The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation made possible archival research in the U.K., France, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zanzibar, and field research in Uganda, to collect data for the first macrocosmic history of traditional organized violence in East Africa, as well as the analysis and organization of that data in anticipation of writing the manuscript itself. The goal has been to explore the historical evolution of the military systems of a wide range of East African societies from about the 1770s to the 1890s, and, in the process, to propose a major modification of the prevailing notion of a “pacified” African past, as well as to suggest historical continuity between precolonial conflict and contemporary “ragged warfare.”
The findings so far certainly support the contention that, far from being inherently limited, traditional warfare in the region was as common and lethal as in any other part of the world. Nevertheless, much of the conflict took the form of what I am now terming “raiding war” (in some ways roughly equivalent to what used to be termed “primitive war”), as opposed to what I call “campaigning war,” i.e., the “conventional” warfare—involving standing armies, protracted campaigns, and set-piece battles—far more familiar to Western experience and scholarship.
The findings so far certainly support the contention that, far from being inherently limited, traditional warfare in the region was as common and lethal as in any other part of the world.
The data gathered far surpassed expectations in terms of its sheer quantity. Moreover, it is revealing a much more complex and nuanced picture of precolonial East African military history than anticipated. There are, for example, a surprising number of discernible instances of societies making a transition from raiding war to campaigning war during the nineteenth century. Some of these transformations clearly involved external factors, such as imported weaponry (and a special emerging subtheme is the impact of the early East African firearms trade), long-distance commerce, and imperialism. Nonetheless, internal factors, such as modifications to age-class structures and the centralization of politico-religious leadership, were plainly crucial as well.
One of the most difficult aspects of the work to date has been systematically to establish the actual correlation between precolonial warfare and contemporary violence. While certainly empirical evidence shows clear continuity, there obviously also have been extreme distortions of earlier practices, making it hard to suggest specific ways that strategies for the restoration of peace in areas such as northern Uganda and Rwanda might best utilize lessons from the earlier historical experience.
A chapter, “Sub-Saharan African Warfare,” in Jeremy Black (ed.), War in the Modern World since 1815 (Warfare and History) (London: Routledge, 2003), was directly based on my Guggenheim-supported research. In addition, a conference paper on the military background to the Maji Maji Rebellion, and three articles for journals that are nearing completion likewise draw on that research. Finally, much of the data is being incorporated into my teaching; important components of a graduate seminar in East African history offered last semester, for instance, were directly inspired by the work the Guggenheim Foundation has supported.