from Africa in Transition

A Western Historian of Africa

October 24, 2014

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Ivor G. Wilks, a pioneer in the Western study of African history, died October 7, 2014 at the age of 86, after a long illness. He was my Ph.D. adviser at Northwestern University in the 1970s and was perhaps the foremost authority on the Asante of central Ghana. His Asante in the Nineteenth Century, the Structure and Evolution of a Political Order (Cambridge, 1975) is a landmark study of more than 1,000 pages, that set an example for the historical analysis of pre-colonial African states. The book remains influential today. British born, he was Herskovits Professor Emeritis at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

Far ahead of his time in terms of his approach to innovation, Wilks founded the Asante Collective Biography Project, an intiative he started at Northwestern with a handful of like-minded students. The "Asante Seminar," as it was known at the beginning, met in the basement of Harris Hall, the history department building. We pooled information on 19th-century Asante officials, gleaned from primary sources and transferred by hand to note cards, then constructed biographical sketches of them, going into as much detail as available information allowed. Often specific dates did not exist, and so the concept of "career periods" was born, a framework which enabled new information to be easily added, when it turned up. This approach revealed previously unknown aspects of Ghanaian history.

In his major work on Asante, Wilks demonstrated that states with a strong historical center—e.g. , Kumase, Paris—have a way of staying together over long periods of time. He was correct. A succession of brilliant Asantehenes, (Asante kings), created a modern state. While Wilks’ use of terms such as exchequer for national treasury, and references to a merit-based civil service, generated occasional criticism, from those who felt he was imposing Western concepts on Africa, his purpose was to show that the Asante had created a modern state, similar to European counterparts of an earlier period. Owing to resulting social and political stability, Ghana escaped civil wars so common in other African countries. Its current political boundaries closely approximate those of the 19th-century Asante kingdom. In other words, much of modern Ghana was already created before the British arrived, and Ghana endures to this day. (So does France!)

Strongly influenced by the French Annales school, Wilks sensed the incompleteness of conventional treatments of Ghana’s history. His masterpiece thus commences not with an event, but with an analysis of the Asante system of great roads. At a time when oral tradition represented a key source for African history, Wilks remained empirical, training students in archival research and how to use documentary evidence to check data obtained orally in field interviews.

As a result, I spent many hours in the Cape Coast branch of the National Archives of Ghana making notes on British Commissioners’ lists of paramount chief enstoolments and deaths, so as to compare them with what I was told in villages about "the ancestors," amidst inquisitive goats, mosquitos, and the fog of alcoholic libations. Regno-chronology proved a tedious, frustrating, exhausting, and, occasionally, illuminating endeavor.

Years later, when by unexpected circumstance I found myself working for the U.S. government in our nation’s capital, I noticed that among colleagues with Ph.D.’s, many had studied politics or national security issues at American institutions. A lack of grassroots exposure to Africa, a by-product of sitting in villages talking to chiefs and older informants, and a lack of experience in mining archives for data, then attempting to construct a coherent picture of the past on the basis of incomplete information, seemed to me to handicap them. Such skills and experience apply directly to developing the kind of analysis policymakers need, now more than ever.

Legendary for his generosity, both at the office and at home, Wilks inspired a broad range of students with an understanding of history’s importance. In a 1995 communication, he wrote: "I am sure you are right in suggesting that policy must be rooted in history—in an understanding of the nature and development of society—for certainly in much of West Africa society was not reinvented in the colonial period. Historically deep structures still determine much of the late 20th century life—e.g., notions of what does nor does not constitute corruption!" All of this logically underlies "a real understanding of the situation as opposed to merely describing a journalistic present."

With turmoil spreading around the world, that legacy could not be more timely.

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