There is no African history

June 9 2010

Hugh Trevor-Roper delivered a series of lectures at the University of Sussex in October 1963 which were broadcast (televised?), and reprinted first in The Listener in November and December and then, with changes, not necessarily in the passage I am quoting, as The Rise of Christian Europe, Thames and Hudson, 1965. This is from the first lecture as reprinted in the book. He is straying, a word to which he would probably have objected, outside his main area, seventeenth-century European history and thought.

“It is fashionable to speak today as if European history were devalued: as if historians, in the past, have paid too much attention to it; and as if, nowadays, we should pay less. Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.

“Please do not misunderstand me. I do not deny that men existed even in dark countries and dark centuries, nor that they had political life and culture, interesting to sociologists and anthropologists; but history, I believe, is essentially a form of movement, and purposive movement too. It is not a mere phantasmagoria of changing shapes and costumes, of battles and conquests, dynasties and usurpations, social forms and social disintegration. If all history is equal, as some now believe, there is no reason why we should study one section of it rather than another; for certainly we cannot study it all. Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped; or shall I seek to avoid the indignation of the medievalists by saying, from which it has changed?

“For on this subject, I believe, with the great historians of the eighteenth century, whom I find very good company (the good sense of the ancients is often more illuminating than the documented pedantry of the moderns), that history, or rather the study of history , has a purpose. We study it not merely for amusement – though it can be amusing – but in order to discover how we have come to where we are. In the eighteenth century men certainly studied Afro-Asian society. Turn over the pages of the great French and Scottish writers – Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith, Millar. Their interest in non-European society is obvious. Indeed, in order to found the new science of sociology – one of the great intellectual contributions of the Enlightenment – they turned deliberately away from Europe. They read the accounts of European missionaries and drew general deductions from the customs of Otaheite and the Caribbees. But with Afro-Asian history, as distinct from society, they had little patience. When Dr Johnson bestowed excessive praise on a certain old History of the Turks, Gibbon pulled him up sharply: ‘An enlightened age’, he replied, would not be satisfied with ‘1,300 folio pages of speeches and battles’: it ‘requires from the historian some tincture of philosophy and criticism’. ‘If all you have to tell us’, said Voltaire, in his advice to contemporary historians, ‘is that one barbarian succeeded another barbarian on the banks of the Oxus or the Jaxartes, what benefit have you conferred on the public?’ And David Hume, pushing his way briskly through ‘the obscure and uninteresting period of the Saxon annals’, remarked that it was ‘fortunate for letters’ that so much of the barbarous detail was ‘buried in silence and oblivion’. ‘What instruction or entertainment can it give the reader’ he asked ‘to hear a long bead-roll of barbarous names, Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert, who successively murdered, expelled, or inherited from each other, and obscurely filled the throne’ of East Anglia? This is not to say that Hume was indifferent to problems of Anglo-Saxon society. His brilliant appendix on that subject disproves any such suggestion. But he distinguished between society and history. To him, as to all these writers, whig or tory, radical or conservative, the positive content of history consisted not in the meaningless fermentation of passive or barbarous societies but in the movement of society, the process, conscious or unconscious, by which certain societies, at certain times, had risen out of the barbarism once common to all, and, by their efforts and example, by the interchange and diffusion of arts and sciences, gradually drawn or driven other societies along with them to ‘the full light and freedom of the eighteenth century’.

“Today, though it is fashionable to be more sceptical about the light and freedom, I do not think that the essential function of history has changed. And if the function has not changed, the substance has not changed either. It may well be that the future will be the future of non-European peoples: that the ‘colonial’ peoples of Africa and Asia will inherit that primacy in the world which the ‘imperialist’ West can no longer sustain. Such shifts in the centre of political gravity in the world, such replacement of imperialist powers by their former colonies, have often happened in the past. Mediterranean Europe was once, in the Dark Ages, a colony of Islam; and northern Europe was afterwards, in the Middle Ages, a colony of the Mediterranean. But even if that should happen, it would not alter the past. The new rulers of the world, whoever they may be, will inherit a position that has been built up by Europe, and by Europe alone. It is European techniques, European examples, European ideas which have shaken the non-European world out of its past – out of barbarism in Africa, out of a far older, slower, more majestic civilization in Asia; and the history of the world, for the last five centuries, in so far as it has significance, has been European history. I do not think we need make any apology if our study of history is Europa-centric.”


