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Following Basil Davidson’s passing, Ama Biney salutes the historian’s work as a European scholar who was not blighted by ‘a Eurocentric, prejudiced paradigm’ in analysing Africa’s past.

I heard of Basil Davidson’s passing at the honourable age of 95 from a former student who forwarded an obituary to me. For years Davidson’s prolific work has been on reading lists I distributed to all students (regardless of ethnic background) on my African history courses. It was when I pinned on the classroom wall an article about him with a huge photograph that students expressed their surprise that Davidson was not an African. This gave rise to stimulating debates as to whether only Africans could write objective African history, and what was objectivity anyway, whose history is being recorded, and of course is history a male domain?

Davidson was exemplary of a progressive tradition in African history back in the 1970s and thereafter. He was also an exemplar that not all Europeans are infected with a Eurocentric, prejudiced paradigm in their analysis of the African past. His brilliant works are accessible to students and non-students alike on account of his lucid writing style. He was a master wordsmith in depicting the African past and the historical contradictions deriving from Africa’s engagement with Europe through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonial conquest. But more importantly, at a time when Africa was depicted as lacking a glorious golden age, Davidson gave us precious glimpses of Africa’s rich pre-colonial era, long before Europe entered her own.

As an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, Davidson tended to be overlooked by our tutors on the distributed reading list for the likes of Roland Oliver and John Fage’s A Short History of Africa (1962), who were wedded to the Eurocentric interpretation of African history at the Centre of West African Studies (CWAS) at Birmingham University. This was not surprising as Fage had been the director of the CWAS from 1963 to 1982, and therefore his intellectual and professional influence on the centre prevailed. However, it was clear that Davidson’s ideological position stood outside the mainstream – even then in the liberal–conservative climate of the CWAS.

Davidson’s eight-part ‘Africa’ documentary, broadcast in 1984, upset the South African government to such an extent that he was banned in the country. The documentary remains a far more serious engagement with African historical accomplishments when compared to the very pedestrian series later produced by Henry Louis Gates. When I show Davidson’s ‘Caravans of Gold’ on the ancient Swahili city-states along the east coast of Africa, students are surprised and inspired to learn two things presented by Davidson: firstly, that wealthy Swahili city merchants lived in homes of sophisticated architecture with modern conveniences and internal sanitation whilst citizens of Elizabethan England were emptying chamber pots out of their windows; and secondly, that the long-distance Oceanic trade between the Swahili merchants extended not only to the Middle East but to China. Evidence of this trade demonstrates that the current Chinese economic interest and engagement in Africa is not recent, for a Chinese painting of an African giraffe dates back to 1414 when one of the cities of the Swahili sent the giraffe as a gift to the Chinese emperor, long before Europeans appeared on the African continent.

Both as a radical journalist and a perceptive radical historian, Davidson engaged with revolutionary leaders such as Amilcar Cabral and Samora Machel, and told the ‘stories’ of Africans without patronising intellectualising humbug. He engaged with such leaders and African people as genuine equals, for too often some Europeans continue to believe and act as if Africans should have ears and no mouth.

I think among Davidson’s greatest works is his book ‘The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State’, published in 1993. However, I must admit, being a woman, that the patriarchal title causes unease. Although one can excuse Davidson for being a product of his time, the entire discourse on the state in Africa from the 1960s to the 1990s was dominated by European and African males in a masculinist abstract language that profoundly failed to examine how that construct and reality of the state impacted on African women’s lives and experiences. One of the African woman’s burdens has been a male-dominated construct of the ‘nation-state’, that is, the oppressions confronting African women via the instruments of the ‘state’ are multiple.

‘The Black Man’s Burden’, despite its worrisome title, continues to be hugely relevant in that it provides a historical lens through which to understand many of Africa’s current problems and developments that are profoundly rooted in the colonial past. One of the legacies of that damaging colonial past lies in the nature of the male European concept of the nation-state that many African countries were bequeathed by the departing colonial masters, and how the African nationalists reconfigured that state to continue to repress their citizens – both men and women – in the creation of ‘the politics of clientelism’. In addition to this, the African petit bourgeois elite inherited the colonial borders which held back and continue to arrest the continent’s development. Moreover, as Davidson argues, ‘on top of this, the nationalists inherited a disconcerting situation in which what was said was rather seldom what was meant.’

Davidson made African history thoroughly accessible. This was by no means a sterile endeavour in ivory towers; it was a history of ordinary people, for he was on the side of the poor, the downtrodden, who sought to alter their subaltern state and ‘dared to invent the future’, as Thomas Sankara urged. Furthermore, as Sankara once wrote, ‘You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness.’ Davidson was at one time considered ‘mad’ when in the 1960s and 1970s he began challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that Africa’s history was not simply one ‘of a deplorable past’. To the white minority government of South Africa, Davidson was a ‘mad’ white man who audaciously argued that Africans were the competent builders of Great Zimbabwe in his ‘Caravans of Gold’ programme. He contributed incalculably to changing that prevailing orthodoxy within the field of African history by presenting an African history in which Africans were conscious agents of economic, political, cultural and social change rather than passive objects in the predominant stereotypical European eyes. He dedicated himself to a people-oriented history of Africa, one that examined the social, political and economic forces that forged change and progress in Africa.

Equally significant is the fact that Davidson considered in the concluding chapter to ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ that among the keys to Africa’s redemption is the imperative of ‘devolving executive power to a multiplicity of locally representative bodies’. The other key lies in what he considered as the necessary and the gradual dismantling of the nation-statist concept of the state as Africa moves towards continental unity within a regionalist framework.

Davidson has left a colossal intellectual legacy entwined with committed activism for future generations. I salute him for this contribution.


* Dr Ama Biney is a pan-Africanist and scholar–activist who lives in the United Kingdom.
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