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Postcolonial or Not?

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Christopher R. DeCorse

The Atlantic World

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  • 1 Benjamin 2009; Cañizares-Esguerra and Seeman 2007; Canny and Pagdan 1987; Gilroy 1993; Mitchell 200 (...)
  • 2 DeCorse 1980, 1991, 2001b, 2012; also see Posnansky 1984, 2001, 2002, 2012; Ogundiran and Falola 20 (...)

1Discussion of the “Atlantic world” surrounds us in an array of recent books, conferences, and symposia that trace its contours, confluences, and manifestations.1 It is, therefore, appropriate that we reflect on the origin and emergence of this perspective in the context of the African past. The Atlantic World and Atlantic Africa have increasingly emerged as discrete areas of study in the last five decades. Indeed, during the 1970s when I first initiated research on archaeological sites in Sierra Leone associated with the period of the Atlantic slave trade the idea of an archaeology of Atlantic Africa as a defined focus was unrealized if not largely unrecognized.2 Its conceptualization has depended on substantive research; that is research into documentary source material, oral traditions, and archaeological data, as well as conceptual reframing and theoretical reassessment. The decades that have witnessed increased work on the African past have also witnessed the emergence of Europe’s intersection with the non-Western world as a major focus of inquiry and theoretical syntheses within the social sciences. Yet Africa has not always been seen as central to this holistic Atlantic perspective.

  • 3 Arthur Whitaker, cited in Bailyn 2005: 25.
  • 4 Hugh Trevor-Roperin a 1963 televised lecture on “The Rise of Christian Europe”, quoted in Oliver 19 (...)
  • 5 In his study of the last days of Adolf Hitler, Trevor-Roper reviewed oral information but was highl (...)
  • 6 Feierman 1993.
  • 7 Hammond and Jablow 1992; Mayer 2002.
  • 8 Cooper 1994: 1525.

2In fact, in his 2005 formulation of Atlantic history’s concepts and contours, historian Bernard Bailyn situates the genesis of Atlantic history in the post-World War II era, placing its roots in the sociopolitical agendas of the period. By 1960 the notion of an Atlantic system grounded in the shared experiences of the preceding centuries was increasingly taken for granted as a defined area of study. Yet the prevailing perceptions, Bailyn argues, placed the nexus of this Atlantic world in the northern hemisphere with the progeny of Western civilization, most particularly the English speaking progeny; the points of Arthur Whitaker’s Atlantic triangle being Latin America, English America, and Europe.3 Bailyn’s intellectual framing of the Atlantic system is best seen within the sociocultural context of the mid-twentieth century and the sociopolitical alliances and agendas of the post-World War II era. In this coin of vantage, if Africa was part of the Atlantic world its history was not generally perceived as central to it. Indeed, well into the second half of the twentieth century it was still possible for some scholars to assert that Africa had no history. In 1963, Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, described the African past as “the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe”.4 For Trevor-Roper documentation—written documentation—was paramount for the writing of history.5 He was not alone in this perspective.6 Such scholarly imaginations reify popular images of Africa as the Dark Continent that rests beyond the knowable past.7 In light of such observations, demonstrating that Africa has a history has remained a persistent theme in studies of the African past. As Frederick Cooper observed, “African history was subaltern studies by default”.8

  • 9 For recent perspectives of the Atlantic World with much wider perspective see Benjamin 2009; Cañiza (...)
  • 10 Du Bois 1896, 1924, 1930, 1939, 1947.
  • 11 Williams 1944; Solow and Engerman 1987.
  • 12 Herskovits 1933, 1936, 1941.
  • 13 Curtin 1969.Bailyn (2005: 32) recognizes Curtin as ‘discovering' the South Atlantic system. Althoug (...)
  • 14 E.g. Abraham 1978; Ajayi and Smith 1964; Ajayi and Crowder 1971, 1974; Akintoye 1971; Alagoa 1964; (...)

