7. What are some benefits and limitations of analyzing court testimony?
Legal documents are seen as useful by African historians because they do a couple of things that firsthand accounts by Africans dont do, and colonial records often do not do. Firsthand accounts by Africans, which are rare anyway, would include things like novels, autobiographies, political tracts, petitions. Most of those tend to be written by elites and by men. People tend to be educated if theyre able to get that sort of thing into print.
They also are always written with a conscious purpose in mind. Theres an audience. Theres a reason its being written. Novels are interesting; they do bring in African perspectives. But they are fiction, and there are certain limits. Its primary purpose is not to be a historical document.
Colonial reports have their own uses, but they, of course, are only written from European perspectives. Africans are not quoted in there. They only appear when theyre in trouble and what you hear about them is exclusively what European officials want you to hear about them. They are Europeans writing to other Europeans. You would never hear about womens concerns with fertility in a colonial report. Those reports only give you whats on a colonial radar screen.
Whats interesting about legal testimony is that it straddles those two different genres of source. These things take place in a very structured environment, and depending on what the Africans think the purpose of the courtroom hearing is for, that can influence how free they are to talk. If somebodys being tried for murder in a colonial courtroom and their life was at stake, theyre going to be very cautious, and youre going to get one word or one line answers to colonial questioning.
In a case like this, though, or sometimes in a colonial courtroom dispute where an African couple brings a divorce case to the court, you really get a sense of the texture of African life, in spite of what colonial officials care about, because details get thrown into the testimony which officials feel obligated to record word for word, even if they dont see that its relevant. The idea that you could get womens voices from 1929 and their perspective on what colonization has meant to them, theres no other forum except through a series of testimony like this.
You have an African interpreter who is interpreting the question that the European asks to the woman. The woman replies. The interpreter interprets the question back and probably a European is transcribing that into English. Theres so much room here for alteration. In spite of that, you find out so much. But you also wonder how much are you actually missing.
Theres plainly a problem about translating counting and taxation. The women dont appear to distinguish between them when they give their testimony.
Enyidia, the one who said, we dont deserve to be taxed because were useful, we bear fruit, she says, Our grievances are centered upon the counting of women.
And the interpreter says, She spoke other words which I should not interpret, as they are of a foul character. Oleka said that we women must pay tax. And the Commissioner says, Did he actually say that or did he say that you must be counted? And she said, He said we were to pay tax.
And then the next witness comes forward. Shes also a woman and its the same kind of thing. The Commissioner says, Do the Chiefs agree that women should be taxed? And the woman says, Yes. And the Commissioner says, Did they ask you to pay tax? and she says, Yes, they told us to pay tax. The women are insisting that they were told that they were going to have to pay tax, but the government is saying we never put an order out like that. Where did the confusion come from? Was it the Chiefs who thought this? Was it the interpreter? Somebody got mixed up, and the women are quite insistent that they were both going to be counted and going to be taxed.
Also the fact that the interpreter says, Im not going to interpret her last statement because it isnt appropriate makes you wonder what else is being left out or smoothed over. The women might actually be much more hostile than they sound. You get the sense the interpreters trying to keep things kind of on an even keel and doesnt want to have the Commissioner be offended and angry.