Basil Davidson

Basil Davidson is an honorary fellow of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is the author of West Africa before the Colonial Era.

In Canto Four of Camões’s 16th-century epic, as Vasco da Gama and the men of his fleet prepare to embark on their conquest of the Golden East, ‘an old man of venerable appearance’ steps down to the quayside of Belem. Solemnly, if fruitlessly, he warns against their enterprise of imperialist piracy:‘

The Cruel Hoax of Development

Basil Davidson, 6 March 1997

Those who wander in the great forests of the African tropics do not always manage, like Conrad’s storyteller, to make it home again, and the likelihood of their ending in terminal disaster has become greater than it used to be. Whether threatened populations in these forests and their neighbouring savannahs can still be sheltered from destruction, or even self-destruction, is pretty much an open question. Against this now customary pessimism, optimists, such as the authors of these books, argue that the long process of imperialist dispossession has begun to give way to another, contrary process and that Africa’s peoples are retaking possession of themselves.

Goodbye to Some of That

Basil Davidson, 22 August 1996

In the west cloister of Westminster Abbey a modest plaque is about to be unveiled. It will be a memorial to the volunteers of our Special Operations Executive, otherwise forgotten, who were killed in action between 1939 and 1946, murdered by the enemy after capture, or failed to get home again. It is fairly much a private occasion and has taken some time to come about: the wonder is that it has come about at all. Fifty-eight years have passed since Major Lawrence Grand launched his ‘Section D’ in a niche of the old War Office, which had concluded, quite privately in the wake of the Munich sell-out of the Czechs, that a war with Hitler’s Germany would be unavoidable, in which case several European countries east of Germany would be overrun by the Wehrmacht, and steps should now be taken, even at these many minutes after midnight, to discover and support friends in those countries who might continue resistance – but the word came into use only with the thing itself – after invasion. So it was proposed, and was going to be done.’

Misunderstanding Yugoslavia

Basil Davidson, 23 May 1996

Someone was heard complaining, the other day, about the ‘absurd confusions’ of the recent war in the Balkans. Very well: but why absurd? Or when have such confusions been anything save absurd? In this respect, at any rate, the unmaking of Yugoslavia can be seen as par for the course. It happened to me on a chill April morning, 55 years ago, to be sitting by a roadside outside Belgrade waiting for transport during another absurd confusion. Nothing at all had damaged me, which was quite fortunate, for a few hours earlier during that morning’s bombing I had been sheltering in the cellars of the Hotel Majestic, as it was pleased to call itself, along the way from the Kalemegdan Fortress. Now I was outside the city on the old road going south into Bosnia, and Belgrade behind me hovered beneath a shroud of dust and smoke as Hitler’s bombers swung into their stride again. Having begun at dawn, they would continue until late the next day, there being nothing to stop them. Thousands of Belgrade citizens and others with them were dead or about to die: as many as 17,000 according to a subsequent estimate. Other thousands were walking south in a blind search for their army, for any fighting unit they could join. Two such men had come to a halt beside me. They were in loud and angry argument. The younger of them was cursing as only enraged Serbs know how to curse. Their defenceless city should never have been reduced to ruins. But, criminally, it had been – and by whose fault? He cursed the generals and their political bosses. He cursed all manner of traitors, cowards, fools, whoever. I felt for him – who wouldn’t, as things were? – but the other man tried to comfort him. To me very memorably, even in that highrise confusion, this other man said: ‘We’ll find the Army. We’ll reach it even if we have to go to Greece, to go as far as Solun’ – as far as distant Salonika to which an earlier army had retreated in 1914, during the Great War against the Austrians and their emperor, Franz Joseph.’

With Gods on Their Side

Basil Davidson, 7 September 1995

Long-term ‘endings of an era’ tend nowadays to be announced with remarkable confidence. This may even be the case with an issue as controversial as the ending of territorial imperialism, truly a large affair. Yet there is much to suggest that it is ending, and the appearance of two large histories of Christianity in Africa, the first of their kind on any such scale, can be seen as another signal of this: a summing-up has evidently come to seem possible as well as desirable. Christianity will of course continue, and today in Africa there are immensely more Christians than ever before; but its assumptions will no longer be the same. The unconverted heathen, on a missionary perspective, are now resident in Britain, not in Borrioboola Gha.

On Rwanda

Basil Davidson, 18 August 1994

Africa tramples in its misery and blood, and commentators are left to chant dismay. I share this dismay, but is explanation possible? As in Rwanda now, these are disasters which repeat themselves, and for Rwanda, as for its Siamese twin Burundi, which has lately suffered much the same, the useful words seem all used up. Even so, there have to be sensible answers.

