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Postcolonial or Not?

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Christopher R. DeCorse

Methodologies of the Past

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1Postcolonialism and subaltern perspectives have dramatic implications with regard to the data used and how narratives of the past are constructed. Narratives of the past are contextualized by the social, political and cultural complexes that created them. Thus many postcolonial researchers have underscored the inherent bias of the documentary source materials created by the colonizers and, indeed, in the creation of the colonial archives. Inherently, their content and construction are imbedded in European hegemonies and they thus serve to reify European narratives of progress, capitalism and modernity.

  • 1 Gullapalli 2008: 58; cf. discussion is Schmidt 2009a: 1–2.
  • 2 DeCorse and Chouin 2003; also see DeCorse 2008b; Falola and Jennings 2003; Philips 2005; Stahl et a (...)
  • 3 Yet while the substantive grounding of Dike's work in documentary sources and its emphasis on Afric (...)
  • 4 E.g. Cooper 1994: 1529–1532. Indeed, virtually no archaeological work has been undertaken on Europe (...)

2Praveena Gullapalli, for example, underscores the problems inherent in “engaging with a colonial archive that by its very nature favors and supports analysis of the colonizer at the expense of the colonized, the elite at the expense of the subaltern”.1 Yet regardless of the limitations of the colonial archives, to ignore them is untenable; the holistic interpretation of the past depending on the substantive and critical appraisal of the array of sources represented.2 Careful analysis and the contextualization of documentary source material allow subaltern voices to be teased out. A pioneering case in point of the use of colonial archives to provide an African voice is Kenneth O. Dike’s Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, published in 1956. Dike’s study, substantively grounded in archival sources, stepped outside many of the then prevalent tenets of African history. It is all the more notable for its foregrounding of African agency; Europeans being viewed as only one set of players in the Atlantic landscape.3Colonial archives also afford unique insight into colonizers: the colonial enterprise, the processes of colonialism, and the colonizers themselves are legitimate foci of study in their own right and have, to some extent, been understudied.4

  • 5 41 E.g. Vansina et al 1964; also see Agbaje-Williams 1986; Andah and Opoku 1979; DeCorse and Chouin (...)
  • 6 Schmidt 2009a: 2, 2009b.

3Nonetheless, recognition of limitations of European source material has led researchers trying to give voice to subaltern lives to explore other source material, such as oral traditions and archaeology. In this respect, research into the African past has a long standing tradition of utilizing non-documentary source material; a counterpoint to perspectives that privilege written documentation.5 This view of the past, which recognizes the limits of different knowledge categories, inherently engages with postcolonial and subaltern perspectives. It has resulted in distinct methodologies that, in Peter Schmidt’s words, open “new theoretical perspectives in postcolonial studies, especially in the recovery and use of subaltern histories that challenge and help to deconstruct colonial narratives about the past, as well as provide truly multivocal views of the past.”6

  • 7 Andah, Bodam, and Chubuegbu 1991.
  • 8 E.g. Andah and Opoku 1979; Miller 1980; Henige 1983; Vansina 1985; Schmidt 1990.
  • 9 Schmidt 1990, 2006.

4This interdisciplinary approach recognizes the reality that, for that majority of sub-Saharan Africa, there is no documentary source material until the nineteenth century. While there are examples of indigenous West African writing systems, including the Vai script in Liberia, the Nsibidi script in Nigeria, and the hieroglyphic writing of the Bamum, these sources provide limited spatial, topical and temporal coverage.7 For the majority of African cultures, the chosen means of transmitting cultural information was not written characters but oral expression. It is in this form that the majority of precolonial African cultures maintained their traditions and this source provides the most substantive emic perspective of the African past. Given the paucity of written sources and the centrality of oral traditions in many cultures it is not surprising that the interpretation oral source material has received substantial attention from researchers working on the African past. Oral historical data have long been central to African studies and African scholars were among the first to grapple with their methodological and analytical challenges.8 As a source of indigenous perspective they have been viewed as central to scholars of subaltern studies seeking to eschew a reliance on colonial archives, their inherent postcolonial voices providing a cornerstone of subaltern views. In particular, Schmidt has emphasized the use of “deep-time” oral texts to provide unique insight into the African past and counter narratives to colonial and other dominant historiographies.9

  • 10 ndah and Opoku 1979; Vansina 1985; Henige 1982.
  • 11 DeCorse 2012. Though it should be noted that memories of the slave trade may be preserved in a vari (...)
  • 12 Peterson 2008; also see Trouliet 1995. MacEachern (1993) provides of example of how an interdiscipl (...)

