A History

The Royal African Society was founded in 1901 – in memory of Mary Kingsley, an English, and travel writer and ethnographer, who completed two trips to West Africa, and significantly shaped British perceptions of Africa.

The idea of a society that would bring together the disparate interests of academics, friends, political alliances and traders was one she spoke of frequently, but which wasn’t made reality until a year after her death in 1900.

Throughout its 100 years or so history, the society’s principle objective has been fostering a better understanding of Africa, though always shaped (pehaps mis-shaped) by the historical context of the time. Established during an era of high imperialism, the original society reflected the power dynamics of its time. Among the first vice-presidents of the society, were George Taubman Goldie, Edward Wilmot Bylden, and William McGregor, then Governor and Commander in Chief of the Colony of Lagos.

The principal objective when the society was founded as read in the objects of the society published in 1902, were “for the purpose of investigating the usages, institutions, customs, religions, antiquities, history and languages of the native races of Africa; of facilitating the commercial and industrial development of the continent in the manner best fitted to secure the welfare of its inhabitants; and as a central institution in England for the study of African subjects. The funds of the society shall be exclusively devoted to furthering these ends by the periodical publication of a Journal, and by the establishment of a library, Reading Room, and should the Society so determine, a Museum.”

These objectives may strike some as relatively progressive, but they were also, of their time.  Some of the language would be no less than cringe-worthy, but the broad purpose to which they were devoted is perhaps redemptive, and emblematic of what was of ultimate value about the society.

The museum never happened, but the Journal has been in publication since 1901/02 and continues to be a highly-ranked academic forum for information and articles, about Africa.

1901 – 1914

In the period up to 1914, and the outbreak of the second world war, membership of the society continued to grow; from two subscribers to the journal in 1901, namely, the foreign office and the colonial office to 473 members and journal subscribers, including 24 life members – and the Alake of Abeokuta as an honorary member. The subjects in the journal ranged from considerations of education in native tongue to the taxation system in Northern Nigeria – and in tone often reflected the conflicting perception of Africa and Africans amongst members of the society, often validating Africans as worthy of respect but advocating the careful guidance of Europeans, as in this excerpt of a lecture given By a Mr. J Cathcart Wason, M.P. on ‘The Importance of West Africa’ –

“We are in West Africa for good and all, and we must remain there. Germany, France and Great Britain are an irresistible combination, and by concerted action much might be done to promote the welfare of the indigenous races in West Africa. On the question of importation of fire-arms, gunpowder, strong intoxicating drink, rum or gin, on the question of slavery, our policy should be clear and decided. Trade in fire-arms, drink and slaves, is hateful to us all; Germans, French and English, individually, would stand aghast if they were accused of conniving at or profiting by such horrors, and yet collectively we are content to wipe our mouths and say, we have done no harm. Not only Christianity and civilisation, but material considerations, plead for a kind and generous treatment of the indigenous races, without a happy and contented, flourishing native population, every interest in West Africa is bound to be ruined within a short time. By every law of God and Man, the country is theirs, and theirs only, and we are but trustees for them, and a policy of forced labour, of depriving them of their lands, is in every sense of the word tantamount to slavery. Another Hague Conference should be summoned with as little delay as possible to consider how far the Act of Berlin has been carried out, how it can be amended, enforced and extended in the near future….in our pharisaism and self-complacency; in considering and talking of the black as a barbarian, as a savage, as a heathen, for no other reason than because of his colour in the first place, and in the second simply because his ways are not ours, much evil has been done. As regards colour, if we lived in West Africa for generations, we would very soon be black, also and thank god for the tempering the wind to the shorn lamb, and as regards the abusive adjectives which in our ignorant sanctimoniousness we heap on our black brothers, they are disproved by every traveller and missionary. (Journal of the African Society, 1905 – 06)…I have no hesitation in saying that if we struck a balance as regards the barbarism, savagedom, heathendom, of which West Africa has been the stage, the European Nations would have a vast balance afainst them.”

1914 – 1920s

The society’s journal was published publication in each year of the First World War, though the journal’s content reflected the ongoing political and military turmoil in articles on ‘The effects of the war on trade in Africa’, ‘German Aims in Africa’ and the conquest of Togoland, a German colony, taken over during the war under a joint French and English administration, and later becoming a League of Nations mandate territory. The journal’s published from 1915 until 1918 featured considerably fewer articles, but the society continued to hold lectures, including one given in July 1917 by General Smuts of South Africa, reflecting on the problems of creating a unified South Africa out of the English and Dutch populations, but in which black Africans were considered a threat, and a nuisance, outlining sentiments and practices which hardened three decades later into the policy of Apartheid. The society like many other organisations lost many members in the course of the war, but continued to hold meetings. In 1920, two big shipping lines of the day – Elder Dempster and Union Castle Lines subscribed to the Journal for their passenger boats sailing to and from Africa.The society stopped holding dinners to reduce costs and felt it needed to grow its membership to continue its work.The society introduced ‘The Medal of the African Society’ – supported by H.S Wellcome, a council member of the society. The first gold medal was awarded to the retiring President of the society, Sir Harry Johnston. The society had a lending library and forty books were added to the collection.

