The Partisan

Jeremy Harding

  • The Search for Africa: A History in the Making by Basil Davidson
    Currey, 373 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 85255 719 1

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 demand for independence in Mali. The chairman of the assembly ‘pointed with a cautious smile to the plaster-white figure of the French state symbol on the chamber wall above his ceremonial chair. “There is Marianne,” said he with another cautious smile but with an echo of laughter in his voice, “and here are we. She so white, and we so black.” ’

From the outset of his career as a journalist in Africa, Davidson has found much to say about the inappropriateness of European political forms to the continent on which they have been imposed. He has been taken at his word and his word has carried, in more than twenty books about Africa and a far larger number of articles and lectures, some reprinted here. He has an extraordinary following in the US, a significant readership in Britain, and his name is familiar in many parts of Africa, even if his books, like most, are hard to obtain. Since the early Fifties, when he began reporting on Africa and researching its precolonial past, Davidson has argued passionately for the moral and historical imperative of independence – from colonialism, white minority rule, exploitation by neo-colonial or imperial African regimes, ‘free world’ or Soviet bloc patronage and, in the aftermath of the Cold War, from the stultifying institutions which all of these have bequeathed to Africa.

Despite its terrible difficulties, Davidson’s Africa is a continent of hope. In both the customary and the more fashionable sense, his work is affirmative – often stubbornly so. He believes in the possibility of a peaceful and productive continent, beyond the rival images of a ‘good Africa’ – South Africa, for example, where a dismal story can end improbably well – and a ‘bad’ one – for the moment Rwanda, although three months ago it was Natal and the East Rand. While he relishes the first image he suspects that the second is never far away, with its dreary insistence on some natural order of things to which Africa is eternally bound. Davidson has fended off this bullying invocation of nature for most of his life. His writings have earned him what he calls ‘a comfortable condescension of the orthodox: “He’s an idealist, he’s well meaning, but you needn’t really take him seriously.” ’ They have also made him enemies. He was banned from South Africa in 1952 and, by 1956, debarred from a further seven territories, all of them British.

By the end of that decade, however, he had published his first book of African history. Half a dozen more have followed. Davidson’s interest in this vast, protean subject has evolved naturally from his preoccupations as a journalist and from his politics, crystallised by his wartime experience as a British Liaison Officer with the Yugoslav resistance. ‘If Africans were going to achieve independence,’ he reflected during his early post-war travels on the continent, ‘they would have to be treated as people. Where, in that case, had they come from? What had they done, or not done, before the colonial invasions of the 1850s and later? What, in a word, had been their history?’ The greater part of Davidson’s life has been given up to answering these questions. The result has been to counteract the colonial foreshortening of Africa’s history, according to which it was a timeless pasture without civilisation or development until the arrival of outsiders.

Throughout the forty years that he has been working in and on the continent, Davidson has also kept up a regular output of journalism. For this, no less than the history, he is likely to be remembered. His sense of the late colonial years and the advent of independence is very much that of the eye witness, but his journalism is underpinned by a historian’s sensibility, which lends force to his claim that Africa’s contemporary distress can, in fair measure, be ascribed to its colonial past. More recently, Davidson has expressed a deep scepticism about the European model of the democratic nation-state proposed to Africa, chiefly by France and Britain, and adopted by Africans, at times with a painful ambivalence, at others with unqualified enthusiasm, but nearly always as the only means of self-determination at their disposal.

In The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, published in 1992, Davidson spoke of the ‘spiny contradictions’ beneath the rhetoric of nationalism: ‘If nationalism has been and can be a liberating force, why then has it so often become the reverse?’ The problem is taken up again in the preface to this collection of reports, essays, papers and reflections, written between 1950 and the present. Davidson insists on the dangers of nationalism in Europe, yet ‘in Africa, after the Second World War, the banners of nationalism not only seemed, but really were, the only ones that could promise an end to colonial subjection.’ They did end it; some fifty African nations have now thrown off colonial or white settler rule – South Africa being the most recent. Today the only outstanding African business before the UN’s Fourth Committee, which deals with decolonisation, is the Western Sahara. Everywhere else in Africa, the flawed project of national sovereignty is more or less complete.

In The Search for Africa Davidson looks back at some of his early journalism on the continent, his later historical writing and the political debates in which he has taken an active part. More immediately, and more uneasily, he alludes to the problems of the present, to which he once envisaged solutions emerging with the demise of colonialism, but which have been aggravated or replaced by others, no less daunting.

In a conference paper delivered in Senegal two years ago, and published here in emended form, Davidson gives a candid summary of the difficulties that he, and all those who have absorbed his work, have had to face in the Nineties: ‘Generally, since independence from foreign rule, Africa’s politics has been a politics of failure. And now we are asked to explain why this has been, and what should be a politics of success.’ To this he adds: ‘Your lecturer today does not have the answer; moreover, if the answer can be found, it will not in any case be found except by Africans. Development comes from within or it does not come at all; the essential failure is above all a failure of non-African legacies of dispossession ... Dispossession has been the culprit.’

