Panel I

OF CHIEFS AND CLERICS IN WEST AFRICAN HISTORY

8:45 – 10:30am

Held in the Kellogg Center Auditorium

Chair: Chuck Ambler

Tamba Mbayo, Hope College, “Malfeasance, Fraud, and Dishonor: African Interpreters, Chiefs, and French Officials in Colonial Senegal, 1880s to 1920s.”

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a few African interpreters and chiefs in colonial Senegal fell foul of the administration in Saint-Louis because of malfeasance and fraud. Considering their important role as local intermediaries, African interpreters and chiefs could have a significant bearing on relations of governance between the French authorities and the indigenous people. What were the wider implications of the cases of malfeasance and fraud for the interpreters and chiefs affected? What roles, if any, did French officials play as agent provocateurs in the scandals involving their African counterparts? And what do these cases reveal about the hierarchical structure of the colonial administration in Saint-Louis and, by extension, the rest of French West Africa? Drawing mainly on French archival sources, such personnel files, official letters, memos and reports, this paper examines the individual motivations, personality conflicts, and institutional dynamics that underpinned such cases of official misconduct and dishonor.

Peter Mark, Wesleyan University, “Portuguese Weapons in Pre-colonial West African Trade”

Recently discovered archival sources of the Lisbon Inquisition document the production of blade weapons, or ‘armas brancas,’ by Lisbon-based artisans, working with traders who contracted for the swords, during a 30-year period from 1590 to 1618.  Many of these contractors were New Christians. The weapons were transported to the Rivers of Guinea, where they were traded to African elites.  After 1608, Jewish merchants who had settled at Portodale and Joal on the Petite Côte became important players in this coastal commerce. Many of these contractors were New Christians. This commerce in swords and daggers contravened a Papal Bull that prohibited Christians from trading weapons to non-Christians. The commerce, largely ignored by historians, is corroborated by Portuguese travel narratives from the period. Over the period of eight or nine years documented by the Inquisition report of 1618, this trade would have amounted to a total of between 3200 and 5000 weapons. One type of sword, the ‘terçado’ was about 77 to 88 cm. long.  ‘Terçados’ were ideal cavalry weapons. The weapons were exported both from Portugal and from Amsterdam, but also from Morocco across the Sahara. Many of these weapons are represented in sixteenth and seventeenth-century sculpture from West Africa. The Afro-Portuguese ivories from Serra Leoa depict both cavalrymen and Portuguese foot soldiers armed with ‘tercados’ and daggers. Since blade weapons were traded for ivory, one could say that this is an instance of a trade item that represents itself as art. The weapons depicted also help to reattribute the ivories. They were produced, not in Nigeria as some art historians have asserted, but rather, and beyond a doubt,  in Serra Leoa (Sierra Leone and Guinée).

Hilary Jones, University of Maryland, “Rethinking Urban Identities and Urban Politics in Nineteenth Century Senegal.”

David Robinson’s scholarship in the field of African History has opened new avenues of investigation into the tensions between democratic institution building and the hegemony of the colonial state, the role of African intermediaries in mediating colonial rule and the centrality of religious beliefs and practices in maintaining and shaping African identities.  His approach to the study of nineteenth century Senegal, specifically, called for scholars to think more critically about the dynamism of urban communities and their role in facilitating but also complicating the process of expansion and consolidation of French colonial rule before 1914.  This paper explores the making of urban identity and its relationship to democratic institution building in nineteenth century Senegal.  In using a theoretical framework advanced by Robinson, I consider whether or not civil society existed in Saint Louis, Senegal’s colonial capital and if so what implications did the development of an aggressive and engaged citizenry have for enforcing colonial control?  In this paper, I have chosen to examine the emergence of urban identity through the lens of signares (African women who married European men) and their mixed race children.  As a group with blood ties to both France and Senegal who also pursued strategies of cultural assimilation to France this segment of the urban population had unprecedented access to electoral institutions between 1830 and 1900.  Although I do not consider this group as representative of the entire community, this paper argues that people of mixed racial ancestry played a crucial if often overlooked role in acting as a mediating force to the colonial state and in stimulating discourse about national interests and national identity.

Assan Sarr, PhD Candidate MSU, “Why Land and Not Wealth– in–People?: The  Centrality of Land in Africa Before the Twentieth-Century.”

Landholding and land use in Africa have become a central interest for many anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and other professionals concerned with issues of development and property rights in sub-Saharan Africa but not so much to historians. In fact, much of the scholarship on this aspect of precolonial African history, by and large, focuses on slavery and slave trading. What this means is that generally historians of precolonial Africa tend to over-emphasize the importance of slavery by projecting the idea that Africans held a strong belief that wealth was only in people and not on land, or any other forms of property. While I do seek to diminish the importance of the notion of property-in-slaves in precolonial African societies, I want to show that studies that are focused solely on slavery and slave trading tend to overlook important political and social processes which shaped most pre-colonial African societies and how land fits into that broader context. As such, I draw my examples from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Gambia River to challenge those assumptions and/or generalizations about land in precolonial Africa.  I argue that we need to have a more nuanced understanding of forms of land ownership in Africa before European colonization began in the 1880s.

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