THE AFRICAN HAS A HISTORY, TREVOR ROPER
Generations of traders came by ship or caravan, to purchase Africa’s wealth in gold, ivory and human beings, but their report produced more mysteries than they sold. Where did Africans come from? Why did they look so different from other men, and have different customs? Eventually the Europeans concluded that the Africans were savages, inferior human beings, and they could not help being the way they are. According to Chapter one of History of Africa named; The Original Africans, that answer lasted until the African nations regained their independence in the middle of the twentieth century. Since that time scholars have rediscovered Africa’s history and heritage. The so called “dark continent”, it turns out, is not just a land of endless savagery and chaos. Its people have a history of their own, and have created cultures, nations and art that often compare favourably to what other cultures have produced.
For a long time, all kinds of myths and prejudice concealed the true history of Africa from the world at large (Ki-Zerbo (Ed.) 1995). Although pioneers like Leo Frobenius, Maurice Delafosse and Arturo Labriola have done important work on Africa as early as the first decades of this century; a great many non-African experts could not rid themselves of certain preconceptions and argued that the lack of written sources and documents made it impossible to engage in any scientific study of such societies. But the question is: is history all about paper or written documents? “Before even the British came into relations with our people, we were a developed people, having our own institutions, having our own ideas of governance.” (J. E. Casely-Hayford, 1992) the continent of African had been occupied by black Africans, several million years ago. This is to say that, long before the white man came to Africa, the African continent has been occupied by Black African and had their independence. According to Walter Rodney (1973) in his book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; there were developments going on in Africa until the white man came and it was truncated. All these and many other reasons refute the assertion by Trevor Roper that Africa has no history.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, the son of a doctor, was born in Northumberland on the 15th January, 1914 and died on 26th January, 2003 of cancer in an oxford hospital. He was 89years. He was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford; he became a research fellow at Morton College in 1937. He was a historian who was known for his studies in 17th Century European history. He was a Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. In 1963, the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper(later, Lord Docre of Glanton), gave a series of lectures at Sussex University that were transmitted by BBC television and, subsequently published both in a popular periodical and in a book (Fuglasted, 2005). According to David (2010), the lectures by Trevor-Roper were reprinted in The Listener in November and December and then with changes in The Rise of Christian Europe in 1965. This is to say that, H. R. Trevor Roper – in a moment of condescension that quickly became notorious – declared to an audience on the BBC; “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African History to teach. But, at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness… “Trevor-Roper had not then enabled as Lord of Glanton; but if he spoke without the authority of the peerage, his pronouncement still came, as it were, ex cathedra, from the podium of the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford (Kwame Anthony Appiah, 1998).
G. W. F. Hegel earlier before Trevor-Roper mentioned that when it came to humanity and human history, unfortunately, there just was no room for Africans. Hegel stated; “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World: it has no movement and development to exhibit”. He claimed that the historical movement and development that is in the northern part belong to the Asiatic or European World. It is against this back drop that Oxford university professor Hugh Trevor-Roper echoed Hegel over a century later when he stated “Perhaps in the future there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness, and darkness is not the subject of history.”
Perhaps one may argue that, Trevor-Roper, Hegel and people who have said that there is no history in Africa were looking at movement and paper sources. Personally, I believe history go way beyond the two mentioned above. “The general history of Africa is, in particular, a history of ideas and civilizations, societies and institutions. It is based on a wide variety of sources including oral tradition and art forms” (General History of Africa (1993) edited by Ali A. Mazrui and C. wondji). According to the Oxford English Dictionary history is the study of past events; the past. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English also sees history as something that has been done or experienced by a particular persons or thing repeatedly over a long period. The word history comes from the Greek word historia, means “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation. History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. All the above on history tells us the there is more to history than just written materials and movement. The quotation by Trevor-Roper has two (2) dimensions: He says the history began when the white man came and you can clearly see that for Trevor-Roper, if there is no written material, then there is no history but Africans have based their history on oral history so Trevor-Roper’s argument does not hold water and leaves much to be desired because before the white man came to Africa there were a lot of things going on. He has exhibited a very high level of ignorance in African issues.
