Basil Davidson

Basil Davidson, who died in 2010 at the age of 95, was a regular contributor to the LRB in the 1990s. His pieces draw on his experiences as a member of Special Operations Executive during the war, for which he was awarded the Military Cross (he was dropped by parachute into Yugoslavia in 1943 and remained there for just over a year, building links with Tito’s resistance), and his subsequent fascination with Africa. He wrote a series of books on precolonial Africa, taking in great swathes of time and space, in such books as West Africa before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. He also covered the liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, and wrote about the evils of the ‘post-colonial nation-state’. Jeremy Harding wrote about his ‘old-fashioned courage’ and the ‘energy and passion’ of his writing in the LRB after Davidson’s death.

In Canto Four of Camões’s 16th-century epic, as Vasco da Gama and the men of his fleet prepare to embark on their conquest of the Golden East, ‘an old man of venerable appearance’ steps down to the quayside of Belem. Solemnly, if fruitlessly, he warns against their enterprise of imperialist piracy:‘

The Cruel Hoax of Development

Basil Davidson, 6 March 1997

Those who wander in the great forests of the African tropics do not always manage, like Conrad’s storyteller, to make it home again, and the likelihood of their ending in terminal disaster has become greater than it used to be. Whether threatened populations in these forests and their neighbouring savannahs can still be sheltered from destruction, or even self-destruction, is pretty much an open question. Against this now customary pessimism, optimists, such as the authors of these books, argue that the long process of imperialist dispossession has begun to give way to another, contrary process and that Africa’s peoples are retaking possession of themselves.

Goodbye to Some of That

Basil Davidson, 22 August 1996

In the west cloister of Westminster Abbey a modest plaque is about to be unveiled. It will be a memorial to the volunteers of our Special Operations Executive, otherwise forgotten, who were killed in action between 1939 and 1946, murdered by the enemy after capture, or failed to get home again. It is fairly much a private occasion and has taken some time to come about: the wonder is that it has come about at all. Fifty-eight years have passed since Major Lawrence Grand launched his ‘Section D’ in a niche of the old War Office, which had concluded, quite privately in the wake of the Munich sell-out of the Czechs, that a war with Hitler’s Germany would be unavoidable, in which case several European countries east of Germany would be overrun by the Wehrmacht, and steps should now be taken, even at these many minutes after midnight, to discover and support friends in those countries who might continue resistance – but the word came into use only with the thing itself – after invasion. So it was proposed, and was going to be done.’

Misunderstanding Yugoslavia

Basil Davidson, 23 May 1996

Someone was heard complaining, the other day, about the ‘absurd confusions’ of the recent war in the Balkans. Very well: but why absurd? Or when have such confusions been anything save absurd? In this respect, at any rate, the unmaking of Yugoslavia can be seen as par for the course. It happened to me on a chill April morning, 55 years ago, to be sitting by a roadside outside Belgrade waiting for transport during another absurd confusion. Nothing at all had damaged me, which was quite fortunate, for a few hours earlier during that morning’s bombing I had been sheltering in the cellars of the Hotel Majestic, as it was pleased to call itself, along the way from the Kalemegdan Fortress. Now I was outside the city on the old road going south into Bosnia, and Belgrade behind me hovered beneath a shroud of dust and smoke as Hitler’s bombers swung into their stride again. Having begun at dawn, they would continue until late the next day, there being nothing to stop them. Thousands of Belgrade citizens and others with them were dead or about to die: as many as 17,000 according to a subsequent estimate. Other thousands were walking south in a blind search for their army, for any fighting unit they could join. Two such men had come to a halt beside me. They were in loud and angry argument. The younger of them was cursing as only enraged Serbs know how to curse. Their defenceless city should never have been reduced to ruins. But, criminally, it had been – and by whose fault? He cursed the generals and their political bosses. He cursed all manner of traitors, cowards, fools, whoever. I felt for him – who wouldn’t, as things were? – but the other man tried to comfort him. To me very memorably, even in that highrise confusion, this other man said: ‘We’ll find the Army. We’ll reach it even if we have to go to Greece, to go as far as Solun’ – as far as distant Salonika to which an earlier army had retreated in 1914, during the Great War against the Austrians and their emperor, Franz Joseph.’

With Gods on Their Side

Basil Davidson, 7 September 1995

Long-term ‘endings of an era’ tend nowadays to be announced with remarkable confidence. This may even be the case with an issue as controversial as the ending of territorial imperialism, truly a large affair. Yet there is much to suggest that it is ending, and the appearance of two large histories of Christianity in Africa, the first of their kind on any such scale, can be seen as another signal of this: a summing-up has evidently come to seem possible as well as desirable. Christianity will of course continue, and today in Africa there are immensely more Christians than ever before; but its assumptions will no longer be the same. The unconverted heathen, on a missionary perspective, are now resident in Britain, not in Borrioboola Gha.

The Partisan

Jeremy Harding, 23 June 1994

Travelling in West Africa a little over forty years ago, Basil Davidson was shown around the chamber of the new territorial assembly in Bamako, built by the French as a concession to the growing...

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Who’s to blame?

Kathryn Tidrick, 25 February 1993

For a few years in the mid-Seventies I lived in Tanzania, my husband being at the time one of the horde of expatriate ‘advisers’ who flocked there hoping to be of service to...

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People’s War

John Ellis, 19 February 1981

Soon, no doubt, some statistician of the absurd will tell us that the tonnage of books about the Second World War has finally exceeded the weight of ammunition expended in its course. On the face...

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