- Purchase/rental options available:
Journal of American Folklore 116.460 (2003) 233-234
[Access article in PDF]
Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. By Luise White. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Pp. xvi + 352, bibliographic references, index.)
The subject of this book is a corpus of stories from Central and East Africa about Europeans who sucked African blood and about the Africans who worked for them: firemen, policemen, mine foremen, and game wardens. Vampire stories show how Africans imagined the colonial world in all its contradictions. In seven chapters, Luise White reads both oral and written sources to understand colonial medicine and skilled labor in East and Central Africa after World War I, women's land ownership in Nairobi in the 1920s and 1930s, control of disease in northern Rhodesia in the 1930s, local politics in Kampala in the 1950s, and migrant laborers' conception of wages in the mines of northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo from the 1930s to the 1950s. Most of the chapters were published as journal articles in the past decade, and they are reprinted here with very few changes, although there is some updating of references.
White argues that vampire stories were fluid enough to describe many situations: they were retold in the vocabularies of people's daily lives and conflicts and thus embodied local experience. Her analyses demonstrate the stories' multiplicity of meaning. For instance, in her chapter on how the Catholic White Fathers were portrayed as vampires in northern Rhodesia from the 1920s to the 1950s, she makes four different interpretations, the most powerful of which is that vampire stories expressed, for Africans, what money was like and how it functioned in certain relationships. Rather than pinning the stories down to one interpretation, White teases out various meanings, linking vampire stories to other events, symbolic ideas, and movements that were occurring at the same time. She reveals the suggestive connections between the economic and material conditions of African lives and the formulaic details of the stories, such as chloroform, clothes, and cars. However, sometimes the connections seem a little far-fetched, and the piling on of meaning and other sources makes the vampire stories themselves almost disappear from view.
In this book, White sets herself a difficult task: "to use vampire stories in all their messiness to write the history of colonial East and Central Africa" (p. 2). In conversation with historiography rather than folkloristics, she defends the use of rumor as historical evidence. She argues that historians should use rumor to find "the stuff of history, the categories and constructs with which people make their worlds and articulate and debate their understandings of those worlds" (p. 55). African historians have explored oral sources, but often only to supplement written evidence. White argues that oral and written evidence are equal, offering different perspectives on the same situation. Often, the vampire stories straddled oral and written sources: newspapers and colonial officials' reports printed verbal rumors, if only to discredit them, and written rumors were elaborated orally.
In her conclusion, White asks, "Are vampire stories a good historical source in or of themselves, or are they simply so slippery and fluid that I have recast them into the dominant concerns of African historians of the past two decades, labor, medicine, and nationalism?" (p. 310). I am inclined to answer her second question in the affirmative. Although she argues that written evidence in colonial sources is, like rumor, accumulated interpretation, in many chapters she privileges historians' examinations of colonial medicine and land control, which draw on colonial, administrative sources precisely because the vampire stories are so fluid [End Page 233] and difficult to use according to historians' notions of evidence.
Speaking with Vampires is an admirable, fascinating work, made with serious intent and honest questioning. It is also frustrating for folklorists because White treats the rumors not as performances, but as historical evidence. Accordingly, she is not interested in individual texts in their specific context but the whole regional genre of vampire stories. She raises issues that no longer interest folklorists as much: How were these rumors disseminated...