An address given by the president of the society still reflected the prevailing, patronising and racist perceptions of Africans, with much agonising about the problem of South Africa’s ‘natives’. Yet increasingly, the voices and demands of Africans for participation government both in South Africa and British West Africa were beginning to come into the work of the journal.  The journal notes the National Congress of British West Africa in England which campaigned for more representation of African voices in both legislative and municipal government, led by Dr. Bankole-Bright, the honorary secretary of the Delegation.

In the 1922-23 issue of the journal, a writer, Arthur Percival Newton, could still respectably claim in an article entitled ‘Africa and Historical Research’ that

“the real dividing line between the Mediterranean lands and modern Africa is not the sea, but lies to the south beyond the stony, arid wastes of the Sahara and the deserts of Libya. The lands to the south have historic unity, for, in contrast to the immemorial antiquity of the lands of the northern littoral, the Africa that lies beyond the Tropic of Cancer has a story that begins only with modern times, and has most of its chapters within the compass of little more than a hundred years”. 

It was a view point that only began to receive significant challenge in later decades with the emergence of African nationalist movements, and sympathetic white, European, as well as, African historians. For example, P. Amaury Talbot writes in the 1924/25 situating external influences on African religious practice in a broader, longue duree of history.

In 1924-25, the Society awarded a Gold Medal to Lord Lugard, architect of much of the colonisation of Africa, and the amalgamation of Nigeria. Little was done to recognise African contributions to history, economic or intellectual progress on the continent. Throughout the 20s, the journal of the society reflected scientific and social study of the continent, which increasingly began to take Africa, and the African experience seriously, albeit with the glaring absence of African voices.

1933 – 1945

In the 1930s, the political and social influence of Africans on the continent begins to insert itself more vocally into the narrative – the journal notes the participation of Africans in a conference on ‘African Children’ organised by The Save The Children International Union, though it dourly states ‘Some were under communist influence’. The 1933 edition of the journal mentions the involvement Dr. J.E. Kwegyir Aggrey in the Phelps-Stokes Commission on educational policy in the Congo, and in the establishment of a West African university. It reports on an international conference on the Christian Mission in Africa which took place with the involvement of Dr. Anson Phelps Stokes, and John Langalibalele Dube in 1926. The rumblings of conflict that led to the second world war also make an appearance in the journal with an article on Italy in Africa. As evidenced by an article by Rattray, which reflected the criticisms by western-educated Africans of indirect rule, African campaigns for self-government were being felt in the corridors of power.  Africans themselves were occasionally doing the talking, as shown by an article  by Nnamdi Azikiwe entitled ‘How Shall We Educate the African?’. In the records of a meeting addressed by Margery Perham on the subject of indirect rule, we find responses given by Africans to a question posed by Lord Lugard who asked speaking from the audience what ‘educated Africans could contribute to Africa’. Among the Africans present including Joseph T Sackeyfio who condemned indirect rule saying


“The government on the spot kept on stressing the old tune of trusteeship, which was a weariness to the people and a camouflage to rob them of their freedom and liberty of speech. All that the Africans asked of the British people was that they should be given a chance – a chance to show the world what they could do to further the progress of Africa, and that the British should not, by bamboozling them and keeping the people ‘in their place’, force them to swallow what they did not want. Modjaben Dowuona, who later on became a literary critic, replied to Lord Lugard’s question saying “It was customary to call educated Africans ‘detribalised’. He was not going to discuss that term here. But one thing which the use of that brought about was to set a premium on ignorance. It was a pity that that should be the case, especially when it led to the exclusion of the educated African from taking part in shaping the progressive policy of his people. No one denied that the illiterate African had enough common sense and ability to decide on a good policy. But it was doubtful whether he could interpret English administrative methods and legislation adequately. That was where, he thought, the educated African was indispensable. The African people would not and should not rely solely on the interpretation of English administration and legislation by English administrators….If the African public realised that the government was theirs, they would, he was sure, deal effectively with their own people who betrayed their trust. A word about anthropologists. Professor Macmillan appeared to limit anthropology to the study of so-called primitive peoples. He (the speaker) would extend that definition to include the study of the white races, whose manners, customs, and institution were not always easy for Africans to understand…he would like to see, at no distant date, young Africans similarly trained, who would study the white peoples, especially the English, their customs and institutions, and interpret them to the world. It would be interesting to see how they would be received by the educated English public.”

