How non-narrative are administrative documents? Reflections on a nineteenth-century family archive from west Africa
Paper short abstract:
The paper examines the genres found in a 19th c. African archive. It poses two questions relating to the ways in which Africans organised written material: Is ‘administrative’ documentation always non-narrative, and is it not possible for ‘narrative’ documentation to serve an administrative purpose?
Paper long abstract:
In a pioneering review of non-narrative sources available to historians of pre-colonial Africa, Marion Johnson (1987) singled out seven genres: [financial/commercial] accounts, dictionaries / word-lists, maps / itineraries, statistics, climate data, population figures and external statistics (mainly commercial). These had in common that they were not written in "continuous prose (or verse)".They did not, for instance, include letters. Johnson showed that such sources had been underused due to historians' predilection for sources which tell a story, but also to the real problems that non-narrative sources pose. To tackle such problems, it makes sense to deal with them separately. One wonders, however, whether the distinction between narrative and non-narrative documentation was one that the inhabitants of precolonial Africa would have recognised. I will examine a nineteenth-century family archive from the coast of what is now Togo (Jones & Sebald 2005). In a broad sense this can be viewed as administrative documentation, since the archive was assembled - in part for 'political' purposes - by a family whose members held themselves to be the ruling lineage, albeit of a very small kingdom. It will be shown that while correspondence - mainly with Europeans - accounts for at least 90 per cent of the documents, the corpus switches from one genre to another in a manner which Europeans would have found confusing. The letters are interspersed with genealogies, commercial / financial ledgers, judicial records, minutes of meetings, lists of kings or "war generals and notables" and lists of events.
Administrative and legal documentation in pre-colonial Africa and beyond