Africa is a huge continent, as large as the more habitable areas of Europe and Asia put together. It has a history immensely long, yet the study of that history as an academic discipline in its own right is little more than fifty years old. Since then the subject has grown enormously, but the question of what this history is and how it has been approached still needs to be asked, not least to answer the question of why should we study it.
This book takes as its subject the last 10,000 years of African history, and traces the way in which human society on the continent has evolved from communities of hunters and gatherers to the complex populations of today. Approaching that history through its various dimensions: archaeological, ethnographic, written, scriptural, European and contemporary, it looks at how the history of such a vast region over such a length of time has been conceived and presented, and how it is to be investigated. The problem itself is historical, and an integral part of the history with which it is concerned, beginning with the changing awareness over the centuries of what Africa might be. Michael Brett thus traces the history of Africa not only on the ground, but also in the mind, in order to make his own historical contribution to the debate.
Michael Brett —
Michael Brett is Emeritus Reader in the History of North Africa at SOAS.
Brett, Michael. Approaching African history. James Currey, 2013. 356p bibl index ISBN 1-84701-063-6; ISBN 9781847010636. Reviewed in 2013aug CHOICE.
Brett's ambitious text seeks to explore both the concept of Africa in historical perspective and the broad field of African history as it emerged after WW II. The narrative is complex and detailed, and the author (emer., School of Oriental and African Studies, London) covers a considerable span of time and place for the African continent. The bulk of the book, however, focuses on ancient and precolonial Africa, with only the last four of 30 chapters devoted to independent African states. The chapter organization and maps are clear, but at times the writing is somewhat dense and inaccessible. Perhaps the book's greatest strengths are its attention to the archaeological studies that have provided insights into early African civilizations, and the integration of environmental and geographic analyses. Brett's approach is strongly influenced by the important Cambridge school of African history, and especially the work of John Iliffe. Still, there remain significant gaps in the coverage of recent African historiography, especially for southern Africa. Overall, the perspective is heavily Eurocentric, and there appears little room for African agency in the story.
Summing Up: Optional. Faculty only. -- A. S. MacKinnon, Georgia College and State University