Tag Archives: Africa
European museums are under mounting pressure to return the irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist who works in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I benefit from the convenience of access provided by Western museums, while being struck by the ethical quandary of how they were taken there by illegal means, and by guilt that my colleagues throughout Africa may not have the resources to see material from their own country, which is kept thousands of miles away.
Now, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has recommended that art plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era should be returned through permanent restitution.
The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, speaks of the “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent” by which colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for “restitution” echoes the widely accepted approach which seeks to return looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.
The record of colonial powers in African countries was frankly disgusting. Colonial rule was imposed by the barrel of the gun, with military campaigns waged on the flimsiest excuses. The Benin expedition of 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, famous not only for its huge city and ramparts but its extraordinary cast bronze and brass plaques and statues.
The city was burnt down, and the British Admiralty auctioned the booty – more than 2,000 art works – to “pay” for the expedition. The British Museum got around 40% of the haul.
None of the artefacts stayed in Africa – they’re now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.
The 1867 British expedition to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which never fully acceded to colonial control – was mounted to ostensibly free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Tewodros II. It culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the looting of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from the Ethiopian church, which reputedly needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them all away. Most ended up in the British Library, the British Museum and the V&A, where they remain today.
Bought, stolen, destroyed
Other African treasures were also taken without question. The famous ruins of Great Zimbabwe were subject to numerous digs by associates of British businessman Cecil Rhodes – who set up the Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 sites of their gold – and much of the archaeology on the site was destroyed. The iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but many items still remain in Western museums.
While these are the most famous cases, the majority of African objects in Western Museums were collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little thought as to the legality of ownership. Even if they were bought from their local owners, it was often for a pittance, and there were few controls to limit their export. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or grave-markers, were simply collected and taken away. Such activities continued well into the 20th century.
Making them safe
The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.
Colonial powers had a patchy record of setting up museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in colonial capitals, they were later starved of funding or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were low on the priority list for national funding and overseas aid and development, while regional museums were virtually neglected.
Nowadays, many museums on the African continent lie semi-derelict, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are numerous examples of theft or lost collections. No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.
If collections are to be returned, the West needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs and invest in the African museums and their staff. There have been some attempts to do this, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to an uncertain future – there must be a plan to rebuild Africa’s crumbling museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.
The rightful owners
Will the Musée de Quai Bramley, that great treasure house of world ethnography in Paris, which holds more than 70,000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian Castle rebuilt at great cost to house ethnographic artefacts in Berlin which opens early in 2019 – be shorn of its African collections? There are already fears at the British Museum that a very effective campaign may lead to the return of its Rapu Nui Moai statues to Easter Island.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V&A Museum has entered into worthy discussions to return its treasures to Ethiopia. But there are reports this would be on the basis of a long-term loan, and conditional on the Ethiopian government withdrawing its claim for restitution of the plundered objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin entered into a similar agreement, unwilling to cede ownership of a tiny fragment of soapstone bird to the Zimbabwe Government in 2000.
The report by Savoy and Sarr offers hope that such deals could become a thing of the past and that Africa’s rich cultural heritage can be returned, restituted and restored to the brilliant cultures that made it.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.
While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.
Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.
Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.
Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.
Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.
The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.
Violent, brutal language
The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:
Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …
Another part reads:
Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …
Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.
But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.
Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).
In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.
The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.
Desire between women
Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.
In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:
Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …
Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.
The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).
Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.
The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.
The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.
Still magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.
Philip Misevich, St. John’s University; Daniel Domingues, University of Missouri-Columbia; David Eltis, Emory University; Nafees M. Khan, Clemson University , and Nicholas Radburn, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Between 1500 and 1866, slave traders forced 12.5 million Africans aboard transatlantic slave vessels. Before 1820, four enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European, making Africa the demographic wellspring for the repopulation of the Americas after Columbus’ voyages. The slave trade pulled virtually every port that faced the Atlantic Ocean – from Copenhagen to Cape Town and Boston to Buenos Aires – into its orbit.
To document this enormous trade – the largest forced oceanic migration in human history – our team launched Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a freely available online resource that lets visitors search through and analyze information on nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866.
Inspired by the remarkable public response, we recently developed an animation feature that helps bring into clearer focus the horrifying scale and duration of the trade. The site also recently implemented a system for visitors to contribute new data. In the last year alone we have added more than a thousand new voyages and revised details on many others.
The data have revolutionized scholarship on the slave trade and provided the foundation for new insights into how enslaved people experienced and resisted their captivity. They have also further underscored the distinctive transatlantic connections that the trade fostered.
