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New Biographies in World History


New Biographies for Teaching African History

Andrea Felber Seligman1



     Historians of Africa, like any area studies scholar or world historian, know well the challenge of emphasizing the diversity of ideas, civilizations, and events in history together with the human scale of an individual's lived experience in the classroom. Often in the sweeping pace of a pre-twentieth century survey, the richness and complexity of an individual's life can too easily be swept aside by the wealth of other historical details on societies, political systems, and economies. Yet details of an individual or particular group's experiences matter greatly; often only at this more local scale can we see illuminated the wider array of ideas, choices, and contradictions that create a moment in history. How we introduce such individuals and details into the classroom is a question both of source materials and pedagogy.

     Scholars have long pioneered creative ways to meet this challenge and bring their students closer to Africans' lives. With methods such as archaeology, historical linguistics, and art analysis—to name just a few techniques—we are able to show our students much about past African lives.2 When we use pollen data reports to illuminate what was included in ancient menus, material culture remains to highlight historic fashion ideals, or vocabularies to reveal past African cosmologies, we demonstrate the wide range of ways to teach about historic lives. Tackling such diverse sources represents one significant route for instructors to bring Africans' experiences more directly into the classroom. In this essay, I take another route and explore the possibilities offered by various African sources and recently published biographies.

     The first half of my essay considers examples of African memoirs, hagiographies, and oral epics. Such examples introduce students both to experiences of specific Africans and, equally important for the classroom, they reveal the variety of ways Africans recounted and recorded their own pasts. I place such sources in an essay on biographies not with the aim to re-define literary categories, but rather to emphasize the value in these sources that simultaneously offer individual perspectives (akin to conventional biographies) and inspire rich discussions about historical analysis. My second half of the essay treats three new biographies that introduce exceptional, although lesser-known individuals to the classroom. Each individual's life dramatically illuminates in new contexts and ways global, comparative themes and different approaches to history. For brevity's sake, I only treat these illustrative examples, rather than a full survey of all possible pre-twentieth century works. Nonetheless, I hope to inspire history teachers and students who may be seeking new biographies for African, world, or comparative history classes and likewise history enthusiasts of the same.

Beyond Conventional Biographies: Other Sources of African Individuals

     Biography is often still considered a western genre, yet Africans past and present have frequently related, recounted, and recorded their life experiences. Within conventional definitions of biography, this trend is most visible in twentieth-century works from elite Africans. For instance, the future president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, wrote his autobiography, Facing Mount Kenya, in 1938.3 Autobiographies from Africans innovators, leaders, and presidents are common today and an interested instructor might consider assigning selections from the engaging works by Wangari Maathai (Nobel Prize Winner and founder of the Green Belt Environmental Movement), former South African president Nelson Mandela, or, among many others, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the first woman president of Liberia who presided over tremendous efforts to rebuild her country).4

     As Mitchell and Seligman emphasize in the Forum introduction, however, biography is much more than a genre about elite-peoples' lives. In the past, an artificial distinction was often made between life-histories about "average" people and biographies about "elite" lives. When we widen our definition of biography to include such life histories and oral histories in the twentieth century and later, or a more diverse array of forms described below, we gain a rich and broad range of perspectives on individual lives in Africa.5

     Beyond examples of biography, autobiography, and recorded life-history accounts, pre-twentieth century Africans innovated a variety of writing and recounting forms, many of which offer individual or specific group perspectives ideal for the classroom. New research brings to light the many ways in which Africans wrote and recorded their own lives—from symbolic communication systems (such as nsibidi and adinkra) where each image represented a societal aphorism to 'ajami texts that used Arabic script to write in African languages.6 Compilations of sources, such as the four-part Women Writing Africa series, present a diverse array of accounts—from tomb inscriptions and letters to song and memoirs—that add further possibilities.7 In this essay, I focus on works that thematically are closest to life-history accounts.

     Of the many examples of pre-twentieth century African writing, Ibn Battuta's fourteenth century travel account and memoir is perhaps the most famous. As a young Moroccan scholar, turned world traveller, he related a first-hand view of many famous African kingdoms from Kilwa of the East African coast to the Mali Empire in West Africa. The new edition and translation, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (2009), by Said Hamdun and Noël Q. King, works quite well with various classes.8 It presents a highly readable translation of Battuta's experiences with an introductory essay all in a volume short enough to fit into the semester.

