HIAF 201

Early African History through the Era of the Slave Trade

(Fall 2003)

Instructor: Joseph C. Miller

Telephones: 924-6395 (office)
E-mail: <jcm7a@virginia.edu> or <jmiller@virginia.edu>
Office: Levering 210 (East Range - "Hotel F")
Hours: Tuesday 2:00-3:30 PM, Thursday 3:30-5:00 PM

Class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:30-10:45 AM, CABELL 345
Discussion sections, as scheduled

INTRODUCTION -- History 201 introduces undergraduates to the early history of Africa, with emphasis on “Black” Africa south of the Sahara. The course begins with the origins of historical civilizations in the later “stone age” (ca. 25,000 BCE) and runs through the late-eighteenth centuryyears of Africa’s most intensive losses of people as slaves. It concentrates on people and their accomplishments indigenous to Africa and therefore notices the European and other visitors whom most American students might recognize primarily as people in Africa took them into account or influenced them. Such extraneous (though related) topics in European or world history as Islam, the Atlantic slave trade, European wars that touched African shores, the “African” diaspora in the New World, and missionaries or explorers from Europe receive attention mainly in their implications for people in Africa. The emphasis on Africa in this course provides an valuable alternative perspective on these, and other, seemingly familiar events.

COURSE PERSPECTIVE -- Students in HIAF 201 are sometimes surprised to learn that American stereotypes of a continental-scale “African” past, or of a single pan-African culture comparable to the arguable unities of “American” or “European” history, have little relevance to how people in Africa thought or acted during the early centuries covered in this course. At that time, no one in Africa interacted with others on a continent-wide scale; even the most expansive political systems included only small fractions of the many communities living in a huge land mass three times the size of the continental United States, and few understood even such “states” as unified wholes.

As a result, the facts of “African history” before 1800 or so form no single narrative like the story that historians of England, for example, can spin around the royal lines of Tudors and Stuarts. Nor, in a continent with hundreds of languages, were there as many “African” uniformities of culture as modern Americans often assume. Further, the ones that strike modern westerners were not evident or important to anyone there, or then; even people who shared cultural heritages applied them to varying and particular concerns of their own. Students beginning their study of history in Africa must therefore commit themselves to distinguishing carefully among numerous and highly various historical experiences, some comprehending populations as small in numbers as only a few thousand individuals – though none of them any the less significant, for their modest size, as human adventures.

APPROACHES TO THE COURSE MATERIAL - Attempting to learn about Africa’s past by memorizing only the “facts” of this multitude of differing achievements – as well as different from ours – would commit the student to accumulating a baffling mass of unfamiliar names and terms, in an array of languages entirely unlike the European ones usually taught in American schools and universities. Instead, this course seeks to move beyond compiling exotic and isolated curiosities in order to understand strategies of thinking and acting in Africa alternative to our own – though not as opposed in intent or motivation as they might appear at a first encounter.

We will therefore attempt to make sense (i.e. their sense) of the specifics, if not proposing any significant degree of uniformity, by emphasizing “themes”, recurrent tendencies among people – even of very diverse backgrounds – who reacted to similar circumstances in parallel ways. Such “themes” transcend local events and individual personalities to reveal coherent patterns of historical change that people throughout the continent created – and how these resembled historical processes elsewhere in the world. Along the way, students learn basic elements of African geography and a modest selection of representative names and key dates, but they need not concentrate on such “facts” except as they illustrate significant broader tendencies.

Lectures and readings in the first weeks of the course identify key – and distinctive – strategies that people in Africa worked out, early on. The remainder of the term explores how their heirs over the centuries adapted these “principles” to changing circumstances, and so it is important to grasp this logic early on. The final examination will test students’ abilities to draw these themes together into a coherent understanding of how and why generations of people in Africa behaved as they did, both in their distinctiveness and also in ways comparable to those of other people in more familiar parts of the globe.

