Travels with Africa's Zelig

In the Realms of Gold
November 28, 1997

The walls of old empires never really come crashing down, they are merely repointed and reroofed and adapted to some other, less grandiose purpose. Often, if you know your way around the system, you can even get an improvement grant. So the Roman empire gave birth to that first and most enduring of the multinationals, the Catholic church, ruled by its litigious and peripatetic bishops. The British empire, it is now clear, became a thing of scholarly committees, regulatory bodies and grandiose outside examiners dispensing qualifications like sacraments.

In The Realms of Gold, Roland Oliver's book, documents this process of appropriation within the small rock pool that is African history and charts its development from a postwar personal eccentricity to a respectable academic discipline with its own journals, traditions and feuds. We watch as funds are coaxed forth, dammed and diverted, territory is seized and flags planted, students are captured, proclamations are published, committees and ministers are nobbled and chums are usefully placed for later activation. This is all so like medieval ecclesiasticism that there is a curious inevitability in the way in which the various churches are intertwined in Oliver's own life, from student flirtations with piety to early work on missionaries and on to that more systematic plugging into the valuable African church network that has proved indispensable to generations of Africanists ever since. Not without irony, a later chapter is entitled "Spreading the word."

This is what might be termed an academic biography and as befits a historian, the depth of personal documentation is formidable. Letters, dates, diaries are all systematically to hand to be dipped into and quoted. Inevitably, it is the personal that is most fascinating, the childhood in Kashmir, the adolescence at Stowe, studenthood at King's and wartime cryptography at Bletchley Park. There is often an unwitting eccentricity in the ways in which the landmarks of a personal biography are established. Here books are regarded, with endearing self-absorption, as major events, students' theses are carefully notched-up trophies and conferences are seismic seizures that shake the very world.

In such a work it is easy to fall into retrospective wisdom and this Oliver mostly avoids. He resists the temptation to attribute significant historical happenings such as the collapse of the Central African Federation to his own deft interventions with the mighty and shrugs over final causes with a historian's unwillingness to be pinned down. Nevertheless, he is keen to tell us with a knowing tap of the nose that he was there. He also makes no claim to the gift of prophecy, that he alone foresaw how the early rosy days of African academie would decline so swiftly into repression and decay. Still, he would perhaps say that he realised sooner than most which way things were going. It is a book reviewing a life mostly without rancour. The one barb that seems still to smart even after all these years is Hugh Trevor-Roper's remark about "the meaningless gyrations of barbarous tribes in remote and irrelevant parts of the globe". Oliver's whole academic life can be seen as an attempt to rebut such a view.

Thumbnail sketches of the great in their offguard moments abound, Haile Selassie, Julius Nyerere, Edward Heath and the Queen. Having met some of the lesser personalities described here in such glowing terms, I would infer that Oliver is a man generous and forgiving in his judgements and must have been a popular outside examiner around the campuses of Ibadan and Makerere.

There is a good deal about African history here, both ancient and modern. Oliver spans, after all, that time between the days when one "motored" across Africa with impunity to those where an armed escort is necessary to make it into town from the airport. Insights about the relationship between war and slavery, pastoralism and state formation, ecology and linguistics, oral tradition and marginality are scattered through the book like confetti. Students will find it a handy quick crib on everything from the comparative structure of degree courses to African flora and fauna. A later enthusiasm for archaeology brings a rich crop of observations on the Swahili cities of East Africa and the interaction of African and Arab populations on the coast. At the same time there is much about the post-colonial gyrations of the modern states of Africa and their effects on African universities. Oliver's own home base, London's School of Oriental and African Studies, does not escape scrutiny either, documented in that difficult transformation of the Thatcher era in which British universities changed from a place that hand-built Rolls-Royces to one where Toyotas are mass produced. It is worth noting that the one major academic defeat Oliver mentions is inflicted in the name of francophone bureaucracy.

Possibly the final irony lies in the fact that African history is now alive and well but not - as Oliver had once intended - in Africa itself. Instead of rooting Africa in its own past, African history, like African art and African literature, has merely created a new diaspora. Its centre no longer lies in the shadow of London's Senate House either. For it is in America, and for largely parochial and racial reasons, that its headquarters may be found. At least this provides a place of refuge for those African academic pioneers who can no longer practise their craft safely at home.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History

Author - Roland Oliver
ISBN - 0 7146 4847 7 and 4405 6
Publisher - Cass
Price - £39.95 and £19.50
Pages - 418

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