Out of Africa: The Challenges, Evolution, and Opportunities of African Military History

In: Journal of African Military History
Charles G. Thomas Air Command and Staff College,

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Roy Doron Winston-Salem State University,

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Since their inception, African studies have endeavored to dispel the harmful racialized stereotypes of the African people. However, these efforts have been uneven and some aspects of African history have remained immersed in colonial dehumanized tropes. The sub-discipline of African military history has been one such aspect due in part to structural issues involved in its generation. However, with these structural issues slowly being overcome by advances in the discipline, the development of African institutions, and the expansion of historical inquiry, there are now a multitude of African military historical inquiries that might be successfully pursued. In turn, these inquiries will help transform the understanding of African military practices from a racialized discussion of slave raids and massacres to a nuanced examination of a complex socio-political practice.


Since their inception, African studies have endeavored to dispel the harmful racialized stereotypes of the African people. However, these efforts have been uneven and some aspects of African history have remained immersed in colonial dehumanized tropes. The sub-discipline of African military history has been one such aspect due in part to structural issues involved in its generation. However, with these structural issues slowly being overcome by advances in the discipline, the development of African institutions, and the expansion of historical inquiry, there are now a multitude of African military historical inquiries that might be successfully pursued. In turn, these inquiries will help transform the understanding of African military practices from a racialized discussion of slave raids and massacres to a nuanced examination of a complex socio-political practice.

When African Studies and African History came about as unique disciplines in in the West during the late 1940s until the 1960s, many of the early scholars, such as Melville Herskovits and Simon Ottenberg, saw their mission in part to undo spurious stereotypes of the African people. Their mission can be traced to countering racist Eurocentric ideas about Africa that can be found in early essays, such as Hegel’s The Philosophy of History and the infamous words of Hugh Trevor-Roper that there is no history of Africa, simply the “pointless gyrations of barbarous people in picturesque corners of the globe.” While the field has expanded beyond this initial idea, the academic pursuit of African studies and African history in particular has still had to expend a considerable effort on debunking these simple ideas. Even into the 2000s central works in the teaching of African studies remain essays such as Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” 1 and introductory volumes like Curtis Keim’s Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind, 2 both of which deconstruct the latent racist conceptions that are still projected throughout popular media and understandings of the continent. Given their continued provenance, it is obvious that the mission of African studies and African History in particular must remain at its heart the struggle to produce useable knowledge to help dismantle the deeper assumptions that the developed world has about Africa and which all too often warps the interactions between Africa and its global neighbors.

However, while the fifty years’ labor of African studies has helped shine a critical eye on many aspects of African history, society, economy, and a myriad of other subjects, this examination has not always proceeded evenly. This has led to a disjointed and sometimes incomplete view of the African experience in the past and present. As the editors of this journal, we contend that one of the subfields left largely behind has been that of the military history of Africa. The underdevelopment of this field has had multiple effects throughout the academy, with perhaps the largest being that the very tropes of a primitive and barbaric Africa which have been dispelled within the political, social, and economic realms by expansive historiographies remain within the popular and sometimes even academic understanding of the military realm. While there are now nuanced portraits of complex and cosmopolitan civilizations present throughout African history explored within the body of academic work on the continent, the topic of military history is much more circumscribed. Outside of specific topics such as Zulu impis or the occasional discussions of veterans of the liberation struggles, much of the military history remains a blank space within African historiography.

We contend that this underdevelopment is not necessarily planned, but is instead the result of several overlapping challenges that have made the pursuit of African military history a much more difficult topic to adequately explore. These challenges, including limited access to sources, underdeveloped supporting institutions, and even the politics of the topic, among other issues, have suppressed the growth of African military history as an outgrowth of African history and military history. However, these challenges have been being slowly overcome and the field is now finally finding its place within the corpus of both of its parent disciplines. With this finding of its place and the formation of a community, there are now new and expansive opportunities for historical exploration within the field as well as the necessity of a platform for this new work. Given this, this essay outlines these initial challenges, the processes by which they are being overcome, the opportunities this opening of academic exploration offers, and finally our vision for this journal as a new home for the work that we are confident will emerge in the coming years.

1 Challenges and Progress

Beginning with the formational period of the African studies and even to the present day there are numerous challenges that make researching and chronicling the military history of Africa a daunting task. These challenges individually are not necessarily unique to African military history; they are in fact found to some degree in either of its parent disciplines of African history or military history. However, it is the combination of this regional and thematic focus and the deep legacies both of these impart that make it a singularly challenging issue to research. These challenges tend to be found along three major axes within the discipline: the issues of access to source materials, institutional support for the subject, and interest within the Academy, which includes all of the incentives involved with that interest or lack thereof. While any of these three is troublesome, as historians universally know, the combination and interaction of these factors within the global academy has caused significant issues in the growth and development of a firm military historiography of Africa.