This is not so much to exculpate Africans – ‘their part and hand in failure has been pervasive and persistent’ – as to reiterate the extraordinary force of the colonial episode. It preoccupies many young African intellectuals today, while the work of an older generation of writers – Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe and the novelist and film director, Sembène Ousmane – is never without some strong descriptive trace of the dispossession Davidson has in mind. And though there are problems with this sense of a disabling legacy – for instance Ethiopia, invaded but never colonised – its most obvious weakness is merely that, beyond Africa and African diaspora communities, its appeal has diminished over the years. It is scarcely Davidson’s fault if Europeans wish to take up another position in the hope that we will no longer see ourselves so readily in Africa.

As time has passed, the shadow of Davidson’s own concerns has fallen at a different angle, but his basic position has held fast. In a new preamble to a series of articles on the anti-colonial movements in Portuguese Africa, he spells it out:

Looking back on those years ... I have not the slightest doubt that the project of regained African sovereignty was right and necessary not only in its own terms, but in any historical terms. Unless the humanity of this whole continent could restore to itself its own identity and self-respect, it was bound to perish in degradation. That was the inner sense of every genuine anti-colonial movement ... It was for the reversal and undoing of the dispossessions.

   This seems often to have become forgotten, or written down in its sovereign importance, during the dim years of the 1990s.

Often enough, this book speaks candidly about the failed promises of independence; elsewhere it simply assumes them, but being a retrospective work by a historian, it looks to the past more readily, and with a keener eye, than the future.

When Davidson does undertake some prescriptive sketch of Africa’s recovery, he envisages a return to the virtues of an old or muffled ‘historical African political practice’, something more than ‘pious hope and a libation to the ancestors’. What he detects in the way of hopeful signs can, however, be very tenuous – for instance, ‘the perception ... that the strongly centralised state systems of the colonial legacy have failed to prosper’ because they were not counterbalanced by devolution of power to rural areas. Decentralisation, local government, effective popular participation along traditional African lines: this is the direction in which one or two countries ‘have turned or appear increasingly to mean to turn’.

For very many Africans, at the mercy of kleptocracies, dictatorships and derailed liberation movements – sometimes of all three – there is not much solace here. For intellectuals, in Africa and the West, on whom Davidson has had such an impact, there may also be a sense of the heroic project he has worked at for so long – ‘a history in the making’, as his book is subtitled, and one with striking repercussions on the present – having reached its outer limits. This is less a matter of Davidson dodging the questions posed by contemporary Africa than of the continent itself eluding any certifiable definition by journalists, historians, scholars, aid and lending experts, camp followers, demographers, catastrophists and optimists, or by individuals of very different persuasions who happen to inhabit it. In a long moment of desperation, Davidson’s remains the least peremptory evaluation on offer – and by far the most generous, to his subject-matter and his readers.

The last twenty years, from the April 1974 coup in Lisbon to the historic compromise in South Africa in April 1994, have reaffirmed many of the faiths, both latent and declared, that Davidson’s work evinces. The possibility of a history of African peoples, recovered by means of archaeology, leached from ethnography, disengaged from Islamic and colonial records or inferred on the basis of oral transmission, is now widely accepted. The sources of Davidson’s ‘antipathies’ – one section of The Search for Africa carries this title – are undoubtedly fewer: white settler rule, which withstood the wind of change in Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa, has given way; the old Ethiopian empire, which Davidson consistently opposed, even in the guise of a ‘progressive’ regime, has foundered. Yet the cost of these struggles must have been higher than he had hoped, while in Portuguese Africa, whose anti-colonial wars he brought to the attention of the British public, independence was a catastrophe. In Mozambique and Angola, South Africa was largely responsible, but by the start of the Nineties it was clear to Davidson that their respective liberation movements, and the leaders of Guinea-Bissau, all of whom had tried to impose policies ‘that Stalinism carried to ruinous extremes in the Soviet Union’, were not as blameless as he would have wanted – not least because he had known and loved the people who fought in the bush for a cause that made perfect sense.

The larger continental picture during the Eighties and Nineties has been chastening, and harder for a mind that is not disposed to pore over grim statistics. Even now, Africa by numbers is a solemn affair. Since the start of last year there have been a dozen full-scale emergencies, affecting forty million people. Most are brought on by war or the aftermath of war. Only two of the appeals to finance relief for these emergencies met with more than 70 per cent funding from donor governments. There were around six million African refugees at the end of last year; Rwanda has added many more. Nearly 25 million Africans are displaced inside their own borders. Aid is falling, but so are the continent’s export earninigs – the biggest recent drop, of nearly $10 billion, occurred between 1990 and 1992. In sub-Saharan Africa, roughly one-third of these earnings is swallowed up by debt repayments, while arrears continue to mount on principal and interest and now stand at around $40 billion.

Davidson has kept away from the hubbub of numbers, and the ostentation with which they are touted, preferring other kinds of knowledge he has gleaned at first hand or through his own research. He continues to tend the claims he lodged long ago for a civilised continent, or the possibility of such a place. Extensive, sometimes sweeping, they nonetheless seem modest by comparison with the mathematics of Africa’s collapse. His unwillingness to offer himself as a tour guide in a disaster theme park, as J.G. Ballard once conceived of Africa, has given rise to impatience.

On publication, The Black Man’s Burden raised a murmur of rebuke and perplexity, which is perhaps why Davidson seeks to clarify his position in The Search for Africa, by means of an introductory piece to the section entitled ‘Debates’:

I do not mean to suggest that Africa’s fifty or so states formed from the consequences of the colonial partition will ... disappear as these consequences lose their mandatory force, or even that these states can disappear ... Yet these nation states formed from the legacy of the colonial states and bearing within themselves the assumptions and structures of the imperialist era, have lost the Virtue they have claimed to possess ... No doubt [they] will survive; but if they are to survive to good purpose, they will have to be reformed, changed within themselves, even to the point of constitutional dismantlement and reassembly.

What this resurrection would look like, beyond a return to the principles of devolution and mass participation that Davidson ascribes to pre-colonial political forms, we are not told. But detractors of the earlier book had already objected on more general grounds. For Kathryn Tidrick, writing in these pages (LRB, 25 February 1993), the very polities that Davidson invokes as models are compromised by their history of collaboration in the slave trade and customary human sacrifice. She is offended by the miseries that Nyerere’s villagisation inflicted on Tanzanian peasant farmers and seems to hold Davidson vaguely responsible for this, perhaps as a result of what she calls his ‘romantic connoisseurship of struggle’.

In the Guardian (October 1992) Benedict Anderson took issue with Davidson on several counts: that the virtues of armed anti-colonial struggle which he affirmed, especially in Portuguese Africa, were soon undone ‘by Stalinism and one-party bureaucratic dictatorships’; that if the nation-state is indeed a curse, it is not specific to Africa; that Davidson’s vocabulary suffers from a ‘strange abstractness’ which ‘speaks of “Africa” and “Africans” as if they referred to self-evident and ancient realities ... Were not “Africans”, like “Asians”, a phantasmagoric imperial invention?’ There is also his ‘complete ignoring of Islam and Christianity’ and, finally, his Eurocentrism, or at least, non-Africanism: a ‘bibliography rich in English, French, Gentian, Portuguese and Serbian language sources, but without a single item in an “African” tongue’.

Some of the difficulties with this critique are obvious. However courteous, Davidson cannot oblige us by pretending to be other than a European, more precisely an Englishman, caught up in Africa. He has already argued that the emulation of ‘actually existing socialism’ by states that tried it was ruinous. Nor are the terms in which he refers to Africa and Africans at odds with the way they and the diaspora peoples have been ready to describe themselves and the continent as a matter of convenience, faith or frustration – a poem by Agostinho Neto begins: ‘We of immense Africa’; Frantz Fanon inveighs against ‘the enemies of Africa’. Yet the real charge, that the nation-state is lowered on stage as a diabolus ex machina to explain the prevalence of war, hunger, debt and disease, has tended to stick.

It is taken up again by Colin Leys in New Left Review (March/April 1994) in a piece that contrasts the massive distress in much of Africa with Davidson’s unruffled approach to it – that of the ‘natural optimist’, as Anderson rightly thinks of him. For Leys, the post-colonial scene is ‘not just a disappointment: what is happening in Africa is a perhaps irreversible decline towards that capitalism-produced barbarism of which Rosa Luxemburg warned, gradually engulfing most of the subcontinent.’ Leys doubts whether the civil and political practices of pre-colonial African societies – or indeed any kind of democratic practice – can replace ‘the botched modern institutions’ that exist at present. ‘Why should a region of the capitalist world that is basically unable to reproduce itself economically, and hence is collapsing socially, be expected to sustain civil, egalitarian political processes? Yet this is what Davidson seems to envisage.’

Davidson is worried by pretty much the same question. It is ‘as good the certain’, he says in The Black Man’s Burden, ‘that no kind of easy and prosperous future could now be achieved anywhere in the poor man’s world, the ex-colonial world: existing systems of wealth exploitation, with their ever-continuing transfer of resources from the impoverished to the privileged, stand too solidly in the way.’ But in The Search for Africa, his recourse is once again to ‘the lessons of internal culture’, given that ‘the plans and projects of the outside world, applied to Africa, seem to achieve so little good.’ We must take those to include the modern nation-state, which Leys, by contrast, tenders as ‘a potential line of defence for Africans’ against the depredations of capitalism: part of the solution, ‘and not necessarily part of the problem, as the drive by the World Bank and the IMF to weaken the African state in the name of market efficiency implicitly acknowledges.’

