Basil Davidson: Mythologist of modern Africa

Historians in the News

Now about ninety, with his fangs seemingly drawn, the old man spends his days peacefully pottering in an English garden. But Basil Davidson represents the most willful single-handed effort to mythologise African history, and his numerous books have misled millions on a continental scale.

Barbaric kingdoms were romanticised, tyrants whitewashed, and cruel and bloodthirsty customs expunged (or simply ignored) in order to impress well-meaning western middle-classes who wanted to believe only the best about the cultures of the new, free, ‘liberated’ African states.

the romantic adventurer
Beginning as a romantic adventurer, Davidson was smuggled into Yugoslavia during World War II by the SOE (the Special Operations Executive run by the British Government). His boss was James Klugman, head of Special Ops Balkan operations at Bari, and a life-long communist and Cambridge contemporary of Kim Philby and his friends.

After the war Davidson resumed his pre-war career in journalism and worked for various national papers. He also produced his own pamphlets published by the Union of Democratic Control, a small Leftist group inherited from his father. He was available as a free-lancer for various “progressive” causes ranging from that of newly-established People’s China to the tiny anti-Salazar Portuguese Opposition in exile.

Strangely, however, considering what should have counted as his worthy and reputable Left-wing writing, the International Department of the British Communist Party warned party-members against trusting Davidson, telling them he was a Colonial Office agent. This was in the early 1950s, a time when London was seething with numerous groups of African exiles agitating for independence.

propaganda: the true vocation
It was among these exiles that Davidson discovered his true vocation. With the independence of a growing number of African states his books entered the remunerative field of required reading for students of African History on campuses throughout the world. Davidson found himself in constant demand as a lecturer, and apotheosis was reached when the BBC commissioned him to direct a highly successful TV series of doubtful scholarship on African history.

Fame and fortune came not just in the West. There were vastly greater rewards from translations in the communist world. In the Soviet Union and its satellites editions of politically acceptable works reached astronomical figures by Western standards.

There was however a royalty problem. The USSR and its vassals were not signatories to international copyright agreements and hence under no compulsion to pay royalties. Any ingenuous Western author who imagined he would automatically receive them soon realized he would have to toe the line. Davidson was perfectly aware of the constraints placed upon him. In his case they were twofold. He had to satisfy not only his communist publishers, but also his African supporters. It was probably the second who first gave him the idea of embroidering history to provide an inspiring vision of the African past.

Davidson first came into contact with African folklore in the halcyon days of négritude. Its most talented exponents were to be found in a circle around the Paris magazine Présence Africaine. One of these was the Angolan Mário de Andrade, a founder of the MPLA, (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola) the political party which was to rule Angola after independence a quarter of a century later.

Andrade held the highly original view that Angola, at its time of first contact with the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century, enjoyed a level of civilization equivalent to that of eighteenth-century Europe. Davidson lapped this fantasy up and proceeded to direct his research and writing towards an extravagant eulogy of pre-colonial African kingdoms, their technology, and their philosophy. This approach pleased not only Mário de Andrade but also the generality of African liberationists in exile. ...

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William Aaron Markley - 7/22/2006

In response to previous posters who have belittled this article, it is very significant and troubling that Davidson neglected to expose significant and very troubling aspects of the pre-colonial African kingdoms about which he wrote. It is also very troubling that you would not find this of importance. Davidson clearly was driven by his ideology rather than by an attempt at finding the truth about pre-colonial African society. You should read the entire article if you haven't already done so!

Lorraine Paul - 11/30/2005

Erk! I'll just go and hide my red face under the nearest mushroom!

John Edward Philips - 11/27/2005

I wasn't replying to you I was replying to the article. This is a threaded series of comments.

Lorraine Paul - 11/25/2005

I was not denigrating Davidson or his body of work. I had never heard of the man until reading this article. My post was a frivolous one which obviously missed its mark. Apologies!

John Edward Philips - 11/20/2005

Davidson wrote tertiary, popular works, using the data provided by professional historians who didn't write so well. He wrote nationalist history, which is all too common, but not only in Africa. Yet he also criticized the nationalist urge in Africa, as in _Black Man's Burden_.

Are you criticizing nationalist history in general, or only anti-colonial African history? Is Africa that different than elsewhere?

Davidson's main point, when he wrote about precolonial Africa, was simply that Africa HAD a history, that it was developing in its own way. Certainly many of the customs of past European kingdoms would also strike us as shockingly barbaric. What's your point? What is Africa's story?

Lorraine Paul - 11/20/2005

How despicable! Using myth, propaganda, and truth skewing in presenting one's argument! Whatever next?