Sources of Africa/Nigeria history
The topic is an attempt to debunk the Hamitic Hypothesis – the theory which has it that everything of significance that took place in Africa south of the Sahara was brought about by the Hermits, allegedly a branch of the Caucasian (White) race. This theory was formulated by C.G Seligman (1930) in his book Races of Africa and it says that:
Apart from relatively late Semitic influence … the civilization of Africa are the civilization of the Hamits, its history the records of these people and of their interaction with the two other African stocks, the Negroes and the Bushman, whether this influence was exerted by highly civilized Egyptians or by such wider pastoralist as are represented at the present day by the Beja and Somali … The incoming Hamites were pastoral ‘Europeans’ arriving wave after wave – better armed as well as quicker witted than the dark agricultural Negreos.
This racist view of Africa was first propagated by the early Europeans that visited the continent. They were also amazed by the massive and spectacular development that took place on the continent that they felt that the development could not have been invented by the Africans themselves. The Europeans did not believe that the civilization and structure such as the pyramids in Egypt, Nubia, Kush, Napata, Meroes, Axum, the Great wall of Zimbabwe as well as the NOK, Ife, Benin and Igbo Ukwu, were built and developed by Africans. They did not also accept the fact that Africans can independently invent the use of Iron without External (European) influence. They did not believe that the African people could have invented agriculture without external influence. The Europeans did not accept the great kingdoms and empires and the complex systems of government they found in the continent were independently evolved by the Africans. So amazed were they that they concluded that their ancestors (early Europeans) who visited the continent in the distant past must have introduced these developments to the continent.
Over the years, however, researches by African scholars and some objective European historians have been able to prove that the African continent had a glorious history of its own just like Europe and the middle east. It has been proved that the great centres of civilization from Egypt through NOK to Zimbabwe were independently invented by Africans without external (European) influence. It has been discovered that long before the emergence of European civilization, the people of Africa had evolved agriculture, irrigation, writing, stone building and effective and complex administrative structures. It has been proved that Africa was the centre of civilization (a form of Garden of Eden) because the oldest evidence of Homo Sapiens was found in Africa – East Africa.
Research by renowned scholars such as Walter Rodney (1972) in his epochal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa has shown that by the fifteenth century when Africa first had contact with the Europeans, the development in the two continents (Europe and Africa) was at par equal. The underdevelopment which Africa witnessed from the sixteenth century onward was the handiwork of the Europeans. It was the Europeans that introduced the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – a trade which lasted for three centuries and has been described as the greatest forced migration in history – into the continent. This inhuman trade between the Europeans and their local collaborators (Kings, Oba, Emirs etc) greatly devastated the continent and nearly reduced it to rubble. Through the trade, able-bodied men and women – (the workers, traders, farmers, priests, craftsmen etc) – those involved in the social and economic well being of the society were carted away to the Americas. It was in the course of this inhuman trade that the Europeans now saw Africans as sub-humans whose ancestors could not have built any meaningful civilization. This erroneous view by the European and other colonial and imperialist scholars continued from early period up through the period of imperialism/colonialism to independence of African countries. Since the decolonization of African countries, new light about the history of the continent has emerged.
In order to substantiate their claims of the early accomplishments of the Africans before and after the coming of Europeans, Africanist historians have had to depend on a number of sources such as written records, archaeology, cultural history or ethnology, historical linguistics, physical anthropology and oral tradition. Let us now examine these sources briefly – restricting it to Nigeria.
Sources of Africa/Nigeria history
Literary sources of Nigerian history can be divided into three categories namely; works by Arab scholars, geographers and historians; indigenous Africans who had acquired knowledge of Arabic writing; European writers e.g explorers and colonial masters and Africans who had acquired knowledge of English writing.
Literary works by Arab scholars, geographers and historians help us to get insight into the history of early people of west Africa most especially from the eighth century up to the fifteenth century. This was the period when the Europeans had little knowledge of the people. It is from these sources that the history of Ghana, Mali, Bornu empires and Hausa states have been reconstructed. Some of the early Arab writers who wrote about the people include Leo Africanus, Al-Bakri, Magrizi, Ibn Khaldun and Al-Umari. The indigenous writers who also wrote about the people include Ahmad Ibn Fartuwa and Al-Barnawi. There were also the Kano chroniclers. Individuals such as Al-Said, Usman Dan Fodio, Mohammed Bello and Abdulahi wrote about Sokoto and the Sokoto Jihad.
European literary sources of Nigerian history may be divided into two categories – primary sources and general literature. These include official and private documents in the form of official publications by the governments and parliaments of colonial powers; peace treaties and other agreements concluded by great powers between one another and with Africans; legislative acts, edicts, despatches, memoranda etc of the colonial administrations; documents from African companies and individual merchants; letters, memoirs of agents of African companies, colonial officials or administrators as well as individual traders, missionaries and adventurers.
