THE COLONIAL FACTOR IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF AFRICAN HISTORIOGRAPHY

The colonial rule in Africa was based partly on the ideological brainwashing which denied that the African had a valid past, European colonial administrators still wrote about the past of those Nigerian communities with which they came in contact with.  This was due to a variety of reasons. Whilst some wrote out of curiosity, others wrote to entertain their friends at home. More important, however, is the fact that it was undertaken to make colonial rule work. After the outbreak of Aba women riots in Eastern Nigeria in 1929, it became glaring to the British colonial government that a thorough knowledge of the history, customs and institutions of the “natives” was necessary if colonial rule was to succeed.  Hence, from 1930, there was a conscious attempt an official policy that the history of the Nigerian peoples should be documented. Attempt to write history ceased to be just one of the usual exuberances of the overzealous traveller or administrator. In fact, all colonial officials in the field were asked to write historical notes” or “Intelligence Reports” on their areas of operation. As the Secretary of southern provinces wrote in a memorandum to the Resident of the Oyo provinces, various administrators were required “to endeavour to trace and set out briefly the history and nature of their indigenous institutions”.  “They were also to ascertain as far as possible, what remains of these institutions”. The reports that emerged from the exercise were revealing and fairly comprehensive. Usually, each was divided into six sections: Introduction, Geographical features, History, Government, Judiciary and Economics. In Northern Nigeria, some of these reports were later expanded and published as the gazzeters of the various provinces.
While this was being done, the academically inclined ones took the opportunity to write and publish books.  C.L. Temple, H.R. Palmer, C.K. Meek and P.A. Talbot are examples of the various administrators turned scholars.  Others whose works will be assessed to bring out the main features of colonial historiography included A.J. Treameane, R.E. Dennett, Margery Perham, Sir Charles Orr and Lt. Mocklerr-Ferryman.
The first recognizable feature of the various colonial writings is that some of them are merely a compilation of information on the various Nigerian communities.  A case in point is C.L. Temple’s Native Races and their Rulers (first published, 1918) and Notes on the tribes of Northern Nigeria (1919).  The former, in particular, is at best a collection of “proderations” on the problems of administration whilst the latter was on the customs and institutions of Northern Nigeria.  temple’s long career in Northern Nigeria notwithstanding his work did not show a clear understanding of the nature of Hausa-Fulani society. Neither too did they show an understanding of historical issues.3
Similar comments could be passed for Talbot’s four volumes on The Peoples of Southern Nigeria (1926), of which only the Like Temple’s work, Talbot’s history was merely a compilation of information during the 1921 census exercise.  What is, however, more important that in explaining the origins of the Nigerian Peoples, he found explanation in hermitic hypothesis. According to him, Nigeria was “peopled by tribes, many of which only recently came under settled rule”4 and the principal foreign influence… was undoubtedly that of Egypt”.  It was Egypt that “furnished West Africa with all its earlier domestic animals and cultivated plants.”5  This belief in an overwhelming foreign influence on Nigerian societies constitutes anotehr feature of colonial historiography.
Indeed, the belief in race as the primary factor in historical causation has been further elaborated upon by Mergery Perham, one of the renowned authorities on colonial politics.  Miss Perham believed that the autochthonous Nigerian peoples were in a state of barbarism and savages until the advent of white-skinned adventures carrying advanced civilization and culture from East and North Africa.  She maintained that there was “contact between virile northern pastoralists and industrious peasantry6 - the virile northern pastoralists’ being of course the light-skinned culture carriers.  She expressly stated this point in a book published in 1937.
“In Nigeria anthropology and tradition Sketch out a long history of successive waves of migration, not always that of migration, not always that of solid masses displacing those they found, but sometimes of ruling peoples imposing themselves about the earlier groups.  With the development of civilization round the eastern Mediterranean those peoples must have brought with them probably in increasingly fragmentary and degraded forms as they moved south-westwards, cultural traits drawn from one of the early fountain heads. This may have been found in Egypt or in some earlier common sources.7
Precisely, the Hausa and the Kanuri were given as examples of people resulting from the admixture and docile Negro peasantry; whilst the Fulani and Junkum were given as examples of those people who derived their origin from the supposed (original) oriental source of civilization.  For instance, the Fulani language was speculated to be similar to some of the languages of the Indo-Germania stock. Since the Fulani was nomadic, another colonial elite advanced this argument further that Fulani origin was “the same as that of the Hykos or shepherd kings, who crossed from Arabia and invaded Egypt about 2,000 years before our era”.  “However, this may be” continued Sir Richard orr, “it is generally believed that the Fulani came from the East, possibly from India, possibly from Arabia.”8
Since the light-skinned adventures were credited for all political, social, economic and artistic advance in Nigeria, the colonial writers found it necessary to extend the area of their effective impact to cover all parts of Nigeria.  but because of the thickly nature of the southern forest, it was argued that only small bands of the Hamities penetrated the Southern communities, and constituted the ruling class. It was on these grounds that the ruling houses of Yorubaland and Benin, of Idah, Nii and the organizers of the ‘Long Juju’ (Ibini Ukpabi)/or a class of Arochukwu were included among the descendants of these Mamitic culture-carriers.  This, at least, was the position taken by Sir Herbert Richmond Palmer.9
Equally significant is the fact that some Nigerian communities usually referred to as “stateless societies” – Igboland, Ibibioland and Benue Plateau – had their past dismissed as pointless and unknowable because they could not be linked up with the alleged Hamitic invasion.  They were simply discussed as backward, barbaric and untamed. Liutenant Mockler-Ferryman wrote thus:
“Of the ancient history of the Niger countries there is scarcely anything interesting to write, and though they have doubtless been peopled by Negroes for countless ages what changes the land has seen must remain forever unknown… this region shows no sign of having been more than the habitat of beings superior to wild beasts among which they dwelt merely in the fact that lived in huts of mud and grass and that they were able to communicate by word of mouth.
