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Dying Africa

Basil Davidson, 11 July 1991

... Africa? But Africa is dying ... Or certainly the nation-state in Africa is dying wherever it is not already dead – see Chad, Sudan, Somalia – while dragging multitudes of starving or sorely wounded people into disaster such as the continent has never seen before, and on a scale that is hard even to imagine. Immediate arena of these evils, the post-colonial nation-state has become in most cases a fragile shell of exploded aspirations, a constitutional garbage-can of shattered loyalties, or a cemetery of projects without a future ...

With Gods on Their Side

Basil Davidson, 7 September 1995

The Church in Africa, 1450-1950 
by Adrian Hastings.
Oxford, 706 pp., £65, January 1995, 0 19 826921 8
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A History of Christianity in Africa from Antiquity to the Present 
by Elizabeth Isichei.
SPCK, 420 pp., £25, February 1995, 0 281 04764 2
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Religion in Africa: Experience and Expression 
edited by Thomas Blakely, Walter van Beek and Dennis Thomson.
Currey, 512 pp., £45, November 1994, 0 85255 206 8
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... 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 ...

The Cruel Hoax of Development

Basil Davidson, 6 March 1997

Fighting for the Rainforest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone 
by Paul Richards.
James Currey/Heinemann, 182 pp., £35, November 1996, 0 85255 397 8
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A Claim to Land by the River: A Household in Senegal 1720-1994 
by Adrian Adams and Jaabe So.
Oxford, 300 pp., £50, October 1996, 0 19 820191 5
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... 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 ...

On Rwanda

Basil Davidson, 18 August 1994

... Africa tramples in its misery and blood, and commentators are left to chant dismay. I share this dismay, but is explanation possible? As in Rwanda now, these are disasters which repeat themselves, and for Rwanda, as for its Siamese twin Burundi, which has lately suffered much the same, the useful words seem all used up. Even so, there have to be sensible answers ...

On the Stambul Train

Basil Davidson, 28 June 1990

Struggle for the Balkans 
by Svetozar Vukmanovic, translated by Charles Bartlett.
Merlin, 356 pp., £18.50, January 1990, 0 85036 347 0
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... If the sovereign nation-state is truly nearing the end of its useful life, as political philosophers here in Western Europe now seem ready to persuade us, so that regional unities of one kind of another may replace it to the general good, the tendency looks far more problematical further east. Resounding nationalism, or rather nation-statism, the two being by no means necessarily the same thing, is what presently appears to reign from Lithuania to the Black Sea or further east again, and from Slovenia to Albania by way of a newly abrasive ‘Serbianism ...

Bad Habits

Basil Davidson, 27 June 1991

The Repatriations from Austria: The Report of an Inquiry 
by Anthony Cowgill, Lord Brimelow and Christopher Booker.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 367 pp., £19.95, October 1990, 1 85619 029 3
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Cossacks in the German Army 1941-1945 
by Samuel Newland.
Cass, 218 pp., £30, March 1991, 0 7146 3351 8
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Eyewitnesses at Nuremberg 
by Hilary Gaskin.
Arms and Armour, 192 pp., £14.95, November 1990, 1 85409 058 5
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... The notion that war can be carried on without crime is as novel, I suppose, as the companion notion that the crime should afterwards be punished by legal process: the first idea has encouraged the second, or, more probably, the desire for the second has promoted the illusion of the first. Both are in any case gaining support. ‘lt is not too late,’ Britain’s chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Lord Shawcross, was writing the other day, in the tone of those who state the self-evident, since when other voices have echoed him, ‘to insist on the surrender of Saddam to be tried for his crimes ...

The Motives of Mau Mau

Basil Davidson, 24 February 1994

Unhappy Valley 
by Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale.
James Currey, 224 pp., £45, April 1993, 0 85255 022 7
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Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt 
by Wunyabari Maloba.
Indiana, 228 pp., £32.50, January 1994, 0 253 33664 3
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... British and American writing about Africans seems generally to suppose that its audience is interested in reading about Africans, but this supposition goes against the evidence. Distinguished writers continue to publish books that are presented as being about Africans, but are in fact about ‘us’ in Africa. While natural to an age of imperialism, this approach becomes awkward in an age (if, of course, we have got there) which may wish to read about ‘them’ in terms other than those of Eurocentric romance ...

Goodbye to Some of That

Basil Davidson, 22 August 1996

... not Dame Stella’s outfit but the Secret Intelligence Service itself – and ‘the historian Basil Davidson’. Poor devil, he’ll have work on his hands. The consequences of becoming known as ‘pro-Tito’ and therefore ‘anti-Mihajlovic’, in the jargon of earlier years, were soon felt. In 1946, unwisely impatient (but the war had cost me ...