     As a source for African history, Battuta's personal narrative is replete with details of African commerce, travel networks, and court life. For instance, he notes the opulence of the royal court in Mali:

The sultan has a raised cupola, which he enters from inside his house. He sits in it a great part of the time. It has on the audience side a chamber with three wooden arches, the woodwork is covered with sheets of beaten silver and beneath these, three more covered with beaten gold, or rather, it is silver covered with gilt. The windows have woolen curtains, which are raised on a day when the sultan will be in session in his cupola: thus it is known that he is holding a session. When he sits, a silken cord is put out from the grill of one of the arches with a scarf of Egyptian embroidery tied to it. When the people see the scarf, drums are beaten and bugles sounded. Then from the door of the palace come out about three hundred slaves. Some have bows in their hands and some small spears and shields . . . Then they bring two mares saddled and bridled, and with them two rams.9

Such material culture details point to the various far-reaching dimensions of Trans-Saharan trade where the Mali Empire played a pivotal part. Battuta's accounts are worth reading, though, for more than just his narrative ability to situate the local in the global in the course of his many adventures.

     Ibn Battuta is also a work that interjects his North African perspectives into discussions of cultural differences he finds in East and West Africa. Having both perspectives is particularly helpful in a survey course, where time can restrict detailed attention to all regions of Africa—or the world—for that matter. Battuta's opinionated commentary on similarities and differences of culture, economy, religion, and fashion illustrate well themes of both interconnections and divergences of interest to a history instructor. And his narrative manner is far from dry. Battuta never stints from graphically relating his travel misfortunes, such as a bout of food poisoning: "The following morning we all became ill. We were six in number and one died. I went to Morning Prayer and fainted during it. I asked one of the Egyptians for a laxative medicine. He brought something called baidar, made of plant roots, mixed it with aniseed and sugar and beat it up in water. I drank it and vomited up what I had eaten with a lot of bile. And God preserved me from destruction, but I was sick for two months."10 Battuta was quick to praise his hosts when they were immediately generous with gifts and recognized Battuta as a fellow Islamic scholar. However, he was also quick to criticize when he felt hospitality was not up to his standards. In Mali, Battuta recalls,

When I went [back to my lodgings] a hospitality gift was sent to me . . . He entered my house and said, 'Stand up, the sultan's stuff and his present have come for you.' I stood up, thinking they were robes of honour and things of value. But behold—they were three circular pieces of bread, a piece of beef fried in ghartī, and a calabash of sour milk. When I saw them, I laughed and wondered at their weakness of mind and their magnifying of the insignificant.11

He was later mollified when he received gifts more familiar to his expectations (a pledge of free lodging during his stay and funds to assist with his travels, in this case one hundred mithquāls of gold).12 All together, Battuta's descriptions, complaints, and misinterpretations made for stimulating classroom discussions.

     Battuta's narrative is rich in detail about his life, experiences, and evolving conceptions of his place in the wider world of travelers and scholars. As such, it invites further class discussion of scholarly networks, travelers, and traditions of learning both within and outside of the African continent. Such examples underscore not only the interconnectedness of the fourteenth century world, but also the categories of identity—particularly those of occupation and religion—that crossed far beyond specific geographies or political boundaries.

     Battuta's memoir immerses us in the broad connections that linked together many parts of the world in his era. In contrast, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, Written by Galawdewos (2015) takes us deeply into the particular Ethiopian literary tradition of hagiography. Walatta Petros describes the life of a famous seventeenth woman (1592–1642) who became a Saint in the Ethiopian Christian Church.13 Scholars Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner present a meticulous, richly illustrated translation of Walatta's remarkable life. An elite woman who left married court life to take vows as a nun, Walatta Petros later galvanized Ethiopian resistance to Portuguese efforts to proselytize Catholicism in Ethiopia.

     Unlike the familiar travel-account style of Ibn Battuta, Walatta Petros is particularly true to its original form as a religious biography. This edition includes the hagiography itself, along with additional miracles performed by Walatta Petros, a helpful introductory essay, and a detailed glossary of terms. It is further enriched by numerous color illustrations of artwork featuring Walatta created in subsequent centuries. It is a work that can be taught in full or used in short selections paired with the helpful introductory essay that describes the context, the politics of the early Ethiopian-Portuguese relations, and this genre of hagiographic writing.14 The overall publication is quite lengthy due to its numerous notes, illustrations, and helpful glossary; however, the text alone of Walatta Petros' life is around 100 pages making it possible to include in full for certain courses. Unlike some other examples of religious writing, the details of Walatta Petros frequently depict historical events and identifiable figures, which allow the instructor to pair the work with selections from European sources.

Figure 1

Figure 1: How the community grieved when Walatta Petros died. From a twentieth-century manuscript in Walatta Petros's monastery of Qʷäraṭa on Lake Ṭana

(Photographed by Wendy Laura Belcher and Selamawit Mecca in 2010 and reprinted with permission)


     The pronounced differences in writing style from a more familiar biography and the presentation of seventeenth Ethiopian world-views can enrich class discussions about critical reading and the process of contextualizing an individual in their specific geography, politics, and times. Walatta Petros sparked some controversy from readers in both the west and Ethiopia for its very brief and matter of fact mention of an instance of same-sex desire that Walatta Petros felt, but did not consummate; she was strictly committed to her vows of celibacy. This very brief passage was obscured in some later Ethiopian translations and completely omitted in others, as later Ethiopian Christian church views became less accepting of same-sex relationships. The politics of translation—from the Belcher and Kleiner's fidelity to the original meanings of the passage—to later re-translations and omissions present an important example of the politics and questions surrounding historical research.15

     This example emphasizes how historians must make distinctions between personal or current public perspectives on an issue and their efforts to accurately portray the dynamics of a particular past and place. Like with other famous accounts of saints, such as Saint Augustine's Confessions, struggles to uphold vows of strict celibacy were a common theme for those seriously committed to religious asceticism.16 In the case of Walatta Petros, the narrative shows Walatta equally critical of nuns who strayed from their vows by giving into same-sex desires as she harshly castigated monks who tempted other nuns. Yet Walatta was also clear that all would go to heaven.17 Even the brief phrase where Walatta acknowledged but did not act upon her own desires served the same narrative purpose, namely to underscore Walatta's strict devotion. Within the full text, this was simply one of many other (non-sexual) examples where Walatta's faith and leadership are tested. Acknowledging the varied reactions to these details in the classroom provides a productive moment to think the politics of history writing and the need of a conscientious historian to portray a source true to its original meaning and context.

     To focus only on this instance would be to overlook one of the major contributions of the book: its history of how religious orders created alternative political spaces for certain women in Ethiopia to effect significant historical change.18 For instructors seeking materials to counter stereotypes about pre-twentieth century African women, this text presents students with an ideal case study. In the words of the editors,

[This text] challenges facile ideas about the traditional African family and sexuality. In her early twenties, without sadness or regret, Walatta Petros left her husband to become a nun and the mother of an alternative family: she is the . . . (mother of the community) to hundreds of followers. No "father" is mentioned; she commands her followers in every aspect of their lives as she sees fit. At the same time, she does have a lifelong partner who leads with her: a woman.19

Walatta's religious networks and partnerships, including her life-long (non-sexual) partnership with a fellow nun allow the reader to appreciate the varied strategies seventeenth-century women adopted because of personal piety, politics, or preference. Walatta Petros decisively underscores why looking at diverse conceptions of gender matter to understanding world history. In the fraught time of early Ethiopian-Portuguese relations, Walatta and other religious, elite women opposed (ultimately with success) Portuguese efforts to introduce Catholicism to Ethiopia. They did so in the face of pressure, both from Portuguese missionaries, and from many men in Ethiopian royal families who did convert to European Christianity.

     Walatta, like many Ethiopians, followed the Christianity of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This tradition originated early in the first millennium ce, with the fourth century King Ezana of the Aksum (Axum) kingdom recognized as the first Christian ruler. Soon after, support from Christians in Alexandria, such as Bishop Dioscoros, helped further spread the tradition. Although Ethiopians and the Portuguese both practiced a type of Christianity, there were significant doctrinal issues standing between them. This passage below and others in Walatta highlight this conflict and showcase Walatta's fierce debates with the Portuguese priests:

Walatta Petros arrived at and entered the king's castle in the month of Ginbowt. They lodged her in the house of the Dejjazmatch Billa Kristos. Then they began to [try to] persuade her with many clever tricks to abandon the true faith of Dioscoros and adopt the filthy faith of Leo.

     Three renowned European false teachers came to her and debated with her about their filthy faith . . . She argued with them, defeated them, and embarrassed them. Every morning other Europeans came to her, reading to her and explaining their filthy book to her. Our holy mother Walatta Petros, however, did not listen to their talk and did not accept their faith. Rather she laughed and made fun of them.20

Despite the initial honor of being housed with a lead official (the Dejjazmatch Billa Kristos), Walatta soon faced pressure increasingly from other Ethiopian elites who did convert to European Catholicism. When sent into exile, she began building her first of many religious communities that upheld Ethiopian tenants of Christianity:

Thus, many persecuted [Orthodox Christians] came from all directions and gathered around her. They surrounded her like the bees gather around their king and protect him. Many were the men and women who formed a community with her [in Zhebey]. This was the first community. Our holy mother Walatta Petros remained in Zhebey for three years overseeing them.21

     It is not possible to understand why the Portuguese religious conversion efforts failed without appreciating the political pressures that Walatta and other religious women created.22 Beyond the context of early African-European relations, Walatta Petros offers many points of comparisons on how religious networks, pilgrimages, and societies often-created alternate social, religious, and political interactions in history. Such examples invite broader world history comparisons to many contexts and eras.

     Discussion of the works' genre as hagiographic writing also directs attention to other forms of African historical record-keeping. The monk Galawdewos was named as the work's author, yet his compilation of Walatta Petros' life in 1672 (about three decades after her death) must have relied closely on anecdotes, teachings, and memories collected by Walatta's contemporaries since Galawdewos and Walatta never met. Thus, Belcher and Kleiner suggest the text "represents an early modern written African text orally co-constructed by African women and can be considered an early example of African female authorship."23

     Early African biographical writing from Ibn Battuta to Walatta Petros underscores the particular and varied ways certain historic Africans recorded life-experiences. Such examples are closest to familiar genres of biographic and autobiography. Yet, their form and details also allude to other ways Africans recorded and produced their own histories. The details in Ibn Battuta indicate the broad extent of African Islamic scholarly networks; the politics of memory and commemoration behind Walatta Petros make the text arguably the product of both oral and written efforts. I conclude this section with my third example, one of the most famous oral epics in African history, that of Sunjata (also known as Sundiata).24 The epic exists now in various English translations and represents a source that takes readers directly into specific individuals' lives and one that exemplifies a major form of West African historical production.

     The epic of Sunjata gives a detailed and highly engaging account of the foundation of the Mali Empire, which arose in thirteenth century West Africa (and was visited by Ibn Battuta a century later). For this essay, I focus on Conrad's Sunjata: a New Prose Version (2016).25 This oral epic introduces students to African traditions of oral record-keeping, here in a context with highly professionalized oral historians known by themselves as jeli (or jeliw in plural) and often called griots (a French term). 26 More than simply a recorder and performer of political and family histories, jeliw were advisers to rulers, community peacemakers, and insightful individuals who sought lessons in their own pasts. The multitude of characters and life details surrounding the protagonist, Sunjata, also make the work a life-history of various individuals (best understood as archetypes rather than strictly factual historical figures).27

     This translation of the Sunjata epic includes rich examples of the multiple physical, spiritual, and occult registers through which these characters interacted. Looking at the many examples of dalilu (the Mande word for will-force, spiritual, and occult power) illuminates the multiple horizontal networks that Sunjata ultimately united to form his empire. Unlike the examples of gender in Walatta Petros, the Sunjata epic focuses closely on marriages and alliances; it is a foundational epic that explains the prestigious origins of many families, still identifiable in this part of West Africa. For instance, Sunjata's parents both possess significant powers of dalilu and engage in a magical battle before Sunjata's mother decides they are appropriately well matched and consents to the marriage.28 This version of the epic also underscores the importance of other family connections: Sunjata's various brothers and sisters all played key roles.

     As much as the epic directs us to individual figures and how specific family lineages arose in Mali, it also helps us appreciate the ways the oral tradition was a living one, performed, and re-performed from one generation to another. This particular edition of Sunjata includes details from the live performances Conrad collected. Thus students will be quick to note the narrator's references to Americans (acknowledging Conrad's presence in the audience) and to Paris (commenting on French colonialism) as asides in the text. For example, " . . . (The Sunjata you're asking about was a descendant of this Bilali). If you want to really get into it, all of us—the blacks and whites—were the same people until we were separated into several nations, and then came Paris."29 Such obvious examples, along with more subtle ones—such as when firearms entered West Africa—enable productive class discussions about the stages any historical source (whether oral or written) goes through from its origin to our present.

     Such comparisons are significantly enriched by the availability of multiple English versions of the Sunjata epic. For example, I have my students compare Conrad's version of Sunjata (2016) with an earlier version, Niane's Sundiata (1960) collected just after Mali and many other West African nations gained independence.30 Students in class reflected upon the major political differences in the times that led to two different endings of the epic. The version collected in 1960 elaborated in detail Sunjata's political and diplomatic steps to form the Mali Empire in ways that divided power fairly among the key regional areas of the empire.31 In contrast, Conrad's more recent version emphasizes instead Sunjata and his armies' success in triumphing over their opponents, a probable oblique commentary on the recent political unrest in Mali.

     These three works—and many others—serve to widen the array of possible sources we use to illuminate individuals' lives in our classrooms. Whether they meet students' definitions of conventional definitions of biography (and often indeed when they do not), such texts make for lively discussions about historical production and present examples of the diverse array of sources one uses to access individuals' lives.

