by Basil Davidson

Lost Cities Of Africa

"What can be said about this past-about the formative fifteen or twenty centuries, that is, before European discovery and conquest? What can be said and what, where present knowledge fails, is it reasonable to believe? Basil Davidson's book "The Lost Cities of Africa" is an attempt -- necessarily tentative, summarized, and selective -- to answer these questions against a background of the whole of Africa south of the Sahara."

A little over a hundred and fifty years ago a young scots surgeon named Mungo Park, more dead than alive from months of quenching travel, rode through Saharan sand and thorn into the remote city of Segu on the upper reaches of the river Niger.

"Looking forwards," he would write, "I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission -- the long sought-for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward."

The italics were his own, and they were understandably triumphant. Ever since Ptolemy, sixteen centuries before, men had written on maps that the Niger flowed to the westward. Arabs of the Middle Ages, true enough, had known the middle course of the Niger for what it really was; but Europe, newly considering Africa in times of mercantile expansion, could be sure of nothing of its geography but the outline of the coast, and a little, here and there, of the obscure lands beyond.

"The course of the Niger, the places of its rise and termination, and even its existence as a separate stream are still undetermined," declared the prospectus of the African Association, founded in London in 1790 for "Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa," and it resolved that one of its explorers "should ascertain the course, and if possible, the rise and termination of that river."

Mungo Park perished on the Niger before he could plot its course to the sea, but others followed. Within seventy years or so the main geographical facts were fixed and clear upon the continental map, and one misconception after another was corrected, one zone of ignorance after another filled with detail. African discovery took its place among the triumphs of the nineteenth century. The geographical myths and legends disappeared; in place of these, mapmakers could record the knowledge of sand and swamp, forest and savannah, snow-capped mountain range and bracing highland that the discoverers had won.

A similar process of discovery is now occurring, about a hundred years later, in the field of African history. Historians and archeologists -- British, French, African, Italian, Belgian, American -- have embarked on journeys of historical discovery that parallel the geographical ventures of Park and Clapperton, Caillie and Barth, Livingstone, Stanley, and so many more. What the nineteenth century achieved for the geography of Africa the twentieth is well towards achieving for its history; and once again the truth these pioneers are finding has proved, often enough, the reverse of what the outside world had generally believed.

Thus the chart of African history, so lately bare and empty and misleading as the maps once were, begins to glow with illuminating detail. Bearded monsters and "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders" begin to disappear; and humanity, in all its smallness and its greatness, begins to emerge. And it begins to be seen, if fleetingly and partially as yet, that the writing of African history is not only possible and useful, but will be as well a work of rediscovery -- the rediscovery of African humanity.

The African, many have thought, is a man without a past. Black Africa -- Africa south of the Sahara desert -- is on this view a continent where men by their own efforts have never raised themselves much above the level of the beasts. "No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences," commented David Hume. "No approach to the civilisation of his white fellow creatures whom he imitates as a monkey does a man," added Trollope. Even in the last twenty years a former Governor of Nigeria could write that "for countless centuries, while all the pageant of history swept by, the African remained unmoved -- in primitive savagery." Even in 1958 Sir Arthur Kirby, Commissioner for British East Africa in London, could tell the Torquay Branch of the Overseas League that "in the last sixty years -- little more than the lifetime of some people in this room -- East Africa has developed from a completely primitive country, in many ways more backward than the Stone Age..."

Africans, on this view, had never evolved civilizations of their own; if they possessed a history, it could be scarcely worth the telling. And this belief that Africans had lived in universal chaos or stagnation until the coming of Europeans seemed not only to find its justification in a thousand tales of savage misery and benighted ignorance; it was also, of course, exceedingly convenient in high imperial times. For it could be argued (and it was; indeed, it still is) that these peoples, history-less, were naturally inferior or else they were "children who had still to grow up"; in either case they were manifestly in need of government by others who had grown up.

This view of African achievement, or lack of achievement, is now with increasing knowledge seen to rest on no more solid a foundation in truth than that earlier belief about the Niger's flowing to the westward. Geographical discovery has proved that the Niger really flows to the eastward. Historical discovery is now proving that the development and growth of society and civilization in Africa really contradict this stereotype of "centuries-long stagnation." The world is changing its mind about the past of Africa.

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Lines of Migration | The Desert Barrier | Giants and Heroes

*** The New York Review Books has praised Basil Davidson as "the most effective popularizer of African history and archeology outside Africa, and certainly the one best trusted in Africa itself." The Lost Cities Of Africa was the first book published in Davidson's highly praised series of African culture.


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