Obituary: Roland Oliver

Monday, 3 March 2014
Author: 
Richard Rathbone

 

Roland Oliver, Professor of African History 1923 - 2014

From L to R: Roland Oliver receiving an award from Emperor Haile Selassie in 1966 for his contribution to the study of African History; portrait of Roland Oliver

Roland Oliver, who died on 9th February aged 90, was the most significant figure in the construction of what we today regard as African Studies in the United Kingdom.

Born in Srinagar in 1923, Oliver went to Stowe School and to King’s College Cambridge where he read English. His undergraduate career was interrupted by World War II during which he worked as a cryptographer in Bletchley Park. After the War he returned to Cambridge, where he switched to history for the second part of his degree. After graduation he began research on the

history of Christian missions in eastern Africa.

As his career progressed, SOAS, expanding rapidly in the face of the demands of the post-war era, created a new post in “the tribal history of Africa” to which Oliver was appointed in 1948. To familiarise himself with an Africa he had never visited, he and his wife Caroline made their first trip across Africa where he began research on Ganda royal traditions and burial sites. In this early period he embarked on a fruitful collaboration with John Fage, then teaching at Legon, Ghana. Together they drew together a wide range of scholars interested in the African past for the first international conference on the subject in 1953.

Methodologically this was revolutionary, insisting as it did that this new field of African historical studies rested not just upon documentary evidence but also upon that produced by linguists, archaeologists, specialists in oral traditions and the natural sciences.

Oliver’s study of the impact of eastern African missions was published in 1952 and, in 1957, he completed his study of one of the pioneers of African studies, Sir Harry Johnson.

A further trans-continental journey followed during which he taught at the University of Ghana and, importantly, got to know that other great pioneer scholar, Jan Vansina, then working on oral sources in Rwanda.

His unremitting struggle to get the history of Africa recognised in university history departments demanded an appropriate literature and he and Fage collaborated on the first scholarly text book in the field, the Short history of Africa published by Penguin in 1962 and the ultimate sign of disciplinary respectability, an Oxford History – volume one of the Oxford history of East Africa - which he edited with Gervase Mathew in 1963.

His eloquent and convincing arguments for the respectability of African historical studies which had been famously challenged by some distinguished “mainstream” historians, bore further fruit with Cambridge University Press’s commitment to publish an eight volume Cambridge history of Africa; the first volume appeared in 1975, the last in 1986.

As importantly, he and Fage had persuaded Cambridge University Press  to publish The journal of African history and the first number of this seminal publication appeared in 1960.

From its earliest days it was a journal which welcomed contributions to knowledge from specialists in a wide variety of disciplines. Being excited by the insights of scholars working in fields other than history as well as those of historians was a hallmark of Oliver’s scholarly personality and that enthusiastic openness has left its mark on the admirably catholic inter-disciplinarity of African historical studies.

Oliver’s approach determinedly distanced itself from Imperial History and from ways of seeing the African past which were essentially accounts of European deeds in Africa which ignored or marginalised the history of Africans.

A valuable African history had to be first and last about the historical experience of Africans. His achievements were widely recognised but he drew most pleasure from his award of a prize for his contribution to research on Africa conferred upon him in 1966 by Haile Selassie in the Great Hall of the OAU in Addis Ababa.

SOAS proved to be a fine base for the conducting of his campaign.

He was able to work closely there and the nearby Institute of Archaeology  with colleagues who were linguists, anthropologists, art historians, musicologists, archaeologists while being subject to comparative bombardments by notable scholars of Middle Eastern, South and East Asian and Far Eastern history.

By the early 1960s he and the scholars he has appointed to be part of his teaching team including Richard Gray, Shula Marks and, before he left to found the Centre of West African Studies in Birmingham, John Fage were supervising the research of a remarkable cohort of doctoral candidates drawn from all corners of globe.

They met on a weekly basis in the African History Research Seminar to discuss pre-circulated seminar papers; the archive of these collected papers has, it seems, regrettably been destroyed.

These seminars were also social occasions in which enduring friendships, the basis of practical networks, were forged amongst an entire generation of young African, American, Middle Eastern and European scholars many of whom went on to establish African historical studies in their home departments. This collegial atmosphere was pleasantly encouraged by Roland and Caroline Oliver’s generous hospitality.

Caroline Oliver sadly died after a long painful illness in 1983 tended throughout by Roland’s care; he re-married, to a fellow historian, Suzanne Miers, in 1990; she received her PhD in African History in 1969 from SOAS as a student of Roland's.

As well as graduate studies, Oliver persuaded the large and somewhat conservative London University School of History to recognise an addition to the university’s history degree - History with special reference to Africa; the first undergraduate students were admitted in 1961. By the end of the 1960s Oliver and colleagues in London University had also embarked on the provision of an extensive MA programme in African Studies.

Oliver was an enthusiastic – and multi-lingual - internationalist and an accomplished networker. He recognised the importance of personal contacts in the life of a relatively young subject.

He threw his support, time and considerable political skills into the Royal African Society on whose Council he sat from 1959 to 1965, a period of considerably troubled transition for the Society.

He was one of the founders of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom and played a major role in the establishment of the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

From 1959-1969, he served on the Council of the Institute of Race Relations, a troubled decade, and was one of the founders of the Minority Rights Group. He continued to publish – The African Iron Age (with Brian Fagan) in 1975, Africa since 1800 (1967) and The African Middle Ages (1981) both with Anthony Atmore and then the more reflective The African experience of 1991 and his autobiography In the Realms of gold in 1997.

He was a fine scholar who, unlike many fine scholars, wrote like an angel.

His commitment to the wider recognition of the importance of African Studies in a world which was more than merely sceptical about its viability was dogged as well as attractively presented.

He was an unselfish pioneer who gave time, effort and imagination to the creation of a sustainable future for this new field in the form of new Centres, new scholars, new posts, new works of reference and new libraries.

His own very successful scholarly career, recognised by his election to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 1993, was mirrored by his unmatched skills in institution-building without which today’s African Studies would have been significantly poorer.

He is survived by his wife, Suzanne Miers Oliver,  his daughter, Sarah Wilson, and his granddaughter, Caroline.