Torday’s Scorpion

Basil Davidson

  • The African Experience by Roland Oliver
    Weidenfeld, 284 pp, £19.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 297 82022 2
  • A Thousand Years of East Africa by John Sutton
    British Institute in Eastern Africa, 111 pp, £8.00, November 1990, ISBN 1 872566 00 6
  • When the grass is gone edited by P.W.T. Baxter
    Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 215 pp, December 1991, ISBN 91 7106 318 8
  • The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham
    Weidenfeld, 738 pp, £20.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 297 81130 4

I was attracted to the alleged possibility of a pre-colonial historiography of tropical Africa rather more than forty years ago, when thinking about a book entitled On the Trail of the Bushongo, the latter not being a rare quadruped, as I had at first thought when opening the book, but an equatorial tribe or people of whom I had not previously heard tell. The author, Emil Torday, turned out to have been a Hungarian; he meant even less to me, but his book proved interesting. Published in 1925 but drawing on oral records collected some seventeen years earlier, it boldly advanced the view that pre-literate communities as remote and obscure as the Kuba (of whom the Bushong are a branch), whom Torday had found living along the Sankuru river in the veritable heart of Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’, could be said to possess a knowable and even notable history of their own social and political development. Unsurprisingly in the Europe of those times the book appears to have made no mark; and Torday’s employers in the Leopoldian Congo Free State, then about to become the Belgian Congo colony, were men of solidly commercial good sense. They must have thought the claim absurd in so far as they may have noticed it, and after them the colonial decades soon thoroughly established history in equatorial Africa as having begun, in any sense to be taken seriously, with the advent of Christianity as well as Commerce during the 1840s.

Save to a few eccentrics, this was a view universally accepted in England and I think everywhere else in Europe. Before the 1840s, in the influential words of the Beit Professor of Colonial History at Oxford in the 1930s, Reginald Coupland, Africa’s heart had been ‘scarcely beating’. Untouched by any saving hand, the whole great wilderness was humanly as dead as mutton. This being the case, Africans were clearly without a capacity for self-development, and it was to remedy this otherwise fatal deficiency that the great colonial mission was really for. So it was said from lectern and pulpit, and so it continued to be said. Despite the democratic upheavals forecast for colonics in the Second World War, the general wisdom of the schools into the Fifties was still engaged in the stalwart work of standing pat on the virtues of the great mission, even while senior minds were adjusting to the thought that the mission might after all not last for ever. The notion of there having been a knowable pre-colonial history, a process of self-development without European guidance, example or control, had meanwhile to remain a daft fantasy indulged by irresponsible scribblers or, more properly, a dark subversion of student minds already sufficiently intolerant of received wisdom. Torday, if at all remembered, could be comfortably forgotten.

But Torday was still upon the shelves and here he was, for me in 1950, not content to prattle harmless folklore from the silence of the Belgian Congo, but to present it as impressive process. He described from his collected evidence the case of an ancient kingdom along the Sankuru whose greatest monarch was ‘not a warrior but a man of peace, whose only conquests were on the fields of thought, public prosperity and social progress, and who is still remembered in our own days by every person in his country’. This seemed to me rather to be pushing it, but Torday, clearly reckless of ruining his case, went on to claim that this Congolese paladin, by the name of Shambo Bolongongo, could and should be thought of, in local terms, as a ‘King Alfred and Harun al Rashid and Charlemagne all in one person’. Yet Torday remained sufficiently sober to know that he still had to have a date: no date no history, and no history no Shambo. Unhappily the elders of the Bushong, while eager to help him, could not produce a date. Seated amicably with Torday they recalled the events and names that memory had handed down to them while day after day they gave him nothing that faintly resembled a date or any means of fixing one. But one day they reached the reign of their 98th ruler after Woot with whom humanity had begun. Nothing much had happened during that reign, they said, ‘except that one day at noon the sun went out, and there was absolute darkness for a short time.’ Hearing this, Torday knew a moment of the true explorer’s elation. ‘I jumped up and wanted to do something desperate; the elders thought I had been stung by a scorpion.’ Eventually back in Europe, he looked up astronomical records and found that only one total eclipse could have passed over the Sankuru and its forests during the 17th and 18th centuries, and this had happened on 30 March 1680. Having worked back through three previous reigns, he concluded that the Kuba’s King Alfred had opened his reign in 1625. The guess was good enough to be subsequently confirmed by the Belgian historian Jan Vansina, surely one of the founders of a scientifically-based African historiography, after years of fruitful work in the Kuba country. In The Children of Woot he shows that King Shambo (more properly Shyaam) was a less innovating figure than Torday’s enthusiasm painted, but was certainly a great man in his time and place whose achievements, with those of his successors, ‘turned a congeries of chiefdoms into a kingdom’, and was therefore perfectly Alfredian.

