Publication Date

November 1, 2014

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Historian of Africa

Roland Oliver was one of the founders of the academic study of African history in the West. He was born and spent the first seven years of his life on a houseboat in Kashmir. After his family returned to England, he attended Stowe School and King’s College, Cambridge. His undergraduate studies were interrupted by the war, during which he worked as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park. After completing a degree in history, he began research on Christian missions in Africa. When the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London created a position in the “tribal history of Africa,” he won it though he had never been to Africa and had been up to this point more interested in missionaries than Africans. His introduction to Africa was a nine-month journey in 1949 and 1950 around East Africa in a car that had been left in Stanleyville by a colleague in the SOAS linguistics department. In East Africa, Oliver had access to governors, administrators, bishops, missionaries, and businesspeople wherever he went, and they set up interviews with traditional rulers and other informants. He also delved into archives. It was a very broad-based introduction to Africa. In 1957, he made a second trip with his wife and daughter, this time starting in Ghana, where he taught for a semester. They then crossed Africa and drove south to Capetown. They covered 25,000 miles in one year.

One result of these expeditions was that he understood that African history would be about Africans and not just about Europeans in Africa. In 1953, he convened a small conference on African history, which brought together people who had mainly been working in isolation, and followed it up with larger conferences in 1957 and 1961, which made clear that the writing of African history would involve collaboration with linguists, archeologists, and scientists. Between the three conferences and his two great expeditions, he met and learned from almost every person important in African studies. He brought out two books, The Missionary Factor in East Africa (Longmans, 1952) and Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa (Chatto and Windus, 1957). For most of the rest of his career, he devoted himself to synthesis, to institutional development, and to directing the efforts of his graduate students.

He also expanded the program at SOAS, gradually added faculty and increased the number of his graduate students. He collaborated with John Fage, who invited him to Ghana and then joined SOAS in 1959. Though Fage left after only four years to create the Centre for West African Studies at the University of Birmingham in 1963, the two worked together in a number of crucial enterprises. In 1960, they started the Journal of African History, the dominant periodical in the field. They published A Short History of Africa (1962), which has been republished six times and translated into 12 languages. They also created the eight-volume Cambridge History of Africa, which appeared from 1975 to 1986.

By 1963, SOAS had become the most important center of graduate study on Africa anywhere, and Oliver’s African history seminar was site of intellectual cross-fertilization in the budding field. When I visited London that year, a friend suggested that I attend Oliver’s seminar. I did not meet Oliver at the time but was struck by his authority in the room. Before I next passed through London, I defended and published my thesis and was invited to give a presentation to the seminar. The seminar was the most important meeting ground for the hardy band of Africanists that we were, and any scholar passing through London was asked to present to it. After the seminar, I was invited to lunch at Oliver’s apartment. His wife, Caroline, was already confined with the degenerative disease that was eventually to end her life in 1983. With Caroline unable to travel to us, he brought us to her.

Throughout his career, Roland operated at many levels. He persuaded SOAS to set up an undergraduate specialization and an MA in African studies. He and his colleagues trained much of the first generation of African historians. He visited Africa almost every year and advised African universities and history departments. Much of his work was involved in the creation of universities and the maintenance of standards in the face of various political demands. Oliver helped create the British Institute in Eastern Africa and served as its president for many years. He taught at different times in African universities and in the United States, including at Northwestern and Harvard. He also wrote and edited a series of synthetic works. His travels and interactions with students and colleagues convinced him of the inevitability of decolonization. He was a regular participant in policy discussions on Africa. He was one of the founders of the Minority Rights Group and served for many years as its chair.

He retired in 1986 and in 1990 married Suzanne Miers, an American raised in Europe, who had been one of his doctoral students almost 30 years earlier and had taught for many years at Ohio University. They spent half of the year at Frilsham in the Berkshire hills and half in a waterside home at Placida in southwest Florida, where he enjoyed taking visitors out on the bay in a small old motorboat, probably the only boat in the complex that was not a yacht. He published a general history, The African Experience (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), in 1993 and his autobiography, In the Realms of Gold (Wisconsin), in 1997. His work was at that point essentially done, though for many years he attended the annual meetings of the African Studies Association with his wife. Suzanne, whose professional career had begun only after the death of her first husband, still had much that she wanted to do. Oliver was a gracious host, a charming companion, and a sharp intelligence. I am grateful I had the opportunity to get to know him during those years.

University of Toronto

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