Access to sources is certainly not a new challenge in the historiography of Africa. From the start, African historians had serious challenges across the eras of their purview to effectively gather sources materials. For those scholars of Africa’s precolonial past, their explorations were often made far more difficult by the paucity of written sources. While certain societies on the continent had written traditions, such as the Sahelian sultanates and the written script of the coastal Swahili, much of the population of Africa’s past did not retain written records, relying more often on oral tradition and group memories. However, in the absence of written records, there was a deep challenge to effectively synthesize useable histories for large portions of the continent. Not only were oral traditions and oral history often mutable from teller to teller, they also effected a larger fight within the academy as to their efficacy as source materials for proper academic study.

These fights were eventually decisively concluded in favor of those historians who supported the incorporation of oral traditions and histories into the larger body of academic work, but this was also largely an effect of the histories woven together by the Africanist historians over the initial decade of the discipline. In pursuing these histories, the scholars researching them had found synergy between the oral traditions that were being presented to them and a host of other information and material culture. These academics used archaeological excavations within their region, botany, weather records, written records of visitors, and even oral traditions of neighboring groups to weave together a complete and supported history. Of course, a central theme of many oral histories and traditions was often war, conflict, and conquest, used to help explain how various peoples arrived, settled, and administered the regions where they now claimed their homeland. The classic example of this is the Epic of Sundiata, which explores the founding of the Mali Kingdom, but such tales are found throughout the peoples of Africa. As such, the difficulties of the precolonial military scholars in terms of source material have not necessarily been worse than those of any other precolonial subject. In fact, some of the earliest attempts to write traditional histories of these extraliterate groups have formed the foundation of early African military historiography, like John Lamphear’s The Traditional History of the Jie of Uganda. 3

However, though the colonial period saw an influx of written records as imperial bureaucracies ranging from governmental bureaus to missionary societies began chronicling their newly bound regions, these written records remain problematic. These vast majority of these records were written by European administrators of the larger colonial project and held the same conscious and unconscious biases that so much of the history of Africa has been struggling against. While some African authors and chroniclers emerged, especially in the twilight years of Empire in Africa, these remained by far the minority and often only covered a discrete fraction of the larger temporal and geographical span of the African colonial experience. In many cases, what remains of these voices is often preserved in primary source material such as newspapers like the West African Pilot, which offered commentary by African authors on contemporary issues for their African audiences.

These same issues permeate colonial African military history. While the emergence of written records helped expand the historical record of military actions in Africa, the majority of these covered were those of military conquests of African societies. Though some contemporary accounts are rife with racist depictions of their African opponents, notably Reginald Baker’s Benin: the City of Blood, others discuss European officers leading African troops into battle. 4 Yet even the latter accounts, such as Boyd Alexander’s transcontinental odyssey depicts the African soldiers fighting for the British as a mix of superstitious children and vicious animals. 5 The newer colonial military constructs also did not avoid these instances, with the European officers’ voices emerging as ones that both patronized and “othered” their colonial soldiery. British military discussions of their Africans referred to their natural ability with the bayonet and their childlike faith that “Bwana knows best,” 6 while German contemporary accounts offered self-serving accounts of askari’s devotion to their colonial officers. While there are occasional primary written sources of African soldiers during the First and Second World Wars, these tend to be short and fragmentary in nature, such as those contained within the edited volume Abyssinian Patchwork 7 or political publications like An African Soldier Speaks. 8 One notable exception is Isaac Fadoyebo’s memoir of his time in Burma during the Second World War. 9 Of course this is not to say that there are not archival sources that can help bring these military historical experiences to light, but as Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries 10 shows these require deep reading of colonial sources and careful interpretation of those records left behind largely by colonial functionaries.

With the emergence of the postcolonial era there were now many written sources being produced by Africans on the military and its operation in Africa. However, this era came with its own limitations, specifically for military and to a lesser degree political histories. While many of the written sources through this period were either distributed through general publication or at least were preserved within open archives, for topics relating to the newly-won political kingdoms the records were often jealously guarded away, especially from scholars from outside the continent. While initially some sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists involved with the construction of the new political structures of the continent could chronicle the process, it would not take long for these records to cease. By the mid-70s, despite the militaries of these African states now being bureaucratic organizations in the mold of their colonial forebears, their records were effectively cut off from inquisitive eyes. This trend has continued holding past the end of the Cold War, with even the older records of many African militaries being held separately from publicly-available archives. These efforts at privacy, combined with continuing silence on the part of many retired service members, has meant that the source material needed for modern, integrated histories has been largely impossible to reach. However, there is some indication that scholars might now be finding a way to access these records on a case-by-case basis, with works such as Fantahun Ayele’s The Ethiopian Army: From Victory to Collapse 11 now showing the potential histories that can be written as these records become more available.

No matter the era, the issue of access to materials has been one that has slowed the development of military histories on the continent. For those interested in the precolonial era this has been simply an outgrowth of the same difficulties all their peers face, but for scholars of the colonial and postcolonial era there are unique difficulties that remain an issue. Still, as recent years have shown, these issues are slowly being ameliorated. For the colonial era, scholars are increasingly able to weave together personal informal recollections to truly draw back the veil of African colonial military service. For the postcolonial era the silences and secrecy that were so necessary during the Cold War are in many cases being relaxed, allowing for access to sources that previously were at most rumored about. However, even as these histories now become an academic possibility, there are several other challenges that face the sub-discipline in comparison to its parents, including an asymmetry in institutional support.

The next challenge is the general absence in Africa of the institutions that sustain the writing and dissemination of the military history of the West. A casual observer will note that the military histories of the “Western World,” specifically Western Europe and the United States are extremely well developed. Any single large scale conflict that the United States or any of the major European powers has taken part in likely has multiple academic volumes devoted to it and perhaps a plethora of popular accounts. Part of what makes these possible is the existence of state institutions that support the production of histories. For the United States there are groups such as the United States Army Center for Military History and the Naval History and Heritage Command. Analogous, if smaller, institutions can be found within developed European nations. Although these vary in size, all offer financial and political support to the compilation and analysis of military history and the military history of their country in particular. In addition, for many of the armed services that these institutions are attached to, there are also significant higher education requirements for officers, necessitating specific military-run and administered schools known as Professional Military Education. These institutions are often focused primarily on the educational aspects of the profession of arms and have a strong historical component to them, as students both study and produce their own academic case studies of their militaries.

The ultimate upshot of all of these institutions is that the large-scale production and dissemination of the military histories of the west is explicitly supported by formal institutions. The United States government, and specifically its military, employs hundreds of historians to weave together and analyze the tactical, operational, and strategic aspects of historical military actions. This same body of historians also examine the economic, social, and cultural aspects of militaries from across the world. Beyond this direct employment, these government institutions and their attached foundations also offer fellowships and scholarships to a plethora of scholars who are focusing on military history as their primary academic pursuit. This financial support for scholars is most often focused on the production of the military history of their own national military history, with scholarships such as the General Matthew B. Ridgeway Military History Research Grant or the Marine Corps History Division Research Grants focused solely on the production of scholarship on American military history. With these resources behind them, scholars of Western military history have the ability to produce a dizzying array of works, covering all aspects of singular military conflicts with multiple volumes. In turn, the primary research that many of these scholars do feeds the further research and reinterpretation of conflicts in both the academic and popular arenas, creating a robust and healthy marketplace of ideas and inquiry.

Simply put, these institutions do not exist in anywhere near this scale for African states. While most European armed forces are dwarfed by the massive American Department of Defense, they in turn still are larger than most African militaries by an order of magnitude. This disparity plays itself out in numerous ways that all form part of the greater challenge of producing African military history. The first is that many African militaries have at best smaller Professional Military Education facilities and these are often focused more on the technical aspects of the profession of arms as opposed to the more abstract discussions of academic topics. This means that the actual pursuit of military history has at best limited support within these institutions, unlike those of the United States and Western Europe. These small military establishments also have the effect of having a smaller pool of manpower to cover a still robust amount of functions, meaning there is little incentive to placing active personnel into positions as historians or records-keepers, much less supporting large scale institutions in the mold of the us Army’s Center of Military History. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, African states’ military establishments often have proportionally even less funding that those of comparable states off of the continent, meaning that whereas the United Kingdom or the United States can offer scholarships and fellowships to civilian academics, these countries are denied that capability. All of these factors taken together have the ultimate effect of depressing if not nullifying domestic institutional production of military history, which when taken in combination with the issues of outside access, make any large-scale production of African military history an extremely daunting challenge.

