‘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’.

Thomas belonged to the Quaker intellectual aristocracy. His father was provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, his grandfather Master of Balliol, his aunt Principal of Somerville. One radical Hodgkin had written a diary of the French Revolution, which he’d observed in Paris, another had discovered Hodgkin’s disease. One of his cousins won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and so did his wife, Dorothy: I remember extraordinary dinners, when I was his student, at which young children would be chided for dismantling and playing with the parts of the molecular model of insulin that Dorothy had built.

It is all caught up in my mind with Thomas insistently pouring claret into my glass while deliberately embarrassing some horn-rimmed Dorothy-admirer from Texas by demanding to know what sort of thing was discussed at his Party cell in Austin. When the academic put on a cheesy, non-committal grin Thomas would press home his advantage, asking whether there was yet an American International Brigade that he could join to fight American imperialism in Vietnam. To protestations of ignorance, Thomas would reply that he was sure Professor So-and-So would be the first to enlist once it was set up. As he got older, Thomas felt increasingly that one ought to rejoin the Party and attain a state of political grace before one met the terminal situation, whatever that was.

You couldn’t take Hodgkin’s political views for granted, however. He could be equally difficult with Stalinists. And when Peter Hain’s group, Stop the Seventy Tour, led local anti-apartheid activists to dig up the cricket pitch in the Oxford Parks so as to sabotage the university match against the Springboks, Hodgkin was asked over and over again to sign a petition to get the university to revoke the sanctions aimed at the pitch-diggers. No one could have been more anti-apartheid than Hodgkin but he refused. ‘Something about grass,’ he would explain.

What is missing from this (otherwise extremely well edited) collection is a snapshot at least of Hodgkin’s political career. Not long after going down from Oxford he went to Palestine to serve as an aide-de-camp to Sir Arthur Wauchope, High Commissioner of the mandated area. He was appalled to find Jews and Arabs at each others’ throats, a situation which he felt the policies of the Administration in which he served exacerbated. The only organisation he could find in which the two communities mixed as friends and equals was the Communist Party – which he surreptitiously joined. When he resigned from his job on a matter of principle, the Administration, furious that secrets from the High Commissioner’s office might be leaked to the Party, expelled him from Palestine. Thomas went underground until, disguised as an Arab, he slipped into Syria.

Back in England he took up a career in adult education, but was dogged by his Party associations and regularly accused of harbouring political activists masquerading as tutors within the Oxford Extra-Mural Delegacy which he ran. Indeed, his assistant Frank Pickstock told me that he was put into the Delegacy by the authorities with the task of listening to Hodgkin’s phone calls and reading his letters – the aim being to purge all Communists from the organisation. The trouble was that Ernest Bevin had publicly accused the Delegacy of fomenting industrial strife at the car plant in Cowley, the university had panicked and, in league with the usual Cold Warriors, set about ‘reforming’ the Delegacy. Pickstock recalled with particular pleasure how one unfortunate Party member had not merely been sacked but hurled down a flight of stairs. Hodgkin began his journeys to Africa in order to extend the Delegacy’s work into that region but then abandoned the vipers’ nest the Delegacy had become and just roamed the continent as a freelance journalist. He was to don Arab disguise again in order to live with the FLN guerrillas in Algeria, where he met Frantz Fanon. By the time I got to know him in 1965 in his second incarnation as a Balliol don he would dismiss these exploits. ‘The main thing is to observe history. That’s what I was doing,’ he would always explain. But the authorities – university and others – were always conscious that Thomas was an academic pas comme les autres and treated him with a certain amount of paranoia.

The letters here refer continually to the extreme suspicion Hodgkin’s wanderings excited in the colonial authorities. Everywhere he went, the adult education courses he set up would be carefully scrutinised as possible centres of subversive influence. This is why he had to battle with the British authorities in the Gold Coast over a lecture he was due to give on ‘Problems of Modern Govt’, why his journeys into French Africa were watched by French intelligence and why the Portuguese refused absolutely to let him set foot in Guinea. While these letters are free of anti-colonial rhetoric, there’s never any doubt which side he’s on. He couldn’t bear the colonial assumptions of the other African authority of the day, Margery Perham. ‘I’ve now finished Margery Perham on Ethiopia,’ he writes from Rwanda, ‘a curiously bad book – she’s such a schoolmistress – and never tries, I think, to see what’s going on from inside.’ Hodgkin always wanted to know what it felt like ‘from inside’ and this led him to very different conclusions. ‘I’d rather be a giraffe than an African in Nairobi,’ he writes.

That said, many of the warmest portraits in these letters have no connection with the nationalist politicians he meets: the radical Moroccan, Ben Barka; the future Nigerian President, Azikiwe (‘a nice man, though a bit of a megalomaniac, I think’); the future President of Congo-Brazzaville, Abbé Fulbert Youlou (‘good medieval name’); or Kwame Nkrumah. It’s the colonial officials, missionaries, teachers and doctors who stick in one’s mind. ‘Staying with Methodists at Mfantsipim School,’ he writes from Cape Coast, ‘very friendly and kind but rather Methodist.’ He meets a master at Komenda College called Mr Wonderful Geolampius Chlorofine Dadson who, Thomas explains, was born to his father unexpectedly in old age. (‘“Dadson” = simply dad’s son – “Geolampius” presumably = “the light of the world” – “Chlorofine” untranslatable (to me) – but it sounds scientific and grand!’) In Enugu he stays with a Dr Savage:

a very intelligent Creole (partly Scotch). He seems to find himself growing more British as he gets older, while I find myself growing more African. He told stories of his ancestors – who came back to the Gold Coast from North America – freed slaves – including his grandfather, a prosperous trader, called Buck Savage . . . They were very English indeed these immigrant Creoles . . . went on the grand tour – bought Victorian plush furniture and so forth.

