- Re-Mapping, Re-Spacing and Re-Connecting Africa – Editors' Introduction
A recurrent theme in the contributions to this volume of History in Africa is a concern with re-mapping places, spaces, and connections in African history. Of course, historians of Africa are only too aware of how complex even the history of the term "Africa" itself is: it is a term introduced by outsiders around the first century AD, that has referred to various sections of the continent, and that only became the term to denote the entire continent hundreds of years after its first documented use for an area covering parts of the southern Mediterranean coast between current Morocco and Libya. Similarly, the names of places and spaces mentioned in the historical sources we use were often not fixed, unspecific and at times downright wrong. This reflects the inaccuracies and confusions of older sources such as travel narratives produced by (mostly European) outsiders (and the fact that we tend to read these sources with a different aim than they were originally produced for). Added to this was the, at times, uncritical use of such sources by scholars in previous generations, whose texts however continue to influence assumptions and perceptions of historians today.
Local African (oral) sources have not been easier to work with, as many similarly use more than one name for the same place (and refer to several places with the same name), which is not problematic, except for historians who want to determine what happened at a particular moment at a specific place (or what was the place of origin of a particular individual whose biography they are reconstructing). [End Page 1]
It is thus no surprise that historians have spent much effort in determining particular locations, regions, and connections in Africa (mainly, but not only, for the years before 1850), the results of which they often published in History in Africa. The current volume of the journal shows that this task of mapping and re-mapping is not finished. Not only do newly available sources and re-readings of known sources invite historians to adjust previous localisations, changing technological possibilities also require a re-thinking of topographical terms that have been used up until now. An impetus also comes from the critical reading of historiography, which helps to uncover cases of path dependency in historical writing that could benefit from a critical examination. It thus may be helpful to consider re-connecting regional traditions of writing African history, as is explored in one set of papers included in the current volume.
We open volume 46 of History in Africa with a section on "re-mapping Africa." We begin with a contribution by Henry Lovejoy and five more authors because the seemingly technical issue they address may change the way we write about precolonial African history. In "Redefining African Regions for Linking Open-Source Data" they argue that current projects, including the collection of biographical information about individuals Africans during the times of the slave trades, require definitions of regions and boundaries that have a greater degree of historical context than have been used thus far. They thus propose to replace the categorisations currently in use and that date back to 1960s work by Philip Curtin (who based his categories mainly on those of early European travelers and [slave] traders), with a new delimitation of the entire continent into broad regions and sub-regions.
This contribution is followed by Ryan Shea and Dianna Bell's exploration of Arabic cartographic methods during the ninth and tenth century, with a focus on the deformation of Sub-Saharan Africa in world maps. They show that 'Abbasid cartographers knew that how they drew the area did not reflect the actual shape of that part of the world, and that it rather represented a deliberate and intended way to represent a lack of knowledge of Africa south of the Maghreb. The following contribution by Daniel Ayana also considers Arab sources, showing that a new understanding emerges of northeast and east Africa when the medieval meanings of particular names is taken into consideration.
Arab sources are similarly at the heart...