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Vansina, Jan



Renowned historian and anthropologist Jan Vansina is a major figure in the study of Africa. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he taught for over three decades. In his career he published sixteen monographs and over two hundred articles and did extensive fieldwork throughout Africa. His methodologies and research into precolonial oral tradition helped found the field of African history. As a professor, mentor, author, and researcher, his influence has been profound.

Vansina was born in Antwerp, Belgium on September 1929. He was one of 12 children born into a Catholic family and was a precocious student, graduating high school at 16.  He went on to study law and history at the University of Leuven (Belgium) from 1946-1951 and anthropology at the University of London from 1951-1952.  He received his doctorate in history from the University of Leuven in 1957.

Vansina was initially trained in medieval history, but instead of pursuing the traditional teaching path, he decided to take a job at the Institute for Research in Central Africa and headed to Tervuren to conduct research. He then completed research on the Kuba from Belgian Congo as well as fieldwork in Rwanda, Burundi and Congo. This fieldwork won him prestigious awards such as the Herskovits Prize, the A. Von Humboldt Prize, and the J.D. MacArthur Professorship Award in History and Anthropology.

Vansina became known as one of the founders of the modern study of African history and made Central Africa his focus. He also put an emphasis on the whole of Africa in the pre-European contact era. He wrote his first book, Oral Tradition, about how to use rigorous historical methods to further document the historical evidence left behind by the Kuba before there were textual records to analyze. He insisted that it was possible to study pre-colonial African history in a systematic framework using the documentation of the oral tradition. This insistence helped instill a sense of justification and self-confidence in the burgeoning field of African history. 

After completing his initial fieldwork, Vansina taught for two years at University of Lovanium (Zaire), before being offered a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1960, where he worked until his retirement in 1994, except for an interlude when he taught at the University of Levuen from 1973-1975. He would also serve as a visiting professor at the University of Lovanium, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Froebenius Institute, the Sorbonne and the University of Leiden.

Vansina left his most lasting academic impression at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was initially offered a half-time teaching and half-time research position for roughly three years. He accompanied his wife, Claudine, and four-year-old son Bruno on a journey to Madison from Antwerp. They were issued green cards, signed a lease on a home and arrived in Madison in Thanksgiving in 1960. He served as a mentor to graduate students who were ecstatic that they finally had a guide to help them with a focused study of African history. Vansina eventually took a full-time professor position at Madison, teaching for decades, and also spent a year of unpaid leave pursuing further fieldwork in Africa. When Vansina returned from his year of leave, he took on the role of chair for the department of African languages and literature, and sat in this position through 1968. Vansina immediately continued teaching graduate students. In 1965, a full-fledged African History Program was started after Vansina pushed for its creation. He was also in charge of running the African research seminar for the university.

During his time at Madison, he completed a number of well-received publications, including a condensed volume reviewing the historical beginnings of Rwanda which was in opposition to the contemporaneous “official” history of Rwanda. He subsequently published lectures on Knaplund and work on the Kuba people describing Kuba kinship and local community with equal weight and detail as its political institutions. His dissertation presenting a nuanced history of the Kuba people was also published in Dutch. All of these materials were published within two and a half years while working part-time at Madison. He established the Comparative Tropical History Program which encompassed African history and African studies with the help of Philip Curtin, a fellow history professor, and brought numerous African specialists to the university. They expected their students to have great knowledge in French and African languages, learn about another area of the Third World, conduct fieldwork, and become enthralled in African history in such a way that would set Madison graduate students apart. This program was reproduced at many colleges nationwide. 

Vansina had a relationship with Northwestern University as well, beginning when the pioneering African anthropologist Melville Herskovits offered him a job, though he was committed to Wisconsin at the time.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Jan Vansina Papers

Identifier: 030
Abstract Jan Vansina was born in Antwerp, Belgium on September 14, 1929 and received his Ph.D. in history from the University Leuven in 1957. He is a major figure in the study of Africa. He published twenty monographs, over two hundred articles, and was the co-author, editor, compiler, annotator etc. of many other works. His extensive fieldwork and study of oral tradition established the context and methodologies for reconstructing African history through the use of oral tradition. The Jan Vansina...
Dates: 1718-2010; Other: Date acquired: 07/31/2010