Early African Historians’ Writings Before 1945: Precursors of Modern African Historiography

August 2, 2016 OPINION/NEWS


Durodola Tosin

This essay intends to examine the ways by which the early African historians’ writings before 1945 could be considered precursors of modern African historiography. We examine four early African historians – Carl Reindorf of Ghana, Sir Apolo Kagwa of Uganda, Jacob Egharevba of Benin and Samuel Johnson of Nigeria, their works, writings and contributions to African historiography.

They have influenced the development of African historiography and their works are precursors of modern African historiography acknowledged by succeeding historians. To an extent the early African historians’ works remain a vital source of information about the African past.



The writings of the early African historians before 1945 influenced the development of modern African historiography in so many ways. Their motivation, style of motivation and writing and also their contributions to the development of African historiography have been of great influence.

Carl Reindorf is the author of “The History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti” published in 1895. Sir Apolo Kagwa wrote “The Customs of the Buganda” which was translated by E.C Kalibale and published in 1934. Jacob Egharevba wrote his famous book “A Short History of Benin’ which was first published by the C.M.S bookshop and it’s the only one of his 18 publications mostly dealing with the History and Customs of Benin Kingdom. Samuel Johnson also wrote “History of the Yoruba” which has become a vocal point of the Yoruba History.

It should be noted that these four historians are merely representative of a class of African educated elites who were among the inspired to write about the history of their people. There were many others, for instance, in Yoruba land; R.C.C Love noted that there were twenty-two historians– local historians who wrote like that because they were also inspired. They were often writing in vernacular.

These early African historians were not trained historians; they were largely motivated by patriotism. This motivation and patriotic desire inspired them to dig deep in the search for truth and information about African past. Their motivation has been a source of inspiration for other writers like R.S Smith. This motivation has driven many historians to develop interest in African historiography.

Reindorf wrote in the preface of his book that “It is most desirable that a history of the Gold Coast should be written by one who has not only studied but has had a privilege of initiation into the history of his former inhabitants and writes with a true nature of patriotism. Also, Egharevba summed up his motivation for writing in the preface of his book that “in necessity for the production of this little work may be seen from the fact that though every country have its own history but yet that of our native land Benin, we know but little.”

This same patriotic zeal and desire was in Johnson’s book “The History of Yoruba”. He wrote in his preface that “what led to this production was not the desire of the author to appear in print but a purely patriotic motive that the history of our fatherland might not be lost in oblivion…..” Johnson believes that the Yoruba has a glorious past in the chaotic condition of Yoruba land and he was hoping that his people will rise from their disunity to achieve the standards of the good old days. He wrote to inculcate self-respect and national consciousness in the way of writing the achievements of the Yoruba land.

Furthermore, the writings of the early African historians have been of great influence in modern African historiography in several ways apart from their motivation to write. Their writings have given other writers something to work on, that is, it has become a precursor of modern African historiography whereby other African historians can use it as a reference point in their works on African past.


Their patriotic desire to preserve their people’s heritage made them devote sessions of their works to customs, laws and its usages among their people. For instance;

Chapters 2-8 of Johnson’s history of Yoruba deal with religion, the political system, manners and customs, and principle of the landlord among the Yoruba. About 173 pages of ethnographic materials served as a kind of introduction and insight into the life and culture of Yoruba.

Sir Apolo Kagwa’s book is basically a history of Kings and Queens of Buganda, their characteristics, the prominent men of their time, a good proportion of the book was devoted into aspects like the customs and culture of Uganda.

Egharevba wrote in his book solely to preserve from oblivion the ancient laws and customs of the ancient race. There are 16 appendixes to a small famous book with matters as the royal families, Benin titles, ancient form of government, ancient method of warfare and other aspects of Benin culture.

Moreover, the methodology used by these historians made a lot of contributions to modern African historiography. The early African historians relied heavily on oral tradition.

Apolo Kagwa said he collected his materials for his book largely from Busiro kingdom reputed as the capital of Kings of Uganda and also the place for royal burials. There was the residence of most of the wives and servants of the deceased kings.

Egharevba in his book relied on sources from the Ihogbe – these are the worshippers and recorders of departed Oba. He also relied on the Ogbelaka – these are the royal ballads and singers, the royal blacksmiths, and obtained information also from Eweka II in 1930 who gave home attention for three hours. The main source of his book that concerns lives of the famous Iyases 1946 was the children of Ohemwen of a renowned Iyase of the past who visited him at his residence on February 1942.

