Basil Davidson wrote so passionately about Africa it was assumed he was an African, writes Cameron Duodu, paying tribute to the late historian, whose work ‘enriched the world's understanding of Africa’. Davidson was ‘not only an inspiration to progressives inside academia, but was an important resource for African leaders themselves’, says Duodu, at a time when the majority of ‘histories’ depicted Africa as ‘a land full of barbarous peoples “until the whiteman came”’.
Basil Davidson has died in England aged 95.
Why should that concern me as an African?
Well, soon after my country Ghana gained its independence in 1957, thoughts that we had never been exposed to, in our missionary and government schools, began to sneak into our consciousness.
For instance, one black American historian/artist called Earl Sweeting, arrived in Accra and tried to interest us in a series of colourful post-cards he had drawn that carried such ‘provocative’ titles as ‘Africans teaching the Greeks mathematics’; ‘Africans teaching the Greeks medicine’; and ‘Africans teaching the Greeks philosophy.’
As editor of the monthly magazine, Drum, I was approached not by Sweeting himself but by his wife, a thin, husky-voiced African-American lady, to run an article on Sweeting's work. I was quite keen to do it, but unfortunately, Sweeting said he had left the books that would support his claims in the US. As a hard-boiled journalist, this sounded like a self-serving excuse, and I stalled the lady by saying that it wasn’t possible for me to do anything until I could verify his statements independently.
I wasn’t happy to stall them, for I wanted – emotionally – to accept Sweeting’s claims. But intellectually, I was apprehensive that if I ran his claims, which stood on its head the orthodox view that almost everything we knew about civilisation was to be traced to the Greeks, I would become a laughing stock, at least in academic circles.
My caution was, however, not baseless: Even as I was trying to find ways of making sense of Sweeting’s work, the American magazine, Newsweek, got hold of some of his postcards and made fun of them in a derisive article entitled, ‘If you have no history, write one!’
That, fortunately, did not deter Ghana’s ruling party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) from commissioning Sweeting to paint some very beautiful murals that greeted visitors to the CPP Headquarters in Accra, with the themes he was so keen to propagate – the Greeks sitting at the feet of African savants, acquiring knowledge. It was to take 30 years or so for Martin Bernal to publish ‘Black Athena’ (published by Rutgers University Press (1987) ISBN 0-8135-1277-8) and provide the intellectual substance that conclusively supported the ideas in Sweeting’s postcards.
Meanwhile, very soon after my encounter with Earl Sweeting, friends of mine studying history or archaeology at the University of Ghana, Legon – among them the late Chris Hesse (who became Ghana's High Commissioner in Zimbabwe) Annan Cato (former Ghana High Commissioner in London and Jimmy Anquandah, now Professor of Archaeology at Legon – began to talk excitedly about a writer called Basil Davidson, who, they said, was writing the ‘real’ history of ancient Africa.
These discussions were done in hushed tones – almost as if they were discussing contraband – because the firm line Legon at the time (an institution mainly staffed by Britons, of course) was that any touting of African historical greatness stemmed from ‘charlatan’ sources.
The historical tradition taught at Legon in those early days was largely predicated upon the view, expressed by a respected British historian and philosopher, David Hume that:
‘I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general, all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation… Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession.’
But Hume‘s pronouncement was a blatant lie. For a Ghanaian, Anton Wilhelm Amo, an Nzema (a sub-group of the Akan people of Ghana) had, even before Hume wrote in 1753, established himself in Germany as one of the great thinkers of his time.
Amo was born in Awukena, near Axim, in 1711. When he was only about four years old, he was taken to Amsterdam by the Dutch East India Company. There, he was given as a present to Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, to whose palace in Wolfenbüttel Amo was taken. Treated as a member of the Duke's family, he was educated at the University of Halle. He finished his preliminary studies in 1729 – a mere two years, his dissertation being: ‘The Rights of Moors in Europe’.
