Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 May 2014
Historians of Africa have often cast a jaundiced eye in the direction of written sources; their suspicions have been particularly grave with regard to colonial documents. They have seen them as, at best, the creations of ill-informed foreign observers or, at worst, as the deliberately self-serving justifications of the ruling elite. To counter the all-too-real deficiencies of these documents, historians have laid increasing emphasis on materials produced by Africans themsleves--oral accounts. Yet these records too are problematic, and their principal weakness lies in the fact that they are often collected decades after the events and circumstances the historian wishes to understand. Each of these kinds of sources thus presents methodological difficulties. This paper advocates the use of a third type of source, African court records, which are at once contemporary and yet created by Africans themselves. These records--while not without their own particular biases--permit one to overcome some of the problems inherent in official documents and oral interviews. Courts for Africans were established by colonial regimes throughout the continent. But, although Africans participated in varying degrees in their proceedings, the records have largely remained ignored by historians. In what follows I discuss the court records in two tribunals in Bujumbura, Burundi. The paper is divided into three sections: the first is a description of the city's African community and the courts; the second is a discussion of the court proceedings and the reliability and use of the records; and the last is a brief summary of some of the data the documents have yielded.
An earlier draft of this paper was presented to the African History Seminar, School of Oriental and African Studies, in May 1983. I have taken advantage of the comments of seminar members, as well as those of Michael MacDonald, in preparing this revision.
2. Priestley, Margaret, in West African Trade and Coast Society (London, 1969)Google Scholar, drew on nineteenth- and twentieth-century records from the High Court, Cape Coast, for genealogical and financial data concerning the Brew family of traders. For more recent uses of court records see African Women and the Law: Historical Perspectives, ed. Hay, Margaret Jean and Wright, Marcia [Boston University Papers on Africa, VII] (Boston, 1982)Google Scholar, esp. Wright's, Marcia “Justice, Women, and the Social Order in Abercorn, Northeastern Rhodesia, 1897–1903,” 33–52.Google Scholar A pioneering example is Hall, R. deZ., “The Study of Native Court Records as a Method of Ethnological Inquiry,” Africa (1938), 412–26.Google Scholar
3. The name Belge did not, for obvious reasons, survive independence. The quarter today is known as Bwiza.
5. Ordonnance-loi du 5 octobre 1943 – Juridictions indigènes du Ruanda-Urundi, , in Législation du Ruanda-Urundi, ed. Leroy, Pierre and Westhof, Jacques (2d ed.: Brussels, 1954), 65–72.Google Scholar Interview in Buyenzi with Gerard Hilali Bideda, 17 July 1981.
6. Only the 200 members of the Belgian Congo's Force Publique stationed in Usumbura and housed in a separate camp fell outside the courts' authority.
7. It is, of course, impossible without complete rosters of Usumbura's population to give accurate figures of what percentage of the population came before the courts for one reason or another. As a very rough gauge, I can offer the fact that of the forty-four men and women I interviewed in Bujumbura, almost half (20) had presented cases or been brought before one or the other court during the period 1939–62.
8. The individual who appeared in court more often than any other was a mwalimu and local businessman named Mohammed Kaburwe. In seventeen years he made twenty-six appearances, suing business clients, students, and even his wives and a son. His final case was in 1955, when the court divided his estate among the heirs.
9. Interviews in Buyenzi with Musaba Masama, 16 July 1980; Husseni Feruzi, 17 July 1980; and Mzee Masaba, 25 July 1980. de Buyenzi, Tribunal, Registre des affaires jugées, nos. 678 (1940), 692 (1940), 1958 (1941), 5839 (1954).Google Scholar (Court cases were numbered sequentially, beginning with no. 1 in 1939, and I have used those numbers in citing cases. The number in parentheses is the year of the case.)
10. Centres extra-coutumiers, Rapport annuel (1952), 3, 8.Google Scholar Interview in Bujumbura with Chrysologue Ntoranyi, 22 July 1980.
11. Centres extra-coutumiers, Rapport annuel (1949), 7, 8.Google Scholar The population of Belge in 1949 was 7,637 as compared to Buyenzi's total of 7,103.
13. Buyenzi, Registre, no. 5188; Belge, Registre, no. 10900 (both 1952). “If he pays her,” the R.A.T. minuted in the Buyenzi court register, “then this smacks of prostitution and concubinage.”
14. Buyenzi, Registre, no. 4700 (1951).
15. Ordonnance no. 113/A.E. du 3 mars 1931, in Bulletin officiel du Ruanda-Urundi (1931), 84.Google Scholar
16. Buyenzi, Registre, no. 468 (1939).
17. Ibid., nos. 470 (1939), 1304 (1942), 1438 (1943), 1504 (1943), 1825 (1944), 1982 (1944), 2254 (1945), 2258 (1945), 2725 (1946).
18. The information in this paragraph is drawn from eighty-four cases in the Buyenzi court between 1939 and 1962 that concerned fundi-student relations.
19. From 1939 to mid-1942, bridewealth prices were recorded at the court in Buyenzi; the register for this period contains some 167 settlements. Although a register was also maintained for Beige, it no longer survives. It is possible, however, to estimate bridewealth settlements in that housing quarter from the ordinary court records. In general, they were about the same for Buyenzi and Beige. Information about later bridewealth settlements is drawn from the court cases. For wages, see Rapport sur l'administration belge du Ruanda-Urundi pour les années 1939–44, 70; Rapport… pour…1960, 475.