Africa Today 48.4 (2001) 136-138
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Taking a page from Jan Vansina's call for Africanist historians to use linguistic evidence and material culture in innovative ways, Colleen Kriger has forged a well-crafted survey of smiths in Equatorial Africa. Rather than relying solely on a particular region or case study, her work explores ironworking as an occupation across shifting ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Although respecting the wide diversity of practices and trade networks associated with iron in Central Africa, Kriger finds common ground in the construction of a male occupation that celebrated individual skills, allowed for great personal autonomy, and gave its practitioners numerous benefits of prestige and wealth by carefully controlling the production and sale of iron. She also exposes numerous weaknesses in previous discussions of ironworking by emphasizing the role of technique and labor constraints.
Chapters 1 and 2 set the historical context for her work on nineteenth-century ironworking. In Chapter 1, she outlines the rest of the work by first showing her goal in exploring the development of smith traditions from early archaeological data through the nineteenth century. She contends that many previous studies of smiths have presented them as timeless figures unaffected by changing social and economic conditions. Other attempts to build broad evolutionary models of the technical development of smiths neglect the diversity of ironworking practices in the region. These problems, particularly due to the ignorance of metallurgy by many scholars, have greatly obscured the complexity of ironworking as an occupation. Through a careful explanation of metallurgy, she shows how readings of archeological evidence reveal the importance of iron goods as markers of distinction without offering clear information on the social roles of smiths or technical changes in the occupation.
Kriger notes an important distinction between smelters who produced raw iron and smiths who created finished goods and currencies. In Chapter 3, she examines the complex social roles and economic strategies of smelters. Smelting required a great deal of technical expertise and the ability to use kin and trade networks to furnish labor. Spread over a wide geographic area for reasons of security as well as proximity to iron ore deposits, smelters restricted iron production to increase its trade value. Smelters also limited access to their furnaces and ritual knowledge in order [End Page 136] to keep their prestige and limit competition. At the same time, smelters often exchanged or borrowed technical innovations across ethnic and geographic lines.
In Chapter 4, the focus moves from iron production to the distribution and sale of semifinished iron currencies. Regional trade networks depended on a number of iron currencies ranging from blades to hoes to bars that could easily be remade into finished products. Although smiths profited greatly by charging fees and making imported iron into local currencies, the rise of imported iron that did not lend itself to smithing eventually led to its inflation.
Smiths take center stage in the second half of the book, where in Chapter 5, the high social status of finishing smiths is the main subject. Men involved in finishing work, needing great technical skill and flexibility in social connections, earned great reputations through the manufacture of commonly used tools such as hoes or axes and the fabrication of luxury items that denoted high social rank. The great number of different weapons produced by smiths demonstrates the tremendous amount of violence involved in late nineteenth-century Central African politics and commerce.
The author narrows her attention from broad surveys to specific regions and towns in Chapters 6 and 7. In Chapter 6, Kriger discusses the close relationship between Kuba state leaders and smiths. Rather than being directly controlled by government officials or the monarch, smiths had great autonomy and became big men in their own right through the production of unique and well-crafted weapons and other status symbols. Chapter 7 sheds light on social and economic values of iron in Lopanzo, a town founded by smiths in the present-day Equateur...