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The SOAS School of African History

Summary and Keywords

Founded in 1916, the School of African Studies at the University of London provided training in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern languages and history to colonial officers. Over more than a century, the transformation of African history at the SOAS from an imperial discipline to one centered on African experiences reveals challenges in the creation, use, and dissemination of ideas, or the politics of knowledge. The school, as the only institution of higher learning in Europe focused on Africa, Asia, and Middle East, has had to perform a balancing act between scholars’ motivation to challenge academic skeptics and racists who dismissed Africa and British governmental, political, and economic priorities that valued “practical education.”

In 1948, the University of London took steps to create an international standing by affiliating several institutions in Africa. Over several decades, many historians preferred to teach in Africa because the climate in Britain was far less open to African history. SOAS convened international conferences in 1953, 1957, and 1961 that established the reputation of African history at the SOAS. Research presented at these meetings were published in the first volume of the Journal of African History with a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation. The first volumes of the journal were focused on oral history, historical linguistics, archaeology, and political developments in precolonial Africa, topics covered extensively at SOAS.

SOAS grew considerably up until 1975, when area studies all over Britain underwent a period of contraction. Despite economic and personnel cuts, SOAS continued research and teaching especially on precolonial Africa, which has periodically been feared to be subsumed by modern history and not fitting into visions for “practical” courses. In the late 1980s, the school introduced an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in African studies that requires African language study because so many students were specializing in Africa without it. This measure reveals the lasting commitment to engaging African voices. African history at the SOAS has also continued to be a humanistic enterprise, and in 2002, it was reorganized into the School of Religion, History, and Philosophies. It remains to be seen how Brexit might affect higher education. While cuts in education could hurt African studies more than other area studies as they often have, strained relations between Britain and continental Europe might make African countries more important to Britain in the coming years.

Keywords: African knowledge production, area studies, British Empire, higher education, intellectual history, linguistics, universities

The SOAS and the Politics of African History

The development of the field of African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London provides a unique lens on the politics of knowledge, defined as how ideas are created, used, and disseminated. The SOAS was created in 1916 to train British colonial officers bound for posts throughout the empire in African languages, with some focus on history. While the SOAS began as a tool of empire, over the 20th century, African history at the SOAS transformed into an intellectual enterprise focused on African-centered perspectives on history. This mission is not complete, argues SOAS historian Ian Brown, “Local voices in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, reporting complex local specificities, commonly remain unheard and un-consulted.”1 Yet, he argues, the SOAS is “superbly placed” to confront the inequalities of knowledge production and dissemination.

This article traces the history of African history at the SOAS to reveal how the institution’s goal changed from the colonization of knowledge to its decolonization. The SOAS faced many of the same challenges that have plagued the study of the African past at universities throughout the world. First, African history, which is classified within “area studies,” a term that refers to regions outside the North Atlantic but also to areas whose histories were not typically studied in conventional history courses at Euro-American universities, has been shaped by changing political priorities when material resources, university power dynamics, and the British national appetite for foreign engagement shift. The SOAS, as the only institution of higher learning in Europe focused on Africa, Asia, and Middle East, has had to perform a balancing act shaped by British governmental, political, and economic priorities.

Second, the SOAS also has played an important role in the creation of a new relationship between Britain and African countries. History, in particular, had been lorded over Africans as something they did not have, according to the standards of European epistemology. Rejecting the view of scholars in the prestigious Cambridge and Oxford traditions, historians at the SOAS, often in collaboration with their Africanist colleagues in other departments and at other institutions around the world, prioritized the endeavor to end this epistemological violence against Africa and decolonize knowledge, often against the backdrop of debates led by the British government and business about the cost and utility of African history higher education in comparison to more “practical” fields. The SOAS has resisted losing sight of the academic interest in Africa’s past by emphasizing the use of primary sources generated within Africa; research and teaching on precolonial Africa, which has increasingly been supplanted by modern history; and sustaining interdisciplinary collaboration between humanistic and social scientific departments.

Third, the SOAS has tried to prioritize the mission to Africanize history since the end of World War II. This prioritization did not stem from pressure from an indigenous Africa diaspora, as occurred in the United States; rather, Britain felt compelled to acknowledge African anticolonial and national aspirations on the continent. Yet what Africanization has meant in the past and means today is not at all clear, as Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia points out. In her historiographical excavation of the concepts and processes surrounding the term, she argues that the idea is rooted in colonial history and has remained relevant as structural inequalities between African universities and those in wealthy countries persist and grow in many cases.2 As her research and the story of African history at the SOAS show, Africanization itself has a generative life within the field as a catalyst for new kinds of research questions that keep African history fresh and arguably one of the most dynamic humanities disciplines today. This article shows that the SOAS has been engaged with these questions in a range of efforts, from retooling undergraduate curriculum with more Africa specialization to convening Africa seminars for critical engagement between African and non-African scholars.


