The intensive study of African history at British universities was very much a consequence of the Second World War and the founding of universities in British colonial territories in its immediate aftermath. First in the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Sudan and Uganda, and later in Southern Rhodesia and elsewhere, scholars in newly-established history departments concentrated effort upon regional histories as well as the broader British imperial experience. This had been researched in Britain for as long as history had been a subject at university level.
In Britain, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) became the first university to teach African history. This was shortly after the Scarborough Report (1) recommended that greater attention should be paid to African as well as Asian and Slavonic areas in the light of the country's changing interests in the post-war world. As a result, SOAS advertised for a lectureship in the tribal history of East Africa and Roland Oliver applied for it successfully. In his autobiography,(2) Oliver relates how C. H. Philips, the dynamic head of the history department at the time, told him that 'tribal' was to be interpreted as regional as opposed to colonial history in practice – and Oliver's subsequent career was to be a brilliant application of this interpretation at both SOAS and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICS).
At ICS, Oliver attended seminars on African subjects arranged by ICS's first director, Sir Keith Hancock, as well as organising the African history seminar held there rather than at SOAS during its earliest years.
At SOAS, Oliver attracted a small but extremely talented staff. It is not possible to mention all their names here, but four must be noted:
ICS had been founded within the University of London in the late 1940s by enticing Keith Hancock from the Chichele Chair of Economic History at Oxford University with the offer of a secretary as well as a senate institute; he had been followed as head of ICS by Kenneth Robinson, a high official in the British Colonial Office immediately before, during and after the Second World War, who stayed for another ten years before becoming Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University, and then by W. H. Morris-Jones, professor of politics at Durham University, historian of the Indian parliament, and an enthusiast for all sorts of postgraduate and even post-professorial seminars at ICS.
All these seminars were based upon pre-circulated papers, distributed a week before being discussed, and typed up or photocopied for this purpose by secretaries in the history department at SOAS or by Sonja Jansen, for many years the seminar secretary at ICS. Nowadays bound copies of these papers are preserved in the archives looked after by the University of London Research Library Services (ULRLS) and constitute an important academic resource for future research in their own right. This is especially the case with seminars held during Hancock's directorship, when many British colonial territories were moving towards independence very rapidly and extensive notes were made of discussions during seminars sometimes attended by participants in these events as well as by historians studying them at the time.
D. Fage, 'British African studies since the Second World War: a personal account', African Affairs, 88 (1989), 397–413.
Oliver, In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History (London, 1997).
Parker and R. Rathbone, African History: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007).
L. Turner, 'Oriental and African studies in Great Britain', Journal of Higher Education, 19 (1948), 284–7.
Michael Twaddle is an Emeritus fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London