Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges

Inaugural Workshop (5-7 March 2020)

March 4, 2020 -- March 8, 2020

The inaugural workshop of the research project “Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges” took place on between 5 and 7 March 2020 under the theme “Data and Theoretical Perspectives on Colonial Letters”, at the University of Bayreuth. All members of the project were in attendance. The team is made up of ten scholars from various academic disciplines who are based in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Germany, and a PhD researcher based at the University of Bayreuth. The three-day intensive workshop was attended by Cluster members, Cluster guests and other members of the University of Bayreuth.

The workshop kicked off with a welcome speech by the Dean of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, Rüdiger Seesemann. He thanked the team members for coming to Bayreuth and encouraged them to join the rest of the Cluster in achieving its major goal of reconfiguring of African Studies, through its key concepts of multiplicity, relationality, and reflexivity. In his introduction, the project coordinator, Eric Anchimbe, outlined the aims of the project, central to which is to study instantiations of colonial contact and postcolonial heritages that are embodied in, and transmitted through letters written during British colonisation of Southern Cameroons between 1916 and 1961. Among other things, he said, attention is on the construction of multiple identities, the discursive enactment of social, political and hereditary power, and the coalescence of colonial and precolonial social norms of interaction. He pointed out that analysing colonial letters demands an interdisciplinary approach. Hence, the project team is not made up of only linguists, even though the project adopts a predominantly linguistic perspective, but also historians and literature scholars. The workshop, therefore, offered a platform for interdisciplinary synergy towards the achievement of the project aim. It also offered project team members an opportunity to engage with the first set of colonial letters that have already been gathered from archives in Cameroon, Nigerian and Ghana by some members of the project. The feedback on the data collection experience so far was quite informing for subsequent archival visits in the course of the project.

Tour of the University of Bayreuth Library

Workshop participants had the opportunity to explore the university library with the guidance of the library staff, Vera Butz. This specialised tour focused on the historical holdings and specifically on colonial exchanges. After introducing participants to various catalogues of the library, she narrowed down to shelves, compartments and digital resources on British colonialism and colonial exchanges. To conclude the visit, the workshop guests were invited to a roundtable discussion of selected books that are key to colonial discourse. The tour was generally interactive.

Disciplinary Perspectives and Digital data solutions

The three disciplinary perspectives involved in the project, namely the linguistic, historical and literary, were discussed extensively with focus on how the data could be analysed. Besides identifying several fitting disciplinary frameworks and theories, there was a consensus on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of colonial letters. The second day ended with a presentation of the Cluster’s Digital Research Environment (DRE) by the Cluster’s Digital Solutions team made up of Anja Dreiser, Myriel Fichtner and Philipp Eisenhuth. They explained how the corpus of the project could be stored, annotated and used for research from different locations. Their input was timely and highly commendable because the research project will put together a corpus of colonial letters searchable through the DRE of the Cluster.

Linguistic perspective on colonial exchanges

Talking about the linguistic perspective(s), Gratien Atingbode (University of Buea, Cameroon), signalled that focus could be, among other things, on identifying and examining strategies of multiple identity construction and power structures. Their multiple forms must not be ignored as long as they are so represented in the letters. In a society such as the British Southern Cameroons in colonial times, the following forms of identity could be reflected in the letters: ethnic identity, colonialist identity, social identity, linguistic identity, religious identity and more. The power relations which occur as these identities interact should also be interesting for linguistic analysis. Other aspects, discussant of the session Valentine Ubanako (University of Yaounde, Cameroon) added, include colonial and indigenous repertoires, patterns of knowledge production and the question of the authorship of colonial letters and the choices of words, expressions and text type of letter writing. Overall, the letters could be studied both from synchronic and diachronic linguistic approaches, text-linguistic and discursive approaches, and more.

Historical perspective on colonial exchanges

The historical perspective on the study of colonial letters was presented by the historian Emmanue Kengo (University of Buea, Cameroon). He provided a detailed account of political events, political strategisation and political manoeuvring during the British colonisation of the Southern Cameroons. With this narration, Emmanuel Kengo shed light on the circumstances under which some of the letters already collected by the team were written. In other words, he demonstrated that colonial letters should be treated in their historical contexts. He also traced the trajectory of transportation of these letters through Nigeria and to London and the administrative relevance of each stop, hence adding more meaning to the discourses produced in the letters. As discussant of this session, Uche Oyali accentuated the impact of the British indirect rule, in which indigenous administrators were recruited to exact power over the subjects. The issue of authorship of colonial letters is also significant from a historical perspective. Emmanuel Kengo explained the role of trained letter writers, translators or interpreters. It would be a given that the producer of the content is the writer of the letter. However, sometimes a single letter was the product of three people: the producer of the content, the interpreter or translator who translates the content into English and the writer who formulates it into a written letter. In such cases then, researchers should find out and take into account the possible consequences of the roles of these “middlemen” on knowledge production in the colonial letters.
For these reasons, colonial story telling will generally give profoundness to the events discovered in the letters and ease understanding of the contents of the correspondences, which in turn aids linguistic analysis of these colonial letters.

Literary perspective on colonial exchanges

Colonial letters are authentic sources of colonial story telling. In her talk, Pepetual M. Chiangong (Humboldt University Berlin, Germany) stated that colonial letters could be classified as life-writing because they contain accounts of people’s lives, thoughts, and feelings that are believed to be non-fictional. The way the letters are written make it possible for them to be read using literary lenses: the authors acting as characters, narrating events in their lives and the in the lives of those around them. They also have the potential of capturing socio-historical and cultural moments necessary for a study such as is pursued in the current project. From a literary perspective, letters should be seen in their genre, i.e. their forms and structures should not be underestimated, especially since they contribute immensely to the understanding of their colonial context which depicts most often, power imbalance between the sender and receiver. The discussant, Sarah Marjie (University of Ghana, Legon) added that, literary engagement with colonial letters could allow for the assessment of possible linguistic creativity and innovations of ordinary or standard use of the English language in the letters. This could be useful in the linguistic goal of the development of African epistemologies.
The PhD session was dedicated to the work of the PhD researcher on the project, Glory Essien Otung (University of Bayreuth, Germany). After presenting her PhD research project, “Identities and power in colonial letters: British Southern Cameroons (1916-1961)” she received feedback from the participants. Since some of the participants had done some initial fieldwork in archives in Cameroon and Nigeria, they gave her advice on how to deal with the archives.

So, what is next

Having established the fact that an interdisciplinary approach to the present project is ideal, the team agreed on some relevant theories for the study of colonial letters across linguistics, history and literature. Project members will deploy their expertise in these disciplines to achieve the ultimate project goal in an effective teamwork manner. Hence, a data management team was set up and tasked with making recommendations for the digitisation of the data. The workshop was a successful kick-off to the research project ‘Colonial letter and the Contact of Knowledges’.

More information here



Dean of Cluster, RĂ¼diger Seesemann
Visit University of Bayreuth library
Glory Essien Otung
Eric A. Anchimbe
Working session
Pepetual M. Chiangong & Sarah Marjie