Chronicles and other Records in the Development of African Historiography

  This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

Ahmed Ibrahim
Department of History and International Studies,
Federal University, Gusau, Zamfara State - Nigeria

heeme27@yahoo.com 08033455017

Abstract: This paper examines the role of chronicles and other records in re-writing and reconstruction of African history, its challenges and positions as rejoinder to the contribution of Eurocentric scholars on the distortion of African history. Some of the inherent challenges included lack of comprehensive written records as holistic archaeological evidence that covers all zones of Africa from past. These inadequacies have left Africa’s historical writing were discovered by foreign adventurers, sailors, writers and amateur historians, most of the European writers never ventured beyond the coastal fringes of the areas of Africa they visited. Chronicles in Africa are of special interest in the historiography of the continent, records and processes by which states and societies emerged and trade relations of people of various geo-political zones interacts were recorded in the chronicles. For better clarification, the paper adopted a multidisciplinary approach of data collection and historical interpretation.. 

Keywords: Chronicles, Other Records and Historiography


The annals of historical writing and documentation over the ages has demonstrated how the human past is interpreted differently   according   to   intellectual   traditions   and methodologies. African prehistoric period has their ways of preserving their history in forms of songs, folklores, chants, cognomen and rock paintings, among others. Until about 722 A. D., most of the history of Africa were orally preserved through the above genre of historical sources (Vansina, 1981:143) 

Historical writing received a serious impetus with the advent of written culture in some parts of Africa, notably Egypt and Ethiopia. The Egyptian ‘hieroglyphics’ was one of the first system of writing in the world, dated from about 3,000 B.C. It was used by priest in Egypt to record history of shrines and pyramids (Agbodike 2004: 33-34). Several African communities attempted to develop systems of writing as a result of contact with Arabs and later the Europeans (Lafkioui and Vemondo, 2018). However, with vicissitude of time and changes, and as a result of the introduction of Islam, the western Sudanese States evolved the utilization Arabic sources as a means of record keeping which later became the known as Ajami for communication and information dissemination. By and large, the introduction of Trans-Sahara and its impact on the people led to the emergence of quite a number of Arabs whose contribution to historical documentation cannot be neglected in like of Ibn-Khaldun, Ibn-Battuta and Al –Bakri, among others. But it should be noted that most of the early writings were mainly chronicles that centered mostly on recording of events without much interpretation. However, chronicles and other records have contributed to the development of African historiography. It is against this backdrop that this paper examines the place of chronicle and other records piercing through three historical time lines, precolonial, colonial and post-colonial epochs.


The paper is divided into six sections; first is the abstract and introduction, second section deals with literature review, third section discuss on the nature and dimension of chronicles and other records, fourth part, discuss the significance of chronicles and other records in African historiography, fifth aspect of the paper is on the critiques of chronicles and other records and conclusion form up the final section of the paper.


Literature Review


Of paramount important in the line of related review literature is the book written by (Maishanu 2007), titled, Historiography of Hausaland and Borno from 1500-2000. The study gave detailed of the historical chronology of writing in the two areas with reference to earlier writers. The work is relevant to this study especially the section that discussed the emergence of British colonial education in the 19th century. The pertinence of the study can never be overemphasized as it provided the preclude for education prior to the European incursion of the Nigeria area and Africa at large. In addition, this work covered some of the gaps left unexplored by other scholars in the construction and reconstruct of the account given on how colonialism shape the history of historical writings in Africa.


The book edited by (Jappie and Diagne 2008) titled, The Meaning of Tumbuktu touched on many aspects of historiography such includes; scholars, manuscripts, writing materials, book making and knowledge consumption. Most significant of the work is that it explained the procedure for debriefing data, writing of history and the sifting of information to bring out the original facts. This aspect enables the writing of history for its authenticity and the objective reality which is the cardinal principle of historical writings.


