European exploration of East Africa: Textual analysis of travel narratives, 1831-1900

Major historical and political changes took place in East Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when European explorers and missionaries began to travel to the interior of Africa. Up to this period, Africa was known as the ‘dark continent,’ a metaphor of how little the European nations of the time knew about the region.1 The European travel narratives written between 1831 and 1900 imply that the aim of expeditions was to produce knowledge by describing the processes of cultural contacts, collecting plant and zoological materials for European institutions, producing scientific reports and cartographic works.2 Scientific geography in particular has its origins in the texts3 of explorers and missionaries’ reports.4

From these textual narratives, as interpreted by the readers of the reports in the metropole, some important propositions can be made. Some argue that the travelers—missionaries and explorers—were not trained scientists and that their reports therefore cannot be regarded as reliable sources for reconstructing the pre-colonial environmental history of East Africa. Indeed, later Africanist scholars claim that observations in the corpus of ethnographic sources were ‘superficial’ and tainted with racial bias against the African peoples.’ Some European ‘armchair experts’ also doubted the scientific value of the travelers’ reports where it was evident that they had relied on African indigenous knowledge.

Others, nonetheless, suggest that the geographical methods used by the explorers and missionaries were scientifically and sufficiently robust to reconstruct the environmental history of nineteenth-century East Africa6 and that these historical narratives might serve as a benchmark for assessing the environmental and social changes that ensued.' By comparing the texts of different travelers and their observations of cultural and environmental changes, and environmental collapse in the late nineteenth century, a different picture of the East African environment emerges.

The goal of this chapter is to analyze these opposing propositions using European travelers’ texts in the following six sections: (1) East Africa as a political and social frontier; (2) application of spatial and scientific geography; (3) the environmental desiccation hypothesis; (4) European environmental narratives; (5) comparative narratives of environmental change; and (6) ecological and demographic collapse in the late nineteenth century.

East Africa as a political and social frontier

Politically, East Africa consisted of diverse cultural communities that included centralized African states and close-knit kinship systems.8 Throughout the region, the different socio-cultural and ecological systems were linked in complex social networks. The combination of crop cultivation and keeping livestock ensured that food was available for most of the time.9 Livestock was involved in every transaction.10 The size of the human settlements varied between the societies that practiced agro-pastoralism and those based on pure pastoral systems.11

Socially, East Africa displayed another characteristic of a frontier—the relationships between societies were very fluid. It was common for communities to cross ethnic boundaries during periods of crisis, when the populations that suffered the most sought new ethnic identities by merging with their neighbors. The early European travelers described areas with large human populations and cultivated lands as well as others with sparse populations, where the main economic pursuit was livestock husbandry. There was continuity between farming and animal husbandry, with the emphasis shifting as environmental conditions changed. Settlement patterns and crop fields were clearly demarcated. Agricultural practices included permanent plots as well as shifting cultivation. William Allan12 warns that the distinction between shifting cultivation and cultivation of permanent plots may be blurred, with the former simply describing the rotational use of the same landscape.

Talal Asad15 contends that the knowledge of such dynamic social- environmental systems falls in the realm of ‘functional anthropology,’ which places societies in the context of their economics and social functions. The travelers’ descriptions of the patterns of settlements and croplands of nineteenth-century East Africa suggest that social factors played a role in the spatial relations of farmlands and homesteads.14 The region was therefore also a social-environmental frontier where African societies existed as independent tribal communities prior to the colonial partitioning of East Africa. Their cultural experiences may have shaped the use of their environments and thus their economies. Pastoralism was the common land use in drier environments, while in the sub-humid zones, people practiced mixed farming and kept livestock.1’ The indigenous farming and pastoral economies were nested in the rhythms of nature, with land use following seasonal patterns. The ways in which societies were organized and their dealings with neighbors helped to define their local knowledge systems in relation to the social and political changes around them.16 It is also significant that communities were able to select appropriate land resources such as soils for planting crops and understood the natural ecosystems for the man- agement of livestock. Both political decisions and proximity to critical natural resources influenced their settlement patterns. Social groups had communal ownership of territories.

Additionally, the interior of East Africa consisted of social networks in which complementary subsistence economies occupied specific ecological niches. The agro-pastoral and pastoral production systems relied on each other’s resources, which they accessed through exchange systems.1. Ecological historians therefore cannot understand past land uses without studying these systems during different historical periods. By examining the close relations between societies and their environments, it is possible to gain a full appreciation of the environmental and social history of the region and the significant roles played by different cultures.18 The cultural groups helped to solve social and environmental problems and served as custodians of indigenous knowledge.19 The system of resource tenure allowed simultaneous use of semi-private farmlands and communal grazing lands. Settlements were also the locus of socio-political activities. The early European travelers asked for directions, visited the local chiefs and replenished their food supplies at such settlements. The relations formed there became the basis of European investigations of spatial and scientific geography (Figure 2.1).

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