A very well informed and sharply stated historiography... should be in every historiography student's kitbag. A tour de force... it made me think a great deal. Terence Ranger, The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies You will finish this book better informed, with a better understanding of Africa and a clearer idea of the questions. Robert Giddings, Tribune This small book is a smart and stimulating essay exploring issues of history, sources and methods, Africa in the world, colonialism and postcolonialism, and the past in the present as a means of introducing students and others to academic thinking about African history. Tom Spear, Journal of African History
About the Author
John Parker teaches African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He specializes in the history of Ghana and is the author of iMaking the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra/i (2000) and (with Jean Allman) iTongnaab: The History of a West African God/i (2005). He is currently researching a book on the history of death and burial in Ghana. Richard Rathbone is Honorary Professor of History in the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and Emeritus Professor in History at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He has written on south and west Africa and his books include iGhana/i (1992), iMurder and politics in colonial Ghana/i (1993) and iNkrumah and the chiefs/i (2000). He is currently working on 19th century west African intellectuals.
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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Necessary background to understanding AfricaSept. 11 2009
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Like many of the OUP "Very Short Introduction" series, you can't really tell what the book is about from the title. This is not a survey of African history, but rather a survey of how historians, political leaders and others have interpreted African history. E.g., colonialists created an African history -- or pretended there wasn't one -- that would best serve the cause of colonialism. That is, if Africa is seen as a land of primitive, savage tribes, the colonial powers could defend their actions as just spreading civilization. Conversely, post-colonialists have often created a nationalistic view of African countries that did not exist prior to the European powers marking arbitary lines on their maps.
The authors take pains to note that any statement about Africa as a whole is likely an over-generalization. The history of the Congo area, for instance, is considerably different from that of South Africa. Yet, as diverse as the regions are, the authors assert that the concept of "Africa" shouldn't be abandoned.
The whole subject of African history is a difficult one for historians, or anyone, because of the lack of sources. What we know of African cities like Timbuktu is essentially what travelers wrote about them. Often, the African climate has worked to eradicate the records of what might have been there prior to 19th century European colonization. Even oral history is suspect, as oral histories are subject to change over time. This makes it difficult for those attempting to decolonize Africa to actually figure out what a particular African region was like prior to colonization. For once colonization began, the nature of the region might have changed drastically. For instance, the 1996 Rwanda genocide of the Hutu against the Tutsi is not, as depicted in Western media, a struggle between two tribes. The difference between the Hutu and the Tutsi -- genetically the same -- entirely stems from how these people were treated by German and Belgian colonialists, creating an artificial division between them that continued and worsened even after the Europeans were long gone. (It occurs to me as I write this, that this is somewhat similar to the aftermath of Ottoman colonization of Southern Slavs.)
But while African history can't escape concentrating on the effects of colonialism, the authors cover other areas, e.g., the participation of African states in the slave trade -- possibly as many slaves went East as went across the Atlantic, and many slaves were transferred internally only. African history can't be discussed without discussing the slave trade, but the authors warn that there was a lot going on at the time not related to the slave trade, so it's a mistake to think of Africa as a continent of victims.
History has always been more about interpretation than facts, and that's particularly true in the case of Africa.
If you plan on reading any African history, or just want to understand the background of current African political issues, this book will provide needed perspective.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
African Studies Snob Meets Her MatchNov. 3 2011
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Appearance: True to its name, this is a small pocket sized book from Oxford with a good and sturdy thick cover.
Content: If you want a standard, linear progression of the African continent, you must walk away. This book is an small academic companion to african historical studies. Not intending to ACTUALLY speak on African history, the authors rather discuss the many problems, theories and experiences of scholars studying African history. It is an AMAZING read and it lifted the proverbial veil from my eyes. I have since gone on to deepen my knowledge of the academic study of history and its many quandries. A good read for any budding academic, geek, African Studies minor, major, student or interested persons.
Categories: African Studies, History.