While the lack of these institutions remains an issue, some regions do indeed have their own organic military historical institutions and others have begun developing them. South Africa has long had strong Professional Military Education (pme) institutions which have often partnered with Stellenbosch University for a historical component. This has led to the fostering of notable institutions which have helped produce a strong body of African military history, including one of this publication’s spiritual predecessors, Scientia Militaria. 12 While much of South African produced military histories focus on the conflicts of that country throughout its history, 13 these have at least built up a formidable corpus and one that has helped produce a larger popular body of work as well. Even beyond South Africa, the defense establishments across the continent are seeing increased development of their historical institutions. Within the Tanzania, the Tanzania People’s Defense Force has its own archives and records division and has recently seen its National Defense College pair with the University of Dar es Salaam to develop a Military and Diplomatic History curriculum for its military and civilian students. Beyond this, Rwanda’s defense forces have established its own post for historical inquiry. Brigadier General Frank Rusagara has used this posting to produce the first major work on Rwandan military history, Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda. 14 These slow but notable efforts at producing these institutions can be found throughout the continent and while South Africa has a firm head start, the coming decades will hopefully see their results replicated across the continent.

The final challenge is that of academy interest in the subject of African military history. This is not only a question of whether the academy as a whole has a place for military histories that have been produced, but also of the employment of Africanist military historians and their integration into the larger academy. The question of employability is a central if often unstated question at the heart of the choice of subject for young academics. If a topic of inquiry does not offer at least a relatively firm chance of future employment, it often falls out of the mainstream discourse, as there is little new work that is being produced on it. Often in response, these alterations in the discourse cause established scholars to call for the revitalization of the older sub-discipline or even to sometimes chastise the historical profession as a whole for its seeming abandonment. In recent years we have seen this repeatedly in columns denouncing the apparent disuse or inattention to military and diplomatic history. 15 These columns often point out that the employment listings for military historians have been moribund in recent years and that military historians competing with other historians in more contemporarily popular fields will be at a disadvantage. In addition, there is often the discussion of military history’s absence at larger historical conferences, such as at the American Historical Association’s annual conferences.

This same issue can be found in parallel in the study of African Military History, where the subject itself has often had a difficult time finding a home within African history. While issues of wars, conflicts, and battles found a home in the early Nationalist historiography, following the waning of the Nationalists these subjects lost most of their interest. Especially following the ebullient decade of independence, the military and warfare as a subject lost much of its luster as militaries overthrew their legitimate governments, fueled instability in the new states, and often continued to serve a repressive role in African societies. As such, even as scholars attempted to find historical solutions to Africa’s problems and dispel the terrible stereotypes of the continent, much of the study of militaries and wars were dropped as they were seen to be a part of the expansive narrative of chaotic darkness. While established scholars on occasion returned to the idea of African militaries to discuss contemporary challenges, such as Ali Mazrui’s “The Resurrection of the Warrior Tradition in African Political Culture,” 16 much of the discipline left such studies behind. This broad neglect of the topic exacerbated the larger disciplinary challenges to fostering and integrating military history and has remained a stumbling block in the expansion of the sub-discipline from both the military and African historical traditions.

However, this issue of academic interest has been one that has also been recently been receding in importance and in fact has been revealed to largely overstated. In terms of the overall discussion of military history, it must be understood that much of the consternation involving the marginalization of military history has regarded the part of the study known as the “Old” military history, that thematic approach that offers primacy to wars, battles, and campaigns. The “Old” military history offers analysis of the successful and unsuccessful practice of war, explaining how wars were waged, why they were waged that way, and what historical effects their waging had. This form had existed since the initial formation of history as an academic discipline in the late 19th century. However, with the continued expansion of the field in the 20th century beyond the traditional realms of political, economic, and diplomatic histories to include social and cultural histories that include the voices of subaltern populations and marginalized peoples, all of these themes have had to compete for space. As such, although there might have been a growing number of academic appointments, there was also a growing number of themes that historians could approach. As such, some of the primacy of the “Old” military history was lost and works that synthesized social aspects of the human experience in wartime began to develop into what would become known as the “New” military history.

Because historians of social and cultural history were now exploring the full experience of populations around the world, including the members of military organizations and those who had experienced war and conflict, these histories looked at the how militaries structured themselves socially and how the social organization of the societies that held the militaries influenced their organization. These works also explored subjects such as how particular cultures experienced war and conflict as well as its aftermath. These “New” military histories explored the military experience of a people but in a very different way than the “Old” military history. The emergence of this new approach to military history has meant that although members of the “Old” military history have found less openings asking for military history, military history itself has proliferated. In fact, by exploring the socio-cultural context of both elites and subaltern populations, the opportunities for military history to become intersectional history with studies of race, ethnicity, class, and gender and thus to become more effectively integrated into the larger current historical corpus have expanded considerably.