The SOAS was initially established in 1916 as the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London; “Africa” was added to create the present name in 1938. Language studies were a key part of the school’s original remit, and Hausa and Kiswahili were offered from the beginning. In 1936, a Department of Africa was created to house these offerings. Yet up until World War II, the British government and private businesses still sent their employees to be trained at Cambridge or Oxford Universities. In comparison, the SOAS lacked staff and sufficient language-instruction materials. During the visit of many African leaders to London for the coronation of George VI in May 1937, recordings were made to address the shortage of teaching aids.3 For much of the 1930s, African linguistics at the SOAS was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. As for African history, it would take several more years of research and more hiring of and collaboration among Africanists throughout the school before the discipline came to prominence.

A major catalyst for the SOAS’s expansion came in 1946, when following the recommendations of the Asquith Commission for Education in the Colonies, which had operated for more than two decades, the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas was founded. The council published the “Report of the Interdepartmental Commission of Enquiry on Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African Studies” (Scarbrough Report) which outlined a major expansion of teaching and research in these fields. The report echoed earlier emphases on the practical needs of military officers, merchants, and others who would serve Britain overseas, but it added two other reasons to justify an expansion: the heightened interest of the British public in “real areas and not merely coloured patches on the map” and the need to add these areas to the humanities and social sciences fields, which were heavily focused on Western civilization.4

Shortly after, in 1948, the University of London took steps to realize its commitment to Africa. It affiliated the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria; Achimota College in Ghana (later University College of the Gold Coast); and Makerere College in Uganda. In London, the history department at the SOAS inaugurated a lectureship in the “tribal history of east Africa.” A similar position for West Africa was created a few years later. Encouraged to apply for the lectureship, Roland Oliver, who considered himself an ecclesiastical historian researching Christian missions in eastern Africa, felt completely unqualified until he was assured that “the somewhat exotic title was experimental” and that “the incumbent would be given every opportunity to learn the subject before being required to teach it.”5 Reflecting on his years at the SOAS, he described it as “a place of extraordinary privilege and exciting promise.”6

The expansion of African studies in Britain and of higher education in colonial Africa after World War II has often been understood as a political calculation by the British government, but the Scarbrough Report highlighted the social climate, specifically the growing interest in worldly affairs and global education of the British people. John Fage, who worked closely with Oliver and was a member of the SOAS history faculty from 1959 to 1963, gave a personal account of how his experience as a serviceman in World War II generated a new urgency for education. British men had realized their lack of foreign language skills and historical and cultural knowledge when they interacted with soldiers from the colonies.7 In contrast, British colonial officers tended to view African soldiers as having acquired new skills and knowledge in the armed services, a “vast educational machine.”8 In the Gold Coast, which sent tens of thousands of men to the British West African Frontier Force, military service became a qualification for men seeking traditional office. In Uganda, former servicemen were regarded as peers of educated Africans who did not serve in World War II.9 It is not surprising that Fage or other British soldiers felt their intellectual curiosity sparked by interacting with accomplished men from the colonies, apart from the purely utilitarian need to speak languages other than English and to understand something of the histories of peoples outside Europe.

The Scarbrough Report urged the creation of independent departments in African studies and other areas, to be incorporated into universities immediately, founded and supported with earmarked funds for five years before they had to compete with other units. The recommendations were pursued until 1952, when progress in most universities came to a grinding halt, although the SOAS, which had a ten-year financing scheme under Scarbrough, continued to develop. By 1957, the SOAS had 256 posts. Outside London, the University of Glasgow was the only institution with a specific African studies remit, but the shortage of suitable candidates for teaching and research staff was acute. Only one of the anticipated four appointments was made. As for student assistantships, though Scarbrough scholarships were awarded until 1961, Fage estimated that of the targeted 195 studentships planned to be made in five years, only 146 were given, in fifteen years. African studies was especially hard hit, receiving only fifteen of those 146 scholarships. Many went into Asian studies, unsurprisingly—Scarbrough had anticipated low student interest in African studies.

Traffic of Ideas and Scholars between Africa and Europe

Reflecting on this period, Fage reasoned that the sluggish pace of the growth of African studies in the United Kingdom owed, paradoxically, to the success of African universities in drawing teaching and research staff and students, not only from within Africa but also from Europe and eventually the United States. In 1949, the Inter-University Council included four university colleges in Africa: Gordon College in Sudan, Makerere in Uganda, University College at Ibadan in Nigeria (which in 1948 was affiliated with the University of London and University College of the Gold Coast (changed to Ghana in 1961). The first two were older institutions that had been upgraded, and the latter two were newly created. Remarkably, by 1962, the council had established thirteen universities in colonies or former colonies, ten of which were in Africa. By then, more than a thousand academic staff worked in Africa. The appeal of the continent over the United Kingdom may have had to do with the continued emphasis on imperial history in Europe, or with the rigid structure of the universities.

