A History of Africa/The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800

By Brizuela-Garcia, Esperanza | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

A History of Africa/The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800


Brizuela-Garcia, Esperanza, African Studies Review


J. D. Fage and William Todoroff. A History of Africa. 4th Edition. London/New York: Routledge, 2002. xi + 653 pp. Illustrations. Tables. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $28.95. Paper.

Christopher Ehret. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. 480 pp. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Recommended readings. Index. $50.00. Cloth. $22.50. Paper.

The writing of an African history textbook is certainly a challenge even for the most accomplished historian. A good textbook should be able to convey in a clear and synthetic manner historical knowledge, which is by nature complex and problematic. It needs to recognize the gaps in our existing knowledge but also to be authoritative in presenting possible interpretations. In other words, it needs to be simple without being simplistic; it needs to be clear without being patronizing. The two texts reviewed here fulfill these requirements and will be useful for both teachers and students. They are well-written works of reference that offer helpful introductions to the history of the continent and valuable orientation about where to go next. Texts, however, are also important for the overall interpretations they provide, and it is in this area that the books reviewed here are quite different from each other.

Like its predecessors, this fourth edition of A History of Africa by J. D. Fage and William Todoroff is an accomplished historical narrative: accurate, well informed, and clearly written. While the bulk of the text remains unchanged from the third edition (1995), Todoroff has contributed significant revisions to chapter 18 and added a nineteenth chapter that takes the history of Africa from 1990 to the present. The bibliography also has been revised and updated. These additions make A History of Africa one of the most up-to-date texts available, something that will be welcome to students given the constant changes experienced by the continent.

The overall interpretation presented in the text, however, follows Page's original framework and does not reflect recent changes in the field of African history. The text is narrowly focused on the political history of Africa. It includes some aspects of social and economic history, but these are not given enough weight. The examination of culture is for the most part neglected. Textbooks have to be selective and choices have to be made. Still, one wishes that more attention had been paid to some of the fascinating research on cultures and identities that has appeared in recent years. Another problem is that the space allotted to different regions of Africa does not seem to be well balanced, particularly in the pre-1800 period. West Africa dominates. Given the political focus of the book, it is understandable that the author treats the savannah empires (e.g., Ghana, Mali) in detail and uses these examples to explain the processes of state formation in what he generally calls "Bantu Africa." Although this comparative approach may be useful for the sake of clarity, it obscures elements of local development in East, Central, and South Africa that are important in order to understand the political and social history of these regions.

A common complaint against African history textbooks is the inadequate treatment of the pre-1800 period. This has usually been justified by the wealth of information available on later periods in comparison with earlier times. Unfortunately this imbalance does little to encourage the study of formative processes of African societies and cultures, and prevents students from understanding the ways in which social, cultural, and political strategies emerged among many African peoples.

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