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The love story between Chibinda Ilunga and Lueji, one of the best-known legends of Central African history, recounts the genesis of the Mwant Yav dynasty of the Lunda polity. Previous discussions of the narrative pitted symbolic interpretations against historical findings. This article asks why the Lunda love story became so influential from the middle of the nineteenth century. Instead of being an exclusively Lunda genesis narrative, the love story represented the interests and narratives of societies brought together by the caravan trade in Kasai and eastern Angola, including Chokwe, Ambakista, Luba, and Imbangala, all of whom added components to the legend compiled by Portuguese explorer and diplomat Henrique Dias de Carvalho. The legend took on importance as diverse factions competed for political titles and trading profits. In the hands of Carvalho and his informants the love story became a tool to construct a Pax Lunda guaranteed by the Portuguese. By demonstrating the quotidian politics of the love story, the article suggests the utility in the historical contextualization of the telling of oral traditions to appreciate their multiple meanings.
Chapter 5 describes a phenomenon only found in the Sahara known as sell, or bloodsucking and the extraction of essential life forces, arguing that accusations of sell and their related events thus offer an opportunity to view local conceptions of social identity and related fears about shifts in hierarchy, old hostilities between lineages, as well as understandings of the nature of health and illness. While Arabic sources document the existence of bloodsucking at least as early as the fifteenth-century, the colonial archive provides the most concentrated number of records that demonstrate how bloodsucking was a lived and feared reality for desert communities during the colonial period. From these Saharan sources, a fuller understanding emerges of how desert communities envisioned the political and spiritual forces of their social worlds during periods of famine, economic stagnation, and domestic tension. Both the accusation of sell and the l’ḥjāb used to counter it signal the contestation of a society’s status quo.
This chapter takes as its premise that, by the end of the seventh century, the Islamic esoteric sciences were largely controlled by the zwāya, a group defined by its scholarly and racial pretentions. It shows that contestation of the role of the Islamic esoteric sciences reaches back well before the seventeenth century. Customs and practices of the Islamic esoteric sciences can be firmly documented in local practices and were recognized as a source of both political and religious power in the region and when early reform movements coalesced around the function of the Islamic esoteric sciences in managing the invisible. This chapter argues that traditional intellectual history has focused on key figures of Arab origin instead of understanding this process of the elaboration of the Islamic esoteric sciences as more organic and produced via many points of contact, with practices appropriated in the region via merchants and scholars of non-Arab origin. The chapter focuses on the Gebla, a region that occupies a central position in the formation of political and social structures in Mauritania, and will thus be at the geographic heart of the chapters that follow.
Chapter 2 uses a colloquial expression from contemporary Mauritania – “al-ḥikma kuntiyya aw fūtiyya” – to examine Mauritanian narratives that place the consolidation and localization of the Islamic esoteric sciences in the Sahara in the eighteenth century. The expression shows how Mauritanians today associate these sciences with the powerful scholarly and commercial network of the Kunta, a confederation known for its Islamic learning, and the Fulbe torodbe scholars who established theocratic states in West Africa. Both communities continue to associate these sciences as solely embedded in networks linked genealogically to Arab identity. This colloquial expression shows how Mauritanians today conceive of this esoteric religious wisdom as deployed at the very local level, spread through two regionally important religious communities, yet simultaneously connected to the longer history of Islam in the Muslim world, and circulating at the global level of Sufi networks. By the end of the nineteenth century, differences in interpretation and practice of the Islamic esoteric sciences had amplified: questions regarding which esoteric and medical techniques were permitted within Islam and which were not were intensely debated, as scholars from the Saharan West elaborated their own intellectual positions and political objectives in the ways they classified these sciences.
This chapter addresses the history of the Ahl Guennar, a confederation of families known for their mastery of l’ḥjāb, whose members are dispersed among several villages just north of the Senegal River. The Ahl Guennar’s ambiguous racial identity, their shifting religious and occupational affiliations, their secrecy and enigmatic reputation, and their long history in the region make them a compelling case study for the role of Islamic esoteric knowledge in Mauritania’s mercurial political and cultural environment. Claiming descent from a well-known religious figure and a miraculous origin story for their principal village, the Ahl Guennar established themselves by the seventeenth-century learning and teaching the Qur’ān and its sciences and carving out an exclusive space for themselves in the political dynamics of the Gebla, or southwestern region of Mauritania. This chapter deals with the long-term history of the family to better understand how they deploy these stories to claim religious and social roles in the region and to illustrate how Islamic knowledge is transmitted and the ways these Muslim mediators of the spiritual and material worlds depended upon this knowledge to thrive.
