From Ireland to Africa: a personal memoir

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2006), Volume 14

I myself am not Irish, even though my name can be rendered Terence O. Ranger. (An American MA student, asked to assess my work on African history, argued that with a name like that I was inevitably sympathetic to African nationalism. Alas, my forebears are Kentish Jutes.) When I went to Africa in 1957 to teach at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, however, I was preoccupied with Ireland. I was still writing my Oxford doctorate, which I did not finish until two years later. This was on the career of Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork and grandfather of chemistry, a man who made a huge fortune in land speculation in Ireland and became a deadly enemy of Strafford. So in those first two years in Africa I was simultaneously learning about racial repression in twentieth-century Southern Rhodesia and completing a doctorate on seventeenth-century Ireland.

‘Heroic figures out of English history . . . looked . . . less heroic in [sixteenth-century] Munster’
As it happened, my closest friend at the University College and my closest political ally was John Reed, then lecturer in English and seeking to complete a book about Edmund Spenser. His daily diaries record that we had long discussions about discrimination and African trade unionism and the emerging black nationalist movement. They also record that we had long discussions about life in late sixteenth-century Munster and about Spenser’s racism. It was illuminating to have such discussions side by side. Heroic figures out of English history—Raleigh, Spenser—looked very different and less heroic in Munster. Heroic figures out of Rhodesian history—Rhodes, Jameson, the members of the pioneer column—looked very different in the light of what I knew about land speculation and accumulation in early modern Ireland. I was able to see that most settler fortunes in Rhodesia depended on gaining land cheaply, without the British government knowing the details, just as in Ireland. In both cases court favourites—James I’s Scottish clients, or what were called in Rhodesia in the 1890s ‘Piccadilly Johnnies’—facilitated and profited from land speculation. My first two articles in Past and Present were exercises in cutting heroic figures down to size—‘Strafford in Ireland: a revaluation’ in April 1961, and ‘The last word on Rhodes?’ in July 1964.
When I did complete my doctorate successfully I was given a contract by Clarendon Press to publish it. I still have in my files a forbearing letter from the Press at the time when I was being deported from Rhodesia in 1963, saying that they realised that I was too busy at that moment but that they hoped I would come back to the manuscript soon. In fact I never did. I soon grew dissatisfied with my work on the earl of Cork. It was very much cast in the ‘patronage politics’ mode of Oxford in the late 1950s. (It was supervised by Hugh Trevor-Roper, soon to make himself notorious among Africanists by his off-the-cuff assertion that there was no significant African history to discover.) It did not take seriously Boyle’s religion or his self-justifying ideology. It did not make use of the rich materials available concerning the education of his remarkable sons and daughters. Above all, it barely noticed the Irish. They were there in the margins of Cork’s huge volume of correspondence and in brief references in his diary. Had I used then the techniques of reading against the grain of the documents that I later developed as an Africanist I could have written something valuable about the situation of the Irish in the early seventeenth century. But I did not and had not. My doctoral thesis, though much more cynical, would have read a little bit like Elspeth Huxley’s biography of the Kenyan settler grandee Lord Delamere.

Terence Ranger outside Salisbury airport with one of his students, Mutumba Mainga, on the day of his deportation from Southern Rhodesia in March 1963.

Terence Ranger outside Salisbury airport with one of his students, Mutumba Mainga, on the day of his deportation from Southern Rhodesia in March 1963.

I found myself in the odd position of having written a detailed study of a very rich settler just at the moment that I was beginning to study African reaction and resistance. My first published book was Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896–7 (Heinemann, 1967), a study of the great African uprisings against the British South African Company and the settlers. I did not think that I could more or less simultaneously publish a book about early seventeenth-century Ireland that discussed the 1641 rebellion solely in terms of the inconvenience it caused to the earl of Cork!
Yet Ireland would not go away. I find among my papers on the criminal prosecutions of black nationalists in Rhodesia in 1960 that one of my fund-seeking letters to Canon Collins is copied on the back of a comparative sketch of colonialism in Ireland and Africa. There were Irishmen in my book on the 1896–7 uprisings. There was even an Irish barrister who in 1897 defended Zimbabwe’s national heroine, the spirit medium Nehanda, on the grounds that she could not have been in rebellion against constituted authority because there was no properly constituted authority in Southern Rhodesia in the 1890s. (He was unsuccessful. She was convicted and hanged.)
After I was deported from Rhodesia I accepted the chair of history at University College, Dar es Salaam, in what was then Tanganyika. Unlike most professors, I had completely free rein in drawing up a syllabus. I decided that it was necessary to have a course that would allow the students to think comparatively about nationalism. The course compared Irish and Indian nationalism. John McCracken taught India; I taught Ireland. The Youth League of the ruling party, TANU, publicly protested about the alien irrelevance of Irish history. President Julius Nyerere told them that it was, alas, all too relevant. But the university students refused to learn the lessons I intended. They loved the rhetoric of the Young Ireland movement so much that its practical failures did not matter to them at all. To this day I meet greying Tanzanians who can recite Irish nationalist speeches and do so with enthusiasm.