Equally apposite to the expedition is the study carried-out by (Kratli and Lydon 2011), captioned The Trans-Saharan Book Trade, it is a treatise on trade that permeated between people of North African and Western Sudan. But, it dwelled extensively on Trans-Saharan trade particularly on the development of trade routes such places as Sijilmasa, Makresh, Timbuktu, Fezzan, and Taghazan among others. The book spanned through many areas of African intellectual history which included manuscript culture, Arabic literacy, book collection, writing materials and the role of technology. Prominent discussion constitutes the development of Arabic language as a lingua franque and the emergence of Islamic scholarship in the areas. In a similar vein, (Last 2008) developed a chapter, entitled, The Book and Nature of Knowledge in Muslim Northern Nigeria, 1457-2007. It is specifically relevant to this paper piercing through the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods of writing African history. Most discernible is his discussion of Western and Eastern (Islamic) nature of knowledge and historiography. Though, the study focus on northern region generally with passing reference on the pattern of historical writing and documentation. The importance of the study cannot be undervalued because quite a number of ideas are adapted for writing as well as deconstruction of misconceived and misinterpreted facts on African historiography. Above all, the reviewed literature has stimulated this paper in construction, reconstruction and revalidation of historiography by linking to chronicles and other records.


Nature and Dimension of Chronicles and other Records


The mutual and robust interaction between the Muslim intelligentsia and the ruling classes of African States and Empires had tremendously led to the emergence of official State historians who are pageants in historical writing and interpretation. Predominantly, among the Arabs of the seventh and eighth centuries were people who were committed to the act of writing history of their time inform of chronicle.


Similarly, in Africa, the coming of Islam to Abyssinia (ancient Ethiopia) around 615 AD, (Siollun, 2021: 252) gave birth to the rise of Muslim scholars and scholarship. Some of the scholars were attached to palaces who worked as advisers and scribers such as Muhammad Salih Ibn Ishaq who wrote An Account of Ngazargamu, Ahmad Ibn Fartau wrote on the reign and activities of Mai Idris Alauma and Baba Kur Ibn al-hajj Muhammad Ibn al-hajj al-Amin Kanu who wrote a historical work Darur al-hisan fi akhbar ba’d muluk al-sudan among others (Maishanu 2007: 59-60). In the course of performing these duties, some of them attempted to write the history of their time, or of some specific events, such as biography of a ruler, origin of a town, wars, scholarship and so forth. This development explains the appearance of some early chronicles in Arabic. Some of these early chronicles include Funj Chronicle, Chronicles on the Rustumid Imam of TahertKilwa Chronicle, Swahili Chronicle, Kano Chronicle and Girgham. Chronicles. 

Fundamentally, these chronicles were mere account of events presented in chronological order and were dated Sources for writing of chronicles during this time include personal experience of a writer, discussion with actors of events and knowledge derived from other literatures. For instance, Shayk Ahmad ibn al-Hajj Abi Ali, who was the clerk for the Turco-Egyptian Government wrote the Funj Chronicle known as Kitab al-Shuna, (1783-1785). The Funj Chronicle, centred on history of the Funj Sultanate (1504-1821) and their kings. The author drew primarily on “tales in circulation” and first hand observation, supplemented by Funj king-list and the Tabaqat of Wad Dayf Allah (a biographical dictionary of Sudanese Muslim Holy men compiled in the late eighteenth century) his solitary written sources (Sharkey, 2000: 77). 

Furthermore, Imam Ahmad Ibn Fartua compiled two works al-kitab Ghazwat Barnu and al-Kitab Ghazwat Kanem to give accounts of the wars and achievements of Mai Idris Alauma, 1564-1619 (Maishanu, 2007:65). The works fall within the genre of historical works that deals with both political and military history. Similarly, Muhammad Salih Ibn Isharku was another historian from Borno who, wrote the history of the capital city of Ngazargamu in 1658 (An account of Ngazargamu), and the work contains clear testimony of development of Islamic knowledge in the 17th century Kanem-Borno.


In the 17th century Ngazargamu alone, there were four big Friday mosques with thousands of people worshipping there, these were apart from smaller mosques which certainly very numerous in the capital city. Mosques throughout Islamic history had served two purposes: as place of worship and also as schools were Islamic knowledge was imparted (Maishanu, 2007: 72).


The work also show how the society was a slave holding one and the extent to which the activity was widely practiced. However, the above works sourced their information through oral sources. It is indent that Chronicles therefore became the standard vehicle that reinforced the collection of oral traditions among scholars in Central Sudan and the Swahili East Africa, mostly in the precolonial period.


