In defense of precolonial Africa

How are we to discuss and deal with colonization in Africa without using language that acknowledges that we were something before colonization?

Photo by Jay Eshie on Unsplash.

In a January 2023 article, Cornell University professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò lays out his case against the use of “precolonial” as a useful marker to discuss African history. Táíwò makes multiple arguments—and offers several examples—to support his claim. These arguments can be summarized as follows: the phrase precolonial Africa is “vacuous,”“racist,” and “plain wrong.” In this reply to Táíwò’s thesis, I argue for the usefulness and continued utility of precolonial as a term that identifies a structure and event that shaped the continent’s history in ways never before, and never after experienced.

As a preliminary matter, it is important to note that when used in the discourse on African history, the term precolonial relationally refers to the 19th- and 20th-century European colonization of Africa, what Táíwò calls the “modern European colonialism” in Africa. Táíwò does not reject or dispute this understanding of the phrase. Rather, his concern seems to be that the use of precolonial in this context flattens the very complex history of the continent before this specific incident. He argues that, if precolonial literally translates to “before colonization,” then the phrase as used in the discourse on Africa’s history must account for earlier experiences of colonization on the African continent before 19th-century European colonization if it is to be meaningful for the periodization of African history. Thus, he concludes that the use of the phrase in its narrow contextual sense is both wrong and meaningless, so it must be expunged from the discourse forever.

The problem is that nothing—no word, phrase, or method of understanding history—can ever be vast enough to capture what Táíwò acknowledges is the very complex history of the African continent, and yet be specific enough for discourse on the subject. Indeed, no word, phrase or expression can fully contain all the nuances of an idea or subject; this is a general foible in language. What is a “chair” if we insist that the word must account for every piece of furniture, device, or technology that has ever been used to support or facilitate the act of sitting? The work-around for this problem is to interpret words—and use language—within relevant context. This necessarily limits the potential interpretative scope that words and phrases carry, and thus facilitates communication.

It is important to flag this limiting context of precolonial early on because it is the foundation that grounds Táíwò’s concerns.

Precolonial Africa is (not) vacuous

Táíwò argues that precolonial tells us nothing or, at best, very little about the history of the continent; he is concerned that it defines little and elides a lot. He argues that precolonial does not offer any understanding of what the precolonial period entailed, of the nuances that characterized that era. If this reasoning were followed to its logical conclusion, then all periodization techniques would be judged as vacuous.

The task of periodization is not to define what the societies were in a given period, but merely to categorize the past into blocks of time to facilitate our study of history. Periodization often follows events, incidents, and structures that fundamentally altered the way societies were organized over the course of history. I’ll offer an example: the use of “Before Christ (BC)” and “Anno Domini (AD)” is a common periodization device in history; it divides history into two: the world before and the world after the approximate date of birth of Jesus, the Christian Christ. These designations tell us nothing about what society within these two periods entailed—what they looked like, and how they were organized—all they do is help arrange history in a way that serves the study of social evolution through time.

To further emphasize what he argues is the vacuousness of precolonial, Táíwò invites us to consider what is obfuscated. He asks us to consider what precolonial Yorùbáland or precolonial Ìbàdàn might mean. However, what he does not ask us to consider is what precolonial Nigeria means, or why precolonial Yorùbáland is today geographically divided between anglophone Nigeria, and francophone Bénin Republic and Togo. These latter questions demonstrate the utility and necessity of emphasizing the colonial experience in our accounting of African history—it is the only honest way to tell the story of how African countries came to be. This experience should not, and really cannot, be ignored in favor of exploring other aspects of African history. To insist that African historians ignore the colonial experience if they are to truly appreciate their history is to impose an unflattering simplicity on them.

Táíwò is additionally concerned about the homogenizing effect that the term precolonial imposes on African history; he argues that it flattens the contours of society before European colonization. He insists that one phrase cannot sufficiently account for the complex histories and experiences of African societies before colonization. Here again, a misappreciation of the task of periodization shows up. The utility of the phrase is that it acknowledges that the continent was something, a different thing, before the colonial incident, but it does not claim that it was one thing.

Accordingly, a more accurate picture is to regard precolonial as a gate or a boundary. Step through the gates back in time and you enter the discourse on vast and varied African societies prior to colonization; step through the gate in the opposite direction and you enter the discourse on 19th-century European colonization of Africa and its continued impact on the structures and institutions of African states.

