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Introduction to the dossier on “The histories of territories”

Marie-Laure Derat et Camille Lefebvre
Cet article est une traduction de :
Introduction au dossier « Histoires de territoires » [fr]

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These places do not exist, and it is because they do not exist that space becomes a problem area, and stops being evidence, stops being incorporated, stops being appropriated. Space is a doubt: I must continually single it out, allocate it. It is never mine, never is it given to me, I have to win it. My spaces are fragile: time will consume them and destroy them: nothing will ever seem like it was again, my memories will betray me, forgetfulness will seep into my memory (…). Just like sand runs through the fingers, thus space melts. Time takes it away with it and leaves me just with shapeless shreds.

Georges Perec, Espèces d'espaces, Paris, Galilée, 1974, p. 123 / Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. by John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1997; rev. ed. 1999)

1This special issue is about spaces and territories that no longer exist, that time has taken away with it, and the history of which runs through the fingers like sand. Our aim is to try to elaborate, in the African context, a history of spatial forms and spatial inventions through which various social groups affirmed their presence at a given moment. This implies questioning the possibility of reconstituting the various categories of spatial practices which existed in Africa up to the 19th century, in light of the fragmentary and partial sources that contemporary historians of Africa have at their disposal.

  • 1 See also A.M. Howard, R.M. Shain, 2005, p. 4-6. Among the earlier works dealing with that theme in (...)
  • 2 C. Lefebvre, 2010, p. 11-12.
  • 3 Following a model suggested by F. Cooper, 2010, p. 10.
  • 4 A.M. Howard, R.M. Shain, 2005, p. 27.

2Debates over the question of spatial processes in African history have been only occasional, notably because the idea of an African specificity regarding space and territories has long prevailed.1 This idea was strongly marked by a set of paradigms deriving from colonial discourses and has largely obliterated the possibility of reflecting upon the various and complex forms of relations between social dynamics and spatial issues in Africa. The discourses elaborated in the context of colonial science from the 1930s essentialized the continent by depicting the latter as a superposition of distinct ethnic groups, which contributed to ruling out the history of the diversity of African political-territorial entities, in benefit of a logic that imagined static human organizations founded on family structures.2 The idea of a whole continent unconcerned by the notion of territory, as well as that of a natural and fundamental difference between nomadic and sedentary people, must now be reappraised in the light of the colonial project, which projected its own world views and created a dichotomous demarcation of the world between civilized and primitive people.3 Similarly, considering that the sovereignty of African powers was based on the control of populations instead of territories does not take into account the fact that the control of men is necessarily linked to the control of space, inasmuch as it implies the physical control of people.4

  • 5 Such as what appears in J. Herbst, 2000; I. Kopytoff, 1987.

3Our own approach to the matter steers clear of such theories, as of any other conception advocating a general model of relations between territory and power in Africa.5 This does not amount to theorizing a system of relations between men and space in Africa and thus imposing on such questions a kind of conceptual conformism; on the contrary, our goal is to broaden the scope of our analysis by exposing the limitations of such approaches, from a heuristic point of view. One may no longer aim to develop a general theory of spatial issues in Africa which could be applied to the whole continent from time immemorial. Rather than trying to apply a single system or set of theories to several distinct spaces and times, our endeavor is to base our analysis on an empirical approach and a systematic questioning of our sources and materials.

  • 6 As Didier Méhu and Joseph Morsel suggested in the work elaborated by the Société des historiens (...)

4The historical analysis of spatial processes from a distant past raises other questions. Our current perception of the notions of space and territory rely on a series of models, and above all that of the Nation-State. Consequently, the concept of territory and its related phenomena – whether boundaries, territorial control or the spatial organization of power – are marked by certain formal specificities born of contemporary Nation-States. This particular conception of territory is nevertheless linked to a historic and circumstantial moment, during which the Nation-State became a dominant model. It thus pertains – even in Europe – to a recent and specific historical time. In order to question the forms and spatial processes from long ago, we must relinquish our preconceptions and invent new ways of thinking about space at times and in places where a spatial concept did not always exist.6

  • 7 J. Lévy, M. Lussault, 2003, p. 329.
  • 8 M. Lussault, 2000, p. 30-31.
  • 9 J. Lévy, M. Lussault, 2003, p. 912.
  • 10 G. Di Méo, 2000, p. 40.
  • 11 “No society, no social group may last – and therefore exist – without a memory, without communicati (...)
  • 12 G. Di Méo, 2000, p. 41.

5Our main concern here is to find a way to identify other forms of relations between people and the spaces they claim for themselves, by inscribing these specificities in fixed situations and time periods, rather than seeing them through mere cultural facts. Therefore, far from seeking to essentialize the concepts of border and territory – by trying to define the supposed specificities of a typically African kind of territoriality, for instance –, we wish to replace these notions within the historical frame of reference they belong to. In order to do this, we shall rely upon the notions of space and territory as defined in the recent debates which have renewed our geographical approaches. Space is a concrete entity, but it cannot be conceived as an absolute object in and of itself, with principles of organization and laws of evolution to be found only within itself.7 Physical space constitutes a dynamic and dynamizable basis for action which is neither neutral nor insignificant, and represents both a recourse and a constraint for the individual. It is a reservoir of individual and collective significations, and an essential instrument for the legitimization of individual actors.8 The notion of territory may be defined as any humanized portion of the Earth's surface.9 As an ensemble of places where is carried out a simultaneously political, ideological and economical appropriation by several groups that have determined a specific representation of themselves, their history and singularity.10 Such appropriation under various forms is a universal fact.11 On the one hand, space and territory are material objects, concrete realities; but they are also objects charged with meanings, symbols and individual and social values. Spaces and territories are not a static backdrop for the events that stir human relationships: they are ever-changing, dynamic elements. Hence the necessity of taking into account the importance of long-term history regarding the symbolic construction of territories. Space needs the density of time in order to exist as a territory.12

  • 13 D. Bagnoud-Libersky, 2002; M. Rösler, T. Wendl, 1999; J. Bonnemaison, 1996; B. Collignon, 1996; H. (...)
  • 14 SHMESP, 2007; D. Nordman, 1998; C. Nicolet, (1988) 1996; D. Lombard, 1990; F. Cardot, 1987.

6What is at stake in this project is above all methodological. In order to elaborate the history of territories that existed a long time ago, one must define what proper methods and sources should be used. In this respect, the realms of geography, anthropology and sociology have offered various solutions both methodological (toponymic investigations, concrete observation of practices...) and theoretical (reticulated territories...) that have proved to be highly stimulating.13 However, such methods and theories cannot be directly transposed to the analysis of more remote times. In the field of history, numerous works have already been carried out that may fuel our reflection14 – bearing in mind that up until the 19th century, historians of Africa depended on partial and limited sources that were often exogenous and hard to apprehend, and made it difficult to reconstruct a mental geographical universe, or simply comprehend the particular relation of a specific group to its environment at a given moment.

7Our interrogations follow a double path. The first considers the notions of territory and border in light of the sources at hand (written and oral sources – itineraries, descriptions, toponyms –, endogenous and exogenous cartographies, archaeological data), which should be exploited in such a way as to determine the spatial domination of a power or a group, the possible limits of such domination, and how those limits were perceived at a local level, as well as on a regional or national scale. The second path approaches the question of territories and powers. In this section of our study, we shall focus on the various modes of appropriating territories and means of controlling space. What institutions, symbols and norms enabled powers to win recognition in a given region?

8The alternating examination of sources, spaces and historical issues are central to this dossier. During the workshop we organized, we wanted the participants to engage in genuine methodological and epistemological dialogues; the event was conceived as a research workshop where attendees could take advantage of one another's interrogations to offer new research leads, bibliographical references, counterpoints... Such a perspective is preserved in this dossier, which attempts to reflect an ongoing research project, along with its dead ends, obstacles, successes and doubts. The contributors' disagreements and contradictory positions reveal the issues and debates that surround these questions, and are evidence of the great many approaches that may be adopted.