I fully recommend this.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Far more than a "short introduction"Aug. 16 2011
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This book is very, very good, a must read for anyone interested in Africa and African studies. The commenter who notes that this is not a superficial recounting of African chronological history is correct, but this is a good thing. In fact, the authors make the important point that such a superficial recounting of naive historical narrative is a total distortion of African history in all its magnitude and complexity. We're talking about entire continent here, with literally 1000s of ethnic groups and an almost equal number of languages. The complexity of African history is magnified by the fact that much of it has been told--and hence distorted--by outsiders, outsiders who share little understanding and empathy of the complex richness of African history. Hence the authors weave a fascinating narrative of both history and historiography in this volume, and they do this by demonstrating that African history requires such a self-reflective historiographical approach because of its unique nature. The book is well-written and for anyone interested in African history compelling reading; I read it in one long sitting. Highly recommended.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
not so much history as historiographySept. 26 2013
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I was a bit disappointed in this book, as I had been hoping for a summary of the history of Africa. Instead, I found I had purchased a history of the writing of African history. While major trends in the history of Africa were discussed, and as an amateur historian the delvings into how perceptions of African history have changed over the years was still interesting, I found myself thinking at the end...now what I really would like is to read a history of Africa.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
African History in the Very Short Introduction SeriesMarch 24 2014
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The "Very Short Introduction" series of Oxford University Press offers readers the opportunity to expand their knowledge in many directions. African history is a subject I know little about but was interested to explore in this "very short introduction" written in 2007 by John Parker, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Richard Rathbone, Honorary Professor of History, University of Aberystwth.
The authors state at the outset that their "very short introduction" is less a chronological history of Africa than a meditation upon the various ways that the African past has been thought about or imagined. Parker and Rathbone point to several difficulties in writing a straightforward historical account. In a short compass, it would be difficult to provide a history of a continent and its people over the course of over 5,000 years. During much of this time, the written historical record is scant at best. And the Africa of today includes more than 50 separate countries. The deeper question the authors raise is the sense in which Africa can be said to have a history at all, what it includes, and how it is to be researched and written. These latter themes pervade the book. The authors are careful and cautious in their approach; but on one occasion they suggest the discipline forms part of "the so-called 'cultural-linguistic turn' in the humanities associated with postmodernism". I would have considerable reluctance exploring a subject exclusively or primarily through postmodernist eyes with their biases and relativisms.
The early chapters of the book, in particular, explore the difficulties of exploring African history in terms of understanding the continent, particularly the distinction between the portions north and south of the Sahara desert and the large African diaspora. The authors raise hard questions about unity and diversity in the context of African peoples, and they question the idea of "tribalism" through which many people tend to view Africa. In a chapter titled "historical sources", the authors describe the difficulties of historical study in the absence of a written record. They discuss various alternatives to written records and they insightfully compare the differences between historical study and the types of study by cultural anthropology.
The book examines four large trends in African history in considering the role of "Africa in the world": religion, in particular the competing and almost equally-divided influences of Islam and Christianity, the slave trade, the African diaspora, and the large changes in the 19th Century resulting from European expansionism. These discussions, particular of the former two trends, are brief but highly suggestive.
There is large evidentiary material on the long history of slavery in Africa. Following the years of the slave trade, African history is documented through the age of colonialism, the end of colonialism, and the following and ongoing difficult paths towards self-government and economic growth of the African nations. While it briefly explores this large, complex history, the book is almost equally concerned with historiography -- the way in which historians in and outside of Africa conceived the nature of African history and set about writing it. The authors suggest that this history has changed and will continue to change as the needs continent and its people change. Various tensions in the nature of historical study of the sort the authors describe are not particular to Africa but are common to the enterprise. There undoubtedly also are factors that are particular to African history.
This "very short introduction" thus is more a combination of history, historiography, and the philosophy of history than a historical account. It proceeds at a high level of sophistication for an introductory book. The book includes an annotated bibliography for further reading together with an unusually large number of photographs which help to particularize the text amidst the abstractions. The book will be of most value to readers with a background in historical study (of other places or times); and, of course, to readers wanting to learn about Africa. The book made me want to learn more about Africa and its peoples; and thus, for me, it succeeded in its goal.