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
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence