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on 16 September 2009
Like many of the OUP "Very Short Introduction" series, you can't really tell what the book is about from the title. This is not a survey of African history, but rather a survey of how historians, political leaders and others have interpreted African history. E.g., colonialists created an African history -- or pretended there wasn't one -- that would best serve the cause of colonialism. That is, if Africa is seen as a land of primitive, savage tribes, the colonial powers could defend their actions as just spreading civilization. Conversely, post-colonialists have often created a nationalistic view of African countries that did not exist prior to the European powers marking arbitary lines on their maps.

The authors take pains to note that any statement about Africa as a whole is likely an over-generalization. The history of the Congo area, for instance, is considerably different from that of South Africa. Yet, as diverse as the regions are, the authors assert that the concept of "Africa" shouldn't be abandoned.

The whole subject of African history is a difficult one for historians, or anyone, because of the lack of sources. What we know of African cities like Timbuktu is essentially what travelers wrote about them. Often, the African climate has worked to eradicate the records of what might have been there prior to 19th century European colonization. Even oral history is suspect, as oral histories are subject to change over time. This makes it difficult for those attempting to decolonize Africa to actually figure out what a particular African region was like prior to colonization. For once colonization began, the nature of the region might have changed drastically. For instance, the 1996 Rwanda genocide of the Hutu against the Tutsi is not, as depicted in Western media, a struggle between two tribes. The difference between the Hutu and the Tutsi -- genetically the same -- entirely stems from how these people were treated by German and Belgian colonialists, creating an artificial division between them that continued and worsened even after the Europeans were long gone. (It occurs to me as I write this, that this is somewhat similar to the aftermath of Ottoman colonization of Southern Slavs.)

But while African history can't escape concentrating on the effects of colonialism, the authors cover other areas, e.g., the participation of African states in the slave trade -- possibly as many slaves went East as went across the Atlantic, and many slaves were transferred internally only. African history can't be discussed without discussing the slave trade, but the authors warn that there was a lot going on at the time not related to the slave trade, so it's a mistake to think of Africa as a continent of victims.

History has always been more about interpretation than "facts", and that's particularly true in the case of Africa.

If you plan on reading any African history, or just want to understand the background of current African political issues, this book will provide needed perspective.
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on 6 July 2010
African History is not a short history of Africa, which is just as well as there are over 50 countries on the continent and only 149 pages of text in the book. Instead, this book sets out to provide an insight into how the history of Africa was perceived in the pre-Colonial and Colonial past and how histories of Africa became of interest and how they are now being written.

The book tackles all the tricky issues - how Africa has been and perhaps should be defined, what evidence for the past in Africa is available and how this can be used to build an understanding of African history, what sort of difficulties historians have faced (and still face), and how history, heritage and modern agendas relate to each other. The authors emphasize the dangers of applying new approaches and paradigms whole-heartedly in the challenge of understanding past dynamics - the risk of "throwing the baby out with the bath water" and ignoring the implications of some very solid facts in favour of arriving at a new gloss on those facts.

Whilst relevant to both Africa and historical writing in general, it is also of considerable interest to anyone asking questions about a) the relationship between identity, the past and historical writing and b) the nature of histories and archaeologies themselves.

This is both an excellent overview of how African history writing has evolved (and the problems it continues to tackle) and how "history" itself has had to evolve to meet the demands of the available data. Intelligent and thought provoking, this book is also immensely digestible and a very good read.
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on 14 September 2013
This is part of a series by the Oxford University Press entitled "Very Short Introductions" that certainly lives up to its title. They are small, pocket-sized books with texts of, I would guestimate, about 40,000 words plus illustrations and maps. The title of this book is, significantly, "African History" not "A History of Africa". Much of the work is devoted to how successive wave of historians and political activists have viewed and used African History and to the problems caused by the absence of written records and monumental ruins and also of questions of definition. Is "African history" the history of the continent or of "Black"/Sub-Saharan Africa? Early on the authors point to the significance of the discovery of the ruins of Jenne-jeno, as it showed that sub-Saharan Africa had a pre-Christian, pre-Islamic urban history.
The second half of the book deals with broad-brush coverage of major themes such as slavery, colonialism and post-colonialism. While African history is not a topic I know much about I found their coverage balanced. They point out that the Indian Ocean slave trade was on a par with the Atlantic trade and - something I didn't know - that the suppression of the oceanic slave trade by the British led to an increase in the internal slave trade and that, after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the Sokoto Caliphate became the world's largest slave society.
In the coverage of colonialism they point out the relative brevity of European rule in many parts of the continent (e.g. in Morocco from 1912 to 1956 and in Ghana from 1911 to 1957).
If you do want to learn more about Africa's past I would recommend reading "African History" before reading a history of Africa.
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on 25 December 2011
The book spends most of the time clarifying how has african history been made by westerners and why african history should or should not be looked from a western point of view. All in all makes it really boring and seems like a university dissertation rather than an approachable and interesting book.
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The "Very Short Introduction" series of Oxford University Press offers readers the opportunity to expand their knowledge in many directions. African history is a subject I know little about but was interested to explore in this "very short introduction" written in 2007 by John Parker, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Richard Rathbone, Honorary Professor of History, University of Aberystwth.