Despite the outbreak of World War Two, the society continued to publish its journal and hold regular meetings and dinners. In the 1935 issue of the journal, E. Abraham, the Secretary of the Imperial Ethiopian Legation writes in the 1935 issue of the journal making a case against Italian encroachment on the only independent country in Africa, writing

“The Italians, we are told, want room for expansion, but surely that does not give them any right to pounce on us and kill us and deprive us of our independence….if the powers recognize Italy’s need for expansion, why do they not generously give her a portion out of their vast colonial possesions?...we Ethiopians have no concern with any fantastic notions of dominating the white races. We want to be left in peace to our peaceful pursuit of developing our country ourselves. We hope the league of nations will do its duty and protect us against the aggression of a fellow member in the end, notwithstanding the aggressor being permitted to mass his troops on our borders. But if the League of Nations fails to protect us against this threatened robbery and carnage, then the whole world, especially the smaller and weaker nations, will realize how grossly they have been deceived and how futile it is to trust the promises and convenants of the great and highly civilized powers. It may be our turn to-day but, sure as fate, it will be the turn of other weak and backward nations to-morrow. ..As has been repeatedly stressed, we want peace. But if war is forced on us, it will be found that the characteristics of the Ethiopians are never so effective as when fighting for the land which has been their home since the beginning of time, and they are determined to fight to the last man. And if justice and God mean anything, the result is bound to be in the favour of those who are fighting against unfair and unjust aggression.”

In spite of this impassioned account, of course the warnings of Ethiopia were not heeded – yet until 1940, the conduct of the war intrudes very little in the journal of the society; the membership of the society continued to reflect the confluence of business, government and missionary interests in the continent. However, from 1940-45, the journals of the society are notably sparse, an effect of paper rationing and in the 1940 edition, the editorial notes say ‘like every British organisation, the Royal African Society, saw at once in the outbreak of the War an opportunity of increasing its service to the King, its Patron and to our Country, and Empire’. A war committee was formed which included many senior officers of the colonial administration, and the society offered its offices to the various administrations as a base in London. As a result of the war, membership of the society suffered, dropping from 821 when the war began to 754 by 1941.

The journal records many of the organisations contributing to the war effort including the ‘Ethiopian Women’s Work Association, established by Princess Tsahai Haile Selassie. Numerous articles in the society’s journal touch on the conduct of the war, functioning as a source of news about the allied campaign in Africa, as well as documenting the effect of the war on colonial economies. An entry in the 1944 edition of the journal mentions the Royal West Africa Frontier Force which continues to  “win golden opinions. Before the monsoons came to the Kaladan valle, the Division are reported to have killed 1500 Japanese who have a healthy respect for their fighting skill, although perhaps unable to understand their humour. One signpost erected by West Africans at the Burma border read “To London 8350 miles (by crow). To Tokio 2845 miles (by Jeep)”. 

Notwithstanding this newfound admiration, the journal reflected the colonial anxiety about increasing agitation for African involvement in government. From 1944, the accounts of the council reflect some consternation over the future of the journal of the society – noting that it was the only significant benefit that the society provided to its growing numbers of Africa-based and overseas members. In that year, the society which had previously arranged to have its meetings at the premises of the Royal Empire society, obtained central offices at 22 Queen Anne’s Gate. It was to remain there until (?)The journal in this year also reflects an increasing serious turn to African history – including an account of Opobo, the trading kingdom in the Niger Delta.  Yet, the journal still also featured writers whose views of Africans reflected the narrow and racist expectations of the 19th century, evidence ofthe fierce intellectual battle against assumptions of African intellectual inferiority that only intensified as the second world war came to a close.

