- Obituary – Jan Vansina (14 September 1929 – 8 February 2017)
Jan Vansina, a pioneering scholar in the field of African history whose career spanned more than six decades, died peacefully 8 February 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin in the presence of his spouse Claudine and son Bruno.
Energetic and innovative, original and at times irreverent, Vansina was driven by a life-long sense of curiosity and skepticism that motivated him to ask expansive questions and pursue the answers with meticulous and exacting research. The larger trajectory that his scholarship would take – historicizing Africa's precolonial past – was set early in his professional life when he worked in his first professional position as an anthropological research fellow in the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, for the Institute for Scientific Research in Central Africa (IRSAC/IWOCA) in 1952–1960. Vansina, who had recently graduated in medieval history (Catholic University of Leuven, 1951) saw parallels between oral texts of nonliterate medieval European communities which academics regarded as historical sources, and oral sources from Kuba kingdom which anthropologists regarded as ahistorical myths. He argued that if historians could apply the "rules of evidence" to reconstruct one society's history, they should be able to apply them to another. Why would precolonial African societies be uniquely resistant to historical methodology? Or, put another way, why would an African society's past not be history? [End Page 5]
The resistance Vansina met as he struggled to move his dissertation on Kuba history through Leuven's graduate history program in 1956–1957, and the criticism that he continued to face after he successfully defended it in October 1957, solidified his resolve to study African history in the era prior to European contact – and to work to counter the idea that societies without written texts had no history. In doing so, Vansina developed rigorous historical methods, and steadily produced a body of scholarship that had grown to 25 books, and about 244 articles at the time of his death. He built a 34-year career as a professor of history and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1960–1973, 1975–1994) and at Leuven (1973–1975), with visiting professorships and lectureships in six countries. He proudly noted that he had supervised or actively participated in the supervision of over one hundred doctoral dissertations, including 53 which he supervised or co-supervised directly.
Throughout his life Vansina remained rooted in research which was his passion and his hallmark as a scholar. From his research developed his methodological work, a response to the possibilities and limitations he saw in his data. His first major work in the area of methods was De la tradition orale. Essai de méthode historique (Tervuren, 1961; English translation Chicago, 1965), a book that derived from the research he had conducted in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi while working at IRSAC, and a response to the naysayers he consistently encountered. The book, whose publication coincided with decolonization in many parts of the world, received broad attention not only from western scholars but especially from a new generation of nonwestern researchers engaged in producing new, postcolonial national histories.
Over time, the book led to academic acceptance of oral traditions as valid sources of history. Its use by researchers stimulated a large body of observations and critiques which Vansina incorporated in a major revision, Oral Tradition as History (Madison, 1985). Vansina had written the first edition to establish the legitimacy of his technique, but he wrote the revised edition as a guide to give researchers around the world the tools and perspectives to collect and analyze their own oral data. This, he believed, could give voice to those previously excluded from the writing of history, and give Africans and others the means to historicize ideas and issues that were of concern to them. Each translation of the book into a new language heightened Vansina's commitment to making evidence-based history available to non-academics, one of his life-long goals.
Words and Things
Vansina loved solving puzzles, mysteries, enigmas, and discovering unexpected twists. He was fascinated by clues to the past that he could derive [End Page 6] from sources – all manner...