Rediscovering the 'father of West African history'

Rediscovering the 'father of West African history'

On Saturday, countries around the world will celebrate “Africa Day.” May 25 was designated by the leaders of newly emerging nations as a moment to commemorate the freedom of people of African descent. This year, it is appropriate to revisit the pioneer research of historian, Dr. Albert Adu Boahen.

Boahen (1932-2006) was a professor of history at the University of Ghana and taught at Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities, among others. His major contribution was to restore the history of Western Africa to the indigenous people. His work challenged a field of study dominated by white scholarly interests.


Boahen probed the documents of colonial explorations to uncover a forgotten heritage of engaged African states. His stories debunked theories of a savage “Dark Continent” and revealed new information on the civilizations of the Western Sudan.

Today, his vanguard research could be instructive to Congress as it debates a proposal to designate January 2015 to December 2024 as the “International Decade for People of African Descent.” Sponsored by Rep. Henry Johnson (D-Ga.), the proposal seeks validation for the “people of African descent: recognition, justice and development.”

Born in 1932 in the former Gold Coast, Boahen came of age during the struggle against British colonialism. After the Gold Coast gained independence in 1957 and was renamed Ghana, it became a gathering place for young radicals, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He attended the independence celebrations with his wife Coretta in a symbol of solidarity with the Pan-African movement.

In 1959, Boahen set out to establish an Africa-centered history of the Western Sudan. His pioneer doctoral research at the University of London resulted in the book, “Britain, the Sahara, and the Western Sudan, 1788-1861.” He reconstructed neglected states such as the Fulani Empire of Sokoto and Gwandu in Hausaland (modern day Nigeria); the powerful state of Bornu near Lake Chad; and those of Wulli, Bondu, Bambara, and Futa Jalon near Senegal and Mali.

He placed them in the dynamic network of trade between the Sudan and the Mediterranean world, rendering a lively portrait of the trans-Saharan economy: textiles, gold, salt, kola nuts and chemicals. He explored the role of camels, zebras and oxen as means of transportation, and sketched the participation of Arab, Berber and Turkish regimes in the slave trade.

As an educator, Boahen recognized the value of media and the humanities in public learning. He produced a series of talks on West African history for Ghana radio, lectures that served as the basis for a 1965 work geared to college students. It covered themes such as the spread of Islam and the role of black American settlements in Sierra Leone and Liberia.   

In 1967, he co-authored the “History of West Africa” to consider themes such as the encroachment of European industrial capitalism on the Western Sudan, and contributed to a 1971 work for general readers in the U.S., “The Horizon History of Africa.”  

Boahen guided the United Nations project, “The General History of Africa,” a monumental study begun in 1964. About 230 historians contributed to the multi-volume tome published in 1979.  

In 1987, he penned “African Perspectives on Colonialism” that examined the reaction of African states to the advance of European powers. It noted the role of European alliances with African states and mercenary soldiers, the improvements in tropical medicine, and the knowledge of the African geography, languages and political relations.

Most important, he wrote, was the effect of a lethal weapon that overwhelmed African armies, the “Maxim gun,” a heavy machine gun with a rate of fire of about 600 rounds per minute. In the 1890s, European forces used the weapon to engage in mass killing and psychological terror. A small military force armed with machine guns could handily defeat African militias with spears and rifles. The forces, Boahen concluded, mowed down black soldiers, villagers and towns by the thousands. It marked the beginning of white misrule on the continent.

World War II laid the groundwork for African independence by decimating the European powers. Ultimately, Boahen concluded, colonialism was relatively light in duration — but heavy in consequence. The 80-year period of dislocation impacted languages, religions, nation states, economic relations and self-confidence, among others.

Today, Boahen’s writings are difficult to find; most books are out of print and used copies are subject to price speculation by online sellers. Yet, his works are precious documents on the history of the Western Sudan and the heritage of African Americans.

On this Africa Day, his dedication to a Pan-African history can be honored in two ways: First, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) can demand a floor vote on the “International Decade” House resolution — and especially its cause to “promote the history and heritage of people of African descent.” Second, the CBC and the Library of Congress can explore ways to make reprints of his works available in affordable formats.

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African-American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African-American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”