During my time volunteering at the African Studies Library I have had the privilege of getting to work with a variety of collections of primary sources, ranging from the personal correspondences of colonial administrators, to Cold War era intelligence reports on communist influence in Africa. While varying greatly in their contents, all the sources I have seen are able to offer insights not only into the lives of the individuals they relate to, but to wider society during their time period.
The first collection I got to work with was a prime example of this, a catalogue of letters written by and to one of the last British colonial administrators in Nigeria, John H. Smith. Reading through Smith’s correspondences with his Nigerian friends Dafuwa Azare and Edward George, I began to discover their thoughts on events taking place in Nigeria and around the world during the 1950s and 60s, and from their letters I developed an understanding of the situation on the ground in Nigeria shortly before and after its independence.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working with previously uncatalogued collections of primary sources is discovering that they often contain a far broader range of documents than first meets the eye. This was the case with a collection of writings which, ostensibly all related to the engineer Eric Welbourn’s involvement with the foundation of the universities of Lagos and Ibadan. In fact, these documents formed only one part of the collection, which also contained a large number of 1930s intelligence reports from Northern Nigeria, donated by the pioneering Africanist Margery Perham. I was intrigued by how Perham came to obtain these once classified documents, and discovered that she gained them whilst travelling Africa as part of a Rockefeller Foundation Travel Scholarship. I was also surprised to discover that the Welbourn collection closely related to the collections of the renowned Arabist R.B. Serjeant, and the scholar and founder of Clare Hall Eric Ashby, whose writings I had already catalogued. It was greatly fulfilling to see these seemingly disparate sources transform into a cohesive story about the foundation and development of two of Nigeria’s largest universities.
Written sources have not been the only resource I have worked with at the ASC Library, the papers of Margery Perham and the French historian Guy Nicolas contained several maps, which helped to illustrate their work, and to visualise the contents of their writings.
Of all the collections I have worked with, my favourite must be that of the colonial administrator Harold Ingrams. In Ingrams’ collection I found a treasure trove of documents relating to the Cold War and the First World War. These included detailed analyses of communist influence in East Africa, plans to distribute anti-communist propaganda in Nigeria, and policy papers outlining the Foreign Office’s position on Portugal’s actions in Angola. One source I found particularly interesting was a 1918 Foreign Office report containing testimony from native leaders in the former German colonies of Namibia and Togo, who, unsurprisingly, denounced German rule and asked that the former German territories be placed under British ‘protection’. Documents like this remain highly open to interpretation, and it is possible view the report as either the sincere testimony of native populations who viewed British rule as their best option, or the cynical justification for an imperialistic land grab.
It is the questions which sources such as this raise which have helped to make my time at the African Studies Library so interesting, and it has been a great pleasure getting to see first-hand documents from Africa’s past and trying to find the answers to the questions they ask. I have thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my time at the African Studies Library, and look forward to returning soon.
Alex had a work experience placement with us during August this year. We thank him wholeheartedly for all of the hard work and his free time, and look forward to having him back during his final year at The Perse School.