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26Historically Speaking · November/December 2004 Africa in a Multi-Centric World History: Beyond Witches and Warlords John K- Thornton Joseph Miller has advised world historians that they would do well to pay attention to Africa because its essential differences from the rest ofthe world give it a special character which needs to be addressed in its own terms, and notin the older 19th-centurylanguage ofhistory or anthropology. As a longtime teacher of world history, I find this refreshing and absolutely on the mark, since the observation ofinterregional differences is the soul of comparative history, and it is ultimately as comparative history thatworld history makes most sense to students and to the larger audiences we occasionally address. It has made a difference to our understanding ofworld history to learn, for example , thatAfricans lived invillages before they farmed in some areas, and farmed before they lived in villages in others, and it was thus the African experience that caused us to rethink the nature of the Neolithic Revolution, not just in Africa but everywhere. Some Africans further confounded conventional thinking by going from the Stone Age to the Steel Age without bothering in many areas to pass through a Bronze Age: Africans produced large quantities of textiles without much machinery, bumper harvests without the plow. Contemplating these challenges to the usual model ofeconomic progression shakes our conceptions and leads us to a better understanding ofhow we all came to be the waywe are today. IfAfrican mercantile elites, like theJuula ofWestAfrica, managed to live in independent, self-governing towns and to challenge rulers for political control, what does that mean for the widespread discourse on the early modern world which looks for the origins of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe and its non-emergence in various parts ofAsia as keycomponents to the structure of the modern world? The Industrial Revolution in Europe led to the Trade Revolution in 19th-century Africa, a time when Africans abandoned much of their metallurgical and textile production for imports and began the massive export oflargely agricultural goods, thus setting their course for underdevelopment. But they did so for perfectly rational reasons, defeating even the attempts of no small number of rulers and entrepreneurs to seek the introduction of machine production to the continent. This transformation—de-industrialization—which was well underway before any significant colonial presence, must lead us to reconsider de-industrialization in India or Latin America or China's abandonment of mechanized production in the 14th and 15th centuries. In short, presentingAfrica's historyas a counterexample , as another model, can do as much for our understanding ofworld history as Joseph Needham and MarkElvin did byplacing China back in the history of the early modern world as a dynamic actor and not simply as a static "Oriental Despotism." Miller haswarned us againstseeingAfrica as being too much like Europe and Asia. It is vital, he argues, to see Africans on their own terms, as measured by their own standards, which might not include states, monuments, or rulers. In order to achieve this African focus, Miller proposes that we reexamine what appear to be states in the coastal Adantic area through the double imagery ofwarlords gathering followers while, at the same time, being limited by the discourse ofwitchcraft, for which there may be few comfortable European parallels. This radical réévaluation ofAfrican history, which breaks with a good deal ofexisting historiography, I find less satisfactory . In describing the founders of the earlymodern polities ofAfrica's Atlantic coast as "warlords," Miller presents them as ruthless gatherers ofpeople and suggests thatthey were the cynical creators of impermanent polities. While certainly the founders ofmany of the states of coastal Africa might be described objectively as warlords, once the polity so founded passes a generation or so and gains institutional structure, the term is simply no longer applicable. None of the powerful states ofthe region—Benin, Asante, Dahomey, Kongo, or Matamba—can be described this way, for all possessed whatwe can easily see as the infrastructure ofstates: regularized taxation systems, judicial apparatuses , delineation offrontiers, systems ofsuccession , delegation of authority, and chains of command. It is easy to underestimate the structural complexity ofAfrica while simultaneously overestimating the modernity ofearly modern Europe, the two...


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