Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

'Tin Trunk Literati' and Beyond: Hidden Sources for Africa's History

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

'Tin Trunk Literati' and Beyond: Hidden Sources for Africa's History

Article excerpt

Serendipity and surprise occasionally contribute to the work of the historian. A chance discovery of crucial documents, a word from an informant, or a brief text helping to resolve a puzzle from the past, can set the adrenalin pulsing. Despite the apparent dull, desk-bound procedures of historical research it can at times be a rather exciting venture with eureka moments. There is another dimension that never ceases to thrill me: bringing to life an insignificant voice from the past, recovering the words of those supposedly 'without history', giving flesh and being to a forgotten 'common person', and contributing a further piece of evidence to history 'from below'.

Here is a eureka moment, John L. Comaroff, the South African social anthropologist describing finding the diary of Sol T. Plaatje written about the siege of Mafeking in 1899: "The document was discovered by accident rather than by design. The Barolong among whom Plaatje lived during the siege were unaware of its existence." So, said Comaroff,

I let it be known that I was interested to see any old letters or documents that ... might have accumulated. ... A young friend whom I had forgotten to ask heard of my search by chance. ... Unsolicited he proffered a tatty leather scrapbook and explained that it once belonged to his grandfather [Sol Plaatje]. ... Since last being used it had lain unopened under a pile of books. ... Extricated from the literary rubbish-dump the scrapbook itself contained little of interest. ... It was only when some sheets of foolscap slid from under its back cover that the scrapbook yielded its bounty. Over the years the weight that lay on top of it had moulded it into a protective sheath for the foolscap sheets. Unprotected, the diary probably would not have survived in an environment where rodents and abrasive dust destroy all but the most carefully hidden documents.2

Since then Sol T. Plaatje's contribution to South African political, religious, and literary life has been captured in Brian Willan's splendid biography, published in 1984.3 Subsequently more material on Plaatje's life has surfaced, and Willan hopes to produce a revised edition of the biography.

Now the initial term in my title is not my own. I have taken 'tin-trunk literati' from the work of Karin Barber4, an edited collection of fifteen essays on writings by non-elite Africans, a book I warmly recommend. Africa, particularly south of the Sahara, has historically been an area strong on oral history but with limited levels of literacy, although not as low as popularly assumed. As a consequence there is a dearth of written biographies and the kind of reference material common in the libraries of the industrial world. For example, nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa, not even in South Africa, is there the equivalent of the British ODNB (2004, and continuing on-line). The shelves of British libraries groan heavy with biographies of the famous and the relatively obscure; in Africa there is relatively little. In South Africa - Plaatje, D.D.T. Jabavu, John Dube, and a few other major characters have modern biographies; elsewhere in Africa there are very few autobiographies by, or biographies of, significant recent figures, let alone major players from the earlier past. And yet the lives of ordinary Africans are not beyond reclamation: Charles van Onselen by persistent interviews over many years rescued Kas Maine, an African sharecropper, from obscurity and gave him a voice in the history of twentieth century South Africa.5

I want to look chronologically and thematically at recent work that has helped put the words and writings of little-known Africans in the frame of African history. Because this is a British audience my focus is partly on the sources that can be found in this country, as well as the much larger range of primary source material that might be recoverable in Africa.

Late eighteenth century Britain

Let me begin with Britain in the eighteenth century when there was a population of c. …

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