The book, “The Ambiguities of History: The Problem of Ethnocentrism in Historical Writing, written by Fin Fuglestad, argues that history may, by definition, be an imperialist science or a quintessentially Western form of discourse. Finn Fuglestad thinks there is something profoundly ambiguous about the science or academic discipline we call history. It is the only science that is the product of its own object of study, the past, an object outside of which it cannot exist. It is also the only the science that can study itself. You know, history has a relationship with one of the so called civilizations of the world that borders on the incestuous. The civilization is Western Civilization: history has both emerged from it and helped to shape it in such a way that they are inextricably linked. History, with its Western conceptual framework, has become a defining part of Western Civilization to the extent that the West cannot even conceive of itself being without a history. But what happens when history is removed from its natural habitat? The real issue therefore concerns all those societies and people outside the West who, in accordance with the Hegelian tradition, have traditionally been labeled as “without history”. What does it mean exactly “not to have history?” The construction of the pasts of “people without” poses a tremendous challenge to the science of history, especially at the conceptual level.
Again Fuglestad(1992) in his essay “The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History, asserted that back in the early 1960’s the distinguished Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper of Oxford University proclaimed, as every Africanist probably knows, that at least pre-colonial Black African had no history. He must have meant what he said, for he repeated his contention in 1969 by putting the label “unhistoric” on the African continent; the whole of the African continent that is, including Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Maghrib. History tells us that civilization started way back in Egypt which is in Africa so what does Trevor-Roper call that one? Darkness? Africa’s great civilizations made an immense contribution to the world, which is still marvelled at by people today. Ancient Egypt, which first developed over 5000 years ago, is one of the most notable of these civilizations and one of the first monarchies anywhere in the world. However even before the rise of this civilization, the earlier monarchy of Ta Seti was founded in Nubia, in what is today the Sudan. Egypt of the pharaohs is best known for its great monuments and feats of engineering (such as the Pyramids), but it also made great advances in many other fields too. The Egyptians produced early forms of paper and a written script. They developed the calendar too and made important contributions in various branches of mathematics, such as geometry and algebra, and it seems likely that they understood and perhaps invented the use of zero. They made important contributions in mechanics, philosophy, irrigation and architecture. In medicine, the Egyptians understood the body’s dependence on the brain over 1000 years before the Greek scholar, Democritus. Some historians now believe that ancient Egypt had an important influence on ancient Greece, and they point to the fact that Greek scholars such as Pythagoras and Archimedes studied in Egypt, and that the work of Aristotle and Plato was largely based on earlier scholarship in Egypt. For example, what is commonly known as Pythagoras’ theorem was known to the ancient Egyptians hundreds of years before Pythagoras’ birth.
On the face of it there is little reason why we should bother with this type of point of view now in the 1990s. After all, the avalanche of articles and books on African history, including several multi-volume General Histories – which have been published since the 19960s, in a sense bear testimony to the absurdity of Trevor-Roper’s position. Walter Rodney (1972) a West Indian Marxist historian from Guyana is best known for his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The book was published for a number of reasons and one of the reasons for this book’s appeal is the author’s considerable knowledge of African history and his skill in using this knowledge to discredit those many European writers of the past who considered Africans primitive and who echoed the notorious statement of Hugh Trevor-Roper that, “Africa has no history”. According to Professor Adu Boahen, Trevor-Roper is a man who had never done any serious research in Africa, but he felt confident enough out of sheer intellectual ignorance to make that statement. (www.modernghana.com/news/...)