African Affairs

It’s in the 1945 edition of the Society’s journal, ‘African Affairs’ is first used as the name for the journal. During this period the society struggled to maintain its various activities and to attract new members, but its meetings spanned a broad geographic range, taking place in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, with active branches in two of those cities. By the end of the war, the political pressure for independence and self-government found full expression in the society’s Journals, in the anxious writings and discussions of colonial administrators and also in the accounts of constitutional and political battles, most notably in Nigeria. Africans became an increasingly notable presence at the society’s meetings. On 31st March 1948, Fela Sowande is noted to have given an interesting talk on Sidelights on African Music, and an article reflects on Pan Africana, a magazine published by participants in the fifth Pan-African congress, which took place in Manchester in October 1945. In this way, the winds of change, blown by African struggles for independence, entered the pages and thoughts of Royal African Society members. By 1950, the journal reflected the ideological battle shaping up between the east and west, and a member of council of the society, was moved to comment that “an ultimate issue is whether, in Africa, intellectual and moral values of our western civilisation can prevail against materialist philosophies which have inspired totalitarian and Russian concepts of world dominion”. The letter also notes that

“African nationalistic movements have attracted sympathy in many quarters, Pan-African, pseudo-communist, and other subversive agitations have been reported. As race-consciousness becomes articulated native Africans’ grievances are being translated into conventional terms of European political and industrial systems. That concrete grievances should be redressed is common ground for men of good-will, Africans and Europeans alive. But even excluding intransigent counsels based on ignorance, prejudice or emotion, there remain wide divergences of honest opinion as to the appropriate measures to be taken…The Royal African Society is in a position to make a serious contribution to the study of continental problems which concern not only Africa but also Europe and civilisation at large. Its platform is detached, independent and non-political in any narrow partisan sense.”

 The society did see itself as a platform uniquely placed to discuss African issues, yet, the prevailing, still patronising view of Africa continued to be reflected in the society’s publications. The journal did however follow the increasingly fraught battle between colonialists, settlers and Africans for control of African states, and documented the steady march of Apartheid following the victory of the National Party. The society continued to be based at the offices of the Royal Empire Society, where it also held its meetings.

In 1951, the society marked its 50th anniversary – with many publications in Africa and Britain covering the occasion. It published a letter signed by the President and Chairman of the society, calling attention to the work and record of the society. The society marked the occasion with a garden party with African performers, and a broadcast on the BBC. In that year, the number of subscribers to the journal increased, and its financial health was helped by the support of companies such as Barclays Bank, National Bank of India and Standard Bank of South Africa.

In 1952, following the death of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II became the patron of the society.

Throughout the 50s, the content of the journal increasingly reflected African academic voices, as well as European ones –largelyreflecting the fundamental anxiety about decolonisation and independence.

The work of the society continued in the organising of meetings, and conferences, and the publication of African Affairs despite financial constraints.

On the 26th March 1957, the society held a tea-party in celebration of Ghana’s independence.

1960s - 70s

The accounts of the society in the 1960s reflect the concerns of the day – in particular the independence of practically every British colony. These journals marked a definite ideological shift in line with changing political situation in British colonies. This extended to the composition of the society itself, which by 1965 included African council members and ordinary members.

In 1960, the society considered amalgamating with a number of other society’s focused on the Empire and Commonwealth countries, but in the end decided to maintain the society’s distinct focus on Africa. In 1961, to celebrate its 60th anniversary the society presented a bound book ‘The Africa of 1961’ bound in green leather and inscribed in gold lettering to the Queen, and the following reply received by the President:

“I am commanded by the Queen to convey her thanks to you and to the council and members of the Royal African Society for the copy of the bound volume of the lectures which were given at Guildhall last February.  As Patron of the society Her Majesty accepts this book with great pleasure”

In 1963, the society organised a reception to mark the 150th anniversary of David Livingstone’s birth. The society also corrected a bronze plaque erected in Timbuktu in 1930, to mark the life of Gordon Laing, an explorer who was thought to be the first European to reach Timbuktu. In 1963, it was found not to be the case, and the plaque was corrected to read “the Explorer who at the cost of his life, reached Timbuktu, in 1826”.

On 3rd July 1963, a conference was held at the Commonwealth Institute to consider a proposal by Professor Roland Oliver, a member of the council, for the formation , of an African Studies Association, in conjunction with the society. The conference decided to form an African Studies Association, whose membership was independent of the Royal African Society.

In that year, the society amended its constitution and objects to meet the legal definition of a charity.

The relationship with the ASA-UK deepened, with the proceedings of the association’s annual conference published in the ‘African Affairs’ journal. In 1965, the society made a request for the grant of a Royal Charter.On the 21st May 1968, the society had a Royal Charter conferred upon it; it had already received the title Royal in the jubilee year 1935.

From 1967, the responsibility of publishing the society’s Journal of African Affairs was delegated to Oxford University Press.

During the 70s, the society continued to hold meetings, occasionally in conjunction with other bodies including the Royal Commonwealth Society, with a variety of speakers, including British government officials, African High Commissioners and distinguished Africanists. The establishment of and composition of an Editorial Advisory board for the Journal of African Affairs increasingly reflected an academic turn in the society’s approach, although it continued to attract a mix of business, political and academic interests.

