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  • Naming Colonialism: history and collective memory in the Congo, 1870–1960
  • Johannes Fabian
Osumaka Likaka, Naming Colonialism: history and collective memory in the Congo, 1870–1960. Madison WI: University of Wisconsin Press (pb $26.95 – 978 0 299 23364 8). 2009, 224 pp.

Congolese called their colonizers names – they named them and expressed what they thought about them through the epithets they chose. Historians of colonization could not but be aware of that practice but, with few exceptions, it went without saying. It is the merit of this study, not only to present a wealth of information but to demonstrate the methodological and epistemological significance of inquiry into ‘naming colonialism’ for our understanding of how colonial rule was experienced, conceptualized, remembered, and, more often than not, denounced, lamented and ridiculed. Naming colonizers, as the author points out repeatedly (with reference to James Scott), was a powerful ‘weapon of the weak’. [End Page 510]

The Introduction sets the scene, chronologically and geographically, formulates the outlines of the argument, and discusses the sources. Chapters 1–3 provide the context and an overview of pre-colonial naming practices. ‘[W]ithout succumbing to the tyranny of taxonomy’ (p. 26), Likaka distinguishes three major ‘traditional’ categories of names and shows, with the help of numerous exemplary names, how the ‘village world’ responded to colonial rule and its principal forms: forced cultivation of cash crops, the building of roads and railroads, mining, the legal system, and the (mainly) Catholic missions. Naming colonial agents gave agency to the victims of their oppressive, abusive, and frequently violent actions. Following this approach, Chapter 4 examines personal and collective names given to European travellers, military commanders, traders and company employees between ca 1870 and 1908, a period mainly known for the atrocities of rubber collecting that eventually contributed to the demise of King Leopold’s ‘Free State’. Chapter 5, the longest in this book, covers Belgian colonial rule, with the personnel of the territorial administration and the agricultural service as its principal protagonists. The two final chapters focus on two important topics touched on earlier: the inherent ambiguity and duplicity of meaning encoded in the category of praise names, and the ways in which colonial agents used their names to negotiate and reinforce their position of power. Readers who are in the habit of looking at the conclusion first will be rewarded with admirably clear and succinct summaries of this study, such as the following: ‘[B]y adapting Central African naming conventions to colonial situations, Congolese recorded their concerns about colonialism and their everyday life and therefore transformed the names of Europeans into sources of their colonial experiences’ (p. 157).

A methodological and literary challenge Likaka had to meet was to reconcile two notoriously conflicting modes of presentation: integrating onomastic evidence in a historical narrative and submitting it to systematic (linguistic and socio-linguistic) analysis. Some of the epistemological and methodological principles he follows are stated early on, for instance, when he notes that names, due to the brevity and stability of their morphological form, were crucial in creating and maintaining an efficient and often subversive mnemonic of colonial experience (pp. 9–12). But crucial insights may be buried in casual remarks, for instance, when he states that, given the ontological intent of African naming practices, colonial epithets should not be misinterpreted as ‘nicknames’ (a point contradicted, and hence lost, by Library of Congress Cataloging-in Publication Data for this book, where two out of five keywords are ‘nicknames’).

Naming Colonialism, an innovative undertaking and, in its scope and interpretive ambitions, a pioneering contribution to writing African history ‘from below’, is not without flaws and limitations. The author is a historian, not a linguist. This shows in his not always successful choice of terminology when he decodes the syntactic or morphological form and the semantic content of names. On the whole, however, he navigates these tricky waters without committing major errors. Much of Likaka’s prior work was on forced cultivation of cotton (especially in a region inhabited by the Bole, presumably his ethnic group of origin). Understandably this leads him to concentrate his search for onomastic evidence on records of colonialism in rural areas. Although he briefly...


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