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Basil Davidson

Mythologist of modern Africa

by Gerald Vouga

Now about ninety, with his fangs seemingly drawn, the old man spends his days peacefully pottering in an English garden. But Basil Davidson represents the most willful single-handed effort to mythologise African history, and his numerous books have misled millions on a continental scale.

Barbaric kingdoms were romanticised, tyrants whitewashed, and cruel and bloodthirsty customs expunged (or simply ignored) in order to impress well-meaning western middle-classes who wanted to believe only the best about the cultures of the new, free, ‘liberated’ African states.

The romantic adventurer

Beginning as a romantic adventurer, Davidson was smuggled into Yugoslavia during World War II by the SOE (the Special Operations Executive run by the British Government). His boss was James Klugman, head of Special Ops Balkan operations at Bari, and a life-long communist and Cambridge contemporary of Kim Philby and his friends.

After the war Davidson resumed his pre-war career in journalism and worked for various national papers. He also produced his own pamphlets published by the Union of Democratic Control, a small Leftist group inherited from his father. He was available as a free-lancer for various “progressive” causes ranging from that of newly-established People’s China to the tiny anti-Salazar Portuguese Opposition in exile.

Strangely, however, considering what should have counted as his worthy and reputable Left-wing writing, the International Department of the British Communist Party warned party-members against trusting Davidson, telling them he was a Colonial Office agent. This was in the early 1950s, a time when London was seething with numerous groups of African exiles agitating for independence.

Propaganda: the true vocation

It was among these exiles that Davidson discovered his true vocation. With the independence of a growing number of African states his books entered the remunerative field of required reading for students of African History on campuses throughout the world. Davidson found himself in constant demand as a lecturer, and apotheosis was reached when the BBC commissioned him to direct a highly successful TV series of doubtful scholarship on African history.

Fame and fortune came not just in the West. There were vastly greater rewards from translations in the communist world. In the Soviet Union and its satellites editions of politically acceptable works reached astronomical figures by Western standards.

There was however a royalty problem. The USSR and its vassals were not signatories to international copyright agreements and hence under no compulsion to pay royalties. Any ingenuous Western author who imagined he would automatically receive them soon realized he would have to toe the line. Davidson was perfectly aware of the constraints placed upon him. In his case they were twofold. He had to satisfy not only his communist publishers, but also his African supporters. It was probably the second who first gave him the idea of embroidering history to provide an inspiring vision of the African past.

Davidson first came into contact with African folklore in the halcyon days of négritude. Its most talented exponents were to be found in a circle around the Paris magazine Présence Africaine. One of these was the Angolan Mário de Andrade, a founder of the MPLA, (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) the political party which was to rule Angola after independence a quarter of a century later.

Andrade held the highly original view that Angola, at its time of first contact with the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century, enjoyed a level of civilization equivalent to that of eighteenth-century Europe. Davidson lapped this fantasy up and proceeded to direct his research and writing towards an extravagant eulogy of pre-colonial African kingdoms, their technology, and their philosophy. This approach pleased not only Mário de Andrade but also the generality of African liberationists in exile.

Admirer of kings and courts

It was the “majesty” of West African kingdoms that Davidson found specially appealing. And no more majestic kingdom could be found than Benin. In his book African Kingdoms he remarks on the glory of “court life, of royal hunting parties and ceremonial occasions”, and notes with approval how severely “the forms of protocol” were royally enforced.

But only an assiduous reader will find that the ceremonial occasions frequently involved human sacrifice; and as for the severities of protocol, no mention whatever is heard of the custom of proskynesis (obligatory prostration before the almighty Royal Person) by which a West African king’s subjects were required to inch their way toward the Divine Presence on their bellies, signifying their degraded status by squirming through the courtyard mud to kiss his feet.

Announcing “the awesome power of Benin’s king”, Davidson tells with enthusiasm how “the Oba of Benin was an absolute monarch who could command anything he wished with the knowledge that he would instantly be obeyed”, how his “time was taken up by countless ceremonies and sacrifices and by his harem of a hundred or more wives”, how anyone who questioned the divinity of the monarch “was executed as a heretic”—all of these being uncritically presented as if they were natural features of political life.

This ability to omit the distasteful, to find praiseworthy elements in backward and barbaric customs—to invert values and mystify realities—soon drew the attention of the masters of Soviet propaganda. They were fully aware of the strategic importance in the Cold War of winning allies among future African leaders, and this was where Davidson proved especially useful. He soon became one of the principal propagandists for African independence movements sponsored by the Soviet Union.

Working for the MPLA

In the case of Angola this meant the MPLA. Sponsored by the underground Portuguese Communist Party, with very little support inside Angola itself, this organization depended largely on Angolans of various backgrounds who were studying in Europe. Their activity was chiefly one of propaganda and only marginally of armed struggle.

In early 1963, the spuriousness of the MPLA’s claims to represent Angolan political and military liberation had become so scandalous that the Organization of African Unity established an inquiry into the relative merits of the organizations claiming to lead the fight against Portuguese colonialism. To the consternation of its supporters on the European Left, the MPLA was found to be an unworthy contender, and the OAU formally recognized a rival organization—the allegedly pro-American FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola or National Front for the Liberation of Angola).

As soon as the decision was made public Basil Davidson hastened to Algiers (then a hive of liberationist activity) only to confirm that he had backed the wrong horse. And he admitted as much to friends. But he also said that he could not now change his allegiance and would have to continue his support for the MPLA come what may. Those he spoke to could only speculate about the reason, and whether or not it had to do with a grim financial dilemma: this being the possibility that if he changed his allegiance his royalties from the Soviet Union might dry up.

Soviet loyalties

So Davidson remained loyal to his first Angolan friends and to the Russians. As a creature of the Portuguese Communist Party the MPLA enjoyed a privileged position in the independence negotiations that followed the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in l974.

It has governed Angola ever since, winning a bloody civil war by force of Soviet arms, Cuban soldiery, and the assassination of rivals. Davidson has been treated as a VIP on visits to Angola and although circulation of his many books may no doubt suffer from Russia’s present economic adversity, they continue to enjoy a vast reading public in the West. They also continue to encourage a plethora of political misinformation, economic delusion, and anthropological fantasizing—all of which is of little help dealing with Africa’s manifold problems today.

Gerald Vouga is a long-time observer of the European scene.

Posted in Africana, People, Notes.

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