The African Genius
Africa to 1875: A Modern History
Basil Davidson has long been the most effective popularizer of African history and archaeology outside Africa, and certainly the one best trusted in Black Africa itself. In The African Genius he has turned his historian’s eye to the question of what social anthropology has to add to the picture of the African past, and the result is the most serious and best integrated of all his books.
The great problem of anthropological literature is, of course, that often it lacks any sense of time at all. Until quite recently, most anthropologists deliberately cultivated the “synchronic” approach. In practice this meant that in searching for the social, moral, and ritual systems that were being heavily eroded by the outside influences of the colonial period, they reconstructed them by reference to some hypothetical point in time when it was assumed that they had been complete, integrated, and, by implication, static. As we all know, real life is not like that.
Nevertheless, anthropological literature forces the historian to think about areas of life which, in Africa at least, would otherwise escape his attention. Anthropology is concerned with the microcosm, with the life of the ordinary man in the ordinary small community. The recent descriptions by anthropologists of fifty or sixty such microcosms, spread across many and various ethnic groups and ecological backgrounds, tell the historian more than he will ever learn from other sources of what Davidson calls “the formative problems and solutions found by small groups faced with the destiny of peopling a large and physically testing continent.”
These anthropological studies show that peoples separated by vast distances have similar ideas, suggesting the same Stone Age sources—creation myths, for example. And for the Iron Age, consider the fundamental importance of lineage in a continent where even a century ago a substantial portion of each generation was engaged in opening up new lands for subsistence agriculture. The formative community of Iron Age times was a small group of related families in which a man without lineage was a man without citizenship. Lineage defined the social and economic group, and provided its history. The founding ancestors were those who in any given area had cut the bush and tested the soil and located the iron ore and the salt licks for cattle. They were those who had established “the saving rules of life,” which their descendants would ignore at their peril. Religion, too, was centered around them, for it was they who connected the living with the life force, the Creator.
The surviving examples of such lineage-based, chiefless societies are found today mainly in the less accessible areas, cut off and cut up by forests, swamps, or mountain ridges. The peoples inhabiting more accommodating terrain have mostly evolved toward statehood. States in precolonial Africa were of all sizes from a few thousand to a few million inhabitants, and there were halfway stages to statehood in which age groups or secret societies emerged to fulfill some of the functions of a central government. But even where small communities had been transformed into large states or far-flung empires, the age-old lineage-based units usually remained as the most real social and political groupings, dictating a basically federal conception of statehood while statehood lasted, and ready to resume local autonomy whenever the central power declined.
The dominance of the lineage unit meant that, even in the largest of the precolonial African states, the characteristic ethos was conservative, egalitarian, and therefore restrictive. “It drew its power,” Davidson writes, “from a struggle for the mastery of nature, formed and then enclosed by the precedents of experience…. The good of the individual was a function of the good of the community, not the reverse.” In all but a handful of the most favored localities, the difficulties of the environment were such that even the kings of large states were richer than their subjects only in their limited powers to distribute rewards and hospitality. The economic surplus was small, and the possibilities of accumulation negligible.
The early kings, at least, were sacred persons rather than rulers standing at the head of a privileged class. “What they did was to subsume in their persons the many ancestral powers formerly invested in a number of lineage leaders.” There were conquering kings in Africa as in Europe, but in Africa what they imposed was usually a light form of overrule, heavily modified by accommodation to the customs of the people among whom they settled.
Frontiers hardly existed, because the land was so sparsely occupied. Dissatisfied subjects could move away from the centers of power. Rulers had to compete for the allegiance of their peoples. And so down the long rivers of experience it was “the canoes of kinship and descent” which really counted, and Davidson has no doubt that they arrived at good destinations. “They passed wide reaches of calm water, where life became immemorially quiet and clear, so that later on, faintly remembering, men sighed for a golden age that nothing could regain.”
This is of course a romantic vision of a collectivist Eden in precolonial Africa, but it is broadly consistent with the anthropological material we have, and it probably has more truth in it than the stereotypes of savagery devised by self-interested White prejudice. What is interesting is that from here Davidson develops a more subtle and fuller account of Man’s first disobedience than appears in any of his earlier works. In The Lost Cities of Africa and Black Mother paradise clearly continued until the intrusion of Europe in the fifteenth century. This, rather than the nineteenth-century partition among the European powers, was seen as the beginning of imperialism and all evil. Now the worm is recognized to have been in the wood all along.