As it happens, these depredations are not confined to Africa: everywhere, national sovereignty is now challenged by the penetration, and the ideology, of the global market. Nor is ‘capitalism’ the only enemy of the nation-state. It is quite true that the inroads of structural adjustment on the authority of African governments have often been disastrous for their poor (cuts in health and education, food subsidies removed), but some regimes have never seen the welfare of their citizens as an issue in the first place, and their unwillingness, or inability, to govern responsibly has given rise to another, significant challenge to sovereignty, this time on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. It began to make headway in the rich world (among ‘the donors’, as we’re known) after the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, although some of its strongest advocates were non-governmental aid agencies with no national, corporate or ‘tied aid’ interests to advance.

Roughly, this approach sought to define an idea of ‘good governance’ beyond the ideology of donor countries and argued that flagrant examples of ‘bad governance’ – human rights violations, for instance – could justify withholding aid from offending regimes, of which Mengistu Haile Mariam’s was one. Conditionally was on the march. As fast as the World Bank set out its lending stipulations, the aid agencies were reviewing the terms on which they were prepared to commit their resources to African governments, whose legitimacy, already precarious by most standards, now faced a diversity of threats.

By the time Davidson published The Black Man’s Burden, extremist free marketeers could argue that Africa was merely an illustration of the pace at which ‘the state’ could wither away anywhere in the democratic heat of capitalism – and perhaps that is one of the reasons why Leys invokes Africa’s nation-states as a line of defence against the economic injustice he describes. Messianic capitalism is in decline a little now, but the humanitarian quarrel with national sovereignty is not – though it has undergone a significant shift since the Eighties, when it was only non-governmental organisations who violated territorial integrity, in Ethiopia, for instance, by running aid across the Sudanese border to rebel populations in Tigray and Eritrea. By 1991, the UN was doing much the same – Resolution 688 entailed the passage of aid to Kurdish insurgent groups in Iraq and provided for safe havens. The aid community saw it as a landmark resolution. Unlike Somalia, which had already wiped itself from the map before the UN intervened in earnest, the Iraqi state, complete with functioning institutions, was very much in existence at the end of the Gulf War.

In the widening arc of uncertainty that has followed the demise of the Soviet bloc, there are opportunities for a doctrine that puts the emphasis on the moral limits of national sovereignty and, in the words of a recent paper circulating at the UN, ‘on the rights of individuals as opposed to those of nation states’. In this context, Davidson’s scepticism about the nation-state is very much to the point – grounded, as it is, in the reality of weakened sovereignty – and seems entirely modern, just as his first historical work on Africa in the Fifties must have done at the time. ‘This allpurpose model,’ he says of the nation-state, ‘seems to have reached the end of its useful life; and the evidence for this, contradictory though it may sometimes appear, lies on every side.’

If Davidson is now unable to see a way forward without going back, his predicament coincides precisely with the general bewilderment of the new world order. The advantage of Davidson’s thinking is its mobility – there is also the matter of hope, something of a trump card in his hand. When he urges a ‘new politics, a post-imperialist politics such as has not been possible before’ and ‘the invention of a state appropriate to a post-imperialist future’, it is to hope that he appeals in the last instance: ‘While despair is all very well for those who can afford it, despair comes too dear for those who can’t. For those who can’t, a ground for hope is a necessity.’

As often as not, to read Davidson is to find oneself debating the limits and legitimacy of hope, and, indeed, political engagement – the two are inseparable. There is no skirmishing with odds and ends; the whole formidable enterprise is undertaken with the same commitment. In The Search for Africa, Davidson talks of writing history as a quest for an ordering and invigorating spirit that can suffuse historical fact with a sense of ‘human unity’, which he calls ‘the source of all liberating action’: ‘Without this motivating insight, we have mere chronology or propaganda. With it, we have history. This is what I have ventured to call “solidarity”; and this is a usage which I think can be defended.’

It is a position, as the word ‘solidarity’ suggests, that allows his writing to sit well with more programmatic texts produced by Africans – the Luthulis and Nkrumahs, and men like Amílcar Cabral, the anti-colonial leader in Guinea-Bissau, whom Davidson knew well; or indeed, the Martiniquan, Frantz Fanon, whose warnings about the pitfalls of national consciousness, published before Algerian independence, seem prescient now. (Davidson hints at his impatience with Fanon’s enthusiasm for the ‘practice of violence’; nor can he forget that it was Fanon who prevailed on the Algerian FLN to funnel aid to the wrong Angolan liberation movement in the early Sixties – the movement from which Savimbi eventually split to form Unita.)

