Basil Davidson has died in England aged 95.
Why should that concern us?
Well, soon after Ghana gained its independence, things that we had never been taught in our missionary and government schools, began to sneak into our consciousness.
One black American historian/artist called Earl Sweeting, arrived in Accra and tried to interest some of us in a series of post-cards he had drawn that carried such “provocative” titles as “Africans taught the Greeks mathematics”’ “Africans taught the Greeks medicine” and “Africans taught the Greeks philosophy.”
As Editor of the monthly, “Drum” Magazine, I was interested to run an article on his work. But unfortunately, he had left the books that he said would support his claims in the US, and it wasn’t possible, then, to verify his statements independently. To be frank, I was apprehensive that if I ran his claims, I would become a laughing stock. My caution was not unfounded: even as I was trying to find ways of making Sweeting’s work make sense to my readers, the American magazine, Newsweek, got hold of some of his postcards and ran a highly derisive article on them, entitled, “If you have no history, write one!”
That, fortunately, did not deter our ruling party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) from commissioning Earl Sweeting to paint a series of very beautiful murals that greeted visitors to the CPP Headquarters in Accra.
Very soon after my encounter with Earl Sweeting, friends of mine studying history or archaeology at the University of Ghana, Legon -- among them Chris Hesse (later Ghana High Commissioner in Zimbabwe) Annan Cato (Ghana High Commissioner in London and Jimmy Anquandah, Professor of Archaelogy, Legon -- began to talk excitedly about a writer called Basil Davidson, who, they said, was writing the “real” history of ancient Africa.
So I bought Old Africa Rediscovered by Basil Davidson. (ISBN: 0575006889;Publisher: Gollancz; Year Published: 1959). Reading that book was like being knocked on the head with a hammer! A soft hammer, however, that benignly moved one’s brain cells carefully about and replaced those that were recalcitrant with new, vibrant ones that would ensure that one maintained a sane attitude to the worked thereafter.
For the history we had been taught in school, in such books as A Short History of the Gold Coast,
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 that I can remember!
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 by such slave raiders as “Samory and Babatu” or some Ashanti Kings.
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-iron and other instruments specially designed and forged in Europe and the brought to Africa -- were conspicuous by their absence from the history we learned.
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 had evolved highly advanced social intervention mechanisms that enabled their peoples to survive war, disease and famine, and to even resist the guns and cannons with which the whitemen often announced their arrival.
With such books as Old Africa Rediscovered, Black Mother, Search For Africa, and many other books which can be found on the Internet at: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:3TqM9jLhwF4J:www.biblio.com/basil-davidson~125929~author+basil+davidson+bibliography&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk
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 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 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.
So much has Basil Davidson’s work enriched the understanding of Africa that one scholar, Henrik Clark, has confessed; “I thought he was an African!”
Davidson was born in Bristol, England, on 9 November 1914 and died on 9 July 2010. His writing ability 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 1939and he joined the British army, he was considered excellent for the British wartime secret service, the “Special Operations Executive” (SOE).
The SOE sent him to Hungary, from where he also worked in the Balkans, and 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 who was decorated with the Military Cross.
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.
A journalist once again, he described accurately, the rise of apartheid in South Africa, and was 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.
His books on Africa contain exquisite quotes, such as this:
“There is a false myth [Davidson wrote] that surrounds this majestic 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. Also, many 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 Heroditus 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. “
No wonder it was assumed by some that Basil Davidson was an African! Africa thanks him. May he rest in peace.