Professor Emeritus

of African History, African Studies, and the College

Ralph Austen has retired and no longer directs BA theses or accepts new graduate students.

PhD 1966 Harvard University

The University of Chicago
Department of History
1126 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

Field Specialties

African economic history; comparative slavery and slave trade; colonialism and imperialism; African literature


Ralph A. Austen is professor emeritus of African history. His current research (and limited teaching) focuses on the political economy and cultural dimensions of European overseas expansion (including autobiographical writings by "colonial subjects") and African literature.

His current projects include an autobiographical study of the Malian intellectual and writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1901–1990). He is also working with Woodruff Smith on a longer book, "The Road to Postcoloniality." It will focus on tropical Africa, South Asia, and, to a lesser extent, the Caribbean as regions, which played a key role in Europe's rise to world economic dominance in the early modern seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, became formal colonies in the modern nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when their international economic position was already marginal, and are struggling to find an economic role, political stability, and cultural identity in the postmodern late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.



—Northwest Tanzania under German and British Rule: Colonial Policy and Tribal Politics, 1889–1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.
African Economic History: Internal Development and Exter­nal Dependency. London: James Currey, 1987.
The Elusive Epic: The Nar­rative of Jeki la Njambe in the Historical Culture of the Cameroon Coast. Atlanta: African Studies Association Press, 1996 [a monograph and translated texts].
(with Jonathan Derrick) Middlemen of the Cameroon Rivers: The Duala and their Hinterland, ca. 1600–ca. 1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
(editor) In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literatur­e, and Performance. Bloomington: Indiana Univer­sity Press, 1999.
Trans-Saharan Africa in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
(edited with Mahir Saul) Viewing African Cinema in the Twenty-First Century: Art Films and the Nollywood Video Revolution. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010.

Articles, Chapters

"The Moral Economy of Witchcraft: An Essay in Comparative History." In Modernity and its Malcontents, edited by J. and J. L. Comaroff. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993.
"Coming of Age through Colonial Education: African Autobiography as Reluctant Bildungsroman, the Case of Camara Laye." In Boston University Discussion Papers in the African Humanities, 2000.
"The Slave Trade as History and Memory: Confrontations of Slaving Voyage Documents and Communal Traditions." William and Mary Quarterly (January 2001).
"Interpreters Self-Interpreted: The Autobiographies of Two Colonial Clerks." In Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks:  African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africa, edited by Benjamin Lawrance, Emily Lynn Osborn, and Richard Roberts, 159–79. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
(with Woodruff Smith) "The Economic Value of British Colonial Empire in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," History Compass 4, no. 1 (January 2006): 54–76.
"The Colonial in the Attic: Imperialism, the Victorian Domestic Novel, and Gentlemanly Capitalism." British Scholar 2, no. 1 (September 2009).
"Africa in the Global Decolonization Process: The Road to Postcoloniality." In "Trustee for the Human Community": Ralph J. Bunche and the Decolonization of Africa, edited by Robert Hill and Edmond J. Keller, 230–57. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010.
—(with James  Vaughn) "The Territorialization of Empire: Social Imperialism and Britain’s Moves into India and Tropical Africa." In Africa, Empire and Globalization Essays in Honor of A. G. Hopkins, edited by Toyin Falola and Emily Brownell, 193–212. Durham, NC: Carolina University Press, 2011.