There is more to the black man’s burden than solidarity with those who languish under the curse of the nation state, however, and more than one Black Man’s Burden, written to hasten the day when Europeans can ‘look back with horror and shame at a past in which the African, arbitrarily sundered from his land, his social and family life, ground out a life of servile toil, with no beacon of hope, no incentive to rise, no other stimulus to labour than starvation and the lash.’ The tone here is not Davidson’s, but then nor is the book. The National Labour Press published a work of the same title in 1920. In his Introduction, written a year earlier – Basil Davidson would just have celebrated his fifth birthday – the author, E.D. Morel, speaks of ‘great social changes ... among the white peoples of the earth. The seat of power is shifting from the propertied classes to the producing masses’ who will, before long, have to take on ‘executive duties in many spheres of government, with whose problems they are not familiar; among them the administration of dark-skinned peoples ... For many reasons the peoples of Africa should make a special appeal to all that is just and generous in the forces which are swiftly marching to the conquest of political power in Europe.’

Davidson’s Burden makes no reference to Morel’s, but he cites it in The African Awakening (1955) and quotes freely from Red Rubber, Morel’s denunciation of plantation labour in the Belgian Congo, published in 1906 and hailed by the Spectator as a ‘courageous ventilation of this crime against civilisation’. Davidson calls Morel ‘a great liberal humanitarian’ and his own work is situated in the same tradition. Morel belongs to a line of admirable democratic spirits who found a key to the shortcomings of their own political system in the poker-faced exploitation of colonised peoples thousands of miles from home. Independence is not a word, or a notion, that occurs to him in The Black Man’s Burden; enlightened government of Africa by Europe is the objective. Just how sombre European colonial rule remained, despite the advances of the labour movement in the northern hemisphere, was abundantly clear to him, and he shared his dismay with a man whose work Davidson undoubtedly admires: Henry Nevinson.

Nevinson was widely travelled and well read. Like Davidson, he had no difficulty putting pen to paper. In both men, one senses the pleasure of writing books and composing copy (Nevinson for the Daily Chronicle and Manchester Guardian, Davidson for the Times, the Economist, the Daily Herald and the Mirror). In 1904, at the suggestion of Harper’s Monthly, Nevinson embarked on a journey to Angola and São Tome, where he investigated the persistence of slave labour. He published his findings in 1906; they caused an outcry and led, among other things, to major changes in the policies of the cocoa-purchasing firms. On the past and present of Portuguese West Africa, Nevinson always seems sure of his ground. Noting a modest upturn in relations between the Portuguese and Africans in the Angolan seaboard city of Benguela, he ascribes the change to an insurrection two years earlier:

The rising, though attributed to many absurd causes by the Portuguese ... was undoubtedly due to the injustice, violence and lust of certain traders and administrators. The rising itself was an absolute failure. Terrified as the Portuguese were, the natives were more terrified still. I have seen a place where over four hundred native men, women and children were massacred in the rocks, and holes where their bones still lie, while the Portuguese lost only three men.

Davidson regards Nevinson’s A Modern Slavery as ‘an enduring classic of its kind’: ‘I read that work in 1949,’ he says in The Search for Africa, ‘and found in it a prime example to all who practise the craft of telling the truth about things as they happen, or at least of trying to tell it. So half a century after Nevinson wrote his harrowing book about Angola, I decided to try going there too.’ The first substantial result was The African Awakening, a journey through central and southern Africa, which begins in a restaurant called the Pourquoi pas in Stanleyville, and takes him down, through Katanga and on, via the Benguela railway – now paralysed by Savimbi’s insurgency – to the Atlantic coast. The book, of which two fragments, in their original form as pieces for the New Statesman, are republished here, is a fluent meditation on colonial history and the injustices of the places through which Davidson was travelling.

As with Nevinson’s book, there are two terrains: the visible and the known, which are not the same, even if they sometimes overlap. The Atlantic margin of Angola is ‘a long lifting coast of grey and silver hills ... Here and there old slaving forts squat in primrose shadows above the blue sea. Beneath them, rare towns lie half-asleep along avenues of fronded palms.’ This is not the way Davidson came, but his evocation of Nevinson’s passage, sailing south from the Gulf of Guinea. Davidson enters Angola with a certain stealth, travelling through Katanga, where ‘crowds of children gather whenever the train halts, and stare and shout and beg with smiling faces and wheedling hands.’ He knows who they are, why their families are on the Belgian side of the border, avoiding forced labour for the Portuguese, and how effectively cross-border emigration has bled away the peoples of northern Angola. After customs, ‘the engine summons all the steam it can, belches flames into the evening sky, and hauls due westward into a crimson sunset.’ Another seven hundred miles aboard Benguela Railway rolling stock – or ‘reeling slock’ as he thinks more accurate – brings him to the Atlantic coast of Angola.

‘There is much less cruelty than in Nevinson’s day,’ he observes, but it is only a matter of time before he has the measure of the lesser cruelties fuelling what would soon become an energetic anti-colonial resistance. Angola, he is informed by the general manager of the railway on his arrival in Lobito, is a little corner of Paradise in Africa. ‘A special kind of paradise,’ Davidson goes on to reflect. ‘As I was to see later, the files of the Native Affairs Department in Luanda, its capital, show 379,000 contradados, or forced workers who are really slaves. A corner of Paradise that is rather nearer the other place, perhaps, than most.’