Amo then moved to the University of Wittenberg, where he studied logic, metaphysics, physiology, astronomy, history, law, theology, politics, and medicine. He also acquired six languages (English, French, Dutch, Latin, Greek, and German). He gained his doctorate in philosophy at Wittenberg in 1734. His thesis was ‘On the Absence of Sensation in the Human Mind and its Presence in our Organic and Living Body.’ That was a full 21 years before David Hume made his ignorant remark quoted above.
Amo achieved more: He returned to Halle as a lecturer in philosophy and was made a Professor in 1736. In 1738, he wrote his second major work: ‘Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately’. Ironically, the .
Basil Davidson began to fill in the gaps for us. Each book – he wrote more than 30 – was a revelation. Then, in 1984, he crowned his research into the history of Africa by using the powerful medium of television to link the past and the present of the continent. In a production called simply, ‘AFRICA’, he and my very good friend, the late, erudite television producer, John Percival (whom I worked with in producing the documentary, ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’, for BBC Television) brought the continent alive for viewers of Channel 4 TV in Britain.
John Percival gave me advance copies of the tapes of the AFRICA programmes before they were televised, and I had an absolutely marvellous time running them and digesting the information. Basil Davidson had come full circle in my mind. When I attended the premiere of the series in London, I had the unique honour of meeting Father Trevor Huddleston, another pioneer historian of Africa, whose book, ‘Naught For Your Comfort’, was the first book to present to me, a vivid description of the oppression blacks were living under in apartheid South Africa.
So much has Basil Davidson’s work enriched the world's understanding of Africa that one scholar, Barbara Ransby (community organiser and co-founder of the Ella Baker-Nelson Mandela Centre, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, who teaches history at De Paul University, Chicago) has accorded Davidson this supreme accolade: ‘I assumed he was an African or of African descent!’
Barbara Ransby wrote:
‘I first encountered the writings of Basil Davidson when I was an undergraduate student at Columbia University in the early 1980s. I had already been a political activist and organiser for several years before returning to college… I was told right away by my professors that in order to be an objective scholar, one had to be totally divorced from one’s subject emotionally and in every other way. The prescription for quality scholarship was what has been termed by Parker Palmer and others as “bloodless objectivism”.
’I thought to myself how could I ever write about the struggles of oppressed people without infusing my own passions and strivings into my work? … How could I research and write about movements for liberation in the so-called Third World, without revealing my partisanship and forfeiting my credibility?
‘Fortunately, Basil Davidson offered me a way out. Although we never met, he was one of a handful of scholar-activists who offered me an alternative model of what and who a radical intellectual could be, and demonstrated to me that political activism and good academic work were not mutually exclusive…’
Davidson was a major influence on a whole generation of young scholars who wanted to research African history more out of solidarity with progressive forces on the continent, rather than as a result of some vague interest in an exotic dissertation topic. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when Africa herself was in the throes of a revolutionary struggle against colonialism, Davidson’s early work was not only an inspiration to progressives inside academia, but was an important resource for African leaders themselves. Ransby wrote:
‘It is unclear to me whether his relationship with and respect for leaders like [Amilcar] Cabral grew out of his research, or whether his research was inspired by his personal relationship with African revolutionaries. In any case, those interests and experiences became inseparable over the years and are reflected in Davidson’s writings…
‘When Davidson began his research and writing on Africa, racist Tarzan movies were the main channel through which most westerners experienced Africa… One of the myths that Davidson’s powerful book, ‘The African Slave Trade’ (James Currey 1961) effectively debunks is the notion that sub-Saharan Africa really had no significant history before the Europeans arrived…Basil Davidson gave us a very different image; one which belied the racist myths which had permeated academic discourse as much as popular culture…
'I must confess that, after reading some of his work and initially knowing nothing about Davidson, the man, I assumed he was African or of African descent, largely because he wrote with such honesty and compassion about his subject… I was surprised to learn otherwise.’ (Published in Race and Class October 1994)
Basil Davidson was born in Bristol, England, on 9 November 1914 and died on 9 July 2010. His writing ability and the discipline that saw him through 30 books is all the more amazing because he left school at the early age of 16. His first break came when, after editing some obscure publications, he was appointed to be a correspondent of The Economist magazine in Paris. Whilst travelling around Europe for the magazine, he learnt several European languages. So when the Second World War broke out in 1939 and he joined the British army, he was considered excellent material for the British wartime secret service, the ‘Special Operations Executive’ (SOE).
The SOE sent him to Hungary, from where he also worked in the Balkans. He was captured by the Italian allies of Hitler. Luckily for him, the British had also captured some minor Italian royal duke in Ethiopia and a prisoner swap was arranged whereby Davidson was exchanged for the duke. Davidson ended the war as a Colonel, decorated with the Military Cross, the 3rd highest medal for British officers.
However, after the war, the brave and extremely intelligent Davidson was passed over for any official position in Britain, because officialdom had tagged him as a ‘dangerous fellow traveller’ mainly because of his association with Tito and other European communists who fought against Hitler. The British embraced the wartime heroism of these leftists and exploited it to the full. But once the war was over, they just became Cold War undesirables. Even when Davidson was offered an appointment outside the UK – as a UNESCO editor in Paris – British officials vetoed the appointment.
Thrown on his own resources as a journalist once again, Davidson described accurately, the rise of apartheid in South Africa, and was promptly listed as a ‘prohibited immigrant’ to South Africa. He turned his attention to the racists in Central African Federation, as well as the Portuguese territories in Africa – Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola. He faced hostility everywhere imperialism reigned. Once, he was invited to stay with a police commissioner whom his family knew – even as the man's office was in the process of ejecting him from the (then) Tanganyika (now Tanzania). He politely declined to become the guest of his ‘enemy’!
His books on Africa contain exquisite, clearly-written quotes that show no ambiguity about where he stood. One is this:
‘There is a false myth [Davidson wrote] that surrounds this majestic [Egyptian] civilization. Visiting Europeans refused to believe that Africans indigenous to inner Africa could have created it. They would rather us believe that this city was created in its own bubble, apart from the rest of Africa and its people. But, the evidence shows that the main migration toward the Nile River and Egypt was from the African communities of the Sahara. Some evidence of this includes the fact that even the Egyptian Pharaohs are painted as black in surviving artwork. [emphasis added]. Many [ancient] Egyptians were reddish-pink in colour, showing a mix of the indigenous people and the Nubians. The Pharaohs built temples which were absolutely African, obviously to impress the southern Africans. . . The Greek explorer Herodotus described the scene most accurately when he said that the various races in the world were ‘different but equal.’
Another valuable quote is this:
‘While searching for gold, white explorers first saw a city in the heart of Africa built of stone hundreds of years ago …These kingdoms were as good and well governed as the European medieval ones. Evidence shows that earlier records prove that other outsiders admitted this about Africa, proving that racism is a relatively new concept…The mutual respect between black and white, which once existed, was also destroyed [by racism]. Science has given us a new look into Africa's history ... It debunks the preposterous myth of the inferiority and sub-human status of the African people.’
And finally, this judgement on perhaps the most controversial issue in African history: in the ‘balance’ of what might be called the ‘profit and loss’ account of the Atlantic slave trade, who does bear the greater responsibility for the heinous crime against humanity that slave trade was: Europe or Africa?:
Judge Basil Davidson: ‘Africa and Europe were jointly involved [in the slave trade]. Yet it is also true that Europe dominated the connection, vastly enlarged the slave trade, and continually turned it to European advantage and to African loss.’
No wonder it was assumed by some that Basil Davidson was an African! Africa thanks him. May he rest in peace. Our condolences go to his wife Marion, and their three sons.
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