The Africa of European Scholars, 17th–20th Centuries

Universté Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar
David Diop (Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour), Ousmane Seyidi (Universität Basel)
05.02.2018 - 07.02.2018
Roberto Zaugg

The production of knowledge about Africa was not left to the sole initiative of merchants, missionaries, soldiers, or editors of travel narratives. Contrary to what one might think, Africa and Africans were at the heart of scholarly concerns in the 17th and 18th centuries. The scholars of the great European Academies were also constructing their own Africa. Although this Africa did not represent a split from the common contemporary prejudices of the time on Africans, it could fashion its own existence, borne out of the epistemological demands of scholarly disciplines. Thus, from the Maupertuis’s Dissertation physique à l’occasion du nègre blanc (1744) to Buffon’s theories on the color of Blacks (A. Curran), Africa and the Africans inspired all sorts of intellectual constructs animated by a certain « will to truth » (Foucault).

Nevertheless, although the issue of skin color was the main focus of attention (the nature of which to be scientifically explained), preoccupations about Africa began to shift. The imagined and theorized Africa of the past would gradually be replaced by an Africa drawn from exploration and in situ scientific investigation, in direct contact with the African environment. Detailed memories of learned travelers trained in the methods of scientific observation were added to the preliminary data reported by the ‘surgeons’—who were the best qualified, among those travelling with the commercial Companies, for such work of erudition.

In its simplest sense, the Africa of scholars refers to a tradition of writing that claims to break with an imaginary Africa to propose a “concrete” Africa. Within the framework of a “reorientation of the scientific esprit” (Gusdorf, Foucault), it tends to build upon the African experience of scholarly travelers, and it confers an increasing importance to African societies. No part of the fauna, the flora, nothing relating to the peoples, their languages, their customs, their religious beliefs and rites, was neglected by these “explorers of the unknown” (A. Bailly).

This Africa at the crossroads of western scientific theory and practice is the proposed object of our study. Depending on a periodization structured both by scientific mutations and the evolution of historical contexts, the Africa of European scholars is not one but many. Be they Michel Adanson (1727–1806), considered in the French milieu as the first scientist of formation to have traveled in Africa and to be interested in all fields of knowledge, or Theodore Monod (1902–2000), considered by the French as the first educated naturalist, motivations and the results of scientific research continue to be influenced by political and ideological contexts.

Although initiated by GRREA 17/18, a research group dedicated to the study of European representations of Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries [Groupe de Recherche sur les Représentations Européennes de l’Afrique aux 17e et 18e siècles], this interdisciplinary reflection will be open to researchers in the sciences and in the humanities specialized in the subsequent two centuries (19th and 20th centuries). The geographical areas studied will cover the Francophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone fields.

Paper proposals may include one of the following four areas of study:

I. Training of European scientists
- What kind of scholars contributed to the construction of knowledge on Africa?
- What were their main motivations?

II. Information channels of scholars
- First hand information: letters and field notes of the scholarly traveler
- Second-hand information: printed or informal travel accounts (reports, lectures, and handwritten communications)
- Third-hand information: collections of travel stories

III. Channels of diffusion of learned knowledge
- Academies of sciences in Europe
- Scholarly journals
- Museums (Natural history museums and cabinets of curiosities)
- Obstacles to the diffusion of knowledge
- Science and colonization

IV. What knowledge of Africa can we learn from this past scholarly literature?
- In natural history (fauna, flora…)
- Cultural history (languages, manners…)
- History of religions (religious and cultural practices, polytheisms and monotheisms)
- Political and economic history (evolution and dissolution of great empires, wars of succession, wars and economic co-operation)

Paper proposals (in English or French), of a length not exceeding 500 words, and followed by a short Curriculum Vitae, are to be sent before August 30, 2017, to David Diop and Ousmane Seydi

Scientific Committee for L’Afrique des savants européens
Sylviane Albertan-Coppola (Université d’Amiens, France), Mamadou Ba (Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Sénégal), Alia Baccar (Académie Beït El Hekma, Tunisie), Isabelle Charlatte Fels (Université de Bâle, Suisse), Andrew Curran (Wesleyan University, Etats-Unis), Hélène Cussac (Université de Toulouse, France), Catherine Gallouët (Hobart and Willliam Smith Colleges, États-Unis), Patrick Graille (Wesleyan University, Paris, France) Françoise Le Borgne (Université de Clermont-Auvergne, France), Jean Moomou (Université des Antilles, France), Claudia Opitz-Belakhal (Université de Bâle, Suisse), Ibrahima Thioub (Recteur de l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Sénégal) Izabella Zatorska (Université de Varsovie, Pologne), Roberto Zaugg (Université de Lausanne, Suisse).


David Diop

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

The Africa of European Scholars, 17th–20th Centuries, 05.02.2018 – 07.02.2018 Dakar, in: H-Soz-Kult, 08.06.2017, <>.