Written Culture in a Colonial Context: Africa and the Americas, 1500–1900


Adrien Delmas (ed)
University of Cape Town
Nigel Penn (ed)
University of Cape Town


Ships, soldiers, missionaries and settlers drove the process of European expansion from the 16th to the 19th centuries. In doing so, they set in motion the circulation of images, manuscripts and books between different continents. The Portuguese Estado da India, the Spanish Carrera de Indias, the Dutch, English and French East-Indian Companies, as well as the Society of Jesus, all imaginatively fixed and inscribed the details of their travels and their discourses in letters, logs, diaries and histories. They also regulated the circulation of this material through the construction of archives, censorship, control of publications and secrecy. In addition, they introduced alphabetic writing into societies without alphabets, which was a major factor in changing the very function and meaning of written culture.

There is very little in the modern literature on the history of written culture which describes specific practices related to writing that were anchored in the colonial context. This book explores the extent to which the types of written information that resulted during colonial expansion shaped the numerous and complex processes of cultural exchange from the 16th century onwards. Focusing on writing in colonial Africa and the Americas, it ranges from rock art and proto-writing in Africa to the alphabetisation of Mexican scribes (tlahcuilos), from the missionary writing of Ethiopian Jesuits in the 17th century to travel writing and other forms of popular literature in the 19th century and official documents of various kinds.


  • Written Culture in a Colonial Context
    Africa and the Americas, 1500–1900


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Author Biographies

Adrien Delmas, University of Cape Town

Adrien Delmas (co-editor) holds a PhD in History from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. He has published several essays on the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and travel writing in the early modern world. In 2007, he was granted a fellowship by the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), Johannesburg, and he is associated with the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town.

Nigel Penn, University of Cape Town

Nigel Penn (co-editor) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of Rogues, Rebels and Runaways: Eighteenth Century Cape Characters (Cape Town: David Philip, 1999) and The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist & Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the 18th Century (Athens, Ohio & Cape Town: Ohio University Press/Double Storey Books, 2005). With Maurice Boucher, he co-edited Britain at the Cape, 1795–1803 (Johannesburg: Brenthurst Press, 1992). He has won the UCT Book Award three times, and The Forgotten Frontier was selected by the American Libraries Association as one of the Outstanding Academic Books (Choice Award) for 2007.

A stack of dusty, leather-bound books against a backdrop showing an image of a stylised compass like one that might appear on an old map.


7 March 2022


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