Print History: Isabel Hofmeyr - The View from Africa

Large parts of Africa and Asia share a common experience of colonization, exploitation and impoverishment. They also share histories of print whose similarities and contrasts are yet to be explored. South Africa-based print historian Isabel Hofmeyr has been delving into pan-African and colonial print history for decades. In this conversation with Murali Ranganathan, Hofmeyr presents the view from Africa

01 Apr 2021 | By Murali Ranganathan

Isabel Hofmeyr

How did you develop an interest in book and print history? How does this complement your other research interests?
My first degree was in Journalism and English Literature so I have always had a strong interest in media. In my postgraduate work, I was soon drawn into archival research and working with old newspapers and magazines. Anyone who consults these sources can’t but be struck by the materiality of the documents, whether manuscript or print.

My early research focused on questions of orality and literacy, an area that inevitably lead to scholarship on the early modern world and from there to the field of book history and print culture. I then began teaching a course on South African book history, edited a special issue of the South African Historical Journal on this theme and also began supervising graduates working on these themes.

You have written and published widely. Could you provide a brief overview of your publications? Which of your books do you consider the most important vis-a-vis print history?
My first book was entitled We Spend our Years as a Tale that is Told: Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Chiefdom. The monograph examined the history of a community in the far north of the country, in part through the lens of orality and literacy. The focus of the work was on the oral traditions that had been passed down about a mid-nineteenth century colonial massacre. I was interested not only in the content and genres of these stories but in the institutions and spaces of story-telling and how these had changed over time. The interaction of oral, written and printed media formed an important strand in the encounter between Boer, British and African chiefdoms.

One strand in this work dealt with German Lutheran missionaries who were active in the area that I studied. Through working on Protestant missions, I became aware of the importance of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and how widespread it was. I thought I’d write a short article on the spread of the text in southern Africa. However the more I researched the topic, the more realised that it was in fact a global story. This work resulted in The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress which traced the how the book changed as it travelled into new intellectual and spiritual contexts in various parts of Africa.  

Much of the research for this monograph was done in a range of Protestant mission archives and I became fascinated by the attention lavished on the printing press itself. The press often featured as a protagonist in stories of mission expansion and so my attention was drawn to the materialities of the press itself.

This focus then provided a lens for my next book, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading. I focused on the printing press at Gandhi’s first ashram, Phoenix in Natal, and the multilingual newspaper Indian Opinion, looking not only at the content but also at how the publication was produced. I was able to demonstrate how these material practices supported and informed the philosophy of satyagraha. As a practice of sovereignty rooted in the individual rather than an abstraction like ‘nation’ or ‘movement’, satyagraha inheres in forms of conduct (like spinning and fasting) through which ethical values are accreted in the individual. Such practices form the basis of self-rule or ruling the self, creating sovereignty, one person at a time. Reading, writing and printing can be made to conform to such practices of the self and can hence be a mode of satyagraha as well as an activity through which to theorise the idea itself.

Your Gandhi book is a landmark publication in a very crowded field of Gandhi books. Can you expand on how you approached the subject and the kind of research you undertook for the book?
I was fully aware that one ventured into writing about Gandhi at one’s peril and that one might drown in the sea of scholarship on him. However, I was also aware that there had not been work that explored the broader implications of the printing press itself.

I was fortunate in that there is an excellent body of work on Gandhi in South Africa, most notably by the historian Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie. This work provided a good sense of what archival sources were available. I was then able to scrutinise these, paying particular attention to anything related to the printing press, like orders or invoices. There wasn’t a great deal of material so I had to squeeze as much as I could out of the documents. For example, the changing letterheads of the newspaper threw light on its shifting philosophy and practices. I also drew on the scholarship on printing in India to get a sense of how the personnel on the press, some of whom came from India would have approached their task.

What is the kind of print/book history work that is being undertaken or published in Africa? How does one look at print history for a whole continent?
Like anywhere else, the work on print/book history doesn’t attempt to look at the whole continent but rather focuses on particular regions. There are hence strong traditions of scholarship on southern Africa, east Africa, west Africa, the Maghreb and so on. Much of this work focuses on newspapers during the colonial era since this was one arena in which colonised subjects could gain access to publishing venues. Stephanie Newell’s work on colonial West African newspapers explores how writers constructed novel textual personae and models of authorship by experimenting with media formats and genres.

Newspapers often proved to be rich cosmopolitan sites. In both east and southern Africa, newspapers and presses owned by diasporic Indians, became anti-colonial institutions in which South Asian and African intellectuals interacted. In parts of the continent where Islam has a strong presence, scholars have explored the interaction of manuscript and print and how these media have shaped different spiritual traditions.  

Much of this work on print culture is transnational in its reach looking for example at how Muslim ideas in print crisscrossed the Indian Ocean world. Likewise several scholars have traced how the world of the black Atlantic informed the content and genres of southern and east African publications. Madhu Krishnan and Chris Ouma have a project on small magazines in east, west and southern Africa and how these become sites of consolidating and refining transnational anti-colonial and anti-imperial thought.

What are the challenges which historians working on print history in Africa and Asia have to face as compared to those working on the western world?
Working in and on African print culture presents both problems and possibilities. The problems are legion: fragmented and lost archives, patchy newspaper holdings, poorly preserved and brittle material and so on. Yet, at the same time, the context offers intellectual opportunities to the scholar since nothing is fixed or set in stone. In my work on Gandhi, I realised this his idea of “the newspaper” was completely different from what this term means today. Yet most historians had treated his publication as though it was more or less an equivalent of the modern day newspaper. If one can drop one’s preconceptions, there are great analytical opportunities to be gained from working on print culture in postcolonial settings.