‘Casement . . . brought Africa and Ireland together’

Nor was I myself innocent of romanticising Irish heroes. In complete contrast to my demolition jobs on Strafford and Rhodes, I wrote a piece on Roger Casement in April 1966 for the Ugandan literary journal Transition. It was the fiftieth anniversary of Casement’s execution and I argued that it should be commemorated in Africa as much as in Ireland. In reading about Casement I had been struck by the way in which he brought Africa and Ireland together. ‘It is a tyranny beyond conception’, he wrote of the Free State regime in the Congo, ‘save perhaps to an Irish mind alive to the horrors daily enacted in his land’. Explaining after his arrest in 1916 how he had come to devote himself to Irish nationalism, he told the British police: ‘What morally and intellectually brought me back to Ireland was two things—the Boer War and the Congo’. When he made up his mind to reveal the atrocities of King Leopold’s regime, he wrote, ‘it was the image of my poor old country stood first before my eyes. The whole thing had been done once to her—down to every detail—and I felt that as an Irishman, come what might to myself, I should tell the whole truth’. Indeed, Casement felt that Ireland had suffered greater wrongs: ‘The Congo will revive and flourish and the black millions again over-flow the land—but who shall restore the destroyed Irish tongue?’

Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork-‘I found myself in the odd position of having written a detailed study of a very rich settler just at the moment that I was beginning to study African reaction and resistance'. (National Portrait Gallery)

Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork-‘I found myself in the odd position of having written a detailed study of a very rich settler just at the moment that I was beginning to study African reaction and resistance’. (National Portrait Gallery)

President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in 1966-‘[When] the Youth League of the ruling party, TANU, publicly protested about the alien irrelevance of Irish history . . . Nyerere told them that it was, alas, all too relevant'.

President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in 1966-‘[When] the Youth League of the ruling party, TANU, publicly protested about the alien irrelevance of Irish history . . . Nyerere told them that it was, alas, all too relevant’.

I saw Casement as a universal anti-imperialist, a man who came to see Christ as ‘the Divine Knight and the Divine Nationalist’. I entitled the article ‘Africa and Ireland: an anniversary’. I might as well have entitled it with an inversion of my title for this piece, ‘From Africa to Ireland’. The article was the high-water mark of my efforts to present Irish history in Africa. When I left Dar es Salaam in 1969 I went to the University of California in Los Angeles. In the five years that I was there I encountered Native American and Afro-American history. Like Casement’s, my anti-imperialist sentiments were being universalised. This was at the cost, however, of my reading in Irish history, which more or less lapsed at this time even though I was working as an Africanist on those great Irish themes, peasantries and agrarian discontent. The title of my 1985 book, Peasant consciousness and guerrilla war (James Currey, London), might almost have applied to a study of the Irish land wars.

[Irish] ‘Holy men and rural communities in Zimbabwe, 1970 to 1980’

Two things revived my Irish connection. One emerged from the guerrilla war that raged in Rhodesia in the 1970s, of which my 1985 book was a study. The other emerged from my involvement in the Wiles Lectures in Belfast.
From the 1950s onwards Irish Catholic, and some Protestant, missionaries were deployed in the eastern districts of Southern Rhodesia. My ex-student and present colleague David Maxwell has written about a remote area in north-eastern Zimbabwe that did not experience mission Christianity until the 1950s—and then it got the Elim Pentecostal Mission from Northern Ireland and Catholic missions from the south! [David Maxwell, Christians and chiefs in Zimbabwe (Edinburgh, 1999).] Irish missionaries, whether Catholic or Protestant, were socially conservative and, unlike Casement, suspected that African nationalists were really communists.