There has been existence in Africa before the white man came to Africa and there is no existence without history. For example during the period that the white man had not come to Africa, Africa was organized into political, cultural, social and economic institutions. Earlier in the pro-colonial Africa, that is before the European came to Africa, Africa had its own political organization which deals with who should have authority. There were two (2) types of states systems in Africa namely the centralized and non-centralized. In the non-centralized system which is also called ACEPHALOUS authority or power and rights were given to elders, priests and age grade systems. The centralized system has one person in whose hands power was vested. It was the powerful kings and high-ranking chiefs like the rulers of Asante or Oyo (Yuroba) in West Africa. So with this one, there is a figure had who has the power to rule. It is evident that there were people in Africa and this happened in Africa before the Europeans came to Africa to stop Africa’s development.
Again, long before the white man came to Africa; Africans were organized into small family units, grouped into several units called clans. The clans were organized by a name, label and can be sued and they had characteristics like head of clan, council of elders, name and appellation, owned properties, only to mention a few things here. All these go a long way to give evidence that there was existence in Africa and so I do not agree with Trevor-Roper when he says Africa does not have history.
Some would argue, of course that Trevor-Roper and others are looking at written documents to show history but is that the only thing which can store history? Several million years ago before the Europeans came to Africa, the African continent was occupied by Black Africans and this is evident in Archaeology, Ancient Record, Musicology, Rock arts, Monuments, Numismatics, Oral history, and so on. For example Archaeology which is the scientific study of earlier civilization and past human cultures, gives evidence that there has been existence on the African continent especially when people excavated parts of Africa and discovered relics. It has been discovered that far from having no history, it is likely that human history actually began in Africa. The oldest evidence of human existence and that of our immediate ancestors has been found in Africa. In July 2002 further evidence of the existence of early hominids in Africa was found with the discovery of the fossilised remains of what has been called Sahelanthropus tchadensis, thought to be between 6-7 million years old, in Chad. The latest scientific research points to the fact that all human beings are likely to have African ancestors. This tells us that there was life in Africa even before the white man came to Africa and that is history.
Another example is ancient records and documents. Documents like Tarik Al Fatash, Ibn Bahata and other Arabic scholars and record keepers deposited in Cairo Universities are all evidence that point to the fact that people had occupied Africa long ago. There are documents which are secretly stored in Libya universities which suggest that there were Trans-Sahara Trade by the early Africans and Arabs is evidence that there was life by black Africans on the African continent. Musicology which is the scholarly study of music also gives evidence of existence in Africa before the European came. This is because the music genre in Africa can be traced to ancient mediums. The genre of music the Africa has tells us that people lived in Africa. Some of which are played at festivals. Again, Africans showed their love for art through rock arts by people who lived long ago. They did not use papers but did art on rocks. The rock paintings in the Basuti Land in South Africa and Tassili are evidences. We can also mention the rock art is Egypt when they used pictures on the wall to tell stories, their imaginations and dreams. All these and many other things space will not allow me to mention are evidences that there were people in Africa before the Europeans came to Africa. Africa had a history and still has history.
Dendrochronology or tree ring dating is the scientific method of dating based on the analysis of patterns of tree-rings. It can date the time at which tree rings were formed and even used to look at how old a society is. Is Trevor- Roper telling us that, those big Nim trees and other huge trees around are less than 50years? I do not think so. Africa has a history and it did not start with the Europeans. According to Dr. Phillippe Denis of the University of Natal, oral history is based on hearsay or eye witness accounts about events and situations. “Oral history is as old as history itself. It was the first kind of history” (Thompson, 1988, p.23). The African had used oral history as its history so again I do not agree with Trevor-Roper. “Africa had its own history, it had its own cultures, its had its own nations.” (Basil Davidson as cited in Unscrambling Africa by Geoffrey Wheatcraft). Davidson once wrote that in the 13th century, “The scholarship of Timbuktu and Djenne could probably have given points to that of Oxford and Cambridge.
It is not true that Africa has no history. It is evident from the above discussions that Africa has a history which did not start with the Europeans. Africans and the African continent have made enormous contributions to human history just as other peoples and continents have. It is the development of Eurocentric and racist views in Europe that have denied this fact and sought to negate the history of Africa and its peoples.
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