Reconsidering the 'Time of Troubles'

17 Dec 2019 - 08:30
Photo of Jan-Bart Gewald presenting his work at an APC research lab. Photo courtesy of Susana Molins Lliteras.

On Wednesday 16 October, the APC hosted a Research Lab, in the format of a lunchtime discussion with Jan-Bart Gewald, Professor of African History and Director of the African Studies Centre, Leiden. Gewald presented preliminary thoughts towards a new project entitled "From the Ashes Reborn: Reconsidering the 'Time of Troubles' in Southern Africa in the Context of Global History." During a very dynamic  presentation, Gewald asserted that in Southern African history, the period described as the Mfecane "Time of Troubles" is seen as determining much of contemporary ethnic identity and land distribution in the sub-continent. However, recent work on societal collapse indicates that societies do not collapse due to single causes, that history is far more complex and messier. Thus, he argues that the "Time of Troubles"/Mfecane is more multifaceted in origin and consequences than the activities of a single man, Shaka Zulu, or a single ethnicity, and can be better understood in the context of global interactions. Gewald looks at 1840 as a turning point in Southern African history and points to a number of factors which had a determining impact on the region: a) Population growth brought about by the introduction of New World Crops, especially maize; b) Climate change and resulting crop failures brought about by the volcanic eruptions of Laki in Iceland (1784) and Tambora in Indonesia (1815); c) Mass-migration brought about by famine; d)The introduction of horses and dogs; e) The liberalization of gunpowder; f) The British presence after their loss of the American colonies in the context of rapid industrialization in Britain. The lively discussion that ensued and the presence of a significant number of MA students demonstrated interest in this subject and the benefits that interdisciplinary work such as this can bring to a subject that has already received much attention but which is still a matter of significant academic controversy.