West African intellectuals have a long history of engaging with European intrusion by reflecting on their status as colonial and postcolonial subjects. Against the tendency to view this engagement as a confrontation between the modern west and traditional Africa, Philip S. Zachernuk argues that the interaction is far more fluid and diverse. Challenging the frequent denigration of western-educated Africans as a culturally barren "kleptocratic" elite, Colonial Subjects shows that they occupied a shifting medial position between colonizers and colonized. In the process they created a distinctive intellectual culture grounded in indigenous and European sources.
Looking carefully at southern Nigeria from 1840 to 1960, Zachernuk locates intellectuals in the contours of their society as it changed from late precolonial times to the beginning of independence. He examines their engagement with British and Black Atlantic assumptions and assertions about Africa's place in the world. These ideas, shaped by the needs of others, became the often awkward material with which these intellectuals endeavored to construct their own image of their home continent.
In this context, a group of Nigerian intellectuals created a dynamic intellectual tradition motivated by self-interest and marked by innovation, counter-invention, and imitation within the confines of the Atlantic world. At different times they opposed and supported the colonial state, adopted and rejected notions of racial destiny, and advocated free market principles, cooperative self-help, and state socialism. Colonial Subjects provides a historical framework for connecting these divergent ideas, thereby recovering the complexity of an intellectual tradition both colonial and modern.
Beautifully written, lucid, lean, and in places elegant, Colonial Subjects reopens and revitalizes a field in which there has been relatively little work in recent years—African intellectual history. Zachernuk's book will attract attention once again to the study of African ideas in their social, political, economic, and cultural context. His study has much to teach about the achievements and failures of modern African history.