Discovering some of world history’s missing links

In the late 1970s, when Candice Goucher began researching African metalwork, she had the field practically to herself.

“I’m recognized as being kind of an old timer in terms of research on African ironworking,” said Goucher, professor of history at WSU Vancouver. Initially she worked with a blacksmith in 1979 in a small village in Ghana. Around the same time, she was involved in an archeological excavation of a medieval town. There, she discovered the extraordinary technology involved in the production of iron objects, implements and weapons that supported everyday life.

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Goucher climbing into an iron-smelting furnace in Togo, 1984.

Now, her decades of research are coming to fruition in a monumental exhibition, “Striking Iron: The Arts of the African Blacksmith,” which opens in spring 2018 at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and travels to Paris and other cities. Goucher is a collaborator on the project and also co-editor of a book to be published by the University of California Press in conjunction with the exhibition.

In addition, she is working on another volume about African ironworking as it has spread throughout the African diaspora via immigration. “I am looking at the global impact of African technology, which has been very understudied and underappreciated,” Goucher said. Tentatively titled “The Memory of Iron,” this book will seek to restore the role of African ironworkers to the history of technology, which for centuries has ignored Africa.

In her proposal for “The Memory of Iron,” Goucher points out the “terrible ambivalence” of iron in the lives of African people. The metal meant brutality as well as beauty. She writes:

Between about 1508 and 1880, iron was ubiquitous across the Atlantic: iron shackles and chains restrained the 12 million enslaved Africans, destined for voyages in ironclad sailing vessels. As key agricultural laborers, these Africans and their descendants would wield iron cutlasses in Caribbean sugarcane fields. In the hands of rebels and freedom fighters, their iron tools and weapons could transform moments of brutality into successful resistance.

Skills with iron were valued in the New World, and the knowledge of African craftsmen helped forge a new understanding of working with metal. “We now know Africans contributed essential knowledge and skills, especially to the Americas but also to the whole Atlantic world,” Goucher said. She sees “The Memory of Iron” as the culmination of decades of interdisciplinary scholarship around African metallurgy.

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After excavation of an iron foundry in Jamaica, 1995.

AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVE

Ironwork is just one thread of Goucher’s scholarship. Her work combines the theories and methods of history, archaeology, ethnography, art history, ecology and chemistry. She is well known for her books and articles on African foodways, metallurgy, and popular and political culture, as well as global themes in world history.

Goucher has studied Caribbean food almost as long as she has studied African ironworking. Among her many honors, her 2014 book “Congotay! Congotay!” won both the National and the World Gourmand Awards for Best Book on Caribbean Food.

In the classroom, Goucher has been instrumental in shifting the teaching of world history from an outdated rise-and-fall-of-civilizations approach to a more engaged thematic approach to the past, which makes it possible to see contemporary global and environmental issues borne of history. “It’s a way to make history more relevant to our lives,” Goucher said.

The approach has been widely adopted by secondary schools and colleges. Goucher is co-author of one of the leading textbooks, World History: Journeys from Past to Present, (2008; second edition, 2013), which has been translated into Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. Her online multimedia project Bridging World History (with 26 videos) has been viewed on public television stations and classrooms in nearly every state as a model of the thematic approach to world history. In 2015, Goucher was awarded the Pioneer in World History prize from the World History Association.

Goucher joined WSU Vancouver in 2000, after chairing the Black Studies Department at Portland State University. In 2017, she received the Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence at WSU Vancouver.

Next year’s exhibition in Los Angeles promises a different kind of thrill than solitary scholars usually get to experience—as well as the possibility that a missing link in the worldwide history of technology will receive its rightful recognition. “It is so much fun to be around other people who are so excited about these works of art that African blacksmiths created over centuries,” Goucher said. “The longevity of African ironworking over the millennia and the survival of the arts into 21st century makes the African continent an important place to think about the history of technology.”

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