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Postcolonial or Not?

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Christopher R. DeCorse

Conclusion

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1The expansion of European capitalism is arguably the defining event of the modern world and thus represents an essential research focus. And that cannot be minimalized. But is the Atlantic world the topic, the most important theme, in the understanding of the West African past? It is certainly important given the impact of the Atlantic world on West Africa and West Africa’s role in shaping that world. Yet to underscore this intersection as the defining event of the modern world ultimately limits our conceptual vantage. Both the African past and the emergence of the modern world are wider spatially and temporally than the bounds of European contact and expansion. West Africa did not rest isolated and unconnected with other regions prior to the advent of European contact. The trans-Saharan trade and the economic and cultural exchanges it engendered—including the spread of Islam—both predates the arrival of the Europeans on the West African coast and continues to impact the landscapes of modernity. While there is no question that European capitalist economy and its associated technologies had dramatic consequences, these were nonetheless articulated within the framework of local responses and cultural traditions. Understanding of the transformations that occurred during the Atlantic period and the full complexity of African history necessitates the study of Africa’s deeper past. My own perspective has sought to place the transformations of the Atlantic World within these wider contexts. Hence my research has not solely focused on sites of the Atlantic period, but equally on both pre-Atlantic and Atlantic pasts. Studies of the transformations of the past five hundred years cannot view African societies through the static lenses of ethnohistories constructed from limited documentary sources and archaeological data dating centuries after the advent of the Atlantic world. Nor can the archaeological examination of these transformations be simplistically evaluated on the basis of changes in artifact inventory.

  • 1 E.g. Ajayi 1968. Similar views have also been expressed with regard to former French colonial encla (...)

2Such broad perspective and pre-Atlantic vantage are by no means unique; they are well represented in studies of the West African past and foundational in West African, especially Nigerian, scholarship since the 1960s. Dike, Ajaye and others of the Ibadan School situated the colonial period as a brief episode in African history, a history grounded in African agency.1 These perspectives are not without disciplinary critique. The point here, however, is their framing of views of the past that privilege African history and African agency. In many respects, these works prefigure and engage the thrust of postcolonial and subaltern literatures. The periodization of the past has been a reoccurring theme in West African archaeology; a necessity in structuring the chronological dimensions of the material record. Yet researchers have often fluidly crossed these temporal boundaries. An early illustration of this is seen in

  • 2 E.g. Agbaje-Williams 1983; Agorsah 2003; Akinjogbin 1992; Chouin 2009, 2012; Chouin and DeCorse 201 (...)
  • 3 Ogundiran 2005:3–4.

3Raymond Mauny’s Tableau Géographique de l’Ouest Africain au Moyen Age (1961), which afforded both conceptual and substantive underpinning for future work. His treatment of the more recent past, as well as earlier periods, counterbalanced the prevailing emphasis on the Stone Age. Reviewing West African archaeological research of the past five decades one is struck by the number of studies that span the entirety of the first and second millennium CE, in some instances the “boundaries” of European arrival and the advent of documentary sources passing unnoticed.2 This reflects both the lived past and the archaeological record, which lie unbounded by the presence or absence of written or oral source material. Similar themes resonate with essays on precolonial Nigeria in Akin Ogundiran’s edited volume in honor of Toyin Falola. The volume underscores Falola’s perspective of the need to contextualize political, social and cultural developments in terms of their deeper historical contexts and seeks to transcend “the artificial and theoretically impoverished dichotomies between traditional and modern, prehistory and history, precolonial and colonial to demonstrate how dynamic, complicated and deep the history of Nigeria was before the late nineteenth century.”3 The study of Africa’s deeper past is crucial to both the understanding of the transformations that occurred during the Atlantic period and the full complexity of the African past. Studies of the contact period, resistance to conquest, and the advent of colonialism must equally grapple with the social, cultural, and political nuances of African societies both before and during the Atlantic period. They must also examine the varieties of European contact and colonialism, and the varied guises of hegemony.

  • 4 This resonates with trends in historical scholarship (e.g. Feierman 1993).
  • 5 As Cooper (1994:1529–1532) observes, a consequence of avoiding the study of the colonizer has left (...)

4Such holistic perspectives are inherently “postcolonial”—counter-colonial—in vantage. They transcend notions of “prehistory.” “protohistoric,” and “historic,” and their reincarnations into “precolonial” and “colonial” narratives. Rather they eschew these artificial periodizations of the past.4 Africa is shown to have had its own historical trajectories, technological developments, and sociopolitical enterprises. The arrival of the Europeans and the documentary record are not viewed as the preeminent events in the African past. Often the Atlantic world, nascent capitalism and European contact are unreferenced; the historiographies presented inherently challenging and subverting pervasive metanarratives of European expansion and hegemony. Africans are shown to have been well adept at seizing economic opportunities, markets, and outlets beyond the confines of Atlantic, colonial, or neo-colonial frameworks.5 Africa also presents its own unrepresented, marginalized, subaltern voices, outside of the contexts of European contact and interactions. Such vantage necessitates a view of the past engaging with, but unconfined by the presence or absence of the documentary record.

  • 6 Chouin and DeCorse 2010.

5Understanding of Africa’s deep, pre-Atlantic past is germane to this perspective. If we fail to place West Africa in these wider vistas we run the risk of inadvertently reifying interpretations that begin African history with the arrival of the Europeans. The point is not to underscore the “precolonial” or “colonial” past as more important or of greater significance than the other. Rather, the objective is to recognize the breadth of the African past and not increase the focus on one interpretive vantage at the expense of another. As Gerard Chouin and I point out in a recent Journal of African History article, the Atlantic factor in African history, as well as Africa’s role in the Atlantic past, are essential themes in the study of the modern world.6 Yet a predominate focus on the Atlantic past at the expense of pre-Atlantic history runs the risk of subsuming the African past into a footnote in European expansion, European hegemony, and the irresistible spread of capitalism outside of its European cradle. Such a Eurocentric view of Atlantic history is not consistent with historical realities.

Notes

1 E.g. Ajayi 1968. Similar views have also been expressed with regard to former French colonial enclaves (see Piault 1987; Awasom and Bojang 2009) .

2 E.g. Agbaje-Williams 1983; Agorsah 2003; Akinjogbin 1992; Chouin 2009, 2012; Chouin and DeCorse 2010; Cruz 2002; DeCorse 2001a, 2001x, 2001b, 2012; Effah-Gyamfi 1985; Eyo 1974; Kankpeyeng 2003; Kelly 1997b; Kiyaga-Mulindwa 1982; MacEachern 2012; N'Dah 2009; Ogundiran 2005;Richard 2007; Smith 2008; Spiers 2004; Stahl 2001; Thiaw 2008.

3 Ogundiran 2005:3–4.

4 This resonates with trends in historical scholarship (e.g. Feierman 1993).

5 As Cooper (1994:1529–1532) observes, a consequence of avoiding the study of the colonizer has left some aspects of African agency in the colonial period understudied.

6 Chouin and DeCorse 2010.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 2013

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