The authors state at the outset that their "very short introduction" is less a chronological history of Africa than a meditation upon the various ways that the African past has been thought about or imagined. Parker and Rathbone point to several difficulties in writing a straightforward historical account. In a short compass, it would be difficult to provide a history of a continent and its people over the course of over 5,000 years. During much of this time, the written historical record is scant at best. And the Africa of today includes more than 50 separate countries. The deeper question the authors raise is the sense in which Africa can be said to have a history at all, what it includes, and how it is to be researched and written. These latter themes pervade the book. The authors are careful and cautious in their approach; but on one occasion they suggest the discipline forms part of "the so-called 'cultural-linguistic turn' in the humanities associated with postmodernism". I would have considerable reluctance exploring a subject exclusively or primarily through postmodernist eyes with their biases and relativisms.

The early chapters of the book, in particular, explore the difficulties of exploring African history in terms of understanding the continent, particularly the distinction between the portions north and south of the Sahara desert and the large African diaspora. The authors raise hard questions about unity and diversity in the context of African peoples, and they question the idea of "tribalism" through which many people tend to view Africa. In a chapter titled "historical sources", the authors describe the difficulties of historical study in the absence of a written record. They discuss various alternatives to written records and they insightfully compare the differences between historical study and the types of study by cultural anthropology.

The book examines four large trends in African history in considering the role of "Africa in the world": religion, in particular the competing and almost equally-divided influences of Islam and Christianity, the slave trade, the African diaspora, and the large changes in the 19th Century resulting from European expansionism. These discussions, particular of the former two trends, are brief but highly suggestive.

There is large evidentiary material on the long history of slavery in Africa. Following the years of the slave trade, African history is documented through the age of colonialism, the end of colonialism, and the following and ongoing difficult paths towards self-government and economic growth of the African nations. While it briefly explores this large, complex history, the book is almost equally concerned with historiography -- the way in which historians in and outside of Africa conceived the nature of African history and set about writing it. The authors suggest that this history has changed and will continue to change as the needs continent and its people change. Various tensions in the nature of historical study of the sort the authors describe are not particular to Africa but are common to the enterprise. There undoubtedly also are factors that are particular to African history.

This "very short introduction" thus is more a combination of history, historiography, and the philosophy of history than a historical account. It proceeds at a high level of sophistication for an introductory book. The book includes an annotated bibliography for further reading together with an unusually large number of photographs which help to particularize the text amidst the abstractions. The book will be of most value to readers with a background in historical study (of other places or times); and, of course, to readers wanting to learn about Africa. The book made me want to learn more about Africa and its peoples; and thus, for me, it succeeded in its goal.

Robin Friedman
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on 30 November 2010
I found this to be a highly accessible introduction to the history of a continent I know little to nothing about.

I have since suggested this to friends who want an interesting but not patronising overview of African history.

I have to say that I love this series - not just this volume. They've not necessarily gone for obvious titles/subjects but all the ones I've read have been fascinating and have encouraged me to read further on the subject.
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on 30 October 2016
Excellent, small but dense and very interesting!
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on 15 July 2010
If you are looking for an interesting introduction to how Africa has developed over the centuries and the exciting prospects emerging for the future then look elsewhere. Africa is a vast continent with many countries and so writing a history is difficult. The authors go to great pains to say this over and over again.
To my mind this is written by professional historians for other historian and not for the general public or someone wanting to know more in a short space of time - which begs the question why write a very short introduction.
There are some interesting points and aspects but these come at great cost in time for the reader.
If you have the time to devote to reading this then my advice would be to use it in a more rewarding way. There are some excellent TV programmes and DVDs showing African development in a much more exciting and informative manner
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on 19 October 2011
I had hoped for an introduction to African history, including some key events and so on. Instead this is an overview of some of the key themes, and a discussion of approaches to the study of African history, so I was left feeling I hadn't learnt much of what I wanted to. I found the style tedious and heavy going too.
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