This “New” military history has played a key role in revitalizing African military history as well. While the histories of elites waging battle and campaigns or the lionization of militaries largely fell from favor in the turbulent decade after independence, discussions of the intersection of socio-cultural formation with military practice and structure have continued to find favor and have even proliferated in recent years. Emergence of studies on liberation struggle veterans’ communities helped push much of this work forward as well as social histories of the colonial forces, such as Gregory Mann’s Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century. 17 In addition, the exploration of war and conflict on African cultures also pressed forward important aspects of the new military history within the African context. Especially given the traumatic experiences of Africa’s postcolonial wars, these new histories found new resonance. With the “New” military history having sustained the topic, there have now been increasingly complex works produced that have managed to even begin to reincorporate the “Old” military history, creating holistic works that allow for a historical socio-cultural examination of the militaries that existed within Africa while also discussing their operations. The more recent works of Richard Reid 18 and John Thornton 19 have notably managed to take this approach and seem to be pointing towards the future of the sub-discipline, one that allows for the exploration of the “Old” military history within the framework of the “New.”

Despite these attempts, some of the old stereotypes of African military history have permeated themselves into a new generation. In 2008, while still a graduate student, Dr. Doron organized a conference on the campus of the University of Texas titled War and Conflict in Africa. Dr. Thomas assisted with much of the conference planning and execution. The call for papers arrived at Dr. Doron’s undergraduate alma mater, the University of Washington in Seattle. There, a group of graduate students attempted to organize a boycott of the conference, claiming that the very existence of such a conference “reinforces the negative stereotypes about Africa.” Though a faculty advisor quickly pointed out that the study of conflict is as important in Africa as it is anywhere else in the world, the knee jerk, if well intended, reaction highlights the continued struggle of African military history’s acceptance, even in new generations of scholars of the continent.

2 Opportunities for Exploration

While this expansion of access and interpretation as well as growth of institutional capacity and academic interest, it is possible to grow African military history as a topic of interest in directions that were previously cut off. The opportunity now exists to not only cast a light on previously shadowy events but also to allow for the reinterpretation and revision of much of what we know now that it might be viewed through the lens of the military activity of the African people. For both what might be viewed as the “Old” military history and “New” military history, there are numerous critical areas that can be explored that will enrich both of African military history’s academic parents, strengthening both disciplines.

In terms of the “Old” military history, these regions of growth are obvious. With the exception of the large-scale campaigns of colonial powers on the continent, specifically the wars of colonial conquest and the World Wars, there is a deep paucity of operational histories either on the continent or centering African actors. This is especially true of any conflicts that do not feature any non-African actors, a topic of which there is almost complete silence within the realm of operational histories. As such, with new sources and possible institutional support, there is now the possibility of bringing forth histories of African conflicts from a plethora of time periods and regions.

In terms of precolonial history, there are innumerable local and regional conflicts that are known but not fleshed out or understood through the lens of military history. While there is currently excellent work being done on the raiding conflicts of pastoral peoples and a strong historical tradition amongst the nationalist historians of Nigeria for looking at the wars of the precolonial kingdoms, there is little other operational history that has been looked at despite much of precolonial African history featuring war. From Axum to Abyssinia, the Christian empires of the Horn had a long and heralded history of military operations against their regional rivals. While some of these were solely against foes within the Horn, Axum projected its power into the Arabian Peninsula in a series of planned operations. Later on, its successor Abyssinia would find itself a player within the larger Indian Ocean and Red Sea conflicts within the early modern period, bringing in coalition operations with Portugal against a joint Ottoman-Adal invasion. During this same time period, the Swahili city-states were waging military campaigns against one another, against Portuguese invaders, and against a mysterious foe, the Wazimba. In addition, populations in Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola were fighting complex and fierce conflicts against the Portuguese, who were using war to impose their own authority upon these regions. While all of these conflicts are known, they are rarely discussed as military history, but instead as simply events within the larger history of the region. Beyond these, there is a rich tradition of conflicts and military operations throughout the precolonial era, for which the study of their organizations, goals, and operations would enrich the history of the African people.

It is in the colonial period that we actually see the beginnings of operational histories, although admittedly this is often through the lens of the colonial forces waging war. Notable foes of the colonial conquest have seen their own histories written, though, and sometimes even through an operational discussion of their organization, goals, and actions. Larger than life polities like the Zulu Kingdom and Samori’s Empire have seen these treatments, but there are so many more figures of resistance that built or raised strong forces and fought effective and innovative campaigns against the colonizing Europeans or just as often their African auxiliaries. The Azande of the Congo were just as fierce as Shaka’s ancestors in their resistance and even had perhaps more consistent success against their Belgian opponents, but there is little written on their military structure or operations. The same might be said of the Nama and Herero, who waged a brilliant guerrilla campaign against the German forces invading their land, although that campaign was to end in tragedy. Given the innumerable local kingdoms and polities that waged conflicts of resistance throughout the period of colonial domination, there is a vast constellation of fascinating and valuable military histories waiting to be brought forth.