Characterizing the relationship between British and African universities somewhat differently, John McCracken, as president of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom (founded in 1963 and counting historians as almost one-quarter of its early membership), recalled a kind of two-way traffic. African scholars “made the pilgrimage to SOAS,” while British scholars went to the continent; indeed, African universities paid higher salaries than British ones through the 1960s. Moreover, upon his return to Cambridge from the University of Dar es Salaam, he said, the parochialism he felt was surely shared by other British historians of Africa. Indeed, McCracken believed the first crop of British Africanist historians were “miscellaneous men with training who engaged in the academic partition of the continent,” but by the 1970s, their biggest asset was “their ability to work for extensive periods in African universities.”10

Kate Skinner highlights another dimension of African history in higher education that may help to explain this flow between the United Kingdom and Africa—that is, the importance of extramural tutors in West Africa. Focusing on the Gold Coast in the 1950s, she traces a significant moment in the United Kingdom, before Scarbrough. In 1943, the founding of the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies led to a new set of policies to increase mass mother-tongue literacy in the African colonies.11 Using the model of 19th-century British cooperatives and other societies based on Chartism, and targeting the education of working people, the committee argued for a similar grass-roots movement in the Gold Coast, as demand for education was high but no coherent government scheme existed. Thomas Hodgkin, secretary of the Oxford Delegacy for Extra-Mural Studies, proposed offering courses in urban centers in Nigeria and the Gold Coast, but the British government backed off the plan, fearing it would further excite African nationalist agitation. Hodgkin eventually joined and left the Communist Party and the Oxford Delegacy to undertake his own research. David Kimble of the University College of Ghana was to extend extramural tutorials. The freedom from the demands of Eurocentric teaching and exams allowed for a truly creative and vibrant historical enterprise in West Africa.

The work of education underway in Africa by World War II, whether we consider the servicemen or students, suggests that the pump had already been primed, so to speak, before the SOAS expansion. Politics—whether traditional authority or anticolonial nationalism—was linked to the project of African history, and this form of African history was certainly “Africanized.” Jacob Ajayi, Adu Boahen, Leopold Senghor, and other scholars of Africa from Africa, who enriched the rather parochial higher learning environments in Europe, came to their studies determined to fight the “abstraction” of African history, which had been rendered by colonial knowledge production, but arguably also by Pan-Africanism.12 Skinner rightly points out that British historians of Africa like Oliver, who visited West Africa, were impressed by the kind of history being done by extramural tutors. Oliver, on tour of the Gold Coast from the SOAS, noted that Ivor Wilks was teaching medieval West African history, debating with Gold Coast audiences, and, in the process, conducting local research that would of course become the basis of his brilliant career. The process of transnational debate between scholars was the hallmark that enriched SOAS African history.

It would be fair to say that the climate in Britain was far less open to African history and that what was happening in Africa inspired SOAS scholars like Oliver. He had to continually answer skeptics and racists in his own department and in the profession more widely. “Would-be historians of Africa had . . . to face the open incredulity of nearly everyone they met about whether their whole endeavour could possibly be worthwhile,” he wrote in his autobiography. “What, in the memorable words of Hugh Trevor-Roper, could be the purpose of investigating ‘the meaningless gyrations of barbarous tribes in remote and irrelevant parts of the globe’? By 1963, when the last phrase was uttered, the opinions it conveyed were beginning to be old hat, but in 1950 they were common currency among all but our closest colleagues.”13 Oliver could hardly afford to ignore the words of the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Britain’s oldest university. But his career at the SOAS was a lengthy argument to disprove them. He insisted, at a congress in Dar es Salaam in 1965, for instance, that historians in Europe and the United States shared the same purpose with those in Africa, to generate African history from within Africa.14 It is fair to say, however, that many historians of Africa during this period had their eyes not on Europe’s naysayers but on Africa’s nationalists.

Power and the Production of African Histories

The spirit of justifying African history and SOAS’s worth carried forward in the commitment of Oliver and Fage to the Cambridge History of Africa, a massive project of eight volumes, in 1965. The two knew of and decided to compete with the UNESCO General History of Africa series, which was begun in 1964. The editor at Cambridge “did not need to . . . [tell them] that they would risk losing [their] lead in the subject” in Britain if they did not accept the editorship, which they had delayed in accepting.15 The project took over twenty years to complete. Oliver described an exchange with the archaeologist Desmond Clark, who edited Volume 1 and insisted that his doubling the book’s length to include scholarly references and other matter was justified, stating that “if historians’ cared to produce ‘children’s encyclopaedias,’ that was their affair,” not that of archaeologists.16 Pride of discipline and personal reputation were clearly important to many British Africanists. Despite the challenges with the Cambridge series, Oliver and Fage were able to complete the Penguin Short History of Africa in a timely fashion.

