[Documents menu] Documents menu

De facto African ‘Historians’ of African Labour History

A dialog on the AfrLabor list, February 1995

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 1995
From: plimb@uniwa.uwa.edu.au
To: AFRLABOR@acuvax.acu.edu

In colonial Africa [and I include South Africa here], especially before the 1930-40's, there were precious few black historians - if only because of the colonial domination in intellectual fields, education, culture etc. This had enormous impact on the ways in which Africans articulated views of their history, including the history of labour movements, economic history etc.

However, the fact that there were little or no black professors of history does not mean that people did not respond to events happening around them, or muse about past days.

In South Africa the colonial-like nature of white rule threw together disparate black social strata [though this does not mean that stratification remained static] such that a [NON-POWER] "elite" or "middle class" of doctors and lawyers [I exclude teachers here, as they were nevertheless wage-earners] tended to co-habit in townships etc. This geospatial proximity encouraged a commonality of views, including those of the past. It meant that black workers formed not only one of the major elements of the constituency of the nascent "nationalist" movements, but that black workers were also influenced by, and influenced, such movements. This has been generally neglected in the subject literature, where early nationalists in particular are almost universally presented as "middle class" or "elite," although there has not been a very vigorous analysis of the use of such problematic theoretical concepts in African labour/nationalist history in South Africa.

Black writers, including dramatists, journalists, poets and others, wrote about the suffering and predicament of black workers from as early as the late nineteenth century, but there is little acknowledgement of their role. Given the paucity of sources of early black labour history, there is even less said about the attitudes of the workers themselves. Hence one of the few sources of workers' lives is this corpus of ephemeral writings by de facto "historians."

Are there any similarities in other African countries?

Peter Limb,
Reid Library, University of Western Australia
email: plimb@uniwa.uwa.edu.au
fax: (09) 3801012
phone (09) 3802347

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 1995 12:45:12 -0500 (EST)
From: CBROWN@zodiac.rutgers.edu
To: AFRLABOR@acuvax.acu.edu
Message-ID: <01HNJLJC9O2W9JDLU8@zodiac.rutgers.edu>

Re Peter Limb's "De Facto Historians " of African Labor History.

In Nigeria there are several types of examples I would suggest. There are examples from Lagos where people like Herbert Macaulay, a prominent Nigerian Nationalist figure, used newspapers to complain against the conditions of urban life under colonial rule. He lived to be quite old and was associated w/ Michael Imodu, who led the 1945 General Strike. There are also examples in a radical nationalist movement called the Zikists. Some of these "angry young men" were tied into the labor movement. Many wrote of the conditions of urban workers. There is a recent Columbia dissertation by Ehiedu Iweribor on the Zikist. To my knowledge it's the first attempt to pull together the material on this movement. As for the source of material on men like Macaulay, see Robin Cohen's Labor and Politics in Nigeria, and a series of other sources that I'll send later. In terms of novels I found Festus Iyayi's book, The Violence, cited by Bill Freund in his review of African labor literature, to be really excellent in revealing the conditions of workers and commenting on them. I think there were examples in the late 19th century material but I'll have to look it up. I hope this has been helpful.

Carolyn Brown