3Suffice it to say that others have drawn the genesis of the Atlantic World and Africa’s engagement with it quite differently than in the contours and concepts outlined by Bailyn.9 It is of more than parenthetical note that historian W.E.B. Du Bois’ examinations of African and African American history, Eric Williams work on the Atlantic slave trade, and anthropologist Melville Herskovits’s early anthropological studies of African and American cultural connections are unmentioned in Bailyn’s 2005 assessment of the margins of Atlantic history. Yet, in a variety of works prior to World War II, Du Bois had examined African history, the slave trade, and the interconnections of the Atlantic world.10Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, re-sited the causes of abolition and laid the foundation for future generations of Caribbean scholars.11 In a similar vein, Herskovits’ historical contextualization of African-American culture in terms of its African antecedents, articulated before 1940, remains foundational in studies of the African Diaspora.12 While not explicitly labeled as such, these perspectives were the precursors of the inclusive narratives central to postcolonial vantage. The 1960s and 70s saw increasing research on the Atlantic world, as well as a burgeoning amount of work on local and regional histories in Africa. The demography of the slave trade also emerged as a major focus within African history.13 The number of foundational studies in African history published during the 1960s and 1970s is remarkable, notable all the more because of the number of contributions by African scholars.14 These might be called the golden decades of precolonial African history. In light of this research, Bailyn’s contours of the study of the Atlantic past seem ill-drawn and restrictive.

Notes

1 Benjamin 2009; Cañizares-Esguerra and Seeman 2007; Canny and Pagdan 1987; Gilroy 1993; Mitchell 2005; Ogundiran and Falola 2007; Thornton 1992, 2012.

2 DeCorse 1980, 1991, 2001b, 2012; also see Posnansky 1984, 2001, 2002, 2012; Ogundiran and Falola 2007.

3 Arthur Whitaker, cited in Bailyn 2005: 25.

4 Hugh Trevor-Roperin a 1963 televised lecture on “The Rise of Christian Europe”, quoted in Oliver 1997:284, 291–292; also see Trevor-Roper 1964: 9; 1969: 6; cf. Connah 1998; Davidson 1995:xxii-iv; Davis 1973; Deveneaux 1978; Fugelstad 1992; Krech 1991; Posnansky 1969: 13–14, 1982: 348.

5 In his study of the last days of Adolf Hitler, Trevor-Roper reviewed oral information but was highly critical of it, appropriately so in this case, concluding that: “Anyone who undertakes an inquiry of such a kind [the study of oral histories] is soon made aware of one important fact: the worthlessness of mere human testimony” (Trevor-Roper 1995: xxi). Yet oral sources, like documentary, must be evaluated in the contexts that produced them and there are rich illustrations of their potential.

6 Feierman 1993.

7 Hammond and Jablow 1992; Mayer 2002.

8 Cooper 1994: 1525.

9 For recent perspectives of the Atlantic World with much wider perspective see Benjamin 2009; Cañizares-Esguerra and Seeman 2007; Canny and Pagdan 1987; Gilroy 1993; Mitchell 2005; Ogundiran and Falola 2007; Thornton 1992, 2012.

10 Du Bois 1896, 1924, 1930, 1939, 1947.

11 Williams 1944; Solow and Engerman 1987.

12 Herskovits 1933, 1936, 1941.

13 Curtin 1969.Bailyn (2005: 32) recognizes Curtin as ‘discovering' the South Atlantic system. Although Curtin's work was critical in focusing scholarship on the slave trade and quantifying it, Du Bois, Herskovits, and others had grappled with the slave trade and the interconnected nature of African and American history decades earlier.

14 E.g. Abraham 1978; Ajayi and Smith 1964; Ajayi and Crowder 1971, 1974; Akintoye 1971; Alagoa 1964; Bascom 1969; Brooks 1972; Curtin 1975; Daaku 1970; Diop 1960; Feinberg 1969; Flin 1976; Fyfe 1962a; Fyle 1979; Fynn 1971; Hopkins 1973; Jones 1979; Kea 1974; Klein 1968; Kup 1975; Law 1977; Lovejoy 1974; Vansina et al 1964; Oliver 1977; Peterson 1969; Polanyi 1966; Rodney 1966, 1970; Ryder 1969; Smith 1969; Thornton 1977.

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