Robin Derricourt, Inventing Africa: History, Archaeology and Ideas (Pluto, 2011), £17.99
This book questions the assumptions and prejudices that appear as soon as Africa is considered. It opens with three geographical ways of defining Africa, then critiques assumptions made by writers and historians, the views of anthropologists and post-colonial analyses.
In so doing Derricourt shows the range of ways of defining Africa and offers a salutary warning to anyone who thinks any branch of science can be defined as pure and above the society that it emerges from. But he also manages to avoid the mirrored error of using this as an excuse to abandon the idea the possibility of any scientific knowledge.
Given his subject, it is a pity that he doesn’t mention Frederick Engels and the groundbreaking work he did in the 19th century. In The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876) Engels was able to use a Marxist analysis to make predictions about future discoveries in human origins that have since been proved right. While not specifically about Africa Engels’s anthropological work marked out a theoretical framework that has stood the test of time in a way that many of the assumptions Derricourt critiques have not.
Derricourt starts by arguing that how “Africa” is defined is disputed. Ancient civilisations around the Mediterranean—including Rome, Greece and Egypt—defined their world primarily by the sea at its heart not the blocks of land around it. In late antiquity many scholars considered the Nile to mark the division between Asia and Africa, so Ethiopia was defined as Asian.
But to understand modern notions of and prejudices about the continent it is the relation between Africa and the European capitalist nations that conquered it in the 19th and early 20th centuries that is crucial. The ideas of explorers and imperial administrators who created the West’s view of Africa were shaped by the vicious racism that had developed in tandem with the Atlantic slave trade. Derricourt unravels strange imperial myths of lost cities in Africa. The myths led writers such as H Rider
Haggard to invent tales such as King Solomon’s Mines explaining how they must have been created by non-black peoples.
Archaeologists who then discovered cities like ancient Zimbabwe spent years trying to prove they could not have been built by the local population. This was not a matter of consciously falsifying data, but of seeing what they expected to see. So archaeological evidence that the local population had lived in the towns could be dismissed by assuming that they must have been servants to the—as yet unidentified—superior race.
Derricourt gives an example of how far this strange mythmaking could go with the story of Credo Mutwa, a South African Zulu writer who incorporated elements of what he had read in imperial fiction and mythmaking histories into stories from local Bantu folklore. His writings were later taken as corroboration of the existence of non-African creators of African artefacts.
This could be dismissed as simply bad science by anthropologists in a country that had a vested interest in proving the separation of races. But Derricourt looks at how deeply ideas of inherent racial characteristics infected more rigorous scientific analysis.
He studies in some depth Raymond Dart, who made a real breakthrough with his discovery and identification of the human ancestor Australopithecus africanus. But his view of humanity was shaped by a belief in strong links between “race” and immediate behaviour, as displayed in this unscientific quote: “I showed that the Bantu are constituted from a Bush and Negro matrix, but that before they fused, the Bush race had already been infiltrated with brown (Mediterranean) racial elements and the Negro with Nordic elements.”
The idea of a division between Hamitic Tutsi and Bantu Hutu in Rwanda is part of this colonial myth. The story of two races originally came out of a search for the lost people who had developed civilisations in central and southern Africa. But with it came the suggestion that the Tutsi were somehow migrants from elsewhere, an idea that has become entrenched in parts of Congo. A division created out of nothing became seen as a real division.
Even anti-colonialists have internalised these recently created categories. So Senegalese writer Cheikh Anta Diop worked within a racial model that Europeans had developed.
Derricourt is on weaker ground in a chapter on the historian Basil Davidson. This contrasts the way Davidson writes heroically of a pre-colonial past, praising previously ignored centralised states, with his criticism of anti-democratic practices and centralisation in post-independence states. Derricourt rather overstates this case, and seems to miss the centrality of ideological influences. Davidson was not writing in a vacuum. He emphasised the virtues of pre-colonial societies precisely because—as Derricourt has taken pains to show—they were so denigrated and misunderstood. I see no contradiction in his hope that modern African states would be better.
But this is a small criticism of a wide-ranging book. Inventing Africa is only 150 pages, but it is a useful tool in seeing how to disengage from the imperial common sense assumptions about Africa that led to the distortion of the history of an entire continent.