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Review of How Societies are Born / Ouidah


By Christopher Fyfe

How Societies are Born : Governance in West Central Africa since 1600. Jan Vansina. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London, 2004. pp. 325. ISBN 0-8139-2279-8. £31.95.

Ouidah : The Social History of a West African Slaving Port 1727-1892. Robin Law. Ohio University Press, Athens, and James Currey, Obcford, 2004. pp. 308. ISBN 0-85225-498-2 £50 (cloth) 0-85225-497-4 (pbk) £18.95.

When, in 1960, historians suddenly began to take African history seriously and looked for sources for the precolonial past, Jan Vansina, a Belgian historian who had worked in the then Belgian Congo, described in the newly founded Journal of African History how he had used oral traditions to record the history of the Kuba people. His methods, subsequently expounded in On Oral Tradition (1965), were an overwhelming influence on the new African historiography. Twenty years later, he reviewed his work and found many of his hypotheses undermined by subsequent linguistic studies. His work needed constant critical review. This has remained his habitual practice.

One of the fantasies of colonial historiography was the so-called 'Bantu migrations' — that at some remote period 'waves of invaders' of a superior race, speaking 'the Bantu language' swept over Africa bringing their superior culture and overwhelming the indigenous inhabitants. During the 1960s and 70s historians wrangled acrimoniously, trying to make sense out of this story. Eventually Vansina published a witty article showing it was no more than a jumble of unrelated linguistic and archaeological material. In subsequent work he confined the word 'Bantu' to what it is — a language label — and to elucidating how the many Bantu languages spread.

In 1990 he published Paths in the Rainforest, an immensely ambitious volume, covering 5,000 years of Equatorial African history. In this latest book his time-span ends with 1600 when the Portuguese had established themselves on the coast. His geographical spread is limited to a West Central Africa covering Congo, Angola Botswana and Namibia. His theme is how governance developed among its peoples. He also reconsiders his use of the word 'tradition'.

Archaeological evidence is the obvious source for such early periods but here it is patchy, depending on contemporary politics. Archaeologists working under stable governments in Botswana and Namibia have provided a usable chronological framework for the period. But in war-torn Congo and Angola work has been impossible.

Linguistic evidence is more helpful. His study of the Bantu languages spoken in this region disproves the customary assumption that they were introduced en masse from the north. It is clear that they spread gradually from one neighbouring community to another. But it is still not known why or how they spread. Nor can their spread be related to any cultural change. He also uses as sources ethnographical material from descriptions by early writers. His work is set in the context of the environment. The northern part of the country is fertile, and grows increasingly arid as one moves south. This environmental pattern determined the inhabitants' economic activities and social patterns.

Late Stone Age archaeological sites show their inhabitants were foragers (the term now preferred to 'hunter-gatherers') using stone tools and moving when their food supply failed. From about 400 BC, far later than elsewhere in Africa, pottery and metal objects appear. Then suddenly, 'like a special effect in a movie', on a site dated 680, new features appear simultaneously — a sedentary village, domesticated cattle and metal-working, all introduced from outside.

In the fertile north cereal cultivation supplanteded foraging and revolutionised society. Settled farming village life brought new social patterns. Metal tools changed gender relations: men had metal hoes, women only sticks, advertising their inferiority. Men could now accumulate and own metal goods which became symbols of power. A new social pattern emerged givng owners power over non-owners, and dividing haves from have-nots.

In the south cattle-ownership had the same effect. There cattle were wealth. Those who accumulated cattle had power and status. Cattle were kept in large herds and were moved about with the seasons. This demanded a large supply of young men as herdsmen, reinforcing the division between old and young. Women had no role. Cattle were wealth and gave the herd-owners power and status. As in the north a gulf opened beween rich and poor.

At different, apparently unrelated, times the governance of these polities consolidated under the authority of one single ruler. Many small polities emerged without any one dominating the others. The forms of governance developed differently, in each region. In the north the royal palace became a sacred shrine where the ruler lived in seclusion. Royal officials proliferated, positioned in a hierarchy of descending titles to which anyone might aspire, grounding governance on a pyramid of obedience. In the south there was more emphasis on cattle as a sacred emblem. Rulers and cattle vied for attention. In the arid inland country a foraging economy continued, with its own distinctive patterns of governance. In each aggregation of villages the people had their own corporate institutions, based on age and gender, each with its own spectacular masquerades and authority-giving masks — a form of truly collective governance.