There are few conflicts as heralded within African history at the moment than those waged for the liberation of the Portuguese Empire and the white redoubt of Southern Africa. However, much like those of previous periods, while these are lauded and presented as events with political effects, they are rarely discussed as military campaigns waged by Africans. While there are histories that explore the organization, arming, planning, and execution of these conflicts by the South Africans, the Rhodesians, and the Portuguese who fought them, accounts offering the same content but from the liberation fighters’ point of view remain shockingly rare. For over thirty years Africans from a plethora of states and resistance groups fought a coordinated conflict that covered a third of a continent and wove in global political currents, and yet there is no larger military discussion of how these conflicts were planned, waged, and interwoven. Even within this larger struggle, there is a myriad of themes that have yet to be explored even on the local level, including issues in coalition warfare, allied strategy, military decision-making, the logistics of liberation, and even the direct tactical experiences of the guerrillas themselves. However, to the present day this massive series of interwoven struggles has rarely been treated through the lens of military conflict, but instead again as simply another aspect of the political struggle within the continent.

Finally, there are even histories to be written on the military campaigns of the independent states of Africa, which is surprisingly perhaps the least served of all of the eras involved. The conflicts of the later Cold War offer an extraordinary diversity of organization, equipment, strategy, and tactics and yet there is extremely little published on them academically so far. The Libya-Chad conflict and Chadian Civil Wars stand out as an exceptionally important study, as these so-called Toyota Wars saw the rise of weapons and tactics that have since become symbolic of conflicts in the developing world. Beyond this, they featured military commanders that planned and carried out complex and successful operations within hostile topography that would be the envy of many developed nations. On the flip side of the coin, Eritrea’s struggle for secession exhibited extraordinary improvisation amongst the liberation fronts regarding equipment and then an almost textbook Maoist strategy for protracted war. However, between these two conflicts, the former has essentially no military histories written while the latter is only now seeing publications.

Even the more recent African conflicts of the past 20 years offer excellent possibilities for military studies. The Civil Wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, while often positioned as anarchic and presented as ridiculous, hold narratives of organic military organization, local irregular tactics and operations, and even shifting military alliances between international coalitions and domestic factions. In addition, the Congo Wars offer a stunning array of regular conflict, including impressive operational planning on the part of Rwanda, as well as irregular elements of local militias and proxies. An operational examination of the decisions made and organizations that emerged would offer a rich portrait of modern African conflicts.

With access to sources having been increasingly open and with African institutions becoming more established, these opportunities are increasingly becoming available for scholars in North America, Europe, and Africa. Given that so little of the operational histories of African conflicts has emerged, there is a wide field of subjects for developing scholars to approach. In turn, the exploration of these topics can and will serve multiple topics. The first is to drive back the pernicious myth of anarchic violence being the sole conflict on the African continent. Instead scholarship will show organized military efforts focused on political goals; military organizations shaped by their social, cultural, and political context; complex military systems led by hierarchical leaders; and even the rational use of violence by stable and strong African political units. In addition, these studies will help drive a reappreciation or revision of previous histories as scholars add military analysis to their political, diplomatic, and social histories. Finally, and on a very practical level, African institutions will have African case studies and histories to look at and analyze as they educate their political and military leadership. These case studies will resonate more fully with these students, as they will reflect the African context of the problems they face even in the present day.

Of course with the increasing interest in African military topics from social and cultural historians, there are also an extraordinary diversity of new frontiers for exploration in terms of the “New” military history as well. In fact, it is within this realm that we have seen the most promising expansion of the field, as these social and cultural historians have developed a more expansive community and support networks. Excellent works such as Myles Osborne’s Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c. 1800 to the Present, 20 Michelle Moyd’s Violent Intermediaries, and Timothy Parson’s The African Rank and File 21 have emerged recently, helping expand the understanding of the social and cultural world of African military service in the colonial and postcolonial era. Beyond the preserve of solely military service, there are numerous existing and emerging studies on the conception and experience of military action within African populations throughout history, often from a gendered or ethnicized perspective. Given the expansive possibilities for intersections between war, military service, and socio-cultural experience, the frontiers for further examination are vast across the historical eras and geographic regions of the continent.

