African Genius
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African Genius

Basil Davidson

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📖 eBook - ePub

African Genius

Basil Davidson

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The African Genius presents the ideas, social systems, religions, moral values, arts, and metaphysics of a range of African peoples. Basil Davidson points toward the Africa that might emerge from an ancient civilization that was overlaid and battered by colonialism, then torn apart by the upheaval of colonialism’s dismantlement. Davidson disputes the notion that Africa gained under colonialism by entering the modern world. He sees, instead, an ancient order replaced by modern dysfunction. Davidson’s depiction of the sophisticated “native genius” that has carried Africans through centuries of change is vital to an understanding of modern Africa as well.

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part one
Africa’s World
Behold, I have set the land before you. . . .
Deuteronomy 1.8
And ye shall divide the land . . . for an inheritance among your families . . . according to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit.
Numbers XXXIII.54
‘Just plain nonsense. . . .’ and after
AT ONE OF THEIR GATHERINGS OF 1861 THE DISTINGUISHED Victorians of London’s Ethnographical Society found themselves with a delicate problem. They had invited a foreigner, a gentleman from France, to speak on travels through the unexplored forests of equatorial Africa. And why not? They were men who took pride in a liberal breadth of international outlook. Unfortunately this French gentleman, this M. du Chaillu for whom their shocked Transactions could afterwards find no Christian name, had not proved satisfactory. In discussing a horde of largely naked savages called the Mpongwe, M. du Chaillu had appeared to suggest that these natives might be other than they seemed. He had gone so far as to argue for certain redeeming features. He had even spoken with some respect of their religion.
It was understandable that the ethnographers should have felt a need to set matters right in the wake of such remarks. They lived in dangerous Darwinian years when the frontiers and even the foundations of proper and accepted belief had begun to take a serious buffeting. There were even moments, if you took a long view, when it seemed as though there were no longer any natural and reliable divide to save the members of the Ethnographical Society from a distant origin in beings so unfortunate as those they called the ‘tawny Bosjeman’ and the ‘leather-skinned Hottentot’. Carried to logical conclusions, such opinions could only be subversive of established law and order. Feeling that something must be done, the ethnographers called in Captain Richard Burton. He, they knew, could be relied upon to use his great authority in the proper way.
Captain Burton did not let them down. This already famous explorer began by offering a redeeming African feature to match M. du Chaillu’s. He opined that ‘an abnormal development of adhesiveness, in popular language a peculiar power of affection, is the brightest spot in the negro character’. Yet this was about as much as could sensibly be said for the natives he had known. M. du Chaillu, they must believe, had been lucky: he had run into a better lot than usual. Compared with them, however, there was the ‘superior degeneracy of the eastern tribes’, not to mention all the others one could think of. No doubt the Mpongwe might have some sort of religious belief. It might also be true that ‘the religion of the Africans is ever interesting to those of a maturer faith, as the study of childhood is pleasing to those of riper years’. But one ought not to go too far.
Not only, in Burton’s view, had Africans failed to develop from the primitive to the less primitive: they had also reached a point of helplessness at which, if left to themselves, they would never do any better. In that great schedule of hierarchical progress from Savagery to Civilisation imagined by the more conservative Victorians, with Europe at the peak and zenith of the line, the Africans were simply not in the race. Perhaps they had once set out, though this was more than doubtful: if so, they had long since stopped running. Exactly why was not known. But the reason, whatever it might be, was generally agreed to lie in some fatal deficiency of their nature. Some experts thought it was a matter of the African brain’s being too small for civilised development. Others argued that the root of the trouble lay not so much in brain size as in diminished frontal lobes, or an insufficiently reliable ‘supragranular layer of cortex’. The results, in any case, were understood to be deplorable. Once an African had become adult, Burton opined in a view widely accepted, ‘his mental development is arrested, and thenceforth he grows backwards instead of forwards’.
Defended by their travellers, these Victorians held firm to their hierarchies of racial progress and found plenty of evidence to fortify them. Returning from the Upper Nile in 1866 Sir Samuel Baker assured them that the African ‘mind is as stagnant as the morass which forms its puny world’, and other explorers said much the same. It followed that the evolutionists had clearly got things wrong; and there was quiet satisfaction among the more respectable members of the Ethnographical Society, in that same year of 1866, when the impetuous Dean Farrar proposed once and for all to set the record straight by dividing humanity into three great classes, ‘the Savage races, the Semi-civilised races, and finally the two Civilised races’—the latter categories, of course, including none like the Mpongwe.
