Accepted Paper:

Stories of "Great Men": Biography, Inspiration, and the Foundation of the Yeke State  


Rachel Taylor (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper considers how accounts of the lives and deeds of “great men” in 18th & 19th century East Africa were celebrated and memorialized. Accounts of heroic elephant hunters, warriors and traders inspired other men to pursue such hazardous, but potentially rewarding, activities.

Paper long abstract:

Accounts of historical change in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century East African societies typically described "great men" - hunters, chiefs, mythological founders - who through their actions brought about great changes in state, society and economics. Academic historians have long recognised that such accounts tended to personalise broader shifts, presenting one architect of processes that might have taken centuries. They have paid less attention, however, to the way that the biographical form of such narratives influenced those who heard and related them.

In this paper, I trace the role that celebrations of and stories about elephant hunters and long-distance traders shaped the aspirations of young Nyamwezi and Sumbwa men in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. I argue that stories, songs and dances memorialising historical and mythological figures made the ideals of heroic masculinity embodied by hunters and traders a presence in the lives of boys and young men. Most boys would not grow up to professional hunters, to found kingdoms, or to vanquish monsters, but they could dream. When economic changes made it possible for more young men from Unyamwezi to become hunter-warriors, and to found chiefdoms, or to discover new sources of wealth there were many ambitious men who leapt at the chance to make their dreams reality.

I focus on life stories of the Sumbwa and Nyamwezi founders of the Yeke state, in what is currently the Democratic Republic of Congo. These stories both illustrate how biography served as history, and how accounts of great men inspired others to emulate them.

Panel P149
The importance of biography in African historical studies