Torday’s scorpion, as I like to think of that incident and its effect, may reasonably be seen as one of the innovating provocations of latter-day historiography. Yet it would scarcely have led to anything substantial in its kind had it not been, if long after, for new developments in chronological measurement. These arrived with Willard Libby’s demonstration around 1950 that uncontaminated organic materials, notably wood, were testable for loss of radioactivity and, thus tested, could provide approximately accurate dates for the previously undatable. It seems not too much to say that this discovery produced a revolution in African archaeology where manifestly ancient but otherwise undatable sites could now, as Libby’s method was applied and improved, be plotted on a comparative grid. There were dozens of such known sites spread around the continent, and very soon there were hundreds as the possibilities were increasingly recognised while the disciplines of archaeology won increasing renown and recruits. For the African Iron Age alone – roughly 600 BC to AD 1900 – there must already be several thousand such dates, and ever more are coming to hand. Laid alongside whatever else the sites in question can tell, and together with the written records – in Greek or Arabic or Chinese, and then other languages after about 1450 – all this has enabled historians to leave behind them the timid hypothesis of what used to be called ‘ethno-history’, and assert that Clio has taken them safely to her bosom. Many schools of African history up and down the world confirm that she has indeed done that.

The same or corresponding dating methods have been usefully applied to Stone Age sites sometimes very distant in time. But it has been the fixing of a broadly reliable Iron Age chronology across two millennia at its broadest spread that has had the greatest effect in revising or destroying old convictions of the ‘no history’ sort – to the point that this achievement may be seen as a major advance in late 20th-century humanism. Even with little written evidence earlier than about 1000 AD, the process of Iron Age innovation and development is now reasonably clear in its outlines for most regions of the continent, and increasingly in cumulative detail. Perhaps needless to say, this demonstration of historical process was received with scepticism and even scorn, for wasn’t this a mere story, it was said, of barbarous tribes and their picturesque gyrations in irrelevant corners of the globe: irrelevant, that is, to the proper concerns of history? Some of this still lingers.

Professor Oliver’s new summary of sociopolitical development since remote times – above all, since the onset of metal-using technologies – is all the more persuasive for the prudence that has marked his style of work. Not for him the early illuminations of ‘ethno-history’ nor the speculative pleasures of what another innovator, the late Gervase Mathew – to whom Thomas Pakenham pays well-deserved tribute, even while the colonial partition was about the last aspect of Africa’s experience to command Mathew’s interest – used to call ‘intuitive history’: intuitive, then, because much that was probable, and even relatively certain, could not yet be proven. Oliver stays closely with the archaeological record, and if he is perhaps at his best in tracing a route through the Stone Age millennia, he is consistently interesting and authoritative on the Iron Age centuries, especially up to about 1500. With an assured narrative gift he explains why, for example, it is reasonable to think that the earliest types of humanity did indeed see the light in Africa, just as Darwin forecast would be found, and spread out from there, however gradually and with whatever evolutionary changes along the way, east and north across the world. So that ‘it seems that we all belong, ultimately, to Africa.’