The Motives of Mau Mau

Basil Davidson, 24 February 1994

British and American writing about Africans seems generally to suppose that its audience is interested in reading about Africans, but this supposition goes against the evidence. Distinguished writers continue to publish books that are presented as being about Africans, but are in fact about ‘us’ in Africa. While natural to an age of imperialism, this approach becomes awkward in an age (if, of course, we have got there) which may wish to read about ‘them’ in terms other than those of Eurocentric romance.


Basil Davidson, 9 September 1993

‘In olden times, which is when God was deciding what blessings he would give to the countries he was creating, after a long while he finally got to Angola and he asked Gabriel his angel to remind him where Angola was, because he’d forgotten. “Angola?” said Gabriel. “Angola’s down there some place, nobody’s been there yet.” And so …’ This was Petrov telling a story as we sat around a bivouac fire in May 1970, somewhere in the flat lands east of Muié (which is south of Luso, which is ‘some place down there’), so as to explain the wrongful reputation given to his people, the Angolans, by their neighbours in Southern Africa. Although his own language is Kimbundu, he was speaking Portuguese for my benefit, but an Angolan Portuguese that the others would mostly understand. Petrov is neither Bulgarian nor any kind of Slav but a thoroughly African Angolan from Ambriz on the Atlantic seaboard, a man of many modern virtues and various experience. The luck of the draw in the late Fifties, the days of ‘scholarships to Europe’, had steered him to Slavlands, ‘where they called me Petrov because they couldn’t get hold of my name, that’s how it was.’

Lutfi’s bar will not be opening again

Basil Davidson, 7 January 1993

North beyond Sarajevo is where the hills of Bosnia become less grey and gaunt than they are elsewhere, and a little further north again they slope away to the plain of Semberija along the Sava River. It is a pleasant enough country in normal times although a hungry one, with its peasants inhabiting scattered hamlets and family homesteads. There are also some famous old towns such as Travnik and Gradacac and Tuzla, a good deal modernised since about 1960 but otherwise unchanged in their Muslim loyalties and love of talk and strong laughter, or so it was until the ‘ethnic cleansers’ arrived a year ago. This is the region where British troops guarding UN convoys began work in November, an unenviable duty at the best of times and now we are in the worst of times; may they enjoy good luck, for there will be little else to enjoy. But if ever they have time to lift their eyes from the horror now imposed by Serb and Croat killers of Bosnian civility, they will be moved by this majestic landscape with its long slow spines lifting away on every side, Maglaj and Majevica: brda joj se plave, ‘where hills climb high into the blue’, as the peasants in my time there used to sing. And if they have a taste for reading history, as soldiers often do, they can turn when they come home again – which one has to hope will be soon – to the novels of Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina and The Chronicle of Travnik, Bosnia’s Waverley and Redgauntlet, and learn about ‘how it used to be’ in this remote and peaceful province of the Stambul Sultan’s empire, while savouring the conversation of Hamdi Beg’s coevals in anciently remembered bars such as Lutfi’s kafana, now reduced from fame to bloodstained ruin.’

Torday’s Scorpion

Basil Davidson, 9 April 1992

I was attracted to the alleged possibility of a pre-colonial historiography of tropical Africa rather more than forty years ago, when thinking about a book entitled On the Trail of the Bushongo, the latter not being a rare quadruped, as I had at first thought when opening the book, but an equatorial tribe or people of whom I had not previously heard tell. The author, Emil Torday, turned out to have been a Hungarian; he meant even less to me, but his book proved interesting. Published in 1925 but drawing on oral records collected some seventeen years earlier, it boldly advanced the view that pre-literate communities as remote and obscure as the Kuba (of whom the Bushong are a branch), whom Torday had found living along the Sankuru river in the veritable heart of Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’, could be said to possess a knowable and even notable history of their own social and political development. Unsurprisingly in the Europe of those times the book appears to have made no mark; and Torday’s employers in the Leopoldian Congo Free State, then about to become the Belgian Congo colony, were men of solidly commercial good sense. They must have thought the claim absurd in so far as they may have noticed it, and after them the colonial decades soon thoroughly established history in equatorial Africa as having begun, in any sense to be taken seriously, with the advent of Christianity as well as Commerce during the 1840s.

Dying Africa

Basil Davidson, 11 July 1991

Africa? But Africa is dying … Or certainly the nation-state in Africa is dying wherever it is not already dead – see Chad, Sudan, Somalia – while dragging multitudes of starving or sorely wounded people into disaster such as the continent has never seen before, and on a scale that is hard even to imagine. Immediate arena of these evils, the post-colonial nation-state has become in most cases a fragile shell of exploded aspirations, a constitutional garbage-can of shattered loyalties, or a cemetery of projects without a future. There may be leaders who still believe that patience and courage can save the day for the sovereignties they claim to govern. In other cases, more numerous, governments without talent and politicians without conscience wade ever deeper into the miseries of failure.

