Down-to-Earth Machines of Exploitation. Andreas Eckert on Colonialism, Slavery, and Current Debates

In this conversation with RevDem guest contributor Norman Aselmeyer, Andreas Eckert – author of German-language overviews of the history of colonialism and of slavery – presents his approach to the history of colonialism and how the study of this subject has evolved in the early 21st century; reflects on the special challenges of composing a global history of slavery; shares his views on the ongoing German debates regarding colonial crimes; and discusses the current state and special pitfalls of global history writing.

Andreas Eckert, historian of modern Africa at Humboldt University in Berlin, is one of Germany’s leading scholars of African history. Since 2009, he has been the director of the international research centre Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History. Throughout his career, he has held fellowships and guest professorships all over the world. He taught and researched at institutions such as Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, the Swedisch Collegium in Uppsala, SOAS, and others. Andreas Eckert has published numerous books and articles on the history of labour, colonialism, global history, and the historiography of African history. Today, we will speak about two of his latest books on the history of colonialism and slavery: Kolonialismus (S. Fischer, 2006) and Geschichte der Sklaverei: Von der Antike bis ins 21. Jahrhundert [History of Slavery. From Ancient Times to the 21st Century](C.H. Beck, 2021).

Norman Aselmeyer, PhD, is a lecturer of modern history at the University of Bremen. His research interests lie at the intersection of African and global history.

Norman Aselmeyer: You recently accompanied German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on his trip to Niger, Senegal, and South Africa. You have joined German politicians on previous diplomatic trips too. It is rather unusual for a historian of Africa to be part of official government delegations. What is your role on these missions? Is knowledge of Africa’s history gaining political importance?

Andreas Eckert: I am not quite sure what my role in these missions was. Some politicians, such as chancellors or ministers of foreign affairs, have delegations. Angela Merkel was known for hardly taking any extra visitors on board when she was traveling, except for some businessmen. The former foreign minister and current President of Germany Franz-Walter Steinmeier would usually take delegations but his successors not. The practice is very uneven. The role of the members of such delegations is not clear either.

In the trip you mentioned, there was, besides a group of businessmen, politicians, ministerial staff and journalists, a very small “cultural delegation” consisting of three people: the head of the German Foundation for Culture, the German-Ghanain-English writer Sharon Dodua Otoo, who won the famous Bachmann prize a few years ago, and myself – and I am not really sure how I came to be on the list. We had a special programme: while the others were talking to politicians, entrepreneurs, and such people, we visited the Goethe Institute, went to some very interesting museums, met artists, and so on and so forth. I think it is just to show that Germany is not only interested in the hard currencies of politics and economics, but also in the so to say softer areas of culture. I think it is also kind of a ritual.

I am not sure at all if this has to do with an increasing importance of historical knowledge about Africa for German politics. I am afraid not. Although the recent debates about German colonialism and how it still matters today might have changed the attitude a bit. 

The idea has spread that Germany is not an innocent country when it comes to Africa, but also has a past that has been characterized by much violence and exploitation. Germany has to show, one way or another, that the government is conscious of these things, however, I think this is a small part.

It also has to do with individual politicians. Both Steinmeier and Scholz are known to read books regularly, including history books. They have broad interests, which probably has to do with the fact that when they are traveling, they take some people representing German culture or certain knowledge about certain issues relevant to their travel. It is a known fact that Angela Merkel, for instance, invited the famous global historian Jürgen Osterhammel to speak on her sixtieth birthday and she was also known to discuss very often with the political scientist Herfried Münkler who also wrote about history. But it is very unclear to me to what extent the insights of Münkler or Osterhammel shaped her strategies in the political realm. This issue is not something that should be over-interpreted. I think one should be rather cautions about the possible influence we, historians, have on politicians, which seems to me to be limited.

One of your main areas of work is the history of colonialism. Back in 2006 you published an introduction to the history of colonialism in German under the simple title Kolonialismus. What was your aim with publishing a book on this topic? How does your approach and how do your conclusions differ from those of similar publications?

Back in 2004 or 2005, when I signed the book contract with the publisher, colonialism was not as popular a topic as it is today. Especially in Germany it was still something that was slowly emerging or re-emerging as a topic, but there was already a lot going on in the international debate around colonialism – many new books were being written and new debates launched. Coming from African history, and I understand myself as a historian of Africa, and starting to get interested in global history, I thought that colonialism is a very good context or way to link these two interests. I also studied journalism, have been writing articles for the press for many years and I do some radio talks too. I have always had an interest in disseminating academic knowledge to a broader public. This book was part of a series that was aimed at precisely this – to present, if I may say so, cutting-edge research insights to a broader public.

This is a rather demanding genre. If you have not more than a hundred and fifty pages, you definitely have to make choices. In many ways, this has a disciplining effect, because you really have to decide what is your main argument, what you want to say, how much background you provide, and how much analysis and interpretation you can bring in. For me, it was important to present some of the debate on why colonialism matters and how widespread it is. It was written for a German public mainly, which was not much interested at the time, nor had any broader knowledge about colonialism. I tried to show that this is a history that really matters to many parts of the world, including ours. That it is a part of Europe’s history, and it is not a very happy history or very positive history, of course. I also tried to show how colonialism has very much shaped the world of today. These were the kind of very broad messages I wanted to convey.

I am not sure to what extent my book differed from other books of this kind. Of course, there are always nuances and some emphasize certain aspects more. I tried to bring in some economic and social history. 

Even if I am not at all against the cultural turn, I had the feeling that many interpretations of colonialism looked as if colonialism mainly happened in the heads of people, in their imagination and phantasies. Colonialism, after all, was a rather down-to-earth machine of exploitation, although not as powerful as some interpretations suggest. It had very important social and economic sides, and I wanted to emphasize those. 

At the time in the 2000s, when the cultural turn was at its height in some ways, I tried to provide a more balanced interpretation of colonialism that included the fact that the economic interest and the economic transformations that colonialism brought were very important.

The book is written for a broader audience and already embraces the challenges and potentials of the global turn in history. On the first pages you remark that – to translate into English – “the growing emphasis on interconnectedness and interdependence stands for the insight that the emergence of the modern world can be interpreted as a ‘shared history’.” May I ask what exactly you mean by “shared history”? Is there not a danger in such a view that the power imbalance between the colonial powers, on the one hand, and the colonised territories, on the other, gets obscured?

You are right and I would not use the term “shared history” now. At the time, it seemed to be an interesting concept to emphasize that Europe as colonial power shaped the history of Africa, of Asia, and of Latin America. Most European countries, or all European countries in one way or another, were involved in colonialism, and the colonial project shaped their histories at home too. At that time this was, I think, an important insight. 

I think it still remains an important insight that we cannot understand our history without taking into consideration the fact that colonialism in many ways shaped what was going on in Europe. But the term “shared” sounds as if it was cordially shared in the way that everyone involved were equals – it almost sounds as if Europe graciously allowed the others to share a common history. The term also underestimates the hierarchies, which are still present in the interpretation of this history. 

We have to think about these histories as parts of one common research agenda, but that does not mean that this was a history that was shared. This is something that has to be reconsidered, especially because the term “shared history” is now often used, for instance, in the debate about the looted objects. The Foreign Ministry organized nearly two years ago a conference in Berlin on “shared history” and one of the keynote speakers from Africa, the Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, very harshly deconstructed this term as a very imperialist and very arrogant concept of rethinking the relations between Germany and its former colonies.

When I re-read your book on colonialism, I was struck by how timely its last chapter sounds. There you reflected on the contemporary relevance of colonialism and observed that – and I quote from the chapter – “the thesis of colonial genocides troubles the idea of the singularity of the Holocaust”. For more than a year, a dispute has been raging over German memory politics, which has already been dubbed Historikerstreit 2.0.  May I ask you to reflect on the relationship between the remembrance of the Holocaust and the remembrance of colonial crimes? Why has the German debate become so tense?

When I wrote the book, we were in the middle of the debate about what most historians would call genocide in what was at the time German South West Africa and what is now Namibia. Especially Jürgen Zimmerer but also others brought up the idea that there is a link between this genocide and the Holocaust. Jürgen Zimmerer then published his book FromWindhuk to Auschwitz? (Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz?) where he posed this question explicitly.

Of course, this was connected to earlier interventions about colonialism, especially by Africans or African Americans and by people from the Caribbean. One may remember the famous insight by Aimé Césaire who said in his book Discourse on Colonialism that white people cannot forgive Hitler mainly because he “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.” This was published for the first time in 1950 in French and then translated in 1968 into German but did not really get the kind of attention it would have deserved. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote something similar after he visited Warsaw shortly after the war – for a black person, as terrible as it is, this was not something new, he claimed.

