The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To Africa and Back By J.D. Fage, University of Birmingham, Price not mentioned

Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer and linguist, used to advocate a pseudo-scientific theory of racial hierarchy, which placed the white man at the top and the black man at the bottom. This theory helped the imperialists to “justify” imposition of European colonial rule in Africa and Asia, in terms of its “civilizing capabilities”. Denying the black man a past was an important component of the thesis that tried to prove his inferiority.

Unfortunately, the attitude proved to be contagious and infected many professional European historians as well. That is why the Cambridge Modern History — a great cooperative work which marked a high point of historical writing and was first published at the turn of the 20th century — did not have a single chapter on Africa. Twenty years later, A.P. Newton, professor of imperial history, University of London, while speaking at the Royal African Society on “Africa and historical research”, said that Africa had no history before the coming of the Europeans. “History only begins when men take to writing,” Newton commented. Hugh Trevor-Roper echoed him in 1963: “there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa.”

It is interesting to note that when historians like Trevor-Roper championed the “Europa-centric” view of history and attacked African history, a small group of historians challenged all this and more or less “invented” African studies in Britain, institutionalized it in British universities and worked to establish its claims and credentials in the wide world. They proved that a prudent use of carefully-preserved oral tradition could provide an excellent source of information of the past of pre-literate societies and that, in Africa, “state” was an institution of some antiquity and that many people of sub-Saharan Africa developed it long before they came in contact with Islam and definitely, long before the arrival of the Europeans. The administrative and economic system, the law and order situation in the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhay and many others, show the attainment of a level of sophistication which is comparable to, if not better, than the level attained by some parts of contemporary western Europe.

John D. Fage was the undisputed leader of that group of scholars which, with great success, performed the job. To Africa and Back is the autobiography of Fage.

Africanists owe a lot to the Ronald Oliver-Fage team. They made African history popular by writing A Short History of Africa. Their next venture was to get the first volume of Journal of African History, printed by Cambridge University Press, out in 1960. A highly sophisticated journal, totally dedicated to African history, was born. Forty three years after its first appearance, JAH continues to be the finest journal of African history. Fage and Oliver worked as general editors of the eight-volume Cambridge History of Africa and played a crucial role in getting the Unesco miltivolume General History of Africa published. The two great historians can easily be credited with founding the African Studies Association of the UK and the latter’s continuous efforts to establish linkages with similar organizations in the US and various African universities.

Fage passed away in August 2002. He completed the manuscript of this book a couple of months before he died. To Africa and Back is Fage’s last gift to the Africanists. It narrates to us the history of African history. Without it, Africanists could not have known how African studies grew from its postWorld War II inchoate stage to its present accepted status as a respectable branch of knowledge in all major universities of the world.

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