Such intellectual debates are lost in the government-commissioned reports on area studies that were subsequently undertaken to assess progress and changes since 1947. These assessments focused on the utility of area studies for Britain and often came back to the issue of language study, not really from the perspective of what area specialization could add to a student’s knowledge in general. Rather, African studies in Britain reflected the national interest, just as it did in Ghana or Nigeria, but from the perspective of Britain’s position as former imperial power and competitor with the United States. As William Atkinson, the head of Hispanic studies at the University Glasgow from 1932 to 1972, said in an address to his American colleagues, “The justification of area programmes in universities, in a word, is not the building up of a reserve of experts against possible government need in the event of another war, but sending out into society of a steady stream of people capable of international thinking and understanding and participation now, in peacetime, in the hope that thereby the next war never come.”17 He believed that the United Kingdom would never achieve area studies on par with American universities, where higher education was for anyone who could pay, not necessarily the intellectually curious or those with the desire to become specialists. But on both sides of the Atlantic, the goal of international studies was better global relations to ensure peace. Clearly, the British and the Americans saw themselves in control, and knowledge as another form of geopolitical power.

Not surprisingly, commissions disagreed on the practical component, specifically language study, at the SOAS and other area studies institutions. The Hayter Report of 1961 called for decreasing the emphasis on language instruction, while the 1986 Parker Report called for increasing it. Hayter recommended more focus on social sciences and also lauded centers of area studies in the United States, where fewer barriers seemed to exist between disciplines or between classical and modern studies. After this report, the SOAS instituted alongside the department structure a framework of area studies centers, headed by chairmen drawn in rotation from disciplinary departments. Yet, as Audrey Richards pointed out in 1965, the social sciences were ill-developed in England when the Inter-University Council was set up in 1945; it was no surprise that the problem had not been rectified in just two decades, or that it plagued African studies in particular.18

The Parker Report, for its part, emphasized offering language and other courses not only for academic use but also for commerce, as in business studies courses. Interestingly, Sir William Hayter worked in the British Foreign Service, and had extensive experience in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, whereas Sir Peter Parker was a businessman who prioritized Asian languages; indeed, not a single African language was highlighted in his report.

After 1975, area studies all over Britain underwent a period of contraction. In the 1980s, the Africa department lost four professorships, two readers, and five lectureships; established posts in Africa fell from nineteen to eleven.19 Yet as Fage commented rightly in 1989, “Although official support for African studies in the United Kingdom has always been fitful, even tenuous, they are not dead. Academic concern with Africa is probably as great as it has ever been.”20 Historians of Africa at the SOAS remained particularly strong in weathering the inconsistent commitment to their region—one specific and consistently applied strategy in doing so was engaging and fostering global contacts in Africanist historical research, which meant networks in Africa and the world’s superpower, the United States. An important effort in this transnational linkage was the Societies of Southern African History seminar, founded in 1969 by Shula Marks at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in collaboration with the SOAS. “It took an explicit anti-apartheid position but moreover constituted a radical reaction against the existing liberal-leaning historiography,”21 thus challenging British Africanists. Marks noted that fresh waves of South African exiles and students in London provided a constant renewal in the scholarly exchange.22 Marks also noted that the seminar was probably subject to government surveillance because of the presence of politicized African students.23

The Politics of Doing Early African History

Another SOAS commitment was to precolonial history, which engendered much debate about methods and relevance but also defensiveness among many early British historians of Africa, who defined it as the only kind of African history.24 One great obstacle to SOAS success early on was overemphasis on disciplinarity; however, African history at the SOAS sometimes uncomfortably abutted with other disciplines, keeping the field self-reflective.25 In its early years, the Department of Africa was heavily focused on linguistics, guided by the scholars A. Lloyd James and Malcolm Guthrie, whose major project on the classification of Bantu took more than two decades. Even within this disciplinary orientation, some accused Guthrie of creating a climate of introversion at the department, which was geared toward describing different languages rather than using the fruits of the research in a comparative or historical way.26

Oliver, in the History Department, had to perform a balancing act between the need to “win the trust of other historians”27 and also to develop working relations with other Africanists at the SOAS outside his department. His closest contacts were the linguists, including Guthrie, who Oliver said had a tremendous influence on him. Along with Sudanic linguist Archie Tucker, Guthrie impressed upon Oliver the importance of African language study, not only for primary source collection but also for understanding the relationships between language communities, long-distance trade, and other topics in African history, particularly before the colonial period. Historical linguistics, as a field that required collaboration across disciplines and between the SOAS and other institutions, would have a profound impact on the study early African historiography.

Oliver, who was instrumental in inaugurating the SOAS African history seminar that began convening in 1950, later brought the linguists into his endeavors. Within a few years, conferences convened at the SOAS in 1953 and 1957 by Oliver and his colleagues established the reputation of African history at the SOAS; this success was sealed with the third conference in 1961. As a result, the first volume of the Journal of African History was published in 1960 with a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation. Many of the papers at the conferences and the original research articles in the first volumes of the journal were focused on oral history, historical linguistics, archaeology, and political developments in precolonial Africa.

