Obituary: Basil Davidson

Journalist and historian who wrote several books on the current plight of Africa

Born: 9 November, 1914, in Bristol.

Died: 9 July 2010, aged 95.

A JOURNALIST, an expert on Portuguese Africa, historian, acclaimed writer and member of the British Secret Service, Basil Davidson managed to squeeze every last inch out of his 95 years.

Born in Bristol to Thomas and Jessie Davidson, Basil Risbridger Davidson harboured ambitions of being a writer from a young age. He left school at 16, but instead of following his dream he landed in the north of England working in banana advertising.

In 1931, after moving to London, he was employed by the Economist, which posted him to Paris as a reporter. His work took him all over Europe and Davidson showed a gift for languages.

He remained with the publication until the rise of Hitler and in December 1939 he joined the British Army, where his experiences and skills were identified by the Secret Service.

He was posted to Budapest, working for the Secret Intelligence Service, a section of MI6, 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 fell foul of the British Ambassador, who was less than enthusiastic that Davidson was using the Embassy cellar to hoard high explosives.

The Nazi march across Europe forced Davidson to flee to Yugoslavia in April 1941, and shortly after he was caught and detained by the Italian army. His release came as part of a prisoner exchange and from 1942 he was chief of the Special Operations Executive in Cairo. He was also the supervisor of James Klugmann, who would go on to fame as a writer and historian of the British Communist Party.

Davidson was a tall and powerful individual, and such physical traits served him well as the war heightened in intensity. His job in Cairo was to operate Yugoslav agent logistics, sending operatives to both the royalists and Tito's communists. It was the communists that Davidson would end up joining in the harsh terrain of the Danube valley, fighting with the guerillas.

Davidson was transferred to Liguria, Italy, in 1945 where he was liaison officer with the partisans. They managed to take Genoa while awaiting back up from Allied forces.

Despite his busy war, Davidson found time to marry Marion in 1943, shortly before he was posted back to the sharp end. They had three children; Nicholas, Keir and James.

Davidson's military career came to a close at the end of the Second World War, by which time he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel, received the Military Cross, the US army bronze star and had been mentioned in dispatches twice.

He returned to his chosen career and was the Paris correspondent for the Times until 1947, when he became European leader writer while continuing to write freelance.

His work for the Secret Service earned Davidson plaudits for his bravery, but the ease with which he worked with communists also gained him a reputation in the halls of government as a "fellow traveller" and he was once described by the Foreign Office as "dangerous". This label followed his career, and the government put the brakes on his appointment as editor of Unesco, aware that his writings on Africa were popular in Moscow.

It was his writings on Africa for which Davidson's reputation was largely built, and at the time of his death he had written more than 30 books on the continent. His style was predominantly that of a historian and it was African history and the consequences of external involvement that concerned him most of all. His textbooks are still in wide circulation in both east and west Africa.

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. He was also particularly scathing of effects of the slave trade on Africans.

The liberation wars of the 1980s made African travel significantly more dangerous and Davidson turned his attention to the more theoretical questions concerning the future of the continent and its people.

In 1984 he branched out in to the world of television, producing the series Africa for Channel 4. His intention was to change the public perceptions of what they believed Africa to be: a largely famine ridden hell-hole run by corrupt and lawless dictators. He wanted to abandon the idea that Africa and its peoples were in some way backward, an unsophisticated.

The series won the Gold Award, at the International Film and Television Festival of New York in 1984. While it may have achieved its goal short term, the Band Aid appeal of the next year will have reversed that work as the world was then subjected to the horror of a starving Ethiopia. His writings included: The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (1992); the collection of essays The Search for Africa (1994); and his final book, West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850 (1998).

Davidson was the recipient of many literary awards. In 1960 his The Lost Cities of Africa won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for best book. His dedication to African history won him the 1970 Gold Medal from Haile Selassies and in 1976 he won the Medalha Amilcar Cabral.

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.

Davidson is survived by his wife Marion and three sons.

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