Basil Davidson: Exit Of The Colosus Of African History

July 12, 2009
5 mins read

I spent a part of my last vacation in England. One of the things I tried to accomplish was to set up an interview with the great Africanist historian and radical journalist, Basil Davidson. I made contacts in Bristol where he was born without much success, except a lengthening trail which I did not find the time to follow through, before I returned to Nigeria, in the midst of the volcanic ash disruption of flights in Europe.


I promised myself to rekindle the plan when I return to England in September, to interview a man I have often seen as a role model and one of the most remarkable individuals of the Twentieth/early Twenty-First Centuries.

A few days ago, Malam Abba Kyari called to inform me that Basil Davidson was dead. But then I did not even check the wire services to confirm, neither did I see any reports in our newspapers. But it is confirmed; Basil Davidson, journalist, historian, chronicler of the African people’s struggles against Portuguese colonialism, and partisan against fascism in Yugoslavia during the Second World War, died on July 9, 2010, at the age of 95.

The left wing American newspaper, PEOPLESWORLD, in its tribute, written by Dennis Laumann, for the online edition of July 16, 2010, said that Davidson was a “participant in, witness to, and chronicler” of the people’s struggle against imperialism, fascism, and racism. He was “a true scholar-activist who was as determined in the combat zone as he was behind the desk”.

I can also say that Basil Davidson influenced my life from when I was about 13! I recall that one of his earliest essays I ever read was a very moving tribute to, and account of the remarkable political life of Amilcar Cabral, the founder of the PAIGC, the movement of liberation of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. Davidson regarded Cabral as, arguably, the greatest political thinker amongst all the outstanding individuals who dedicated their lives to the cause of African liberation.

It was a conclusion I would share into the future. Another influential aspect of his prodigious output that will burn a lasting imprimatur on my life, was his television series, AFRICA, which ran on Nigerian Television, and had in fact been co-produced by NTA, I think, in the halcyon days of very patriotic television in our country.

Basil Davidson was born in Bristol in England and he left school at 16 to pursue a career in journalism. He worked as a foreign correspondent for well-known London publications like ECONOMIST, before joining the British anti-Nazi Special Operations Executive in the late 1930s. Described as “multilingual, imposing and daring”, Davidson coordinated anti-Nazi resistance in several countries; parachuted into Yugoslavia and joined communist partisans led by Tito, in 1943-44, before leading a band of partisans to liberate Genoa in Italy. After doing his bit to help defeat fascism, Davidson was based in Paris at the end of the war, from where he wrote for leading British newspapers as well as being active in the cause of the labour movement.

It was in the 1950s that he traveled to Africa for the first time and discovered his métier. Davidson fell in love with Africa, and for the remainder of his life, dedicated his immense “research skills, literary talents and political militancy” to our continent. The fifties were the exciting years of the consolidation of the anti-colonial movement that swept Africa which often had pan-African ambitions; the hope and enthusiasm of the epoch led to the emergence of new African personalities, who symbolized the desire for freedom and independence. Not only did Basil Davidson meet many of the new African heroes like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and others, he seemed to have been swept on the crest of the wave of this remarkable phase in African history to become a major voice for Africa’s history; it was clear that the right to history became one of the outstanding achievements of the struggle against colonialism.

It is important to highlight that Basil Davidson, along with other pioneering African/Africanist historians commenced work against the background of the dominantly racist frames about Africa, and the alleged absence of our continent from the frames of human history.

18th and 19th centuries’ historians operated within the context of slavery to deny the humanity of the Africans that were being captured and sold as slaves; it was therefore a part of the baggage to deny that the people being branded and sold into plantain slavery in the Americas, ever had any history. It was in fact the negative consequences of the slave trade on Africa which he explored in THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE (1961).

It was this racist denial of history, which flew in the face of the attitudes of the classical period with historians like Herodotus, who Davidson said, accepted the essential unity of humanity, arguing that Africans and Europeans might be different in race terms, but were equal in human dignity and worth. It was in this context that Basil Davidson devoted some of his works to highlighting the magnificence of Africa’s history, from ancient Meroe to the empire of Mali, in such award winning works like LOST CITIES OF AFRICA (1959).

Davidson used his works to counter Western stereotypes and ignorance about Africa, emphasizing the African contributions to the treasure-house of world history along with his rejection of efforts by colonialist scholarship to separate ancient Egypt from the broad frames of African history.

If the African past found a powerful defender in his works, Davidson never neglected the contemporary issues which faced the continent, especially the struggle for decolonization. His first African monograph was A REPORT ON SOUTHERN AFRICA (1952), which gave an eyewitness account of the implementation of the policies of apartheid in South Africa.

He met ANC leaders like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, and was later categorized as a “prohibited immigrant” by the apartheid regime. He was the first Western journalist to travel in the liberated zones of the Portuguese colonies of Guinea Bissau and Angola. That included walking for 300 kilometers on foot, to eastern Angola, to visit a liberated MPLA zone!

These encounters led to the two books, NO FIST IS BIG ENOUGH TO HIDE THE SKY (1981) and IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: ANGOLA’S PEOPLE (1972). The crisis of post-colonial Africa, after military dictatorship and the ravages of structural adjustment policies during the 1980s, led to the very popular work from 1993, THE BLACKMAN’S BURDEN: AFRICA AND THE CURSE OF THE NATION-STATE. He argued in that book that solutions to African problems must be devised by Africans, rooted in a keen sense of African history and cultures.

Basil Davidson was often labeled a “communist” even when he never belonged to a communist party, but suffered a blacklist like other progressive individuals during the Cold War era. It was significant that even his country, England, vetoed his appointment as an editor at UNESCO, because of his consistent championing of progressive ideas. But he remained true to his principles.

He stood by the remarkable individuals who fought for Africa’s independence, such as Nkrumah and Cabral, and never compromised his position as a supporter of anti-imperialist struggles. In 1999, the University of Bristol, his hometown, gave him an honorary degree. Davidson was recognized as “one of the great radical figures of the 20th century”.

The presentation added that “He pursued, throughout his life, a just cause, without fear for his own personal safety. He has provided an inspiration for millions, through his books and television work, and by his academic writings gave us African history, when many denied there could be any African history”.

When the news of his death broke, Angola remembered the contributions he made to African liberation. The ruling MPLA in a statement mourning his death, said “At this moment of grief and sorrow, the Politburo, on behalf of all party members, bends before the memory of so eminent personality and forwards to the bereaved family and the Mozambique-Angola Committee, of which he was a member, the deepest condolences”.

In Basil Davidson, Africa found a genuine friend and advocate, while humanity found a genuine organic intellectual, who helped to place the African continent on a firm pedestal, as a major part of human history. In death, we have lost one of the most outstanding individuals of all time. For me, I feel a deep sense of loss that I eventually did not get the opportunity to interview the man.

It was the Malian historian, Hampate Ba, who once said that when an old person dies in Africa, it is the equivalent of the burning of a library. Basil Davidson died at 95 years, and luckily for us, there are his several books in libraries all over the world, to help us connect with African history, in order to find the knowledge and inspiration, to make new and more positive histories for Africa and its peoples!


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