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Fage, J. D. 1921- (John Donnelly) / A guide to original sources for precolonial western Africa published in European languages: for the most part in book form

Introduction,   pp. [unnumbered]-xix


I  r-.T T  R  c  D iE - C  -r  i  o zr-. 1

The idea of compiling a guide to the published original sources that described
colonial western African societies arose out of research which I began in
1978-79 with the
support of a grant from the U.K. Social Science Research Council (later the
Economic and
Social Research Council), and to which I owe a considerable debt of gratitude).
research began as an enquiry into the nature and the role of institutions
of servitude in
traditional sub-Saharan societies though, as I came to appreciate more and
more the
centrality of dependence in such societies, so the enquiry broadened to embrace
other aspects
of their structures and their functioning.
As I saw it, enquiries of this kind had hitherto been tackled largely from
what might be
termed an anthropological perspective. By this I mean one centred on a perception
of - and,
to some extent, an extrapolation backwards from - situations that had existed,
or were
supposed to have existed, in the early years of the colonial period. It struck
me that the
results were likely to have been subject to distortion from the presence
of colonial observers
and of their states and societies and, indeed, from the growing economic
and social pressures
on sub-Saharan Africa - including both those of the export slave trade and
of the
campaigning against it - in the years leading up to the establishment of
formal colonial rule.
The proper approach for the historian was therefore to seek out evidence
from earlier times
before such distortions became of major importance.
In order to secure a handy sample of this evidence, I chose to work with
material that was
available in published form (irrespective of whether the publication was
more or less
contemporaneous with the collection of the evidence or at some later date).
I also decided to
restrict myself to evidence from western Africa from about the Senegal in
the north to
Angola in the south. I chose this area for my enquiry because I had some
acquaintance with many of its countries north and west from the Bight of
Biafra, and because
I had long had some familiarity with the outlines of its history. It also
seemed to me that the
contemporary written sources for this history were probably denser and richer,
and more
consistent over time, than those available for eastern or southern Africa.
This was especially
so if the field of enquiry were extended southwards beyond the Bight of Biafra
into western
Bantu Africa.
It may not be very common for historians to consider a part of Bantu Africa
together with
the lands and peoples of Guinea and the western and west central Sudan. I
think that
originally I chose to do this because it so happens that the published accounts
of the African
1. Earlier versions of this Introduction were presented as papers to seminars
at the University of
Birmingham and at the School of Oriental & African Studies of the University
of London, and to the
Symposium on European Sources for Sub-Saharan Africa before 1900, which was
held by the Frobenius
Institute of the J.W.Goethe University of Frankfurt and the Werner Reimers
Foundation at Bad
Homburg in July 1986 (and this was later published in Paideurna, 33 (1987)


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