Otaheite is an old name for Tahiti, Caribbees for the Lesser Antilles.

Toynbee said more than once that he had no love of barbarians. This was a reaction against a habit of some national historians when he was young of detecting signs and portents of the modern European nations’ futures in their dimmest primeval pasts; and an old-fashioned contempt for anything that was not high culture (twentieth-century popular entertainment was put into the same barbarian bracket). He could write, in the Study, about African cultures as barbarous while despising personal racism.

I am surprised that the term “barbarian” has not yet been written out of respectable discourse in relation to the European past. We still use it, but we are squeamish about using it in relation to other pasts, or presents.

Toynbee wrote a sort of book about Africa, Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965, and in it makes an aside as he flies over the historic Mediterranean –

France, Britain, Newfoundland, Alaska: these are countries without a history – or, at any rate, without any history to speak of.

– that is a swipe against Trevor-Roper, though he doesn’t name him. He would have investigated more African history if he had lived longer.

As to Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert, confusion among these and other names when I was young led me to despair. By the way, Hume repeats Ethelbert: that is not a misprint.

What did Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert mean? They were arrangements of letters. Texts that were crowded with these arrangements were worse than dull, they were incomprehensible. Egric only means anything different from Annas if you know Egric’s and Annas’s contexts; those contexts will be full of similarly meaningless descriptors until they are given contexts in their turn. I wanted to go outward, in widening circles, until I was studying the history of a civilisation or the world.

Ascending the Aruwimi River (a Congo tributary), illustration in HM (“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”) Stanley, In Darkest Africa, 1890

South Africa before the Portuguese (old post).

Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965

31 Responses to “There is no African history”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Observations on the Court of Senegal … imaginary, but the kind of study Trevor-Roper is referring to.

    • Eben Says:

      everyone has a past to talk about regardless it been positive or negative as for that Africans has also got a past as any other continent has and we understand it more than any outside will do

  2. davidderrick Says:

    In some ways, because Britain had a world empire, Victorian schoolchildren were probably fed a more global diet – with its stories of Clive, Wolfe, Gordon, Marathas, Sikhs and Zulus, and heroes on the other side as well, such as Ranjit Singh – than I was in the ’60s. Not to mention its greater western-classical content. And even though the story of any given part of the world was usually only begun at the moment when the Europeans arrived.

    Usually, but not always: I have the impression that the Victorians were more likely than us to have heard of Ashoka.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Trevor-Roper returned to this argument in The Past and the Present: History and Sociology, Past and Present, no 42, February 1969, pp 3-17.

    Wikipedia suggests that “Trevor-Roper’s statements played an indirect, but important role in the development of post-colonial African studies by motivating wide-ranging discussions about Africa’s role in the present and historical world”.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    “I do not deny that men existed even in dark countries and dark centuries”: how generous.

  5. John Philips Says:

    It’s simply a repeat of the Hegelian argument, that Africa represents human society before the purposive movement of history. It’s not true, and it’s dangerous. African societies of Hegel’s time were the historical products of the slave trade. It’s dangerous to think of them as the original human state, and it’s also dangerous to think that we can’t go back. Those societies had gone backwards in Hegelian terms.

