Africa, Britain and the Royal African Society: 120 Years of Change
Posted on 14th June, 2021 in Director's Blog
This year is the 120th Anniversary of the Royal African Society. This is worth celebrating, but also examining. Relations between Africa and Britain have changed dramatically in that time, as has the Society itself. In some ways, they reflect each other.
The historical territory is both complex and contested, so I underline that this is very much a personal perspective. But I will try to do three things:
– describe what the Society was doing and saying;
– explain the changes over time, particularly after independence;
– and set out an agenda for the future.
Reading through 120 years’ worth of the Society’s journal – roughly 700,000 pages – proved illuminating. It underlined the journal’s value as a historical source on changing British attitudes to Africa. The full story will be published in October in the Anniversary issue of African Affairs. So this talk can give only a brief glimpse of this past.
It will show that, at the outset, the Society gave space to African voices, but that these disappeared after 1914 as the Society was absorbed within the wider British imperial project. They re-surfaced in the 1940s, growing louder up to independence. But in the 60 years since then, the Society has changed again, from being predominantly a British voice about Africa to becoming a platform for African voices in Britain – and this is what points the way to the Society’s future.
The African Society (its original name: it became Royal only in 1935) was founded in 1901 in memory of Mary Kingsley, an unusual Victorian traveller in Africa. She came neither to preach nor to rule, but to listen and understand Africans from their own point of view, a view she reflected in her two books on her travels in West Africa which caused a sensation when published in the 1890s.
She died in 1900 in South Africa at the age of 36, and the Society was founded in her memory on 27 June 1901.
Two of the largest initial donations came from Africans: R.B. Blaise, a Lagos merchant, and E.W. Blyden, a Liberian man who was working for the British colonial administration in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Blyden, revered by early African nationalists such as Nkrumah and Azikiwe, was a Vice-President of the Society and published articles on education in its journal before his death in 1912. He saw, as Chinua Achebe described 50 years later in Things Fall Apart, that traditional African social structures were decaying rapidly under the impact of European rule and that what was needed was not their preservation, but their transformation.
A number of Africans were directly involved in the founding of the Society: contributing money, sitting on its Council, attending meetings and publishing in its journal – in the last case, this included Pixley Ka Isaka Seme (founder of the ANC), other contributors from Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Malawi, and even Booker T. Washington from the US. In 1913, a meeting for African students in the UK attracted 40 African participants. In 1906, one of the first Presidents of the Society, Sir Harry Johnson, expressed the hope that “Africans may not only equal but exceed our European members, and that shortly all educated Africans will cooperate with us in making Africa well known” in Britain.
But it was not to be.
As Mary Kingsley’s friends died or departed, and its finances became more precarious, the Society turned into a more exclusively imperial affair, strongly imbued with the ideology of the time. From 1914 until 1944, African authors almost entirely disappeared from the journal and African speakers from its platforms. The Society occasionally welcomed the likes of the Sultan of Zanzibar at a grand reception in 1929, but he reinforced rather than undermined the African stereotype.
The Society’s original objectives were the examination of “many subjects in Africa, such as Racial Characteristics, Labour, Disease, Currency, Banking, Education and Political and Industrial Conditions”, and the journal was to be “the best and most reliable book of reference on all African subjects.” But this knowledge production about Africa was not a disinterested exercise: its objective was to understand Africa in order to enhance the success of British rule.
The purpose of that rule, according to Lord Avebury in his Presidential address to the Society in 1902 (which I quote here to illustrate, not to offend) was:
…to secure for the natives the inestimable blessings of freedom, justice and peace… The Partition of Africa [only 18 years before] may be justified, but only if the nations of Europe regard their position as a sacred trust: if they endeavour to lift the black pall which so long overshadowed the ‘dark continent’ and to brighten the lot of the unfortunate natives, for so many ages the victims of tyranny and oppression but for whom we may venture to hope that brighter times are now in prospect.”
It would be hard to find a more succinct summation of the imperial ideology: the denigration of pre-colonial Africa as barbarous and uncivilised, the glossing over of the violence of colonial occupation, the assertion of a civilising mission based on the unquestioned moral and material superiority of Western civilisation, and the justification of colonial rule as a form of ‘trusteeship’. It has it all.
In the interwar years, the heyday of Empire, articles in the journal discussed the people, the languages and the resources of Britain’s new possessions on the continent. But the Society was in many ways a classic illustration of Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism about knowledge in the service of power, entrenching the inequality between ruler and ruled, defining the terms of what knowledge was regarded as valid and useful.