STUDENTS WILL BE RESPONSIBLE for following the course on three complementing levels, intended to encourage the necessary balance between specific knowledge of who did what and these general understandings of how and why people in Africa thought and acted as they did. These three aspects of doing history in Africa advance through the course syllabus simultaneously, in the following forms:

    1. Lectures focus on the strategies, themes, and patterns; they illustrate these general concepts with apposite (but very selective) examples and case studies. The lectures thus present the instructor’s interpretation of the subject but make no attempt at comprehensive coverage of what happened in Africa. Students must phrase thoughtful reactions to each one.
    2. Readings -- which are to be completed before the week in which they appear in the syllabus -- particularly the text (Shillington, History of Africa), present the factual materials. It is the student's responsibility to grasp the historical narratives developed in the readings, including the geography, and then to relate the doings presented there to the general themes outlined in the lectures. Sometimes the interpretive emphasis in the readings - that is, the meanings and significance attributed to events, even to such apparently obvious concepts as "state" or "religion" - agrees with that of the lectures; more often, it does not. The authors assigned also disagree with one another, sometimes directly, other times by implication. Discussion sections inquire into some of the disputes over interpretation that lurk behind your assignments; you will understand what you are asked to read better if you engage actively in them.
    3. Still other readings provide opportunities for students to probe technical problems of evidence and historical method, that is: how historians – who, in other parts of the world, have customarily worked from documents – reconstruct a past in Africa no more than marginally visible through conventional written sources. They invite you to consider what other methods historians have developed to know – or surmise – the “facts” and themes presented in readings and lectures, and with what degree of certainty they “know” them.

      These “facts” matter because they constitute the base from which historians reason, as evidence. But no matter how many such clues from the past historians may have at hand, they always filter them through assumptions of their own, or those of their audience, in order to “understand” them – in the sense of giving them significance to anyone today. For early Africa, since the evidence is often scarce, or ambiguous in meaning, present preoccupations strongly influence how we understand – that is: how we “interpret” – the past there, all the more so because in American culture Africa has strong and emotional resonances.

      As a general rule, students (like any historian) should accept no conclusion – not even a seemingly glib assurance offered by the instructor – until they have considered the evidence, methodologies, theories, and – especially – the historical logic that support it. For early Africa, this responsibility is primary, since most of what you already know (and an unfortunately large portion of what is available for you to read) exhibits lamentably a-historical tendencies. Since this course presents Africa in under the auspices of the Department of History, we will spend as much time as students require to grasp the epistemology of the historical discipline, talking about how as well as what we think about the continent. HIAF 201 will thus challenge you continually to think about what you think you think and how and why you think it.

A language analogy: The concepts and themes presented in lectures thus introduce a conceptual “language” in which you will learn to think about Africa, using the factual raw materials in the readings for “vocabulary” and the rules of the discipline of history as “grammar”. BE ALERT: these concepts are not the ways in which modern Americans, or many modern Africans, think now. In learning African history, you will need to respect others’ ways of perceiving their own worlds, using unfamiliar materials, similar to the way you would approach study of a foreign language. Anyone’s past is – as a cliché familiar to historians goes – a foreign country; in Africa, the degree of remoteness is greater than most. The final examination will invite you to write in this “African historyspeak” as fluently as you can manage by the end of the term.

In the United States, after many years of racial division, it is almost impossible not to have formed strong “beliefs”, uninformed by disciplined historical thinking, about the subject. Students in HIAF 201 may therefore be surprised, even shocked, to see what evidence – as distinct from popular expectations or family lore – reveals, and some may have to suspend deeply held convictions, at least provisionally, even to notice what the lectures and readings are really saying. Otherwise, you risk selecting from them only isolated elements that seem to support opinions already formed. HIAF 201 is a course in which the courageous thrive.

Students who succeed in integrating the three aspects of HIAF 201 should emerge with an informed understanding of what people in Africa made of their lives, a broadened perspective on themselves, and sharpened critical facilities that will help them to understand other sorts of history and other subjects, as well as the ability to pursue life-long self-educations in African affairs outside the classroom.


