Themes in West Africa's History

By Baum, Robert M. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Themes in West Africa's History


Baum, Robert M., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Themes in West Africa's History. Edited by Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006. Pp. xvi, 323; illustrations. $49.95 cloth, $24.50 paper.

For many years African historians have been troubled by the lack of choices for suitable textbooks for survey courses in their field. Some presented Eurocentric or romantic images of Africa; others overwhelmed the student with far more detail than most undergraduates could absorb. Within the field of West African history, the situation has been somewhat better with what we now might consider classical works by John Fage, John Webster, and Adu Boahen, as well as the two volume anthology edited by A. J. E. Ajayi and Michael Crowder.1 Still, this new collection of essays, edited by Emmanuel Akyeampong serves as a valuable addition. In sharp contrast to other surveys, Akyeampong directed his contributors to emphasize both methodological issues and broad thematic issues. Akyeampong enriched the collection to include archaeologists, anthropologists, economists, and historians of religion. This collection allows students to be exposed to major issues in West African history and to see how scholars from different disciplines as well as from different continents understand this history. Many of these essays are useful to specialists, as well.

Akyeampong divides the anthology into three sections: an initial section that focuses on some distinctive research methods; a middle section focusing on broad themes in West African history; and a final section on contemporary West Africa. I will examine each section in turn. The first four essays offer archaeological, ecological, and linguistic approaches, and an analysis of oral traditions. Susan McIntosh provides an interesting overview of archaeological evidence for early West African history. Her attention to the relationship between ecological changes, the beginnings of agriculture, the spread of iron technologies, as well as the way that archaeologists analyze this data is very useful. My only criticism is that the decision to use both BCE and BP systems of dating confuse readers who are not used to the BP designation. Unfortunately, there is considerable overlap in the materials presented by McIntosh and James Webb's ecological chapter. M. E. K. Dakobu provides a history of historical linguistics and the specific techniques of interpreting linguistic data historically, as well as an analysis of some of the methodological problems in utilizing these methods in a West African context. David Conrad's analysis of oral traditions confines itself to epic narratives of the Mandinka and provides a skillful analysis of the limitations and utility of analyzing these texts in reconstructing a history of Mali. The essay could have been strengthened, however, by broadening to include a wider variety of oral traditions, such as women's nanatives and those of slaves, or by including examples from less stratified societies.

The second section provides six thematic essays on West African history. Patrick Manning presents a clear analysis of the dramatic increase in the West African slave trade, from the relatively small volume of the trans-Saharan trade to the dramatic increase in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic slave trade. While examining the role of various European powers and the influence of the plantation system of the Americas, Manning could have examined more closely the impact on both centralized and acephalous African societies, in terms of economic development, international relations, and religious practices. …

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