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Terence Ranger (1929-2015)

Terence Ranger Obituary (1929-3 January 2015)

Terence Ranger, who has died in Oxford at the age of 85, was one of the most stimulating and influential African historians of the last half century. A scholar of remarkable energy, Terry, as he was universally known, had the reputation of reading faster and writing more quickly than any of his peers. Over an engagement with Africa, and particularly with Zimbabwe, lasting 57 years he wrote ten major books and was editor or joint editor of some 15 others, as well as publishing innumerable articles and chapters. Yet Ranger’s special importance lies less in the volume of what he published than in his ability to open up new lines of enquiry in an attractive manner. His influence as an academic historian, moreover, was reinforced by his involvement as a political activist in Zimbabwe (a source of suspicion to some of his contemporaries) and by his role as a public intellectual, vigorously interacting with British and European historians and participating in a range of theoretical debates. On a more personal level, he was a deeply loveable man, with a good conceit of himself, as we say in Scotland, but generous, warm-hearted, and possessed of a very English, self-deprecating sense of humour.

There is a certain irony in the fact that a man perceived in the early 1960s by white Rhodesians as the very epitome of left-wing radicalism should have had an entirely conventional English middle-class upbringing. Born into a Home Counties Conservative-voting home, Ranger was educated at Highgate School in north London, at Queen’s College, Oxford as an undergraduate and at St Antony’s, Oxford  where he carried out postgraduate research into 17th-century Irish history under the remote supervision of Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper. From Oxford he took up a post at the heart of Empire: the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, traditional training ground for British naval officers, including several monarchs-to-be. On his own account, any signs of dissidence he displayed at this time were confined to slight eccentricities in dress: suede shoes worn at Dartmouth and a jerkin singled out as ‘revolting’ by Evelyn Waugh on a visit by the novelist to St Antony’s College.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 proved something of a wake-up call in demonstrating the duplicity of the Eden Government and the limits of British imperial power. But when Terry and his wife, Shelagh (they had met at St Antony’s where she was secretary to the Bursar) arrived in Southern Rhodesia in 1957 they came as political innocents, although innocents imbued with strong moral principles based on the desire to ‘do good’ in a multi-racial society. It may well have been precisely because of his impeccably orthodox academic credentials that Terry was chosen over the better qualified Richard Gray (known to be a nationalist sympathiser) as the first lecturer in history at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

If this were so, the error of their decision rapidly became apparent to the university authorities. Within a remarkably short time, Terry and Shelagh moved from principled protest against racial discrimination into active involvement in the nationalist movement as members of the National Democratic Party and, when it was banned, of ZAPU.  He also played a leading role with John Reed, a fellow lecturer at the university, in editing the cyclostyled broadsheet, Dissent, and, from 1961, in leading a well-publicised campaign against the colour bar. Meanwhile, he found time not only to finish his Oxford D.Phil. on the Earl of Cork, but also to carry out extensive research in the Salisbury archives which were to result in a cluster of seminar papers that quickly established his reputation as a leading student of African resistance. When he was deported in February 1963 he found himself swamped with offers of academic posts. The one he did take was as first Professor of History in Tanzania’s brand new university in Dar es Salaam.

If the six years he spent in Rhodesia provided the foundations for Ranger’s career, it was the further six years in Dar es Salaam that established him as a dominant influence in the development of African history. In many respects, he was fortunate in moving to Dar es Salaam when he did. This was a period when money was in relative abundance in African universities for book-buying, conferences and research and when Tanzania, under Julius Nyerere, was becoming a place of particular attraction to left-leaning scholars of a variety of political persuasions. There was no longer the possibility of political engagement of the intensity he had experienced in Rhodesia. But in compensation, there was the challenge of setting up a department from scratch involving both the creation of a lively undergraduate syllabus and the appointment of academic colleagues. There must have been those who wondered whether his initial four choices, all of them young white males with degrees from Oxbridge (John Lonsdale, John Iliffe, John Sutton and John McCracken), indicated a somewhat insular conservatism. But if this were the case, that fear was quickly dispelled by his later appointments, notably of the Tanzanians Isaria Kimambo and Arnold Temu, of Ned Alpers, from Harvard via SOAS, of the brilliant Guyanese radical, Walter Rodney and, as oral historian, of Andrew Roberts, one of Jan Vansina’s first postgraduate students at Wisconsin.

Even by Ranger’s high standards, the Dar es Salaam years were remarkably productive. Much of his research time was initially spent in completing Revolt in Southern Rhodesia (1967), his iconic, although deeply problematic study of the 1896-97 risings and of The African Voice in Southern Rhodesia (1970), a follow-up volume dealing with African politics to 1930. But he also threw himself into Eastern African history, most notably in two research topics, neither of them fitting into a narrow ‘nationalist’ agenda. These were the study of dance societies that was ultimately to result in the publication of Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (1975), one of his most original and innovative works, and his investigation into the interaction of Christian and ‘traditional’ beliefs, drawn in part from the voluminous logbooks of the UMCA mission at Masasi, entrusted to him by Bishop Trevor Huddleston. In his valedictory lecture before leaving Dar in 1969 Terry set out his fundamental, often criticised, belief that crucial to the understanding of Africa was recognition of the importance of African agency. Africans under colonialism should not be seen simply as victims in a morality tale. Rather they should be studied as resourceful protagonists operating in an environment not of their own making.

