July 14, 2010

Radical journalist and historian Basil Davidson died aged 95

The Politburo of Angola's ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has paid tribute to the late British journalist and historian, Basil Davidson, describing him as an ardent supporter and political activist of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa. A press statement issued in Luanda said Davidson, who passed away on 9 July in London, aged 95, was the first western journalist to visit the MPLA liberated areas in eastern Angola during the 1970s, at the height of the war against Portuguese colonialism. The Angolan ruling party stated that he stood out for his contribution to the national liberation war, particularly with his reports about the Angolan people's freedom fight, which attracted world attention.

Davidson, an ardent supporter and political activist of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and for the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, was for many years at the centre of the liberation campaign on the continent, especially in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe.
„Extremely tall and with a shock of white hair, and possessing the old-fashioned courtesy of the ex-army officer that he was – or even of the country gentleman that he eventually became after his move to the West Country – he was an unlikely figure at many of these often incoherent and sometimes sectarian events, usually run by student activists and exiles“, writes the British newspaper The Guardian in its orbituray.

He was born in Bristol and left school at 16, but instead of following his dream of becoming a writer he landed in the north of England working in banana advertising. From 1931, Davidson served as a reporter for the London "Economist“ in Paris. He remained with the publication until the rise of Hitler and in December 1939 he joined the British Army and was posted to Budapest, working for the Secret Intelligence Service under the guise of a news service commissioner. His job was to rouse the resistance in Hungary, and in his enthusiasm to aid the war effort he came into conflict with the British Ambassador, who opposed Davidson’s using the Embassy cellar to stock explosives.

The Nazi invasion across Europe forced Davidson to flee to Yugoslavia in 1941, shortly after the Italian army caught and detained him. His release was as part of a prisoner exchange. From 1942 he worked as the chief of the Special Operations Executive in Cairo, where he carried out Yugoslav agent logistics, first to the royalists and then to Tito's guerrillas. Davidson was eventually parachuted into Yugoslavia himself, to join the guerrillas in the Vojvodina. He was then transferred to the Ligurian hills of northern Italy where he and his partisan band seized Genoa before the arrival of American or British forces.

Davidson's military career came to am end in 1945, he returned to journalism in Paris again, this time as a correspondent for the Times. In 1947 he continued writing freelance. It was his writings on Africa for which his reputation was largely built, and at the time of his death he had written more than 30 books dealing with Africa. It was African history and the consequences of external involvement that dominated his work.
Known for his attention to detail, Davidson wrote passionately about the pre-Colonial achievements of the African people, and the subsequent negative influence of European administrations. After the liberation wars of the 1980s he turned his attention to more theoretical questions concerning the future of the continent and its people.

A respected intellectual, Davidson was recognised by universities around the world.
He was an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Oriental and African Studies and was awarded honorary degrees or appointments by the Open University, Edinburgh, Turin, Bristol, California, Ghana and Manchester. Among his friends were the historians Thomas Hodgkin, EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. The Palestinian scholar Edward Said placed him in a select band of western artists and intellectuals with a sympathy and comprehension of foreign cultures that meant that they had "in effect, crossed to the other side".
Basil Davidson is survived by his wife and his three sons. (sadocc)

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