African kingship and clientage looked very familiar to the early Portuguese, and even in the middle of the continent, where no outside influences could be held responsible for the change, old equalities gradually gave way to new servitudes, social stratification deepened, kings ceased to be guardians of the ancestral charters and demanded larger revenues. Outside influences helped, particularly the long-distance intercontinental trade in gold and slaves, firearms, and manufactures. But basically the institutional crisis of modern Africa was the product of larger populations and closer settlement, leading to militarization, wars of conquest, and exploitation.
With all this one can broadly agree. What is puzzling is Davidson’s current idea that this turning from the peaceful struggle with nature to competition and violence among human groups was something which reached a sudden climax in the middle of the nineteenth century, only a few decades before the colonial partition. “If colonial invasion afterwards piled turmoil on confusion, the colonial invaders were absent from the beginning of the drama.” Had he been talking of the revolution in precision firearms which reached Africa at this point in history, the remark would be understandable. But in fact he is talking of a “disturbed ecological balance,” which caused African societies to become “the victims of their own past successes.”
This to me is unintelligible. To me it seems plain that by the mid-nineteenth century African political structures were no longer adequate to contain the disruptive forces let loose by the growth of long-distance trade—particularly the soaring trade in firearms—which was pressing into the interior of the continent from all sides. The intrusive forces included Europeans, Arabs, Indians, and Zanzibaris, as well as large numbers of black Africans operating as traders, raiders, and conquerors far from their home districts. From this time on it was simply a question of whether these forces should operate autonomously or whether they should be controlled and directed by the governments of the great powers. It is arguable that, far from piling turmoil on confusion, these governments gave Africa fifty years of peace in which to begin to adjust itself to the modern world. If the ecological balance was disturbed, this was not until the twentieth century, and it arose mainly from the great population increase brought about by Western medicine and the colonial peace.
It would probably be fair to say that the twentieth-century chapters of this book derive more from the author’s political opinions than from his study of earlier African history. Davidson makes no secret of the fact that his interest in Africa began with a commitment to the anti-colonial struggle, in the expectation that independence would lead Africa much further to the left than it has so far gone. Like other disappointed apostles of the left, he seeks his explanations in the colonial period, and the result, at least in my view, is a distinctly limited view of the most exciting and revolutionary period in African history so far.
Like Davidson, Robin Hallett has already established a reputation as a distinguished writer of English prose. Taken by itself, however, this first of two volumes on the history of Africa is somewhat unsatisfactory. Hallett has tried to be more comprehensive than his predecessors in the field, but at the sacrifice of the wide interpretative comment on which every large work of history must depend. Indeed, a word which recurs every few pages is “complexity,” often accompanied by the adjective “true.” Complexity is a strange ideal for a historian, whose art largely consists in selection and simplification. Certainly it is an impossible ideal in a work of popular synthesis, and the main fault of Hallett’s book is that it has too many scenes, too short in themselves and too little linked one with another.
He goes round the continent twice—first in a series of historical summaries, and again in a survey of African politics in the mid-nineteenth century—and the result is a relentless and exhausting sequence of thousand-word vignettes, which dazzle but do not stick. One might add that the bibliography is too large even for the most serious student, whereas the notes are inadequate, and the use of sources is often strangely uncritical. His history has the feature, so painful in school histories, of summarizing tentative or exploded data with far more certainty than the uncited original source. It is noticeable that while Davidson takes wide liberties of interpretation, he never loses the sense of a search in progress: Hallett takes too much as settled that is still wide open.
Despite these faults of presentation, however, Hallett’s perspective on African history is clearly a sound one. He does not romanticize the African past, but he has a thoroughly compassionate understanding of the environmental difficulties which the Africans had to overcome, and which they surmounted well enough to check intruders from more fortunate worlds until the Industrial Revolution was well under way. His earlier, brilliant work on the history of African exploration has given him a better command of the North African scene than is usual among historians of Africa, and his matter-of-fact presentation of the early colonial settlements in West and South Africa along with other power centers in the same regions is a particularly happy device. Above all, despite Africa’s long earlier history, he is right to have devoted half of this volume to the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century. Now that half of the historians of Africa are engaged in pushing back the chronological limits of African traditional history, while the other half are joining forces with the political scientists in studies of the colonial period, the nineteenth is rapidly becoming the most neglected century. And yet as Davidson now realizes (even if, perhaps, for the wrong reasons), it is the crucial period, without which so much of the older history becomes irrelevant, and so much of contemporary history unintelligible. In one sense this book may try to say too much, and in another it may say too little that is new, but one ends it with the feeling that the groundwork has been laid for a much more satisfactory second volume.
Bias? February 25, 1971