New biographies, New Perspectives for Comparative History

     As much as the first half of this essay elaborated an array of source types that also can introduce African individuals and record-keeping genres in the classroom, the second half of the essay presents conventional format biographies that provide new insights to comparative history questions. In common, these works feature Africans' diverse strategies in times of turbulence, both within and outside the continent. Africans' experiences outside Africa are commonly studied in the context of the Atlantic World where they are often best known through classic accounts of enslavement and freedom such as Amistad Rebellion and Olaudah Equiano's autobiography.32 Less often do we learn about others who lived in different parts of this diaspora or in other diasporas, such as in the Indian Ocean world, or, for that matter, about individuals who were enslaved and remained in Africa. The following three works introduce an array of lesser-known and exceptional individuals to history classroom. Each biography has tremendous potential to personalize and complicate familiar themes in African and comparative history.

     I begin with two new biographies that trace African experiences in two diasporas, those of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds: Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (2015) by James H. Sweet and Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean (2016) by Omar H. Ali.33 Although their contexts differ, thematically both works direct attention to specific regional politics of social mobility and portray detailed examples of respective African professionals in healing and military strategy.

     The eighteenth-century life and experiences of Domingos Álvares' offers a powerful and provocative example of the complexities of the trans-Atlantic era, forms of slavery, and Africans' responses. This could be of particular interest to undergraduates immersed in histories of enslaved people in the United States' southern plantation system. Domingos Álvares traces the life of a powerful healer who creates, re-creates, and adapts his healing practice on three continents despite significant odds. Domingos began as a healer in West Africa. In the context of centralizing states, successful healers like Domingos were often seen as potential political threats, for their healing networks could (and often did) create alternative alliances and networks. Deemed a threat by the ruler of Dahomey, Domingos was enslaved and sent across the Atlantic to Brazil. There used his expertise in healing to gradually win his freedom and secure success and a wide degree of acceptance by Brazilians both white and black. Biographer Sweet relates the combination of factors that made this possible:

It does not take a great leap to conclude that a particularly knowledgeable, charismatic, and powerful healer like Domingos Álvares might be capable of generating a lucrative market for his services, especially in an urban space like Rio. It will be recalled that no less a figure than the governor of the captaincy recommended Domingos to work in precisely this capacity. José Cardoso de Almeida's decision to invest in Domingos' skills relied on the governor's good endorsement and protection. Meanwhile, by sanctioning and supporting Domingos' vocation as a healer-for-hire, Almeida afforded Domingos the opportunity to create an extensive infrastructure and network of clients. As a slave, Domingos earned social prestige and a significant economic headstart on his future . . . Ultimately, Domingos took full advantage of Portuguese notions of the African feiticeiro, as well as the hierarchy of patronage that extended up to the governor, constructing the institutional foundation for the healing community he continued to build as a freedman.34

As this passage highlights, Domingos' skill in both networking and translating his West African techniques of healing into forms comprehensible to Brazilian clients initially brought him a wide following in his new healing community. Ultimately his very popularity with both white and black Brazilians was his undoing; he was arrested by the Inquisition and sent to Portugal. Still he did not easily accept his fate and was able to escape and briefly reestablish his healing practice before he came under further scrutiny by the Inquisition.

     In this carefully researched biography, Domingos' adaptability and cross-cultural resourcefulness shines through as he remains true to his healer skills and works to cultivate and then re-create his professional occupation as a healer on three continents. The book's length and writing style make it ideal for slightly more advanced students. To accommodate the full book in a semester, one can assign early chapters on Domingos' experiences in Brazil. Students can selectively read parts of the final chapters and take turns relating the final episodes in Domingos' life. Taught in full or part, the themes in Domingos Álvares make it a valuable text for comparative Atlantic world and African history courses. It takes readers into a less-often studied geographic context, Brazil, rather than the United Stated, and it centers on an African healer's expertise in an urban context, rather than the often-studied plantation experience. Ultimately, it reminds us of the variable conditions of enslavement and some of the opportunities for resistance to it.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Portrait of Malik Ambar by Hashim c. 1620

(Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London)


     Malik Ambar's life offers parallels to Álvares' experiences. Enslaved as a young boy in Ethiopia in the early seventeenth century, Malik was a contemporary of Walatta Petros, although he likely came from a different part of Ethiopia. He arrived as a young slave in Southern India (called the Deccan) during the region's struggle for autonomy against the expanding Mughal Empire. Malik's charisma and genius for political and military strategy allowed him to rise through the ranks from a "typical" slave soldier to become one of the crucial power-players. His leadership helped unite many Deccan kingdoms against Mughal expansion and he became a trusted general and power behind the throne. Malik Ambar was an extraordinary individual and the details of Ali's short and highly readable biography showcase this well. Although exceptional in his achievements, the patterns of Malik's life parallel those of many Africans who became part of this wider Indian Ocean diaspora. Details of Malik's life encourage comparative history questions about how shifting politics, economies, and notions of identity, created routes for social mobility and emancipation for certain Africans.