Precolonial Africa is (not) racist

Táíwò also argues that the use of precolonial to describe Africa before 19th-century colonization leans into racist ideas about Africa. This argument contains two ideas: the first is that precolonial Africa existed; the second is the racist idea that precolonial Africa was a land “outside of time” and not worthy of consideration in a conversation about world history. Táíwò conflates both ideas to reach the conclusion that to speak of a precolonial Africa at all is to buy into the racist idea of Africa’s history beginning from European colonization. He inexplicably binds himself to only two choices: either precolonial Africa exists as it does under the racist imagination, or it does not exist at all. In other words, he argues that, if racist scholars have said precolonial Africa was a primitive wasteland, then Africans must uphold this definition. A different approach, which other scholars have adopted, is to say, the Europeans got it wrong—precolonial Africa was not a primitive wasteland. This latter approach has the advantage of resisting the European narrativizing of African history, which is the goal Táíwò has in mind. Táíwò, however, fails to achieve it because he makes the European understanding of precolonial Africa the starting point of his exposition.

Another aspect to Táíwò’s claim that the phrase is racist is his concern that “the ubiquitous phrase is almost exclusive in its application to Africa: ‘precolonial Africa.’” He asks, “How often do we encounter this designation in discourses about other continents?” First, it is worth noting that precolonial is traditionally also applied to other countries that similarly experienced 19th-century European colonization, such as India, Canada, and Australia, amongst others. The point is taken, however, that there is a certain racist idea that underlies the way the phrase precolonial Africa is typically applied.

Might I suggest that the quarrel is with the wrong half of the phrase precolonial Africa. Perhaps what Táíwò is picking up on is the still-alive instinct to read Africa—including postcolonial Africa—as universally primitive and sub-developed. Thus, it is the assumptions about Africa that reflect racist ideas, and if this is the case, then the problem is not solved by capitulating to these racist ideas. The valid concern about the over-simplification of complex African societies as one (primitive) identity should not be exploited as an impetus to propose a similarly overbroad approach, which is what Táíwò’s suggests.

Precolonial is (not) plain wrong

The last theme of Táíwò’s attack on precolonial is that it is “plain wrong.” He argues: because colonial events occurred within and by African societies before the 19th-century European colonization, it is wrong to make the latest incident the focal point of our discussion around colonization in Africa.

This argument presumes that the only way to fully engage with the robust and complex precolonial history of African societies is to look away from the reality of the European colonization of the 19th century. This presupposes that African scholars are incapable of multitasking; of appropriately foregrounding the colonial event while acknowledging the many inter- and intra-community relations that took place prior. This argument imposes a simplicity on African scholars, researchers, historians, and readers quite akin to what he describes as the racist over-simplification of African history as just one thing.

Another prong in Táíwò’s argument is the concern that the term precolonial divides African history into three periods—precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. Indeed, precolonial suggests a periodization of Africa in relation to the colonial event, but this is not wrong or useless as Táíwò suggests. We cannot deny that the European colonization of the 19th century is at the center of the identity of almost all African countries today. “Nigeria” did not exist before European colonization. To speak of a precolonial Nigeria is a natural way to acknowledge the precolonial indigenous communities that were foisted together under one political and sovereign identity by the British. To do otherwise is to ignore the ways the shared experience of colonization across and among these different communities necessarily puts these communities and their histories in conversation with one another.

Furthermore, there is an important consideration that Táíwò appears to be overlooking: the existence of periodization that centers the colonial event does not preclude other methods of periodization. The discourse around African history is broad enough to accommodate precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial; ancient, medieval, and modern; or whatever other schema may serve the specific study in question. What remains crucial however is that African history must duly acknowledge the colonial event as a significant marker that ushered in a new era for the continent.

Finally, assuming we take it as fact that precolonial obfuscates and that there are aspects of African history that are elided under the blanket of precolonial Africa, is that enough to dispense with the precolonial designation? If all of Táíwò’s charges against the phrase were true, is it not also true that the phrase exposes a very important shared history among African communities that can only be captured by this phrase? To be sure, the thousands-years-old civilizations and evolutions matter a great deal, but they do not and, in fact, need not matter at the expense of the more recent European colonial experience, which in many ways irreversibly impacted the ways our societies are organized.

European colonization completely reorganized the structure of African states, taking them from empires, kingdom, and autochthonous communities to sovereign states, countries that closely resemble their colonial forebears in laws, institutions, language, and culture. How then can we say that this incident is not epoch-defining enough as to form the basis of periodization? The fact that an aspect of history leaves a sour taste in does not make it one that we should ignore. Indeed, it is this exact quality that makes it impossible to ignore; that makes it momentous. What happens if we ignore the incident of colonial intervention in our historical narrativizing and periodization? How then do we account for the ongoing effects of colonization, a reality that exists only because of the colonizing incident?

Further Reading