In fact, some chronicles and records in tropical Africa were on the diplomatic correspondences among leaders of various kingdoms and Empires. For example, the correspondences between Sultan Muhammad Bello of Sokoto and his neighbour and opponent Shiekh Amin Ibn Muhammad El-Kanemi of Borno in 1813. The correspondence contain argument for and against the holy wars (the Jihad) of the Fulani. Thomas Hodgkin included several of these correspondences in his book “The Nigerian Perspective.” (Hodgkin 1960). In East Africa, there were also large collection of Swahili writings in the 18th and 19th centuries, some which had notable historical value, such as the Kilwa. This is a consolidation of variegated judicial precedence over matters arbitrated by varied kings and their subaltern chiefs within a specified time. 

From the mid of the 18th century or immediately after the abolition of Slave Trade, Africans who had been enslaved and had won their freedom began to publish memoirs in Europe and the evil of Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Notable among these writers was Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave from Nkwere in Igboland after his freedom, became very active among leaders of the anti-slave trade movement in the 1780s. He published his autobiography, (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano) in 1789 (Equiano 1789). The book contains variety of narrations, such as a slavery narrative, travel narrative and spiritual narrative. Equally opposite was that of Ottobah Cugoano of Fanti-land in the South of modern Ghana, he published a book titled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Human Species, in 1787 (Cugoano, 1787). It is a treatise on accounts on Slavery in Grenada and the bitter experiences. 

Fundamentally, historians were committed to writing from the oral narrative, with series of stories about the early history of major commercial cities and State capitals such as the Katsina and Gonja States of West Africa, Kilwa, Malindi, and Mombasa of East Africa. Indigenous historians were produced using Arabic records (Ajami) in part of West Africa far distant away from greater Islamic centres in such places like Timbuktu and Kano.


They (the cities) grew into large cities with enormous markets where traders congregated from all directions. Trade was not always on barter: gold was used as currency as well as a commodity, though the gold coins were not stamped with their value. Nor were the cities purely commercial. They contained mosques and places of learning where Muslim scholars could study (Fyfe, 1976:239).


The earliest European chronicles and other records gave us no more than mere travelers’ tales of discovery as with Zurara’s book of 1453 about the first voyages beyond the Moroccan coast. Large number of explorers and travelers from Europe gave account of their travels in memoirs and reports about different part of Africa which they visited. In some occasions, their accounts were more of the racial and psychological prejudices about the inherent inferiority of the people with dark skins. Seligman believed that Africa was some kind of human reserve where the nature and condition of ancient man could be studied in all its simplicity and savage innocence. This is “a reserve in which the negroes occupied the lowest place in the hierarchy of achievement while the Hamites were responsible for any good thing that might have got itself done” (Seligman, 1930)


In the 18th and 19th centuries, nature of chronicles and other records in rewriting and documenting of the history of African people was the recording of laws, customs, proverbs, sayings and historical traditions of various African communities.


Significance of Chronicles and other Records in African Historiography


There were also interesting accounts such as records in local chronicles in what may seem to be sterile ruler list, dynastic coups d’état, local wars and matters of judicial precedence. With the foregoing, it is sufficing to affirm that chronicles provides the finest and fullest independent check on the validity of historical reconstruction for scholars. It is apposite to note that literacy was one of the Islam’s gift to Africa, and this was used by Muslim writers who produced quite a number of Tarikhs and chronicles especially from the 11th to 18th centuries. Some of the constraints of these writers was that they worked mostly from hearsay narrated verbally and has enabled them to probably mingling facts with manifest legend or truism of events.


Fundamentally, chronicles and other records preserved richness of African civilization before the contact with European and beyond. Chronicles contain the list of African kings of the area where it was written, it also preserves songs and praises of the kings and past legends. Chronicles are of special significance, since they record the contexts and processes by which the polities of capital cities of African state emerged and situates their development geographically. This includes their histories and cultural evolutions. According to Smith, the pre-jihad history of Hausaland, especially, Kano, is bound up with assessment of the Kano Chronicle. It explicates the validity and reliability as an account on the development and composition of Kano people during the centuries between Bagauda’s arrival and the Jihadist conquest of 1807 (Smith, n.d). Chronicles, therefore provide important primary source for understanding African history. Henry Barth wrote:


“I have no hesitation in asserting that the (chronicle) will be one of the most important addition which the present age has made to the history of mankind, in a branch which was formerly almost unknown. The Tarikh al-sudan begins with a list of the kings of Songhay, and an account of its founding myth, the first dynasty was known as the Zuwa, and its first ruler was Zuwa Alayaman” (English, 2017).


