Africa’s Destroyed Civilization

This is one of the season’s more unfortunately named books. The title [The Lost Cities of Africa] has that certain Rider Haggard, White Goddess of the Theosophical Cannibals ring to it that puts me off, and I opened it with a definite shiver of repugnant expectation. But in fact it is both a sound historical and archeological work and very exciting reading. Don’t let the title put you off.

When I was a boy I read W.E.B. DuBois and marveled over the vanished glories of African civilization with tears in my eyes. As an adolescent, possibly because I was an adolescent, I was one of the very few radical intellectuals, black or white, who sympathized with Marcus Garvey. Time went by and I accepted the verdict of my betters that DuBois had drawn a very long bow indeed, that he had romanticized the African past that had actually existed, and had invented whenever he didn’t have enough information to romanticize. For a long time the memory of Garvey’s debacle made the very word “Africa” almost a joke amongst Negroes, liberals, radicals and just plain Negophiles. Everybody concentrated on the task at hand — the struggle for the rights of American Negroes. Then came Herskovitz and others like him, and all the immense literature of jazz and the questions of its African origins, and the widespread appreciation of Negro art amongst educated Negroes; the tide began to turn. But somehow it never turned far enough so that a lingering doubt didn’t remain. Was the heritage of the African past as splendid as DuBois so long ago had portrayed it? Here now is the answer. The old man is vindicated — in abundant measure: in the words of an erstwhile political leader, he has been “surpassed and overtaken.”

The Lost Cities of Africa is the only book I know of which is a systematic, scientific and thoroughly up-to-date presentation of the history, prehistory, archeology and prehistoric anthropology of all of Africa, except for the Moorish-Arab Northwest corner. All the major centers of civilization are treated in considerable detail: Upper Egypt, Libya, the Kushites, MeroĆ«, the Sudan, the great caravan empires and the cities of the Niger; Benin, Yoruba, the Kingdoms of the Gold and Ivory Coasts and the Congo; Zanzibar, the East Coast trading cities with their contacts with India and China; Ethiopia and Axum, the Christian empires of the highlands; Mapungubwe, Zimbabwe, whose mysterious ruins were the source of Rider Haggard’s romances. The picture which emerges is of a complex of pre-literate civilizations only just beneath those of Mexico and Peru, and still growing vigorously when they were stricken by European and later Arab looting, conquest and slave hunting.

Since most of the material is archeological and not literary, a history of Africa must perforce be a social and economic history rather than a political one. What we find is the story of a barbaric society with a high level of technical accomplishment, imposing art, widespread trade, and probably a greater security of life and a more widely diffused standard of living than could have been found in much of contemporary Europe. Basil Davidson seldom misses the chance to point out the essential Negro-ness of all this. But that does not make him a partisan or special pleader. So many lies have been told on the other side that it is necessary to state the facts, clearly and forcibly. It isn’t just that no Pharaoh of Egypt until the Greek Ptolemies could have been served in a Mississippi beanery — we are all aware of the dodge behind that blanket term “Hamitic”; it is that from the Sudan to the Transvaal, from Benin to Zanzibar, Negro Africa produced, more or less contemporaneously with Western Europe, its own kind of civilization, with its own values, its own traditions and its own monuments.

By the time this civilization had become internationalized and rich in the great emporia of the East Coast, it was “inferior” to the Portuguese who destroyed it in only one thing — gunpowder. In other words, the story of Africa is the old, old story of a civilization ruined by a pure chance of technology. As they say, “it is idle to speculate” on what the history of the world have been if Cortez and Pizarro and Albuquerque and all the rest had not had that little edge. What would the world have been like? It is arguable that, by now at least, it would have been a better place.

I know I am treading on dangerous ground, being as excited and enthusiastic about this book as I am. I have plenty of Negro friends who consider Africa none of their business, but I do wish I could get them all to read it. Here are the sources of one of the great culture streams, one of the major arteries, that have gone to make up our own American civilization. I know it is far away and dim. I am not one of those cranks who find Yoruba drum rhythms in Fats Waller. But it is a noble tradition, and it is the tradition of twelve percent of our inhabitants.



This review of Basil Davidson’s The Lost Cities of Africa (Little, Brown & Co., 1959) originally appeared in The Nation (26 December 1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays