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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick