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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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Colonial letters and the contact of knowledges

Colonial letters and the contact of knowledges



Letters were one of the major means of communication during the 19th-20th Century British colonialism of Africa. Through them, the instructions, intensions, decisions, complaints, justifications and agenda of resident British colonial officers, local colonial administrators and collaborators, colonial officials in Britain and colonised subjects (individuals, villages) were transmitted across time and space. These letters offer extraordinary access to the mindset and overall agenda of the entities producing them. The ways of life of these entities, their patterns of social order, repertoires and constellations of knowledges, linguistic voices, world views and cosmologies are projected, both directly and indirectly, in these letters. In themselves, these letters embody the contact zone of colonial-precolonial structures, coloniser-colonised entities, indigenous-foreign knowledges, cultural and linguistic practices, etc.

This research project studies, from a predominantly linguistic perspective, the instantiations of colonial contact and postcolonial heritages that are embodied in, and transmitted through, letters written during British colonisation of Southern Cameroons (1916-1961). Markers of the construction of multiple identities, the discursive enactment of (social, political, hereditary) power and the coalescence of colonial and precolonial social norms of interaction (hierarchy, respect forms, kinship affiliation) found in these correspondences will be studied from sociolinguistic, critical discourse analysis, discourse-historical, historical linguistic and postcolonial linguistic perspectives.

These personal, formal, official, confidential and (top) secret letters were written in Southern Cameroons; read, commented on and summarised in Nigeria before being sent to their final destination, London. Replies to them followed the same itinerary back. Southern Cameroons was handed to Britain by the League of Nations after WW1, and was ruled by the British Colonial Governor in Nigeria – reason why the letters were sent there. This triangle of communication, Cameroon-Nigeria-Britain, captures the complex trajectory of knowledge movement and the entanglements involved. We will follow the tracks of these letters in a bit to understand how colonial discourses on various topics were conceptualised and how these conceptualisations are identifiable in the contemporary postcolonial society.


48 months

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