The works of European writers have to be handled with great scepticism and criticism not only because among them we find clear falsifiers like Stanley, Carl peters, etc. but also because scanty knowledge of geography, ethnography and other social sciences at that time often led them into grave errors and distortions. Thus, for example, John Van Riebeecks, in the middle of the 17th century took the saan and the Khoi-Khoi for one and the same people. Similarly, the German traveller Frederick Hornemann in the late eighteenth century wrote that he had ascertained that the Niger flows into the Nile. Nevertheless, works of contemporaries contain a lot of valuable data on the history and socio-economic development of the African people they met.
European sources also include literature or historical literature written by colonial, bourgeois, imperialist and reactionary historians of the colonizing powers. Such works sought to justify European presence and their exploitation of Africa by giving the impression that Africa had no past or history, that Africans lived in primitive savagery and ignorance, that the white race had a burden to civilize Africa. Some European writers who wrote about Nigeria include Pachero, Pereira, Ruy de Pina, de Barros, Hubbard, Dappa, Nyendeal – all these wrote about Benin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some of the explorers who wrote about Nigeria included Richard and John Lander (Lander Brothers), Clapperton, Henry Bath, Mary Kingsley, Richard Deham and Frederick Horneman. The best means of checking such work is to make comparisons between the works of authors from various European nations who in their struggle for the control of African colonies always endeavours to point out one another’s lies and atrocities.
Another written source of Nigeria history include works written by Nigerians who had acquired knowledge of English language. Such writers include Samuel Johnson, Olaudah Equiano, Jacob Egharevba etc. The works by these writers have helped to debunk the lies in the writings of the European writers.
Archaeology is a historical science and method whereby the past is reconstructed through analysis and interpretation of excavated natural objects. Thanks to advances in archaeology and its invaluable discoveries, historians have been able to solve difficult problems regarding wide issues as the origin of man and the re-establishment of truth and facts about African civilizations and cultures. It is mainly due to the strong and decisive evidence provided by archaeology discoveries that old myths and reactionary falsifications of history regarding Zimbabwe, Kingdoms of Sudan, Ghana, Mali, Songhai, NOK, Ife, Benin have been finally laid to rest.
Cultural History or Ethnology
Cultural history is the method used by ethnologist in establishing the relationship between two cultures and the evolution they have experienced. This is achieved by comparing the cultural traits common to them. Whereas archaeology deals primarily with material finds and data, cultural history is not confined in material effects but includes all cultural traits as well as evidence of an early level of development.
Historical linguistics is a historical science whose subject is the establishment of genetic links between languages and groups of people. It provides information concerning the history of migrations. Through historical linguistics it may be possible to establish a common ethnic origin for people with linguistic affiliations. But a common language does not necessarily imply a common ethnic group. For example, whereas the Hausa and Fulani people speak Hausa, they have different origins. On the other hand, the Isoko, Urhobo, Esan and Western Igbo speak languages which belong to the Edo group of Languages.
Physical anthropology attempts to establish the similarities and dissimilarities between the populations of the world. Physical anthropology contributed immensely to the study of the origin of man, and man’s gradual spread to different parts of the world. However, because geographical and climatic conditions determine racial and physical features, it is difficult to establish which differences are due solely to genetic factors. Thus, since the result of physical anthropology are more or less generalized, the value of physical anthropology to history is limited.
In parts of the world inhabited by people who did not acquire writing (pre-literate societies), oral traditions form the main available source of their history. Even amongst people who knew writing, many historical sources, including the most ancient ones were based on memories of the past. Oral traditions are historical sources of a special nature in that they are “unwritten” and transmitted orally, with the preservation of past events depending on the power of memory of successive generations. Not all oral sources are oral traditions. Oral tradition is sources which have been transmitted from one person to another through language. Eye-witness accounts, even when given orally, are not oral traditions because they are not reported statements.
Oral traditions consist exclusively of hear-say accounts, that is, testimonies of events not witnessed or remembered by the author, but which he has learned about through hear-say. This definition excludes rumours, for although it is an oral source, it does not concern the past. Rumour is a piece of news arising in the situation of tension or unrest when the usual channels of communication are no longer functioning. However, rumours may remain in people minds and later give rise to oral traditions, but this not alter the fact that, in themselves, rumours are not oral traditions. Oral traditions consist of all verbal testimonies, which are reported statements concerning the past: narratives, legends, anecdotes, myths, proverbs, list of genealogies, tales, commentaries, poetry, place names, and precedents in law.
Although some writers such as Murdock have asserted that indigenous oral traditions are completely undependable much beyond the recollection of living informants, writers like Ryder, believe that “one of the most hopeful means of filling the yawning gaps in our knowledge of Africa’s past is contained in the enormous body of materials which historians know as oral tradition and oral evidence”. There existed among some groups such as Benin, Yoruba etc. professional historians whose responsibility it was to relate the history of their people to the younger ones and visitors and they were maintained and catered for by the palace. These professionals (palace) historians could relate by words of mouth, the history of their ancestors, rulers and people with astounding clarity. In fact, in some societies, it was an offence sometimes punishable by death any lapse in memory or fabrication by such historians.