The Royal African Society was founded in 1901 in memory of Mary Kingsley, an English travel writer and ethnographer whose two trips to West Africa significantly shaped British perceptions of the continent. Kingsley spoke frequently of a society that could bring together academics, friends, political figures and traders with an interest in Africa, but the Africa Society (as it was originally called) did not become a reality until a year after her death in 1900.
Since its inception, the Society’s principle objective has been to foster a better understanding of Africa in the UK. That mission was inevitably interpreted – for better or worse – in the light of the prevailing assumptions of the time. In its early decades, its membership included many colonial officers, merchants, traders, businessmen as well as academics and missionaries, some of whom no doubt reflected attitudes common at the time, which we would now consider paternalist, patronising and even racist, but also others who were to be instrumental in changing those same perceptions.
Over time, while the mission has remained broadly the same, the Society has changed dramatically to become the inclusive, pan-African membership organisation that it is today.
1901 – 1914
The Society was originally established “for the purpose of investigating the usages, institutions, customs, religions, antiquities, history and languages of the native races of Africa; of facilitating the commercial and industrial development of the continent in the manner best fitted to secure the welfare of its inhabitants; and as a central institution in England for the study of African subjects.”
For the time, these objectives were progressive and the Society primarily pursued them through the setting up of a journal to publish factual information and research about Africa. That publication – now called African Affairs – remains the oldest, most prestigious and highly-ranked academic journal on Africa today.
1914 – 1929
During the First World War, the Society continued to publish and hold meetings focused around the political and military turmoil. In 1917, Jan Smuts, a South African general who went on to become its Prime Minister, gave a lecture in which he outlined sentiments that later hardened into the practices of apartheid. Similar beliefs were later reflected in an address given by the Society’s president, but opposing views, calling for greater African political participation, were increasingly being expressed in the journal even at this early time.
In the 1920s, the Society established the Medal of the African Society, supported by Henry Wellcome. The inaugural prize was awarded to the society’s retiring president Sir Harry Johnston. In 1924-5, it was awarded to Lord Lugard, architect of the amalgamation of a group of British territories into the colony of Nigeria and author of the de facto manual for British colonialism The Dual Mandate in British Africa (1922). As well as regular lectures, an annual dinner began to be held to celebrate the work of the Society.
1930 – 1945
It was only in the 1930s that people from Africa began to be directly represented in the Society’s activities. The journal notes the participation of some Africans in various conferences and commissions, and African authors began to be published in the journal itself. It was in 1935 that the King formally agreed to become Patron of the Society and it adopted the word ‘Royal’ into its title.
During the Second World War, the journal was affected by paper rationing and was notably sparse, though it did continue publication. The 1940 edition noted: “like every British organisation, the Royal African Society, saw at once in the outbreak of the War an opportunity of increasing its service to the King, its Patron and to our Country, and Empire”.
The journal’s articles, while primarily informative, still reflected both old-fashioned paternalist views as well as more progressive viewpoints. In 1945, the Society’s journal was renamed as African Affairs.
By the end of the Second World War, the rising political pressure in Africa for independence was increasingly reflected in the journal. Colonial administrators wrote anxiously and constitutional and political battles were discussed in its pages. At the same time, more and more Africans attended the Society’s meetings and, in 1948, Fela Sowande is recorded as the first to give a talk, in this case on African music.
The Society came to see itself as uniquely placed to provide a platform for discussions on contemporary African issues. A Council member wrote: “The Royal African Society is in a position to make a serious contribution to the study of continental problems, which concern not only Africa but also Europe and civilisation at large. Its platform is detached, independent and non-political in any narrow partisan sense.”
Through the 1950s, the journal increasingly reflected African academic voices on issues of decolonisation and independence though European ones still dominated. In March 1957, the Society held a tea-party in celebration of Ghana’s independence.
1960s – 1970s
In the 1960s, as more African countries gained independence, perceptions shifted within African Affairs and in the Society, which for the first time elected some African members to its Council. In the heated debates over Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, a number of members apparently resigned over the Society’s opposition to the declaration and support for majority rule.
In 1963, a conference agreed to form the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK), whose membership was to be independent of, but associated with, the Society. ASAUK started holding an annual conference. In 1965, the Society made a formal request for a Royal Charter, which was officially conferred upon it on in May 1968.
In the 1970s, the Society hosted a growing number of prominent speakers from Africa including, in 1975, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.
1980s – 1990s
In the 1980s and early-1990s, the Society increased its involvement in academia as well as hosting a wide range of speakers from Africa including Nuruddin Farah, Kole Omotoso and Ebun Jones. In 1989, the Council established the Mary Kingsley Memorial Lecture. The inaugural address was given by Ghanaian musicologist Kofi Agawu.
In the lead up to its centenary celebrations in 2001, the Council commissioned a history of the Society. It moved from its old offices in the Royal Commonwealth Society to new offices within the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. This consolidated a supportive relationship between the Society and SOAS, which continues to this day.
2000s – Present
In 2002, Richard Dowden, former Africa Editor at The Economist, became the Society’s first full-time Executive Director. Under his tenure, the Society launched several new programmes and expanded its staff.
In 2003, the Society supported the establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa providing the secretariat ever since. The APPG has played a key role in influencing the perception of Africa in the UK, encouraging British parliamentarians to engage with African issues and influencing Government policy on Africa. Dowden also introduced a corporate engagement programme whose regular meetings with political and financial leaders complemented the Society’s prestigious Annual Lecture.
In 2009, the Society collaborated with a number of organisations, including the International African Institute, to launch the African Arguments book series, published by ZED Books. The series, which tackles a wide range of African issues in an accessible way, was followed a couple of years later by the creation of an online pan-African website under the same name which provides specialist and informed commentary on current political, social, economic and cultural affairs in Africa.
In 2008, the Society supported the launch of the London African Film Festival, which evolved into Film Africa in 2011, and in 2012, the Society launched Africa Writes celebrating contemporary African writing. To bring more awareness of African culture, literature and film to schools and younger audiences, the Society initiated an arts-based education and outreach programme through Africa Writes Young Voices and Film Africa Young Audiences.
In 2017, Richard Dowden retired as Director and was succeeded by Nick Westcott, a former diplomat and academic with a long engagement with Africa. At the same time, The Queen passed on the role of Royal Patron to HRH The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William.