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Editors' note. An article by Jay Spaulding, `The Birth of an African Private Epistolography, Echo Island 1862-1901', was published in this Journal (vol. XXXIV, 1993, 115-41). The Editors have received the following comment on this article, together with a rejoinder from Prof. Spaulding.
Professor Jay Spaulding's scholarly contribution to Sudanese studies is recognized by all those interested in the discipline. Almost single-handedly he has in recent years made the social history of medieval Sudan (as opposed to its political history) the focal point of serious and enlightening research and publication. Thanks to his meticulous discourse on Sinnar, The Heroic Age in Sinnar (1985), the once dimly lighted streets and houses of that Blue Nile town are skilfully brought to daylight, so to speak. Thus we are much better informed about the occupants of Sinnar, their professions, finance, politics, cultural values, intrigues and final demise.
More recently Professor Spaulding's research interest has shifted to northern Sudan, specifically to Echo Island and its surroundings. Sifting through the private papers of the islanders and court documents, Professor Spaulding is patiently establishing a formidable corpus of knowledge about the social relations among northern Sudanese, and determining the ideological contours that informed their lives. `The Birth of an African Private Epistolography: Echo Island 1862-1901' belongs to this genre. In it he explores the ways in which the islanders managed to cope with the changing circumstances associated with Turkish rule, a colonial setting much larger in scale than anything they had previously experienced. They did so through the promotion of cohesion, or as Professor Spaulding puts it, ` ... bond management in the microsociological sense' (p. 141). He contends that the authors of the seven letters he examines in his article are preoccupied with matters and concerns quite different from those usually expressed in the much larger body of contemporary literature on legal issues coming from the same community.
This commentary takes issue with Professor Spaulding's contention that a `private epistolography' was actually born in Echo Island in the second half of the nineteenth century. It also demonstrates that Professor Spaulding's mistranslation of the first document (Case 1, p. 135) has led him to wrong conclusions which are untenable under Maliki law and contrary to the custom of the land.
The first problem I have with Professor Spaulding's article is his insistence that the seven letters we have from Echo Island (three of which in any case were written by non-Echo residents) constitute a private epistolography of the islanders. If by `private' he means `individual-to-individual' or `non-public' communication, this was certainly not the case. Letter-writing in Echo Island, as indeed in other semi-literate communities in the …