Societies throughout sub-Saharan Africa have preserved knowledge about the past through verbal, visual, and written art forms. Often, the responsibility of recording historical information was consigned to professional historians, trusted individuals whose superior wisdom and training equipped them to remember and interpret vast stores of information for the benefit of the community. In centralized states and chiefdoms, historians were often religious or political advisors who regulated royal power, supporting or checking it as necessary.
Records and narratives kept by African historians are among the most informative sources for the reconstruction of precolonial history on the continent. Epics about heroic warriors and kings performed by jeliw (sing. jeli), a hereditary class of singers in the western Sudan, provide a detailed political history of this region that has been corroborated by contemporaneous Arabic texts. In Central Africa, Kuba historians have maintained royal chronologies that include references to the solar eclipse of 1680 and the 1835 sighting of Halley’s comet. These events have enabled researchers to assign approximate dates to key moments in the development of the Kuba kingdom.
History as Spoken Word
Histories were transmitted orally, in performance and from one generation of specialists to the next. While some narratives, such as those detailing the origins of a nation or royal lineage, were mythic in scope, others were much more prosaic and might have concerned legal codes or accounts of village or clan history. Some historical texts, especially epics, were components of greater performance traditions in which the verbal artistry of the narrator was as significant as the story itself. Performers were encouraged to manipulate their medium for the most pleasing results, although the basic story remained the same. In contrast, texts that concerned legal matters or dynastic lists, in which verbal accuracy was of paramount importance, were learned by rote so that even the original words were preserved. This practice often conserved archaic or formalized language that required interpretation by specialists, and the cryptic qualities of the texts added to their aura of importance.
African historians frequently used aids to help them recall and organize the extensive amounts of information with which they were entrusted. Musical accompaniment, for instance, not only enhanced a performance but also helped to pace and structure the narrative. The kora (1975.59) and ngoni are two stringed instruments played by the Mande jeliw during their presentations of great heroic epics. Lamellophones (“thumb pianos”) also provided a musical component to historical recitations. An important work by a Chokwe master from what is today Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo neatly demonstrates this intersection of music and historical narrative. It portrays the legendary culture hero Chibinda Ilunga playing a lamellophone (1988.157), the very instrument whose notes would have accompanied the numerous historical sagas of which he was the subject.
A memory aid could also be visual, its composition evoking the structure and content of the narrative it represented. One of the most intricate of these visual memory devices was the lukasa used by the mbudye association of the Luba peoples from what is now Democratic Republic of Congo. The mbudye association was responsible for protecting and sustaining Luba political and historical principles, which they conveyed to the rest of Luba society through performances and artworks. As its members graduated from one level of the association to the next, their knowledge became ever more profound. At its apex, members learned to read the lukasa and utilize the information it held. To the uninitiated, a lukasa appeared to be nothing more than a flat piece of wood covered with pins and brightly colored beads or, as in the example (1977.467.3) from the Museum’s collection, intricately carved human heads and incised geometric patterns. However, each board contained a wealth of information about the history of the chiefdom, genealogical records of the ruler and titleholders, medicinal practices, and information about geographic landmarks of social, political, and religious importance.
Images of the Past
Important individuals were immortalized in sculptural traditions that venerated the memory of past rulers and court officials. Such portraits might have been produced during the life of the subject and preserved over time or sculpted posthumously, and were often central to the political workings of the kingdom. An eighteenth-century portrait of King Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong, the great Kuba leader who a century earlier had overseen the efflorescence of Kuba courtly culture, is part of a series of royal figures called ndop meant to represent and memorialize the lineage of Kuba kings (figure of King Shyaam ambul a Ngoong, The British Museum). Each ruler claimed this set of sculptures as part of his royal treasury and supervised the creation of his own portrait to be added to the series. The possession and display of these treasures invoked Kuba history and indicated legitimate descent from this long line of revered kings.
Depictions of past events and ceremonies, or scenes from courtly life, are much less common in traditional African art. The cast brass sculpture of Benin in present-day Nigeria is one of the few genres in which these subjects can be found, and the great volume of cast objects produced by Edo artists offer an unparalleled visual record of this African kingdom prior to the colonial encounter. Particularly informative are the brass plaques produced until the mid-eighteenth century that originally hung from the columns and rafters of the royal palace (1990.332). Although their positions of display might suggest a decorative purpose, these plaques were ultimately historical documents. Indeed, sometime in the nineteenth century they were taken down and utilized as an archive that was consulted on matters concerning courtly ritual and regalia.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, dedication to traditions of scholarship and literary production has ensured that knowledge of the past has survived for hundreds of years. During the Middle Ages, major centers of religious learning arose in both East and West Africa, hastening the spread of literacy and promoting reverence for the power of the written word. Monasteries throughout Christian Ethiopia produced illuminated manuscripts of great refinement and beauty written in Ge’ez, the indigenous written language of the royal court. Literate individuals also produced autobiographical accounts and other writings of a secular nature. In the western Sudan, centers of trade such as Jenne and Timbuktu were early outposts for the spread of Islam in the region. Cities with venerable and deeply felt ties to the Muslim world, they were homes to imposing mosques and the oldest universities and libraries in sub-Saharan Africa. The library at Timbuktu has survived to the present day and counts 400-year-old volumes of poetry, manuscripts on the sciences and history, and Qur’anic texts among its holdings. Thousands of students traveled to Timbuktu to study at the university at Sankore Mosque, where they learned astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Throughout West Africa, Qur’anic schools associated with mosques still educate younger generations of scholars in Muslim philosophy and the art of calligraphy. Wooden writing boards (Koranic Board, The Brooklyn Museum of Art) are used for this purpose: characters written in ink or charcoal are easily washed off, providing a fresh surface for additional exercises.
Muslim scholars were also prominent recorders of history along the Swahili Coast of East Africa and on the island of Madagascar. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, scribes at the courts of both indigenous and Arab-Malagasy rulers produced royal records written in Arabic script called sora-bé. The earliest of these documents contained mostly religious formulae, but in later decades political accounts and clan genealogies were also recorded.
Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “Ways of Recording African History.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ahis/hd_ahis.htm (October 2003)
Austen, Ralph A., ed. In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature, and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts, eds. Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Museum for African Art, 1996.
Vansina, Jan. The Children of Woot: A History of the Kuba Peoples. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.