Thomas Spear

Position title: Emeritus Professor


Curriculum Vitae (pdf)

Thomas Spear headshot


While serving in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, I became fascinated with exploring the little known history of Africa and Africans. In pursuit of this, I have conducted extensive fieldwork in Kenya and Tanzania and written widely on pre-colonial history and the methods historians employ to recover, reconstruct, and interpret it. I have taught at Latrobe University in Australia, Williams College, and the University of Wisconsin, where I also served as Director of the African Studies Program and Chair of the History Department. I have served as editor of the Journal of African History, founding editor-in-chief of Oxford Bibliographies: African Studies, 2011-2017, and founding editor-in-chief of Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, 2015-present. I have received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies, among others, for my research, and received the Waldo G. Leland Prize in 2021 from the American Historical Association for the most outstanding reference work in the past five years, for The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Historiography: Methods and Sources.

Research Interests: Pre-colonial African History, East African History, Southern African history, and historical methods and theory.


Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison
M.A., University of Wisconsin-Madison
B.A., Williams College


Selected Publications

  • “Methods and Sources,” Journal of African History, 47(2006), 305-319.
  • “Neo-Traditionalism and the Limits of Invention in British Colonial Africa,” Journal of African History, 44(2003), 1-26.
  • “Early Swahili History Reconsidered,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, 33(2000), 256-288.
  • “‘A Town of Strangers’ or ‘A Model East African Town’: Arusha and the Arusha” in D. A. Anderson & R. Rathbone (eds.), Africa’s Urban Past (Oxford: James Currey; Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2000), 109-125.
  • “Mutesa, the Missionaries, and Christian Conversion in Buganda” (with Jean Brierley), International Journal of African Historical Studies, 21(1988), 601-618.
  • “Oral Traditions: Whose History?” History in Africa, 8(1981), 163-179. Revised and reprinted in Journal of Pacific History, 16(1981), 133-148.


  • The Waldo G. Leland Prize from the American Historical Association for the most outstanding reference work in the past five years, for The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Historiography: Methods and Sources, 2021.
  • John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 1995-96
  • University of Wisconsin: Vilas Associate, 1995-97
  • Charles R. Keller Professor of History, Williams College, 1992
  • Robert Gaudino Scholar, Williams College, 1989-91
  • National Endowment for the Humanities: Fellowship for College Teachers, 1987-88
  • Melville J. Herskovits Prize in African Studies: Finalist, 1986, for The Swahili (with Derek Nurse).
  • Social Science Research Council/American Council of Learned Societies Foreign Area Fellowship, 1970-72
  • A.C. Jordan Prize: Best Essay in African Studies, University of Wisconsin, 1972

History Courses Taught

  • History 377: History of Africa: 1500-1880
  • History 378: History of Africa from 1880
  • History 444: History of East Africa
  • History 446: History of Southern Africa
  • Africa and the Diaspora: Theory and Practice
  • African Christianity
  • African Environmental History
  • Historical Methods for Pre-Literate Societies
  • ‘Mau Mau’ and Colonialism in Kenya
  • Religion and Resistance
  • The Zulu State & the Mfecane