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CULTURE & COMMUNICATION / Basil Davidson and The Black Man's Burden
Date of publication at Tlaxcala: 17/08/2015
Original: Basil Davidson e O Fardo do homem negro
Translations available: Deutsch  Français 

Basil Davidson and The Black Man's Burden

Miguel Urbano Rodrigues (1925-2017)

Translated by  John Catalinotto



Until very recently Africa was a continent without a written history. It is to the merit of Basil Davidson that in his books he has illuminated the forgotten past of Africa ** that during the midst of the Middle Ages [in Europe] had already built organized multinational states, more extensive than those of the great [European] powers of the time.

Basil Davidson (1914-2010) was a friend of mine. I had read almost all his books.
I had been unaware of the existence of The Black Man's Burden, whose Portuguese translation was published in Luanda in 2000 *.
I believe it is his most important book. The title is an ironic retort to “The White Man's Burden,” a poem written by the English writer Rudyard Kipling, an iconic apologist for imperialism.
Davidson fought in World War II as a British army officer. He was in combat in Yugoslavia and Italy alongside the guerrillas facing the German occupiers.
He was a fascinating character about which I wrote many pages. We exchanged correspondence during my Brazilian exile, but only met in Lisbon, after the 25 April [1974 revolution that ended fascist rule]. The admiration that he inspired in me was the prologue to a great friendship.
His passion for Africa was born late, but exploded. It made him, as the New York Review of Books pointed out, "the most illustrious connoisseur [in the imperialist world] of Black Africa."
The reading of this historian's work is today indispensable to understanding the painful process of decolonization of Sub-Saharan Africa.
His was not a detached position. As a writer, historian and teacher (in universities of England, the U.S. and Africa) he took the side of those fighting on the continent for the freedom and independence of its people.
To my knowledge he was the only European to be hoisted to the level of hero by the governments of the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea Bissau, from Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

Davidson with the leader of Angola’s independence movement, MPLA,  Agostinho Neto. He was the first journalist to travel with the guerillas in the war against Portugal

In the pages of The Black Man's Burden he summarizes a portion of the knowledge he acquired in the study of a humbled and plundered continent.
The Black Man's Burden pushes the reader to a deep reflection on the tragedy of a continent that for centuries exported slaves to the Americas.
There are no reliable statistics, but demographers admit that 19 million men and women were uprooted from their African villages and carried as cargo across the Atlantic. More than a third perished during the crossing in infection-laden holds of slave ships.
After the infamous trafficking, Africa was split up and shared among the imperialist states in 1884 at the Berlin Conference as if it were a giant zoo. Disraeli and Bismarck, when they award densely populated areas to European countries, shredded the continent as if with ruler and compass, drawing borders that separated people with common origins, traditions and languages.
These boundaries were artificial; they reflected neither the natural boundaries nor the regions inhabited by different ethnic groups.
The chapters of The Black Man’s Burden on decolonization, nationalism and tribalism contribute to refuting the African historiography of European settlers, illuminating a unknown Africa, very different from the one described by those who oppressed and devastated the continent.
The tidal wave of decolonization that hit after World War II was unexpected; it began with the independence of Ghana in 1957 and Guinea in 1958.
The resistance of the British and French bureaucracies to independence movements was strong. In 1959, the secretary of the Colonial Office in London stated: "It is not yet possible to foresee a time when it is possible for a British government to transfer responsibilities for the final destiny and welfare of Kenya." The governor of the colony, Sir Philips Mitchell, then wrote: "How primitive is the state of these people (...) as is the deplorable the spiritual, moral and social chaos in which they find themselves."
But Kenyans won independence in 1963 after the armed uprising of the Mau Mau, whose leader, Jomo Kenyatta, was the first president of the Republic.
In 1957, the governor of Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, defined as an agitator "someone like Julius Nyerere," suggesting that senior administration officials avoid contact with him and "not to receive him." This was his evaluation of the man who would be one of the greatest African leaders of the second half of the twentieth century.
History rebuked these admirers of Rudyard Kipling.
Tanganyika proclaimed independence in 1961, Uganda in 1962, Malawi and Zambia in 1964.
French imperialism, involved in colonial wars in North Africa, believed it could resist the wave of independence to its South. It believed it could create two great federations that would bring together the twelve French colonies of West and Equatorial Africa within the French Union. This utopian dream soon faded. All these colonies and Madagascar proclaimed independence in 1960.
However, economic independence did not follow political independence.
Traditional colonialism was succeeded in the young African republics by neo-colonialism, whose operating mechanisms, less transparent, are no less cruel.
Currently, sub-Saharan Africa remains an exporter of the wealth produced. The volume of capital out is much higher than the aid it received, as Davidson brings up in his book, which is supported by official documentation.
African rulers who first succeeded the proconsuls of colonialism were, with rare exceptions, leaders trained in European universities. This elite has done everything to implement the British and French models of "representative democracy" in their countries. However, the social classes that in Europe are theoretically the source of political parties did not exist in African societies.
This choice by the "educated and civilized" leaders ignored the traditional chiefs and the richness of African ethnic cultures, which the politicians educated in London and Paris defined as backward and tribalist, incompatible with progress.
This was a huge mistake.
Until very recently Africa was a continent without a written history. It is to the merit of Basil Davidson that in his books he has illuminated the forgotten past of Africa ** that during the midst of the Middle Ages [in Europe] had already built organized multinational states, more extensive than those of the great [European] powers of the time. Among others these include Ghana, Mali, Songhay and Kanem.
We all know the outcome of the failed caricatures of the Western model of democracy: civil wars such as those in Liberia and Sierra Leone and of Biafra in Nigeria and bloodthirsty dictatorships led by tyrants like Mobutu, Bokassa and Idi Amin.
The attempt to set up socialism in Africa outlined by the revolutionary movements MPLA [in Angola], FRELIMO [in Mozambique] and PAIGCV in [Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde] also failed. When the guerrillas who had fought heroically against Portuguese colonialism and imperialism came out of the bush to the cities it was clear that the programmatic design of parties that wish to apply Marxism to the transformation of archaic societies was utopian. Today, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique are fully integrated into the capitalist system. With a twist: in the three countries the qualifier “savage” is justified for the implanted capitalism, differing from the sources that inspired it.
I echo the view of British historian Eric Hobsbawm: The Black Man's Burden "is a book of major importance (...) it is not only of Africa that it speaks, but also ethnicity of nations and problems of life in society anywhere in the world. "

* Basil Davidson, O Fardo do Homem Negro, Publisher Caxinde, Luanda, 2000. The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, 1992, Times Books.

* * Basil Davidson, A Descoberta do Passado da África, Sá da Costa, Lisbon, 1981. Discovering Africa’s Past, 1978, Addison-Wesley.


Comments in brackets by the translator.

Courtesy of Tlaxcala
Publication date of original article: 14/08/2015
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Tags: Basil DavidsonAfrica's History

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