In Memoriam

Bruce Fetter (1938–2017)

Marcus Filippello and Amanda I. Seligman, September 2017

Scholar of Africa and Colonialism; AHA 50-Year Member

Bruce FetterBruce Fetter, professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM), died in April 2017. He taught at UWM from 1967 until his retirement in 2009.

Professor Fetter was born on June 8, 1938, in Ashland, Kentucky, to Henry Fetter and Sylvia (Freedman) Levine. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1960 and his MPhil from Oxford University in 1962. He was a Fulbright Scholar twice, first in Lubumbashi in 1972–73 and later in Bujumbura in 1986.

In 1968, Professor Fetter earned a PhD in African history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he was one of Jan Vansina’s first graduate students. He and Professor Vansina shared a common interest in the colonial history of the Belgian Congo, which also served as the setting for Professor Fetter’s first book, The Creation of Elisabethville, 1910–1940 (1976). The first book-length study of a colonial African city, the monograph documented the transformation of Elisabethville (Lubumbashi) from a settlement on the margins of a South African mining frontier to a central feature of Belgian experimentation with colonial rule in the Congo. Professor Fetter referred to the city as symbolic of the Belgian Congo’s “colonial trinity” of missions, governments, and corporations. The book’s publication marked a notable advancement to the emerging discourse on how colonial rule impacted African populations. Likewise, it contributed to broader historical debates on urban histories. Observing that the histories of all cities lay “somewhere between biography and the history of a nation,” Professor Fetter laid the foundation for later studies that examined how Africans negotiated the otherwise blurred boundaries between city and countryside.

His continued interest in the spatial history of Central Africa during the colonial era featured prominently in his second book, Colonial Rule and Regional Imbalance in Central Africa (1983). In particular, Professor Fetter raised new questions about how locale influenced the ways in which Africans experienced colonial rule. Drawing from maps and colonial census data as evidence, Professor Fetter demonstrated how many Africans seized on administrative centers as loci of opportunity, thereby destabilizing the framework of colonial rule.

Two other books, Colonial Rule in Africa (1979) and an edited volume titled Demography from Scanty Evidence: Central Africa in the Colonial Era (1990), exemplified Professor Fetter’s devotion to teaching and the energy he brought to the classroom for over 40 years. The former was the first anthology of primary sources to address the experiences of both Europeans and Africans. In the words of a reviewer, with sources ranging from 1830 to 1962, the book served as a case history of the “imposition, implementation, and destruction of colonial rule in Africa.” The latter project grew out of an interdisciplinary conference held at UWM in 1986 and investigated how critical interpretations of census data could reveal new insights about demographic change in pre-1960 Africa. “The book can serve,” as a review noted, “as a handbook not just for Africa, but for any part of the world where numbers are available, but not entirely reliable.”

In addition to teaching African history, Professor Fetter developed and passionately taught a course on the use of maps as historical sources, sharing the treasures of UWM’s American Geographical Society Library with generations of students. His service to UWM included a term as the chair of the history department, from 1995 to 1998. From 1975 to 1985, he was editor of the social science journal Urbanism Past and Present, a publication that reinforced UWM’s reputation as a center of urban scholarship. In his later years, Professor Fetter’s research interests turned toward matters of public health and medical, insurance, and health policy. He was predeceased by his partner Verena Fjermestad and is survived by his son, David Fetter, and daughter Emmanuelle Fetter.

Marcus Filippello
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Amanda I. Seligman
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee


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