Using Alternative Sources to Enhance the Teaching of African History

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Djenne, Mali

An advocate of teaching history through unconventional perspectives, Elena Stevens explores how to plan a scheme of work on African History using alternative sources.

The reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement in spring 2020 – impelled by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, and the toppling of slaveholder Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol – coincided with (and inspired) a wealth of CPD opportunities for history teachers.

Conferences and webinar series called for a recognition of the historical and contemporary injustices faced by diverse communities, and for a reassessment of the manner in which students encounter Britain’s slaveholding and colonising past.

Associated with this was the recognition that – in order to ‘do justice’ to African history – it is important to explore the kingdoms of Africa as they existed (and thrived) in the pre-colonial era.

This does, however, present a number of challenges for history teachers, as they seek to reflect the vitality of histories that have left few written sources, and that seem to defy both received wisdoms about the past and traditional frameworks for conceptualising it.

As Malian griot Mamadou Keita put it, ‘What is troubling in the narration of the past, is to speak of that which you know nothing’. This article suggests that such challenges might be confronted by essentially allowing the sources that do exist to ‘speak for themselves’.

Focusing on a series of lessons on the Kingdom of Benin, it argues that the use of visual sources might encourage students to develop a more nuanced understanding of ideas, beliefs and power structures in Benin.

It suggests, too, that such an approach might facilitate an improved understanding of the discipline of history, as students come to recognise the creative manner in which historians seek and deploy different types of sources.

Calls for more diverse history curricula are by no means new; Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro argued persuasively for a history education that reflected the complex history of (in Woodson’s case) black America as early as 1933. Woodson suggested that the existing history provision in American high schools caused African Americans to be ‘dislocated from themselves’ as they were ‘educated away from their own culture and traditions and attached to the fringes of European culture’.

It is not clear that such deficiencies have yet been satisfactorily remedied in a British context.

‘Our art in Benin is not art for art’s sake… our art tells a story’

In the eleventh episode of the BBC series History of Africa (2020), journalist Zeinab Badawi examines the role played by art in the rise of powerful city states and kingdoms in Africa.

Theophilus Umogbai, director of the Benin National Museum (in modern-day Benin City, Nigeria) outlines the significance of a bronze head depicting Queen Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie who ruled Benin from 1504 to 1550.

The original piece has resided in London’s British Museum since the Benin Expedition of 1897 – an expedition which helped to establish British colonial rule over the kingdom, and which resulted in the seizure of hundreds of valuable artworks from the obas (kings) of Benin.

Gesturing to a replica bronze, Umogbai notes its many symbolic functions, from the coral-bead netting binding Idia’s hair (coral beads being traded in vast quantities within and outside of the Kingdom of Benin) to the ‘keloids’ (scars) on Idia’s forehead, believed to depict the concentration of thought and power in the individual. Umogbai says:

Our art in Benin is not art for art’s sake. It is art as a functional art, our art tells a story. Remember also that these bronze casters played the role of the chroniclers of our history. Our people were orally literate. We don’t call them illiterate.

Umogbai neatly summarises the twofold value of using visual sources in a study of Benin. First, Benin artworks were highly symbolic; their close dissection – with reference to an index or key – could offer important clues about the manner in which the obas of Benin viewed themselves, or wished others to view them in posterity.

Second, an examination of such artworks helps to dispel problematic myths about the underdevelopment of Africa in the pre-colonial period.

It instead posits the African kingdoms and their inhabitants as creative, astute and worldly, undermining the notion – unacknowledged, perhaps, yet still pervasive – that such qualities were the reserve of Europeans during the period we designate ‘early modern’.

Decolonising the Curriculum

The notion of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has become rather ubiquitous, to the extent that its precise application to the history curriculum is difficult to pin down.

In Decolonise our curriculum, former teacher Pran Patel advocates a reappraisal of the texts and tropes we use to teach children about society and their place within it, indicating that ‘we live in a world that pushes you towards the racist end of the spectrum’.

Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, suggests that a re-telling of Britain’s ‘island story’ with reference to the colonies’ contributions is in order, whilst organisations like the National Trust have endeavoured to expose the complex interplay between slavery and the accruement of British wealth.

Clearly, there are many periods and topics that might productively be ‘decolonised’ – or explored from an alternative perspective in order to present a more nuanced picture of the past.

However, Meera Sabaratnam’s somewhat broader conception of the ‘decolonising’ brief seems to offer a useful point of reference for the history teacher seeking to frame an enquiry within this remit.

Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS University of London, proposes a re-examination of ‘our shared assumptions about how the world is’, making visible the ‘racial and civilisational hierarchy’ that informed much former thinking about ‘how the world worked, what was worth studying in it and how it should be studied.’

Here, I suggest that an exploration of the cultural products of Benin indeed serves to challenge ‘shared assumptions’ about pre-colonial Africa.

Using visual sources as a powerful means by which to gain insight into the ideas and beliefs of the people in Benin, the approach serves to challenge the former prioritisation of (possibly inaccurate) Western accounts – thereby undermining some of the processes that helped to justify the expansion of exploitative policies and colonial rule in the first place.

The Power of Cultural History

This focus upon visual sources reflects a renewed interest in ‘cultural history’ amongst history teachers.

 The ‘cultural turn’ was a scholarly movement that began to gain ground in the 1970s, as historians sought to complement (and sometimes challenge) the study of broad political, economic and social changes with a renewed focus on, according to Bonnell and Hunt, ‘the study of mentalities, ideology, symbols and rituals, and high and popular culture .’

The presentation given by Jacob Olivey and Alex Benger at the 2020 Schools History Project Conference illustrated the ways in which the ‘cultural turn’ might be applied to the enrichment of KS3 history.

As Olivey and Benger pointed out, a study of the past from the perspective of cultural life can widen students’ appreciation of the ‘human condition’.

Taking seriously the ideas of all types of people (not just those connected with ‘big’ events) helps teachers to convey the notion that ‘humanity’ does not simply encompass ‘power and politics’.

Studying the Kingdom of Benin through its cultural remnants will encourage students to consider this history on its own terms, identifying ideas and perspectives that are different from their own.

Although the fostering of historical ‘empathy’ has now been sidelined in school history, it is nevertheless useful – as Olivey and Benger point out – to facilitate connection with historical actors, as we strive to construct understandings of the past that are both authentic and diverse.

 Leopards, mudfish and kola nuts

Given that my year 8 students would be new to African history, I decided that the first lesson’s enquiry question ought simply to be ‘How can we find out about African history?’

I felt that it was important for the chosen approach – namely, the use of visual sources to examine life in Benin – to be foregrounded immediately; I was keen to avoid presenting students with a historical narrative that was later confirmed through the use of artworks, preferring to use the artworks to help students construct this narrative.

The opening slide featured a photograph of one of the relief plaques now held in the British Museum’s collections, depicting an oba in a military outfit. You can see the plaque here.

The plaque is symmetrical; the oba swings leopards from both of his hands, and mudfish appear to be emerging from a belt around his waist. Students were asked to study the image closely, considering what questions they might ask of it.

Here as at many other points in the unit, I was keen to steer students away from perceiving the image as ‘weird’ or ‘exotic’; hence, prompts like ‘What might the fish represent?’ and ‘What qualities do we associate with leopards?’ were employed to underline the symbolic (rather than literal) nature of the plaque.

Once students had been given an overview of the historical parameters of the Kingdom of Benin and the centrality of art to Benin’s cultural life, a further four images were distributed to students – this time, to study in small groups.


The images all depicted plaques produced during the 16th and 17th centuries, the ‘original’ pieces now being housed in either British or American museums.

Students should be encouraged to examine the plaques in a forensic manner, identifying not only their symbolic features but their status as 3D objects. Initial inferences would be sought: what did the plaques represent? Who made them, and why? What might the plaques suggest to us about life in Benin?

Subsequently,  the students were given ‘crib sheets’, which outlined the possible meanings or values ascribed to different aspects of the plaques.

These  enable students to work out what the obas – who had commissioned and displayed the plaques – might have been trying to convey, and how the artworks might have been received and understood by ordinary people.

Tentative language (‘This plaque might have been produced to show that…’, ‘It is possible that the obas used leopards to represent…’) was encouraged, as a means of emphasising the impossibility of certainty in historical investigation.

Next, context about the Kingdom of Benin was provided in the form of a worksheet, and students would be tasked with drawing connections between life in Benin, and the particular nature or state of the plaques.

They might note, for example, that 16th century Benin was a successful military kingdom: this might explain the prominence accorded to heavily-armed soldiers in several of the plaques.

Or, they might infer that a decline in Benin’s influence during the 17th century may have prompted an ever-more frenzied attempt to underline the obas’ potency, thus explaining the inclusion of such power-symbols as the leopard and the crocodile.

Fundamentally, students were encouraged to recognise the figurative nature of Benin art, whereby the seemingly innocuous trumpet or kola nut could denote important aspects of the kingdom’s political, economic or social life.