Geography is vital, and American undergraduates are seldom familiar with Africa’s physical or historical geography. Short (10-question) map quizzes on materials covered in lectures and readings will be given in discussion sections every week, and students will be graded on the best ten scores they achieve; no one may take the final examination with an average score of less than “7” on their “ten best”. During the first weeks of the term the instructor will distribute review sheets listing important geographical terms and physical features that turn up in each week’s readings, but by about the sixth week students will themselves become responsible for distinguishing – and learning – the historically significant geographical, political, and other elements of the numerous maps in readings from incidental factoids. Accurate, appropriate maps that illustrate points argued will count positively toward grades awarded for written work , including examinations,.

Since it is so important that students acquaint themselves with unfamiliar facts and that they grasp the lecturer’s interpretation of Africa’s history, they must remain current in the assigned readings. The map quizzes, in particular, will require that students carefully evaluate each and every assignment in order to identify the significant geographical points that make the historical narrative intelligible (and, not incidentally, will turn up on the quizzes). A general lack of currency in the readings among class members will justify graded “pop” quizzes on the current week’s assignments.

In-class “take-home” points – the lecturer will normally hold forth in an organized fashion for about the limit of student AM-alertness – perhaps 45 minutes. We will then pause to refresh and resume with students writing on-the-spot assessments (ca. 50-word, i.e. short) of the point they perceive as significant for the day’s lecture, set in the context of the subject for the week (including readings), and where all of that fits into the architecture of the entire course. These statements will be handed in and serve as starting points for discussion for the remainder of the class. We will vary from individual assessments to group deliberations, as the dynamics of the course evolve.

Grades will be provided to alert students to the relevance of each of their “take-home points”, and instructors will contact anyone who doesn’t seem to be “catching on” – early in the term – to consider how they might grasp the logic of the course more directly. Students are, of course, encouraged to contact instructors independently to talk further about points that interest them. Further substantive development of a statement by the time of the succeeding class meeting, at the student’s initiative, may raise a grade (but cannot lower it).

A conventional one-hour written mid-term examination, given in the seventh week, will consist of two parts: (1) a choice of essays inviting you to consider course themes and the evidence for them, and (2) a section asking for short-answers that “identify-and-give-the-historical-significance-of” specific major points. Students who receive an unsatisfying mark on this first mid-term and wish to eliminate its influence on their final grade may do so by writing a similar exam in the fourteenth week. They will receive credit for only the higher of the two grades earned. Given this option, no make-up examination will be offered.

The final examination will consist entirely of essay questions inviting students to integrate what they have learned throughout the semester.



Final grades will approximate students’ “highest consistent performance”. I do not need to remind you that grading is not an exact science. Grading by “highest consistent performance” encourages students to take risks – always based on the materials presented in the course – to think for themselves in a disciplined, historical way, to obtain instructors’ reactions to their efforts, and to move beyond the limits or assumptions or blind spots that these exchanges identify. Most course requirements contain opportunities to discard less-than-successful initial efforts to grasp a subject as unfamiliar as Africa. Since no mechanical calculation of percentages holds a slow start or an isolated low mark against you, the occasional valiant but misguided effort cannot cause you to miss a higher final grade by 0.1% (or any other insignificant margin). The costs to one’s grade of making a mistake or two are thus very low compared to what you can gain from putting yourself on the line.

“Take-home” points – The overall mark for these statements will summarize the “highest consistent performance” achieved on the best 20 (of approximately 24 lectures/discussions) by the end of the term. (A) grades will recognize creative engagement, (B) comprehensive awareness, (C) accurate, but selective, comprehension, (D) relevant misunderstanding, and (F) clueless. Absences (beyond the implied limit) will, obviously, be awarded a “zero” and will significantly disrupt consistency established otherwise.

Participation in discussion (in class and sections) will be graded as: (A) active leadership, (B) consistent contributions, (C) regular presence but only occasional responsiveness, (D) attentive silence and/or irregular presence, and (F) repeated absence or inattention. The only basis for creditable participation is careful preparation, guided by advance alerts that you will receive to plans for the sections.


