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The Trevor-Roper Trap or the Imperialism of History. An Essay1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Finn Fuglestad*
Universitetet i Oslo


This is, as the title makes clear, an essay; that is to say, a genre in which it is considered legitimate for the author to put forward his own more or less (in this case rather more) subjective viewpoints. As such it contains quite a number of short cuts and mouthfuls. I have also deemed it necessary, for the sake of the logic of the argumentation, to make occasional and rather long de-tours via a number of obvious, and at times downright elementary, points. My excuse is that the genre virtually requires it. And my hope is that the following pages will provide at least some food for thought.

Back in the early 1960s the distinguished Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper of Oxford University proclaimed, as every Africanist probably knows, that at least precolonial Black Africa had no history. He must have meant what he said, for he repeated his contention in 1969 by putting the label “unhistoric” on the African continent; the whole of the African continent that is, including Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Maghrib.

On the face of it there is little reason why we should bother with this type of point of view now in the 1990s. After all, the avalanche of articles and books on African history—including several multi-volume General Histories—which have been published since the 1960s, in a sense bear testimony to the absurdity of Trevor-Roper's position.

And yet, for all that, I am not quite certain that the malaise engendered by Trevor-Roper and his like has been entirely dissipated. After all, Trevor-Roper remains a frequently-quoted historian. But more to the point, there is often in my opinion a rather embarrassing insistence in the specialist Africanist litera¬ture on the “extraordinary complexity and dynamism” of Black Africa's past; an insistence not infrequently coupled with the urge, apparently never appeased, to put to rest the myth of Primitive Africa. There is also an equally embarrassing insistence on behalf of many Africanists to pin the label “state” on even the tiniest of polities in precolonial Africa, thus obscuring the appar¬ent fact that perhaps a majority of Africans in the precolonial era lived in so-called “acephalous” societies.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1992

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I wish to acknowledge by indebtedness to Jens Braarvig, Ottar Dahl, Rolf Theil Endresen, John D. Fage, Knut Kristiansen, Fredrik Lindeman, Einar Niemi, Pamela Price, Sheila Roberts, and Kåre D. Tønnesson. Among them they commented on an earlier version of this paper, corrected my English, and provided me with a number of relevant references.


2 The statement was originally made during a series of lectures in the University of Sussex transmitted by BBC Television. The lectures appeared in print in The Listener in 1963 and finally became a book: The Rise of Christian Europe (London, 1965) 911.Google Scholar It was subsequently translated into a number of languages.

3. Trevor-Roper, Hugh, “The Past and Present: History and Sociology,” Past and Present 42 (1969): 317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4. Cf. for instance, Hall, John A., Powers and Liberties: The Causes and Consequences of the Rise of the West (London, 1985), 111Google Scholar; McDougall, E. Ann, “The Quest for ‘Tarra:’ Toponymy and Geography in Exploring History,” HA 18 (1991): 271–89.Google Scholar

5. I think it is highly significant that Robin Horton's famous essay on “Stateless Societies in the History of West Africa” still stands rather alone with the existing literature. The essay appeared in Ajayi, J. F. Ade and Crowder, Michael, eds., History of West Africa, I (London, 1971).Google Scholar No other multivolume history of any parts of Africa has bothered to include a chapter of this type.

6. I think I should be excused for not providing any references to this point.

7. The Cambridge History of Africa (8 vols.: Cambridge, 19751986).Google Scholar See my reviews of these eight volumes in Historisk Tidsskrift 62 (1984): 95101Google Scholar; 67 (1988): 226-31.

8. Trevor-Roper, , Rise, 911.Google Scholar

9. Ibid., 9.

10. Earth-Priests, ‘Priest-Chiefs,’ and Sacred Kings in Ancient Norway, Iceland, and West Africa: A Comparative Essay,” Scandinavian Journal of History 4 (1979): 4774.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11. I thank J. D. Fage for generously commenting on an earlier draft of this paper. I assume of course full responsibility for its contents.

12. Fage, J. D., On the Nature of African History. An Inaugural Lecture delivered in the University of Birmingham on 10th March 1965 (Birmingham, 1965), 9Google Scholarex passim.