All these efforts at the SOAS—from the conferences to the journal—can be seen as efforts to legitimize and professionalize the study of the African past in its own right, not according to the rules of the European historical tradition, except for the implicit aim of implanting African “classical history,” or, really, to answer the political ambitions at the highest levels of government. Oliver described the first conference as focused on history and archaeology, including accepted participants from antiquities departments in Africa. His seminar produced regional surveys of recorded African oral traditions by literate observers and known archaeological sites. These short essays were circulated among the conference participants to discuss and hopefully incorporate into teaching; he felt the surveys stood the test of time and offered a clear illustration that “oral tradition could make possible a more Afrocentric perspective than that which began with the records of exploration with outsiders.”28 Oral tradition also gave rise to discussions of African agency, more specifically, to the agency of particular African ruling elites or powerbrokers. Such concepts were well within the scholar’s goal of Africanizing history by inclusion of diverse African perspectives, for examples from different classes. This mission to expand and complicate African history brought participants to SOAS from many countries. The Journal of African History found nearly half of its circulation in North America alone and became financially viable after the initial subsidy.

The internationalization of African studies also allowed African historians at the SOAS to play a more prominent role in bridging disciplines. The interdisciplinary study of Bantu expansion is an important case in point. By the turn of the 20th century, European linguists recognized the apparent homogeneity of African languages in a swathe of southern and eastern Africa and classified these as Bantu; meanwhile, a confused and racialized logic led to the misclassification of some West African languages as “Hamito-Semitic.” The identification in southeastern Nigeria of languages with Bantu properties was one mystery, for the region seemed far afield of Guthrie’s location of the central African savanna as the proto-Bantu homeland. Beginning in 1948, the American linguist Joseph Greenberg published a series of articles that directly challenged Guthrie’s propositions and garnered scholarly acceptance.

Although the disagreement between the two linguists contained specific elements related to their discipline, the interest of Roland Oliver and Christopher Wrigley, historian of Africa at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, in the Bantu homeland, their expansion, and their interactions with the populations they encountered began to have the effect of deepening the study of the Bantu expansion, which required greater interdisciplinary cooperation because the subject covered many regions of Africa. They asked questions that linguists could not answer, ones that the linguists at the SOAS had not asked before. By the late 1950s, more members of the SOAS Department of Africa, including Guthrie, began to attend the African history seminar and the SOAS conferences. As his Department of Africa, which had the largest collection of Africanist scholars in the world, began to collaborate with historians, in 1959, the History Department hired John Fage, making a total of three African historians. The closer relationship provided unity, which strengthened the SOAS in the face of America’s growing global Africanist presence and prefigured the move to create interdisciplinary centers at the SOAS following the Hayter Report recommendation. Yet collaboration did not completely prevent competition, something Guthrie clearly felt when he complained, in the early 1960s, that African history and law would eclipse language study and make it extinct.29

The 1961 SOAS conference allowed for a fuller and more contentious discussion of the Bantu expansion and included a presentation by the American anthropologist George Murdock, who proposed that African language families could be explained by the evolution of food production strategies in different environments. His proposition that canoes were used in the initial Bantu expansion added weight to Greenberg’s theory of a proto-Bantu Western African homeland. “It was all highly speculative,” wrote Oliver, “but the nature of the discussion illustrates the kind of intellectual scenario in which we were operating at the time. At least, it could now be said African history was acquiring an African baseline.”30

These experiments, if they may be called that, constituted a unique era in African historiography, one that by the 1970s seemed to be almost fading away. Anthony Hopkins, economic historian of West Africa at Birmingham University, suggests that crises facing the continent in that decade brought British historians back to reality; politically and socially, “the Scarbrough and Hayter recommendations faded away to British provincialism.”31 Yet McCracken believed that, the problem of contraction in British African studies notwithstanding, the disillusionment of the 1970s was in some part based on an overstatement of the successes of the early era of Africanist history—as if “we had passed from an age of gold to one of lead.”32 In his view, underdevelopment theory had not served Africanists well and had led to overly deterministic works. Yet some British scholars, he believed, had produced excellent work because of their Africa-based experience and long view of continental history. Even with a nativist social climate in Britain and decreased commitment, such as the British Social Science Research Council’s reduction of funding for African studies from 2.3 percent of its budget to .8 percent between 1977 and 1982, McCracken argued, Africanist historians had placed articles in the prestigious comparative social history journal Past and Present, which was clearly a testament to the impact of Africanists on non-Africanists.

