I recently attended a panel on teaching pre-1800 African history using digital humanities. The panel focused on early African history, but some of the presentations ignored the digital humanities portion of the title and only really focused on the pre-1800 part. Perhaps the theme of the panel changed after the program was printed, or maybe the presenters just decided to go in a different direction. Either way, the panel was interesting and gave me some new ideas about (re)structuring an early African history syllabus. The question I’d like to pose here is how does one do early digital African history?
Seven years ago, Richard Reid noted a decline in the number of African historians looking at pre-colonial topics. He blamed this decrease, and the corresponding increase in focus on colonial and post-colonial history, on a scholarly belief in the grand importance of the twentieth century. I would argue this is also related to the often voluminous archival record for the colonial period, as well as the relative ease of doing more recent oral history. These same questions I believe explain the lack of emphasis in digital tools to understand the more distant African past, but also emphasize the importance of using what tools we have to bring out more information about periods where the lack of written sources and documents may leave gaping silences.
Maps of pre-colonial polities often misrepresent these territories as exact, bounded physical spaces, when in actuality power was diffuse and the geographic peripheries of particular spaces were often in flux, and can be difficult if not impossible to replicate. This asks us to potentially be more creative in our “mapping.” In his work on pre-colonial Bornu, Vincent Hiribarren uses cartograms to demonstrate the structure of the state of Bornu, without claiming that these are exact. He has “maps” of Bornu, but makes clear that there are “only schematised representations” and “should not be understood as rigorous and definitive maps.”
The field of African history with the largest digital presence is unsurprisingly the one with the largest archival presence: the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Websites like Slave Voyages and Liberated Africans offer large amounts of data to help students and educators better understand the past.
How to extend this data to projects that may not have such readily available data? I do look at the late pre-colonial period, but am primarily a colonial and post-colonial historian. My own digital interests lie in the colonial and post-colonial periods, so I am not necessarily the right person to answer this. But other (non-written) evidence may be a way to bring digital tools into the classroom and onto the syllabus. Archaeology and historical linguistics are tools used to get understand the African past, and can be used and taught with digital formats in mind. Regardless of how they are used, if we believe digital tools are crucial to teaching about more contemporary periods, it is important that we extend and adapt these tools to teaching about more distant pasts.