Within the precolonial military experience there are countless intersections of language, social hierarchy, political power, conceptions of gender, and many more that remain undiscussed. Given that precolonial polities and societies required political violence for their sustenance and expansion, the exploration of how that violence was understood and carried out within those social constructs is extremely important. This is of course where much of the work on pastoral raiding is often understood to land, including part of John Lamphear’s work, but beyond this there are the social constructs of sub-imperialism and conquest in Richard Reid’s work on the Baganda and East Africa more broadly. 22 In addition, there has recently been an expansion in the understanding of the role of gender within the context of political violence, military service, and warfare in Africa. While some of these works take a more individual approach, such as the recent excellent study of Queen Nzinga of Angola by Linda Heywood, 23 more look at the intersection of women as combatants within their cultural contexts, especially the multiple studies on the Amazons of Dahomey. 24

In addition to these solely African dimensions of the social and cultural explorations, the precolonial era also offers the opportunity to look at the diasporic dimensions of the African military experiences. In the Atlantic World there is the possibility to look at the intersections of race, violence, and military service in the New World across a variety of colonial contexts. Existing discussions such as the African and mixed-race military service within the casta system in the Spanish colonies, while having been somewhat approached, can still be widened by its connection to the African experience of military service. There also remains fertile regions to study within the military service of Africans within the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies of the Americas as well as the independent communities of Africans and the slave revolts of the Americas.

While the New World Diasporas have had coverage of the African and Afro-American military experience during the early modern and modern periods, it has been only recently that the African diaspora to the East has been being widely explored. Newer explorations such as Ned Alper’s East Africa and the Indian Ocean 25 and Pedro Machado’s Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa, and the Indian Ocean 1750–1850 26 have brought a more critical eye to the African connections and exchange through the Indian Ocean. However, these same exchanges involved significant military experiences as well, including the establishment of powerful and influential Siddi families in South Asia. These communities produced soldiers, generals, admirals, and even rulers. Communities of these offer an excellent possibility for exploring the nexus of race, identity, martial service, and experience of conflict throughout the precolonial period.

The majority of the recent socio-cultural examinations of African militaries have been examinations of the colonial military structures. Given the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, martial identities, and hierarchies of power involved, these are often fertile subjects of study. These have also been enhanced by the existence of colonial archives that offer significant access to the written records of much of these forces, which has allowed excellent studies on the French, British, and now German colonial soldiers and gendarmerie. However, these studies are often restricted to a single region of the continent, eschewing either broader focus or even comparative discussions of race and martial assimilation. This has also lead to some regions being understudied, with few if any discussions on the Belgian, Italian, or Portuguese colonial forces. In addition, while these studies are excellent beginnings for discussions, especially with their ready sourcing, more expansive works on the experience of local peoples during colonial conflicts, the gendered aspect of military service, and even the local military exchange between local resistance and colonial forces offer interesting new grounds to explore.

The social history of the postcolonial militaries of Africa were once a more discussed and published upon field. During the 1960s and 70s numerous sociological studies were undertaken of the new militaries in Africa, including Robin Luckham’s The Nigerian Military: A Sociological Analysis of Authority and Revolt 1960–67 27 and N.J. Miners’ The Nigerian Army 1956–1966. 28 However, the issues of access and instability made this research slowly wither to where now at best these studies are artifacts of a previous era. The possibility of these militaries again opening up offers another new opportunity for scholars, who now can gain purchase into this field again. Within these new histories that can be written can be discussions of the social organization of the forces, their martial identities, the influence of gender, and even the concepts of cultural exchange throughout the armed forces. Beyond the explorations of formal militaries, there are also many new histories that can touch on the experience of conflict within the postcolonial era or even the social and cultural understanding of the irregular forces that increasingly mark the military actors of the continent. Whether by looking at the social and cultural aspects of these irregular militias, the lines by which they form, or even their conceptions of their duties, these would be welcome studies that would in turn help open more areas of postcolonial exploration.

As the mentioned challenges that have slowed the expansion of African military history in the decades past are overcome or ways to plan around them are found, these opportunities will await this new generation of scholars. Whether they choose to explore the campaigns and generals of the “Old” military history or hew to the social and cultural explorations of the “New,” there are countless new areas of exploration within this growing field which might be approached. Indeed, as each scholar produces their knowledge, they provide a foundation for firmer exploration of the topic and add to the knowledge of how to accomplish true academic exploration even with the challenges remaining. In fact, several of the very themes mentioned above as opportunities might already be being explored or perhaps have been explored but not yet been appreciated by the academy.

The past several years have seen a slow but steady growth of scholarship on African military history as more of these themes have been being explored by scholars. While the New military history remains more common, works on the Old have been slowly being produced as scholars gain the access and support they need to produce these as well. In addition, as this discipline grows, there has been an increasing if irregular community of scholars across the Americas, Europe, and Africa itself. This community has been forming to both support one another’s work but also create a complete and comprehensive corpus of work that can serve as a foundation for the further expansion of the sub-discipline.

