From a personal point of view, what inspired me to read more about global history was an early exposure to spatial theories, deconstructionism and the notion that the world is made out of a web on which vibrations may resonate across the whole globe.
While still a student, I was writing an essay on the Finnish iron trade and its international commodity chain when I came across Göran Ryden’s and Chris Evans’ book “Baltic Iron in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century“. In the book – which I won’t review here but is an excellent read for anyone interested – there is an elaborate explanation on how African chiefs demanded alterations on the iron they were buying and how those demands reached all the way back to Sweden to the Walloon smiths, who then made the alterations to answer the demands. This story became a turning point for me – as for one, I had been introduced to West Africa in the development of the story, and secondly, there was a strong indication of much more intricate communication patterns and cross-continental relationships than I had known to exist between people. Soon thereafter I read works of Pierre Bourdieu, Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja, who in turn turned my thinking completely around. Their theories deconstructed a lot of the opinions and thoughts I had back then of the world around me.
Initially, I might call the period right after being introduced to these heavy theories as a confusing and precarious time. Everything seemed to be fleeting and there didn’t seem to be any substance or truths for a historian to rely on. However, this period passed quite quickly as I had the privilege to take part in discussions with senior researchers who reassured me that while knowledge might be corrupt, we still have the tool of analytic thinking and can always bring up new questions to the table.
What I ended up doing was focusing my attention on a group of people on the Gold Coast of Africa who I considered very intriguing. In scholarly work, they have been given a lot of different denominators, one of them being their status as “Euroafricans”. They were predominantly the descendants of European men staying on the Gold Coast as merchants or officers and African women from local societies that came in direct contact with these strangers. As I learnt more about Euroafricans, I felt that they didn’t really fit in the categories most commonly used to describe the relations between Europeans and Africans – the categories which, when referred to colonial times, were “coloniser” and “colonised”. There was more to the story than this dichotomy.
Some of the characteristics the Euroafricans portrayed, distinguished them from other native people on the Gold Coast. Most of them had opportunities for education, even higher education at Universities abroad. They often worked as traders at successful trading firms established by their European ancestor, whose name they also carried. In contrast to the natives, they wore European fashion, spoke English and lived in stone houses in the better parts of Gold Coast towns. On paper, they were closer to being European than African. However, their lives on the coast also meant that they had close ties with their maternal relatives and families. These relations were complex and a result of the long intertwined histories that coastal societies had had with strangers from both inland Africa and from beyond the seas.
When I started my work on my PhD thesis “Eurafrican Social, Economic and Political Spaces on the Gold Coast during 1850 to 1950”, I wanted to do more research on the structures of societies and perceived identities on the Gold Coast. What I found very useful in my study was the work of Homi K. Bhabha and the writings on hybridity he presents in “The Location of Culture”. It was a good reference to have going deeper into the archives and reading about how Euroafricans themselves commented on their lives in the late 19th century. The concept of hybridity found a solid foothold in my research. What also became apparent was that these hybrid Euroafricans were much in tune with the developments around the world.
What I mean is that while I was evolving as a historian, I also became more convinced of the fact that all stories can potentially be viewed at scales varying from micro to macro, local to global. The Euroafricans became interesting for me not only as individuals, groups, networks and societies but also as people resonating to the vibrations on a global scale. They weren’t isolated on the coast from the rest of the world, but instead followed news from abroad diligently and reproduced them, adding their town remarks, in their own press. While they were trying to orientate the politics on the Gold Coast, they searched for models of conduct from as far away as Japan. In their own eyes they weren’t incapable of ruling over themselves and their own destinies. Many efforts were made to turn grievances on the Gold Coast into triumphs. Elaborate visions of the future were written by Euroafricans who told stories of how the African people would unchain themselves from the colonisers. They were meant for a readership on a global scale and were uttered several decades before actual decolonisation took place.
In hindsight, history tells us that these Euroafricans weren’t as actively involved (as a distinguished group) in the late 1930’s when the independence movements started to gain popularity, ultimately achieving the independence of Ghana in 1957. Because of this development, the world today doesn’t remember much of Euroafrican history. Instead, other versions of history have been pasted over it. My work will hopefully shed some more light on Euroafrican histories and place them in a global context to be included, criticised, analysed and remembered for future generations.