- Last Updated on 27 February 2017
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Jan Vansina, a pioneering historian whose vast corpus of work transformed our understanding of African history—and the history of many other areas—died on February 8, 2017, in Madison, Wisconsin. He was 87.
Trained in Belgium and Britain as both a medieval historian and a social anthropologist, Vansina began his work in the Belgian Congo in 1952, where he worked among the Kuba peoples of south-central Congo. From his work among the Kuba he published six books, ranging from linguistic studies and ethnographies to historical works on various periods of Kuba history. That fieldwork also served as the foundation for five other books of broader scope on the region, as well as for the insights that fundamentally altered the discipline of history in the late twentieth century.
While working with Kuba elders, he came to realize that their oral testimonies not only provided accounts of the past, but when carefully analyzed could be subjected to the same rigor of analysis that applied to all other historical sources. Reinforcing these insights by later work in Rwanda and Burundi—his second major pole of fieldwork—Vansina published a work that transformed the field, by dramatically expanding the source material of the discipline and by bringing into scholars’ understanding of historical process whole classes of actors hitherto neglected in historical analysis—colonized people, peasants, women, workers—all those omitted from the archives of written records on the past. The insight that these people have histories too—indeed, that all people have histories—and the inclusion of these people as historical actors in their own right, reconfigured historians’ understanding of the past in dramatic ways.
The work which opened such portals for historians was De la tradition orale (1961, later translated as Oral Tradition, 1965). In it, he set out a complex typology of oral sources and proposed a set of rigorous analytic approaches for assessing them. His main goal was to establish that oral sources could be rigorously analyzed and therefore must be treated as historical sources equally with written documents. Such an assertion, boldly made, was not without controversy, attacked both by those who denied that oral sources could be used as credible historical sources and by those who saw the analytic rigor proposed—central to Vansina’s claim to historical validity—as too constraining, too mechanical, and too dependent on the model of a fixed chain of transmission, as a sort of “documentary analogue.” Taking account of these commentaries Vansina revised his original work, publishing Oral Tradition as History in 1985, and vastly expanded the “disciplinary tool-kit,” to bring clarity and depth to the understanding of oral sources. In over 25 books and many scores of scholarly articles, he explored a wide range of disciplines for their contributions to historical knowledge as well—linguistics, archeology, ethnography, art, and religion among them.
Such work brought him to explore broader topics as well as deeper time perspectives, including Paths in the Rainforest (1990; on the history of the societies of the equatorial forest), The Children of Woot (1978, on Kuba precolonial history), and How Societies Are Born (2004, on West Central Africa). But he also kept up with both theoretical and analytic aspects of oral sources (especially in the fields of personal and social memory). Such work led to greater acuity in his treatment of written sources, and from such evolving interests came several classic works: La légende du passé (1972, on Burundi), Le Rwanda ancien (2001, on precolonial Rwanda; later published in English as Antecedents to Modern Rwanda, 2004); and Being Colonized (2010, again, on the Kuba). In short, by his productivity, by his disciplinary depth, and by the astounding intellectual range of his prolific publications, Vansina influenced the work on wide areas of precolonial Africa (and many other areas) in many fields, not least in terms of the extensive debates his work initiated. He was, in short, a towering presence in the field.
But his influence was not defined by his scholarly production alone: he also mentored and inspired a wide range of students, having served as advisor for more than 50 Ph.D. dissertations at the University of Wisconsin alone. In addition he also corresponded with many other students in Africa and Europe, and he inspired and counseled numerous others—both academic colleagues and others interested in these issues. Alex Haley, for example, consulted frequently with Vansina as he worked on Roots; though the two differed significantly on matters of method and content, Haley always acknowledged Vansina’s openness and generosity with his time and insights.
The same characteristics marked Vansina’s relations with his students, among whom his “rapid response” was legion: he would often return long papers the next morning, sometimes to the exasperation of the students who sought a little “distance” from projects that had taken over their lives. But his comments were always about sources, methods and arguments; they were never personal. His restless intellectual mind, his lively engagement, and the enthusiasm with which he approached the people and the topics he addressed were all legendary.
Born in Antwerp, Belgium on September 14, 1929, the seventh of the twelve children of Dirk Vansina and Suzanne Verellen, the young Vansina came of age during the German occupation of the country, which meant he was separated from his family for long periods of time as he was moved frequently from school to school. His experience in war-torn Belgium and his later research in Africa are vividly portrayed in two memoirs: Through the Day, Through the Night (2014), on his childhood in Belgium, and Living With Africa (1994), on his academic preparation in Belgium and Britain, his subsequent research in Africa, and his academic life in later years, primarily at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he arrived in late 1960 and taught until his retirement in 1994. Over that time, and continuing long after his formal retirement, and often in invisible ways, his energy, his good will, his deep understanding of disciplinary methods, and his intellectual range and agility flowed through the many students and colleagues with whom he had worked in the dramatically changing fields related to scholarship on Africa. To be sure, his work evoked debate, discussion, and sometimes passionate controversy—initially from those who resisted the transformations in the scope of history which his work proposed, and later from those who felt such proposals were too schematic or didn’t go far enough. Nonetheless, his published work provided the central reference point for both those seeking to extend his work and those who disagreed with such perspectives.
Vansina received numerous honors and distinctions over the course of his career. He twice won the African Studies Association’s Melville Herskovits Prize for the best book in African Studies. He was also an early recipient of the African Studies Association’s Distinguished Africanist Award, and toward the end of his life he was awarded the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction (2014). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982, from which he quietly resigned when the group failed to denounce the use of torture during the presidency of George W. Bush, and to the American Philosophical Society in 2000.
He leaves behind Claudine, his wife of 62 years, and their son, Bruno, both of Madison, Wisconsin, as well as many former colleagues, students, and friends on several continents. And most importantly, he leaves behind a changed historical discipline, marked in many ways by his own dedicated scholarship—though never, he would be the first to argue forcefully, through his work alone.