The World of Colonial Letters

The World of Colonial Letters

Dear Reader,

I am writing to you in line with the mission of the newly inaugurated BCDSS Blog, which provides a creative space for scholars affiliated with the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies to share their research interests and insights from ‘behind the scenes’ as they strive to produce knowledge about slavery and asymmetrical dependency.

My goal is to present a world I recently discovered.

As might be expected, this world consists of people, places, events, ideas, and concepts that overlap to tell a story that belongs to a particular historical period. It may interest you to know that this world I refer to is not a physical one; rather, it exists on numerous sheets of paper, allowing those who study them to creatively interpret its contents. The name of that world is reflected in the title of this month’s blog post – The World of Colonial Letters.

As a student of history, I have always known about the existence of colonial letters and correspondences. Still, their potential as sites of diverse contacts, cultures, knowledges, and their existence in unusual ‘places’ were not impressed on me until recently.

A few months ago, I answered a Conference Call for Papers titled Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Colonial Correspondences. The conference was organized by the Colonial Letters and the Contact of Knowledges research project, funded by the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.

The conference, which took place between April 11th and 14th, 2023, attracted 36 active participants from different parts of the world, including Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Israel, Kenya, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, Switzerland, the United States of America, Zimbabwe and, of course, Germany.

Conference participants offered various insights into the discursive construction of colonial agendas, the enactment of power, the restructuring of identities, and the state of mind of the actors involved in the colonial enterprise.

The conference was organized into seven thematic sessions: it also included a keynote lecture and a plenary talk. Professor Hans-Gerog Wolf of the University of Potsdam gave an interesting plenary titled ‘Conceptualisations in Colonial Correspondences.’ In the address, he identified and explained various schemata and conceptual patterns in the relationship between colonial masters and the colonized.

Professor Mompoloki Bagwasi of the University of Botswana also gave a keynote titled ‘Power and Struggle in Letters Written by British Administrators and Batswana, 1885 – 1966.’ It explored how the language and terminology used in letters between the British administrators and the Batswana chiefs were strategically employed to characterize the relationship between the two groups.

As an active participant in the conference, I presented my paper, ‘Knowledge and Colonialism: The Power of Prefaces, Letters and Appendices in the Journals of Nineteenth Century Niger Expeditions.’ The paper fell under the scope of Theme Six: Authorship Dynamics.

Title Page of Mary’s Presentation

My presentation had two aims: first, I wanted to draw attention to the overlooked corpus of the Journals of the Nineteenth Century Niger Expeditions, and second, I aimed to focus on the paratexts of these journals: specifically, I examined the prefaces, letters, and appendices, which contain a wealth of information that gives insight into impending British colonial ideas in West Africa.

Let me tell you a little bit about the Niger journals.

There is a large body of published works from the British Government-commissioned expeditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The expeditions aimed to find the source, course, and termination of the river Niger, West Africa’s main river.

It was expected that the European explorers sent on this mission would document their daily activities and the progress of the undertaking. Consequently, the written materials they produced not only included the river Niger as subject matter; they also provided close observations and in-depth documentation of the peoples, culture, fauna, flora, and climate they encountered along the way.

These journals, which began in 1799 with the publication of Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, were the first Niger Journals to be published. Subsequent explorers who continued the Niger expedition sustained the tradition of journaling their observations and progress.

Their subsequent publication made these daily handwritten journals the unrivalled knowledge producers in Europe regarding African affairs. Thus, it is not surprising that the knowledge acquired by these explorers laid the groundwork for the eventual conquest and colonization of the region.

A Few Examples from the Corpus of the Niger Journals

Mary Presenting her Paper at the University of Bayreuth on April 14th, 2023

By concentrating specifically on the paratexts of these journals, which, in most cases, contained letters, I demonstrated how these correspondences, made publicly available in the journals, but targeted specifically to a European audience, revealed Britain’s colonial intentions for West Africa. They also show modern readers how knowledge and power are closely linked.

Now, you may be wondering how this conference and the paper I presented relate to my research at the Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies. I am happy to highlight a few of the connections here.

Research Area A, of which I am a member, focuses on Semantics, Lexical Fields, and Narratives of asymmetrical dependencies: We aim to take a critical view of the vocabularies, terminologies, and concepts used to describe slavery and dependency, particularly through writing.

Thus, this conference further enlightened me on how to detect and be critical of the context in which vocabularies that describe social relations are used, in addition to paying close attention to the tone of the correspondence.

My membership in ‘The Concept of Slavery in African History’ Research Group also informed what I took away from the conference. In the Research Group, we take concepts very seriously without falling in with the bandwagon of long-held assumptions. The conference empowered me to continue challenging long-held presuppositions that may or may not be grounded in the historical record.

It helped me to understand that, in most cases, power did not rest entirely in the hands of the colonial masters: the colonized also expressed power. They adopted strategies that manifested in the terms they chose when writing back to or soliciting from colonial officers.

Indeed, the world of colonial letters clearly demonstrates Mary Louise Pratt’s 'Contact Zone' concept. The correspondences embody the social spaces where multiple cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other within contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power (Pratt 1991).

Given the BCDSS Blog’s emphasis on the people and practices behind the center’s knowledge production, this letter would be incomplete if I did not inform you about the anxiety I felt before presenting my paper.

This feeling, which emerged out of the presence of many academic experts in the room, gradually faded when I began to talk. After delivering my paper, a few questions were asked. Thankfully, I could answer all but one, which I had not considered when preparing for the conference but will certainly explore as I rewrite the paper. So, despite the initial fear, the feeling at the end of my presentation transformed into a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, I added one more feather to the cap of my academic journey.

An added bonus was the opportunity to make new acquaintances and professional connections, which always accompanies conference attendance. Perhaps more interestingly, though, since it was a conference organized by the African Multiple Cluster, participants were treated to some delicious African dishes: We enjoyed jollof rice, fried rice, ugali and vegetable soup, puff-puff, and much more. For a moment, I thought I was back home in Nigeria.

Overall, I must say that it was an honor and privilege to have been invited to take part in this conference, which was truly enlightening. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that, as a newcomer to Germany, it was exciting and refreshing to see another part of the country. Bayreuth is a beautiful city, and the University of Bayreuth is lovely.

Another Action-shot from the Presentation

Finally, I am excited to inform you that Brill Academic will publish the conference papers in the Africa Multiple: Studies of Africa and Its Diaspora Book Series after they have been externally reviewed.

My dear reader, by now, you must have figured out why I wrote this post in a letter format. I am sure I have taken you to places, introduced you to people and events, and acquainted you with ideas and concepts that may have sparked your interest. I hope, then, that you will consider visiting the world of colonial letters. Who knows, your visit might result in an exciting project!


Mary A. Afolabi-Adeolu

PhD Researcher

Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies

University of Bonn


For more details on the Colonial Letters & Contact of Knowledges Conference, click here.