- Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks: African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa
Historians of Africa have long recognized the significant role of African clerks and interpreters employed by the state. Because they occupied the point of contact between colonizer and colonized, and because they controlled and translated the exchange of information between them, they actually deployed colonial power. More than three decades ago, Ronald Robinson highlighted the complexities of their "bargain of collaboration" and Monica Wilson remarked on how deeply these "cultural brokers" shaped colonial relations. But in more recent times powerful tendencies to celebrate resistors—and thus to dismiss state employees as mere collaborators and assume that African employees simply enacted state intentions—prematurely closed such interpretative openings. This volume returns to [End Page 179] them, and adds more recent ones (from Frederick Cooper and William Worger, among others) to set an agenda for a new and nuanced understanding of how Africans figured in the making of colonial Africa.
The collection is structured around a "formative" phase to about 1920, and a subsequent "maturing" one. Interpreters were at their most powerful in the first, able more freely to invent their roles in a still fluid environment. After the 1920s the spread of shared languages and thickening bureaucratic boundaries reduced interpreters' roles and imposed increasingly definite rules, but in return, African clerks now wielded more comprehensive state powers. The eleven studies included in this volume—all on French or British territories—augment stories of the accumulation and abuse of power formerly available in scant sources like Amadou Hampâté Bâ's 1973 autobiographical novel L'étrange destin de Wangrin (Union générale d'éditions). Emily Lynn Osborn, for example, argues effectively that the twenty-year partnership in French Guinea between Ernest Noirot and his African clerk empowered Boubou Penda to determine who Noirot deposed and appointed in the process of reconstructing local administration. Ruth Ginio provides a clear account of how the paradox built in to French courts (empowering African assessors to define the customary laws used to sustain foreign control) opened spaces where such assessors aroused French fears of losing control. Thomas McClendon's study of Theophilus Shepstone as a European interpreting African culture highlights the political powers of interpreters more generally.
Most studies also reach beyond tracing the deployment of state power to suggest how the study of these actors can inform colonial social history more widely, not least because in colonial written sources their actions—and personalities—are often more prominent than those of most colonial subjects. For example, Roger Levine analyzes the evangelical ambitions of Jan Tzatzoe, an African interpreter for missionaries in the early nineteenth century Eastern Cape, as a strategy of "triangulation" that kept him at the nexus between Xhosa, colonial, and mission politics. Maurice Amutabi compares Kenyan native court transcripts with litigants' memories to illuminate the means by which clerks and translators advanced the solidarity of the emergent class of Western-educated Africans. By situating the colonial career of Usen Udo Usen in the shifting flows of southeastern Nigerian politics and within rival forms of knowledge, David Pratten reveals profound constraints on clerks' potential abilities. Jean-Hervé Jézéquel highlights how Ibrahima Diaman Bathily wrote accounts of Senegalese customs not to accumulate power but to prompt social reform.
These studies not only establish the agency of African intermediaries but also narrate, assess, and contextualize it. More enticingly, many chapters reveal the richer social history that awaits scholars who move past the binary of collaboration and resistance toward the full complexity of colonial employees' lives, and by extension of colonial Africa. Martin Klein's afterword helps situate the findings, and usefully highlights how further [End Page 180] research into the many topics left largely aside—female intermediaries, nonstate employees, Portuguese and German colonies—could build on the insights and questions set forth here. [End Page 181]