Global Explanations versus Local Interpretations: The Historiography of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Africa

By Heaton, Matthew; Falola, Toyin | History In Africa, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Global Explanations versus Local Interpretations: The Historiography of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Africa


Heaton, Matthew, Falola, Toyin, History In Africa


I

In 1918 an influenza pandemic of unprecedented virulence spread across the planet, infiltrating nearly all areas of human habitation. In less than a year the pandemic had run its course, ultimately responsible for somewhere between 30,000,000 and 50,000,000 deaths worldwide. Truly, this was one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. However, despite the fact that the influenza pandemic has few historical rivals in terms of sheer loss of human life, it has not entered the meta-narrative of world history, nor indeed national histories, to the same extent that major wars or natural disasters have. To date, most of the historical work on the influenza pandemic has sought to prove that it does not deserve this relegation to the dustbin of history. Despite this common goal, however, historians have taken different approaches to illustrate the importance of the influenza pandemic of 1918 in Africa.

II

The purpose of this essay is to categorize the historiography of the influenza pandemic through a discussion of the different approaches taken to the study of the pandemic in Africa. Two distinct categories emerge from this analysis. The first category focuses primarily on the spread and demographic impact of the pandemic in Africa, as well as the official response of colonial governments to the pandemic. Studies in this category seem to be more concerned with emphasizing the commonalities of experience across space. These pieces also tend to compartmentalize the pandemic temporally, focusing only on the period during which the pandemic raged, and not the historical context leading up to the pandemic in a given area, or the lingering impact that the pandemic had on specific societies after its departure. The second category takes the analysis a step further and attempts to determine the relative importance of the influenza pandemic by situating it within the social or local history of a given place. Some articles focus on an entire African colony, while others focus on smaller local regions, but all pieces in this category attempt to understand the influenza not just in terms of similar patterns, numbers, and policies, but in terms of the historical context into which the pandemic occurred and the effect that the pandemic might-or might not-have had on political, economic, or religious trends in a specific area. In order to accomplish this, these studies tend to work within a broad temporal framework in a specific region, and do not engage in comparisons across space to the extent that studies in the first category do.

Secondly, this essay suggests that an implicit, but as yet unrecognized, debate exists between studies in these two categories. On the one hand, there is a thematic argument that the pandemic should be understood primarily in global terms, as indicated in the works in the first category that tend to relate their research on diffusionary patterns and demographic impacts in Africa to results in other parts of the world. On the other hand, studies in the social and local history of the pandemic in Africa, as noted, tend to concern themselves only with the impact of the pandemic in a specific area, with little emphasis on comparative experience. While it would be convenient to suggest that the work on the diffusion, demographics, and colonial response came first and formed the basis upon which a social history of the pandemic could be conducted, this is not supported by an analysis of the historiography. While the first works on the pandemic in Africa certainly were concerned with the diffusion, demographics, and official response of the pandemic, the study of these issues has not given way to localized social histories. Indeed, works on demographics, diffusion, and colonial response have been published contemporaneously with pieces on the social and local history of the pandemic over the last thirty years. The significant differences in approach, methodology, and interpretation between these two categories do not seem to have been recognized, however, leaving a subject of considerable importance without a strong historiographical framework within which to argue. …

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