Obituary: Professor Eric Axelson

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ERIC AXELSON was a leading historian of southern Africa, and from 1962 Head of the Department of History at the University of Cape Town.

When the belated news of his death in August was announced last week at the start of an international conference of historians held at King's College London to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama's arrival in India, the audience showed the kind of regret that is reserved for those whose great achievements cross the borders of nationality.

His main interest was not so much in recent colonial history, but rather in the early Portuguese maritime explorations along the extensive south-western and south-eastern coasts of Africa, which took place as far back as the 15th century. The subject interested him because it seemed to challenge the qualities of an "investigator" as well as the scientist who understood the importance of these voyages in the development or navigation and cartography.

As a South African academic he was the right researcher in the right region. According to references he found in old Portuguese documents and archives, the remains of material evidence, the stone pillars or landmarks erected by Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, could probably still be found in stretches of the 1,000-mile-long southern African coastline. He duly embarked on his own archaeological exploits and eventually succeeded in finding the stone crosses erected by Dias at Angra das Voltas (Dias Point), now Luderitz, in the Cape, and by da Gama at Melinde, in Kenya. The news of his discoveries was reported world-wide.

Axelson was born in London in 1913, the son of an English mother and a Swedish father who was a master mariner, from whom he inherited the interest in nautical matters that was to be the hallmark of much of his work. His parents brought him to South Africa in 1921, and he joined Durban Preparatory School.

He took his first BA and MA degrees between 1930 and 1934 at Natal University College, and in 1938 took a doctorate in literature at the University of Witwatersrand. There, after the publication of his first book, South East Africa 1488-1530, by Longmans, in London, he became a junior lecturer in History in 1940.

During the Second World War he served with the South African forces in North Africa and Italy. After resuming his academic career, except for research visits to Portuguese and other European archives and Goa, in India, which was then still a Portuguese possession, he remained for most of his life in southern Africa. In 1949 he married an artist, Hilda Mason, who had been born in Chile, the daughter of a Peruvian mother and an English father. He became Editor of the Central African Archives, in Salisbury (now Harare), 1949-51, and Chief Narrator of Union War Histories, 1955- 62.

Having moved to Cape Town to take up the position of Head of the History Department at the University, he published in 1964 African History - books and research and pioneered the introduction of African courses.

Despite this solid and varied curriculum and an important later contribution to the studies of the histories of the former Rhodesias and Mozambique in his book Portugal and the Scramble for Africa 1875-1891 (1967), the main body of his work would remain, however, the period of the early Portuguese maritime explorations along the southern Africa coastline.

In bibliographical research he had to proceed with caution and dedication. The Portuguese kings imposed a rigid secrecy about all ship-building and nautical developments that might reveal secrets to rivals in the quest for a route to India. This applied particularly to the Spaniards, whom Christopher Columbus would persuade that the route to the riches of the Orient could more easily be found westwards across the ocean. Most technical data must have been passed by way of mouth. Documents that might have provided priceless help to historians were destroyed.

Axelson was already aware of this when he became Research Officer at the Ernest Oppenheimer Institute for Portuguese Studies, at the University of Witwatersrand, in 1955. The appointment enabled him to make research visits to Portugal to prepare his The Portuguese in South-East Africa 1600-1700, published in 1960. In this, and subsequent books, he often points out and explains errors and contradictions in dates and sequences in the various contemporary accounts left by participants in the exploratory voyages.

Unlike some other notable Portuguese and international historians, including Charles Boxer, the leading authority on the history of the Portuguese and Dutch sea-borne empires, who were critical of the negative features of colonial expansion and racial supremacy, Axelson (most of whose works, anyway, are concerned with an earlier and less politically involved period), are more descriptive and correspondingly less controversial.

His long and sustained academic achievements under the apartheid regime in South Africa and the Salazar national-colonialist regime in Portugal, might be also partly due to the apparent remoteness of his subject, a fact which not only ensured him a degree of immunity from political pressures but also private and/or semi-official, but in the circumstances essential, sponsorship.

This did not spare him from some tragi-comic situations. He was bemused while visiting Lisbon's Torre do Tombo - the Portuguese Public Record Office - in the mid-1960s, to find himself in the company of PIDE (state police) photographers. This was not because trade and navigational secrets were still being kept, but because PIDE was the only institution with equipment and skilled staff for the task of photocopying the documents he needed.

However, admiration and respect for Axelson is evidenced by the fact that he was awarded Portugal's highest decoration, the order of Henry the Navigator, in 1979, five years into the revolutionary post-colonial turmoil that followed the end of the regime and the old and far-flung overseas empire.

As for South Africa I rather think that Axelson kept well within his favourite theme of early maritime explorations to avoid the troubled currents of the apartheid regime. In 1988, marking the passing of the fifth centenary of Bartolomeu Dias's circumnavigation of the Cape, a decisive turn in a process of transoceanic discoveries that was once hailed as "one of the greatest events since the creation" he co-edited with Charles Boxer, Graham Bell-Cross and Colin Martin a commemorative book, Dias and His Successors.

By contrast, and despite the fact that Bartolomeu Dias had landed in Mossel Bay, Eastern Cape, 164 years before the Dutch had arrived to settle in the Western Cape, President P.W. Botha, in his address to the official commemoration ceremony on Mossel Beach, hailed Dias as a "precursor" of the spread of Western civilisation in the rest of the world. For good measure, the ceremony was marked by a farcical incident whereby the "black Africans" who were to take part in the re- enactment of the arrival, were whites with their faces painted black, to conform to the apartheid rules that reserved the beach site for "whites only".

I met Eric Axelson at a later conference in Pretoria in which he was the guest speaker. I was so impressed that, at the interval, meeting his devoted daughter Ann and learning that she was unmarried, I was moved to comment that one of the problems of having such a father, was that it would be difficult for her to find anyone who could measure up to his qualities and wisdom.

Axelson dedicated the last year of his life to writing Vasco da Gama - the Diary of his Travels Through African Waters 1497-99, based upon the only existing account of the journey, by Alvaro Velho, one of da Gama's assistants. The book was published just one month before his death.

Eric Victor Axelson, historian: born London 11 July 1913; Head of the Department of History, University of Cape Town 1962-74, Vice-Principal 1975-78; married 1949 Hilda Mason (died 1987; one daughter); died Cape Town 19 August 1998.