Ranger’s departure from Dar after almost twelve years spent continuously in Africa marked the beginning of what is best described as a transitional period in his life. UCLA, where he was Professor of African History from 1969 to 1974, was in many respects a wonderfully attractive base with congenial colleagues, enthusiastic students, generous research grants and a splendid climate. But it was not Zimbabwe, now plunged into a destructive war, nor was it Oxford, always Terry’s ideal of what a university should be. Aided by a major grant from the Ford Foundation he embarked on an ambitious project on African religion in its historical setting which resulted in the holding of three major regional conferences and the emergence of African Religious Research as the most innovative journal in its field. There were also new publications, in particular The Historical Study of African Religion (1972), which he edited with Isaria Kimambo.

With this phase of research coming to an end there was need for a new challenge. Each summer, while in California, he and his family had rented a house in a village near Oxford. Now, in 1974 he returned to his homeland as Professor of Modern History at the University of Manchester. The salary was far less than what he had been paid at UCLA. But to his friends he explained that this was not a specialist African History Chair but one that had been held in his day by the great Lewis Namier, one of the most influential historians of 18th Century England. His ambition was thus to use Manchester as a base for his attempts to persuade the British historical establishment of the need to incorporate African history into mainstream historical writing. His collaboration with Eric Hobsbawm as joint editor of The Invention of Tradition (1983), a hugely influential collection of essays of which his was the only one on Africa, went some way towards achieving this purpose, although the limited nature of the impact is demonstrated by the fact that, even today, the majority of British historians know nothing of Ranger’s work other than this single volume.

In later years, Terry sometimes spoke of his time in Manchester as a particularly unrewarding period in his life. This was unjust for a number of reasons: Manchester had an excellent History Department and a first-class library; bright students flocked to his Special Subject on the History of Zimbabwe. Government cutbacks, however, made the early 1980s a grim time for British universities, even Manchester and African Studies suffered disproportionally. There was a lack of fellow Africanists other than his good friend and frequent sparring partner, the anthropologist Richard Werbner.

Yet if Manchester was not all that he had hoped, political developments in Zimbabwe were working in his favour. In 1980, white rule ended with the triumph of ZANU PF. After 17 years as a prohibited immigrant, Terry was now free to return. The initial response in the still unreformed Department of History was less than friendly but the archives remained as rewarding as ever and at St Francis Mission, an independent community of nuns near Mutare, which he had first visited back in the late 1950s, he found a perfect base to carry out oral research for his new project, a study of peasant resistance in the Makoni District. Published in 1985 under the title Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War, the book can be seen as completing a trilogy of nationalist writings going back to Revolt in Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s.

In 1987 Ranger made the long desired transition to Oxford as Rhodes Professor of Race Relations. This in some respects offered him problems. He was no lover of Cecil Rhodes, although he had written perceptively about him; nor was he drawn as a scholar to the study of race relations, although he recognised the importance of the subject. His answer was to turn the post to all intents and purposes into a Chair in African History. Seminar series were arranged; conferences were held; postgraduate students flocked in increasing numbers to carry out research. Oxford, which had once spurned African history, now became a leading Africanist institution.

Freed of undergraduate teaching, Terry now took to research with greater enthusiasm than ever and with a subtlety of approach which was sometimes absent in his earlier work. In their different ways, the three monographs that followed were among his greatest achievements. In one, Are We Not Also Men?, a sensitive study of the remarkable Samkange family, based in large part on Thompson Samkange’s personal papers, he explored the intellectual growth from the 1920s of the emerging African elite. In a second, Voices from the Rocks, he turned his attention away from eastern Zimbabweand demonstrated considerable personal courage by undertaking archival and oral research in Matabeleland at a time when the area was still traumatised by the effects of years of civil war and oppression. In the third, he embarked on a major collaborative project with two bright young researchers Jocelyn Alexander and JoAnn McGregor, now professors in their own right at Oxford and Sussex.. In Violence and Memory (2000), their account of social and political changes in the remote forests of the Shangani Reserve, they provide a bleak analysis of the horrors of colonial, nationalist and post-colonial armed struggle stripped of any vestige of romance.

Ranger’s research on his last two books was interrupted by the life-threatening heart attack he suffered while working in Matabeleland in 1996. His friends were therefore alarmed but not surprised when, on statutory retirement from Oxford in 1997, he returned for three years to the University of Zimbabwe, now suffering the full rigours of the economic downturn. There he took on a full-time job, teaching courses and stimulating research among a new generation of able, independent-minded young Zimbabweans. As one of the earliest white supporters of nationalism, he was initially reluctant to add his voice to the growing clamour of criticism of Robert Mugabe but, when he did, it was in typically original and incisive form. His article, published in the Journal of Southern African Studies in 2004, on the way in which Mugabe and his supporters had utilised Terry’s early writings for their own narrow political purposes, succinctly set out the concept of ‘patriotic history’, a term now utilised, perhaps too frequently, by many other writers. By this time, Terry’s mobility was seriously impaired. But this did not prevent him from making his first foray into urban history, Bulawayo Burning (2010) and in providing a valedictory account of his early years in Rhodesia, Writing Revolt (2013).