Records of unique slave voyages lie at the heart of the project. Clicking on individual voyages listed in the site opens their profiles, which comprise more than 70 distinct fields that collectively help tell that voyage’s story.
From which port did the voyage begin? To which places in Africa did it go? How many enslaved people perished during the Middle Passage? And where did those enslaved Africans end the oceanic portion of their enslavement and begin their lives as slaves in the Americas?
Working with complex data
Given the size and complexity of the slave trade, combining the sources that document slave ships’ activities into a single database has presented numerous challenges. Records are written in numerous languages and maintained in archives, libraries and private collections located in dozens of countries. Many of these are developing nations that lack the financial resources to invest in sustained systems of document preservation.
Even when they are relatively easy to access, documents on slave voyages provide uneven information. Ship logs comprehensively describe places of travel and list the numbers of enslaved people purchased and the captain and crew. By contrast, port-entry records in newspapers might merely produce the name of the vessel and the number of captives who survived the Middle Passage.
These varied sources can be hard to reconcile. The numbers of slaves loaded or removed from a particular vessel might vary widely. Or perhaps a vessel carried registration papers that aimed to mask its actual origins, especially after the legal abolition of the trade in 1808.
Compiling these data in a way that does justice to their complexity, while still keeping the site user-friendly, has remained an ongoing concern.
Of course, not all slave voyages left surviving records. Gaps will consequently remain in coverage, even if they continue to narrow. Perhaps three out of every four slaving voyages are now documented in the database. Aiming to account for missing data, a separate assessment tool enables users to gain a clear understanding of the volume and structure of the slave trade and consider how it changed over time and across space.
Engagement with Voyages site
While gathering data on the slave trade is not new, using these data to compile comprehensive databases for the public has become feasible only in the internet age. Digital projects make it possible to reach a much larger audience with more diverse interests. We often hear from teachers and students who use the site in the classroom, from scholars whose research draws on material in the database and from individuals who consult the project to better understand their heritage.
Through a contribute function, site visitors can also submit new material on transatlantic slave voyages and help us identify errors in the data.
The real strength of the project – and of digital history more generally – is that it encourages visitors to interact with sources and materials that they might not otherwise be able to access. That turns users into historians, allowing them to contextualize a single slave voyage or analyze local, national and Atlantic-wide patterns. How did the survival rate among captives during the Middle Passage change over time? What was the typical ratio of male to female captives? How often did insurrections occur aboard slave ships? From which African port did most enslaved people sent to, say, Virginia originate?
Scholars have used Voyages to address these and many other questions and have in the process transformed our understanding of just about every aspect of the slave trade. We learned that shipboard revolts occurred most often among slaves who came from regions in Africa that supplied comparatively few slaves. Ports tended to send slave vessels to the same African regions in search of enslaved people and dispatch them to familiar places for sale in the Americas. Indeed, slave voyages followed a seasonal pattern that was conditioned at least in part by agricultural cycles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The slave trade was both highly structured and carefully organized.
The website also continues to collect lesson plans that teachers have created for middle school, high school and college students. In one exercise, students must create a memorial to the captives who experienced the Middle Passage, using the site to inform their thinking. One recent college course situates students in late 18th-century Britain, turning them into collaborators in the abolition campaign who use Voyages to gather critical information on the slave trade’s operations.
Voyages has also provided a model for other projects, including a forthcoming database that documents slave ships that operated strictly within the Americas.
We also continue to work in parallel with the African Origins database. The project invites users to identify the likely backgrounds of nearly 100,000 Africans liberated from slave vessels based on their indigenous names. By combining those names with information from Voyages on liberated Africans’ ports of origin, the Origins website aims to better understand the homelands from which enslaved people came.
Through these endeavors, Voyages has become a digital memorial to the millions of enslaved Africans forcibly pulled into the slave trade and, until recently, nearly erased from the history of not only the trade itself, but also the history of the Atlantic world.
Philip Misevich, Assistant Professor of History, St. John’s University; Daniel Domingues, Assistant Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia; David Eltis, Professor Emeritus of History, Emory University; Nafees M. Khan, Lecturer in Social Studies Education, Clemson University , and Nicholas Radburn, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
African history has gone through many incarnations as an academic discipline.
Most recently, there’s been a global turn in African historiography. This shift has been prompted by a greater awareness of the powerful forces of globalisation and the need to provide an African historical perspective on this phenomenon. This has helped to place the continent at the centre of global – and human – history.
