Africa back in focus

Monday Review

March 21, 1994|By Gregory P. Kane

THE SEARCH FOR AFRICA: HISTORY, CULTURE, POLITICS. By Basil Davidson. Random House. 373 pages. $25.

BASIL Davidson published his first book about Africa in 1953. Since then the journalist and historian has contributed numerous works about ancient, medieval and modern African history to the wealth of Afrocentric literature now available.

His "Lost Cities of Africa," published in 1959, described the glorious medieval African cities of Kilwa, Timbuktu, Jenne and Benin. The book gave details of the elegance and magnificence of the ancient Kushite city of Meroe -- an "Athens in Africa," Dr. Davidson called it.

In "The African Slave Trade," he wrote of the horrors of trans-Atlantic slavery and the external forces that gave rise to it.

His travels with guerrilla forces led by Amilcar Cabral, of what was for a long time Portuguese Guinea, were chronicled in "The Liberation of Guinea."

Dr. Davidson's book that preceded this one -- "The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State," was published in 1992. In it Dr. Davidson suggested that the problems of contemporary African nations may have been inevitable when the European concept of a nation-state was imposed on Africans struggling for independence from colonialism.

"The Search for Africa" is Dr. Davidson's 25th book about Africa -- quite an impressive resume for a British white man nearly 80 years old.

In his prior works he disputed and corrected much nonsense written and espoused by historians of Africa. This book is no exception.

On the widespread notion that Africa needs a period of "benevolent" recolonization to solve its many problems, Dr. Davidson is particularly explicit. Reminding his readers of the motivation of colonization, he dispels the notion in a few sentences:

"[Colonialism] was and had to be racist. . . To divide imperialism from its driving motivations would be like removing an engine from an automobile and expecting the vehicle to move." Dr. Davidson might have added that the suggestion that Africa and only Africa needs some sort of benevolent recolonization is itself racist. Proponents of recolonization have not suggested that Eastern Europe and some of the former republics of the Soviet Union now sinking into chaos need a period of re-Stalinization.

Dr. Davidson's strong statements no doubt will anger those who bash the Afrocentric approach to history. It was African gold that fueled European economic expansion, he asserts, in an "African partnership in trade. . .that opened the gate to new forms of economic expansion."

The Minas Gerais mining province in Brazil was "the last in which the use of iron ore and the extraction from it of iron was learned from African slaves," Dr. Davidson reminds readers in an attempt to demonstrate the impact Africans had on the development of the New World. And the journalist and historian doesn't shy away from the most controversial debate between Afrocentrists and their opponents -- the claim that the origins of the ancient Egyptian civilization were in black Africa.

"Archaeology has produced varied and no longer questioned evidence to show that the lands of the blacks. . . were, in fact, the lands from which most of the inhabitants of Egypt had originally come," he says in the book's first chapter. Dr. Davidson repeats the claim in a later chapter, and uses the writings of classical writer Diodorus of Sicily to bolster his contention.

"As for the people of Egypt, adds Diodorus from the same sources, they 'are colonists sent out by the Ethiopians. . . and the larger part of the customs of the Egyptians, [these historians] hold, are Ethiopian, the colonists still preserving their ancient manners.' Allowing for all the differences of conception that separate us from Diodorus, this is an astonishingly exact statement of what archaeologists now affirm. . ."

Dr. Davidson's book surely won't end the debate on this topic, but "The Search for Africa" should find its place on the bookcases of all those devoted to the study of African history.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.