Some people have accused Césaire and Du Bois of relativizing the Holocaust, and here we are already in the middle of the debate. The question is to what extent the Holocaust is unique, or to what extent it can be compared to other crimes, to what extent memory politics can include both the Holocaust and colonial crimes, and to what extent taking colonial violence and crimes of genocides into the picture would automatically ‘relativize’ the Holocaust. I think this is a specifically German debate.

As one of my colleagues said, the Germans first killed all the Jews and now they like to tell everyone how to think about anti-Semitism. I think so too. I also see that there is a danger of making the Holocaust into one crime among others. I think this would be wrong. At the same time, I also think that from the perspective of many people in other parts of the world the Holocaust does not have the kind of dimension that it rightly has in Germany. 

Part of the issue is that there are so many difficulties when trying to contextualize the Holocaust. One must take into consideration that the German view on it is not necessarily the same as the more global view.

I have the feeling that many people were confronted only very recently with the fact that colonialism produced a lot of crimes. This might partly explains the very harsh reaction in Germany to efforts by people like Michael Rothberg and his ideas concerning how to draw a picture of very complex memory constellations. The harsh rejection of such ideas also has to do with the fact that people were suddenly confronted with something they have never heard of or ignored for so long. Therefore, at least implicitly, they had to realize that maybe they also missed out on a lot of important discussions. But instead of acknowledging that this is something to think about, they harshly rejected the suggestions to bring colonial crimes into the picture as antisemitic or anti-Israel.

One has to distinguish between what is antisemitic and what is anti-Israel. Sometimes these things go together, but not all the time. At least we have to take into consideration the way in which Israel is seen by many countries in the Global South and not confuse these two phenomena.

I must say I have found the recent debate important but rather depressing. In the end, there was little effort on either side to at least understand how the other side thinks. I hope that in the middle run colonial crimes will become a part of the memory of violence and genocide but that it would not put the Holocaust aside or somehow relativize it. Such a more complex memory landscape would represent the world we are living in now. 

Germany is more and more becoming a country with people from many different parts of the world with very different histories and very different ideas about what should be remembered. We are in the middle or at least at the beginning of this process, a process that implies a lot of harsh debates, but I think that the debates might calm down or at least normalize in the next years.

I must say I was rather surprised by the rhetorical violence in the discussions of the so-called Historikerstreit 2.0. Maybe it had also to do with the Covid-19 pandemic during which people had so much time to write on Twitter and when there was so little opportunity to really talk – although I think the harshness would have been there anyway. I do not want to say that Covid-19 made this debate possible, but I think that it added slightly to the rather surprising harshness and negative dynamics of it.

Looking at it from the distance, it is a very interesting debate to explore, especially for historians. It tells us really important things about fights over memory: who tries to be the champion, who tries to say what is right and what is wrong, how this is contested and by whom. Sometimes I think that some white men could not stand the fact that they were suddenly criticized by – and this sounds a bit stereotypical, I know – colored women who challenged their views on how we need to think about the past. That was a crucial part of the debate, I think. One can criticize Achille Mbembe at many levels, but the very arrogant tone towards him by journalists and some scholars was rather telling too. There is still a lot to be done as far as this issue is concerned.

You already noted that this was a very German debate. However, interestingly it was started by an intervention by somebody who is familiar with Germany but who is not a German himself. It reminded me of other debates in Germany on historical issues, for example, the debate on the Sonderweg, the so-called German special path, which grew out of an intervention by two British scholars, Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn. Why do foreigner scholars have this ability of launching such big debates?

This is not untypical. Think about France and the American historian Robert Paxton who wrote about Vichy and very much deconstructed the common view that most of France consisted of resistance fighters – to which there was a response from a small group of nasty right-wingers, and so on. 

I think that sometimes you have to come from the outside to speak truth to power in a specific way.

In the case of recent German debates, Achille Mbembe had visited Germany for a number of times, but he was not at all familiar with these German debates. I think he was totally surprised and upset about the way things happened and which kind of corner he was put into. This kind of distance also facilitates launching a debate in a way, because you can easily start by saying that “these are people from elsewhere and they do not know exactly what is going on.” That was said about Mbembe: that if he is in Germany, he cannot just say anything, he has to take into consideration our German perspective.