In fact, the colonial elites were more favourably disposed to those supposed Hamiticised communities than to the rest probably because their ways of life was believed to be akin to those of the European.  For instance, when war was conducted by the so-called savages of the mountain fastness of Bauchi, it is described “as tribal raid under naked savages” but when carried out by the Kanuri. It is described as an “expedition”.  Indeed, one major consequence of this racist historiography is that it over-emphasized the history of the supposed Hamiticised peoples while others were consigned to near-neglect. It was also one of the ideological pillars of which colonial rule rested.
This belief in an overwhelming foreign influence on Nigerian societies directly led to another characteristic of colonial historiography – that of applying foreign models especially those of Egypt and Gracco-Roman civilization to Nigerian societies.  A very good example was provided by R.E. Denntt who in his Nigerian Studies found it expedient to apply the Graeco-Roman type of government to explain the socio-political organization of the Nigeirna peoples.  C.K. Meek’s A Sudanese Kingdom (1931) could also be cited as another example.  For him, there were parallels in almost all spheres of Nigerian socio-political set-up and those of Ancient Egypt.  Captain Ross, the master-planner of indirect rule in Yorubaland also adopted the Graeco-Roman political structure – separation of the spiritual head from the political head – among the Yoruba.  It was probably this model that influenced Dr. Atanda’s thesis on the relationship between the Ooni and the Allafin. For according to Ross, the Ooni should be regarded as the spiritual ruler of Yorubaland and the Alaafin as the political head.
Another main feature of colonial historiography is that Nigerian societies were looked upon as mere “anthropological units” which had been static all along but which would be compelled to change with the advent of the “civilizing” missions.  Nigerian history was equated with anthropology and ethnography. It was concerned, not with changing societies but with static and primitive ones whose frontiers could hardly be extended beyond the advent of the Europeans. In fact, some of the writers made it clear that they wrote in order to express their pre-conceived ideas.  For instance, A.J.N. Tremearne stated that one of his aims for writing was:
“to show how much the uncivilized native of northern Nigeria resemble some other aboriginal races… The native is certainly not to equal/of the European (but) he still worthy of consideration”12   
Presumably in order to show how “uncivilized” he was.  The titles of some of his books are quite revealing: How Natives Think, The Sexual life of Savages, Tailed Headhunters At the Back of Blackman’s mind.
Another feature of colonial historiography is that the writers did not employ a systematic approach in their study of the warious Nigeria communities. Since they lack the basic training in historical methodology, their works were unorganized in fact, the various books were not actually based on real research but on haphazard collection of traditions and personal observations of the authors. Even in Northern Nigeria where something like a serious attempt was made in the Gazeteers to write the history of the various emirates, the exercise was carried out as a past time; something that the academically-inclined administrator engaged in during his leisure.13  Consequently, most if not all, of the works exhibit weaknesses that make it very difficult to accept them as real history.  A casual look at any of the works will quickly reveal a lack of distinction between various academic disciplines. All sorts of materials; History, Religion, Linguistics, etc., were lumped together and presented as the histories of the various communities.  In fact, so close are these works to anthropology that it will not be incorrect to say that the history of the colonial period was no more than mere anthropological studies. The colonial writers looked at their subjects as static and their writings show no evidence of internal change or development.  Here, the words of Thomas Hodgkin are appropriate: they did not “do more than report on the contemporary state of the societies which they encountered: they combined in, varying proportions, the qualities of journalists and amateur sociologists.”14
Furthermore, a substantial portion of the source-materials used were based on oral traditions, which were often collected, in haphazard fashion.  It is a canon of historical scholarship that oral tradition should not be accepted at its face-value but the colonial writers did. Different versions of oral tradition have to be collected and systematically and rigorously analyzed before they can be accepted as historical evidence.  Another flaw in their works is that they collected second-hand information from messengers, court clerks and interpreters, whose level of comprehension of the communities’ tradition can be called to question. There was also the issue of language barrier and the problem of translating from the various local languages by interpreters whose knowledge of English was inadequate.
It is, however, important to bear in mind that colonial historiography is very important in the tradition of history writing in Nigeria, the various weaknesses notwithstanding.  They should not be regarded as history per se but only as source-materials. In this regard, an awareness of these weaknesses should not discourage the use of the materials, rather, it should sharpen the usual critical appraisal of source-materials.  Indeed, the works in this class are invaluable in the reconstruction of Nigerian history during the colonial period.
In conclusion, we need to point out that colonial historiography is not without its redeeming feature.  It is common knowledge that the pre-colonial historiography was characterized by the handiwork of God – Divine Providence.  History was explained in terms of manipulation by the unseen hand of God. Thus, Ahmed Ibn Fartua was not going to attribute Idris Alooma’s diplomatic and military successes to his human ingenuity alone until he invoked Allah.15  However, by the time colonial rule was being imposed on Nigeria, modern science and its philosophical concomitant, rationalism, had undermined the metaphysical outlook of Europe.  One implication of this for Western historiography was the overthrow of history conceived as divine will and the enthronement of history conceived as dealing only with human actions and thoughts.  It was this rationalistic and man-centred historiographical tradition that colonialism introduced into Africa, thus putting tribal supreme gods, medicine men and Mallamai to flight from the domain of history.  Indeed none of the colonial historiographers invoked God or the supernatural in their casual explanation of events.