Making History in Africa: David Henige and the Quest for Method in African History

By Doortmont, Michel R. | History In Africa, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Making History in Africa: David Henige and the Quest for Method in African History


Doortmont, Michel R., History In Africa


I

My own history with David Henige goes back to 1985, when I had just finished a master's degree in African studies at the Centre of West African Studies in Birmingham, England, and was looking for a place and a supervisor for a planned doctoral dissertation involving a historiographical study of Nigeria. One of my supervisors, Tom McCaskie, suggested getting in touch with Henige, to see if he could assist me. The reply was elaborate and positive, which I appreciated much. Circumstances for graduate students at the time being quite different from the present, and funding systems for study abroad still in their infancy, the plan came to nothing. The connection with Henige and his work was there to stay, however.

This article is an effort to give a reflection on David Henige's career and his impact on the discipline of history in Africa, through his work as editor of History in Africa. The scope of the reflection is limited, as we concentrate on David's own contributions, rather than setting him and his work in a comparative framework. When David Henige started History in Africa in 1974, it was yet another scholarly journal on Africa, in an ever-growing series, counting already more than two hundred titles, as Henige pointed out himself.1 And indeed, in such circumstances, a new journal needs 'to justify itself to the audience it addresses.'2

Before we look closer at the justification Henige provided back in 1974, let us first take a step back and look at the historical and historiographical context in which the journal appeared. Here two perspectives are possible. The first is the perspective of the growth of African history as a discipline in general in the two decades before History in Africa was born. The period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s saw an astonishing number of changes taking place on the African continent. First of all, there was the road to independence for a fair number of African countries in West Africa, starting with Ghana in 1957, and followed by Nigeria and the other British West African colonies, and the French colonies. Central and East Africa followed suit, and, by the mid-1960s, most of the African continent had gained its independence. In this process, the study of history became an important instrument for state building and national and cultural (self-) identification. As such, the trade of African history modernized quickly, with academic institutions inside and outside Africa devoting themselves to the subject, and even setting up specialized institutes for African studies. In this context of academic activity, a natural outlet was the forming of a number of journals. What was new, however, was that African academic institutions for the first time started to publish scholarly journals on history, often focusing on the national and regional histories of the countries that spawned them. In effect this meant that the debate on what African history was and should be, was now entered by African historians on the African continent, releasing the field from its colonial shackles, so to speak. The high point of this development fell in the mid to late 1960s, and coincided with the first set of political and economic crises in the continent.3 Apart from the regional perspective several journals adopted an ideological or political perspective on history and historiography, in line with more general political developments of the period.

As Henige pointed out quite rightly in the first issue of History in Africa, not all aspects of African history were covered adequately in the available journals. He then continued to state that:

Because this study [African history] is so recent the emphasis, both in research itself and in the format of the journals, has been on the collection, use, and presentation of data. It cannot be denied that these procedures have been and will remain the chief concerns of historical enquiry, but they are not the only ones. The value of data obviously depends, first, on its validity, and, second, on its use. …

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