Basil Davidson: Historian who changed Africans' perceptions of themselves

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The Independent Online

The post-independence generation of Africans, who needed an intellectual anchor to the political sovereignty the colonialists formally relinquished to them in the 1950s and '60s, will be forever grateful to the British historian Basil Davidson.

Davidson taught them in over 30 books not to believe the claim of the colonisers that Africa had been barbarous when it was taken over. Before Davidson bombarded African classrooms with books like Old Africa Rediscovered (1959) and Black Mother (1961), white lecturers in Africa unashamedly taught a racist and ignorant history. Many were from Oxbridge, and Oxford's most powerful Professor of History, Hugh Trevor-Roper, opined in 1963 that "perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none."

Davidson attacked such views frontally. By the time his later books, such as The Search for Africa (1994) were published, archaeological evidence, coupled with carbon-dating, had enabled him to affirm that Egyptian civilisation was rooted firmly in Black Africa. And also that it mothered much of Greek civilisation. He wrote with memorable panache: about the "de-coupling" of Africa from ancient Egypt (for instance), he wrote:

"But isn't Egypt, other issues apart, quite simply, a part of Africa? That, it seems, is a mere geographical irrelevance. The civilisation of pharaonic Egypt, arising some time after 3500BC, and continuing at least until the Roman dispossessions, has been explained to us evolving either in more or less total isolation from Africa, or as a product of West Asian stimulus. On this deeply held view, the land of ancient Egypt appears to have detached itself from the delta of the Nile, some fifty-five hundred years ago, and sailed off into the Mediterranean on a course veering broadly towards the coast of Syria. And there it apparently remained, floating somewhere in the seas of the Levant, until Arab conquerors hauled it back to where it had once belonged." (The Search for Africa, 1994) .

Davidson wrote so beautifully in spite – or perhaps because – of being an auto-didact. Christened Basil Risbridger Davidson, he was born in Bristol, the son of Thomas and Jessie Davidson. His house was on top of Blackboy Hill, which was reached by way of Whiteladies Road. Did the ghosts of "black boys" who had once entertained "white ladies" in the slave-dealing port of Bristol, play tricks with his young mind? In Africa, that would not be overlooked in explaining his obsession with the continent.

Davidson left school at 16 and harboured an ambition to be a writer, but to start with the only job he could get was plastering walls with advertisements for Fyffe's bananas. Then, in 1938, he landed a job as Paris correspondent of The Economist. While covering Europe, he acquired several European languages and so when the Second World War broke out he was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

He was sent to Hungary, from where he went to the Balkans. Captured by the Italians, he was lucky to be swapped for a minor Italian duke the British had caught in Ethiopia. Davidson ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel mentioned twice in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross. But his wartime association with communists like Tito and his partisans meant he was tagged as a "fellow traveller" in official eyes, and overlooked for advancement. Even the offer of an appointment abroad – as editor of Unesco publications in Paris – was vetoed by British officials.

Davidson resumed journalism, but visits to Africa got him bitten by the "Africa bug". He walked to the areas in Guinea-Bissau and Angola which African guerrillas had wrested from the Portuguese army. (Both Angola and Guinea-Bissau, as well as Portugal, later gave him honours). Bristol University, perhaps aroused from its sleep by Witwatersrand University in South Africa, which borrowed a Bristol hall to award Davidson an honorary degree, gave him its own Doctor of Letters degree in 1999.

Perhaps the most important question Davidson answered on African history was whether Africa and Europe were equally guilty over the Atlantic slave trade. He wrote: "Africa and Europe were jointly involved. Yet... Europe dominated the connection, vastly enlarged the trade, and continually turned it to European advantage and to African loss."

If that had been written by an African, he would be told he was "in denial". Davidson could say it and not give a damn. No wonder an African-American academic who read Davidson without knowing who he was remarked, "I assumed he was an African!"

Basil Risbridger Davidson, historian: born Bristol 9 November 1914; married 1943 Marion Young (three sons); died 9 July 2010.

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