ABSTRACT

The growth of teaching and research on the history of precolonial tropical Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s presented a challenge to the Western historical consciousness. By ignoring the traditional distinction between prehistory (attributed to oral societies) and history (attributed to literate societies) as well as the distinction between ethnohistory (attributed to tribes) and history (attributed to nations), historians of precolonial tropical Africa implicitly questioned conventional notions of what the discipline of history was all about. Hugh Trevor-Roper reacted strongly in 1963:

If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque, but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped. 1

At about the same time, however, some Continental thinkers and some Anglo-American philosophers were rethinking the meaning of history and the Western historical consciousness. The result, according to Hayden White, was the idea that

the historical consciousness on which Western man has prided himself since the beginning of the nineteenth century may be little more than a theoretical basis for the ideological position from which Western civilization views its relationship not only to cultures and civilizations preceding it, but also to those contemporary with it in time and continuous with it in space. In short, it is possible to view historical consciousness as a specifically Western prejudice by which the presumed superiority of modern, industrial society can be retroactively substantiated. 2

2If history was to be more than the "specifically Western prejudice" so clearly illustrated by Trevor-Roper, and if the Western historical consciousness was to appreciate the diversity of human experience and the full humanity of all people, then the history of precolonial tropical Africa and other neglected areas of the world had to be written.