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The history of Africa south of the Sahara Desert, during the fifteen hundred years before colonialism.
For thousands of years almost any country or area outside of Europe and the Middle East was considered to be dark and backward. The "discovery" of civilizations in India and China came as a bit of a surprise to Eurocentric historians but Africa stayed the dark continent until relatively recent times. Just as cartographers and explorers only had a vague idea of the outline of the continent yet knew very little about its interior, so historians knew about its existence but very little about its substance.
Basil Davidson goes even further and calls it the "zone of ignorance" when discussing earlier attempts at writing a history for Africa and its peoples. With very little written history to work with, the scope for making mistakes is quite wide. By equating history to an old painted canvas it is easier to fill in a few holes and get to the answer of what the texture and colours of the blank spot could have been by judging it in the context of the existing canvas. Turn this process around by giving someone the few chards that fell from the canvas and without the knowledge of what the canvas looked like, it becomes impossible to reconstruct the original picture. With no known written historical record this is what historians were faced with.
Davidson acknowledges his predicament and tries to steer to the middle ground by putting it like this: "I have tried to steer between the rock of prejudice and the whirlpool of romance. Inquiries into the African past have suffered from both; and of many writers who have tried to go safely between them, discouragingly few have managed to succeed." He aims to present an outline of what is known and what is "reasonable to believe" about African history in the fifteen hundred years before the colonial period began. He gives a sweeping review of this time-frame over most of sub-Saharan Africa and it makes for some interesting reading. His discussion takes us from the "mystery of Meroë" past the "kingdoms of the old Sudan" through West-Africa down to the stone cities in the south.
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The significance of southern Africa doesn't shine through in this work. There is discussion about Great Zimbabwe and a brief mention of Mapangubwe but he fails to realize the significance of this area in terms of trade with other countries around the Indian Ocean and beyond. Recent evidence supporting the belief that all of humanity originated out of southern Africa and an ancient people not unlike today’s Bushmen, underlines this weakness. Maybe the time has come for an African to start writing Africa's history starting at the cradle of all humanity and following the migration towards populating our world.
This historic work by Dr. Basil Davidson MC, is almost like a text book and definitely not for the casual reader. Those amongst us with a passion for African history or someone looking for specific detail about African history might find it very interesting. It would've been nice if there were more pictures and illustrations in the book and if the maps were made to showed more detail of the different sites under discussion. Considering the time frame in which he wrote the book, it was a major achievement and he showed remarkable insight for an Englishmen from that era.
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