We are generally a long way from such views. But they are worth recalling if only for their perfectly dramatic contrast with those of modern science. In 1896 a well-known teacher of philosophy at Durham University, F. B. Jevons, published an Introduction to the History of Religion which became a standard work. Seventy years later a modern anthropologist of Africa, among the most eminent of his day, could summarise current opinion on Jevons’s book by describing it as a ‘collection of absurd reconstructions, unsupportable hypotheses and conjectures, wild speculations, suppositions and assumptions, inappropriate analogies, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations, and, especially in what he wrote about totems, just plain nonsense’.
Old views about Africa are worth recalling for another reason. Though vanished from serious discussion, they still retain a kind of underground existence. The stercoraceous sediment of Burton’s opinions, and of others such as Burton, has settled like a layer of dust and ashes on the minds of large numbers of otherwise thoughtful people, and is constantly being swirled about. What this leads to, despite all factual evidence to the contrary, are endless suspicions that writers such as Lothrop Stoddard were or are just possibly right when they wrote or write about the ‘natural and inherent inferiority’ of Africans; that ‘in the negro, we are in the presence of a being differing profoundly not merely from the white man but also from [other] human types’; or that ‘the negro . . . has contributed virtually nothing’ to the civilisation of the world. However scientifically mistaken, these notions apparently remain part of our culture.
Often it is the aggressive violence of such opinions that most surprises. But perhaps one ought not to be surprised. These notions arose essentially from an identification of categories of ‘race’ and ‘class’. Outside their comfortable windowpanes Victorian men of property saw the hateful Devil of a new proletariat, hungry, abused, always liable to strike; and they feared what they saw. At another remove they viewed the Africans in the same obscuring light: as beings of ‘the lower orders’ whom civilisation, if it were to survive, must keep sternly ‘in their place’. They accordingly tended to think of Africans not only as children incapable of growing up, but as dangerous and potentially criminal children. All but a few agreed that these ‘natives’ could not safely be admitted to the salons of human equality.
If views like these have managed to remain alive, it is also true that the twentieth century has done something to clear them away. Even during the central colonial period, when inquiry into the nature of African humanity was generally at a low ebb, anthropologists who followed Durkheim and Malinowski played an important part, as St Clair Drake has pointed out, in ‘helping us to see African societies steadily and to see them whole. They have made clear the meaning and function of cultural elements and institutional arrangements which might otherwise have been dismissed as mere foolish or bizarre custom.’ Thanks to them, we have got ourselves clear of much of the racialist mythology of the nineteenth century: whether from pseudo-scientific Burtoniana of the moralising sort, or from the kind of observation, by no means rare in its connotations of sexual prurience or anxiety, that was offered by an anthropologist of a century ago, in this case a Brazilian, who reassured his learned readers that whereas ‘the penis of the African’ might be ‘large and heavy’ under normal circumstances, it ‘increases little in size during an orgasm, and never achieves complete rigidity’.
Yet it was still necessary to set African reality within its historical context. The anthropologists of the colonial period did not do this. Largely under Malinowski’s severely anti-historical influence, they deliberately looked upon African societies as being timeless entities without past or future. ‘It did not occur to us’, in the words of one of them, ‘to try to relate tribal traditions to a possible actual sequence of historic events in any areas in which we worked.’ Nor, with this view, would it have done any good to try. ‘We cannot have a history of African institutions’, taught the similarly influential Radcliffe-Brown, who for a long time took the same view; there was simply no means of making such a history, and therefore no point in attempting one.
The result of this synchronic approach was greatly to strengthen the impression of a ‘complete otherness’ of African societies. Presented without history, as living in a perpetual vacuum of experience, these strange peoples came to seem the denizens of a Garden of Eden left over from the remote past. Logically enough, they began to be called ‘the undeveloped peoples’. For development supposes history, and they were said to have none.
After the second world war the historians at last got to work in Africa, and the Garden of Eden rapidly disappeared. Soon they were joined by a new and sometimes brilliant school of anthropologists. African societies began to be studied diachronically, as happening in time, and then it was found that in fact a great deal had happened to them. All this has helped to erase the impression of ‘otherness’. It now becomes clear that Africans have developed in ways recognisably the same as other peoples. Individually or collectively, they have arranged their lives on the same basic assumptions, whether of logic or morality, as everyone else. The forms have been as different as Africa is different from Europe, Asia or America: but not the principles of intelligence and apprehension, not the essential content.
What comes out is the picture of a complex and subtle process of growth and change behind and within the technological simplicities of former times. The societies still partially observable yesterday, and even today after the storm-driven erosions of colonial rule, were and are the terminal structures of an ancient evolution. To borrow a phrase applied by Grottanelli to the arts of Africa, they are to be seen not as points of departure but as points of arrival.