Art in the Kingdom of Benin was not just decorative but functional, and as such may be used to construct an understanding of what it might have been like to live there.

A consolidating activity followed, with students asked to determine the veracity of several statements about life in the Kingdom of Benin (‘Music and art were central to the culture of Benin’; ‘The Kingdom of Benin was militaristic: it grew and developed partly through wars’).

Finally, students were encouraged to respond to the lesson’s enquiry question: ‘How can we find out about African history?’

Such an activity was important, I felt, as not only would it allow students to appreciate how much they had been able to infer about Benin simply through a study of its artworks, but because it would encourage students to delve into broader methodological questions.

They would wonder, I hoped, whether visual sources might be used to gain insight into other historical periods; later in the unit, they might even begin to question the validity of historical accounts that fail to observe the symbolic value of such sources.

</p> <h3>Download Resources</h3> <p>

‘Asking critical questions about the writer, what they write and how they write about it’

Subsequent lessons aimed to explore the nature of the obas’ power in more detail, as well as aspects of the ‘golden age’ that Benin arguably enjoyed in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Lesson plans drew upon visual sources as often as possible, and the function of such sources was to be underlined throughout; plaques and bronzes were produced for a particular purpose (often at the insistence of the obas), and therefore tell us a great deal about the aspirations and priorities of Benin’s ruling class.

Of course, it is difficult to arrive at definite conclusions about the relationship between the power of the obas and the ways in which ordinary people conducted their lives.

I was, however, satisfied that the obas’ power – enduring as it did for at least six hundred years – was sufficiently pervasive to ensure that a majority of ordinary people assimilated the beliefs and value systems transmitted by the obas.

Further research into Benin’s guilds system might help me to develop lessons or activities focusing on the ways in which ordinary sculptors and artists used their work to communicate (or perhaps challenge) the ideas and beliefs of the obas.

A different narrative

In planning the unit, I was aware that I would need to address the role which slavery played in Benin. Cautioned by the entreaties of Trevor Getz and Toby Green in the webinar series ‘West African history before the 1600s’, I was keen to ensure that the story of slavery did not predominate; as Getz and Green emphasised, Benin – like many of the African kingdoms – did not depend upon slavery for its early prosperity, and the African rulers were often reluctant to enter into international slave-trading relationships.

However, the obas of Benin did begin to sanction slave-trading on a large scale, partly to compensate for a decline in economic fortunes after the 16th century.

Therefore, I selected an account written by former slave Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua (born in modern-day Benin) to help tell this story.

I intended to explore the story of slavery in this part of West Africa through an interpretation constructed by an African, rather than through accounts derived from Western writers or historians – thereby underlining the unit’s reliance upon cultural products and accounts deriving from Benin itself.

Overall, these lessons aim not only to deepen understanding of ideas, beliefs and power structures in Benin, but to open students’ eyes to the range of sources that may be used in the process of historical enquiry – and, in particular, to the value of using visual sources when traditional written accounts do not suffice.

Initially, I had planned to deliver the unit in the summer term of 2020, although in light of the switch to online learning I decided to save it for the 2020-21 school year.

In developing the unit further, I would like to study more carefully the Western interpretations that once dominated understanding of life in the African kingdoms.

Outlining her recommendations for ‘decolonising the curriculum’, Meera Sabaratnam suggests that we need to ask ‘critical questions about the relationship between the location and identity of the writer, what they write and how they write about it’ (2017).

It is critically important for students to understand how historians develop arguments about the past, and how these arguments influence popular perceptions about historical and contemporary people and places.

Students need to be equipped with the tools to challenge disingenuous historical accounts; they must be confident enough to dismantle the arguments of such historical behemoths as Hugh Trevor-Roper, when they encounter his claim that pre-colonial African history is simply a story of ‘barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’ (Russell-Wood, 1984, p. 247).

I would like to explore such interpretations in the context of the time in which they were written, without appearing to give credence to – or excuse for – the arguments made. Editors note: You can now download this enquiry here.

Broadly, a unit of lessons in which visual sources are foregrounded seems to offer significant potential for developing students’ understanding of the nature and processes of historical investigation.

The African kingdoms are best studied ‘on their own terms’, and sources derived from Benin offer an exciting means by which to engage students with less familiar aspects of our global history.

The insufficiency of ‘traditional’ written sources may even be given as cause for celebration; in the space opened up by this ‘absence’, visual sources can help students to derive a range of meanings that may otherwise have remained obscure.

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