Misunderstanding Yugoslavia

Basil Davidson, 23 May 1996

Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War 
by Susan Woodward.
Brookings, 536 pp., £35.50, May 1995, 0 8157 9514 9
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... 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 ...

Lutfi’s bar will not be opening again

Basil Davidson, 7 January 1993

Fitzroy Maclean 
by Frank McLynn.
Murray, 413 pp., £25, October 1992, 9780719549717
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Franz Joseph 
by Jean-Paul Bled, translated by Teresa Bridgeman.
Blackwell, 359 pp., £45, September 1992, 0 631 16778 1
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... North beyond Sarajevo is where the hills of Bosnia become less grey and gaunt than they are elsewhere, and a little further north again they slope away to the plain of Semberija along the Sava River. It is a pleasant enough country in normal times although a hungry one, with its peasants inhabiting scattered hamlets and family homesteads. There are also some famous old towns such as Travnik and Gradacac and Tuzla, a good deal modernised since about 1960 but otherwise unchanged in their Muslim loyalties and love of talk and strong laughter, or so it was until the ‘ethnic cleansers’ arrived a year ago ...

Torday’s Scorpion

Basil Davidson, 9 April 1992

The African Experience 
by Roland Oliver.
Weidenfeld, 284 pp., £19.99, August 1991, 0 297 82022 2
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A Thousand Years of East Africa 
by John Sutton.
British Institute in Eastern Africa, 111 pp., £8, November 1990, 1 872566 00 6
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When the grass is gone 
edited by P.W.T. Baxter.
Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 215 pp., December 1991, 91 7106 318 8
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The Scramble for Africa 
by Thomas Pakenham.
Weidenfeld, 738 pp., £20, October 1991, 0 297 81130 4
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... 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 ...

African History without Africans

Basil Davidson: Portugal’s Empire, 18 February 1999

The Lusiads 
by Luí Vaz de Camões, translated by Landeg White.
Oxford, 258 pp., £6.99, October 1997, 0 19 283191 7
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Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961-1974 
by John Cann.
Greenwood, 216 pp., $59.95, February 1998, 0 313 30189 1
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The Decolonisation of Portuguese Africa 
by Norrie MacQueen.
Longman, 280 pp., £15.99, February 1998, 0 582 25993 2
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African Guerrillas 
edited by Christopher Clapham.
James Currey, 208 pp., £40, September 1998, 0 85255 815 5
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... 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: – O pride of power! O futile lust For that vanity known as fame! That hollow conceit which puffs itself up And which popular cant calls honour! What punishment, what poetic justice, You exact on souls that pursue you! To what deaths, what miseries you condemn Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them! ...

Bloody-Minded

Basil Davidson, 9 September 1993

High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighbourhood 
by Chester Crocker.
Norton, 533 pp., £19.95, May 1993, 0 393 03432 1
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Small Wars, Small Mercies: Journeys in Africa’s Disputed Nations 
by Jeremy Harding.
Viking, 441 pp., £17.99, May 1993, 0 670 83391 6
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Bridging the Zambesi: A Colonial Folly 
by Landeg White.
Macmillan, 233 pp., £40, March 1993, 0 333 55170 2
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... In olden times, which is when God was deciding what blessings he would give to the countries he was creating, after a long while he finally got to Angola and he asked Gabriel his angel to remind him where Angola was, because he’d forgotten. “Angola?” said Gabriel. “Angola’s down there some place, nobody’s been there yet.” And so ...

Righteous Turpitudes

Basil Davidson, 27 September 1990

British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. V: Strategic Deception 
by Michael Howard.
HMSO, 266 pp., £12.95, July 1990, 0 11 630954 7
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... Ever since the Trojan Horse, the telling of lies in wartime has been found honourable, along with the bedevilment of enemies and the invocation of gods, and has been practised more or less cheerfully by persons who would otherwise assert in all conscience that they had never told, or ever would tell, anything but the truth. Courage and hardware may win wars, but cunning deception is just as surely a helpful friend ...

Who’s to blame?

Kathryn Tidrick, 25 February 1993

The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State 
by Basil Davidson.
James Currey, 372 pp., £9.95, September 1992, 0 85255 700 0
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Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa 
by Frank McLynn.
Hutchinson, 390 pp., £18.99, August 1992, 0 09 177082 3
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African Silences 
by Peter Matthiessen.
Harvill, 225 pp., £7.99, September 1992, 0 00 271186 9
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... overall, been a surplus of cultivable land in relation to the number of people living on it. Basil Davidson argues in his new book, The Black Man’s Burden, that the blight that has settled upon black Africa in the present day is rooted in the nation-state. In developing his argument he spares no criticism of the African leaders who have ...

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