Twenty-three years old in 1952, Jan Vansina left his native Belgium to take an appointment as a field anthropologist for the Royal Museum of the Belgian Congo. Four decades later, marking his retirement as a renowned African historian at the University of Wisconsin, he has set out to explain the evolution of African historiography since the 1950s, constructing the story around personal experiences as a researcher, writer, and teacher. The result is an absorbing memoir that carries the reader vicariously through the early intellectual controversies over whether "history" can exist in the absence of written records, through successive phases in the growth of African history as a field in Europe, the United States and Africa, down to the impact of postmodernism in the late 1980s.
What causes particular trends to emerge from the interplay of contemporary events with particular fashions? The movement of an intellectual shoal can be traced, Vansina says, but to explain why a shoal changes direction, or how it dissolves to form new shoals, one must follow "the quirks of individual fish." The insight that comes from this approach will be evident both to novices and veterans of African studies. Apart from Africa and the Disciplines (reviewed in these pages in July 1994), no other recent book surveys and interprets the development of the field of African studies in a way so magisterial and engaging.