Professor Richard Gray

Incisive historian of Africa
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The Independent Online

Richard Gray was one of the earliest and most gifted pioneers of African history as a subject worthy of academic study, and one which should be pursued in the interests both of the emerging universities of colonial Africa and of an outside world which was beginning to foresee see the end of colonial rule in that continent. During his later career his interests became increasingly concentrated on the religious history of Africa and the contemporary problems of relations between church and state in politically independent African countries.

Born in 1929, the son of a captain in the Royal Navy, Gray was educated at Charterhouse and Downing College, Cambridge. In 1951 he moved to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University, where he researched for a PhD in the company of the first generation of graduate students from the recently founded African university colleges. His 1957 doctoral thesis, later published as A History of the Southern Sudan, 1839-1889 (1961), soon became a standard work, and pointed the way to his first academic post at the University of Khartoum.

Meantime, he spent two years of research and travel in collaboration with Philip Mason on a three-volume study of the history of race relations in the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, his own part in the project covering the colonial period. The Two Nations (1960) was admired for its incisive, yet calm, assessment of the gathering crisis. There followed the three years spent between Khartoum and Rome which gave him his first experience of university teaching and access to the Vatican archives, as well as the beginnings of a lifelong concern with the relations between the Muslim north and the Christian or Animist south of that much-disturbed country.

In 1961 Gray returned to Soas, where he served successively as Lecturer, Reader and finally Professor of African History until his retirement in 1989. There, one of his earliest scholarly preoccupations was the planning, recruitment and editing of the fourth volume of The Cambridge History of Africa, which dealt with the entire continent during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is well known that large collaborative works proceed at the pace of the slowest contributor, but Gray's volume, published in 1975, was the first of eight to reach completion. More importantly, it took him back into a period of African history which he had not yet explored, and which was to inspire some of the best of his later research.

Both as teacher and colleague, Richard Gray had a singular quality of gentleness and charm. His life and work were deeply affected by his marriage in 1957 to Gabriella Cattaneo, the daughter of a well-known Catholic family in Bergamo, whose members had been the personal friends of Pope John XXIII, whose family home was in the neighbourhood. Gray himself had converted to the Roman Church in 1955, while maintaining a broadly ecumenical outlook in ecclesiastical affairs. As the summer months were spent in Italy and family life was fully bilingual, it was only natural that he began to seek out the Italian sources for African history, which meant, first and foremost, the libraries and archives of the Vatican and those of the missionary orders and congregations based in Rome. In 1965 he was co-author, with David Chambers, of the guide Materials for West African History in Italian Archives.

During the early 1970s he took the lead in organising a series of research seminars and conferences held at universities and ecumenical centres in Africa, Europe and the United States to examine the likely effects of political independence on the future of the Christian religion in Africa. These culminated in 1975, when nearly a hundred academics and churchmen met at Jos in Nigeria. The leading papers were edited by Gray and others and published as Christianity in Independent Africa (1978).

In 1982 Gray became a member of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, which greatly eased his access to the Roman archives, and he took somewhat early retirement from Soas in the hope that this might enable him to produce a comprehensive study of the papacy and Africa, but declining health prevented it. His last books were Black Christians and White Missionaries (1990) and, edited with Yusuf Fadi Hasan, Religion and Conflict in Sudan (2002), the papers of a 1999 conference at Yale.

Roland Oliver