Watson Institute at Brown University
Africa Initiative
Nancy Jacobs

Nancy Jacobs

+1 401 863 9342

Nancy Jacobs

Professor of History

Areas of Interest: South Africa, colonial Africa, the environment, animals, and knowledge about the environment and animals.


Nancy Jacobs is a Professor in the History Department. She is an environmental historian of Africa. Originally, she specialized in South Africa, but increasingly her scope has broadened across the continent and around the globe.

Her first book, Environment, Power and Injustice: A South African History (Cambridge University Press, 2003), examined environmental factors in the underdevelopment of the subsistence economy in the Kuruman district.  Her second book was designed for classroom use.   African History through Sources: Colonial Contexts and Everyday Experiences, c. 1850–1946 (Cambridge University, 2014) is a compilation of primary sources that presents the major trajectories in colonial Africa, with an emphasis on “ordinary people.” Her third book, Birders of Africa: History of a Network (Yale University, 2016; University of Cape Town, 2018) was an examination of the politics of knowing birds in colonial Africa. 

Her current book project, a work of animal history, is “The Global Grey Parrot,” under contract with the University of Washington Press). It puts a charismatic African animal (Psittacus erithacus and Psittacus timneh) at the center of a world history with fraught interspecies politics. It begins in African forests before 1500 and then follows the species to other continents. Parrots can produce knowledge and culture, but when they are isolated in captivity, they cannot. Now, in the Anthropocene, they are bred in agro-industrial facilities, trafficked as commodities, and increasingly consigned to human spaces. 

Like Jacobs’s other research, the Grey Parrot project shows how overlooked, everyday, and dismissed actors actually have been making worlds all along. 


At Brown, Jacobs teaches courses on colonial Africa, southern Africa, and more-than-human history. She also teaches a community-based learning course on the politics of knowledge, with particular reference to birds.