Were there Cannibals in Africa?

Teaching undergraduates to think historically is difficult. Teaching them to think historiographically is even harder. As an undergraduate, I was taught that historiography is the “bread and butter” of the historian. Our introductory courses were not survey classes, but introductions to either world historiography or Mexican historiography. One of the first papers I had to write was an analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars and it was not very good. Historiographical analysis takes time because it requires a lot of reading. This is difficult to justify in an undergraduate course that covers diverse topics and questions. 

However, I do believe that reading how historians locate their work and justify their questions and arguments within a larger conversation is essential for students to learn how to do this. They may not need to read all the books mentioned by an author, but it is important for them to know that historical arguments do not exist in a vacuum. Moreover, it is important for them to understand that questions change with time, new sources appear or are reconsidered and, most importantly, our present circumstances change our perspective on the past.

To illustrate these questions, I typically try to do in my courses is to identify a source, book or article, that makes the historiographical conversation a central part of the story that is being told. Sometimes there is a prominent historiographical survey in the introduction, other times there is an appendix. In most cases these sources deal with a question that has captured the attention of historians for some time. I recently read a book that does this very well and I am contemplating using it for my project. The book is called Converging on Cannibals. Terrors of Slaving in Atlantic Africa, 1509-1670 (Ohio University Press, 2019). This book revises the history of the Jagga or Imbangala, a society that lived in areas of central Africa who came into contact with the old kingdom of Kongo and were described in several Portuguese accounts. In this book, Staller re-examines the history of the Jagga by questioning whether the practice of cannibalism, as described in many European sources, is in fact justified by the historical record.

It so happens, however, that the historiography of the Jagga is, in itself a storied one. Some of the revolutionary work in African history was done by historians, such as Jan Vansina and David Birmingham, who investigated who were the Jagga and what was their role in central African history. These historians worked primarily on establishing a chronological framework for the history of central Africa but also chose to largely ignore European sources and preferred to use oral traditions. Historians of this early generation did not trust the accuracy of European sources precisely because they presented what they thought were exaggerated and prejudiced depictions of African culture, cannibalism being one of the many forms of violence and barbarism that Europeans sources presented as typical in African societies. However, as Staller shows, a careful reading of European sources can inform a new interpretation of African sources where the image of the cannibal is not purely a European creation but one that even some African leaders deployed to their advantage. 

What I would like to do is present students with extracts from two secondary sources. First, an article of Joseph Miller that re-interprets the chronological framework for the history of the Jagga. In this article, Miller looks at the arguments presented by two other historians (Vansina and Birmingham) for certain dates, while he presents a new set of possible dates. What is interesting about these arguments is that they are largely based on oral traditions and openly dismiss the use of European sources. Second, I would use an extract from Staller’s book to illustrate how history is not necessarily cumulative, in other words, the use of new sources does not necessarily answers all the questions we used to have, but allows for new questions and maybe even complicates the old ones. 

In terms of the exercise, I would present the Miller text annotated by me, and I would ask students to annotate the Staller text to identify where the interpretations overlap and where they are different. 

In terms of images I think it would be interesting to use some of the maps created by old historians like Miller or Vansina and compare them with the ones created by Staller. Some of them are slightly modified, which shows how the work of Staller both builds upon the work of Vansina, Miller and Birmingham but also departs from it. There are also some great images included in Staller’s book reproducing European depictions of cannibalism among Africans. Depending on what excerpts I choose from Staller, some of these images can illustrate how a careful reading of diverse types of evidence can open new and unexpected questions.

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