Andrea Seligman


Uncovering Regional Identities before ‘Modern’ Categories: Historical Linguistics and Central East Africans, c. 1000-1500 CE

Dear colleagues, I got rather carried away by the word count possibilities here and my abstract has merged with the current draft introductory pages of my conference essay. I hope it still works too as an overview of my intended essay. Feedback is welcome and if anyone decided to explore similar questions, I’m still open to a collaborative article endeavor.

With the so-called “cultural turn,” scholars emphasized the complexities of identities such as  “race,” “gender,” “ethnicity,” or “class.” Rather than a fixed category of analysis, each facet of identity was treated as dynamic, not static, and analysis entailed approaches that considered both context and intersectional elements of each identity. One of the many results has been a growing appreciation for the historical evolution of identity categories, where each was transformed (if not arguably invented in its ‘modern’ form) over the last several hundred years of history.[i] Critical analysis of the social construction of these categories have been central to the (re)analysis of topics ranging from politics of the workplace, imperialism, colonialism, to foreign aid, and more. A few examples serve to underscore the importance of this analysis to themes both old and new in history writing. In Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, colonial policies and scholarship were responsible for creating myths that indigenous Africans and Americans were part of exclusively heterosexual and two-gender societies. Intertwined with imperial policies, the emergence of ‘modern’ western categories of sexuality and strictly defined binary ideas of gender meant an imposition of western categories on the ‘other,’ one that led to an erasure of indigenous gender and sexual diversity in mainstream history production that has persisted until very recently.[ii] As much as this history of world sexual and gender diversities illustrates the violence of colonial erasure of indigenous knowledge, examples in the history of ‘ethnicities’ reveal an expansion of identities, partly due to the same global forces. For instance, in eastern and southern Africa, local identities and global economies intersected in ways that strengthened, rather than weakened, African agency and led to new ‘ethnic’ identities. Professional elephant hunters (many of whom escaped enslavement in Portuguese settlements) created a new Chikunda identity in eighteenth century Mozambique. Paralleling this process, similar new identities emerged – professional Nyamwezi porters and twenty-first century Maasai tourist industry workers – in contexts where occupation began to define new ethnicities. Thus, regardless of biological heritage, professional porters could become Nyamwezi and likewise professional tourist workers could become Maasai in these contexts.[iii] Such scholarship provokes important questions about how we conceptualize, research, and describe identities for earlier periods of world history. If the categories that cultural historians like myself and others explore (whether of sexualities, ethnicities, or other identities) are all recently transformed (if not invented) in recent centuries of history, how can and how should we pursue our interests in identities for the much earlier past?

This essay argues for an exploration of the meanings and possibilities of identity categories for earlier eras of history. It also calls for critical attention to how our methodologies and sources shape both our analysis and our narrative of the history of these identities. My essay does not aim to produce a comprehensive review of scholarship on this theme. Rather, I seek to pivot between my own research and select examples of others’ scholarship to illuminate challenges and possibilities. In particular, I stress the question of conceptual translation – a topic that may seem obvious or second nature to scholars yet one I argue deserves more attention. Most of us would agree that we aim to uncover the historic views of our subjects. In my case, this means understanding how late first and early second millennium Central East Africans saw themselves. Yet, this challenge is more complex than one of simply selecting for sources created by or about Africans in this region. How we analyze these sources and, often the sources themselves, also reflect quite particular period assumptions about identities. The identities emphasized in our sources may – and often may not – reflect the perspectives of our subjects. I ask how ancestors of contemporary Makonde language speakers, saw themselves in the 1500s and earlier. Did those who spoke ancestral forms of the Makonde language have a sense of “Makonde-ness,” whether linguistic, geographic, or “ethnic” before the 1500s? Do we see an example of long-term common cultural aesthetics linked linguistically to speaking the Makonde language or being of this linguistically-defined region? Or – as we move beyond the starting categories imposed by particular primary sources – do we see quite different local identities in play before the 1500s?

To explore these questions I bring together the available records from oral traditions, historical linguistic reconstructions, and Portuguese documents from the 1500s. I highlight how each type of source must be read against its own imposed identity categories and against later era notions of Makonde-ness. After the 1500s, regional linguistic identities of Makonde language speakers became intertwined with emphasis on Makonde distinctiveness, a sentiment that was both imposed by outsiders and self-cultivated. During the era of the East African slave trade, a reputation for being “fierce” and “dangerous” meant some degree of protection for Makonde inland communities.[iv]  Makonde identities coalesced into (familiar) ‘ethnic’ identities that braided together linguistic, geographic, and cultural distinctiveness. Others also eagerly embraced this distinctive ethnic identity for it worked well with colonial era projects describing the ‘other’ to be ‘civilized.’ Postcolonial Makonde ‘otherness’ was a theme that continued, embraced then as a distinguishing feature of the soon world famous Makonde wood sculpting tradition (a plastic arts tradition that predated the colonial era but was ‘discovered’ by the western world in this period).[v]

