Sometimes apparently everyday topics of life can lead to rich rewards in terms of historical study.
One example of this is (I hope she won’t mind me saying) is Kristin Mann’s study of men and women’s marrying patterns in Lagos in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This is one of the studies that I have returned to again and again as I have completed postgraduate study and now as I have begun teaching.
Why? Perhaps one of the most important reasons is the elegance of the writing. Mann’s work, I think in common with other writers working in global history, such as Fred Cooper and Catherine Hall, makes reading so much easier. This is not the kind of work where you get the distinct impression someone was working up against a deadline to fulfil their publication quota. Along with this clarity, the extent of source material used is another reason that makes me re-read Mann’s book. Her work used a wide range of sources to think about the interactions of men and women in Lagos. Sometimes the footnotes are the best bit, telling their own stories about children and grandchildren who shared their memories of family with Mann.
More than this, Nina Mba, the late historian of gender in Nigeria, wrote that not only had Mann conducted wide ranging research, she was fondly remembered by those who had been interviewed for the project. In addition to her interviews, Mann weaved together newspapers, court cases, private collections of letters and other papers to support this detailed account of networks in debate. This is not the imposition of late 20th C concerns upon a community from nearly 100 years before. As Stephanie Newell notes in her study of the writer and self-creator John Moray Stuart Young’s work, marriage (along with education) ‘fuelled the pistons’ of debates in West African newsprint.
Finally and perhaps most importantly the book engaged with gender in terms of the experiences of both men and women. Rather than identifying gender as a concern for women and focussing on women exclusively, Mann sought out the data to create biographies of both men and women in her study. As a result, her work goes beyond the experiences of one group, Mann’s study discusses both experiences, discussing in detail male and female attitudes to marriage. Years before masculinity studies became a significant field in African histories, Marrying Well demonstrated the complex ways in which both men and women’s experiences are important for understanding the changing construction of gender.
I’m really surprised to find that this book has been out of print for so long at Cambridge University Press, and hope that ongoing digitisation projects will mean in the future that more people (outside university libraries) can access Mann’s fascinating work. A short article on a similar theme’The Dangers of Dependence’ is available online, and information about accessing articles via JSTOR’s individual researcher scheme is available here. Of course, as Mba noted, the book is focussed on a small elite community, and does not speak for the wider experiences of West Africans in the period in which British colonial rule expanded from the coast. However, Mann has gone on, for example in her most recent study, Slavery and the Birth of an African City> to address these concerns. As a researcher and teacher, Mann’s work continues to inspire me to think about the ways in which diverse sources (including photographs)can be used to tell historical stories, going beyond the archive to private collections. It also underlines my commitment to the stories of individuals, such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, and the power of biographies against what Jean Allman has called the ‘tyrannies of history’.