9What does it mean to perceive space? It implies interpreting the landscape – its landmarks, whether natural or man-made –, but also finding one's bearings in space, and consequently using the landscape as a landmark. Can certain evolutions be noted regarding the perception of space? Did the invention of maps in our societies change our way of considering our surroundings? Yes and no. As Dominique Casajus well explains, whenever we give someone directions, we describe in detail the way they must follow – very much in the same manner as a Tuareg would explain how to go from his encampment to the closest marketplace, for instance.

10But what really differs, regarding our way of proceeding, are the roads and paths themselves. In an unarranged landscape, the landmarks are different. Roads, paths, crossroads, street names introduce new bearings that one takes into account when sketching a specific route. In such cases, the resulting sketch will no longer be a single line but a double line symbolizing a road and its possible intersections. Which is why a contemporary observer will find it a little difficult to read a medieval map: even though he may clearly identify the existence of a specific route marked by successive stages, it will be hard for him to use the map in order to find his way, the latter being only a starting point meant to be completed by further oral explanations. Consequently, the written sources that have made their way to us, and that now provide detailed descriptions of journeys in the form of routes, only give us a partial view of how people perceived space and oriented themselves in the concerned societies. Ethiopian royal chronicles, for example, often present the itineraries followed by the king and his court to go to war, or to get to a renowned church. While we may of course identify the different stages of the court's journey, we will not be able to determine the specific route itself: what ford, what pass did the king take? More often than not, those descriptions cannot be understood without the oral explanations that were meant to complete them.

11Camille Lefebvre has found a way of bringing those oral precisions back to life, thanks to the travel itineraries collected by Heinrich Barth in the1850s – itineraries provided by African interlocutors and which concern central Sudan in the 19th century. Camille Lefebvre examines the form of these itineraries – which resulted from an encounter between a European explorer and African travelers –, by trying to understand what African practices and knowledge they originated from. These depictions are travel narratives: the itineraries are fraught with anecdotes that always convey a lesson for future travelers. Above all, Lefebvre questions the notion according to which these itineraries provided a specific route: even if they did indicate a general direction marked by certain precise stages, the way the traveler was supposed to follow depended on climatic, environmental and political conditions, and was thus subject to change. Lefebvre has founded a true method for the study of itineraries, which enables one to fully analyze and grasp the entire meaning of the latter.

12Even though it is impossible to date a specific type of space perception, we may nonetheless understand how such a perception came into existence, and identify its main principles in historical terms. As Odile Journet remarks, although the rules of management, inheritance and law may have changed over time, the perception of space has remained constant. Marie-Laure Derat's article well illustrates that idea by showing how, in Ethiopia, the designation of spaces based on property referents has remained unchanged up to the 20th-century agrarian reforms and is still currently based on principles defined between the 15th and the 17th century. In today's Ethiopia, lands are still being named according to an old and antiquated property system. However, by trying to understand how space is expressed, it becomes possible to determine the memory constructions which underlie its perception. Odile Journet thus rightly considers that “the territory is similar to a palimpsest which preserves the indelible inscriptions of certain divisions of space and the geometrical places that structure it.”

13A contemporary example exists today in Addis Ababa, where moving about implies either to know about the minibus lines that operate along fixed routes, or to tell a taxi driver what neighborhood we wish to go to. At this point, things may become more complicated, as it is often necessary to provide the driver not only with the name of the district, but also with a few indications of places known by all so as to define the precise location we are looking for. And such landmarks often change over time: the gas station or restaurant we refer to may have closed down. For newcomers in town, this habit seems nonsensical, since a neighborhood, a square, a street are still being referred to by using a famous landmark that may very well have disappeared. Space thus functions like a memory bank, in the same way as territorial organization – which indicates political choices that can be situated in time.