Also, the field work undertaken by Samuel Johnson in his book was impressive even by modern standards. He was a cousin of Alaafin Adeyemi and had free access to the palace historians. He met Timi of Ede, Oba Lagunju, a recognised authority of Yoruba history; he also had an encounter with David Kukomi – a Patriarch of the Ibadan church who was also a participant in the wars and national movements of the period. Kukomi was able to give him an eye witness account of the sayings and prevailing thoughts and ideas of important personalities of the period – King Abiodun and so on. He also met one Josiah Oni who was a trade and intelligent observer and well acquainted with every part of Yoruba Land. According to Johnson there were other sources of oral data.

Nevertheless, Carl Reindorf similarly explained how he got his information. Reindorf’s methodology was one of the most distinguishing aspects of contributions to the growth of modern African historiography. He was meticulous, and made use of three sources – oral tradition, eye witness and written sources. Most important of these oral sources was that he was greatly influenced by his cultural background. He spent more than 30 years collecting sources for his book. He was aware of the necessity to consult all available written sources – Danish papers which were translated into German specifically for him by Reverend Steiner, and also made use of European travellers’ accounts, like Thomas Bowditch, William Bosman, all of whom he generously acknowledged like a modern historian would.

Reindorf was denied access to British colonial papers of the past which he lamented that such papers would have furnished him with correct dates and substantial information.


Furthermore, the style of writing of these early African historians was of great influence in the development of modern African historiography. In terms of presentation, the early African historians wrote in a narrative vein and usually chronological order. To them history is one long narration highlighting the glorious moments.

Reindorf defines history as “The methodological narration of events, the order in which they occur…..the causes and effect and the auxiliaries and tendencies of that which has occurred in connection with a nation.”

We can judge from their writing that the other early African historians have the same belief in the nature of history. They also had in common the tendency to emphasise the great and powerful, the colourful and the glamorous could have risen from the peculiarity of oral tradition.

However, the early African historians seem to place value on the European orientation by which even the colonial rule was seen as an avenue of Africa development by them.

Samuel Johnson welcomed the British intervention in Yoruba Land which he saw as the only answer for the establishment of peace paving way for the spread of Christianity and western civilisation. He even hoped that the declaration of British protectorate over Yoruba Land would benefit his people.

This notion of Samuel Johnson can be subjected to criticism because several records revealed that colonial intervention and colonial rule undermined the development of Africa and it is still one of the problems of nation building in Nigeria. Debt crises, monetisation of African economies during the colonial era, little or accidental developmental projects and a mono-cropping system is a major factor for heavily indebtedness and economy devastation in Africa. This has placed African countries at a disadvantageous position among the developed countries of the world. Many African countries are part of the Heavily Indebted and Poor Countries (HIPC) of the world.


Undoubtedly, the early African historians have made substantial contributions to the development of African historiography. They were veritable pioneers and played some significant roles which facilitated the development of modern historiography.

R.E Bradburg, in his foreword to Egharevba’s book, wrote that “we always remain a valuable and indispensable pioneering work.” Scholars like Geoffrey Parrinder, Saburi Biobaku, R.S Smith and Ade Ajayi, who have all worked on Yoruba history, acknowledged the usefulness of Samuel Johnson’s book “History of Yoruba Land”. J.B Danguah in 1930 recalled in respect of Carl Reindorf that “our inestimable debt in the admirable prophet of the Gold Coast nationality.” Most modern day academicians of Ghana have acknowledged the contributions of Reindorf.

One vital truth about the early African historians is that they base their history on sources collected from generations of elders.

In conclusion, the motivation, style of writing, methodology and other contributions by the early African historians as mentioned in this essay have influenced the development of African historiography. Their works are precursors of modern African historiography acknowledged by succeeding historians. With the points stated in this essay, I can say that to an extent the early African historians’ works remain a vital source of information about the African past.








Durodola Tosin

Durodola Tosin is a writer and diplomat. He started writing professionally at the age of 12. He was a Columnist in Ekiti Glory Newspaper, Nigeria from 2009-2010. He was the Ekiti 2009 Winner of the PETs Competition “Poem Section”. His passion for writing was ignited by his Parents profession in Journalism.

He has written on several topics like “The Second World War and the economic situation in Africa”, “Africa and the effect of World War II”, “Neo-Colonialism: A Major obstacle to the process of nation-building in Africa”,  “Nigeria’s Leadership Roles in Africa”, “The Ethnic Setting in the Nigeria Area Before 1800”, “How Apt is the Description of 1920s in America History as The Jazz Age”, “Debt Crisis: A Major Developmental Issue in the Third World Countries”.

Durodola lives in Ekiti State, Nigeria. He holds a Bachelor’s (Hons) Degree in History and International Studies and is currently writing a book on “Nigeria’s Quest for a Permanent Seat at The UN Security Council” and “Nigeria’s Leadership roles in Africa”.


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