You co-edited a book titled Ten books that shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons. How did you select the ten books from such a vast corpus?
We had some initial and obvious books in mind like Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. We also had particular scholars in mind and asked for their suggestions. This method produced a range of well-known books alongside little or lesser known texts which had nonetheless been influential in their time. The premise of the book was to focus attention on the importance of books and print culture as a lens for understanding empire.

What is the role of serendipity in book/print history? What do you consider to be your important discoveries?
Serendipity is important in any research and likewise in book history. This refers both to the surprising find one makes while locating a library book on a shelf or the treasure one stumbles across in an archive. Serendipity also plays a part in what gets preserved. Much is lost but sometimes a document or book survives against the odds. .

When I did the work on The Pilgrim’s Progress I was at times astonished to find obscure African translations on the library shelves. I was perhaps one of a handful of people actually interested in the text but I felt grateful to all the hands that had insured that the book had made it into a library. The pandemic has of course put an end to these kinds of happenstance finds in libraries and archives.

Who are the print/book historians whose work has impressed you most, with respect to global print history in general and Asia/Africa in particular?
Top of my list is Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. It’s superb in the way it considers both the outside and the inside of the book. Equally impressive is Meredith McGill’s American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting 1934-1853 which demonstrates how to remap a literary field through book history methods.

Stephanie Newell, The Power to Name: A History of Anonymity in Colonial West Africa traces how African intellectuals used the press to shape new identities and personae. Bhekizizwe Peterson has done important work on the black press as a site of black intellectual history.

Who do you think are the notable historians among your contemporaries and the newer generation?
I have always admired the rich traditions of book history research in India from scholars like Rochelle Pinto, AR Venkatachalapathy, Supriya Chaudhuri, Rimi Chatterjee, Abhijit Gupta as well as scholars working on India like Ulrike Starke and Francesca Orsini.

Has print history become an easier vocation to practice in the age of the Internet?
The Internet has created both possibilities and problems. There is now much more archival material online and an astonishing array of digital books. In my generation, part of one’s training was in how to locate material in obscure archives. That now seems a bit comical, given the easy access one can have to troves and troves of material. These developments do however mean that the materiality of the objects is often obscured. One can’t see the actual document so some of the key methods of book history can’t be deployed.

I love Internet Archive – there is such an extraordinary range of texts. I also love the Hathi Trust Digital Library, although not everything is always available. I am a fan of Google Ngrams and also of Google Books. While I was doing the Gandhi book, I was grateful to the online Collected Works and then to Tridip Suhrud and his team for the re-edited works.

Is print/book history now less about print objects, but more about the people who create and consume them, and exploring the contextual practices which frame this creation and consumption?
Good book history has always been about all of these things and the best scholarship still captures these various dimensions at the same time.

Any Internet projects which you have undertaken?
I have ventured into podcasting and have been involved in a website for the project which I currently run Oceanic Humanities for the Global South (

What is on your plate now?
One minor theme that emerged from my work on Gandhi was his steadfast opposition to copyright which he regarded as a form of private property. Having completed the book, I wanted to investigate this thread further. Was Gandhi’s position unusual, or not? What was the situation with regard to colonial copyright? Rather unexpectedly this search lead me to Customs and Excise since, as I discovered, it was this department that had overseen copyright. Printed matter coming from outside the colony had to be funneled through the port city where Customs officials checked to see that it was not pirated, seditious, obscene or (in some parts of the world) blasphemous. Customs hence became the part of the colonial state that oversaw both copyright and censorship.

This research then led to my next book Hydrocolonialism: Coast, Custom House and Dockside Reading which will be out towards the end of 2021. It offers a new literary method, hydrocolonialism – linking sea and land, empire and environment – which is explored through a case study of the Custom House on a colonial maritime frontier. Customs officials checked incoming printed matter for sedition, obscenity and piracy and functioned as censors and adjudicators of copyright, both areas of interest to literary scholars. Hydrocolonialism locates itself on the dockside, tracking printed matter from ship to shore, and through the regulatory regimes of the Custom House.

One intention in writing this book is to bring studies of book history and print culture close to debates on climate change and the Anthropocene. The book attempts this task by putting water and paper closer together, immersing printed matter in the elemental politics of the colonial port city.

Isabel Hofmeyr
Professor of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

1953: Born in Potchefstroom, South Africa
1974: Bachelor of Journalism, Rhodes University
1976: Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English, University of the Witwatersrand
1979: Master of Arts in Area Studies (Africa), School of Oriental and African Studies
1984: Joined as Tutor in Division of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand
1991: PhD, University of the Witwatersrand
1993: Published ‘We Spend Our Years as a Tale that is Told’: Oral Historical Storytelling in a South African Chiefdom (Witwatersrand University Press)
1994: Professor, Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand
1997-2001: Chairperson, Witwatersrand University Press Committee.
2004: Published The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of The Pilgrim’s Progress (Princeton University Press)
2013: Published Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press)
2014: Co-edited Ten Books that Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons (Duke University Press)
2015-2021: Global Distinguished Professor, New York University
2021: Hydrocolonialism: Coast, Custom House and Dockside Reading (forthcoming publication)