At its regular monthly dinners, the Society entertained a parade of colonial governors, colonial secretaries – Winston Churchill, waxing lyrical about the economic benefits of Africa to Britain, and Leo Amery encouraging white settlement – and even, in 1926, the Prince of Wales himself. In that year, the Society dropped Mary Kingsley from its logo, replacing her with a map of Africa.
The focus was largely on how to rule Africa and how to develop it as an economic asset. But there were also debates within the Society about kinds of imperial rule in Africa.
One argument was over white settlement. Early settlers shared an assumption that the British had a God-given right to migrate and settle wherever they wanted. This is ironic given their successors’ determination to deny that same right to the descendants of those they once ruled. But the settlers sought to keep Africans separate, “respecting” Africans’ “different traditions”, but confining them to inferior land and social and material subordination. Others argued, in the spirit of Mary Kingsley, for putting African interests first. This gave rise to a succession of articles or speeches on “The Native Problem in Country X or Y”.
This was also reflected in the education debate: whether Africans should have an “appropriate” education based on manual, technical and agricultural skills, or be allowed to have a “European” style literary education – which, as a number of District Officers observed, seemed to be what Africans themselves wanted. Many colonial officials had a deep suspicion of the “educated native” whose ideas of equality challenged the colonial order. In effect the 1920s and 1930s saw the marginalisation of the emerging African middle class beneath a de facto “colour bar”, hastening the emergence of African nationalism.
Unusually, in 1934, the Society’s journal published a piece by an African author on the issue of education. Ben Nnamdi Azikiwe’s article “How shall we educate the African?” argued:
The African is human, and is intellectually alert just as the average European, Asiatic or American. What he needs is an opportunity to demonstrate his capabilities. Education knows no race or colour or creed. …The African is not, and never has been a problem; there is no such thing as an African educational problem; those who believe in such an oddity are problems themselves.
Azikiwe became shortly after the editor of the West African Pilot, a pioneering nationalist newspaper, and, in 1960, the first president of an independent Nigeria.
A third argument was over indirect rule, using “native authorities” as colonial intermediaries. Anthropologists, recruited to help implement it, proved subversive by actually listening to Africans. Lucy Mair, one of the pioneers, told the Society that Africans demonstrated exactly the same characteristics of economic individualism as Europeans, and Margery Perham (not an anthropologist, but another listener) pointed out that it was hard to base indirect rule on African structures that were actually in constant flux. Africans were even more blunt: one participant from the Gold Coast condemned indirect rule for causing “the divorcement of the people from their chiefs and elders”, who had become mere agents of government, and attacked the colonial concept of trusteeship as “a weariness to the people and a camouflage to rob them of their freedom and liberty of speech.”
This discussion also highlights the important role that women played in the Society from its foundation. In 1908, there were 60 women members (about 10% of the total), and one of the early editors of its journal was Alice Werner, the leading African linguist of her day and, in 1917, a founding member of what became the School of Oriental and African Studies. She promoted Swahili poetry and the histories that Africans themselves were already writing of their own continent. But hers was a lonely voice.
For the Society, as for the world, the Second World War marked a watershed. Britain itself emerged from the war completely different country, as did the Empire.
In 1944, a journalist and broadcaster, Henry Swanzy, became editor of what was now re-named African Affairs. He took it in a new direction, focussing on politics and current affairs and began to restore the African voices that had been lost – including through the publication of contemporary African poetry.
The Society’s activities were still dominated by debate about Africa amongst Britain’s governing classes and colonial elite. But the debate was no longer about how to rule Africa but how to manage its politics, over which they were losing control, and how to accelerate development for the benefit of Africans, not just the metropolis. The indirect rule ideology of Lord Lugard was replaced firstly by the gradualist reformism of Lord Hailey, and then by Andrew Cohen’s management of an orderly decolonisation.
Colonial governors still paraded before the Society’s meetings, but to discuss the progress of their territories’ development plans and the reform of legislative councils and local government to bring in African representation. The aim was to keep a self-governing Africa within the western sphere of influence, and out of Soviet clutches. The Society’s discussions show clearly that Cold War politics and the British national interest remained central to the decolonisation process until the end.
The culmination of this shift in British policy was summed up in a speech by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Society on 13 April 1960, just returned from giving his “Wind of Change” speech in South Africa.
“It would be foolish”, he declared, “to try to conceal the fact that our policy and that of the [South African] Union Government differ widely – even fundamentally.” Apartheid, he said, was “wrong and unworkable”. Decolonisation, he claimed, was “the triumph” of Britain’s own policies of promoting majority self-government, and meant that – unlike the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires that had left anarchy and chaos in their wake – Britain left Africa both friendly and stable. This, at least, was the official version, designed to assuage Conservative voters for the loss of their beloved Empire and, like Dunkirk, make retreat sound like victory.