It is also rather typical that the debate that was already around a bit was suddenly triggered in a big way by someone from the outside – even if someone like Dirk Moses is much more familiar with German politics and culture than Achille Mbembe, for instance. Dirk Moses knew much better where to put the nail with his article on the German catechism. He was much better prepared for the responses, although I think he was also surprised by how massive the responses to his provocations were. Unlike Mbembe, he wrote his initial article as a provocation – Mbembe never wrote anything to contribute to German memory debates, he was drawn into it and then was made into a villain.

Let us return to your book on colonialism. If you were to revise it today, what would you change? Or asked differently: What has happened in the study of colonialism since then? What are the main debates in the field today?

The issue of colonial violence is much more at the center than it used to be, so it would be important to stress this aspect more. Moreover, I would emphasize the issue of racism much more too. They are in the book, but in recent debates both violence and racism were articulated much more prominently. Of course, the discussion about looted objects is completely missing in my book. Especially in Germany but not only here, this topic has become the main tool to open up the debate about colonialism to a broader public. I would emphasize even more the economic dimension of colonialism. It would not be a radical revision, but I would emphasize some points more.

Another important question on colonialism is whether there was one colonialism, or there were many colonialisms? To what extent do we have to be more specific about what we mean when we talk about a colonial situation: is it the same everywhere? I think we do not see very new conceptual ideas about colonialism, but we see a lot of new research topics and new dimensions. There is much more literature around that allows us to understand different aspects of colonialism. Our knowledge is in many ways much thicker empirically than ever before.

The dimension that now plays such an important role is the memory of colonialism. It is related to the monuments – just think about The Rhodes Must Fall campaign. In 2005-2006, there was nothing comparable whereas now we have a huge debate. At the time of the writing of my book, questions about street names were already around, but now they have become a very important issue too.

I would still emphasize that it is important to look at what had happened in the colonies. To my mind there is too much of a metropolitan-centered historiography on colonialism, in which the colonized often only appear as collective subjects, in a way as a kind of objects of colonial phantasies. 

The insight that colonialism shaped the metropolises now became the center of attention in many colonial histories. I think this is a bit odd and we should bring colonialism back to the colonies, so to say. 

This is what I did in this book quite a bit, which I would also like to emphasize as a more conceptual point.

I would like to turn to your latest book, Geschichte der Sklaverei: Von der Antike bis ins 21. Jahrhundert, which was published last year. You argue that the institution of slavery “was the norm, not the exception, throughout much of world history and remains so today.” What sparked your interest in slavery? What are the key questions historians are debating today concerning this important topic?

My initial interest, strangely enough, came through my interest in labor history. I was directing for some twelve years an international research center on global labor history and over the years we also had quite a few historians working on slavery and the question of unfree versus free labor was always around.

I could observe that numerous historians of slavery now began to understand themselves as historians of labor, because labor was very much at the heart of slavery even if you cannot interpret slavery exclusively around the concept of labor. So that was at the root of interest, the issue of free and unfree labor and how to define slavery: is a general definition of slavery possible at all? How much do we have to take into consideration the variety of practices and the ideological dimensions?

I was working on Africa where slavery was very often exclusively treated through the history of the slave trade. I became interested in the varieties of slavery and different slave trades in Africa, not only the Atlantic one but many others as well. 

I could see that there was not much published on this topic in German. It may have been my temperament as a mediator or journalist to notice that there is such a broad literature and that this is also a global history topic that really goes through time and space like very few other topics, and that is also related to labor, and Africa plays an important role in it – those were the kind of ingredients that really made me write this book.

Writing it was even more complicated than writing my book on colonialism because I had to cover ground that I am not too familiar with. As we know, slavery played a role already in ancient history but there is also new emerging literature on parts of the world I did not know at all – slavery has been widespread in parts of Europe, in Asia, and so forth.

Like with colonialism, the memory and long shadow of slavery still shapes the lives of so many people. I wrote the book in the summer of 2020 when Black Lives Matter and other movements became really important. Racism continues to shape so many parts of the world and is often related to the history of slavery, so I think there were enough reasons to look at it from the broader historical perspective.

I was positively surprised by the reactions and the fact that people got interested in my book, especially because it was a book that did not only look at very specific aspects but tried to offer a broader overview of the many dimensions of slavery. I think that caught the interest of many readers. I got many reactions from schoolteachers and people who were just interested in this kind of history, trying to make sense of the historical dimensions of what they see happening today. I think it was a rather timely intervention.

I do not understand myself as a specialist on slavery, but I worked on many topics earlier in my life where slavery was relevant. It was also a useful exercise for me to bring all these different strands together.

