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  • Comment on Jean-Pierre Warnier's "The Grassfields of Cameroon: Center or Periphery?"
  • Ralph A. Austen (bio)

If I am permitted, for the purposes of my own interests, to go against the grain of the author's own description of his argument, I would say that it is divided into three parts: (1) the densely populated and hierarchically organized communities that were observed in the "modern" (eighteenth-century-plus) Grassfields have existed here for a much longer time (probably two millennia or more); (2) this world was the center of a wide regional trading system long before it became the periphery of an Atlantic economy; (3) at some point during this era before the eighteenth century, the Grassfields entered into a commercial relationship with a "world system" based in the Indian Ocean. My comments deal briefly with the first and third arguments, focusing mainly on the second.

Argument 1 occupies the greatest part of Warnier's article, drawing, as Warnier notes, from considerable empirical evidence, including his own decades of research in the Grassfields. As someone whose own (Cameroon) work is restricted to the coastal region and who has always been impressed by Warnier's writings, I can only applaud its extension here.

In anticipation of what I will say on argument 2, I applaud the shift from a coastal/Atlantic explanation of developments in this region to one based more in the longer history of the region and its immediate surroundings. This being said, I wonder why it is even necessary to bring in argument 3, the speculative discussion of an Indian Ocean connection. Warnier, otherwise such a sophisticated social scientist, appears somewhat naive in accepting, on the dubious authority of Beaujard et al. (2009),

the fact [my emphasis] that there cannot be any smaller center of development such as the Grassfields that is not connected to other neighboring centers within larger spheres of interactions or world systems.

In historiographic terms, this assertion is problematic on three grounds: first, the lack of evidence for any kind of regular trade between the Grassfields and this remote zone (the adaptation of Asian plantains and bananas did not require such a commercial connection); second, if we are to believe Warnier's statement that "Hausa trade reached the area in the [End Page 73] mid-nineteenth century," the Grassfields were not even in contact with the much more proximate Sudan-Sahara conduit to global markets before this late date; and finally, the whole approach seems to be a step backward from the main thrust of the article, which is to demonstrate how local dynamics could generate a complex economic, political, and cultural order without the need for contact with an "advanced" world region or system.

Happily, with argument 2, Warnier has offered an interpretation of the Grassfields past that I not only find more convincing than the link to the Indian Ocean, but also feel more comfortable discussing in my role as a sometime economic historian of Africa on a continental scale. The claims here are presented as speculative, but Warnier infers his larger story from solid evidence on landscape change, language diversity, and observations of well-established regional trade in the Atlantic era. There remain several questions about chronology: the evidence of trade dates from European contacts with the coast from the late seventeenth century (Warnier 1985:173-177), and the extant archaeology on iron use tells us little about when it reached the intensity necessary for the trade described in these sources. Moreover, despite his convincing critique of Claude Tardits's conclusions on the population history of the Grassfields, Warnier offers (neither here nor in his other publications) a rejoinder to Tardits's political chronology, which uses oral evidence to date the Bamum kingdom only to the late seventeenth or eighteenth century (Tardits 1980:9919-9920); however, even if the entire ensemble of Grassfields developments only goes back as far as circa 1500, it still establishes the basic case for the region as an "ancient [or at least ancien] center of development."

Findings of this kind are important, as Warnier suggests, for reversing the arrows of African historical dynamics from external to internal frontiers.1 In the archaeology of early iron...


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