[Marxism] Basil Davidson, dead at 95

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 19 10:36:06 MDT 2010

(I am surprised that there was no coverage of this in the 
bourgeois press.)

Basil Davidson, path-breaking historian of Africa, dies at 95
by: Dennis Laumann
July 16 2010

Basil Davidson, the radical journalist whose books introduced a 
mass audience to Africa's history, died on July 9 at the age of 95.

Davidson was a participant in, witness to, and chronicler of 
people's struggles against imperialism, fascism, and racism. He 
battled alongside partisans in Europe during World War II, 
traveled with guerrillas fighting for independence in Portuguese 
colonies, and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. 
Davidson was a true scholar-activist who was as determined in the 
combat zone as he was behind a desk.

Born in Bristol, England, Davidson left school at 16 to pursue a 
career in journalism. He worked as a foreign correspondent for 
notable London publications such as the Economist, before joining 
Britain's anti-Nazi Special Operations Executive in the late 
1930s. Multilingual, imposing, and daring, Davidson coordinated 
resistance activities in several countries. He parachuted into 
Yugoslavia, where he joined Tito's Communists in 1943-44, then led 
a band of partisans who liberated Genoa in neighboring Italy.

After the war, he returned to reporting, based in Paris and 
writing for leading British newspapers, and he was active in labor 
causes. In the 1950s he traveled to Africa, the continent to which 
he devoted his research skills, literary talents, and political 
militancy for the remainder of his life.

Inspired by the anti-colonial movement sweeping Africa and 
committed to the Pan-Africanist program of Africa's new leaders, 
Davidson immersed himself in writing about Africa's present and 
past. His early, now classic, studies of Africa were published at 
a time when much of the continent was under colonial occupation, 
Jim Crow racism prevailed in the American South, and most Western 
intellectuals dismissed African history as nonexistent.

Davidson highlighted the magnificence of Africa's distant past, 
from the ancient city of Meroe to the powerful empire of Mali, in 
award-winning books such as Lost Cities of Africa (1959). In his 
effort to counter Western ignorance and stereotypes about Africa, 
Davidson emphasized its role in world history, educating readers 
about the invention of iron-working in sub-Saharan Africa, for 
example. An Afrocentrist, he rejected colonialist scholarship 
which separated ancient Egypt from the rest of the continent, 
showing that Egypt was an African civilization. His books also 
explored the negative consequences of Africa's more recent 
engagement with Europe, most notably in The African Slave Trade 
(1961), one of the first comprehensive studies of the subject.

Davidson covered current events in Africa, too, especially the 
fight for self-determination. His articles and books written on 
the front lines of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa helped 
raise awareness around the world. He shaped British public opinion 
in favor of decolonization and his publications were devoured by 
civil rights activists and proponents of ethnic studies in the U.S.

His first African monograph, A Report on Southern Africa (1952), 
was an eyewitness account of the implementation of the newly 
enacted policies of racial segregation known as apartheid. His 
1951 trip was arranged by the Garment Workers' Union of South 
Africa and during his visit he met with Nelson Mandela, Oliver 
Tambo, and other leaders of the African National Congress. Later 
he was deemed a "prohibited immigrant" by the apartheid government 
and denied entry to South Africa and other white-ruled colonies. 
Unbowed, he continued to speak out about the crimes of apartheid 
and he served as vice-president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 
Britain from 1969 to1984.

Davidson celebrated the independence of Ghana in 1957 and the 
policies of its president, Kwame Nkrumah, who welcomed liberation 
fighters from throughout Africa to study and train in his country. 
In 1964, Davidson taught at the University of Ghana and later he 
published a biography of the Ghanaian leader entitled Black Star: 
A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (1973).

Davidson was the first Western journalist to travel to the 
liberated zones of the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau and 
Angola. Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the African Party for the 
Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde who in 1967 invited him to 
the freed areas of Guinea-Bissau, wrote that Davidson "accepted 
every risk and fatigue that could bring him into personal touch 
with the way our people live now." Davidson later recounted his 
trip in the book No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky (1981).

At the height of the armed struggle, Davidson walked 300 miles on 
foot to eastern Angola to visit the zone liberated by the Popular 
Movement for the Liberation of Angola. His account of this epic 
journey, called In the Eye of the Storm: Angola's People, was 
published in 1972.

In more recent years, Davidson explored the problems of 
postcolonial Africa which he principally attributed to the 
imposition of Western institutions such as multiparty liberal 
democracy. His most important work on this topic was titled The 
Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State 
(1993), in which he argued the solutions to Africa's troubles must 
come from Africans themselves rooted in a keen sense of their own 
history and cultures.

Although Davidson was never a member of any communist party, he 
often was labeled a "communist" and at times he was blacklisted 
like many leftists during the Cold War era. A decorated military 
veteran, his own country nevertheless vetoed his appointment as an 
editor at UNESCO, as punishment for his radical politics.

But, Davidson remained true to his principles. He once described 
his work as "obviously anti-imperialist." He championed Marxist 
organizations and leaders - including Nkrumah and Cabral - who 
fought against colonialism and apartheid. And he condemned the 
hypocrisy of Western liberals who turned a blind eye to the crimes 
of imperialism.

Davidson is remembered for the sacrifices he made and the role he 
played in liberating Africa. The MPLA, which now governs an 
independent Angola, issued a statement this week mourning his 
death. "At this moment of grief and sorrow," it reads, "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."

At the presentation of an honorary degree from the University of 
Bristol in 1999, Davidson was recognized as "one of the great 
radical figures of the 20th century." The presentation continued, 
"He has 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."

Davidson's impact is evident in the high school and university 
classrooms across Africa and beyond where his textbooks, such as 
West Africa before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850 (1998), as 
well as his acclaimed eight-part documentary series, Africa: A 
Voyage of Discovery (1984), are required learning materials.

Enter any bookstore or library with a section devoted to Africa, 
and you certainly will find several of Davidson's works on 
display. Pay homage to this great scholar-activist by reading one 
of those books, and follow his example by committing yourself to 
the struggle against imperialism in its many forms today.

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