knowledge production on equal terms? The linguistic collection of Koelle and Ali Eisami: insights into early 19th century knowledge production

By Carolin Rippstain

The above mentioned topic is the object of my doctoral project that is affiliated to the EHESS and CNRS and started in December 2020 under the supervision of Camille Lefebvre as a part of the ERC/Langarchive and is intended to be finished by the end of 2023.

The name S. W. Koelle is quite well known among contemporary historians of Africa mainly for his Polyglotta Africana, a comparative Vocabulary of more than 100 African languages, which stands out due to its containing various biographical sketches of the speakers consulted, making it a rich historical source. Koelle compiled it in a 5 years stay at Sierra Leone where he was sent as a first socalled missionary linguist by the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) at the end of 1847. Yet, this work which earned  him a lot of attention already soon after its publication, originally was a private project that Koelle pursued in his free time against critisism from his fellow Missionaries and the Home Committee. His actual main task was to chose one language that he would learn so well that he could write a grammar of it and possibly translate some of the Holy Scriptures, following the main goal of spreading the Gospel. His choice of the Kanuri, spoken by a traditionally Muslim society, over the course of time did not quite turn out to be the right means to this end, yet by then had already proceeded so far that it was decided to have Koelle finish it nonetheless. Compared to the Polyglotta these Kanuri studies have always attracted much less attention, although they are a very interesting source both in regard to its content as well as its production. But recently this collection came into focus in the process of searching out African sources for African history mainly in hitherto neglected linguistic collections.

Photograph of Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, from Robert Needham Cust ‘A sketch of the modern languages of Africa’ (1883)

Renowned scholars like P. E. H. Hair, David Dalby, Paul Lovejoy, or Sara Pugach have conducted research regarding Koelle providing us with short biographical scetches, as well as some insights into the production of the collection. But this has never been done extensively and also, knowledge about his counterpart Ali Eisami falls rather short in comparison – only two articles concerning him have been published by F. C. Smith, D. M. Last and Gambo Gubio as well as Lovejoy.[1] Both of them, however, are based almost entirely on a report Eisami himself gave of his life. Moreover the knowledge about the two men has only very scarcely been connected and both never studied as a joint project – likewise their cooperation has not been the focus of any research project, or at least publication. In my research project I intend to draw a more complete picture combining the various aspects in relation to the two mens intellectual cooperation. Therefore I will work with Koelle‘s publications, the extensive CMS archive as well as British colonial records both in Britain and Sierra Leone and Koelle‘s correspondence with various scholars scattered over Germany, that I have already partially explored. A special focus is put on Ali Eisami and the outstanding publication ‚African Native Literature‘, as well as further parts of his narrations possibly to be found.

Image of Ali Eisami, from the frontispiece of Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle’s ‘Grammar of the Bórnu Or Kānurī Language’ (1854)

The Kanuri collection in question is a product of hundreds of hours joint linguistic sessions of Koelle and his chief interpreter the native Kanuri Ali Eisami Gazirma. The latters life had gone in disarrey in the turmoil of the Sokoto Jihad, culminating in his being kidnapped at around age 25 and enslaved for a period of 5 years in different regions of Western Africa. Finally, when about to being shipped across the Atlantic, Eisamis vessel was captured. He then was resettled in Sierra Leone in April 1818 as one of the socalled ‚Liberated Africans‘, eventually enabling his encounter with Koelle. Noticing early into their work that the Kanuri was a very complex language Koelle decided on forming a literature to get acquainted with the language and obtain a foundation for what he calls ‘grammatical investigations’.[2] Therefore he would usually cause his interpreter to give him “any narration”[3] in Kanuri – that he did not know at all in the beginning – and immediately wrote down in simple and consistent orthography the sounds he heard, while Eisami was narrating. Thereby, in the course of their cooperation Koelle accumulated around 800 quarto manuscript pages of narrations by Ali Eisami containing texts ranging from fables over types of snakes in Bornu, the longevity of his great grandmother to political events or the succession of Kings in his home region – as well as an account of his life until his resettlement in Sierra Leone. When checking the reliability and accuracy of Eisamis narrations by consulting other people (generally almost exclusively men) from Bornu Koelle found Eisami to be very consistent despite being in his 60s and having spent more than half of his life away from his home, which led Koelle to marvel at Eisamis „more than ordinary strength of memory“[4].

Their intellectual cooperation finally led to the publication of a first ever Kanuri Grammar in 1854, after Koelle had returned to London. It was accompanied by a second book called ‚African Native Literature‘ which today constitutes the main point of interest due to its rareness. Originally the CMS had intended no further Kanuri publication than the grammar, but thanks to encouragements by fellow linguists Koelle lobbied to have a selection of Eisamis narrations published as well. This is already a lucky exception but even luckier (from a historians perspective) is the decision to publish Koelles English translations of the stories alongside the original Kanuri texts and a Vocabulary, which, together with the grammar, allows the translation to be checked. This is a remarkable degree of transparency and therefore as well a rare exception. So even if we can once again only access an Africans perspective through European documentation – containing the common dilemma of a European acting as a mediator – due to the competence, accuracy and transparency of its creators this linguistic collection offers an almost unmediated and thus undistorted insight into a certain part of African history and culture from the perspective of an African. This is interesting not only when it comes to facts and events, but also in the style of narration or attitudes exposed. In offering details of his experiences as well as his own reflexions on those, Eisamis original narrations constitute a source quite contrary to European colonial or missionary archives that usually mainly provide indexical and superficial and above all instrumental information on African actors.

Due to this there has been a quite extensive search for the unpublished (and therefore unknown) majority of the manuscript collection. While most researchers concluded that the missing parts are probably lost, there is some trace of it to be found pointing to German archives. In this doctoral project therefore further attempts at finding parts of the wanted collection are being made, extending the scope of research to German archives that to date have barely been taken into account.


[1] Ali Eisami Gazirmabe of Bornu, in ‚Africa Remembered, Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade‘, Philip Curtin (ed.), 1967. – and: Ali Eisami’s Enslavement in Jihad and Emancipation as a Liberated African, Paul E. Lovejoy, in: Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807–1896, Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy (eds.), 2020.

[2] African Native Literature.: II.

[3] See CMS, CA1/O135/12, Rev. S. W. Koelle, Original Papers, “Rev. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, Half Yearly Report,” 25 March 1848.

[4] Grammar of the Bornu or Kanuri Language: VII.



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