14In his article dedicated to the Tòmò federations in Dogon country (in present-day Mali), Éric Jolly demonstrates how certain villages were brought together in the form of federations, for defensive purposes. These federations were built according to an ideal model, with twelve villages organized around a central square, while the political and religious functions were exercised following a rotation system from one village to the next. Remnants of that organization are still visible today, especially around Arou-na. And those remains only make sense when that specific type of organization is replaced in its proper context, in the late 18th century: threatened by the centralized and belligerent neighboring States of Segou and Yatenga, certain Dogon villages made political choices which aimed at defending them from such continuous predation and enabled them to steer clear of the tributary system – even if those choices never really stopped the attacks led by the centralized States.

15That political choice had implications on territorial organization. At least it succeeded in ensuring peaceful relations between the Dogon villages. On the other hand, Odile Journet well shows how, in Jóola country (South-Western Casamance and North of present-day Guinea-Bissau) between the 17th and the late 19th century, the village territory was the base unit of territorial organization. Consequently, everything was done at a more local level. Of course, there also existed a kind of supravillage organization – certain rituals, for example, circulated from village to village –, but it could not ensure peace, as opposed to the organization of the Tòmò federations. There still exist today certain interstitial spaces, forbidden areas of undergrowth that mark the locations where ancient villages were destroyed during intervillage conflicts. Territorial restructurings can thus be observed in the landscape, but the history of such restructurings is yet to be written.

16Dominique Juhé-Beaulaton develops her own observations on wooded areas in the Aja-Fon cultural zone (present-day Southern Benin and Togo) as from the 17th century, by showing that these areas had specific functions, and that even their location was no mere coincidence. The woods situated in the vicinity of villages, for example, had a religious significance: they were home to the vodou divinities that migrants had brought with them and which symbolized the appropriation of the territory by newcomers and their understanding with the first occupants. Other woods stretching between villages served as hunting reserves and were exploited for the plant resources they provided. These woods were far from being virgin spaces and were included in the region’s territorial organization, even if only certain population groups could have access to them. What is particularly interesting here is the religious dimension of territorial organization, from the delimitation of fields (using vegetal species) that partook of a religious control via vodou divinities, to the establishment of the vodou gods of the conquerors on newly conquered territories. Such religious control of space was of course not limited to that region: it can also be found in Jóola country, for example, where the various altars and their itineraries are remnants of former territorial restructurings. These aspects bring us back to the question of the perception of space, the latter being interpreted in the light of religious criteria which at once give meaning to certain landmarks found in the landscape, and create altogether new landmarks.

17Among the landmarks that give structure to a landscape, frontiers and limits cannot be overlooked. Territorial limits could become the objects of renegotiations and/or restructuration, depending on the course of events. And yet, Robin Seignobos' contribution to this dossier demonstrates to what extent the landmarks that delimitated the frontier between Islamic Egypt and Christian Nubia between the 7th and 13th century remained unchanged, even though Islamic Egypt extended its territory well beyond that frontier. The latter marked the frontline of the Islamic world, and as such was meant to move with the conquest. It had very specific characteristics, since it was constituted by the Nile, an axis of circulation (and penetration). Consequently, the texts written by Arab geographers provide the depictions of a system structured around three locations: the Nile's first cataract (a transloading area), the emplacement of Aswan (which guarded that cataract), and the island of Bilaq, upstream from the first cataract. This system represented a transition space between Nubia and Egypt, which remained important throughout the whole period, but did not prevent Islam from expanding beyond its limits and spreading an agrarian model that favored Muslims. In this way the transition space outgrew its borders. In the same fashion as the customs posts can be used to mark the successive stages of the Dahoman conquest in the Aja-Fon area, the ruins of the border system built around the first cataract mark an important stage in the relations between Egypt and Nubia, and the limits of the Islamic world.

18The various contributions in this dossier demonstrate the importance of spatial and territorial dimensions in historical investigations. Although cultural specificities play an important role as well, what is at stake here is the taking into consideration of a given element – space, that is – by several societies that adopted different types of political and religious organizations. The dialogue established between these diverse case studies – all taken from Africa up until the 19th century – highlights the richness of this topic and – despite certain widespread preconceptions – the great abundance and variety of sources one may use to write a history of the relations between men and space: oral traditions, travel narratives, Arab geographies, drawings, chronicles, ruins, as well as “natural” landmarks… are so many tools that enable one to reconstitute itineraries, territorial restructurings, spatial arrangements – all of which are evidences of territorial appropriation.

