Searching for the Plague in Sub-Saharan Africa

Hello, my name is Sam Mancuso and I am a history major at the College of William and Mary.   History is my passion and the potential to impact the field of African history is too tempting a prospect to pass up.  This summer I will work under the guidance of Professor Gerard Chouin and help set up a foundation of research for future inquiries into the Black Plague in sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the major reasons that I decided to take up this research is because it would pit me against a long-standing pillar of African historiography – the medieval author Ibn Batutta.  In a great deal of my classes as a history major, I have been taught to always question my sources and try to find their biases.  Yet for all of this emphasis, no class has gone through with attempting to discredit a source outright.  In the course of this research, I would be trying to find weaknesses in Battuta’s chronicle of his travels through West Africa, with a major goal being the discovery of whether or not he plagiarized from earlier chronicles to make it look like he had been to a particular area when in reality he had not.  If this is conclusive, it would be a major strike against a source that is considered a major part of the current understanding of medieval Africa.  The thought of causing a paradigm shift in the historiography leaves me giddy – who doesn’t want to shake things up, given the chance?

With respect to my actual research, there are three parts to it.  As mentioned before, I will be deconstructing the West African travelogues of Ibn Battuta to determine whether they are genuine or fabricated.  The ultimate goal of this part of the research would be to encourage the discussion of plague in medieval West Africa, as his travelogue stands as a powerful source that discredits this idea.  Second, I will go over a large corpus of West African texts and look for any notes of plague or similar epidemics, to provide basis for the idea of the plague or a similar depopulation event existing in medieval West Africa.  The third component is the creation of a database of medieval cemeteries in Nubia and Ethiopia so as to determine the presence of any mass graves.  By completing these three components, I hope to set up a solid foundation for any future scholars who wish to research the plague or any related events in medieval sub-Saharan Africa.