Sudan's Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity, and Slavery in Early South Sudan

By Sharkey, Heather J. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Sudan's Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity, and Slavery in Early South Sudan


Sharkey, Heather J., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Sudan's Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity, and Slavery in Early South Sudan. By Stephanie Beswick. Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Pp. xxx, 277; 10 maps. $75.00.

In Sudan's Blood Memory, Stephanie Beswick explores the history of the Nilotic peoples of Sudan from the fourteenth century to the present and focuses on the Dinka, who now constitute the largest ethnic bloc in southern Sudan. By assembling a wide array of evidence drawn from archaeology, linguistics, and other fields, as well as from oral sources, she reconstructs a precolonial history of migration, war, slave-raiding, ethnic expansion, and social adaptation. Her methods combine the longue durée approach to history associated with Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school with the oral history approach to African history associated with Jan Vansina.

The extensive and creative use of oral sources is one of the book's most impressive features. Between 1990 and 2000, Beswick conducted more than three hundred interviews with southern Sudanese living in Kenya, Egypt, the United States, Canada, and "South Sudan" (as many southern peoples have referred to their homeland since 1983, when the civil war against the northern government resumed). Through these oral sources, Beswick culled information about Dinka traditions, myths, and genealogies (stretching back, in some cases, a dozen generations or more), as well as recollections about conflicts, past and present. Indeed, the "blood memory" cited in the book's title refers to "long historical memories of wrongdoing" by others, including wars, slave and cattle raids, and so on, as recounted through oral narratives.

Beswick marshals her sources in order to challenge the view common in older scholarship that all the Western Nilotic peoples of Sudan originated in the southern regions where they now live. Noting the convergence of Dinka oral traditions with linguistic and other evidence, she makes a convincing case that the predecessors of the Dinka lived in the fourteenth century in what is now central Sudan (notably, the Gezira region just below the Blue Nile and White Nile junction where Khartoum is located today). She argues that the Dinka-or those whom we should perhaps call the proto-Dinka - migrated southward to escape from famine, slave raiding, and the political dislocations prompted by the collapse of the Nubian kingdoms. In the course of their southward migration these protoDinka fought wars with other peoples, such as the Shilluk, and absorbed and assimilated many of them over time (especially through polygamous intermarriage with local women).

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