In many ways this was a world of its own, a world of country values and beliefs, very much a rural world. Even the large exceptions to this rule, the crowding market cities with their kings and traders, only help to prove it. Much the greatest number of tropical Africans lived in former times, as many live today, in villages or scattered homesteads, having few material possessions, knowing nothing or little of the written word, enjoying the present as a gift from the golden age of their ancestors, and not much caring for a different future. Yet their technological simplicity was no guide to their social and cultural achievement. In truth they had tamed a continent.
East Coast sea-fishing trap of a type with many local varieties, this one being about 100 cms. wide.
Formative Origins
IN SETTING OUT TO MASTER THEIR OWN CONTINENT, AFRICANS MADE a first and crucial contribution to the general growth of mankind. Most physical anthropologists seem now to have accepted that vital evolutionary steps which led from near-men towards true men were taken in Africa: in some recent words of Leakey’s that it was ‘the African continent which saw the emergence of the basic stock which eventually gave rise to the apes, as well as to man as we know him today’, and where ‘the main branch which was to end up as man broke away from those leading to the apes’.
Not all the experts would yet agree with Leakey’s third claim for Africa’s primacy in the production of man : that ‘it was also in Africa that true man separated from his manlike (and now extinct) cousins, the australopithecines or “near-men” of two million years ago’. But even if Africa was not in this direct sense the immediate birthplace of homo sapiens, there is now a wide consensus for the view, as Posnansky puts it, ‘that Africa was in some respects the centre of the Stone Age world’. Though only about 125,000 people may have inhabited the continent a hundred thousand years ago, according to a recent guess, they were probably more numerous than the population of any other continent. They had gone further, in other words, towards conquest of their environment. By the end of the Late Stone Age, they may have multiplied to as many as three or four millions.
They belonged to several indigenous types. Some of their surviving descendants include the Pygmies of the Congo forests and the Bushmen of the south-western deserts. These ‘small peoples’ were much more widely spread then than now. There may have been as many as a million Bushmen south of the Zambezi at the end of the Late Stone Age, whereas today there are fewer than 50,000. Other but related types included the ancestors of the Khoi (‘Hottentots’) of Southern Africa; the ancestors of the robust and dark-skinned ‘Negroes’ of western and central Africa; and those who had descended from a mingling of indigenous peoples with neighbouring Asians, in the north and north-east, that possibly occurred as early as the Middle Stone Age.
These ancestral peoples evolved by intermarriage. They did so to such a point that today it is seldom possible, by blood-group analysis, ‘genetically to distinguish very clearly or consistently even among such morphologically diverse groups as Bushmen, Pygmies, and Negroes’. They mingled and moved about their continent, slowly populating it. Of these migrations the most important was that of the ‘Negroes’, whose Bantu-speaking family of peoples, probably spreading originally from western Africa at least three thousand years ago, have long become dominant south of the Equator.
The linguistic evidence is a little more helpful. African linguistic studies are still immersed in controversy about origins and relationships. But they suggest that all the ancient languages of Africa belonged to a handful of ‘founding families’ which derived from remote Stone Age progress. As peoples became more numerous and moved about, these mother tongues divided in the course of centuries into a much larger number of ‘sub-families’; and these in turn ramified as time went by into the multitude of languages spoken today. The actual numbers need not worry us here; the point is in their ramification. As a rough and ready guide to this process one may take a schematic view, adapting Greenberg’s language data:
Early Stone Age
Late Stone Age
Iron Age
Up to 50,000 years ago
Up to 2,000 years ago
Spread and multiplication up to AD 1900
4 mother tongues 125,000 people
37 main languages 3–4 million people
730 languages 150 million people
Nothing as statistically neat will have actually occurred, but the development of new ethnic identities may have been broadly along these lines. Very slow in remote Stone Age centuries, the rate of growth and differentiation accelerated in the Late Stone Age and became comparatively rapid after the onset of the Iron Age some two thousand years ago.
In so far as one can hope to trace the origins of African civilisation, it is clearly in this direction one must look: to the formative problems and solutions found by small groups faced with the destiny of peopling one of the world’s largest and physically most testing land masses. Here it is that one may light upon crucial keys to questions of moo...

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APA 6 Citation
Davidson, B. (2005). African Genius (1st ed.). Ohio University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2005)
Chicago Citation
Davidson, Basil. (2005) 2005. African Genius. 1st ed. Ohio University Press.
Harvard Citation
Davidson, B. (2005) African Genius. 1st edn. Ohio University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Davidson, Basil. African Genius. 1st ed. Ohio University Press, 2005. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.