Just how variously Torday’s scorpion has been at work may be seen in the parallel rise of specialised disciplines and bases for research, not least the study of Africa’s languages from which substantial enlightenments have begun to arrive: as finely set forth by Christopher Ehret and Merrick Posnansky in Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History of 1982. In applied archaeology the quantity of research now being published in a panoply of journals goes probably beyond any single person’s conscientious reading. But Azania, the annual journal of the British Institute of History and Archaeology in Eastern Africa, may be the most distinguished just as it is often the most readable. This Institute, moreover, has made a laudable effort to bring its work to a wider public, and in this respect can be seen at its best in a lucid account by its director, John Sutton, of many-handed research over the past twenty years in the vast region which lies between the Indian Ocean and the eastern periphery of the Congo Basin. What has been here at stake is partly the history of the coast and offshore islands, and partly that of their enormous hinterland. Much has been done for both. When the British Academy launched the Institute early in the Sixties, the Medieval history of the coast and islands was broadly clear from available records in Arabic and after 1499 in Portuguese, reflecting the growth of Indian Ocean trade since Roman times and then the European incursions after Vasco da Gama. But it could still be thought that the chief indigenous culture of the coastland was Arab and not Swahili, rather as though one should think of Norman England as Roman because it wrote in Latin. Sutton clears up these old misunderstandings. But the chief value of his offering lies in the story it has to tell about the peoples of that huge interior land where all trace of coherent development had long seemed irretrievably lost in the anonymity of ‘tribes without rules’. Sutton insists with plans and photographs on the historical processes that can now be discerned there: the success of these inland communities has come from their ‘continual adjustments, often moderate but sometimes revolutionary, to systems of settlement, cultivation and technology’ evolved ‘in every part of East Africa, century by century’. With these solutions, peoples even of the far interior were able to tame the often savagely hostile nature of their environment. Like Oliver, Sutton gives generous recognition to the work of many hands and varying persuasions. Writing about African history is obviously good for the soul.

More widely, though, does it matter? Supposing history to be more than a scholarly amusement, it can be said that this recovery of history in Africa goes to disturb and even shift some of the most grounded provincialisms of everyday culture: as, for example that the ‘expansion of Europe’ was not only good for loot but also for the spread of civilisation, that European over-rule was not only a grand adventure but also necessary to the ‘awakening’ of otherwise primeval peoples, or that African miseries of today don’t derive in any important way from that adventure but are fresh proofs of an inherent inferiority. The result of these beliefs has been a wretchedly reductive picture of humanity in Africa, downgrading or simply painting out a self-development which enabled its populations to grow from a handful of millions two thousand years ago to perhaps a hundred million by the middle of the 19th century, and to do this with an evolving mastery of their environment that could provide standards of living, whether as to food or social stability, vastly more desirable than the usual product of a century of European rule. That this achievement called for the invention and elaboration of effective modes of social control in ideologies often rich in their plastic and dramatic arts, in their structures of belief and explanation, and in their capacity to marry change with conservation, nonetheless remains a claim that few people in Europe or America – or Asia, come to that – seem at all willing to accept. Are the historians after all to blame?

No doubt cultures change slowly, even while wheels turn faster, but for this disjunction between what is known and what is believed there will be various reasons. One of these, it has seemed to me, relates to a divide that came to exist and widen, onwards from a few years ago, between the historians and the social anthropologists. While the historians have tended to stay somewhat narrowly within the concerns proper to chronological process, the social anthropologists working in the African field since the Fifties – Godfrey Lienhardt, John Middleton, and their colleagues – have listened to the advice in Evans-Pritchard’s still famous Marett Lecture of 1950. They have turned from synchronic description to the analysis of process. It is thanks to them that the barbarous gyrations have vanished behind a multitude of subtle rationalities and socio-moral charters of self-rule; and in this the distance travelled since the 19th century is truly enormous. Consider the extremes of this. In the 1860s the much-admired explorer Samuel Baker could confidently dismiss the peoples of the southern Sudan as despicable wretches with less idea of religion than a dog, and Baker particularly hated dogs. In 1961 Lienhardt’s path-finding study of the Dinka, one among these peoples, was without apology entitled Divinity and Experience, and made it clear that thinking about the Dinka without thinking about the inwardness of Dinka religion must be simply a waste of time.

