A Regius Professor at Oxford Considers African History

Hugh Trevor-Roper was Regius Professor of History at Oxford 1957-1980, and Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge 1980-1987.

In a 1965 book, The Rise of Christian Europe, Trevor-Roper observed that ‘[u]ndergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion’ wanted to be ‘taught the history of Africa’.

Of course, those foolish, trendy undergraduates had made an elementary mistake. For, as Trevor-Roper explained, ‘Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.’

History, he continued, was ‘a form of movement’, and there was no movement to speak of in Africa. But if we were to insist on our pursuit of ‘journalistic fashion’, thinking, naively, that ‘all history is equal’, then we could ‘neglect our own history’ in order to ‘amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’.

Trevor-Roper offered the consolation that ‘[i]t may well be that the future will be the future of non-European peoples’ and he conceded that ‘Mediterranean Europe was once, in the Dark Ages, a colony of Islam; and northern Europe was afterwards, in the Middle Ages, a colony of the Mediterranean.’

But, ultimately, the truth was that ‘European ideas … have shaken the non-European world out of its past – out of barbarism in Africa, out of a far older, slower, more majestic civilization in Asia; and the history of the world, for the last five centuries, in so far as it has significance, has been European history.’

I don’t mean to exhume Trevor-Roper and attack his entire life’s work, nor do I mean to suggest that he should just be dismissed as a bigot. I simply consider him to be so embarrassingly wrong here—a Regius Professor at Oxford for more than two decades—that he helps us to see through the veneer of legitimacy granted by scholarly titles.

We should remember that an impressive academic pedigree doesn’t prevent people from spouting utter rubbish.

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