For long, the people of Africa have been misrepresented in European oriented history. Africans were presented in Eurocentric historiography as a race without a past, a people who never evolved any civilization of their own and contributed nothing to human progress. The world was erroneously made to believe that the history of Africans began with the coming of Europeans to Africa in the 15th century. If the Africans had any history before that date, they argued such history could be summed up thus; “barbarism, chaos and stagnation’. One of such scholars, G.W.F Hegel, a German philosopher, in a lecture he delivered in the 19th century, divided the peoples of the world into two, namely; Historical peoples who had contributed to the development of mankind and non-historical peoples who had no hand in the development and progress of humanity. Africa was placed in the latter category. Thus, in his jaundiced view, Africa is not historical part of the world, for it has no movement to exhibit.
Eurocentric views of African history can be explained in terms of ignorance, racial and social prejudices and cultural chauvinism. African history was deliberately slanted and distorted to justify European imperialism on the continent. For instance, out of ignorance, the Eurocentric scholars equated history with writing. Hence A.P Newton, a professor of Imperial History at the University of London, expressed the view in 1923 that, ‘History only begins when men take to writing. It is concerned almost entirely with written records’. He opined erroneously that since Africa before contact with Europe lacked the culture of writing, therefore Africa had no history. This was based on the erroneous belief that historical studies could be done for and amongst literate societies. Therefore, they argued, African societies that were predominantly non-literate had no history and any attempt to write their history could be regarded as a fleeting illusion, pursued but never attained. Put differently, Europeans denied the possibility of reconstructing any significant part of African history in the period before their arrival on the continent.
The prejudiced view of Eurocentric scholars about Africa is best exemplified by Margery Perham who posited that “until the very recent penetration by Europe, the greater part African continent was without wheel, the plough and transport animal, almost without stone houses or clothes excepts for skins, without writing and so without history’.
In the same vein, Sir Arthur Richards, a former colonial governor of Nigeria and one of the archangels of British imperialism in Africa, posited thus “for countless centuries, while all the pageant of history swept by; the African remained unmoved in primitive savagery’”.
Similarly his fellow compatriot, Sir Philip Mitchel in “Africa and West in Historical perspective”, maintained that until the period of European colonization, Africans were living in the Stone Age and that they were members of the “only race which has contributed nothing to humanity”. In David Hume’s opinion, precolonial African could boast of “no indigenous manufacturers among them, no arts, and no science “. Examples of this kind of gross misinterpretation of African history by prejudiced and ignorant European writers can be multiplied ad nauseam. And even as late as 1963, when some African states had attained independence from colonial rule, these absurd Eurocentric views appeared to be corroborated by professor Trevor Roper of Oxford University, when, in response to the demand of the some students who had clamored for the introduction of African history courses in their curriculum said,
“Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present, there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa, the rest is darkness. And darkness is not the subject of history…we cannot therefore amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe”.
These absurd, erroneous and Eurocentric views became part of the colonial historiographical tradition and gained almost universal currency in the colonial era. The background to the erroneous and biased views of the Europeans on Africa can be traced partly to the degradation of the African past personality occasioned by more than three centuries of European slave trade during which the African became synonymous with slavery. Thus on the eve of the European conquest very few Europeans had any respect for the African culture.
However, it is important to note that these Eurocentric views of Africa were painted mainly to justify European imperialism in Africa. As Herskovits, puts it; “its (misrepresentation of African past by European) aim was to influence the shaping policy where Negroes are concerned”. Indeed imperialism was justified on the false philosophy that since Africans were a “people without a history” and without a “civilization”, they were like children who had to still grow up and therefore needed guidance or government by Europeans who had a wealth of accumulated experience of government and technology.
Furthermore, Eurocentric historiography was meant to perpetuate the myth of racial superiority and rationalize discriminatory practices against Africans by Europeans. Indeed, the sub-human denigration of the African was a necessary accompaniment of European imperialism in Africa. However, this sub-human denigration of Africa, for which their “civilizing missions” became the “altruistic remedy” was a mere rationalizing icing on the cake of imperial greed. On the contrary, the Europeans knew very well, that empires existed which had to be broken, that civilization had endured for centuries which had to be destroyed.
Another major impression of European view about the African past was what has been called the “Hamitic Hypothesis”. The aim of this spurious and long discredited theory was to show that Africans were inferior to the light skinned or so called white race. This intellectual fraud was propounded when the “exploration” of Africa began.
Contrary to their erroneous views, Europeans were astonished to find a rich art, culture, heritage and robust civilization. Therefore, new theories had to be sought by the Europeans to explain the presence of these civilizations and development in a place they had earlier declared as having no culture, civilization or development of any form.
Consequently, they absurdly held that the initiative for any change, be it development or progress found in Africa could not have been due to the efforts of the Africans themselves, but that the achievements to be found or seen in Africa derived from sources outside Africa and were introduced essentially by peoples of non-African origin. This spurious hypothesis was espoused by Charles Seligman in his book, “The Races of Africa”. In this book Seligman asserted that historical advancement of the African had always depended on stimulus arising from contact with one or the other branch of the Caucasian race, Dismissing this baseless Hamitic theory, Basil Davidson, in his book, “Old Africa Re-Discovered” observed that,
“Over fifty years or so, wherever anything remarkable or inexplicable has turned up in Africa, a whole galaxy of non-African peoples was dragged in to explain it”.
Unfortunately however, European Christian missionaries introduced a religious dimension or justification of the Hamitic hypothesis. They held, erroneously that Africans were the descendants of Ham and were under Noah’s curse to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for their light skinned brethren. Even when there was no indication in the book of Genesis that Ham was a black man.
Colonial views of African history were biased, prejudiced and misleading. It is in order to correct these misrepresentations and restore the true value and place of African culture and achievements in the sum total of human progress that the study of African history today becomes a double necessity for Africans in particulars and non- Africans in general.
Fortunately, African historians, starting with the products of what become known as the Ibadan school of History, have long rose up gallantly to the challenge. They have successfully challenged and discredited Eurocentric views of African history. Through the use of oral sources and other disciplinary sources, they have been able to write the history of Africa from the African’s perspective.
For instance, the Hamitic hypothesis is now generally discredited. It is now generally agreed the ancient civilizations of Sudan and the artistic achievements of Benin, Ife, Nok and Asante were completely of African origin. Similarly, T.O Elias, in his book, “Government and Politics in Africa”. Posits,
“The Nok culture…bears further evidence, if evidence were needed, of the vitality of Africa’s cultural experience and achievements and of the strong possibility that all these remnants of its past must have been the work of its indigenous people”.
In the same vein and also using the Nok culture as his evidence, Thomas Hodgkins, in “Nationalism in Colonial Africa”, said, “if the inhabitants of the Nigeria Plateau were producing the admirable Nok sculptures at a time when the British were being slowly colonized by the Romans, what then is left of the myth of Africans as a people without a past?