In Paths in the Rainforests Vansina dwelt on the concept of tradition, a static concept, with no clear definition. Now he looks instead at what underlies traditions — the collective imaginations that crystalise and maintain them — finding among the peoples of each region an 'obsessive vision' of governance — the royal pyramid, cattle, authority-giving masks. 'To my mind', this great historian concludes/ it is far more important to better understand the dynamics of history than to quarrel over the genealogy of traditions'.

Robin Law has been teaching African History at Stirling University since 1972, one of the dwindling number of historians of Africa still teaching at a British university. Following Vansina, he began his African research by collecting oral traditions in the Yoruba country of Nigeria for The Oyo Empire, c.l600-c.1836,(1977). He then turned to the so-called 'Slave Coast', now in the Republic of Benin (formerly called Dahomey) and to a vast assemblage of 17th and 18th century records scarcely touched by historians. His research resulted in The Slave Coast in West Africa 1550-1750(1991) a study of the kingdom of Dahomey and of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on West Africa, centred on the monarchy and its inland capital.. The focus of his new book is coastal Ouidah (English version, Whydah), the king's export centre. His reach however stretches beyond Africa. Ouidah, an international Atlantic seaport, fits into the newly-fashionable category 'Atlantic History' as into another fashionable category 'African Urban History'. It also makes an important contribution to the history of the Atlantic slave trade. This inevitably brings in the rancorous debate over who was responsible for it. But he refuses to assign collective guilt for a trade which both participants, European and African, welcomed, and carried on for centuries without any sense of its being immoral. Instead he dedicates his book to the memory of the more than a million slaves who were shipped away from Ouidah.

He begins in 1727 when Ouidah, already an established export centre, was conquered by the king of Dahomey. A commercial community grew up, taxed by the king, but trading on their own and gaining high status. Ouidah developed as a cosmopolitan town, attracting a large immigrant population, with a wage economy based on the customary cowrie currency and a property market. It had a strongly religious character. Numerous cults flourished, brought in by the immigrants, worshiping separately but not competing with another and usually identified under the comprehensive name vodun — which crossed the Atlantic as 'voodoo'.

The few European inhabitants resided in their forts under the supervision of a royal administrator who collected the dues they had to pay and oversaw their trade and behaviour. Their slaves were lodged in squalid dungeons where many died. But when a slave ship arrived they were tidied up and, once sold, branded to identify them, stripped naked, and marched in shackles to the beach where they were shipped into flimsy canoes which took them through the heavy, shark-ridden surf to the waiting slave ship.

When, early in the nineteenth century, the European and American nations successively declared the slave trade illegal, the forts closed but the slave trade still went surreptitiously on, despite the efforts made by the British naval squadron to supress it. Slaves were exported to Brazil until the early 1850s, then started up again to Cuba. It was only in 1862 that the last slave ship left Ouidah.

The European traders were replaced by Eurafricans from Brazil, notably Felix da Souza, hero of Bruce Chatwin's novel,The Viceroy of Ouidah (in fact he was not a viceroy but the king's commercial agent). Many more Afro-Brazilians followed, going back and forth to Brazil, forming a transatlantic community. The slave trade was replaced by trade in palm oil, a transition detailed in a volume edited by Law, From Slave Trade to 'Legitimate' Commerce (1955) (and in a Stirling PhD thesis by the present Minister of Health). The Ouidah merchants had their own palm plantations, which made them independent of the royal slave supply. Relations worsened between them and King Gezo who victimized the powerful da Souza family and seized their property. Ouidah commerce gradually declined, threatened by competition from the neighbouring port of Cotonu. When in 1892 the French conquered Dahomey they made Cotonu the capital and Ouidah's great days were over.

This magisterial volume, an impressive contribution to the history of West Africa and of the slave trade, together with his numerous other published works, highlights Robin Law as one of the most distinguished British historians in the field of African history.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 101-105]

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