19This dossier is further enriched with an article by Paolo Moraes Farias, who has agreed to let us republish one of his earlier contributions from 1993, which is here presented in a revised version, with an updated bibliography. This article was initially published in an entirely different context, and therefore was not informed of the central theme we undertook during the study days we organized, but it nevertheless ties in perfectly with the topics developed in this dossier and the sources exploited by other contributors. However, Paolo Moraes Farias considers the question from a perspective opposed to ours: instead of trying to demonstrate that it is possible to reconstitute a given territory through certain specific relics – in this case, epigraphic texts found in the Essouk region –, he focuses on those epigraphic texts as an integral part of the landscape and as landmarks one must reinterpret in the light of contemporary issues. The said texts are symbols per se of a territory that was interpreted as a small Mecca on African soil, irrespectively of what the text of those inscriptions says. Rather than written sources allowing one to write the history of the region, the latter inscriptions are now considered as remains in themselves.

20Finally, in order to further develop our investigation based on the sources studied in this dossier, some of the latter are subjected to accurate analysis, in the “Sources” section of the present collection of texts. The first study is carried out by Robin Seignobos who, through Muhammad al-Idrisi's description of the island of Bilaq in the 12th century, retraces the working method of the Andalusian geographer, who attempted to adapt Ptolemaic geography to Arab geography, while incorporating some oral information he had himself gathered – which led him to commit certain errors. Two more studies will be published online soon, in which Camille Lefebvre will look into the Hausa oral travel narratives collected in the late 19th century, and Marie-Laure Derat will consider certain handwritten genealogies that recorded the memory of a region in Ethiopia.

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Augé, M., Perrot, C.H., Chrétien, J.P., 1985, “L’Afrique : un autre espace historique”, Annales HSS, nov.-dec. 1985, n° 6, 1985.

Bagnoud-Libersky D., 2002, Les dieux du territoire, Paris, Éditions du CNRS.

Bonnemaison, J., 1996, Gens de pirogue et gens de terre. Les fondements géographiques d’une identité. L’archipel du Vanuatu, Paris, ORSTOM.

Caratini, S., 1989, Les Rgaybāt (1610-1930), Paris, L’Harmattan.

Cardot, F., 1987, L’espace et le pouvoir. Étude sur l’Austrasie mérovingienne, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne.

Collignon, B., 1996, Les Inuit, ce qu’ils savent du territoire. Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. “Géographie et culture”.

Cooper, F., 2010, Le colonialisme en question : théorie, connaissance, histoire, Paris, Payot.

Di Méo, G., 2000, “Que voulons-nous dire quand nous parlons d’espace ?”, in J. Lévy, M. Lussault, Logiques de l’espace, esprit des lieux, Paris, Belin, p. 37-48.

Donnan, H., Wilson, T.M., 1992, Border Approaches. Anthropological Perspectives on Frontiers, Lanham, University Press of America.

Dulucq, S., Soubias, P., 2004, L’espace et ses représentations en Afrique subsaharienne : approches pluridisciplinaires, Paris, Karthala.

Gallais, J., 1967, Le delta intérieur du Niger. Étude de géographie régionale, Dakar, mémoire de l’IFAN, n° 78.

Gallais, J., 1982, Espaces vécus et civilisations, Paris, Éditions du CNRS.

Herbst, J., 2000, States and Power in Africa. Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Howard, A.M., Shain, R.M., 2005, The Spatial Factor in African History: The Relationship of the Social, Material, and Perceptual, Leiden, Brill.

Izard, M., 1985, Gens du pouvoir, gens de la terre : les institutions politiques de l’ancien royaume du Yatenga (bassin de la Haute-Volta blanche), Cambridge/Paris, Cambridge University Press / Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.

