African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa

Review: Mbayo on Lawrance, Osborn, and Roberts

Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks: African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa. Madison University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 342 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-299-21950-5.

Reviewed by Tamba Mbayo
Published on H-SAfrica (October, 2008)
Commissioned by Peter C. Limb

Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks

In the 1970s and 1980s, an edited volume focused entirely on African colonial intermediaries such as interpreters, translators, clerks, and secretaries would not have aroused much interest from historians of Africa because they were then preoccupied with elite African political figures, usually male, Pan-Africanist, nationalist and resistance heroes who had taken up arms against European colonizers and struggled for independence.
Even with a clarion call in 1983 by Henri Brunschwig, a historian of French imperialism, imploring scholars to undertake empirical research on African interpreters, translators, and clerks who straddled the colonial divide in mediating between Europeans and Africans, it took another decade or so before historians of Africa began to consider such colonial intermediaries worthy of any attention.[1] Although a number of studies alluded to the import of their mediations in shaping relations between Europeans and Africans, however, monographs on colonial interpreters and similar interlocutors did not materialize from the growing interest of scholars.[2] David Robinson's Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880-1920 (2000), for example, despite profiling a number of influential interpreters from the Anne, Seck, Lo and Mbengue families concentrated on grand marabouts such as Saad Buh and Sidiyya Baba who brokered relations between the French authorities in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and African leaders and their constituencies in the Senegalo-Mauritanian zone between 1880 and 1920.[3]

Against the above historiographical backdrop, Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks, edited by Benjamin Lawrance, Emily Osborn, and their Stanford-based guru Richard Roberts, is a well-timed and refreshing compilation that fills a lingering lacuna in historical literature on colonial Africa. By exploring a cross-section of African personnel employed at the lowest levels of the colonial administration, the volume shines the spotlight on previously marginalized local go-betweens--interpreters, translators, clerks, letter writers and "bush lawyers"--whose mediations shaped in varying degrees relations of power that evolved between Europeans and Africans from the early 1800s to the 1960s, the decade of African independence. Indeed, the volume makes an inestimable contribution to the social history of ordinary African employees of the colonial state as active historical agents in their own right rather than hapless colonized subjects who were at the mercy of omnipotent European officials.