Having no possessions of value to pass from one generation to the next, save those of thought and belief, the Dinka have been easily despised by ‘peoples of the book’, whether Christian or Muslim; and it is a weakness in Oliver’s otherwise admirable account that he takes no more than cursory notice of the social and moral claims of the unlettered, rather as though their bookless ontologies, along with the community structures which these explanations have validated and guaranteed, do not really belong to their existence. On this view it seems difficult to know why anyone should bother with their history: as Voltaire said somewhere to an intending historian of the Turks, what could be the advantage to mankind if all he could explain was how one barbarian succeeded another? John Sutton, for his part, insists against any such reduction that the Africans about whom he writes, of the interior as much as of the coast, have played a role in the history of the world during the last thousand years. This is true, and yet how is the role to be measured unless its legacy of thought and belief is accepted and presented as a central part of whatever they achieved and of how they think and believe now? The Putney Debates may be far from England’s everyday consciousness, but it would be hard to say that Charter 88, for example, has no important antecedent in them.

The fact that our academic culture like our media culture has preferred to ignore the moral and psychological consequences of Africa’s century of dispossession may explain the arrival in Oliver’s narrative, when the dispossessions come into question, of a certain blandness of tone. The rending traumas wrought in the self-esteem of defeated peoples, as their cultures were ridden down and trampled in the dust, are pains that were regrettable but, one infers, a generally needed aspect of the colonial mission. Even today, when those cultures receive the supreme accolade of high saleroom prices, as for example in the piles of cash paid for African carvings whenever these are said to have a safe attribution, the whole process of pre-colonial invention and self-development is forgotten or denied; or for educated Africans, what is worse, consigned to hidden attics of the mind where it may rot as useless lumber or an ashamed reminder that Europe and America still know best. As Dr Baxter has remarked in a recent seminar offering from Uppsala, concerned with the fate of Africa’s arid lands, ‘the intellectual isolation about which African scholars rightly complain is not only a product of currency shortages’ and the like, ‘but also of the Eurocentric yearnings of many African scholars’, no matter that ‘imported inappropriate policies have failed the people and are themselves, in good part, responsible for the present environmental crisis.’ Or again, we are told, others reach back furtively to the beliefs of a repressed culture that cannot otherwise be depended, buying a kind of inadmissible job insurance as when, to quote M.A. Ibrahim in the same volume, ‘magical secret societies which engage in magico-ritual ceremonies are common in Institutions of Higher Learning.’ And so for one reason or another it must be useful to be told about the circumstances in which the dispossessions were carried through.

Thomas Pakenham does this in a rousing canter through 38 dramas of the ‘scramble’, and by my reading of the subject nobody has done this kind of thing better or even half so well. From the coups de main of the 1880s through Leopoldian and comparable piracies during the rest of the century, and onward into the later duplicities, betrayals and general bloody-mindedness with which the great enclosure was made complete, he is splendidly readable and reliable in fact or sequence. The Anglo-French rivalry which counted for so much receives its due with outstanding skill; if lesser players such as the Portuguese get barely a look in, you can’t have everything even in 700 pages. There are many nice touches, as when comparing a thrust through the Niger Delta with ‘exploring a hundred miles of green sponge’. But this kind of thing can get out of hand: ‘putrid mangrove swamps’ simply won’t do. I have myself waded a good deal in Africa’s mangrove creeks, and they are not swamps, the mangrove being a tree which demands tidal water. Viscously clinging, they give off a nose that may remind you (if sufficiently romantic) of over-ripe burgundy, but I have yet to meet a mangrove that was putrid.

Of what befell the inhabitants during all these adventures Pakenham says little or less: understandably, for there are no Africans in this book. Instead, there are ‘natives’ who, one sees, got no more than they were asking for, not least because they otherwise spent their time in eating each other. Pakenham’s approach may of course be intended as a genial irony when covering scabrous ground. I rather think it is, but it gets vastly overdone and will for sure be lost upon the ‘natives’. The upshot in any case, was that the ‘natives’ were exiled into the history of their dispossessors. Colonial dictators were in due course replaced by dictators of local origin, and it is only now we can hope that these may be on their way out. Writing of the last few years, Oliver’s bravely optimistic farewell sentence is that ‘the era of mass participation was about to begin.’ Well, perhaps.