     In Southern India, Malik entered a context where his skills as a general and military strategist outweighed possible stigmas over his origin or original slave status. Indeed, his role as an outsider (and initially one who was politically neutral) meant he could and did broker his own strategic alliances. At the height of his career, as Ali described, such strategies had become much more than pledging his soldier skills and loyalty to one ruler over another:

While Ambar battled Mughal armies, dealt with challenging figures, and tackled foreign traders, he also sought ways of enhancing his authority, position, and security in the Deccan. A way of doing so was to have his son marry into the region's nobility. While his daughter's marriage to Murtaza Nizam Shah II in 1600 had already given Ambar official ties to Ahmednagar's nobility, he sought broader and deeper connections in the region: In 1609 Ambar's son, Fateh Khan, married the daughter of the Habshi Yaqut Khan, perhaps the most important nobleman of Bijapur at the time. The marriage, which took place in February, was a spectacular display of pomp and circumstance, commensurate with the standards of the two kingdom's nobility . . . Ambar had become one of the most highly connected leaders in the Deccan by securing kingship ties with the Nizam Shahi dynasty through his daughter while enjoying kingship ties with the most prominent Habshi aristocratic family in Bijapur through his son.35

Like Domingos' success founding a lucrative healing center in Rio with a broad clientele, Malik Ambar's strategic kinship alliances linked his family to both Southern Indian nobility and to other prominent families of the Habshi (Ethiopian) diaspora there. His skill as a general and political strategist meant he encountered few social barriers. In two different geographic contexts, these men's experiences underscore the possibilities and limits of social mobility and cross-cultural acceptance in their times.

     Malik and Domingos' biographies animate the experiences of Africans outside the continent. A third, innovative new biography, Abina and the Important Men (2015), zeroes in on conflicting politics, economics, and ideas about freedom in West Africa during an era best known for the larger narratives of abolitionism, the start of so-called "legitimate" commerce, and early European colonial efforts.36

     Getz and Clark's Abina and the Important Men: a Graphic History is an innovative text that presents an 1876 court case from an enslaved "average" young woman who sued her captor in British colonial Gold Coast. The historical story itself takes readers to the heart of many tensions that require nuance and sensitivity to teach in the classroom: namely the various forms of slavery practiced in African societies and some of the economic reasons why one African might be enslaved by another. Abina's story was crafted from a rare documentary glimpse into the life of a non-elite woman in nineteenth century Gold Coast (present day Ghana) who did not accept her enslavement as coerced labor on a palm-oil plantation and, most remarkably, took actions that created a surviving documentary record. Abina fled to the coast and brought suit against her former captor.

     The court case itself starkly illuminates the contemporary competing arguments that surrounded this instance of so-called "domestic slavery." As anti-slavery efforts successfully reduced the sale of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, other industries like palm-oil production became sources of lucrative gain for some. Yet such industries required large volumes of human labor and many young women became coerced into such work, as they could be more easily obscured than men by claims of kinship, marriage, or patronage. The precarious control exerted by early British colonies and the economic profits from these new industries meant that few British officials were willing to take decisive action against such cases of slavery in nineteenth century Africa.

     All these tensions come to light in the graphic history that centers on Abina's courtroom confrontation with her former master interspersed with narrative flashbacks to her life as a slave. The illustrations and dialogue in the graphic history version superbly illustrate this confrontation, both personal and ideological, about the nature of slavery and freedom. Here, I relate the dialogue and images shown in several panels of the graphic history as the defense (for Abina's former slave master) cross-examines Abina in the courtroom:

The defense: "Abina, these other girls in the household, did they get paid?"

Abina: "They had clothing and food given to them. They were not paid."

The defense (shown leaning towards Abina over the table): "By then they were not being treated as slaves, either. They were being compensated, weren't they? I repeat the question, They were not being treated as slaves were they?