Davidson would remain preoccupied with Portuguese Africa and, in the late Sixties, take up his travels there again, mainly in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, crossing the bush with the armed liberation movements. Meanwhile, the formulation of an ambitious ‘regionally integrated history’, intelligible to non-specialist readers, gained momentum and won him acclaim. In The Search for Africa, he reviews the project, on the whole rather modestly, not-withstanding its immensity. A preliminary task was to neutralise the claims of the ‘prehistorians’ over the ground of a possible early African history. It was important, equally, to clamber free of the demeaning idea of ‘ethno-history’, with its preference for studying societies as though they did not exist in time. The European model of periodisation then had to be abandoned – it did not hold for Africa – and existing alternatives (Pre-Islamic, Great Discoveries, Slave Trade etc) rejected on the grounds that they approached the continent from a non-African standpoint. In addition, pharaonic history must be reclaimed for ‘inner Africa’ – Ethiopia particularly – from which it had been severed by European scholarship.

In the field and the libraries, Davidson set about collecting and correlating the ‘towering mass of material’ that would form the basis of his history books. Researching the first of them, Old Africa Rediscovered (1959), he visited the ‘richest archaeological site that yet remains in Africa’ at Meroë, north of Khartoum. The old fortifications of this foundry culture, and its ornamentation – the granite rams of Amun-Re, crouching ‘like small, indignant sphinxes in the windblown, ochreous sand’ – gave Davidson a starting point in Meroitic Kush. Always acknowledging the diggers and fellow scholars, he proposed an early Iron Age beginning in the fourth century BC, entering an intermediate period perhaps fifteen hundred years later and maturing in the 14th century. South of the Sahara, archaeological work had already, inadvertently, been done in the Thirties by a tin mining company which unearthed evidence of a 4th century BC Iron Age community at Nok in present day Nigeria.

The existence of such communities implied wealth, settlement, trade and the rise of powerful kingdoms, all of which provided Davidson with a riposte to men like H.E. Egerton, professor of colonial history at Oxford, who spoke in the Twenties of precolonial Africa as ‘a blank, uninteresting, brutal barbarism’, and his successor, Reginald Coupland, who argued that before the arrival of Livingstone, ‘Africa proper had no history.’ Davidson was unhappy with these ideas, although he concedes that his second major period, the transitional period, which he dates from 1600 for convenience, was marked as much by a failure of ‘Iron Age ideologies’ to find a way forward as it was by the ravages of European and Ottoman incursion, aggressive Islamic revivalism and the effects of slaving.

This periodisation, complex and qualified by regional variants, offers the general reader a series of reliable footholds in African history. At the same time, it seeks to redeem a past that was hostage to the assumptions and interests of European historiography. The striking thing about the age of transition – one can see it in detail on Davidson’s periodisation chart in an annex to his Africa in History (1966)– is that it runs for almost four hundred years, through most of the slaving era, all of the colonial period and the subsequent decades of decolonisation. (The final entry in the most recent edition is Namibian independence in 1990.) By the mid-Sixties, the ground that Davidson had covered was vast. The breadth of that work would have given anyone else an Olympian distance on the anti-colonial wars of Portuguese Africa, but in 1967 Davidson set out on the first of his visits to the liberation movements, equipped with an instinctive sympathy and a vivid precedent – historical and personal – derived from Yugoslavia.

In Special Operations Europe (1980), Davidson tells the story of his war years. He was almost twenty-five at the outbreak of war. Until then he had been something of a drifter, promoting Fyffes bananas in the Newcastle area, scribbling for a distinguished journal known as Quarry and Roadmaking – monthly circulation 600, ‘of which no more than 200 given away for advertising purposes’; he had disappeared briefly in eastern Europe and, later, during the phoney war, reported from Paris for the Economist. The feeling is of a restless character, ambitious for history to put him to the test, the more taxing the better. Perhaps as a result of his time in the Balkans, or of connections made during a brief stint in the Thirties as press secretary to the Parliamentary Liberal Party, Davidson was drafted into Section D, the forerunner of Special Operations Executive, and sent on a fruitless mission to Hungary. In April 1941, fleeing south from the German army, he and his fellow Balkanists ran into the Italians on the Dalmatian coast. They were transferred as POWs to Albania and then to Italy. Africa took an early hand in Davidson’s destiny: by June, the Italians had exchanged him and his colleagues for the Duke of Aosta, captured by the Allies in the Horn. Soon afterwards Davidson was flying east across the Sahel: ‘I saw Africa for the first time; and I was almost happy.’