13. Ray, Benjamin, African Religions, Symbol, Ritual and Community (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976), 41.Google Scholar See also Mbiti, John S., African Religions and Philosophy (London, 1969), 1936.Google Scholar For a more general discussion of the concept of time see Brandon, S. G. F., History, Time, and Deity (Manchester, 1965)Google Scholar, and Braarvig, Jens, “Religion og tid,” Dugnad 16/3–4 (1990): 4554.Google Scholar

14. Cited and discussed in Brandon, , History, 168Google Scholaret passim.

15. This is based on a perusal of a considerable number of dictionaries undertaken by some of the scholars listed in note 1, especially Rolf Theil Endresen.

16. I have earlier expressed my views on this type of society in a number of articles, most notably, “Earth-Priests,” and The ‘tompontany’ and the ‘tompon-drano’ in the History of Central and Western Madagascar,” HA 9 (1982): 6176.Google Scholar

17. Wright, Donald R., “Requiem for the Use of Oral Tradition to Reconstruct the Precolonial History of the Lower Gambia,” HA 18 (1991):404.Google Scholar

18. My thoughts in this matter have been particularly influenced by the read¬ing of Horton, “Stateless Societies,” Wright, “Requiem,” Dorward, David C., “Ethnography and Administration: a Study of Anglo-Tiv ‘Working Misunderstanding,’JAH 16 (1975): 431–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Henige, David, “The Disease of Writing: Ganda and Nyoro Kinglists in a Newly Literate World” in Miller, J. C., ed., The African Past Speaks (Folkestone, 1980); 240–57.Google Scholar

19. This is based on a number of conversations with Professor Einar Niemi of the University of Tromsø, one of the leading experts on the Norwegian Saini.

20. Bonhême, Marie-Ange and Forgeau, Annie, Pharaon. Les secrets du pouvoir (Paris, 1988), 42.Google Scholar

21. Ibid, 60.

22. Ibid, 61.

23. Ibid.

24. Inspired by Bourdé, Guy and Martin, Hervé, Les écoles historiques (Paris, 1983), 4754.Google Scholar

25. Deduced from Brandon, History, 37-37, 95-105; Dumont, Louis, La civilisation indienne et nous. Esquisse de sociologie comparée, (Paris, 1964)Google Scholar; Errington, Shelly, “Some Comments on Style in the Meanings of the Past,” Journal of Asian Studies 38 (1979): 231–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; R. C. Majumdar, “Ideas of History in Sanskrit Literature” and Pillay, K. K., “Historical Ideas in Early Tamil Literature” in Philips, C. H., ed., Historians of India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (London, 1961), 13-28, 6671Google Scholar respectively.

26. Werner, Karl Ferdinand, “Political and Social Structures of the West, 300-1300,” in Baechler, Jean, Hall, John A. and Mann, Michael, eds., Europe and the Rise of Capitalism (Oxford, 1988), 173.Google Scholar

27. This definition was suggested to me by J. D. Fage in a personal communication.

28. Cf. Friedrich, Johannes, Hethitisches Elementarbuch, II (Heidelberg, 1967), 6667Google Scholar; and Goetze, Albrecht, Die Annalen des Mursilis (Leipzig, 1933).Google Scholar

29. Bourdé, /Martin, , Ecoles, 127Google Scholaret passim.

30. What I know about these matters is mostly derived from the reading of: Hemming, John, Red Gold. The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (London, 1987)Google Scholar; Nielsen, Erland Kolding, Hvidtfeldt, Arild, Andersen, Axel and Grève, Tim, Australien, Océanien und Antarktis (Copenhagen, 1980)Google Scholar; Alain Testart, “Cosmos et classes sociales: La pensée aborigène organise d'un même mouvement nature et société”, Le Monde (aujourd'hui), 8-9 July 1984, viii.

