- The Demographics of Empire: the Colonial Order and the Creation of Knowledge ed. by Karl Ittmann, Dennis D. Cordell, Gregory H. Maddox
In The Demographics of Empire, Dennis Cordell suggests that postmodern and postcolonial theories have led the study of African historical demography, on decline in the 1990s, into a period of renaissance. He argues that scholars are “responding to and profiting from the challenges presented by these theoretical perspectives” that have cast doubt on demographic studies of the African past (50). The essays in this collection confirm that scholars are responding to these theories but do not appear to have come to any agreement about how to approach colonial population estimates. There is a constant tension throughout the collection, as the writers cast doubt on these estimates but still insist they are necessary for understanding the impact of colonization on African communities. The papers also run the gamut from local histories of labor and reproduction to discussions of the impact of disease on population sizes. As a result, the collection feels disjointed and scattered. The essays, however, serve as a reminder that, [End Page 788] despite the challenges involved in using colonial sources, there are contemporary consequences to how we interpret demographic change in Africa.
The Demographics of Empire focuses on Africa, but many of the authors situate their papers in the context of larger processes, especially in Europe, thus widening the appeal of the collection. In addition, the historiographical essays provided by the editors suggest new directions for the study of historical demography as a whole and demonstrate the influence of the theoretical contributions discussed by Cordell. They also present new ways to understand population change in Africa. For instance, Gregory Maddox challenges many of the misconceptions scholars have about interactions between population size, disease, and the environment by emphasizing the diversity of African historical experiences. Overall, the editors argue that African historical demography has been understudied and misunderstood and that they hope to spark interest in this subject with the publication of these papers, originating from a 2002 workshop on the topic.
The first three essays describe similarities between British and French colonial policies. Karl Ittmann, Raymond Gervais, and Issiaka Mandé discuss the origins of European perceptions of population decline and growth in Africa. Their essays also describe the impetus for colonial officials to develop new methods for estimating population size in African colonies, particularly after World War II. While these authors make important contributions, the collection would have been strengthened by a more complete examination of the entire colonial period, as well as studies of other European powers in Africa. Thomas McClendon’s essay takes their argument about colonial perceptions in a slightly different direction by highlighting the self-serving nature of population estimates in Natal, South Africa. He persuasively ties these estimates into “South Africa’s postapartheid politics of indigeneity” (125). These four writers avoid coming to firm conclusions regarding the veracity of the estimates provided by colonial officials and instead suggest these estimates were formed on the basis of faulty assumptions and poorly conducted censuses.
Rather than questioning population estimates, the authors of the following essays primarily take colonial population figures as their starting points. John Cinnamon’s study of historical demography in northern Gabon is the most intriguing essay in this collection. He uses oral histories collected in Gabon to contextualize colonial reports of displacement and depopulation. Cinnamon describes this local history in such fascinating detail that it would be a shame if the author did not write further on this topic. The next chapters, written by Meshack Owino and Shirley McCurdy, reveal the gap between colonial perceptions of population change and the reality. McCurdy’s essay on reproduction is an important addition to this collection and reminds us that Africans, particularly women, played a role in determining changes in population size. Meredeth Turshen’s essay on colonial policies regulating reproduction and labor delves further into these topics but could have been even...