‘Do they eat people here much still?’ ‘Rarement. Très Rarement.’

R.W. Johnson

At Thomas Hodgkin’s memorial service, in 1982, Christopher Hill, formerly Master of Balliol, used the pulpit of the college chapel to give an address entirely free of religious reference, quite a feat in view of Hodgkin’s Quaker roots and Hill’s status as historian of the Puritan revolution. ‘God was dead all right when you wrote that speech,’ I said to Hill afterwards. ‘God died in the middle of the 17th century,’ he solemnly replied. The part of the address I remember best was Hill’s description of Hodgkin – like Hill a sophisticated Marxist – returning to Balliol in the 1960s and becoming the much-loved friend of even the most conservative fellows. ‘He showed a tolerance not just for the more right-wing fellows but even for the outright reactionaries which I, for one,’ Hill observed, ‘found deeply shocking.’ Hodgkin was endowed with an almost unlimited gift for friendship and had a sweetness of disposition and a sense of humour which almost no one could resist.

These qualities are amply represented in this collection of letters from Hodgkin’s first travels in Africa, which resulted in his classic works, Nationalism in Colonial Africa (1956) and African Political Parties (1961). At a time when others had not begun to treat with full seriousness Africa’s rejection of colonial rule, Hodgkin wandered across the continent, chatting to camel drivers and future presidents, missionaries and marabouts. He avoided planes, travelling by choice on boats, trains, camels and the backs of lorries – not just because he always operated on a shoestring but because he felt he learned more that way.

Usually when fifty-year-old documents about Africa are brought to light, one has to make allowance for language which now seems embarrassing: talk of male domestic servants as ‘boys’, for example. There is none of that here. Thomas treated everyone as his equal. ‘Just had a friendly word with the nightwatchman,’ he writes from Enugu, Nigeria. ‘He walks around with a bow and arrow in case of thieves.’ From Rabat he writes of the ceremony that accompanied the Sultan of Morocco’s reception of King Feisal of Iraq: ‘though not (as you know) much in favour of Kings and Queens in general’, he mingles with the crowd, which was, ‘of course, a good deal more interesting than the royal procession’.

One of the best passages describes Hodgkin’s epic trip into Mali by camel in 1952. ‘My main problem is to make my camel trot. I seem to remember difficulties over that in Sinai in 1936.’ Making the camel lie down is also a problem.

This is done by dropping the cord, beating his head with a stick and talking to him gently. It doesn’t always come off. Also the worst crime is to lose one’s stick. It’s like losing one’s oar at rowing. By tradition one is fined a sheep for doing it (I did it three times I’m ashamed to say).

He developed a warm admiration for his guide, Mohammed Abdullah.

Of course it’s notorious that Englishmen love Bedus because they will behave as if they’ve been to the best public schools. But, even allowing for this, M.A. was a truly admirable chap . . . We had a nice conversation about England last night. How much do rifles cost? What sort of game is there? How many of the English are nomads? (Answer a few thousands.)

Finally, they arrive in the dying Saharan town of Walata – the next water 18 days away, the next inhabited settlement, Taodini (the ‘city of salt’), 27 days away. Hodgkin, inevitably, finds that the town’s Muslim elite reminds him of ‘any Oxford (male) Senior Common Room. Highly civilised donnish characters, whose life seems to be spent almost entirely in food and prayer, and remembrance of things past.’ When he chances on a black lawyer violently opposed to Nkrumah, the man is ‘obviously a Girondin of the most property and class-conscious kind’, while a frustrated teacher near Kumasi is ‘like the young Russian intellectuals in the novels of Turgenev’.

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