You mentioned the long shadow of slavery and that brings me to my next question, which concerns something I have always wondered about. As a historian of East Africa, I have wondered why slavery plays such an important role in memory politics and in historiography in some regions, whereas in others it does not. You write in the book that the slave trade in East Africa, for example, in the Indian Ocean outnumbered the Transatlantic slave trade. Can you explain why the question of slavery does not play a big role in the memory politics and historiography of East Africa, for example, while in other regions it has become particularly important?

The fact that the question of slavery became so important especially in the context of the Atlantic has to do with the sources, but it also has to do with political groups that were able to voice certain concerns about it. The enslaved who were forced to travel from Africa to the Americas, especially to some Caribbean Islands and to North America, played a crucial role in the birth of capitalism; there then emerged a group of African Americans who started to think about history and to what extent slavery continued to shape their life. This was especially true for the group that emerged after the abolition of the slave trade and the so-called emancipation, when racism and exploitation in fact continued to exist.

It is very difficult to find these groups in many other parts of the world. If you look at the trans-Saharan slave trade, somehow these people disappeared as a distinguishable group. We may find them here and there and everywhere, but it was very difficult for them to develop a broader consciousness and political movement.

We also had a very specific situation in the way sources are available. 

Slavery shaped the United States, for instance, which is one of the most important democracies in the world and, at the same time, one of the most racist countries in the world. I think this tension helped to put slavery on the agenda. In other parts of the world, this question is much more discrete and there are not that many pressure groups who really bring it to the fore. The situation is changing a bit, but probably more on the scholarly side. Now the Indian Ocean is really gaining ground in slavery historiography; we have a lot of new and exciting work about this region. But as a political issue, it is not that visible.

The importance of the slavery question in the United States relates to the fact that the United States played such an important role in the Atlantic slave trade, although many more slaves went to Brazil, for instance, or to the Caribbean. The present situation has to do with politics but also with the emergence of academic infrastructure. There are thus several reasons why the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Atlantic world is so much more visible and prominently debated.

In my book, I wanted to emphasize that we should not take slavery in the United States as our model for understanding the phenomenon. Compared to the many others, it was a very exceptional form of slavery. 

We have this tension or dilemma that when people here think about slavery at all, they think about Gone with the WindUncle Tom’s Cabin and movies like 12 Years a Slave and so on. This is in many ways not the kind of slavery that was experienced and, so to speak, conceptualized in most other parts of the world where slavery existed. For instance, in the West African caliphate of Sokoto, arguably the largest slave societies in the history of Africa, slaves could achieve very high and important administrative positions – but could be sold or even killed at any moment if the slave owner wanted it.

As the history of slavery remains a sensitive issue to this day, I would like to ask a question about methodology: How does one write the history of slavery? What pitfalls and difficulties did you encounter in writing the book?

There were a lot of difficulties. As I already mentioned, there is such a huge array of literature. Writings on slavery and the slave trade represent nearly all the kinds of historiography you can imagine. Many different measures – all these different people who were counting slaves and working on the data sets, and so on. And then you really have to make an effort to reconstruct life stories of individual slaves. Just the sheer methodological variety and different approaches constitute a real challenge.

There are very few historians who provided a comprehensive view on the history of slavery. Moses Finley was one of the historians of ancient slavery who also dared to venture into other periods and regions, but usually a historian working on, let’s say, slavery in ancient Rome would never write about slavery in East Africa and vice versa. You can easily misinterpret things when you try to do that. It is sometimes difficult to get a real grasp of the controversies and why some argument is more convincing than the other if you do not know the broader context of a particular field.

The other difficulty relates to the definition of slavery, or how to explain what slavery is. 

Slavery is difficult to define but you know it when you see it. It is difficult to express this in a book. After reading my book, people would ask: what exactly is slavery? It is in fact a very fluid category and when writing such history, you have to show how the category shifts. The way we consider if something qualifies as slavery may have to shift too. It is difficult to work with this complexity without entering into a complicated methodological-conceptual discussion.

Writing such book is a very good exercise in making decisions about what is important and what is not. Of course, I made a lot of omissions and some people have criticized the fact that reading it you do not get a good sense of how slaves lived and what it meant to be a slave. I see that. I tried to insert such stories but for many it is still not enough because we now have quite a bit knowledge on the daily lives of slaves – or at least on how they managed to survive. I opted to try to cover a number of topics at the expense of too many live stories, but this was an individual decision and I recognize that others would have done otherwise.