Abina (stands and clenches her fists): "Since they were in Quamina Eddoo's house long before, if he did anything for them I do not know, but as he did nothing good for me, I ran away."37

     In this dramatic moment, Abina deliberately upholds her definition of freedom against alternative views by the "important men" (both some African and some British) who turned a blind eye to such cases of "domestic" slavery. The ambiguity of the outcome (Abina loses her case, but is permitted to remain "free" as a domestic servant for her lawyer) raises further questions about the meanings of "freedom" in this context on the eve of full-fledged colonialism in Africa. Abina's background was typical, yet her actions that leave a lasting court trail were less so. Her life, like Domingos and Malik's, represents another instance of an African individual who navigated to the best of her ability diverse definitions of labor, freedom, and slavery. In this one brief biographic account, we see illuminated themes and questions paralleled in many other world contexts in the late nineteenth century, from the rise of new resource commodity economies to conflicting standards of law and interpretation.

     This valuable and engaging court case is presented in three ways in both the first (2012) and second edition (2016). First, Abina's actions are presented in the form of a short graphic history—a form that appeals to many students who are visual learners. Second, is a transcript of the original court case. Third, the authors provide contextual essays that situate Abina's life and case within regional and global history. The text then concludes with a series of questions for a variety of classroom levels. The contextual essays and questions section were significantly expanded in the second edition.

     The juxtaposition of these multiple historical accounts from graphic history (a secondary source) to the court case transcript (a primary source) enables multiple classroom conversations about historical presentation. The graphic history concludes with a twenty-first century historian (Dr. Getz) discovering Abina's court case. The delightful inclusion of the researcher as a key "character" in a textbook helps stress a key pedagogical point: it often takes new research interests to recover "lost" lives, such as Abina's. Such emphasis makes the book an ideal text for introductory level history students. It is also one that will be of interest to students thinking ahead to their own careers using history degrees. From showcasing teaching strategies to the visual features that suggest future creative graphic history, documentary, or museum exhibit possibilities, Abina is a work that has something for many students. 38 The new edition even comes with an optional phone app that will appeal to hi-tech students (or their teachers) and also highlights possible career opportunities for history students with programming backgrounds.39


     With these six varied examples, the essay explores ways in which individual accounts and biographies enrich and add nuance to African and world history classrooms. From unconventional texts we might include to enrich our source selection about specific African lives to new biographies that connect familiar themes to new contexts, this essay introduces a variety of new options. In their own ways, each example underscores various historical techniques in action—from evaluating a variety of African sources (memoir, hagiography, and oral epic), to contextualizing key categories from gender to ideas of slavery and freedom. Last, but hardly least, these works direct our attention to the varied ways we produce and present history. Together all emphasize how both "conventional" and "unconventional" biographies have much to offer in the classroom.

     Of course, none of these life histories—whether written by Africans in earlier times or by recent researchers—portray a "typical" African life. The idiosyncrasies and notable achievements of each individual explain the appeal of human-centered stories to a wide audience, which is at the heart of the potential for biographies to work well in history classes. Each biography represents the complications, exceptions, and possibilities of past worlds, all dynamics one needs to appreciate for nuanced historical research and thinking. Many of the texts reveal individuals who creatively and resourcefully strove to overcome the challenges of their times, often in situations far from any "ideal." Their examples are ones to keep teachers, students, and history enthusiasts alike deeply inspired by what we study.

Andrea Felber Seligman is an assistant professor of African history at City College of New York. She specializes in pre-eighteenth century African history. Her research interests include the Indian Ocean world, African art, African-European encounters, and the use of non-documentary sources. She received her PhD from Northwestern University in 2014, and her doctoral field research was supported by a Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Award. She has published articles in The International Journal of African Historical Studies and History in Africa. Her book manuscript in progress, Crafting New Economies: Inland Trade in Central East Africa, ca. 1st17th Centuries, examines the roles played by small-scale traders, artisans, and resource specialists behind the formation of wider trade networks. She was a Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2015–2016 and taught previously at Allegheny College. She can be reached at


1 For the many questions, conversations, and shared enthusiasm about particular works that helped inspire this essay, I am grateful to my colleagues and students at City College of New York and to my colleagues last year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where I participated in the World Studies Interdisciplinary Project's Mellon Sawyer Seminar "Beyond Medieval and Modern" as a Postdoctoral Fellow. I am also grateful to Laura J. Mitchell's helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

2 John Edward Philips, ed., Writing African History (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2005), offers a nice introduction to these varied methodologies.

3 Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (New York: Vintage Books, [1938] 1965).

