Some thirty-five years ago, H.R. Trevor- Roper—in a moment of condescension that quickly became notorious—declared to an audience on the BBC: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness….”1 Trevor-Roper had not then been ennobled as Lord Dacre of Glanton; but if he spoke without the authority of the peerage, his pronouncement still came, as it were, ex cathedra, from the podium of the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.
Professor Trevor-Roper’s argument was not, as he insisted immediately, that nothing had happened in Africa. It was (to use an old distinction) African history as disciplina that he was declining to acknowledge, not the goings-on—the res gestae—of the African past. “I do not deny that men existed in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists,” he hastened to add. No, the reason that the African past had nothing to teach us was that the discipline of history had “a purpose. We study it… to discover how we have come to be where we are.” In a world entirely dominated by “European techniques, European examples, European ideas,” this high purpose could best be achieved by the study of the European past. History, he seemed to say, is the story of the winners: and we have won.2
Hugh Trevor-Roper is an uncommon historian, but in his remarks on African history he was thinking with the crowd. Even the implicit exclusion from Africa of the great civilizations of the Nile is part of a long-entrenched European common attitude. Africa was tropical Africa, black Africa, tribal Africa, Africa without written records: it was the Africa that Hegel, in the Philosophy of History, had said was not a “historical continent” because it showed no development, no progress. So Professor Trevor-Roper was echoing here in plain Anglo-Saxon the idea that Hegel had expressed in high Teutonic when he asserted that real history was the story of the Idea, the progressive unfolding of the meaning of Being. In Africa, societies come and go, there are (in the Regius Professor’s phrase) “battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations,” but it is all meaningless because it has no direction.
Yet even Herodotus, the father of Trevor-Roper’s disciplina, would have challenged these easy certainties. In fact, there are more written sources than were dreamt of in Hegel’s philosophy. Herodotus traveled as far south as present-day Aswan and told us something of Meroë (whose own language has still not been deciphered), a city whose glory days were not to come for another two centuries. Then there is a vast quantity of Egyptian records, many of them older than any European texts.3 There are also scraps of information about Africa in Hebrew in the Book of Kings; and the range of Greek and Latin sources increases rapidly.
Starting about halfway through the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.