On Basil Davidson

Jeremy Harding remembers Basil Davidson

Basil Davidson, who died last week at the age of 95, was a regular contributor to the LRB during the 1990s. In a generous sheaf of pieces, many of them reviews, he drew on his experiences as a member of Special Operations Executive during the war and his subsequent fascination with Africa. He was fond of exposition and argument, but his writing could be pithy too. On the postcolonial state in Africa: ‘a constitutional garbage can of shattered loyalties’. On Milosevic and the break-up of Yugoslavia: ‘the Chetniks . . . have appeared once more.' On intrepid writers pursuing their quarry in distant places: ‘Those who wander in the great forests of the African tropics do not always manage, like Conrad’s storyteller, to make it home again.’

Davidson, who always made it home in the end, was a man of action, a journalist and, by his forties, a successful historian. His dramatic introduction to Yugoslavia, where he was dropped by parachute in 1943 and remained for just over a year, building links with Tito’s resistance, gave him a taste for Balkan history. In sub-Saharan Africa, his determination to produce a full history of the continent went hand in hand with a burning curiosity about the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola. Travelling with guerrilla movements, he took his chances, physically and intellectually, as he had in Yugoslavia.

Read over now, his pieces for the LRB only hint at the controversial character of his two main areas of interest. In Yugoslavia the British began by supporting two resistance groups, Tito’s partisans and the so-called ‘Chetniks’, or Serbian nationalist militias (‘for King and Fatherland’) under Colonel Draza Mihailovic. It was on the advice of the SOE office in Cairo that British support for Mihailovic was cut and support for Tito’s Communists redoubled. By then Davidson was out of the Cairo office and on the ground in the Vojvodina. Opposition to the policy, much of it kneejerk, was bitter: what had SOE in Cairo been, if not a den of Communism? A handful of SOE staff also had their doubts, but others, including Davidson, had argued simply that Tito was running his end of the resistance better than Mihailovic.

In Special Operations Europe (1981), Davidson records that the Chetniks were only happy when they had ‘enemy cash in their pockets’, while Tito’s partisans were ‘the largest and most combative fighting resistance in all occupied Europe’. In a passionate letter to the LRB in 1996, Jessica Douglas-Home disagreed with Davidson that only ‘creepy-crawlies’ would seriously ascribe Britain’s support for Tito to a Communist tendency in SOE. He replied that her position was far-fetched to the point of unreality, whereas the anti-Nazi struggle in Yugoslavia was ‘a very real and savage affair’.

Davidson emerged from the war with a Military Cross, a US Bronze Star and a strong sense that British forces coming home wanted ‘a country free of... dole queues, dead ends, glaring discrepancies of wealth and poverty, and all the despair at the bottom of the heap’. He returned to journalism, first to Paris and then as a leader writer on foreign affairs at the Times, where he found it hard to get along. At the New Statesman, he should have fared better, but office politics at the Statesman were also ‘real and savage’ in their way.

By the 1950s Davidson was in Africa and soon intrigued by the strange foreshortening of the continent’s past, which only appeared to begin with the arrival of outsiders. Slavery, European imperialism and settler colonialism were the benchmarks of African history; there was little, as far as he could tell, to confirm the richer story of which archaeology offered tantalising glimpses. To sketch out this neglected past Davidson had to learn the art of writing history, as he’d learned to be a journalist in the 1930s, at the Economist, and a special operative during the war. A series of books on precolonial Africa followed, taking in great swathes of time and space, from the ancient Meroitic cultures in the east to the early modern empires of Songhay and Mali in the west. Metal casting, the transaction of salt and slaves, the power of the lineage and the force of religion: these were the lines along which he traced the rise of civilisations on the continent and staked his claim for achievements wiped from the record by European imperialism.

He saw no point, as he said in the LRB, in ‘writing the history of Africa without the Africans’. He wasn’t thinking only of his own excavations. He meant, too, that it didn’t pay to ignore the people who stood at the margins of power in contemporary Africa, a little behind the tree line: they had a way of appearing unexpectedly on the open plains and making for the centre. The figure he had in mind was the obscure rebel Laurent Kabila, precipitated through the chaos of Zaire to become another undistinguished head of state in 1997.

Kabila was of no great interest, but Davidson had been keenly alert to earlier liberation movements, especially in Portuguese Africa. His study of the anti-colonial struggle in Guinea-Bissau, where he met and travelled with the liberation fighters, was published in 1969; a longer edition followed in 1980. The war had been stressful, to say the least, but independence for Portugal’s colonies was assured by the left-wing officers’ coup in Lisbon in April 1974. At the time, Davidson was in the thick of things in Guinea-Bissau and, 25 years later in the LRB, recalled stopping over in Lisbon on his way home:

Confirming an onward flight to Heathrow, I found a Lisbon ticket clerk suddenly wreathed in smiles. ‘I know about you,’ he said, ‘we’ve read your articles. Now you want to go to London? I’ll show you, I’ll carry your bag.’ Which he did, striding across the passenger area and shouting to his colleagues with joyful excitement. And that was how I came to know that the anti-colonial revolution in Africa had come to Portugal as well.