4 Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: a Memoir (New York: First Anchor Books, 2007); Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1994); Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). Ohio University Press's "Short Histories of Africa" series also features many accessible biographies, see

5 This is a huge genre and has many works of key interest for various classes. Such span the gamut from oral history classics, like Sarah Mirza and Margaret Strobel, eds., Three Swahili Women: Life Histories from Mombasa, Kenya (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), to pioneering new works in gender studies for Africa, such as Nwando Achebe, The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), and life-histories about "average" Africans. For example, Gracia Clark, African Market Women: Seven Life Stories from Ghana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

6 Dr. Fallou Ngom and others at Boston University have created online resources and archives for this under-appreciated corpus of African writing, letters, and documents. See "African Ajami Library," Boston University Library OpenBU, (accessed November 11, 2016); Meikal Mumin and Kees Versteegh, eds., The Arabic Script in Africa: Studies in the Use of a Writing System (Boston: Brill, 2014); Christine Mullen Kreamer, Mary Nooter Roberts, Elizabeth Harney, and Allyson Purpura, "Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art," African Arts 40, no. 3 (Autumn, 2007): 78–91.

7 Women Writing Africa vols. 1–4 (New York: The Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2003–2009).

8 Said Hamdun and Noël Q. King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2009).

9 Ibid., 46–47.

10 Ibid., 44.

11 Ibid., 45.

12 Ibid., 46.

13 Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, eds. and trans., The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, Written by Galawdewos: a Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

14 Readers may also find Wendy Laura Belcher's detailed website helpful with numerous teaching and lesson plan suggestions on how one might include shorter selections of Walatta Petros in various courses, "The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros," Wendy Laura Belcher, (accessed December 26, 2016).

15 Both in textual notes and in a separate essays, Belcher and Kleiner describe their choices to uncover an accurate original translation of this passage, see Walatta Petros, 254–255, notes 1–5; Belcher's website also includes blog, formal essay, and a Youtube video talk carefully responding to the points of controversy. See Wendy Laura Belcher "Controversy over Sexuality in the Gadla Walatta Petros," Wendy Laura Belcher, (accessed December 26, 2017).

16 Saint Augustine and R. S. Pine-Coffin, Saint Augustine: Confessions (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1961).

17 Belcher and Kleiner, Walatta Petros, 204–205; 256.

18 The following works are helpful starting points on a wide variety of African conceptions about gender, sexuality in pre-twentieth century history: Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, eds., Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities (New York: Palgrave, 1998); Catherine M. Cole, Takyiwaa Manuh, and Stephan F. Miescher, eds., Africa After Gender? (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007); Nwando Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings: Female Power and Authority in Northern Igboland, 19001960 (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2005); Rhiannon Stephens, A History of African Motherhood: the Case of Uganda, 7001900 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Gender notions were also fundamentally debated, transformed, and negotiated during the colonial era in Africa. A note cannot do this huge topic justice, but interested readers might start with Emily Lynn Osborn, Our New Husbands Are Here: Households, Gender, and Politics in a West African State from the Slave Trade to Colonial Rule (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011); Stephen J. Rockel, Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006).

19 Belcher and Kleiner, Walatta Petros, 39.

20 Ibid., 155. Italics and brackets in original.

21 Ibid., 168.

22 Wendy Laura Belcher, "Sisters Debating the Jesuits: The Role of African Women in Defeating Portuguese Proto-Colonialism in Seventeenth-Century Abyssinia," Northeast African Studies 13, no. 1 (2013): 121–166.

23 Belcher and Kleiner, Walatta Petros, 21–22.

24 David Conrad, ed., Sunjata: A New Prose Version (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2016).

25 Ibid.

26 As with any African word of some antiquity, contemporary pronunciations (and spellings) differ depending on language and geography. Here, I follow the spelling presented by Conrad in his edition of Sunjata.

27 Helpful introductions to the oral epic genre in African history include, David C. Conrad, "Oral Traditions and Perceptions of History from the Manding Peoples of West Africa," in Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, ed., Themes in West Africa's History (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006): 73–96; Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Belcher, eds., Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

28 Conrad, ed., Sunjata, 43–46.

29 Ibid., 4–5. Parentheses in original.

30 D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, revised ed. (New York: Pearson, 2007).

31 Niane, Sundiata, 73–84.

32 Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Ed. Angelo Costanzo (Peterborough: Broadview Press, [1789] 2004); Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).

33 James H. Sweet, Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2013); Omar H. Ali, Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

34 Ibid., 143–144.

35 Ali, Malik Ambar, 63.

36 Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke, Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History, 2nd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

37 Ibid., 61–63. Bold in original.

38 Teachers of other world regions might be interested to explore other titles in Oxford University Press's graphic history series. Those interested in Atlantic World histories might also appreciate, Rafe Blaufard and Liz Clarke, Inhuman Traffick: The International Struggle Against the Transatlantic Slave Trade: a Graphic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

39 Ebuukuu LLC, "Abina the app," iTunes Preview, 2016,, (accessed December 20, 2016).

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