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Reviewed by:
  • War in Pre-Colonial Eastern Africa: the patterns and meanings of state-level conflict in the nineteenth century, and: Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa
  • Robin Law
Richard Reid, War in Pre-Colonial Eastern Africa: the patterns and meanings of state-level conflict in the nineteenth century. Oxford: British Institute in Eastern Africa, in association with James Currey (hb £55 – 978 1 84701 604 1; pb £16.95 – 978 1 84701 605 8). 2007, xvi+256 pp.
Henri Médard and Shane Doyle (eds), Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. Oxford: James Currey (hb £55 – 978 1 84701 602 7; pb £17.95 – 978 1 84701 603 4). 2007, xiv+273 pp.

These two books represent very welcome additions to the growing corpus of publications by James Currey in the field of African history, especially because they deal with specifically pre-colonial history, against the general modern trend of concentration upon more recent times. They also deal with matters which hitherto have suffered general neglect. Their simultaneous publication is appropriate in that they complement each other well; their respective subjects, warfare and slavery, evidently overlap, the principal mechanism of enslavement in pre-colonial Africa being capture in warfare.

The history of pre-colonial warfare, which is the subject of Richard Reid’s book, has attracted only limited scholarly attention, and those general studies which have been undertaken (most notably by Robert Smith and John Thornton) dealt with western rather than eastern Africa. Reid’s work, which is based on substantial original research as well as synthesis of published literature, therefore represents a major contribution, effectively constituting a new field of study, from which later research (unless this turns out to be an optimistic assumption) can take off. Its treatment includes the making of peace, as well as of war, with one chapter on ‘The resolution and avoidance of conflict’. Its coverage of ‘eastern Africa’ is in practice highly selective, concentrating on two particular areas within this region, that of the Great Lakes and the north-east (Ethiopia and Eritrea); and within these areas, as the book’s sub-title indicates, it focuses on the activities of states, rather than of politically decentralized peoples. Overall, the gain in analytical clarity outweighs the loss of geographical comprehensiveness. Chronologically also, given the limitations of the available evidence, the book does not really deal with the ‘pre-colonial’ period as a whole, but more specifically with the second half of the nineteenth century (though for the case of Ethiopia the sources allow a greater historical depth). Reid’s treatment for the most part pursues themes identified in the earlier work on West Africa, for example contesting conventional stereotypes of ‘primitive’ warfare, questioning the common emphasis on the supposed ‘economic’ character of African wars (as basically raids for slaves and other booty), and downgrading the importance often attached to the impact of imported guns. In addition to the material aspects (technology, organization, tactics) he also gives considerable space to the cultural aspects of warfare (the ‘meanings’ of the sub-title), and in this respect indeed his treatment is decisively stronger than those of Smith or Thornton.

Slavery, the subject of the book edited by Henri Médard and Shane Doyle, is by contrast very far from being a neglected topic in African history – but, again, it has been studied relatively little in relation to East Africa, at least its interior. This volume derives from a conference held at the Centre de Recherches Africaines of the University of Paris in 2001. It comprises, after a substantial editorial introduction by Médard, ten studies, of which one (by David Schoenbrun, on linguistic evidence) is general, but the others all local and, here again, largely state-focused: three on Buganda (including one by Richard Reid, on enslavement through warfare), and one each on Unyamwezi, [End Page 624] Ankole, Burundi-Rwanda, Bunyoro (this one by the co-editor Doyle), eastern Congo and north-west Uganda. These are mainly focused on the pre-colonial period, which in practice, as in Reid’s book, generally means the second half of the nineteenth century: the only chapters which venture earlier are Reid’s own...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0184
Print ISSN
0001-9720
Pages
pp. 624-625
Launched on MUSE
2009-11-18
Open Access
No
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