In 1954 Swanzy left to run Ghana’s nascent broadcasting corporation. His successor at African Affairs, Alan Gray, focussed on the role of Africa in domestic British politics.
Neither before or since has Africa taken up so much Parliamentary time or so much press coverage as during this decade of decolonisation from 1955-65. For a while, the Royal African Society was at the centre of the political action. African political leaders began to outnumber colonial governors as speakers – Tom Mboya, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and many Nigerians all spoke in the 1960s and 1970s.
Why dwell so much on the colonial past? For two reasons:
Firstly, to illustrate what is sometimes denied: that the empire was an enterprise based on underlying assumptions of Western – and white – superiority over Africans. The written evidence is crystal clear: it was so, and we must be honest about that. The record also shows examples of officials who were scrupulous, honest, well-intentioned and hard-working in trying to improve the lot of those they ruled. But both the power and the definition of knowledge lay firmly with those who did the ruling – ultimately a government based on conquest, not consent. Only in acknowledging this can we properly repent the bad aspects, and celebrate the good. I will return to this.
Secondly, however, it also demonstrates that, from the outset, African voices were included in the Society’s activities and its journal. It may have been be a thin thread at times, but it was always a crucial one, and the Society was one of the very few places the British Establishment could come to hear African views.
The Society since independence
In the 60 years since independence, things have become more complex and more interesting.
The decolonisation of the British Empire led also, in a sense, to the decolonisation of the Royal African Society. There was no option. But the form and extent of this process needs examination. Did the end of Empire bring a change of attitude as well as political fact? Did it fundamentally shift the balance of power economically, politically and intellectually? And what did the Society do?
There are a number of different ways of looking at this.
– the post-colonial view that nothing has really changed. British attitudes to Africa remain much the same, dominated by negative stereotypes, “hopeless Africa”, and a romanticisation of the European encounter in an “Out of Africa” sort of way. So, a real decolonisation has yet to be achieved.
– the post-independence view, common in Africa itself, that self-government was a genuine liberation; that African people and African leaders achieved agency and sought to build their nations and assert their role in the world. But the circumstances including the colonial legacy hindered their progress.
– the not-very-post-imperial view, that the Empire was on balance a good thing and things only went off the rails afterwards. Quite a lot of facts argue against this view.
So how did independence impact on the Society’s role, membership and views?
In the 1960s, the Society had around a thousand members: former colonial and government officials, businessmen with interests in Africa, and a growing number of academics, students, activists and Africans. Its objectives were “to foster and encourage interest in Africa… to form a link between those who are, or have been, concerned with Africa, and to assist the study of African affairs in the UK.”
Two things happened.
Firstly there was a row over Southern Africa. When Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence in 1965, the pro-Rhodesian Chair, Lord Milverton, was replaced by a more liberal businessman; and during the infamous 1970 South African cricket tour, a Vice-President of the Society who publicly defended apartheid was forced to quit by an alliance of the academics and the respected elders such as Margery Perham. The Society aligned itself firmly with independent Africa.
Secondly, the Society distanced itself from government and became increasingly dedicated to the academic study of Africa. Successive editors of African Affairs professionalised its academic output and focussed on trying to understand and explain what was happening in the new nations of Africa. The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the academic Africanist, many challenging the inherited orthodoxies of the colonial era. The Society worked in close alliance with the African Studies Association of the UK, strengthening its academic credentials and financial independence.
When I first joined the Society in 1980 while researching African history at the University of Dar es Salaam, the successors of Walter Rodney there certainly believed they were successfully decolonising the African curriculum.
Even so, the Society was still fundamentally about Africa, rather than of Africa.
The 21st Century
But from 2000, a more fundamental transformation began, accelerated by the appointment in 2002 of Richard Dowden as the Society’s first permanent Director. Already well-known in Africa and the UK as a journalist, Richard was able to mobilise more funding and a wider audience for the Society’s work and recruit a larger staff to implement it. He was key in transforming the Society.
African Affairs itself has become increasingly international and a conscious effort has been made to increase the number of African authors. In 2012, an African Author’s Prize was initiated to encourage contributions from the continent and, in 2017, it appointed its first African editor based on the continent, Peace Medie in Ghana.
Challenging received views has been an explicit role of African Arguments, both a book series, edited jointly with the International African Institute, and, from 2011, a website publishing concise analyses by mainly African journalists, academics, politicians and experts on current social, economic and cultural as well as political issues. In 2020, under the inspired editorship of James Wan, it reached a global audience of around 3 million users, well over half of them in Africa.