Kopytoff, I., 1987, The African Frontier. The Reproduction of Traditional African Society, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Lefebvre, C., 2010, We have tailored Africa: French colonialism and the artificiality of Africa’s borders in the interwar period, Journal of Historical Geography, p. 1-12.

Lévy, J., Lussault, M., 2000, Logiques de l’espace, esprit des lieux, Paris, Belin.

Lévy, J., Lussault, M., 2003, Dictionnaire de la géographie, Paris, Belin.

Lombard, D., 1990, Le carrefour javanais : essai d’histoire globale, Paris, Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

Lussault, M., 2000, “Action(s) !”, in J. Lévy, M. Lussault, Logiques de l’espace, esprit des lieux, Paris, Belin, p. 11-36.

Nicolet, Claude, (1988) 1996, L’inventaire du monde. Géographie et politique aux origines de l’Empire romain, Paris, Hachette.

Nordman, D., 1998, Frontières de France de l’espace au territoire, xive-xixe siècle, Paris, Gallimard.

Perrot, C.H., 2000, Lignages et territoires en Afrique aux xviiie et xixe siècles. Stratégies, compétition, intégration, Paris, Karthala.

Rösler, M., Wendl, T., 1999, Frontiers and Borderlands : Anthropological Perspectives, Frankfort-sur-le-Main, Peter Lang.

Société des historiens médiévistes de l’enseignement supérieur public, 2007, Construction de l’espace au Moyen Âge : pratiques et représentations, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne.

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1 See also A.M. Howard, R.M. Shain, 2005, p. 4-6. Among the earlier works dealing with that theme in France, see M. Augé, C.H. Perrot, J.P. Chrétien, 1985; C.H. Perrot, 2000; S. Dulucq, P. Soubias, 2004.

2 C. Lefebvre, 2010, p. 11-12.

3 Following a model suggested by F. Cooper, 2010, p. 10.

4 A.M. Howard, R.M. Shain, 2005, p. 27.

5 Such as what appears in J. Herbst, 2000; I. Kopytoff, 1987.

6 As Didier Méhu and Joseph Morsel suggested in the work elaborated by the Société des historiens médiévistes de l’enseignement supérieur public (SHMESP), 2007, p. 275-293 and p. 295-316.

7 J. Lévy, M. Lussault, 2003, p. 329.

8 M. Lussault, 2000, p. 30-31.

9 J. Lévy, M. Lussault, 2003, p. 912.

10 G. Di Méo, 2000, p. 40.

11 “No society, no social group may last – and therefore exist – without a memory, without communication, rules, work, without a minimum of differentiation and organization. Memory, communication, rules, work, differentiation and organization may reach very high degrees of complexity. It is the goal of sciences termed “social sciences” to study the latter. What does not always seem clearly understood is that no society, no social group can really exist without a geographical space – a territory, as we sometimes call it. Every society exists in a preexisting space and transforms the latter. It appropriates that space, acts upon it, lives in it, either alone, or with other societies: it is a question of scale and depends on the intensity of the differentiations, ruptures and exchanges. Organized space is an inherent dimension of societies, as much as their product.” R. Brunet, 2001, p. 19.

12 G. Di Méo, 2000, p. 41.

13 D. Bagnoud-Libersky, 2002; M. Rösler, T. Wendl, 1999; J. Bonnemaison, 1996; B. Collignon, 1996; H. Donnan, T.M. Wilson, 1992; S. Caratini, 1989; M. Izard, 1985; J. Gallais, 1982; J. Gallais, 1967.

14 SHMESP, 2007; D. Nordman, 1998; C. Nicolet, (1988) 1996; D. Lombard, 1990; F. Cardot, 1987.

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Marie-Laure Derat et Camille Lefebvre, « Introduction to the dossier on “The histories of territories” »Afriques [En ligne], 02 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 février 2011, consulté le 20 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie-Laure Derat

Chargée de recherche, CNRS, Centre français des études éthiopiennes (CFEE)

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Camille Lefebvre

Chargée de recherche CNRS, Centre d’études des mondes africains (CEMAf)

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