This article studies infrastructure development in the colony of German East Africa from the early 1890s to 1907. By focussing on questions of continuity and change in the transition phase from the precolonial era to German colonial rule, the article demonstrates that colonial road planning coexisted and often collided with established infrastructure systems. After 1891, colonial authorities sought to transform existing caravan paths into all-weather highways. The analysis applies an actor-centred approach to explain why almost all of these efforts failed. A focus on those actors being expected to construct or maintain (residents) and to use (transport workers) colonial roads reveals the non-compliance of colonial subjects, the persistence of African spatial practices, and the resulting contestation of colonial rule in everyday life. In this way, the article illuminates how Africans responded to European interventions which restructured space and how these responses complicated and frustrated colonial road works. Hence, the article challenges classical narratives of infrastructure as a ‘tool of empire’ and instead highlights the resilience of vernacular structures and their producers under colonial rule.
In 1862, al-Ḥājj ʿUmar Fūtī Tall (d. 1864) conquered a prominent Muslim polity of the Middle Niger valley, the Caliphate of Ḥamdallāhi. Several months earlier, he had penned a long polemical work, Bayān mā waqaʿa, where he outlined his conflict with Ḥamdallāhi's ruler, Aḥmad III (d. 1862), and presented a legal justification for his eventual conquest. Al-Ḥājj ʿUmar was one of several West African Muslim intellectuals who articulated a new vision of power in the region. These intellectuals linked legitimate political rule with mastery over Islamic knowledge that they claimed only they had. Yet these linkages between religious authority and political power remain understudied. Al-Ḥājj ʿUmar's Bayān offers one example of political theology in nineteenth-century West Africa. In this article, I trace his arguments and explain how he constructs his authority and claims to sovereignty in this work. In the process, I conceptualize two theoretical frameworks — the ‘political geography of belief’ and the ‘political theology of knowledge’ — to demonstrate how a careful engagement with Arabic sources can help develop new approaches to the study of Muslim communities in African history and beyond.
The first part of this chapter examines deep-rooted, diplomatic traditions of courtly exchange, international coexistence and commercial cooperation centred around the Majerteen Sultanate in north-eastern Somalia. A network of regional diplomacy first emerged for the purposes of managing shipwrecks and facilitating trade during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. The Majerteen Sultanate emerged in the eighteenth century and played a critical role in the north-east Africa’s foreign affairs, presiding over a cooperative system of international relations which promoted domestic political stability and protected maritime commerce. Having reconstructed the contours of a regional culture of maritime law and international relations, the second part of the chapter tells the story of the first contacts between Majerteenia and British colonists, a few years after the East India Company’s settlement of the port of Aden in 1839. Early Anglo-Majerteen interactions mirrored the well-established regional model of diplomacy, in which regional rulers created alliances and offered one another mutual recognition as sovereigns. But as the century wore on, British officials became increasingly belligerent; the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the increase in steam traffic tested international relations and the regional maritime framework.
The British surprisingly faced no military resistance when they captured Asante in 1896. Previous works have focused on the agency of actors like Prempe and Frederick Hodgson to explain why. This paper, in contrast, approaches this epoch in Asante history from the context of the sociopolitical power structure within which the precolonial Asante state operated. It asserts that Asante's independence was contingent on having a strong military. But since it had no standing army, the state used Asante's ‘social contract’ to coerce its subjects into ad hoc armies to meet military threats. Starting from the 1874 Sagrenti War, however, the state disregarded the social contract. This unleashed a series of events that undermined the state's power to coerce Asantes into military service. The article posits further that this erosion of the state's coercive power ultimately prevented it from countering the British with armed resistance in 1896 to maintain independence.
Recent research points to a renewed scholarly interest in the West African Middle Ages and the Sahelian imperial tradition. However, in these works only tangential attention is paid to the role of Muslims, and especially to clerical communities. This essay tackles theoretical and historiographical insights on the role of African Muslims in the era of the medieval empires and argues that the study of Islam in this region during the Middle Ages still suffers from undertheorizing. On the contrary, by using a ‘discursive approach’ scholars can unravel access to fascinating aspects of the history of West African Muslims and in particular to the crucial role played by clerical communities, who represented one node of the web of diffused authority which is characteristic of precolonial West African social and political structures.
A recent revival of interest in the empires of the medieval western Savannah and Sahel has generated new insights into slavery, ethnicity, race, and gender in precolonial West Africa. New histories of medieval West Africa also expand the spatial frame through which the relationship between the region's polities and the broader world can be understood. This essay offers a survey of that literature.
This article, largely on the basis of in-depth research in archives in Lisbon, provides an account of the trading systems linking Delagoa Bay to its southern hinterland. Within this framework we argue that the role of the slave trade has been previously underestimated. There is evidence that the booming demand for slaves in Brazil and on the Mascarene Islands hit this region with force. The scale of that trade is difficult to establish because it was, by and large, illicit and so not systematically recorded. There are indications of a significant trade prior to 1823 and a substantial one after that date. There is also evidence that northern Nguni groups, including the Zulu kingdom, were deeply involved in this trading system. The main sources of captives, however, were militarily weak societies, like the Tembe, which lived closer to the Bay.