Richard Roberts

Frances and Charles Field Professor of History

At Stanford Since

Ph.D., University of Toronto; M.A., Simon Fraser University; B.A., University of Wisconsin

Research Interests

I am currently interested in the social history of everyday life during the 25 years surrounding French conquest of the interior of West Africa. I am especially interested in examining how colonial conquest and the establishment of colonial rule ushered in changes in African societies and economies. The approach I am using is to examine entry level civil disputes presented before the new colonial courts established in 1905. Of central interest will be disputes over marriage, custody of children, inheritance, property, and contracts. Historians of West Africa have never used these records before and my research will also assess the possibilities and limitations of these sources.

In many ways, this social history using court cases is a preamble to a research project surrounding a single legal case brought by the French against an African king, Faama Mademba Sy, king of Sinsani. In 1899, French colonial officials accused Faama Mademba of abuse of power and malfeasance. Mademba justified his actions in terms of the power and authority customary to African kings. What Mademba did not explain, but that which was central to the French case, was that Mademba was a naturalized French citizen and that the French had made him "king" in an area that had never had kings before. I will unpack this case to examine both the conflicting models of colonialism it represents and the meanings of power, authority, and challenges to authority prevailing in the new colony of the French Soudan immediately following colonial conquest.

Courses Taught

  • Africa in the 20th Century
  • The End of Slavery in Africa and the Americas
  • Law in Colonial Africa
  • Colonial States and African Societies
  • African Identities in a Changing World
  • Core Colloquium on Precolonial African History
  • Core Colloquium on African History during the Colonial Era


  • Two World of Cotton: French Colonialism and the Regional Economy of the French Soudan, 1800-1946 (Stanford, 1996)
  • Cotton, Colonialism, and Social History in Sub-Saharan Africa, with Allen Isaacman (Heinemann, 1995)
  • Law in Colonial Africa, with Kristen Mann (Heinemann, 1991)
  • The End of Slavery in Africa, with Suzanne Miers (Wisconsin, 1988)
  • Warriors, Merchants, and Slaves: The State and the Economy of the Middle Niger Valley, 1700-1914 (Stanford, 1987).


  • NEH Fellowship for Independent Study, 1983-84, 1992-93
  • SSRC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, 1981, 1986-87, 1992
  • Internal Fellowship, Stanford Humanities Center, 1986-87, 1992-93

University Service

Professional Affiliations

  • African Studies Association
  • Manding Studies Association
  • Law and Society Association