It is for this purpose that we have founded this Journal of African military history. We feel that this subdiscipline of both African history and military history has finally come of age. With the falling barriers to its production, the increasingly integrated body of work and scholars, and the emergence of tools that facilitate the intercontinental dialog amongst this diverse body of scholars, African military history was finally capable of sustaining a vibrant and collaborative community. This Journal is intended as both a focal point for these efforts but also as a beacon for those scholars who we have not yet met but whose explorations will enrich our field. While we are conscious that previous efforts have been made, we feel these efforts helped pave the way to creating smaller communities that have helped us arrive at this point. It is hoped that this Journal will complete this journey and help to truly bring together this community and give it a forum for exchanging ideas and expanding the presence of Africa within military history circles and military matters into those of African history.

With this in mind and with the challenges and opportunity of our subdiscipline in mind that we are proud to present a wide range of authors and thematic approaches in this, our inaugural issue. These essays represent reinterpretations of historic African conflicts, overviews of the work that has been done, and challenges for the discipline to explore new intersections. While these are not the sole areas of inquiry for this journal, we believe they do an excellent job illustrating the past, present, and hopeful future for this journal and the scholars it is intended to speak to.

The first essay presented is by the eminent John Laband, who has taken the opportunity to examine and contextualize the now emergent subfield this journal is devoted to. In Laband’s estimation, the emergent field remains a convergence of two distinct traditions, the aforementioned “Old” and “New” historical approaches to military history. By examining these two approaches and the axes upon which they examine the field, we as scholars can more fully appreciate where the gaps and opportunities for scholarship might exist. In particular, Laband notes two specific areas that offer critical opportunities for future research: military culture and masculinity.

The second essay is offered is Professors Eginald Mihanjo and Oswald Masebo, who approach the subject of African military history from another critical and underappreciated angle: the revision of earlier interpretations. While there is a limited body of African military history in existence, as Mihanjo and Masebo note the nationalist era tended to offer a skewed understanding of African military resistance and activity. Given this, their revisionist examination of the Ngoni migration and military actions in East Africa offers an important reinterpretation. Their piece, by adding critical historical nuance to what has been an oversimplified narrative of Ngoni resistance and martial prowess, illustrates how the re-emergence of African military history enriches the general historiography of the continent.

Our third essay, by Manuel Barcia, offers a diasporic view on African military history through its examination of African military practice in Bahia and Cuba. Barcia’s essay notes that the military practice of Africans in the New World have consistently been assumed to have been legacies of their European masters or the indigenous populations they were interacting with. Barcia instead situates such practices within the West African cultural roots of these populations, offering an initial discussion of how aspects of African military practices became globalized throughout the diaspora. While Barcia notes his essay cannot possibly cover all aspects of this broad and understudied research agenda, his work offers an extremely compelling beginning through the examination of the ethics of conflict within African diasporic populations.

The fourth essay by Alicia Decker throws down the gauntlet for those scholars currently studying African military history, noting that feminist scholarship offers a critical but underserved viewpoint within the subfield. Decker examines the scholarship of the past decade through the lens of gender, noting that in doing so scholars can more effectively examine many of the current themes of African militaries and militarism by doing so. In doing so, she also offers the potential benefits of fostering this examination, the path to producing such a curiosity, and where the field can be taken once this curiosity has taken root.

The final essay by John Thornton is intended as a parting meditation on the development, disuse, and new directions for African military history. A revisitation of his earlier thoughts that framed his volume Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800, Thornton ponders why despite there being existing sources, compelling narratives, and open fields of exploration, African military history had not yet found a firm place within the larger discipline. He notes that instead these military actions would be glossed over in place of a narrative that centralized political or economic effects, ultimately effacing the military history of a region and warping the historical understanding of the African experience. He concludes with a meditation on where the military aspects of African history might be brought to the fore and thus encourage a more complete historical narrative of the peoples of Africa.


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See Keim 2016.


This is actually a direct quote from the World War One memoir of Lt Cmdr W Whittall, see Whittall 1917, 185.


See Dower 1949.


See Moyd 2014.


See Ayele 2014.


See “Scientia Militaria,”, accessed March 3, 2017.


Many of these deal with the conflicts of Apartheid South Africa in Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique, although these often blur the line between popular and academic histories. A good example of this type is Willem Steenkamp, Border Strike: South Africa into Angola, 1975–1980 (Durban: Just Done Productions, 2006).


A fairly representative sample of this genre might be found at Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?,” The New York Times, August 29, 2016, although this particular column deals with political history.


See Mann 2006.


See Reid 2012.


See Reid 2007.

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