In Cameroun he stays with the District Commissioner, ‘living in a great German Schloss on the top of a hill, with antelopes’ heads and a signed photograph of von Moltke’. In Burundi he stays at a Catholic mission and finds himself feasting on red wine, hors d’oeuvres, soup, meat, coffee cream gateaux and tangerines. Drinking beer with another divine in Côte d’Ivoire he asks: ‘Do they eat people here much still?’ ‘Rarement, très rarement,’ the priest replies. In Bamako Hodgkin falls ill, is told he has malaria, ‘le paludisme’: ‘sounds like an early Christian heresy,’ he sighs.

Reading about these encounters now fills me with nostalgia for a world that has disappeared. And sometimes the accounts seem a little eerie. Here, for example, are Hodgkin’s early impressions of Nkrumah: ‘He seems an altogether admirable person, with very sound ideas. Also approachable and friendly.’ Casely Hayford, a liberal lawyer who was a minister in Nkrumah’s first government tells Hodgkin that ‘Kwame Nkrumah had the complete loyalty and affection of all of them, and what a wonderful experience it was to be working in this team.’ Hodgkin is charmed and amused when he meets the Assistant Propaganda Secretary of Nkrumah’s party, who sings hymns and then the party version of the creed – beginning: ‘I believe in Kwame Nkrumah’ – and when everyone gives the party salute and cries out the party watchword which is ‘Freedom’. All this, as we now know, was to end in despotism, corruption and decay.

At several points the editors remark that Hodgkin was writing as colonialism was dying. But you could also say that the Africa through which he travelled represented the apogee of the colonial era: there were no wars, everything worked (more or less), countries were developing quickly and new, educated elites were coming to the fore. Forty years on from Africa’s independence you could not repeat Hodgkin’s journeys: they would take you through zones of war, famine and genocide, through countries which have gone backwards, looted and almost destroyed by the nationalist elites which came to power in them. The killing, devastation and waste of the last four decades have been too great for it any longer to be possible to regard those years as merely a messy period through which the continent had to pass before things got better. It’s not just that in many African countries things are not getting better, but that the means of recovery from past disasters have themselves been sapped. The continent is on the verge of an Aids epidemic which could reduce the population by as much as a quarter as well as producing mass famine and truncating economic and social growth. How can institutions grow, how can development take place, how can there even be a sense of history in a society where adults die in their prime, leaving mainly old people and young children? And Africa, more than anywhere else in the world, is helpless before this plague. If the continent is to be saved it can only be with intervention from outside. And that intervention may have to be so comprehensive that it amounts to little less than informal recolonisation.

This throws a strange new light on the decolonisation process which Africa went through – and which, in most cases, must now be judged a failure. It may be that de Gaulle had the right idea. His notion was that Francophone Africa should accede to full self-government but, stopping short of complete independence, should leave defence and foreign affairs in French hands. The key point was that such a formula would allow these countries to continue to receive large amounts of French aid in every sphere, to stay in the franc zone and thus have hard currencies, while French troops could guarantee stability in the last resort. The notion was extremely attractive to most Francophone African leaders: they had all benefited from the colonial policy of assimilation, found French civilisation attractive and were conscious that overseas territories such as Martinique and Guadeloupe drew such enormous advantages from their continued association with France.

What killed de Gaulle’s idea was Ghana’s independence and the determination of every other Anglophone African territory to follow where Ghana had led. This meant that any African leader who accepted anything less than independence would be branded a sell-out. Although the Francophone African leaders (minus Sekou Touré) accepted de Gaulle’s Franco-African Community in 1958, by 1960 it had broken up under these pressures.

Why was British Africa different? Hodgkin’s letters make it clear enough: everywhere he goes in British colonial Africa he meets a burning resentment against the ‘colour bar’: by which, he explains, is meant the economically privileged position of the tiny white administrative class but, even more important, the strong sense of social exclusivity around that group. The black elites of British Africa were never offered the assimilationist possibilities that saw Senghor and Houphouet-Boigny rise to play executive roles in French governments: instead, they were told, in effect, that Africans were different and even in their own countries, must remain forever faces pressed up against the windowpane, looking in. There can be little doubt that this unsustainable policy was derived from a simple transposition of British class attitudes onto the colonies: the British governing elite enjoyed social exclusivity at home and expected it abroad. This was, in the end, politically explosive.

The fact remains that Africa now – and for the foreseeable future – still needs Europe’s assistance if present disaster is to be prevented from becoming a huge continental tragedy. The poor people of Sierra Leone know this when they greet British troops with joy and beg them to stay, as do African elites when they make repeated demands for a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’. The problem is that Europe will not give large transfusions of capital on the buckshee terms black elites want and the latter resent the political (‘democracy and good governance’) as well as economic conditions Western donors seek to impose. Since Europe can just walk away this impasse can be broken only by Africa’s elites coming to terms but this they are loath to do, preferring instead to make utopian demands that the entire world financial system be ‘restructured’ so as to give them what they want. While this stand-off continues Africa burns.

It is difficult to read the Hodgkin letters now without such heretical thoughts flitting through one’s mind. It is a sad truth that the colonial world they conjure up so vividly was a happier place than the one many Africans live in today. In the end the great botched job of decolonisation may have to be revisited, however painful the thought. Were Hodgkin to read all this he would snort and quote something devastating that a marabout or camel driver had said to him about those who commit certain sins. But then again he cared – really cared – about what happened to African people in a way that, unhappily, few of their leaders do; and, invariably and quite reliably, he was on the side of the heretics.