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Interactive Bureaucracies in West Africa: Actors, Norms and Networks in the First Globalization (1500-1900)

Dr Rémi Dewière is a WIRL-COFUND fellow (2019-2021), at the University of Warwick. His postdoctoral project examines the functioning of Islamic Sahelian States in the precolonial period and their relationships with the world around them, through the trans-Saharan routes.


This project challenges the widespread idea that pre-colonial African political structures were characterized by a scarce and poor use of written documents and emphasizes instead the use by professional scribes of a normalized set of visual and technical tools conceptualized to express political authority. Through the analysis of diplomatic letters from Islamic States of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Sudan, it sheds new light on the functioning of the administrations serving Muslim rulers in the Sahel before colonization. Beyond the norms that characterize the writing of power, the graphic variations of letters reveal an administration at work, one that adapts its scriptural practices according to the recipient. From the Middle-Ages to the early twentieth century, Islamic lawyers and scholars helped the Sahelian rulers to face many challenges related to the development of an effective bureaucracy. Through Islam, men and women who were involved in state practices, wrote, met, and exchanged gifts, in order to create an ideal environment for the interaction between political actors.