Whilst during the 70s, the issue of Apartheid South Africa became more pressing – the society reflected the issue in a number of its talks, including one given in 1974 by Mr H.F. Oppenheimer, Chairman of the Anglo-African Corporation of South Africa on South Africa After The Elections. The society also publicised appeals for funds to assist the educational programme of The Lutuli Memorial Foundation. It seems the controversial topic was not far from mind though, as evidenced in the meetings of that year’s annual report “in discussion of the report, Mr Soref raised the question of speakers at meetings having represented one point of view only on African Affairs. Mr Wilkinson, as chairman of the Speakers and Publications Sub Committee, drew members attention to the list of meetings printed in the report and drew the opposite conclusion. Lord Alport described the meeting he had chaired at which a black member of the National African Chamber of Commerce and a white member of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce had addressed members of the society at Chatham House; he thought it a good example of the sort of meeting the society should be holding at present for the information of members. He supported Mr Wilkinson in his attempts to provide a balance of speakers on controversial speakers.

In February 1974, Miss H. Heather retired from the position of Secretary of the Society, a role she had performed for 29 years. She was made a life member and awarded a pension. She was succeeded by Miss Mercy Edgedale.

The financial sustainability of the society remained a concern – as was the declining number of members. The society was forced to increase subscriptions to its journal for existing members, and continued encouraging the recruitment of new members, with little success.

In these years the society benefited from close association with the Royal Commonwealth Society, The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Graduate Business Centre of City University, Royal Institute of Internatinal Affairs, and the Commonwealth Institute, and the Africa Centre.

In 1975, the society hosted President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania at a joint meeting with the Royal Commonwealth Society.

By 1976, the grant of £5, 000 from the Anglo American Corporation to the society offered the possibility of expansion for the society but membership was still declining.

1980s -1990s

The charity received donations from companies which sustained it, and was balanced against individual membership of the society, and direct income from the journal African Affairs. Corporate membership was introduced, with an initial nine firms joining up. Throughout the 1980s, the work of the society was decidedly focused on holding meetings and to a large extent, academic discussion of African affairs. This is not to say it was not engaged in a vital way with the great upheavals, political and social, occurring in Africa. Howeverthe 1980s and early 1990s saw the RAS retreat into deeply academic territory, becoming largely synonymous with the African Studies Association. That said, its range of speakers from the continent increased, in this period the society hosted Nuruddin Farah, Kole Omotoso, Professor Ebun Jones amongst others. In 1989, the council established the Mary Kingsley memorial lecture with the inaugural lecture given by the Ghanaian musicologist, Dr. Kofi Agawu, who gave a lecture on ‘Silent Beats in African Music’. The financial health of the society was maintained through donations, and the healthy subscriptions to the journal. In 1997On the 27th May, Richard Dowden, then Africa Editor, The Economist gave the Annual Gneral Meeting Lecture on ‘Restoring Zaire’.

The society commissioned a history of the society in advance of its centenary, and moved to new offices within the School of Oriental and African Studies. This was preceded by a supportive relationship for the society from SOAS, which deepened with the relocation to the school, which continued into the 2nd millennium.


Lindsay Allen long-time secretary of the society retired, and Richard Dowden, Africa Editor at The Economist became the Executive Director of the organisation in 2002. Richard Dowden’s joining the society coincided with a time of increased political interest in the continent – and signified a new lease of life for the society. A number of new programmes were introduced into the society’s mix of activities – with the aim of attracting a broader audience.

In 2003, the society supported the establishment of an Africa All Party Parliamentary group alongside the Labour MP Hugh Bailey. The APPG has proved to be a key part of influencing the perception of Africa in the UK, and influencing parliamentarians to be engaged with African issues.

Dowden also introduced a business programme to the society, with a business breakfast as a flagship part of this initiative. The breakfasts, for corporate members of the society, invited leading political figures from the world of business and politics to talk about their work in Africa.

In 2008, the society supported the launch of a London African Film Festival, in co-operation with Africa at the Pictures – and subsequently under the direction of Namvula Rennie, a former employee of the society, and Lindiwe Dovey, a professor at SOAS, established an annual film festival, Film Africa. In 2009, in co-operation with a number of organisations, the society launched the African Arguments Book Series, published by ZED books – which tackled matters of political and social interest in an accessible format. The book series was followed by an online blogging platform, African Arguments Online.

In 2012, with an expanded cultural programme, under a new Programme Co-ordinator, the society established an Annual Literature festival, the first of which was addressed by the award-winning novelist, Chimamanda Adichie. In 2013, the society launched a service to list Africa related events and culture in London called Gateway for Africa.