Oliver saw this period as a mixed bag. The SOAS was preparing for a major increase in the number of students, to as many as two thousand at this time. Discussions were underway for transforming conferred degrees in modules composed of multiple subjects, rather than in single subjects, because of the intake of more students and increased teaching demands on faculty. This change was hotly debated because of the impression among some faculty that multidisciplinarity implied more “polytechnic.” Cuts in government funding, however, halted the plan. Africanist historians remained busy, nonetheless, with a crop of doctoral students who were working on precolonial and early colonial history and had regional expertise stretching from Zimbabwe to Ethiopia.33

Indeed, the biggest problem for African history in the 1970s, McCracken argued, was that outside the SOAS and Birmingham, precolonial African history was an “endangered subject.”34 While work on modern Africa was rigorous and important, too much emphasis on it might allow scholars to make simplistic assumptions about precolonial Africa. He also pointed out that the rapidly increasing interest in South African history in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly because of the horrors of apartheid, made the danger of losing sight of other parts of the continent significant. Perhaps McCracken’s most honest observation was to acknowledge that British historians of Africa tended to be white middle-class men who were not entirely in touch with those outside their small circle, particularly Afro-Caribbean intellectuals who had their own, perhaps more political, interests in African history.

McCracken’s fears, voiced in 1993, were not new. Roland Oliver had expressed concern about dwindling interest in precolonial history in the late 1970s,35 and it persisted, despite the positive assessment of Africanist histories of the 1980s as being mature and driven by excellent research.36 Joseph Miller echoed McCracken in his American Historical Association presidential address in 1999. He sought to illustrate the importance of precolonial history and, reflecting back in the 1990s, to highlight the unfinished work of Africanists, particularly in regard to racism in knowledge production.

Notwithstanding the successes of African history—as an academic discipline that non-Africanists had finally come to take seriously—the work was not finished. Early African history was critical for modern history; “without early history to give African context to recent experience, Africans’ appropriation of current opportunities falls by default into projections of Europe’s dreams of ‘modernization,’ or lapses into pessimistic resurrections of meta-histories of terminal decline—as predictions for the future!—to explain their failure.”37 Moreover, African history had failed to be inclusive.

Although the first generations of Africanist historians were progressives, challenging the exclusionary premises of the discipline at the end of World War II, their mission to professionalize and legitimize African history nonetheless excluded black scholars of the diaspora, some of whom held seemingly different interests in the continent’s past. Miller acknowledged Atlantic history’s three legs, one of which had to be African history, as an important step of inclusion, but what space was there for the vision of W. E. B. Du Bois, the African American scholar who had wanted to study African history to understand African American history but had to do so on his own? African historians had largely not shared these priorities and even saw them as not “Africanized” history. Miller insightfully noted that history was a continuing dialectical confrontation, and that historians had to engage difference and subjectivities, not opposites and similitude.

Oliver, who retired from the SOAS in 1986, saw special importance in America’s black peoples to the project of African history, especially in the growth of the discipline in the United States. Upon accepting the Distinguished Africanist Award from the American African Studies Association in 1989, he gave a speech in which he touched on this “built-in interest”:

Europe had played a big part in the initiation of African studies, but Europe seemed to be turning increasingly inwards and towards the problems created by the collapse of the Soviet empire along its eastern frontiers. It lacked . . . [a] significant minority of forty million African Americans. Increasingly, it was in American universities that the most gifted Africans now sought places, not merely as passing students but as mature scholars in search of academic posts that would afford them the opportunities for research and publication that no longer existed in their home countries.38

To this reading of the changing dynamics of African history higher education should be added the transnational research component—African-descended scholars of African history have helped to awaken the field of diaspora studies, going back to very early periods of history, in the United States.


The SOAS’s excellent tradition of African history continues, with productive faculty (though the number has shrunk to four), who must meet the demands of successive research-assessment exercises and mentor a steady number of bachelors, masters, and doctoral students. In the late 1980s, the school introduced an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in African studies that requires African language study because so many students were specializing in Africa without it.39 This measure reveals the lasting commitment to engaging African voices and experiences. African history at the SOAS has also continued to be a humanistic enterprise, and in 2002, it was incorporated into the School of Religion, History, and Philosophies. Former history chair John Parker notes that Africanists outside history, such as the late J. D. Y. Peel, helped to create the imperative to study the African past.40 The strength in African precolonial history has also continued, though like earlier SOAS historians, Professor Richard Reid, now the chair of the History Department, has expressed concern about the overemphasis on modern Africa,41 and he rightly draws attention to scholarship on war and conflict in Africa, which has proliferated. There are the usual reasons why the modern history of Africa has become more popular—the loss of confidence in oral history, the opening of African archives since the 1970s, the challenges of long-term fieldwork, and the difficulties of tracing agency in the deep past from the ground up. But it must also be added that the growth of development studies at universities, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations, not to mention the so-called global war on terror, has, interestingly, created a demand for this research as it pertains to countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and Guinea. As Reid argues, a tendency exists to view war as a modern problem, which then reifies the idea of an idyllic African past, or worse, to make the precolonial past seem muddy, unclear, and impossible to know.