It’s important to explain the role of Africa in the world’s global past. This helps assert its position in the gradual making of global affairs. As an approach, it’s a radical departure from colonial views of Africa. It also complements the radical post-colonial histories that appeared from the 1950s and 1960s. And it may offer another framework for thinking through the curriculum reform and decolonisation debate that’s emerged in South Africa’s universities over the past few years.
The history of African history
Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the 1950s and 1960s, in tandem with Africa’s emergence from colonial rule. Newly emerging histories served as an antidote to the pernicious views of imperial and colonial historiography. These had dismissed Africa as a dark continent without history.
But demonstrating that Africa has a long, complex history was only one step in an intellectual journey with many successes, frustrations and failures.
The long 20th century ended. A new one beckoned. It brought new sets of challenges. South Africa euphorically defeated apartheid. The decolonisation project that started during the 1950s in west and north Africa was completed. These achievements were overshadowed by a horrific post-colonial genocide in Rwanda. Another genocide loomed in the Sudan. Coups, civil wars and human rights abuses stained the canvas on which a new Africa was gradually being painted.
Africa’s woes were deepened by the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic. State-driven, pro-poor policies and programmes founded during the early post-colonial period atrophied. This decay was driven by hegemonic global neoliberal economic policies.
And the study of history on the continent took a knock. Student numbers declined as post-colonial governments shifted their priorities. Global funding bodies focused their attention on applied social sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
Nearly two decades into the new century there’s been another shift. The subject of history, alongside other humanities disciplines, is attracting growing attention aimed at averting their further decline. This can be explained in part by the subject’s own residual internal resilience and innovative research in newer areas of historical curiosity. There’s an emerging interest in history as a complementary discipline. Students of law, education, and political science are taking history as an additional option.
In South Africa in particular, history cannot be easily ignored, although it is contested. The country is still redefining itself and charting its new course after decades of apartheid and colonialism. However, a great deal of newer interest in history as a subject can be ascribed to university student movements. These movements have garnered greater public attention for ongoing debates about decoloniality and decolonised curricula.
Decoloniality is a radical concept. Its main aim is to degrade the coloniality of knowledge. In South Africa, the decolonisation movement has been tied to bread and butter issues: tuition fees and access to higher education. Decoloniality affords both the language and the reason for seeking to dismantle what are regarded as western and colonial systems and structures of knowledge production and dissemination.
But while decolonisation is riding a wave of academic interest, the histories of precolonial Africa are receding as an area of primary research focus. The histories of resistance to colonialism continue to resonate with current struggles for transformation and decolonisation. They have long been popular among historians in and of Africa. Indeed, several social and political movements have used decolonial interpretations of African history as their currency.
However, questions continue to be asked about the kind of history curriculum that should be studied at university level at this moment. And what are the purposes of such curricula? Is an African history module a necessarily transformed one? What new conceptual and methodological tools should be deployed to describe and explain colonial encounters from a decolonial lens? What modes of ethics should inform such approaches?
The challenges go beyond the conceptual aspects of decolonisation in the domain of African history. There are historical structural formations, hierarchies and tendencies within academia that are rooted in coloniality. These make it a huge challenge to articulate newer forms of knowledge. At the same time, decoloniality should operate through other forms and frameworks. This will allow it to find application beyond its own self-defined frames.
In addition, new approaches should challenge received wisdom and develop new kinds of curiosity. Newer curriculum should, for instance, grapple with the fact that there is no single Africa. A unitary model of Africa is a colonial invention. Ordinary people’s identities form and evolve via multiple networks and knowledge forms. An Africa approached from its diverse histories and identities could help forge new, purposeful solidarities and futures.
Author’s note: These were some of the issues discussed during a postgraduate seminar I convened in the Themes in African History module offered by the University of Pretoria’s Department of Historical & Heritage Studies. The insights offered here are my students’: Jane Mampane, Kudzai Mhere, Nobungcwele Mbem, Genis Stephanus Gabriel Du Toit, Laura Sophie Schnieders, Nicole Sithole and Tanyaradzwa Muranda.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at Dougga in Tunisia, the best preserved Roman town in Africa.
For more visit:
The link below is to an article containing maps of Africa from both 1870 and 1910 – quite interesting to students of world affairs, maps, etc.
The following articles deal with a region known as Bir Tawil on the border between Egypt and Sudan. It is a region that neither country seems to want. The article examines the history of the region.