lisa monaghan

D.H. Johnson (1981). The Fighting Nuer. Primary Sources and the Origins of a Stereotype

In the one hundred and forty years that the Nuer have been known to small audiences outside the Sudan they have almost invariably been presented as truculent and aggressive warriors. They appeared in the nineteenth century exploration literature as archetypical 'savages': naked, stubborn and warlike men who were compared to monkeys, to the monkeys' advantage (Baker 1867:60). In the early twentieth century they were thought to be an intractable problem that impeded the peaceful establishment and efficient running of a new colonial administration. In Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard's monographs Nuer feuds and raiding are described as central to the structural relations between Nuer sections and between the Nuer and their neighbours.

The evidence provided by the exploration, administrative and ethnographic literature seems conclusive, and when beginning my own research on certain aspects of Nuer history I assumed that Evans-Pritchard had, as he claimed, 'understood the chief values of the Nuer' and had presented 'a true outline of their social structure', even if the details were 'scanty and uneven' (Evans-Pritchard 1940a:15, 9). His works were quite naturally the foundation of any new fieldwork, but I very quickly found that the Nuer testimony about their own past was at variance with a number of Evans- Pritchard's statements.In particular the Lou and Gaawar, and some representatives of the Eastern Jikany, Dok and Jagei had a very different understanding from Evans-Pritchard and some of his predecessors about Nuer relations with the Dinka, their conflicts with the government and the social message of their most influential prophets. A detailed examination of written sources revealed surprisingly consistent corroboration of specific points raised by my Nuer informants; modern testimony appeared to reflect more than just the changing times.

Category: Anthropology and History

Sub-category: Armed Groups/Actors, Socio-Cultural Groups and Practices


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