5Yet oral source material presents its own methodological and interpretive problems. While it has been shown to reveal unique insight into both the colonial and precolonial pasts, it too must be evaluated in terms of the social cultural and political contexts in which it was created.10 Many cultures lack formalized cultural mechanisms for the retention and transmission of oral information, something that itself may be a relic of the Atlantic world. A case in point is provided by the frequently fragmented nature of oral traditions in areas such as northern Sierra Leone that were subjected to extensive slave raiding during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.11 These narratives often represent partial, collapsed, or even created lineages that begin in the distant past with mythical or semi-mythical events and then present the genealogy of the current chief, thus validating present authority patterns. In contrast, in other settings oral narratives of nation-states, dominant cultural groups, and the elite often oppose and silence narratives of subordinate groups. These submerged narratives need to be recognized and explored to reveal contrasting historiographies. Yet even counter narratives may in turn silence those of other marginalized populations, what Brian Peterson has referred to as “silences within silences”.12

  • 13 Klein 1989.
  • 14 Thiaw 2008.
  • 15 This is something observed by both Bredwa-Mensah (2004) and I (DeCorse 1993).

6Just as postcolonial vantage has reshaped frames of study, so too have new foci of study emerged. The shaping of past to meet emergent heritage tourism industries has demonstrated the importance of the past in shaping current discourses. Increasing emphasis in the Atlantic past and heritage tourism has resulted in an increasing search for indigenous knowledge of the slave trade. Descendents of slaves in Africa are often reluctant to reveal their histories or perhaps prevented from doing so, positioned in the cultural categories traditionally assigned to them.13 The oral tradition recounted by a woman from Gorée Island, Senegal regarding her slave past and her demand to be included in historical reconstructions from which she had been excluded is notable because of its rarity in a settlement whose population had once primarily consisted of domestic slaves.14 Slave villages, such as those associated with some of the Danish plantation sites in southern Ghana, are largely unrecognized and the descendents of the enslaved Africans who inhabited them reluctant to talk about their past.15

  • 16 For examples of interpretive problems with slave sites in Ghana see Benson and McCaskie(2004) and S (...)
  • 17 Austen 2001; Thiaw 2008.
  • 18 See Vansina1985:10–11.

7While oral information has provided new insight into the period of the Atlantic trade and opens the possibility of subaltern views of the Atlantic past, some of the work undertaken has been driven by governmental tourist development schemes that frequently have limited grounding in historical research and present poorly constructed glosses of the past. I have been led to sites of supposed memory by guides who are not from the local ethnic group, have little or no idea of the area’s history, and present engaging, though entirely fictional, stories of the past.16 Historical data, including both documentary sources and oral traditions, question these narratives. Analytically, the fictive aspects of such presentations are better referred to as “historical production”17 or “commentary”18 to indicate their creative elements. Yet such fictive narratives can become more pervasive in popular culture than historical reconstructions based on factual data.

Notes

1 Gullapalli 2008: 58; cf. discussion is Schmidt 2009a: 1–2.

2 DeCorse and Chouin 2003; also see DeCorse 2008b; Falola and Jennings 2003; Philips 2005; Stahl et al 2004.

3 Yet while the substantive grounding of Dike's work in documentary sources and its emphasis on African agency can be lauded, many of the criticisms directed at his analyses of the internal history of the Niger Delta could have been addressed through the greater use of oral traditions, as discussed below. For expanded discussion see Nwaubani 2000.

4 E.g. Cooper 1994: 1529–1532. Indeed, virtually no archaeological work has been undertaken on European sites or the colonial period, work having remained focused on structural histories or associated African settlements (E.g. Richard 2011).

5 41 E.g. Vansina et al 1964; also see Agbaje-Williams 1986; Andah and Opoku 1979; DeCorse and Chouin 2003; DeCorse 1996; Feierman 1993; Philips 2005; Schmidt 1990, 2006, 2009b.

6 Schmidt 2009a: 2, 2009b.

7 Andah, Bodam, and Chubuegbu 1991.

8 E.g. Andah and Opoku 1979; Miller 1980; Henige 1983; Vansina 1985; Schmidt 1990.

9 Schmidt 1990, 2006.

10 ndah and Opoku 1979; Vansina 1985; Henige 1982.

11 DeCorse 2012. Though it should be noted that memories of the slave trade may be preserved in a variety of ways (e.g. Shaw 2002; Lane & MacDonald 2011).

12 Peterson 2008; also see Trouliet 1995. MacEachern (1993) provides of example of how an interdisciplinary approach using archaeology and oral traditions reveals the past of populations historically marginalized by dominant African polities.

13 Klein 1989.

14 Thiaw 2008.

15 This is something observed by both Bredwa-Mensah (2004) and I (DeCorse 1993).

16 For examples of interpretive problems with slave sites in Ghana see Benson and McCaskie(2004) and Schramm (2010). Perbi's (2007) work on indigenous slavery in Ghana also draws extensively on oral traditions or testimony. However, much of this oral data is unverifiable with other source materialor is contradictory to it. For example, the “Hand-dug out plates” in bedrock at Salaga and Paga supposedly created by slaves are grinding hollows and their association with slaves is speculative (Perbi 2007: Platesiii, vii).

17 Austen 2001; Thiaw 2008.

18 See Vansina1985:10–11.

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