In Memoriam

Robert L. Tignor (1932–2022)

Historian of Africa

Heather J. Sharkey | Feb 28, 2023

Robert L. Tignor

Jacqui Hall-Handelman, courtesy Princeton University

A pathbreaking historian of modern Africa, the Middle East, and the world, and beloved mentor to generations of students, Robert L. Tignor died on December 9, 2022.

Born in Philadelphia in 1933, Bob earned his BA from the College of Wooster and PhD from Yale. He joined the history department at Princeton University in 1960 and taught there for 46 years, eventually as Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History. He spent sabbaticals at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria; the University of Nairobi, Kenya; and the American University in Cairo (AUC), Egypt. In 2004, he helped establish AUC’s Economic and Business History Research Centre.

Tignor introduced African history courses to Princeton, and from 1970 to 1979, he directed the university’s Program in African Studies. He became chair of the history department in 1977, when its curriculum focused almost completely on the United States and Europe. During his 14 years leading the department (1977–88, 2001–04), he transformed the faculty and curriculum. He expanded the department’s scope geographically to cover Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and also topically to include, for example, the history of gender.

A prolific scholar, Tignor drew on meticulous research and conveyed his ideas in lucid, jargon-free prose. He evinced an upbeat, can-do approach, for example, learning Arabic to access sources that he wanted to read. He called himself a “workaday historian” and modeled pragmatism, productivity, and excellence. “Keep your eyes on the prize” was advice he gave to graduate students striving to finish their dissertations. He showed us how, by persisting and getting things done.

In groundbreaking books, Tignor investigated the history of colonialism and the economy in Egypt and the broader Nile Valley. His first book was Modernization and British Rule in Egypt, 1882–1914 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1966). He wrote his second, Egypt and the Sudan (Prentice-Hall, 1967), with the late Robert O. Collins (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara). One of Tignor’s greatest books emerged from the year he spent with his family in Nairobi, The Colonial Transformation of Kenya: The Kamba, Kikuyu, and Maasai from 1900 to 1939 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1976). He later published other books such as State, Private Enterprise, and Economic Change in Egypt, 1918–1952 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1984). His research also moved in comparative global directions, with Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945–1963 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1998). After retirement, he wrote Egypt: A Short History (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012) and Anwar Al-Sadat: Transforming the Middle East (Oxford Univ. Press, 2016). Pursuing deep interests in colonial and postcolonial development policies, he wrote W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics (Princeton Univ. Press, 2006), about the career and thought of the 1979 Nobel laureate in economics, who advised postcolonial governments in the Caribbean and Africa and who also taught at Princeton for 20 years.

One of Tignor’s proudest and most ambitious accomplishments was the textbook that he co-wrote with colleagues Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Kotkin, Gyan Prakash, and others titled Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the Modern World from the Mongol Empire to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company, 2002). Bob served as lead editor for five editions, and his face lit up whenever he spoke about it.

Although Tignor loved economic history, not many of his PhD advisees shared this passion—a point that he cheerfully acknowledged. No matter: he fiercely supported all those he mentored, even those who studied cultural or intellectual history or who focused on, say, Sudan, Zambia, or Iraq. Reviewers of his books noted how he treated his subjects with affection, respect, and admiration; his students use these same words to express how they felt about him. “Dedicated,” “going above and beyond the call of duty,” “humble,” and “always open to new ideas” are also words that have come up. Perhaps one former advisee captured it best by observing that for those of us who were lucky to learn from Bob Tignor, “new worlds opened” in history and gave us wide spaces to explore.

Heather J. Sharkey
University of Pennsylvania

Tags: In Memoriam Africa Middle East Economic History

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