Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Basil Davidson has died in England aged 95. 
Why should that concern me as an African?

Basil Davidson, journalist-historian
Cameron Duodu is a Ghanaian journalist, writer and commentator www.allafrica.com/stories/201007221129.html 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.

muslimsfirstonland by earl sweeting.jpg
Earl Sweeting's depiction of African Muslims arriving in North America BEFORE Columbus
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.'

Anton Wilhelm Amo
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 Wikipedia biography of Amo states that Amo, writing 15 
years before Hume published his racist views, 'developed an empiricist 
epistemology very close to that of philosophers such as John Locke and 
David Hume'. So Hume might well have been influenced by Amo's work, 
whilst condemning Amo's race!

If David Hume could be excused for not knowing any better, the same 
cannot be said of the famous British historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper 
(Professor of History at Oxford university and author of 'The Last Days 
of Hitler'), who stated in 1963 - in terms that suggested that the world
 had stood still since David Hume's days - that 'perhaps in the future, 
there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is 

It can be seen from the foregoing that when Basil Davidson published his
 'Old Africa Rediscovered' [Victor Gollancz, London, 1959] and it fell 
into the hands of my student friends in the Ghana of the early 1960s, 
they were handed an intellectually revolutionary weapon. They changed 
the central themes of African history from: When Europeans first came to
 our continent; what they did once here; and the 'benign' changes they 
wrought in the lives of the 'savage' natives they came to find - to: 
What great civilisations existed on African soil at a time when the 
people of many European countries were still clothed in skins.

The recommendation of my student friends induced me to buy 'Old Africa 
Rediscovered'. Reading that book was like being knocked on the head with
 a hammer! A soft hammer, however, that benignly scraped away part of 
one's brain cells and replaced them with new, vibrant ones that ensured 
that one maintained a sane attitude to the world thereafter. For how 
could the finely balanced society in which I was brought up, and which 
had survived slavery, ethnic wars, famine and pestilence, be dismissed 
as 'barbarous' by 'historians' who did not even speak my language?

The history I had been taught in school, in such textbooks as 'A Short 
History of the Gold Coast', by W E F Ward, talked endlessly about wars 
between, say, the Ashantis and the British, or the Ashantis and other 
Ghanaian ethnic groups. I still remember two names from that type of 
history - Kwadwo Otibu and Kweku Aputae. They seemed to have cost their 
people a lot of blood and yet for absolutely nothing, as far as I can 

It appeared from such 'histories' that Africa was a land full of 
barbarous peoples 'until the whiteman came'. Then the whiteman endured a
 lot of troubles, but succeeded in stamping out such evils as 'human 
sacrifice', 'panyarring' and 'slavery' (which incidentally, was carried 
out only by such slave raiders as 'Samory and Babatu' or some Ashanti 

The role of the whiteman in the slave trade - in building boats 
specifically meant to transport as many slaves as possible from Africa 
to overseas destinations; in bringing to Africa iron chains, leg 
shackles, handcuffs, branding irons, neck-irons and other instruments 
specially designed and forged in Europe and then brought to Africa - 
were conspicuous by their almost total absence from the history we 

But even more shocking - from a backward glance - was the dearth of 
information about relevant African empires such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai,
 Mossi, Zulu, Xhosa, Matabele, Great Zimbabwe, Bakongo and others which 
had not only impressed visitors with their wealth, but were immensely 
resilient because they had somehow evolved highly advanced social 
intervention mechanisms that enabled their peoples to survive war, 
disease and famine, and to even resist - temporarily, alas! - the guns 
and cannons with which the whitemen often announced their arrival.

Most of these books, such as the aforementioned 'Old Africa 
Rediscovered', 'The Search For Africa' (ISBN: 978-0-85255-714-3 
Published by James Currey, Oxford,1994) Black Mother (Victor Gollancz, 
London 1961) and many others, can be found on the Internet.

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' 

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.

Cameron Duodu is a journalist, writer and commentator.
Dear Sam,

John Henrik Clarke seeded quite a bit during his years as a teacher- activist in Harlem.

It was at his home, one evening, that he had Basil Davidson in to visit for dinner and a chat. They were friends of long standing with a common interest in digging deep into African history. For this particular evening, John invited me as the third person. I had begun to read Basil Davidson as my major content for embarking upon the teaching of African history in a program designed by John for the HAR - YOU ACT Heritage classes part of the Poverty Program at the Harlem YMCA and other venues in the Harlem community. Keith E. Baird rounded out our Heritage team during this period.

The dinner for this evening was delicious as well as I can remember. The moving excitement for this young teacher was to be sharing in, by mainly listening to, their discussion of world history, the ebb and flow of then current struggles on the continent, their global connections and the relationship of forces. Rich indeed! Very heady stuff and heavy! Afterwards, Basil and I rode the "A" train down to the Village. He was staying in that area during this visit. I lived in the East Village at the time and he was not comfortable with the NYC subways. After a while, during the ride, I became embarrassed for asking so many questions and apologized for my eagerness. He was at all times patient, relaxed and unhurried with the calm, attentiveness to detail and clarity that lifelong students/teachers possess. This last is a much later understanding of and insight into revolutionary intellectuals whose paths I've wandered across and been instructed by. He was generous enough with his time to accept my offer of a drink when we got off the train.

I've forgotten the exact drink, the details of the conversation and the name of the Village bar we visited; what I carry with me until this day, some fifty years later, is the profound and lasting impression of continuing and consistent serious scholarship, that we are forever students of history and the dialectical development of contradictions over enormous spans of time and dedicated struggle. That impression has become my life's instruction.

Our Movement has lost a true brother, friend and comrade, but his work, monumentally,remains and continues to instruct our Movement.

On a corner in the West Village of New York City, almost fifty years ago, we shook hands, shared 'so long's' and I thanked him for being so very generous with his time and powerfully instructive with his work.

Basil Davidson, Presente!


Jim Campbell
(Elder Educator/Activist now residing in South Carolina)

1 comment:

Haiku forever said...

This is so nice! I am so happy about all this information about Earl Sweeting and his wife.
I bought this book in Barbados and cherish it so much. Taking it out again this evening I began to look for Earl Sweeting in google and came across your blog.
Thank you for all this. Wonderful!