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Martin Bernal: Historian best known for his controversial 'Black Athena' books


Martin Bernal was a Cambridge-educated polymath who taught Chinese political history but who shot to prominence with the first of his controversial trilogy, Black Athena, Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation (1987), which explored the origins of ancient Greece.

He wrote that the scholarly purpose of his work was "to open up new areas of research to women and men with far better qualifications than I have," adding, "The political purpose of Black Athena, is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance."

He argued that during the 19th century, with its varying forms of racism, anti-Semitism, colonialism and nationalism, European historians had gradually erased the Egyptians' and Phoenicians' influence on Greece from history. Instead an "Aryan model" had emerged to explain the origins of Greek culture. This model attributed Greek, and thus European, culture to "a mixture of the soft but civilised natives of the Aegean basin and the dynamic Indo Europeans (Northerners) who had conquered them."

Bernal did not claim that Greek culture had its prime origins in Africa, as suggested in some quarters, but argued that the debt Greek culture owed to Africa and the Middle East had been lost to history. His "revised ancient model" accepted some Indo-European input but maintained that about half the linguistic and mythic components of Hellenic culture came from African and Asiatic introductions, from Egypt, the Phoenician cities of the Eastern Mediterranean and West Asia. This, said Bernal, offered a worthy alternative account, albeit in need of refinement.

It came in three volumes: Black Athena: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (1991) and Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence (2006), plus Black Athena Writes Back (2001), written in response to his critics, particular the Professor of Classics at Wellesley College, Mary Lefkowitz, and her 1997 book Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. Bernal appeared to relish his notoriety, and never spoke ill of most of his critics.

In 1993 Bernal was asked if Black Athena was "anti-European." He replied: "My enemy is not Europe, it's purity – the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture. I believe that the civilisation of Greece is so attractive precisely because of those mixtures."

Born in London in 1937, Martin Gardiner Bernal was the son of the controversial scientist John Desmond Bernal and the writer, artist and left-wing activist Margaret Gardiner, who never married, and so was often in the company of leading prominent figures in the arts, sciences and politics. He attended Dartington Hall School in Devon, and after national service in the RAF worked briefly in Malawi for a family trust.

In 1957 he went to King's College, Cambridge to read Oriental Studies and Mandarin Chinese. There he met his first wife, Judy. He earned a First and then a Diploma in Chinese Language from Peking University in 1960 and was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1963 and Harvard in 1964. He completed his doctorate on early Chinese socialism at Cambridge in 1966, remaining as a fellow at King's until he moved to Cornell in 1972 to teach Chinese political history. He split his time between the US, where he later married his second wife Leslie, and Cambridge.

A tireless traveller, Bernal remained a passionate linguist and, in addition to a number of European languages, spoke Vietnamese, Chichewa (a Bantu language), Japanese, Hebrew, Greek, and several ancient Egyptian languages. Shortly before his death he published an autobiography, Geography of a Life.

An outspoken critic of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, Bernal visited both countries and made personal contacts. He became a contributor on Chinese politics to the New York Review of Books, which brought him to the attention of US audiences at a time when President Nixon was making diplomatic approaches to China and with "ping-pong diplomacy" was in full flow. Bernal was appointed associate professor in 1972, adding an appointment in Near Eastern studies in 1984. He became a full professor in 1988 and retired in 2001.

By the mid-1970s, Bernal's main interest had moved away from contemporary politics to the ancient world, particularly the ancient Mediterranean and Greek civilisation. "My father was a communist and I was illegitimate," he once said. "I was always expected to be radical because my father was." None the less he strongly condemned the Iraq War, both in the US and in Britain. Other books, which also focused on the theme of intercultural borrowing, were Chinese Socialism Before 1907 (1976) and Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of the Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 BC (1990).

A genial man, in his free time Bernal enjoyed singing Irish ballads, walking in the country, travel and family life.

Martin Childs

Martin Bernal, sinologist, historian and political scientist; born London 10 March 1937; married firstly Judy Pace (marriage dissolved; three children), 1977 Leslie Miller (two children); died Cambridge 9 June 2013.