Yet research on precolonial conflict in Africa may come with a price: for lazy readers, it may reify an image of a violent Africa. With many more consumers of African history, and any idea of allowing consumer demand to shape research priorities, come a burden on scholars to communicate to a broader audience, which can bring a whole host of challenges. It must also be asked whether such priorities are shared by non-African and African historians and students.42 As Falola and Jennings suggest, African history overly concerned with the search for authenticity may not have relevance for the outward and worldly orientation many African students and scholars want and have been denied.43 The SOAS has certainly maintained a large enough institution for the pursuit of many different Africanist interests, and it remains to be seen how Brexit might affect higher education generally and area studies more specifically. Media reports already warn of reduced research and student funding, which has historically hurt African studies more than other area studies. Yet it is very likely that strained relations between Britain and the rest of Europe may make British relations with African countries all the more important. SOAS African history has maintained its steady contributions to the scholarly community amid political and economic wrangling, and it will surely adapt to the changes coming in the 21st century.

Discussion of the Literature

Ian Brown’s monograph, The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2016) offers an excellent synthesis of the history of the institution, but no single monograph focuses specifically on the history of African history at the SOAS. Memoirs by major scholarly figures such as Roland Oliver and Cyril Philips, former chair of history and director of the SOAS from 1956 to 1976, combined with histories of the school and other British universities by John Fage, John McCracken, and others provide a more comprehensive picture. The work of the intellectual historians Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia, Toyin Falola, Apollos Nwauwa, Kate Skinner, and others, who address educational institutions and the politics of knowledge flows across institutions, help contextualize the important scholarly debates of different moments.

Primary Sources

Most of the primary sources fall into two categories: reports of the British government and SOAS working groups and memoirs of SOAS faculty. The major reports are extensively discussed in the secondary sources like Brown’s monograph, as they also reveal the position of the British government toward the SOAS and area studies more generally. Published memoirs can also be supplemented with personal communications and formal interviews. A valuable area of future research might be to interview African students and staff at the SOAS, as their viewpoints are not well documented in the presently available sources.

Further Reading

Ajayi, Jacob F. A. “The Place of African History and Culture in the Process of Nation-Building in Africa South of the Sahara.” Journal of Negro Education 30, no. 3 (Summer 1961): 206–213.Find this resource:

    Atkinson, William. “British and American Universities, Languages and Area Studies.” South Atlantic Bulletin 21, no. 2 (1955): 1–4.Find this resource:

      Brizuela-Garcia, Esperanza. “The History of Africanization, and the Africanization of History.” History in Africa 33 (2006): 85–100.Find this resource:

        Brizuela-Garcia, Esperanza. “‘There Is No Place like Home’: African Historiography and the Crisis of Institutions.” In The Study of Africa. Edited by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, 135–167. Codesria Book Series. London: Zed, 2006.Find this resource:

          Brizuela-Garcia, Esperanza. “Towards a Critical Interdisciplinarity? African History and the Reconstruction of Universal Narratives.” Rethinking History 12, no. 3 (2008): 299–316.Find this resource:

            Brown, Ian. The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

              Fage, John D. “British African Studies since the Second World War: A Personal Account.” African Affairs 88, no. 352 (1989): 397–413.Find this resource:

                Falola, Toyin, and Christian Jennings, eds. Africanizing Knowledge: African Studies across the Disciplines. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2005.Find this resource:

                  Flight, Colin. “Bantu Expansion and SOAS Network.” History in Africa 15 (1988): 261–301.Find this resource:

                    Gibb, Hamilton. Area Studies Reconsidered. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1963.Find this resource:

                      Gruffydd Jones, B. “Africanist Scholarship, Eurocentrism, and the Politics of Knowledge.” In Eurocentrism, Racism and Knowledge: Debates on History and Power in Europe and the Americas. Edited by Marta Araújo and Silvia Maeso, 114–135. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.Find this resource:

                        Jewsiewicki, Bogumil. “African Historical Studies: Academic Knowledge as ‘Usable Past’ and Radical Scholarship.” African Studies Review 32 (1989): 1–76.Find this resource:

                          Kirk-Greene, Anthony. The Emergence of African History at British Universities: An Autobiographical Approach. Oxford, UK: WorldView Publications, 1995.Find this resource:

                            Kirk-Greene, Anthony. The British Intellectual Engagement with Africa in the 20th Century. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 2000.Find this resource:

                              Marks, Shula. “The Societies of Southern Africa Seminar at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.” Unpublished paper. London, UK: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 2012.Find this resource:

                                Maxwell, I. C. M. Universities in Partnership: The Inter-University Council and the Growth of Higher Education in Developing Countries 1946–1970. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1980.Find this resource:

                                  McCracken, John. “African History in British Universities: Past, Present, and Future.” African Affairs 92, no. 367 (1993): 239–253.Find this resource:

                                    Miller, Joseph C. “History and Africa/Africa and History.” American Historical Review 104, no. 1 (February 1999): 1–33.Find this resource:

                                      Nwauwa, Apollos Okwuchi. Imperialism, Academe, and Nationalism: Britain and University Education for Africans 1860–1960. London: Frank Cass, 1997.Find this resource:

                                        Oliver, Roland. In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                                          Phillips, C. H. Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Autobiography of Sir Cyril Phillips. London: Radcliffe, 1995.Find this resource:

                                            Phillips, C. H. The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1917–1967. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1967.Find this resource:

                                              Ranger, Terence O. “Towards a Usable African Past.” African Studies since 1945 (1945): 17–30.Find this resource:

                                                Reid, Richard. “Past and Presentism: The ‘Precolonial’ and the Foreshortening of African History.” Journal of African History 52, no. 2 (2011): 135–155.Find this resource:

                                                  Richards, Audrey. “The Adaption of Universities to the African Situation.” Minerva 3, no. 3 (1965): 336–342.Find this resource:

                                                    Schleh, Eugene P. “The Post-War Careers of Ex-servicemen in Ghana and Uganda.” Journal of Modern African Studies 6, no. 2 (1968): 203–220.Find this resource:

                                                      Skinner, Kate. “Agency and Analogy in African History: The Contribution of Extra-mural Studies in Ghana.” History in Africa 34, no. 1 (2007): 273–296.Find this resource:


                                                        (1.) Ian Brown, The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 301–302.

                                                        (2.) Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia, “The History of Africanization, and the Africanization of History,” History in Africa 33 (2006): 88.

                                                        (3.) Brown, School of Oriental and African Studies, 54.

                                                        (4.) Brown, School of Oriental and African Studies, 122.

                                                        (5.) Roland Oliver, In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 55.

                                                        (6.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 57.

                                                        (7.) John D. Fage, “British African Studies since the Second World War: A Personal Account,” African Affairs 88, no. 352 (1989): 397–413.

                                                        (8.) Eugene P. Schleh, “The Post-War Careers of Ex-servicemen in Ghana and Uganda,” Journal of Modern African Studies 6, no. 2 (1968): 204.

                                                        (9.) Schleh, “The Post-War Careers of Ex-servicemen in Ghana and Uganda,” 209.

                                                        (10.) John McCracken, “African History in British Universities: Past, Present, and Future,” African Affairs 92, no. 367 (1993): 239–253.

                                                        (11.) Kate Skinner, “Agency and Analogy in African History: The Contribution of Extra-mural Studies in Ghana,” History in Africa 34, no. 1 (2007): 273–296.

                                                        (12.) Jacob F. A. Ajayi, “The Place of African History and Culture in the Process of Nation-Building in Africa South of the Sahara,” Journal of Negro Education 30, no. 3 (summer 1961): 213.

                                                        (13.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 138–139.

                                                        (14.) Brizuela-Garcia, “History of Africanization,” 90.

                                                        (15.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 294.

                                                        (16.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 348.

                                                        (17.) William Atkinson, “British and American Universities, Languages and Area Studies,” South Atlantic Bulletin 21, no. 2 (1955): 1–4.

                                                        (18.) Audrey Richards, “The Adaption of Universities to the African Situation,” Minerva 3, no. 3 (1965): 341.

                                                        (19.) Brown, School for Oriental and African Studies, 213–214.

                                                        (20.) Fage, “British African Studies,” 413.

                                                        (21.) Brown, School of Oriental and African Studies, 310.

                                                        (22.) Shula Marks, “The Societies of Southern Africa Seminar at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies” (unpublished paper Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 2012).

                                                        (23.) Brown, School of Oriental and African Studies, 203.

                                                        (24.) Richard Reid, “Past and Presentism: The ‘Precolonial’ and the Foreshortening of African History,” Journal of African History 52, no. 2 (2011): 135–155.

                                                        (25.) Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia, “Towards a Critical Interdisciplinarity? African History and the Reconstruction of Universal Narratives,” Rethinking History 12, no. 3 (2008): 299–316.

                                                        (26.) Colin Flight, “Bantu Expansion and SOAS Network,” History in Africa 15 (1988): 271.

                                                        (27.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 139.

                                                        (28.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 143.

                                                        (29.) Brown, School of Oriental and African Studies, 190.

                                                        (30.) Brown, School of Oriental and African Studies, 251.

                                                        (31.) Antony Gerald Hopkins, “From Hayter to Parker: African Economic History at Birmingham University, 1964–86,” African Affairs 86, no. 342 (1987): 92–102.

                                                        (32.) McCracken, “African History in British Universities,” 241.

                                                        (33.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 343–344.

                                                        (34.) McCracken, “African History in British Universities,” 246.

                                                        (35.) Reid, “Past and Presentism.”

                                                        (36.) Hopkins, “From Hayter to Parker.”

                                                        (37.) Joseph C. Miller, “History and Africa/Africa and History,” American Historical Review (February 1999): 24.

                                                        (38.) Oliver, In the Realms of Gold, 407–409.

                                                        (39.) Brown, School for Oriental and African Studies, 271.

                                                        (40.) John Parker, personal communication, March 26, 2018.

                                                        (41.) Reid, “Past and Presentism.”

                                                        (42.) Brizuela-Garcia, “History of Africanization.”

                                                        (43.) Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, eds., Africanizing Knowledge: African Studies across the Disciplines (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2005).