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Reviewed by:
  • Approaching African History by Michael Brett
  • John K. Thornton
Approaching African History. By Michael Brett (Rochester, N.Y., James Curry, 2013) 365pp. $90.00

In this ambitious book, Brett attempts to cross a comprehensive survey of African history with a historiographical review. The book’s organization and themes suggest an overview of African history, covering all regions from 10,000 b.c.e. to the present, whereas the attention to individual historians and quick summaries of their views and controversies takes the work toward historiography.

Brett addresses themes that anyone teaching African history would recognize, starting with the problem of a thin (if not completely absent) written record for most of the continent for an extended period of time, encouraging historians to become multidisciplinary—that is, to use ethnographic analogy, archaeology, and oral tradition—to compensate for it. His view of African nationhood, especially the relationship between external trade (trans-Saharan at one point and seaborne with America at another) and African politics intersects with a discussion of empires, not just those of the Western Sudan but also smaller ones like Mwenemutapa or Kongo, followed by an account of how the slave trade figured into commerce as a whole.

Brett’s close treatment of the nineteenth-century departs, to a large extent, from the survey form that he employs for earlier decades. He analyzes the colonial period from the perspective of a still-evolving post-colonial one, which retains much of the atmosphere of the African history that predated it. In between these well-worn topics, Brett intersperses an interesting and fruitful discussion of the scale and scope of African societies, of regional boundaries, and particularly of chronology and periodization.

Brett’s background in North African history lends his book its greatest distinction; his chapters about the northern, northeastern, and Islamic parts of Africa put a distinctive spin on the usual way that African history is taught. Even new textbooks rarely deal with the super-Saharan section of Africa, certainly not with the depth that Brett achieves.

Brett’s predominantly survey-style approach to historiography sometimes misses the mega-themes that some scholars view as shaping the development of African history. His adherence to this model cannot gracefully incorporate an engagement with the developing historiography, which, in this case, sometimes loses the historical thread, and a presentation of current debates, which is sometimes truncated, almost rushed, in the interests of keeping the story moving forward. He does not trace the mega-questions of historiography that determined which periods and regions were to be considered—questions about African agriculture, iron working, or state formation, especially in West Africa, which yielded to the trade-and-politics fad that highlighted the pre-colonial period’s contact outside the continent. Theoretical Marxism in the late 1970s quickly gave way to post-colonialism flavored with post-modernism, at the same [End Page 422] time driving investigation into more contemporary periods and highlighting southern Africa.

In the end, Approaching African History seems torn between dual aims. As Brett himself acknowledges, his approach produces a final work that is faithful neither to one nor the other.

John K. Thornton
Boston University


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pp. 422-423
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