Sunday, November 12, 2017


Carla Bocchetti (ed.), Global History, East Africa and the Classical Traditions. Les Cahiers d'Afrique de l'Est (IFRA), Special Issue, 51 (2016). Nairobi: Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique, 2016. Pp. 211. (pb).

Reviewed by Thea De Armond, USDA Forest Service (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This special issue of Les Cahiers d'Afrique de l'Est is a product of Globafrica, a four-year research program based at the French institutes in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa that seeks to rethink the place of Africa in world history. Global History, East Africa and the Classical Traditions inserts classical studies into that discussion—and, more broadly, into discussions of global history. Global history perspectives often trace unfamiliar geographies, geographies that reject center-periphery narratives. Viewed through global history, writes Bocchetti, "…Greece becomes just another place in the Mediterranean world, rather than the ideal topos of Western exceptionalism" (10). In fact, classical antiquity is relatively peripheral to much of Global History, East Africa and the Classical Traditions—several of the volume's contributors make no reference to "the classical traditions" of the title. Nevertheless, Bocchetti notes, the global historical forces elucidated in the volume (namely, imperialism and colonialism) undergird and are undergirded by classicism.

Except for Bocchetti's introduction, the volume is divided into three sections. The first, entitled "Africa and the Classics" (called "Classics and Africa" in the volume's introduction), is inspired by 2011's African Athena, itself a response—as is so much scholarship on Africa and the classics—to Martin Bernal's Black Athena. Phiroze Vasunia's wide-ranging chapter analyzes the conflation of India and Ethiopia by two British Orientalists, William Jones (1746-1794) and Francis Wilford (1761-1822). The men tangled biblical ethnology, universal histories, and superficial observation with Graeco-Roman antiquity. In his contribution, Daniel Orrells, a co-editor of African Athena, analyzes the Congolese intellectual Valentin-Yves Mudimbe's deployment of Greek historiography and the myth of Oedipus as metaphors for the relationship between Africa and Europe: à la Oedipus, "can the anti- and postcolonial African philosopher only…replace the colonial-classical father he has ousted?" (49).

The second section of the volume, "Global History and Geography," is its least "classical." Giorgio Riello's materialist, consumer-oriented account of the spread of cotton and textile production, which appears to be a partial summary of his 2015 Cotton, earns its place in Global History, on the grounds of its methodology. Riello's chapter, writes Bocchetti, "addresses (explicitly or implicitly)…the question of how global history can challenge our ideas of the past, especially those tied to European triumphalist history, i.e.[,] Graeco-Roman antiquity" (14); in the case of Graeco-Roman antiquity, to which Riello's chapter makes no reference, the address is more implicit than explicit. Bocchetti's chapter compares early modern European and Arabic geographies of east Africa as a means of understanding Europeans' and Arabs' relationships with Africa and Africans. In so doing, Bocchetti argues for the heretofore little acknowledged influence of the Swahili people on Europeans' and Arabs' mapmaking practices. Finally, Edward Pollard demonstrates the utility of historic navigation charts to the archaeology of Tanzania's southeast coast. Eighteenth-century and later navigation charts can show archaeologists how things were—changing coastlines, favored ports—and where they might direct their investigations.

The third section of the volume, entitled "Africa and Visual Culture ("Visual Culture and Africa," in the introduction) is mostly occupied with the entanglement of classical and African aesthetics. Paul Niell's and Sarah Longair's contributions in this section both examine the influence of classicism on the European colonies. Niell considers the manifold resonances of the civic monument El Templete in Havana, Cuba, which unifies within itself classical aesthetics and Afro-Cuban tradition. Given Cuba's diverse population, El Templete became a site of contestation—neither Spanish imperial, nor Cuban subversive, but "co-opting the past to serve multiple representational needs in the present" (145). Longair analyzes the influence of the classical and the local in the buildings of the British colonial administrator-cum-architect John Sinclair. Sinclair's architectural contribution to Nairobi, a new colonial city, was the classicizing McMillan library, classicizing, perhaps, because Nairobi was "from its inception a global city," and classicism was associated with global empire. By contrast, in Zanzibar, Sinclair was more sparing in his classical references, choosing instead to invoke the region's long-held links across the Indian Ocean. In keeping with global history's predilection for new—or, rather, little discussed—geographies, Carol Kaufmann's and Gordon Onyango Omenya's chapters further examine Africa's links across the Indian Ocean. Kaufmann's chapter gives an account of a 2014 exhibit at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. The exhibit highlighted the influence of East Asia upon South African design; in these geographies, classicism is only notable in its absence. Omenya closes out the volume with an account of the relationship between Africans and South Asians in Kisumu, Kenya. Many of Kisumu's South Asians came to Kenya as indentured servants. However, colonial Kisumu accorded them relatively more privilege than it did native Kenyans. Post-colonial Kisumu saw these tensions heightened by the South Asian community's "foreignness" in independent Kenya and its greater wealth.

This volume contains a great deal to interest the open-minded reader. Its title is somewhat misleading—several of its chapters consider neither east Africa nor classical traditions—; so, too, its thematic divisions. Nevertheless, Bocchetti's introduction identifies valuable lessons for critical classicists throughout the volume, including in those chapters that do not explicitly engage with the volume's titular topics.

Unfortunately, the text is regularly marred by typos and infelicities of language. It is, occasionally, difficult to understand. I strongly suspect that it would have benefited from the editorial eye of a native English speaker. That said, this volume shows great potential. Classicists looking for new approaches to their topic, for new topics to approach, or—indeed!—to reconsider their worldviews will undoubtedly find something to inspire them here.

Authors and titles

Carla Bocchetti: Global History, Geography, and the Classics
Section 1. Africa and the Classics
Phiroze Vasunia: Ethiopia and India: Fusion and Confusion in British Orientalism
Daniel Orrells: V. Y. Mudimbe and the Myth of Oedipus
Section 2. Global History and Geography
Giorgio Riello: Note – Cotton and the Great Divergence: The Asian Fibre that Made Europe Rich
Carla Bocchetti: Performing Geography in Global History
Edward Pollard: Interpreting Medieval to Post-Medieval Seafaring in SE Tanzania Using 18th- to 20th-Century Charts and Sailing Directions
Paul Niell: El Templete: Civic Monument, African Significations, and the Dialectics of Colonial Urban Space in Early Nineteenth-Century Havana, Cuba
Carol Kaufmann: Patterns of Contacts – Designs from the Indian Ocean World: A Curator's View
Sarah Longair: Visions of the Global: the Classical and the Eclectic in Colonial East African Architecture
Gordon Omenya: A Global History of Asians' Presence in Kisumu District of Kenya's Nyanza Province

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