31. One of the few exceptions to the rule that I know of is Conrad, Geoffrey W. and Demarest, Arthur A., Religion and Empire. The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism (Cambridge, 1984).Google Scholar

32. See for instance the typically embarrassing treatment of Joan of Arc in such standard general histories as Coulet, N., “Le malheur des temps, 1348-1440”, in Duby, Georges, ed., Histoire de la France. Dynasties et révolutions de 1348 à 1852 (Paris, 1986), 1150Google Scholar; Favier, Jean, Histoire de la France. Le temps des principautés. De l'an mil à 1515 (Paris, 1984), 367–72.Google Scholar

33. An example of the prevailing orthodoxy in this matter is provided by Elliott, J. H., “The Spanish Conquest and Settlement of America,” in Bethell, Leslie, ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, I, (Cambridge, 1984), 149206, esp 180-2.Google Scholar

34. The remarkable book by Peires, J. B., The Dead Will Arise. Nongqawuse and The Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-57 (Johannesburg, 1989)Google Scholar has typically not received so far the attention it deserves.

35. Eliade, Mircea, Le sacré et le profane (Paris, 1965).Google Scholar

36. Wilks, Ivor, Asante in the Nineteenth Century. The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order (Cambridge, 1975).Google Scholar

37. Hopkins, A. G., An Economic History of West Africa (London, 1973), esp. 294.Google Scholar

38. Dévisse, Jean and Vansina, Jan, “Africa From the Seventh to the Eleventh Century: Five Formative Centuries,” in Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century (volume III of the UNESCO General History of Africa, London, 1988), 750-93, esp. 793.Google Scholar

39. Ibid., 790.

40. Fage, J. D., “African Societies and the Atlantic Slave Trade”, Past and Present, no. 125 (Nov. 1989): 97115, esp. 110.Google Scholar

41. Roberts, A. D., “Introduction,” CHA 7: 23.Google Scholar

42. With the partial exception of the contribution by Dorward, D. C., “British West Africa and Liberia,” CHA 7: 399459.Google Scholar

43. In a review in JAH 28 (1987), 303–05.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Ranger did add, however, that “it is possible to treat the history of Africa of this period in a way quite different from the one done in the CHA volume.”

44. Renan, Ernest, “Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? Conférence faite en Sorbonne,le 11 mars 1882,” reproduced in Oeuvres completes de Ernest Renan, (10 vols.: Paris, 19471961) 1: 891.Google Scholar

45. Valensi, Lucette, “Silence, dénégation, affabulation: le souvenir d'une grande défaite dans la culture portugaise,” Annales, Economie, Société, Civilisations, 46 (1991), 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46. Dorward, “Ethnography.”

47. My own contribution is A History of Niger, 1850-1960 (Cambridge, 1983).Google Scholar

48. See, for instance, Adedeji, Adebayo, “The Economic Evolution of Developing Africa,” in Crowder, Michael, ed., CHA, 8 (1984): 192250 esp. 248-50.Google Scholar

49. Le Monde, 2 July 1991, 21.Google Scholar

50. Fottorino, Eric, “L'Afrique disparue,” Le Monde, 5 March 1991, 27.Google Scholar See also Le Monde, 24, 25, 26 April 1991.

51. CHA, 8: 7.

52. See, for instance, Kirby, David, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period. The Baltic World, 1492-1772 (London, 1990).Google Scholar

53. It would be appropriate here to cite the by far most frequently used text¬book in early Norwegian history: Holmsen, Andreas, Norges historié. Fra de eldste tider til 1660 (Oslo, 1st ed., 1939; 4th ed., 1977).Google Scholar An excellent overview of the literature is Per Andersen, Sveaas, Samlingen av Norge og kristningen av landet, 800-1130 (Oslo, 1977).Google Scholar

54. Cf. Fuglestad, , “Earth-Priests,” 6569.Google Scholar

55. The debate, whose main protagonists are Kâre Lunden and Knut Helle, has resulted in a considerable number of articles, especially in the daily press.

56. On the history of the Sami, see Bjørklund, Ivar, Fjordfolket i Kvœnangen (Oslo, 1984)Google Scholar; Om samenes rettsstilling. Norges offentlige utredninger 18 (1984): esp. 69118Google Scholar; Thuen, Trond, ed., Samene-urbefolkning og minoritet (Oslo, 1980).Google Scholar

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