James De Lorenzi, Guardians of the Tradition: historians and historical writing in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Guardians of the Tradition, De Lorenzi's first monograph, responds simultaneously to recent calls in intellectual history for more international and plural approaches, and to calls in Ethiopian studies for a more dedicated focus on Ethiopian thinkers and ideas. The book focuses on the highland regions of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, where a complex and varied tradition of historiographical writing has flourished since medieval times. This tradition, De Lorenzi remarks, is little known outside the society that produced it, and has been disregarded, both within and outside African studies, in debates about orality, literacy, and the modernity of historical thinking. The creativity and richness of Ethiopian historical writing forcefully challenge the argument that historiography is a product of Western modernity and a Western export--a point rather obvious for Africanists, but not so obvious in the field of history at large, which De Lorenzi attacks for its 'parochialism' and 'latent Eurocentrism' (p. 138).
Through the works of three intellectuals, Gabrii Krestos Takla Haymanot (1892-1932), Gabrii Mika'el Germu (1900-69) and Heruy Waldii Sellase (1878-1938), Guardians of the Tradition argues that in the early twentieth century vernacular historiography thrived in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The global political, economic and cultural forces to which Ethiopian and Eritrean intellectuals were exposed encouraged them to experiment with new methods, sources and analytical tools. Gabrii Krestos, Gabrii Mika'el, Heruy and many of their contemporaries creatively appropriated Western sources and methods, while at the same time committing to the preservation of the inherited tradition. They aimed at becoming 'modern through the past' (p. 4). The era's collective project was one of 'open inquiry and informed critical synthesis' (p. 9). Alongside the historiographical heritage of Ethiopia's own past, Western ideas were an important influence, but they never became hegemonic; 'vernacular historical writing was not westernized', argues Di Lorenzi, 'instead, Western historiography was indigenized' (p. 10).
This argument is advanced most forcefully in the second chapter of the book. In his 1924 Accer Yd'aldm Tarik Bamareha (Short History of the World in Amharic), Gabra Krestos reads global history through a hierarchy of progress that differentiates between 'civilized' and 'uncivilized' people. Although he uses some Western racial classifications, his account diverges from Western conceptions of modernity. In Short History Dc Lorenzi shows, world historical development is defined by the spread and endurance of Christianity, not by the growth of science, wealth or freedom. Although historicist, Short History opposes the universalist claims of Western Eurocentrism, and situates Ethiopia among the world's modern countries.
The fifth chapter suggests that things changed after 1941, when a more Eurocentric brand of historicism, based on modernization theory, was adopted by intellectuals such as Kabbada Mika'el (1916-98). For Kabbada, Ethiopia was backward, and, in order to achieve modernity, had to learn from the West. These years coincided with the institutionalization of Ethiopian studies, a field that up until that moment had remained 'a private preserve with non-native wardens' (p. 136). The rise of acadcmic historiography in Ethiopia, particularly in the 1960s, brought more balance to the discipline. Many Ethiopian historians gained international recognition, published some historiographical classics, and effectively indigenized Ethiopian studies. Vernacular historiography, far from disappearing, continued to prosper, albeit separately from academic historiography. Kabbada Mika'el himself, after his initial Eurocentric orientation, produced more traditional historical works that firmly asserted Ethiopia's significance in world history.
Throughout the book. De Lorenzi repeatedly draws the reader's attention to the discursive and scholarly agency of Ethiopian intellectuals. Against the recent scholarly accusations that the 1960s intelligentsia embraced Marxism because it was culturally alienated from the Ethiopian heritage, De Lorenzi defends the academic achievements of Western-trained academic historians. As for vernacular historians, they worked to develop, preserve and transmit their historical tradition and were therefore 'bulwarks against cultural alienation' (p. 126). The emphasis on agency is nevertheless cautious, as De Lorenzi also points at the economic, political and epistemological power difference between European and Ethiopian scholars (p. 136).
The fourth chapter, on Heruy's use of travel writing as a form of 'highly stylized, instructive historiography' (p. 95), has a close bearing on Amharic literary studies. Fictional, semi-fictional and non-fictional travelogues alike were informed by the same historiographical imaginary and were similarly engaged in contemporary political debates. The chapter mostly focuses on non-fictional travel writing, but it could be interesting, for example, to analyse how Heruy's 1920s travelogues were influenced by the peripatetic plot structure of the first novel in Amharic, Afawarq Gabra Iyasus's 1908 Lebh Wallad Tarik (Story from the Heart). The same chapter highlights the close connections between travel writing and the ideology of the imperial power. This analysis could have been expanded by looking at how censorship on the one hand, and the intellectuals' socio-political dependency on Hayla Sellase's patronage (or on the benevolence of Italian authorities, in the case of Eritrean historians) on the other, conditioned the type of historiography they were allowed to produce.
While Guardians of the Tradition focuses on the interplay between local and European historical traditions, future studies could map out how Ethiopian historiography was influenced, in terms of methods, sources, genres and philosophies, by historical writings in Egypt, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula--all areas with which Ethiopians had been in close cultural contact throughout the medieval and early modern period. More generally, the word 'Ethiopia' is used in the book to refer to the Christian highlands only--an ambiguity perhaps unavoidable. If other North-East African historical traditions in languages such as Arabic receive the same in-depth treatment that De Lorenzi devotes to Ge'ez, Amharic and Tigrinya, the point could be made even more forcefully that it is 'imprecise to describe history as a sign of modernity--it was reimagined in the modern era. not clearly glimpsed for the first time' (p. 139).
SOAS, University of London
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2017|
|Previous Article:||The politics of independence in South Sudan.|
|Next Article:||Anna Greenwood and Harshad Topiwala, Indian Doctors in Kenya, 1895-1940: the forgotten history.|