I was attracted to the alleged possibility of a pre-colonial historiography of tropical Africa rather more than forty years ago, when thinking about a book entitled On the Trail of the Bushongo, the latter not being a rare quadruped, as I had at first thought when opening the book, but an equatorial tribe or people of whom I had not previously heard tell. The author, Emil Torday, turned out to have been a Hungarian; he meant even less to me, but his book proved interesting. Published in 1925 but drawing on oral records collected some seventeen years earlier, it boldly advanced the view that pre-literate communities as remote and obscure as the Kuba (of whom the Bushong are a branch), whom Torday had found living along the Sankuru river in the veritable heart of Conrad's 'heart of darkness', could be said to possess a knowable and even notable history of their own social and political development. Unsurprisingly in the Europe of those times the book appears to have made no mark; and Torday's employers in the Leopoldian Congo Free State, then about to become the Belgian Congo colony, were men of solidly commercial good sense. They must have thought the claim absurd in so far as they may have noticed it, and after them the colonial decades soon thoroughly established history in equatorial Africa as having begun, in any sense to be taken seriously, with the advent of Christianity as well as Commerce during the 1840s.
LRB 9 April 1992 | PDF Download