What are we to make of Terry Ranger? Should we see him, as in the engaging photograph on the front of Writing Revolt, at Salisbury airport on the eve of his departure from Rhodesia in 1963, wearing an African cap and surrounded by nationalist comrades, among them Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe and James Chikerema? Terry himself was delighted to be portrayed in such a way but I personally share the opinion of George Nyandoro who, in a letter to Terry written in 1963, wrote that the Government should be thanked for restricting him to a three-mile radius from his home, thus forcing him to devote his time to working in the archives. No one could doubt Terry’s commitment to Zimbabwe. But it was probably expressed most effectively at the least dramatic level – the constant support over decades that he and Shelagh gave to Zimbabwean friends and their relations. Indeed it could be argued that, in terms of tangible results, it was Shelagh who achieved the most in her relentless campaigns against small-minded officialdom in Rhodesia and, later, in Britain aimed at ensuring that detainees, asylum seekers and their families received the rights that were due to them.

What then of Terry as a professional historian? Even before his death the discussion was well under way and there is no point repeating what has been said elsewhere. What is evident is that Terry did not construct an impregnable academic fortress. He was too keen on advancing risky propositions and in too much of a hurry to always check his footnotes with the care that they required. There is the odd factual error, the odd moment where he carries an argument further than his sources allow. Much of the central argument contained in Revolt in Southern Rhodesia can no longer be sustained. Yet to accept flaws is not to deny the central value of his work. Terry was not the first historian to examine African history in detail from below. George Shepperson’s and Thomas Price’s remarkable Independent African, with its compelling portrait of John Chilembwe, was published a decade before Revolt. But, from the very first, Ranger was able to sweep up his readers in the excitement of the African experience. There was the Ranger tone, relaxed, conversational and allowing Africans a voice through the regular employment of direct quotations. But also there was the Ranger approach, intelligent, questioning and drawing inspiration from a range of intellectual sources. As his critics were quick to complain, Terry was an empiricist, who rejected all-embracing theoretical models. Yet he was not averse to borrowing from those models when he felt his work could gain from them.  Right to the end he was taking on board new ideas and revising his position, while remaining constant to his fundamental beliefs.

What of Terry as the public intellectual? The starting point, as so often in his career, lies with his involvement with Zimbabwe: the creation of the British-Zimbabwean Society, the mounting of regular conferences on Zimbabwe, there and in Britain, and the encouragement given to young historians embarking on studies of Zimbabwean history. Those familiar with the Journal of Southern African Studies will be aware of his pivotal role in its development. He was Chairman of the Board from 1974 to 1992 and read submissions voraciously almost to the end. He was also an active member of the board of Past and Present, the ‘liveliest and most stimulating historical journal in the English-speaking world’, according to its website, where he saw his role as ‘bringing African historiography into the collective consciousness of history in general.’ For many it will be as a conference participant that he will be best remembered: an eloquent speaker at the lectern but often even more impressive in turning a discussion around through a lucid intervention. In all this, a curious paradox remained. Terry had a highly successful career conventionally defined – the first African historian to become a member of the British Academy, the holder of three chairs at prestigious universities; a past President of the African Studies Association of the UK; one of St Antony’s most illustrious Fellows. Yet by nature and conduct he remained, as he had begun in Rhodesia, one of A.J.P. Taylor’s troublemakers, a natural dissenter, never happier than when he was challenging authority or defending the marginalised and the obscure.

In 2009, to the concern of his doctors, Terry made an arduous visit to Malawi to attend a conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Nyasaland State of Emergency. He was there, not as an academic, but rather, alongside nationalist heroes, Rose Chibambo and Vera Chirwa, as a participant in the events that were being discussed. In 1959 during the emergency he had visited Nyasaland as editor of Dissent, interviewed recently released detainees and then published a highly critical account of conditions in Kanjedza camp which was given considerable publicity in Britain. The conference, however, took up only part of his stay. With assistance from Megan Vaughan, I was able to take him back to Likhubula at the foot of Mulanje Mountain, where his great friend Sketchley Samkange had drowned before his eyes in in 1961. On the last day, he accompanied me to Zomba’s run-down but resilient Archives. With unerring luck, he instantly obtained a fat file dealing with the witchcraft eradication movement, mchape, about which he had written back in the early 1970s. Within an hour, he was beginning to sketch out a new article. This is the Terry that I will remember: intellectually dynamic even when physically limited, always anxious to discover more; the African historian supreme.                 

 Terry’s wife Shelagh survives him as do his two daughters, Franny and Margaret. His youngest daughter, Jane died in 2011.

John McCracken