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Decolonising the history of Africa was a difficult process

With the aid of the General History of Africa (GHA) series of books, PhD candidate Larissa Schulte Nordholt researched what it meant to decolonise the history of Africa. This proved to be a tricky process, which was hampered by politics and lack of funding. PhD defence on 1 December.

From the 19th to mid-20th century, the European colonial assumption was that Africa had no history. Only the history of Europeans in Africa was worth studying. The GHA was written in response to this (between 1964 and 1998) as a history from an African perspective. The project was mainly led by African historians, supplemented by historians from Europe and North America. For her thesis ‘Africanising African history’, Schulte Nordholt looked at the content of the books. But she also researched how they came about by exploring various archives and correspondence between the scholars.


The general assumption about the books is that the authors responded to the colonial history rather than develop enough of their own concepts. ‘That’s true, but the process was very difficult,’ says Schulte Nordholt. ‘The authors were hampered by political crises on the African continent in the 1970s and the associated funding problems.’ Many African universities cut their budgets, often sacrificing the study of African history for what were considered more useful fields of study. In America, on the other hand, as a result of Cold War politics a lot of money became available for research into African history. The study of Africa was concentrated around American institutions, which made it harder to Africanise the history. ‘It’s difficult to develop new ideals and knowledge if you don’t have the resources,’ says Schulte Nordholt.

‘People are constantly accused of playing politics because they challenge knowledge that is perceived to be the truth.’



Schulte Nordholt also discovered it is difficult for academics who challenge a certain status quo in history to avoid accusations of playing politics. ‘Skirting the tension between academia and politics is really hard. You see that now in the political debate in the Netherlands about rewriting the history of slavery, for instance. People are constantly accused of playing politics because they challenge knowledge that is perceived to be the truth.’

Power is knowledge

Schulte Nordholt thinks it is useful to reverse the statement ‘knowledge is power’. ‘Whoever has the power determines which knowledge is valued and which knowledge you can produce. You first need power, money and manpower to produce knowledge as a university and as a researcher, and to have that knowledge valued.’

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Banner photo: The history department at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria that Schulte Nordholt visited for her research. Photo: Larissa Schulte Nordholt

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