[Marxism] Basil Davidson, dead at 95
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 19 10:36:06 MDT 2010
(I am surprised that there was no coverage of this in the
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
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
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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