  6. […] gone are the days of the Joseph Conrads and the Hugh Trevor-Ropers, but there are still many western reporters who write about Africa in an overly simplified and […]

  7. […] Davidson put African history on the map for laymen, including Africans. Is he still regarded highly? If not, is that because he has been superseded or because he was self-taught and a journalist and lacked any academic qualifications? Or is it a residue from a time when he must have seemed unsettlingly left-wing and when African history was not considered a real subject? […]

  8. gervas ndunguru Says:

    my coment – africa is historical continent

    [From Tanzania – DD]

  9. gervas ndunguru Says:

    it is very rude to say that there is no african history, africa experienced changes just like other places in the world

  10. […] Text via The Toynbee convector […]

  11. […] Nevinson, Magnus Zeller, Bruno Caruso, Picasso, Dix. He was ready at the end of his life to take African and southeast Asian history seriously, about which he had known nothing earlier. He quotes TS Eliot […]

  12. […] Given the present attitude of many museum officials and Western intellectuals, mostly following false prophets from London and Chicago, it is not very likely that significant progress will be made soon in restitution disputes. These intellectuals who are occupied with the Western past, do not seem to understand that Africans are also occupied with their past. They seem to share the view of Hugh Trevor- Roper that we did not have any significant historical development in Africa before slavery and colonialism and that these two evils, according to many, were not as bad as Africans present them. There is no African history | The Toynbee convector […]

  13. killian Rusere Says:

    Trevor Roper should be forgiven for his racial astigmatism, for hardly can an individual surpass the myopia relative to his time and space. Not that he was absurd, but his intellectual space undoubtedly was.

  14. Paul Remi Says:

    Paul Remi:
    No it is wrong: Africans do have a history but it is not a history like the Asians or Arabs, they have only started to make a kind of history recently after the contact with Arabs, Asians and Europeans.. before that: Darkness! Now they are trying emulate lauguages like for example making English the official language in countries like Nigeria and Ghana and use the former colonial masters letters as well, because before that no African races have created a written language except for the Amharis!

  15. ian nyambe Says:

    Africans have history but mainly made by the Europeans who came to settle in Africa people like David Livingstone.

  16. brian kimathi Says:

    Africa have a history but the only problem is that this history was not recorded in written forms but instead it was in unwritten form. one could only asses this by carrying out some verbal interviews among the african elders

  17. evans langat Says:

    its disguisting to conclude that africa had history,because @ and every culture,race,ethnic group or a community in the globe,has its past to talk about be it + or –

  18. thanks ,valid conclusion

  19. Shaylah El Says:

    This is the dumbest shit ever written. Where did Europe get there information ..whom did they learn from..the so called, “European scholars” or Egyptologist, even tell of the African from which they retrieved their information. Hence learned from. This is pure bulls shit..blatant lies. Trying to rewrite history, using the interpretation of a peasant!

  20. African Says:

    Africa has a history, be it verbal or documented, Trevor Roper has argued unreasonably. Our parents preserved our history in their own special way until europeans invaded, saw how elaborate they were, destroyed and stole most of them.

  21. Elizabeth Says:

    Well I feel no one should be given the right to say a whole continent doesn’t have history because I don’t see how that is even possible because Egypt itself has been known as the cradle of civilisation a really long time and there are other things Africa had,the coming of the Europeans is just a part of the African history and not the whole of African history

  22. JOYCE GAIKO Says:

    Africa is very rich in history. infact its the source of all history.

  23. Gervas Ndunguru Says:

    It is not fair for a person outside Africa to comment that Africa has no history, that is completely ridiculous

  24. Nephat Karanja. Says:

    well. i think commenting about African history when you have no knowing about the continent is a bit vulgar… Africa has history like any other continent.

  25. Victoria Says:

    Africa has a history but the problem is that it was not in written form like some countries

  26. Mwafrika Mkenya Halisi Says:

    Africa ina historia kubwa sanaa, nashangaa mtu akisema eti Africa iliishi kwa giza kabla kuja kwa hawa mabeberu waengereza, kabla ya waengereza kuvaamia Africa, maisha yalikuwa mazuri sana. . .

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