He referred to his approach as ‘obviously anti-imperialist’ and distinguished it from the ‘academic tourism’ of one of the books we’d put his way for review. In Angola, typically, he'd decided to follow the trail of Henry Nevinson, a hero of his, whose books he gave me when we first met. Nevinson made his investigation of slavery in Angola for Harper’s in 1905; Davidson arrived in the colony more than half a century later and his loyalties were with the Marxist MPLA. In the Eye of the Storm: Angola’s People appeared in 1972, after Davidson had travelled with MPLA fighters in the east of the country as the colonial war intensified. It was one of a dozen books on Africa, with as many to come.

Angola’s independence was the start of a long, nightmarish civil war – ‘chaos and misery’, as Davidson wrote in the LRB – with hostilities on the ground inflamed by Cold War players on the outside (South Africa and the US very much in the lead) and an abundance of oil and diamonds to fund the bloodshed. The MPLA was installed in Luanda with help of the Cubans and the Soviet Union. The rival ethnic liberation movement, Unita, was not content to lick its wounds. Davidson looked on in dismay as Unita forged a warrior alliance with apartheid, and later won money and missiles from the Reagan administration, allowing it to fight a long war against the new government in Angola. The ‘free world’ (including P.W. Botha’s racist South Africa), wanted the MPLA brought down: they were close to Moscow and they provided the military wing of the African National Congress with bases in Angola. Davidson had very many reservations about the embattled party in power. But Unita, too, led by a Mihailovic figure in the form of Jonas Savimbi, was a movement mired in fatal contradictions, as the Chetniks had been in occupied Yugoslavia, and Davidson never doubted the lesser evil.

His doggedness as an intellectual was perfectly expressed in his support for Eritrean independence from Ethiopia – a struggle that his friends in the ANC, the MPLA and other liberation movements regarded as ideologically unsound, especially after Ethiopia became a Marxist-Leninist state in the 1970s. As with Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, so with Eritrea: it wasn’t enough for Davidson to argue the Eritrean cause from a distance; he had to plunge into the action. In his seventies he was one of the first to report to the BBC World Service on the rout of the Ethiopians at Afabet in 1988, which ended Soviet influence in the Horn and, much to his satisfaction, put victory within the Eritreans’ reach.

Long after the Second World War, Davidson was reminded by a small posse of enemies that he’d been a member of British intelligence: once an agent always an agent. He was also accused of being a Soviet spook, or in any case a fellow traveller (sin of sins). ‘Creepy-crawly’ is an apt description for adversaries troubled by his arguments but unable to get to grips with them. It was, to give them their due, mostly a problem of stature. Unusually tall, Davidson was hard to fell even with a low blow. And just as hard to pin down.

Why, for instance, did he take up a post at the Union of Democratic Control, at the end of the 1940s, after leaving the Times? The UDC, which is part of Britain’s unrecovered political history, was by then in decline, having once enjoyed a healthy membership. It was formed in 1914 – members included Ramsay MacDonald and the journalist Norman Angel – and typecast as a ‘pacifist’ movement, but its real quarrel was with chandelier diplomacy. The founders felt that foreign policy should no longer be conducted in secret in the drawing rooms of Europe, but made a matter of open parliamentary debate. By Davidson’s day, 35 years later, the UDC was little more than a loose association of anti-fascists. That suited his thinking: he had an eye on the Iberian dictatorships and the brutal imposition of the pax Americana in Greece.

By taking up with the UDC, Davidson was also following in the footsteps of another of his heroes, E.D. Morel, who was secretary of the organisation until his death in 1924. In 1900 Morel had become the powerhouse of the Congo Reform Association. He remained a staunch Liberal until the outbreak of World War One. Davidson, too, had been a Liberal, working briefly in the press office of the parliamentary party in the 1930s. But he was a writer first and a campaigner in an altogether quieter register, while Morel was destined to become an activist and public speaker, writing on demand for causes, especially in colonial Africa. Davidson was not tempted by the hustings, as Morel was. Yet as a radical, he was closer to Morel, intellectually at least, than he was to any of his contemporaries on the left. By way of homage, he borrowed the title of Morel’s book, The Black Man’s Burden, published in 1920, for his own critical overview of the ‘curse of the nation state’ in Africa in 1992.

The continent that Morel revealed to his readers was a mirror of imperial injustice; Davidson unearthed its history and let it shine, doing as much for Africa as any European could without speaking out of turn. And like the great liaison officer he was, he got the rest of us to listen closely.


  • 15 July 2010 at 1:54am
    Abraham Esau says:
    Unlike "Africa hands" like RW Johnson or Nicholas Kristof, Basil Davidson had integrity: He insisted that you cannot ‘write the history [and the present] of Africa without the Africans.’ Amen.

  • 18 July 2010 at 12:19pm
    ks57 says:
    He was a great and passionate historian of Africa and should be celebrated for his contribution to greater understanding of the continent and of the need to let Africans speak for Africa. He was a fearless supporter of African liberation, but one not afraid to speak out and criticise.