HIAF 201 proceeds in the spirit of the University’s Honor System, particularly its premise of the prevailing “Community of Trust”; students “pledge” their written work accordingly. The System’s sanctions are distinctly secondary to the collaborative spirit that it establishes for us all to proceed to learn together.

TEXTS -- The following titles, all paperbacks, have been requested for purchase at the Newcomb Hall bookstore:

Kevin Shillington, History of Africa (New York: Macmillan, 2nd ed. 1995) TEXT

James L. Newman, The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) GEOGRAPHY/TEXT

D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (London: Longmans, 1965), or equivalent edition

Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Also Recommended --

Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin, Africa and Africans (4th ed.) (Prospect Heights IL: Waveland Press, 1995) RECOMMENDED -- GENERAL BACKGROUND

John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 1998). RECOMMENDED - BACKGROUND TO ISLAM

Reserve materials -- Digitized versions of this syllabus and assigned chapters and articles (though not assigned books) are posted on TOOLKIT, which you can access through the University Library home page. You may also reach the site through the Department of History Home Page, accessible at familiar links through the main University website.

If you want to print these files directly through your personal computer, or one of the University workstations, you will need Acrobat Reader (freeware, available at < http://www.lib.virginia. edu/reserve/>, link to “Acrobat Reader”).

INTERNET RESOURCES -- more and more materials appear daily on worldwide web sites, some of them excellent for classroom preparation but others of highly dubious purpose or quality. For materials appearing in scholarly journals and other print publications, the professional reputations of publishers and editors recommend their academic integrity, but the entirely unedited cyberspace of the internet establishes no similar accountability. Moreover, the exceedingly large (and continually multiplying) number of sites on the “net” makes it impossible for instructors to know and assess the intellectual quality of whatever the standard search engines may lead students to find, and cite.

Students wishing to draw on internet sources therefore assume responsibility for establishing the trustworthiness, by academic standards, of the sites they cite. The academic standard of a site may be established [beyond providing the URL] in an explanatory note identifying the site’s author and establishing her/his/its qualifications as a scholarly authority in the subject area involved, or by identifying conventional academic sources for the site content . Adherence to these standards allows students to apply the responsibility for critical thought that lies at the core of a University education to their explorations of the potentially rich, but otherwise unaccountable, world of cyberspace. Reputable starting points for (and numerous links on to other) academically respectable Internet materials on Africa include:

African Studies Association (U.S.A.) -


University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center -


Columbia University Library (African area studies) -


Stanford University (African area studies) -


"An A-Z of African Studies on the Internet"


“Africa Focus” (University of Wisconsin – Madison)


In no case should even small portions of e-text be copied into work submitted for any course without acknowledgement. Failure to acknowledge constitutes plagiarism

THIS SYLLABUS -- The syllabus has been written to anticipate questions that students raise as they proceed through the course – how to prepare for examinations, where to find materials, what approach the course emphasizes, and so on. Read it carefully, and then return to it again and again as you may need it throughout the semester – and then, if you are still in doubt, by all means ask the instructors.


SCHEDULE -- The class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 to 10:45 AM in Cabell 345. Each class will contain some combination of lecture, discussion, and student participation. Everyone should plan to attend every class meeting.

Teaching assistant - Calvin Schermerhorn (296-9662 [home], <jls4ac@virginia.edu>)

Office hours – Friday 9:00 AM - 12:00 noon (and by appointment)

Office – Minor Hall, room 124 (Woodson Institute)

Discussion sections --

Section 101 -- Wed 1:00-1:50 PM (Minor 130)
Section 102 -- Wed 9:00-9:50 AM (Cabell 247)
(Wake-up) Section 103 -- Fri 8:00-8:50 AM (Cabell 334)

The final examination will be given in Cabell 345 at 2:00 PM on Friday 12 December.


Question of the week


This is a history course, about what people did in the past in Africa, but the syllabus never refers to any of them as "Africans". (Extra points for anyone who can find that word in the preceding pages.) Why?