Bad Habits

Basil Davidson, 27 June 1991

The notion that war can be carried on without crime is as novel, I suppose, as the companion notion that the crime should afterwards be punished by legal process: the first idea has encouraged the second, or, more probably, the desire for the second has promoted the illusion of the first. Both are in any case gaining support. ‘lt is not too late,’ Britain’s chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Lord Shawcross, was writing the other day, in the tone of those who state the self-evident, since when other voices have echoed him, ‘to insist on the surrender of Saddam to be tried for his crimes.’ I am all for getting rid of the malodorous Saddam, but would trying him for his crimes of war, however monstrous these have been, constitute a good thing for the world, morally: meting out punishment while assuaging pain and anger? Is there in answer to this a useful guide to be drawn from war crimes’ trials already held, or currently projected? British law, as Shawcross reminds us, although with what sounds like regret, is about to be altered ‘so as to permit the trial of a handful of old men’ long resident here but now accused of war crimes in the Europe of half a century ago. Do the Nuremberg trials therefore constitute a precedent to be followed to the world’s advantage? Doesn’t the concept of war crimes rather go to reinforce the conceptual possibility of crimeless war, and is this to be welcomed?

Righteous Turpitudes

Basil Davidson, 27 September 1990

Ever since the Trojan Horse, the telling of lies in wartime has been found honourable, along with the bedevilment of enemies and the invocation of gods, and has been practised more or less cheerfully by persons who would otherwise assert in all conscience that they had never told, or ever would tell, anything but the truth. Courage and hardware may win wars, but cunning deception is just as surely a helpful friend. And this erasure of guilt for indulgence in ‘double standards’ has suited all sides and combatants, is quite in line with the manichaean ferocities of war, especially of big-scale war, and has proved altogether desirable in times of ideological strife. The removal of any obligation to refrain from deceit has generally survived, in the wake of any great war, as a widely-tolerated legacy of sanctioned economy with truth. When this or that authority has ‘lied to the House of Commons’ since 1945, he or she has been drawing on this legacy while standing on the family hearth as a model of veracity.

On the Stambul Train

Basil Davidson, 28 June 1990

If the sovereign nation-state is truly nearing the end of its useful life, as political philosophers here in Western Europe now seem ready to persuade us, so that regional unities of one kind of another may replace it to the general good, the tendency looks far more problematical further east. Resounding nationalism, or rather nation-statism, the two being by no means necessarily the same thing, is what presently appears to reign from Lithuania to the Black Sea or further east again, and from Slovenia to Albania by way of a newly abrasive ‘Serbianism’. The Bluntschlis of the 1990s, romantic or otherwise, may even now be sharpening their sabres, or at any rate their wits, at the prospect of another bout of Balkan wars. The traveller on the Stambul train will expect adventures. It may be so.



22 August 1996

The defection of the Serbian Chetnik commanders in 1942 was a serious matter for the Allies: only they, at that time, could have taken effective action against enemy communications with North Africa. They failed to do this, and most of them began to help the enemy instead. This turnabout was a grim blow to the anti-Nazi cause, and led to the British military and political decision, taken initially...

Serbian Traditions

7 January 1993

David Westover must not be afraid (Letters, 28 January): I endured Yugoslavia for far too long to have become biased in favour either of Croatian or of Serbian nationalism. For the rest he appears to want a personal polemic; and in this I have no interest. As to Novi Sad’s Magyar minority I have some reason to know about them, no doubt a good deal more than he has, having been obliged during...
Basil Davidson writes: Experience with Chetnik apologists (usually non-Yugoslav, the native ones have some sense of shame) has long shown that rational discussion with them is fruitless. This correspondent is manifestly unaware of the vast bibliography of the subject, but is in no way dissuaded by this from joining irrelevant claim to squalid insult (as in his remarks on a book of mine of 1945). I...
With delay I notice a letter in your issue of 13 September that calls for a few words. Your correspondent, writing as a student of Romania, upbraids me for not having written about Romania when reviewing for you a book about wartime Macedonia. He should continue his studies: there was no Romanian presence in Macedonia, one of the great blessings upon which that usually unfortunate country has been...

The Partisan

Jeremy Harding, 23 June 1994

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...

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Who’s to blame?

Kathryn Tidrick, 25 February 1993

For a few years in the mid-Seventies I lived in Tanzania, my husband being at the time one of the horde of expatriate ‘advisers’ who flocked there hoping to be of service to...

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People’s War

John Ellis, 19 February 1981

Soon, no doubt, some statistician of the absurd will tell us that the tonnage of books about the Second World War has finally exceeded the weight of ammunition expended in its course. On the face...

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