Republished from Oxford Research Encyclopedia

If one of the limitations of documentary sources on precolonial African trade is that they mostly provide the view of the observers (and not the observed), then the main advantage of oral sources is that they avail the much-needed perspective from the observed groups. Many African societies had oral literacy that was sustained through traditions handed on to the future. The griots, who were official court historians and custodians of royal narratives in West Africa (from roughly mid-1st millennium ce to the 19th century) and imbongis (storytellers and praise singers) among the historical Zulus of South Africa, are well-known promoters of oral literacy. However, such official traditions were biased in favor of court activities and not mundane, day-to-day events. Oral sources include traditions, myths, and legends that were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to another. Often, these traditions were repeatedly recited and performed to the point that, within limitations, they reflected some commonly held positions.

In the area around the modern Cameroon/Nigeria border (Sukur region), oral traditions dating to from the 16th century onward pointed to the existence of intensive iron production that annually produced 60,000 hoes to meet the demand of the empire of Bornu. Ironically, this trade sustained slave raids in the producer area, creating a very complicated historical dynamic in which producers of iron were shackled and manacled using their own creation. In central Africa, most of what we know about trade and exchange relationships involving the Luba (c. 1585–1889) and Lunda (c. 1665–1887 ce) comes from oral traditions. One of the most important pillars of local and outward trade in these communities was copper whose ingots were often stylistically group specific. For example, the Yeke, Sanga, and Luba made distinctive types of ingots whose names and trade patterns are still firmly etched in local memories.

In southern Zambezia, much is known about communities that populated the region defined by the Indian Ocean to the east, the Kalahari Desert to the west, the Zambezi River to the north, and the Soutpansberg range of mountains to the south. Beach makes the point that in this region, speakers of dialects of a language now known as Shona had a well-developed oral literacy. Using insights from oral sources gathered from the region, Mudenge studied trade within the Torwa-Changamire (c. 1400–1900 ce) and Mutapa (c. 1400–1900 ce) states and highlighted that cattle raising and by implication cattle trade was an important branch of the economy that superseded gold trade. This cattle-centric localized trade system frustrated the Portuguese, who were interested mostly in gold. Thus, while traders at the Indian Ocean coast placed so much value on gold, local traditions make it explicit that this was not the view of local people.

As a source of information for precolonial trade, oral sources are affected by several limitations. Firstly, they are easily forgotten. Secondly, they suffer from chronological telescoping. Thirdly, they can easily be changed to suit prevailing contexts. Fourthly, most oral traditions tend to favor the dominant, although careful historical work may produce oral traditions associated with the common people. Fifthly, nowadays, the utility of oral traditions is diminished by the feedback that often takes place between the oral and the written. What was oral is now written and what is written is now in people’s minds creating a complicated web that is difficult to disentangle. However, whatever their limitations, oral sources are a formidable source of historical information pertaining to trade.