Such later identity histories are not core focus of my essay; however, I begin with them as these and similar assumed connections between language, culture, and geography are at play in my various sources. The earliest available oral traditions of Makonde origins were recorded during the heyday of German colonialism and reflect themes from this era. Likewise, Portuguese records – incredibly valuable for their brief mention of a ruler known as Muconde – equated linguistic identities with political allegiances, following their sixteenth century understandings of hierarchy. Reading oral and documentary sources against the grain is a familiar technique to many. Equally necessary, is to implement a similar process to not take for granted the categories created by the techniques of historical linguistics, my primary research methodology. As a methodology, historical linguistics promises (and often produces) histories based on language vocabularies, often when few other sources are available, yet, like any methodology, it cannot be treated as an uncritical window into past African perspectives.[vi] A necessary starting step involves the classification of a set of related languages into a language family tree. One then reconstructs the origin and meanings of a word to a phase of this language tree. It then provides a glimpse into the actions or sentiments of historic Africans who spoke that particular ancestral language. Although defined by an ancestral language in this methodology, the historical speakers of this language may or significantly may not view their linguistic identity with any particular relevance. Beyond narrative style questions, my essay suggests a need for deeper analysis of these linguistic categories, to treat them as the starting point, not the final descriptive choice, for historical subjects.

In the early 1500s, Portuguese records for Fort Sofala noted a visit from a ruler known as Muconde.[vii] I suggest that this documentary mention of a ruler known as Muconde should be read as more than a transcription accident where the ruler’s name was lost in translation or transcription. The Portuguese were partially right that there was an emerging linguistic-geographic identity for regional leaders in this period. Before this time, however, quite different identities were in play for those who spoke earlier forms of Makonde. In oral history and linguistic records, we see emphasis on artisanal activity and physical geography, representing older identity categories that fit well with other sources to illuminate the pre-1600s period. My essay explores the earlier linguistic associations with being a person of *-konde, a referent to the natural regional environment and a term with neutral to positive inflections before the 1600s.[viii]The available linguistic and oral history clues reflect identities that were regional, environmental, occupational, and spiritual. Later events appear to have created a narrowing, rather than a continuity of identities that became Makonde. From this micro-linguistic approach, I conclude by thinking about the complexities of historical linguistics research and historical narration. Although we cannot always know what earlier historical subjects termed themselves, close examination of sources takes us closer to details and their own categories of identity that can and should inform our analysis.

[i] Among others here, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, Routledge, 1990); Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (Summer, 1991): 773-797; Joan W. Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Michael Foucault and Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).

[ii] Key books on this topic include, among others, Marc Epprecht, Hungochani: The History of Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013); Marc Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa? The Global History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008); Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998); Mark Rifkin, When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). My critique of mainstream textbooks and history notwithstanding, I do also want to acknowledge here the very important strides made recently in public history forums. See for example, the U.S. National Park Service’s Public History Project, “LGBTQ Heritage,” Telling All Americans’ Stories (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2016),

[iii] Allen F. Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Slavery and Beyond: The Making of Men and Chikunda Ethnic Identities in the Unstable World of South-Central Africa, 1750-1920 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004); Stephen J. Rockel, Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006); John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnicity, Inc. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[iv] Paolo Israel, In Step with the Times: Mapiko Masquerades of Mozambique (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014 ), 20.

[v] Zachary Kingdon, A Host of Devils: The History and Context of the Making of Makonde Spirit Sculpture (London: Routledge, 2002).

[vi] Christopher Ehret, History and the Testimony of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

[vii] Cited and discussed below.

[viii] Cited and discussed below.


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

  My new project seeks to explore the particular intersections of certain early African ideas about power and gender before the 1700s.* More broadly, with this project and collaborative work, I wish to reframe attention to gender in world history to emphasize gender as a highly variable and dynamic concept that for many historic societies went beyond recent colonial-era western notions of a rigid and timeless ‘male’ and ‘female’ binary and were ideas deeply intertwined with particular societies’ ideas of power, economy, and religion. *This is a very new project and I am still deciding precisely which African societies and areas of Africa will be my focus. Although I am deliberately leaving my geographic focus open now as I read and brainstorm, I anticipate producing a history of a particular set of geographically proximate societies rather than case studies from around the continent – just wanted to clarify if it helps with matching me with other colleagues.

art and visual culture studies, area studies other than my own African studies, literary studies (comp lit, English, politics/challenges of translation, expertise with pre-20th century texts and writings)


Provisional sketch of essay

I very much like the idea of a collaborative essay and am open to co-authorship or a more innovative form where multiple authors write briefer reflections on a common theme with regard to their regions or eras of expertise. While many often agree with me that much more historical attention is needed to gender and its many intersections with classic historical themes – among others, power, economy, and religion, – I have uncovered thus far much less writing really thinking about how to go about this pedagogically and as an adaptable research agenda. With my new project on gender and power in Africa in mind, I’d be interested in thinking with others about how we can move between theory towards practice in both our research and classrooms. What does world history look like that places gender as one of the key course concepts? What does critical, comparative world history look like that treats gender as a dynamic, intersectional, and fluid concept? I love the idea of more creative publishing mediums; however, as a tenure track and still pre-tenure faculty member, it’d be best for me to focus on collaborative journal article style publications.