Bishop Donal Lamont in 1976-‘The Rhodesians watched the Irish Catholic missionaries very closely. They arrested and deported some of them and famously put Bishop Donal Lamont of Umtali on trial for assisting terrorism'. (Carmelite Archives)

Bishop Donal Lamont in 1976-‘The Rhodesians watched the Irish Catholic missionaries very closely. They arrested and deported some of them and famously put Bishop Donal Lamont of Umtali on trial for assisting terrorism’. (Carmelite Archives)

But during the guerrilla war of the 1970s each mission station had to make its own terms with the insurgents, and most of the Irish priests came to sympathise with them rather than with the Rhodesian forces. In turn the Rhodesians watched the Irish Catholic missionaries very closely. They arrested and deported some of them, and famously put Bishop Donal Lamont of Umtali on trial for assisting terrorism.
These events have been fully documented by the radical Irish nun Sister Janice McLaughlin in her On the frontline. Catholic missions in Zimbabwe’s liberation war (Harare, 1996). But I wrote about them myself in my contribution to the Ecclesiastical History Society’s volume on The Church and war (Oxford, 1983). My chapter was called ‘Holy men and rural communities in Zimbabwe, 1970 to 1980’, and many of the holy men were Irish priests. As I wrote:

‘During the 1950s and 1960s these Irish priests had tried to keep their flocks away from [African] nationalism, stressing the evils of godless communism. By the 1970s, however, the repressive nature of Rhodesia Front rule and the overwhelming hostility of African Christians towards it had made a deep impression on the white clergy.’

I discussed several examples of priests bargaining with guerrillas and suffering at the hands of the Rhodesian forces. Several of them developed a strong Irish anti-imperialism. Father Vernon of St Killians in the Makoni tribal trust land told the Pearce Commission, which had come in 1972 to assess African opinion about Anglo-Rhodesian constitutional proposals, that ‘the whole thing was typical of the British approach in Northern Ireland. They should have solved it once for all long ago but they kept on pushing it away.’ Father Kenny at St Barbara’s was outraged when Rhodesian soldiers entered his church in Easter week 1977 and began to strip the shirts off all male worshippers in order to detect marks on their backs made by carrying guns and other loads into the hills for the guerrillas. One white soldier grabbed the Mass server and began to disrobe him. Kenny saw red: ‘I was saved by my Irish temper. I was in such a rage that I could hardly talk.’ In 1977 Kenny also had to deal with mock guerrillas trying to provoke him on behalf of Rhodesian intelligence. ‘I phoned Lamont’s man in Umtali and told him the situation speaking Gaelic’, thereby frustrating Rhodesian censors. It was Kenny too who told me, with only a little over-statement, that ‘the worst moment of the war’ came at the very end of it when the British monitoring force set up a base at St Barbara’s: ‘You can imagine an Irishman’s blood when I saw the Union Jack hanging from my church’.

Wiles Lectures, Belfast

In 1978 I was invited to give the Wiles Lectures at Queen’s University, Belfast. I lectured on ‘Witchcraft belief in the history of three continents: an Africanist perspective on the interactions of history and anthropology’. It was vastly over-ambitious and never became a book. I was kindly invited to join the Wiles Trustees, however, and for the next ten years, until I returned as Visiting Professor at the University of Zimbabwe after my retirement from my Oxford chair in 1998, I went to Belfast annually. I recall with amusement that I was received by the historians of Ireland in Belfast as a returning prodigal son—someone who had shown early promise in Irish history before whoring off after the strange gods of Africa.

On the Antrim coast during a break in the Wiles Lectures.

On the Antrim coast during a break in the Wiles Lectures.

It was not a view that I shared. As will have become apparent, for me Ireland and Africa had always been part of the same project. This view was reinforced by my years as a Wiles trustee. Every year I found something to say in the nightly discussions that followed the lectures, drawing on my African expertise as it was mediated by my Irish interests.
Of course the trajectory that I have traced in this article is not the only way that Ireland can be linked to Africa. Cecil Rhodes was an ally of Parnell. Even Casement fought on the British side during the Boer War, though he refused to wear his campaign medals thereafter. The first settler prime minister of Southern Rhodesia was an Irishman, Sir Charles Coghlan. There is plenty of room for revisionist as well as nationalist perspectives on the relations between Ireland and Africa. But for me, once I had repented of the earl of Cork, it was the militant and nationalist tradition of Ireland that sustained me over more than 40 years.

Terence Ranger is Emeritus Professor of History at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

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