Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges


This research project is funded by the DFG as part of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth


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.

The 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 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. The letters are available in national archives in Buea, Enugu and London as well as in some private archives.

Overall, 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 are studied from sociolinguistic, critical discourse analysis, discourse-historical, historical linguistic and postcolonial linguistic perspectives. In addition to the above predominantly linguistic perspective, the project also incorporates other interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary perspectives that include history, literature, sociology, anthropology, communication studies and (post)colonial studies.

Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges


State of the Art

Several studies in anthropology and history have investigated colonial communication (e.g., travel diaries, letters, journals, newspapers and telegraphs) with respect to the relationship between colonial administrators and the colonised subjects, the achievement of colonial agendas, and the encounters with new knowledges and resistances. For instance, Burns (2006) takes up the contact and clash between knowledges of herbal treatment and medical treatment as played out in the letters of Louisa Mvemve in South Africa during British colonisation and white settler rule. Krüger (2009) analyses letters written in colonial South Africa on a variety of private and personal topics, while Stoler (2009: 1) on her part describes “lettered governance and the written traces of colonial lives” in the Netherlands Indies.

In linguistics, not much research has been done on colonial letters or colonial correspondences and how they reflect the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. On the contrary, the bulk of research on postcolonial linguistics today deals predominantly with discourses produced in post-independence times. However, a look at communication and discourses produced during colonialism yields enormous insights into how the current (im)balances of sociopolitical power, linguistic stratification, identity restructuring, repertoires and authenticity of knowledges, and sociocultural multiplicity started and were negotiated then. This is the ultimate objective of this research project.

Research Objectives

The overall aim of this project is to describe and analyse epistolaric communication during British colonial administration of Southern Cameroons, in relation to the contact and clash of knowledges, production of multiple knowledges, social interaction, multiple identity construction and language stratification at a time when colonialism was in active exercise. Where possible, an attempt is made to investigate how these knowledges, identities and languages exist today in the contemporary postcolonial society and their relation to, and entanglement with, other non-colonial counterparts.

Research Questions

To achieve the above aims, the following research questions are posed.

  • How are multiple identities constructed and consolidated in these letters? Are these identities, e.g. ethnic identity, colonialist identity, social identity, linguistic identity, religious identity, challenged or subverted?
  • In which ways is power (social, political, colonial, hereditary) enacted discursively in the letters? In other words, how is authority performed in the chain of power, i.e. from the colonial office in London down to Enugu and then further down to Buea?
  • What patterns of knowledge production are adopted in colonial letters? How are these different in letters written by colonial administrators and those written by colonised subjects? What repertoires of knowledges drive their production, rejection and perhaps co-construction?
  • Given that the colonial language was understood by only a few local people, how well do these letters represent the intentions of the local people producing them?
  • What impact did letter writing agencies have on the message, its (co)construction, its transformation from oral to written, and the format of the official letter as a genre?
  • Are there indications in these letters of the ways colonial authorities controlled access to information by, and knowledge flow to, the colonised local people? e.g. knowledge of their rights as a protectorate, rights of the “native administrator” to retire benefits, etc.
  • In correspondences that report on court cases, conflict resolution, village claims to land and property, what do they indicate of norms of social interaction between, for instance, resident British administrators and local collaborators, local colonial workers and the common people?
  • How do these letters reflect colonial social and power structures of stratification? Do current postcolonial social and political power structures reflect, in any extrapolatory manner, heritages of the strata created during colonialism and reflected in the letters?
  • How do patterns of language stratification, political power negotiations and multiple identities initiated or exacerbated during colonialism manifest today? For instance, has the functional redistribution of languages changed today?


Some of the research questions above extend into postcolonial times. To answer them satisfactorily, the textual analysis of the archived letters and correspondences are accompanied by data collection and fieldwork in the current society.

Data from Archives

The data (colonial correspondences) collected for this project are from the following archives:

National Archives Buea, Cameroon

National Archives Enugu, Nigeria

British National Archives London, UK

These are available in paper form at the University of Bayreuth for in-person research and virtually as The Corpus of Colonial Epistolary Correspondences in the Digital Research Environment of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence of the University of Bayreuth. Access can be obtained through registration on the platform (see the Corpus sub-page for more).

Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges


Team Members
Eric A. Anchimbe

English Linguistics, University of Bayreuth, Germany

Pepetual Mforbe Chiangong

African Literatures and Cultures, Humboldt University Berlin, Germany

Gratien G. Atindogbe

Linguistics and African Languages, University of Buea

Uchenna Oyali

English Linguistics, University of Abuja, Nigeria

Stephen Ambe Mforteh

English Linguistics, University of Yaounde 1, Cameroon

Sarah Marjie

Kiswahili Linguistics, University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana

Emmanuel Etamo Kengo

History, University of Buea, Cameroon

Glory Essien Otung

English Linguistics, PhD Candidate Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence - BIGSAS, University of Bayreuth, Germany

Julius A. Eyoh

Linguistics and African Languages, University of Yaounde 1

Valentine N. Ubanako

English Linguistics and Translation Studies, University of Yaounde 1

Cliford N. Nchotie

B.Sc. Computer Sciences, Student Assistant, University of Bayreuth

Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges


Project relevant bibliography

Anchimbe, E.A & S.A. Mforteh (2011)

  • Anchimbe Eric A. 2006. “Hybrid linguistic identities in postcolonial Africa: The intricacy of identity opportunism in multilingual Cameroon”, in: New Hybridities: Societies and Cultures in Transition, ed. Frank Heidemann and Alfonso de Toro. Leipzig: Olms, 237-261.
  • Anchimbe Eric A. (ed.) 2007. Linguistic Identity in Postcolonial Multilingual Spaces. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Anchimbe Eric A. 2010. “‘Ein Sprache für einige Wenige”: Rassistische Untertöne bei der Verbreitung von koloniale Sprachen“, in: Rassismus auf gut Deutsch, eds. Adibeli Nduka-Agwu und Antje Lann Hornscheidt. Frankfurt am Main: Brandes & Apsel, 280-290.
  • Anchimbe Eric A. and Stephen A. Mforteh (eds.). 2011. Postcolonial Linguistic Voices: Identity Choices and Representations. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Anchimbe, E.A. 2012. Language Contact in a Postcolonial Setting: The Social and Linguistic Context of English and Pidgin in Cameroon. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Anchimbe, Eric A. 2017. “‘Africa is not a game’: Constructions of ex-colonised and ex-coloniser entities online”, in: Contested Communities: Communication, Narration, Imagination, ed. Susanne Mühleisen. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 95-112.
  • Anchimbe, Eric A. and Janney, Richard W. 2017. “Postcolonial Pragmatics”, in: The Routledge Handbook of Pragmatics, ed. Anne Barron, Yueguo Gu and Gerard Steen (eds.). London: Routledge, 105-120.
  • Anchimbe, Eric A. and Richard W. Janney (eds.). 2011. Postcolonial Pragmatics. Special issue, Journal of Pragmatics 43(6): 1451-1539.
  • Burns, Catherine 2006. “The letters of Louisa Mvemve”, in: Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self, ed. Karin Barber. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 78-112.
  • Engelberg, Stefan and Doris Stolberg (eds.). 2012. Sprachwissenschaft und kolonialzeitlicher Sprachkontakt: Sprachliche Begegnungen und Auseinandersetzungen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
  • Gesine Krüger. 2009. Schrift, Macht, Alltag – Lesen und Schreiben im kolomialen Südafrika. Böhlau Verlag: Köln.
  • Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton. Princeton University Press.
  • Stolz, Thomas, Christina Vossmann and Barbara Dewein (eds.). 2011. Kolonialzeitliche Sprachforschung: Die Beschreibung afrikanischer und ozeanischer Sprachen zur Zeit der deutschen Kolonialherrschaft. Berlin: Akademie Verlag
  • Veyu, Ernest L. and Valentine N. Ubanako (eds.). 2014. Faultlines in Postcoloniality: Contemporary Readings. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 
  • Weber, Brigitte. 2012. “German colonial influences on, and representations of, Cameroon Pidgin English”, in: Language Contact in a Postcolonial Setting, ed. Eric A. Anchimbe. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 269–296.

Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges

Past Events


Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges

Corpus of Colonial Epistolary Correspondences

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