Basil Davidson, was a radical journalist whose books introduced a mass audience to Africa’s history. He 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.
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.
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.
Davidson is remembered for the sacrifices he made and the role he played in liberating Africa. 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.”
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