The destination was Cairo, where Davidson was embroiled in an office war between advocates of the rival resistance groups in Yugoslavia. SOE in Cairo was steeped in controversy; Britain’s decision, in 1943, to support the partisans and, eventually, to jettison the Chetnik resistance, remains so. Two of the men who most influenced the switch, William Deakin and Fitzroy Maclean (‘a man,’ says Davidson, ‘who expected to be taken for what he was, and who, if not so taken, possessed a steely will to trample on offenders’) were persuaded of Tito’s efficacy. Davidson, by then acting head of SOE’s Yugoslav section, was against the Chetniks on the grounds that many units were ‘already in active and irreversible alliance with the enemy’. All three British officers were dropped into Yugoslavia in 1943. In his own book, The Embattled Mountain, Deakin praises Davidson’s account of that time, Partisan Picture (1946), as ‘an inspired historical record of the climate of the grass roots of Partisan war’.

Deakin himself was with Tito in the mountains of Montenegro, and both men were injured in the same, harrowing German encirclement. Being blooded at Durmitor made a profound impression on Deakin, whose ‘connoisseurship of struggle’ is more romantic, or in any case less restrained, than Davidson’s. When Tito’s men slipped through the German lines at Durmitor, Deakin and his comrades rode down into the plain, through the enemy dead and wounded. ‘Edging my horse among the bodies,’ Deakin remembers, ‘a flick of the rein would have avoided the trampling of the imploring shadows. But in our triumphant wrath and the explosion of our release, we crushed them ... The hallucination of riding in a Mongol horde was momentary.’

Davidson’s war was more down-to-earth, quite often literally. Within a few months of his arrival, he was assigned to probe the frontier lands of occupied Hungary, crossing from northern Yugoslavia, with a view to raising a Hungarian resistance. It was too tall an order, as he explains in Partisan Picture, but he remained with a contingent of partisans for many months, mobilising and recruiting in the plains of Vojvodina, between the Danube and the Sava. Most of the Vojvodina was ‘flat as a man’s hand, and almost as bare’; isolated from the other Liaison Officers and from the main partisan armies, Davidson would be moving beyond ‘liberated territory’ to places where the resistance was ‘at its weakest and most strained, with the roots still above the ground, and where, for that reason, the motives which drove men to resist were clearest’. In summer, the fighters hid in the maize unless it was ‘burned on the stalk’ to flush them out; they concealed themselves in earth holes, dug in woodland, river banks or peasant plots, where they would remain for hours, sometimes longer, wedged together ‘like concertinas in a cupboard’.

The conclusions Davidson drew from this period were of great relevance to his later work. There were atrocities and long moments of terror in the Vojvodina, but the useable truths were almost all political. Much of the partisans’ success, he wrote in Special Operations Europe, depended on ‘introducing the ideas and practices of an egalitarian democracy ... letting politics loose among the people became the only road to salvation.’ Tito’s programme was a search for common interests ‘that could unite the warring “national minorities” or “tribes” ’ of Yugoslavia, and win them over for a common struggle ‘against poverty, a profound fear and experience of injustice, police dictatorship, poor schools, few doctors, an arrogant bureaucracy ... As Amílcar Cabral in Africa was to say much later, but in comparable circumstances, any genuine liberation had to mean a revolution.’

In Davidson’s major work on Portuguese Africa, the lessons of Yugoslavia are taken as read. Dealing largely with the pre-independence period, it is a journalism of solidarity, or ‘motivating insight’ into the liberation movements of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, distilled from long conversations in London, and binding friendships with the leaders of the various groupings – Cabral especially – and from months of footslogging, between 1967 and 1975, down the guerrilla trails.

Most of Davidson’s writings on pre-independence Portuguese Africa concur with Cabral’s programme of revolution. The issue is to nurture and transform the base of support on which the movements depend. ‘Nothing useful could be done without that,’ he had written of the Vojvodina. He watches Cabral and his comrades starting up primary education in the bush; he is impressed by their resourcefulness and patience; he sees the purpose of a programme that can bring together ‘Balante and Mandinka, Nalu and Mandjak, Pepel and Fula’, just as he had seen its virtues in occupied Yugoslavia for ‘Serb, Croat, Slovene, Macedonian and the rest’. He has no quarrel with the various Marxisms adapted and espoused by the movements; they signal the cultivation of common discourse beyond kin and tribe, and serve to inhibit any narrow sense of nationalism that imagines success without a thorough social transformation.

‘Sympathies’, entirely devoted to the struggles against Portuguese rule, is one of the most interesting sections of The Search for Africa and marks a period of immense energy in the Sixties and Seventies. It is Davidson’s most ostensibly Marxist period – the vocabulary is used freely, yet it remains transparent to a rugged, unsentimental humanism, cast beyond the idea of nation and, on occasion, class. Far from home, marching under hostile skies patrolled by Nato planes, he is at ease among the guerrilla contingents and approves their tactics without reservation. It is a testing time but victory seems certain.

