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  • Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks: African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa
  • James E. Genova
Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks: African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa. Edited by Benjamin N. Lawrance, Emily Lynn Osborn, and Richard L. Roberts. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

Ever since the publication of Edward Said’s path-breaking work Orientalism nearly thirty years ago a growing number of scholars across disciplines have taken up the study of colonialism, its legacies, and the workings of power and knowledge production in the imperial context as their life’s work. One trend within what has come to be called colonial and post-colonial studies has been the examination of the interstices of colony and metropole as well as their zones of contact. Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks is an important collection of essays that interrogate not only the spaces of colonial contact and disjunction, but more significantly, the people who occupied those locales. In total the chapters are well-written, thematically connected, and well-organized. The book itself will serve as a useful and necessary reference for anyone beginning their research in modern African history and society as well as for those seeking to understand the deeper complexities of (dis)functioning colonial societies.

Preceded by an Introduction co-authored by the editors, the body is divided into two chronologically determined sets of essay. The first covers the “formative period of colonial rule” from the early nineteenth century to the 1920s. The second concentrates on the “maturing phase of colonial rule” continuing the analysis to 1960, the beginning of the decade of decolonization. Martin Klein adds an afterward that is followed by an appendix on the archives in Senegal by its former director Saliou Mbaye that gives the reader as sense of the rich material still to be culled from the surviving written records of colonial rule.

The Introduction provides both a theoretical and historiographic grounding for the essays in the collection. The book’s editors position the intermediaries of colonialism within the “bargain of collaboration,” a term borrowed from Shula Marks. The Introduction complicates the categorization of colonizers and colonized as well as the distinction between collaboration and resistance. The intermediaries and clerks at the center of the subsequent essays can be read as collaborators with colonial rule in that they provided the institutional means as well as the personnel that made colonialism go in Africa, but they also undermined the authority of Europeans and carved out autonomous spaces of power for themselves that transformed the very nature of colonial rule. Their necessity as translators, record keepers, lower court officials, and local administrators also provided the intermediaries of colonialism in Africa with the requisite skills and legitimacy to re-direct colonial practice in ways that enhanced their own position at times to the detriment of both European rulers and local African subjects.

The first group of essays provides a wide range of examples from colonial Africa of intermediaries and the complexities of the emerging imperial context. They include the story of a European who became an “African” intermediary in South Africa at a time when there were too few translators to make the system work and a discussion the close bond formed between an African assistant and a local European official in what became French West Africa. One essay also analyzes the role of letter writers in Togo, especially in the complicated transition between German to English and French rule during and after the First World War.

The second group of chapters includes a look at the role of African intermediaries in the production of knowledge in French West Africa between the two world wars, especially through their assistance provided to ethnographers as well as their own self-composed ethnographies. Another essay examines the biographies of two interpreters as a window in the complicated and tenuous position of intermediaries in the colonial context. Two chapters focus on various aspects of the court system in colonial Kenya and the positioning for power that went on during the process of gaining access to and influence in the judicial arena. Chapters on Nigeria and Tanzania each demonstrate the diverse ways in which African intermediaries became key elements...

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