The Society re-engaged with public policy by acting as secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa – one of the largest APPGs in Parliament – organising a series of hearings on political and development issues that gave African speakers and Africans in the diaspora a chance to interact directly with British parliamentarians. This brought key issues to the political table: most recently, the conditions for post-Brexit trade with Africa; mental health treatment on the continent; the difficulties faced by Africans in getting visitors visas for the UK; and currently initiating an inquiry chaired by Lord Paul Boateng into how Africa is represented in the British school curriculum.
Regular Business Breakfasts from 2005-15 attracted corporate members to hear an impressive array of African finance ministers, business figures, central bankers and economists. And since 2011, the Society has also organised an Annual Lecture, the first lecturer being former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
But the biggest change has been the initiation in 2011 of an annual Film Africa festival and in 2012 of the Africa Writes festival whose inaugural keynote speech was given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This decision to promote African culture in the UK brought the Society directly, and deliberately, into contact with the growing African diaspora community in the UK, and particularly its younger members. I must pay tribute to the central role played by the Society’s former deputy director Sheila Ruiz in developing both festivals. We have been very lucky to have her.
The Society is no longer just about Africa but is increasingly of Africa.
This change is reflected in the new objective the Society has set itself, not merely to promote Africa in this country but to ensure that African voices are at the centre of British and global conversations.
History is all about people; and, fundamentally, about the movement of people. Ultimately, everybody comes from somewhere else; it’s just a question of how long ago.
The history of the Society reflects this, and so does its future. In Britain, the Empire returned home, not just the rulers, but the people. African, Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean, Australian and Irish communities are now an integral part of what Britain is. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan put it, “We are here because you were there”.
Colonialism left a heavy legacy in Africa, of language, laws, customs and connections. But it has also created a legacy in Britain, and an extraordinarily dynamic one. I would argue that it is no coincidence that it is the diaspora communities that are amongst the most industrious, energetic and creative in this country. We see this at Africa Writes, and everyone sees it in sports, in the theatres, in films, music and fashion, on the television and in the media, and in politics through the Black Lives Matter movement.
What this means for the Royal African Society is that it can no longer be just about the “Africa out there”; it has to be about the “Africa in here” too.
That is why our focus is on African voices, wherever they are, and wherever they need to be heard.
So, I have argued three things:
– firstly, that we must be honest about the past, as a Society, and as a country. But this is liberating, not embarrassing, let alone unpatriotic. Only with repentance, which brings forgiveness, can we understand each other and build a strong and balanced relationship for the future. Commonwealth War Graves Commission has shown the way here;
– secondly, Britain’s relationship with Africa is special – as special as that with the US, another former colony that fought for its independence from Britain and with whom we are linked through kith and kin. It needs to be nurtured, not neglected. When Africa needs help, like now to recover from the impact of Covid, we should be first in line giving it, not taking our money back home;
– thirdly, that Africa is now part of what Britain is. The people-to-people links are strong and lasting. British culture is indelibly influenced by African culture – not by appropriation but inclusion.
These are the three areas where the Society is engaging today and tomorrow. We will continue to promote Africa, continue to amplify African voices. But we need your support to do it. So we plan to expand our membership to include those who enjoy our events, our networks and our platforms, and who believe in what we are trying to do. To have a sustainable future in these financially challenging times, we need a strong membership base. We are therefore looking at – and hope to announce next month – a new bargain membership focussed on our cultural and arts activities and offering a wide range of benefits.
So please be sure to join up! This story is far from over.
To watch the discussion linked to this event please click here.
Discussions start around 28mins.
- Professor Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy and International Development at the University of Birmingham, Founder of Democracy in Africa and Columnist.
- Professor ‘Funmi Olonisakin FKC, Vice President & Vice Principal (International), Kings College London
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.
 See J.E. Flint’s lecture in African Affairs (AA), Vol 64, No 256 (1965), pp. 150-61.
 Journal of the African Society (JAS), Vol 12, No 48 (1913), p. 425.
 JAS, 5, 20 (1906), p. 448.
 JAS, 1, 1 (1901) p. xxi.
 JAS, 1, 5 (1902) pp. i-xvi.
 JAS 33, 131 (1934), pp. 143-51.
 JAS, 33, 132 (1934), pp. 226-42.
 JAS, 34, 135 (1935).
 See JAS 30, 118 (1931), p. 27.
 H. Macmillan, ‘Africa’, AA, 59, 236 (1960) pp. 191-200.
 African Affairs (AA), 61, 242 (1962), p. 1.
 AA 64, 256 (1965), p. 145. See Michael Twaddle in D. Rimmer and A.H.M. Kirke Greene, The British Intellectual Engagement with Africa in the Twentieth Century
 Full story in Chris Youé, ‘The Royal African Society, African Affairs and Apartheid: The Mustoe Controversy of 1970’, AA, 113 (2014), pp. 1-12.