When the newly installed regimes began to founder after 1975, Davidson naturally went on the offensive against South Africa for its substantial part in the ruin of Mozambique and Angola. Through the remainder of the Seventies and much of the Eighties, he gave little away about the shortcomings of the liberation movements themselves, with their tendency to intrigue, dogma, repression, vanguardery of one kind or another and, when most of the people he loved were dead and gone, to self-enrichment. In The Black Man’s Burden, however, he speaks more generally about the shattered hopes of independence, bringing ‘peasant rejection’ of ‘centralism’ and ‘commandism’ into focus, and lamenting the descent of Guinea-Bissau into a semi-militaristic beggar state.

In The Search for Africa, he restates his aversion to Soviet influence on the continent, this time in relation to Mengistu’s Ethiopia, where ‘the failure in Africa of what was called “actually existing socialism” – essentially, a reflection of the acute centralism practised in the former Soviet Union – was made finally clear.’ But where these dismal experiments took place, there was every reason to challenge what he calls ‘actually existing capitalism’: ‘I myself think that history in due course may still evolve valid forms of socialism. But we have not seen them yet.’

These are the words of a patient man, but one who has been rewarded over the years. I met Davidson for the first time on the eve of the South African elections, to prepare for this article. He is generous, but not clubbish, with people who know some of his old African haunts; he was generous to me, last year, in this paper. There is always work to be done, he seems to believe, and no harm in encouraging people to do it. He spoke carefully but with an absence of self-regard and, because he is not a great believer in interviews, referred often enough to his books, which is where in the end he would want us to go. ‘History may be a branch of science,’ he remarked, ‘but insofar as I think of myself at all, which is as little as possible, I think of myself as a writer. To write well on an unreadable subject’ – African history – ‘is the great challenge.’

It was a propitious moment to pay a visit. The prospect of the polls in South Africa, where Davidson had reported for the Statesman even after his ban, was a pleasure to him, heightened by the sight of ‘what I’d broadly describe as the orthodox – those who were saying “those blacks” up until 1990 – unsaying themselves with an unseemly, Gadarene swineish rush.’ Eritrea, too, had clearly helped him through the dark years of the Eighties and Nineties. He had undertaken the gruelling journey via Sudan in 1988, at the age of 73 to see the results of a battle – Africa’s Dien Bien Phu, he called it – that had swung the conflict decisively against Mengistu. He returned, in happier circumstances, as a guest at the Eritrean independence celebrations last year.

Of his visit to the field, he remarked with satisfaction that the Eritreans ‘had that African feeling that old men are human’; of the celebrations, that they were most unlike his first independence ceremony, in Nigeria, when he had watched, in a Moss Bros dinner jacket, as the flag of Empire was lowered ‘with a great deal of spit and polish’ and several frenzied armoured cars shot off blanks in front of an anxious crowd. ‘Most untypical,’ he said of the Eritrean celebrations. ‘There were no military parades at all’ – the wounded led off, followed by groups of dancers and singers from the different ethnic groups.

Eritrea faces huge problems, of which Davidson is aware, but Angola poses the greater threat to his optimism. For people of the left, which would include Davidson – ‘Labour left, but written off as a Communist, of course’ – Angola must have had shades of Spain, beleaguered and betrayed. He will always argue, convincingly, that American policy in the run-up to Angola’s independence was unforgivable and, with conviction at least, that the MPLA might have done better had it not been so adroitly victimised by Washington and Pretoria in later years. ‘Are we therefore required to say,’ he asked, ‘that the MPLA is brilliant? ... It is only possible to look back on Soviet policy in Angola with supreme contempt, but the actions of Mr Henry Kissinger’ – Kissinger pushed through an extravagant destabilisation programme on the eve of independence – ‘must rank as one of the great political crimes of this century.’

In Angola a superpower conflict has given way to a civil war and, as that war now assumes an ethnic dimension, it is important to Davidson to remember, or perhaps commemorate, the non-racial, non-ethnic goals that Agostinho Neto and the MPLA were fighting for through the Sixties and Seventies, and after Neto’s death in 1979, for as long as South Africa had a force inside the country. Yet it cannot be easy. ‘The beehive is now so thoroughly overturned,’ he remarked – and later that afternoon: ‘I’m not a pacifist. People in World War Two died for a purpose. These people in Angola have died for nothing – for less than nothing – and nothing will be fertilised by it.’ He was reminded of ‘Dover Beach’ for the second time that day. Earlier he had thought of the poem in connection with the onset of the Cold War, when he was writing leaders for the Times. In that period, it evoked the sense of new tribulations descending after the briefest of respites – the same ‘grating roar of pebbles’ that he could hear again as he considered the Atlantic margin of Africa, where hope was racing momentarily beyond reach.

Even though he has admitted that the nation-state was the necessary mould in which African independence would have to be cast, Davidson’s reservations about nation-statism are very great. But is it is remarkable how far the model still embodies some of his strongest aspirations. The idea of a Unitary, democratic country to which all tribes, black and white, were bound, was after all the egg on which Mandela sat like a loyal ostrich for nearly thirty years on Robben Island – and it has hatched. Were South Africa to falter, the great sceptic of the nation-state would be better placed than anyone to take the long view.