You are a well-known scholar of global history in Germany and have dealt extensively with questions of global history in your books. May I therefore ask how you see the current state of the subject? Has the field, as Jeremy Adelman asked in 2017, already had its moment?

It has had a certain moment, but I would not say that this moment is now over, or that global history is currently in decline. Not at all. I think there is a certain routinization of it. And the early excitement about it is gone a bit, that is true. But I see that as a rather good thing. There are still a lot of people working on global history.

Now we are probably more in a “bread and butter” phase, that is to say those huge conceptual or ideological battles are over, at least for the moment, and people are trying out how they can employ global perspectives on a range of topics.

Jeremy Adelman put his finger on the pitfalls of global history in his paper, but he mentioned things that had already been discussed. He criticized global history for being exclusively Anglophone. That it has a very limited view on the existing historiography and on the sources that are available. Another point of criticism is the fact that there is a kind of fetish of mobility – suddenly historians are interested in people who were traveling and moving around while those who were largely immobile, such as peasants, are no longer part of the picture. These are things that have been criticized earlier too, Adelman merely summarized the critique, I would say. But I do not expect that global history will suddenly dissolve from the inside because people will say “oh my God, what have we done, maybe we have exaggerated.”

I think that the current state of the field is rather satisfying. There is hardly any position advertised which is exclusively on German or French history anymore. The global component is always part of it. 

It is a bit like social history earlier or gender history more recently: these things have become part of the “normal” historiographical routine in a way and people no longer feel the need to flag them all the time. I do not see the new nationalisms or what people already claim is the end of globalization as influencing global history writing – and global historians have always emphasized the importance of the nation-state. They were just arguing against taking the nation-state as the unquestioned historiographical framework to work on whatever topic. 

My last question concerns what you term the pitfalls of global history. The practice of global history is dominated by universities in the so-called West. African historians have been hesitant to take up the approach and have rarely participated in debates in the field. How would you explain this apparent imbalance? William Ochieng’, a famous Kenyan historian, wrote back in the early 1970s that the colonial education system had taught him “to regard only European activities in the world as history”. Is global history reintroducing Europe and the Europeans as the main actors? Is there a certain tendency in global history to explain African history in terms of the outsider again?

I see this danger and I have faced a lot of skepticism in Africa about global history at two levels. The first is that many African colleagues complain that if African history enters global history, it is mainly through the slave trade. In other words, it is a way of reemphasizing the picture of Africa as a continent of the slave trade and slave traders, and thus providing a very limited perspective. The second one is a mixture. There is a critique that global history de-emphasizes the importance of the local, the knowledge of languages and other things that go with this knowledge, but there is also the critique that global history is a perspective or historiographical practice that most Africans simply cannot afford because, depending on the topic, it may imply having to visit archives in many different parts of the world. 

In the historiography of Africa, global history is very much an agenda that came from the outside which is now seen as a sort of gold standard. Those who cannot afford to develop their credibility as global historians are suddenly considered ‘backward’ and not really part of the game anymore. This is something that Africanists and African historians are very worried about – that this new research agenda is something that again excludes them from what we might call mainstream historiography. There is something to those worries.

Some ten years ago, Jean Allman wrote a very interesting article in The American Historical Review which was about a more specific topic, but part of her story was about how to write post-colonial Ghanaian history. She argued quite convincingly there that it is not enough to just go, as in classic historiographical works, to the archives of the former colonial power, let’s say in London, and to the National Archives in Ghana. The post-colonial materials, so to speak, are here, there, and everywhere – they are in Munich, in Beijing, in Geneva, in New York, and so on. Even if you want to write a conventional national history of Ghana after independence, it is very difficult to do it within the framework of the new historiography that emphasizes entanglements and connections to other parts of the world because the sources you can use to do that will also reflect these entanglements and will be scattered around the world. 

I think this a real problem, which brought not only historians of Africa, but also of South Asia, for example, to have a rather critical stance on global history. There is a feeling, and it is difficult to belittle this, that this is a Western agenda, which was born in Western, mainly U.S. universities and has been made into a kind of gold standard while it excludes large numbers of historians in other parts of the world from being serious members of the historiographical mainstream. It may even reduce them again to people who provide some colorful details to the grand narrative that others are writing.

In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas, Ferenc Laczó and Lucie Hunter

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