The above quotation was made by Heinrich Barth on the chroniclers of the Timbuktu. He contended that recent discovery on the chronicles of Africa will revolutionize European thinking and perception about West Africa’s history.


This was because abound materials and record have helped to demystify wrong misconception and misinterpretation of African past.


Critiques of Chronicles and other Records


It essential to note that efforts geared by quite a number of writers has tremendous, and has influenced contemporary writings on historical construction and reconstruction. However, some of their historical submissions still contains some inadequacies as much scientific has not been utilized to justified evidences for historical writings. It is against this backdrop that this section of the study critiques extant chronicles and records. Firstly, the primary interest of Ethiopian Intellectual life was theological, not historical. It was only recently that some attempt were made to analyze and interpret the annals and chronicles to produce history. The adoption of Islam in a subtle way tended to influence and often wipe out memories of pre-Islamic tradition. This development distorted the image of African history in its original setting. The European conquest of Africa in the 19th century caused the destruction of historical records. For example, the Muslim records of Ashanti in the early 19th century was destroyed and burnt when the British occupied Kumasi in 1814.


For example, the Muslim and European travelers from north Africa to the Sudan could only recount much about the bizarre and extravagant Negro courts and trade of the Sudanese cities, although their interest was on the names of many people and villages. They never sought to assess the background of technological and economic potentialities that lay behind African people that attracted European interest in Africa. The sources were limited in the way they did not tell us all stories and these hampered the efforts of historians in writing an objective, credible and reliable African history. Therefore, chronicles are mere narration or list of events, they might have contained some omissions and distortions as obtained in other historical documents. In some occasions, writers of chronicles did not seriously subject their sources to rigorous checks and interpretation of data. This is particular of chronology, years of events and names of actors of some specific events are sometimes missing. Recent advancement in the study of historiography has embraced the utilization of archaeological findings in reconstruction of history. This involve the use of external and external criticism of fact and as well the use of Radio Carbo dating machine C14 to arrive at absolute or relative dateable object (Mokhtar, 1981: 662).


The unknown authorship of the early chronicles, lack of publication dates and the bias contain in the early chronicles and other records are part of limitations of the early Chronicles. As regard to the Kano Chronicle, Hiskett and Palmer, argued that the author may have been a ‘Fezzani Arab’ who might have written in a Magribi rather than Ajami script.


But, however plausible, this is mere speculation, we neither know who the original author or authors of the chronicle were, nor when he or they compiled the basic trunk of the present text, nor can we identify subsequent contributors or date that their contributions precisely before the time of Muhammadu Bello, though clearly such data are relevant to any assessment of the documents of historical validity. (Smith, n.d)


One the inadequacies was that the chronicle did not mention the aspect of slavery, although there passing reference on slavery. However, there activities became noticeable to people not until the reign of Tsamiya that slaves were mentioned as tribute of the Sarki. It could be ascertaining that the reason for their known discussion must probably within the confine of their decision and political arrangement of the royal aristocrat. 


The paper is an historical exploration dealing with chronicles and other records such correspondence, court judgement and other written records. This genre of history played important role as it served as the primary sources of information for the reconstruction of African history. The varied chronicles revealed Africa’s civilization in state formation, migration, trade, craft production, dynastic history, war, scholarship and so on. Some of these chronicles includes; Kano Chronicle, Girgham, Tarikh al Fattash, Tarikh al Sudan, Chronicle of Gonja, Kitab al Ghazwat Bornu, Dyula chronicle, Kitab al Ghunja, Chronicles of pate, Chronicles of Lamu, Kilwa Chronicle, Chronicles of Harar, Bahja al Zaman, Funj Chronicle, Brief Chronicle of Wa, Amharic Chronicle, Manzil (the Ibadite Chronicle), Chronicles on the Rustumid Imam of Tahert, Chronicle of the reign of Emperor Menelik, and Swahili Chronicle, among others. All the chronicles and record depicted landmark phenomena in annals of history of the antiquated times. It is essential to construe that the aims of Historian are to collect data to enable him rewrites about the past institutions and socio-cultural events of people. However, chronicles and other records provided raw information of African economy, political, military strength, cultural and religious activities among others of the prehistoric time.




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