 1988), 43. In a modern context, and writing of contemporary ‘prebendalism’ at the state level in Nigeria, Joseph invoked Peel's analysis of clientelism in late nineteenth-century Ilesha to clarify a persistent ‘political rationality or logic’; Joseph, R. A., Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria (Cambridge, 1987), 198; Peel, J. D. Y., Ijeshas and Nigerians: The Incorporation of a Yoruba Kingdom, 1890s –1970s (Cambridge, 1983). Berry develops the idea of investment in social relations as a persistent, even while changing, characteristic of African resource control, Berry, S., ‘Social institutions and access to resources’, Africa, LIX (1989), 4155.

21 Curtin, P., Economic Change in Precolonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison, 1975).

22 Law, R., ‘Computing domestic prices in precolonial west Africa: a methodological exercise from the slave coast’, History in Africa, XVIII (1991), 239–57.

23 Johnson, M., ‘The ounce in eighteenth-century west African trade’, J. Afr. Hist., VII (1966), 197214.

24 Fardon, R., ‘Sisters, wives, wards and daughters: a transformational analysis of the political organisation of the Tiv and their neighbours. Part I: The Tiv’, Africa, LIV (1984), 221; ‘Sisters, wives, wards and daughters: a transformational analysis of the political organisation of the Tiv and their neighbours. Part II: The transformations’, Africa, LV (1985), 7791.

25 Janzen, J. M., Lemba, 1650–1930: A Drum of Affliction in Africa and the New World (New York, 1982).

26 Again, the sources are many and stem from a much more long-standing literature on ‘The Gift’, initiated by Mauss. But they include Gregory, C. A., Gifts and Commodities (London, 1982); Munn, N., The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society (Cambridge 1986); Strathern, M., The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia (Berkeley, 1988); Thomas, N., Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific (Cambridge MA, 1991). For a longer summary and application to Equatorial Africa see Guyer, , ‘Self-realization’.

27 MacGaffey, W., ‘The eyes of understanding’, in MacGaffey, W. and Harris, M. D., Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Rene Stout (Washington DC, 1993), 80, my insertion.

28 Hallen, B. and Sodipo, J. O., Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy (London, 1986).

29 Julien, E., African Novels and the Question of Orality (Bloomington, 1992).

30 Manfredi, V., Personal Communication on ‘Wealth’ in the Igbo Language (Boston MA, 1993); he quotes from Anoka, G. M. K., ‘The verb meaning “to buy” in Igbo’ (M. A. thesis, University of Leeds, 1972).

31 Onwuejeogwu, M. A., An Igbo Civilization: Nri Kingdom and Hegemony (London, 1981), 4950.

32 Although see Thomas, , Entangled Objects, for a major exception.

33 Iroko, , ‘Les cauris’, 465.

34 McCaskie, T. C., ‘Accumulation: wealth and belief in Asante history: I: To the close of the nineteenth century’, Africa, LIII (1983), 2343; ‘Accumulation: wealth and belief in Asante history: II: The twentieth century’, Africa, LVI (1986), 324.

35 Vansina, , Paths.

36 Martin, P., ‘Power, cloth and currency on the Loango Coast’, African Economic History, XV (1987), 112.

37 Henderson, R. N., The King In Every Man: Evolutionary Trends in Onitsha Ibo Society and Culture (New Haven, 1972).

38 Fernandez, J. W., Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa (Princeton, 1982).

39 Miller, J. C., ‘Imbangala lineage slavery (Angola)’, in Miers, S. and Kopytoff, I. (eds.), Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, 1977).

40 Colson, E., Marriage and the Family among the Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia (Manchester, 1958).

41 Papers presented at the Symposium on ‘Wealth in people, Wealth in Things’, cochaired by Guyer, J. I. and Mbembe, A.: Cooper, B., ‘Women's worth and wedding gift exchange in Maradi, Niger, 1907–1989’; Piot, C., ‘From slave to gift: slave as gift?’; Mandala, E., ‘Malawian elders in pursuit of the cotton cloth, 1860–1940’.

42 Symposium paper by Geschiere, P. and Fisiy, C., ‘Sorcery discourses and the valuation of people and things: examples from south and west Cameroon’.

43 Schildkrout, Enid and Guyer, Jane I., ‘The value of people and objects in Equatorial Africa: an exploration of sources’.

44 Rodney, , How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; Dupré, G. and Rey, P.-P., ‘Reflections on the pertinence of a theory of the history of exchange’ (1968), translated in Wolpe, H. (ed.), The Articulation of Modes of Production: Essays from Economy and Society (London, 1980), 128–60.

* I would like to acknowledge the important and continuing inspiration given by Achille Mbembe, co-organizer of the symposium of this title presented at the African Studies Association Meeting of 1992. The participants in the panels were K. Barber, J.-F. Bayart, B. Cooper, F. Cooper, L. Cassanelli, C. Fisiy, P. Geschiere, A. Haugerud, E. Mandala, C. Piot, E. Schildkrout and J. Vansina. I thank them, and the editors of the Journal for substantial commentary.

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