Oliver, Roland: Professor of African History

Archive Unit

Administrative / Biographical History

Roland Oliver was Emeritus Professor of African history at the University of London. Throughout a long career he was an eminent researcher, writer, teacher, administrator and organiser, who had a profound effect on the development of African Studies both in the United Kingdom and worldwide.

Roland Anthony Oliver was born on 30 March 1923 in Srinigar in Kashmir, India, where his father had retired to from the Indian Political Service in 1921. Following his education at Stowe, Roland Oliver went up to King's College Cambridge in 1941, but his studies were interrupted by wartime service as a cryptographer at Bletchley Park. Roland Oliver resumed his academic studies at Cambridge in 1945, where his interest in ecclesiastical history led him to focus on the historical impact of Christian missionaries in Africa. His doctoral thesis "The Missionary Factor in East Africa" was also the title of his first book. He was one of the first academics to use original missionary archives, including the London Missionary Society archives, now held at SOAS (see Council for World Mission).

In April 1948, Roland Oliver joined SOAS, where he was successively Lecturer, Reader and Professor until his retirement in 1986. His appointment as a Lecturer in the Tribal History of East Africa in 1948 was ground-breaking, and marked the beginnings of the contemporary academic field of African history. He challenged the traditional Eurocentric view of African history being created and defined by European explorers, settlers and administrators, and set out to establish the continent's pre-colonial history. His aim was to map the continent's pre-colonial and regional histories, in particular making use of local oral traditions, previously disregarded for the most part by European academic research. Early in his academic career, Oliver travelled extensively in Africa, visiting Uganda and Tanganyika [Tanzania] in 1949-50, and visiting Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and Tanganyika [Tanzania] in 1957-58. He regularly returned to the continent over his career on an almost annual basis.

The African History Seminar, first founded by Oliver in 1952 and subsequently chaired by him, was to become the most important venue for the advancement of the academic discipline of African history anywhere in the world. Originally held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, the African History Seminar later moved to SOAS, and soon became the leading international forum for scholarship on African history and historiography, profoundly influencing all subsequent scholarship on the subject. Oliver went on to convene the first three international Conferences on African History and Archaeology, which took place in London in 1953, 1957 and 1961. At SOAS, he was promoted from Lecturer to Senior Tutor from 1973-1977, Dean of Studies from 1977-1978, and Head of the History Department from 1978-1986.

Oliver authored and edited a number of publications which were landmark works in the development of the discipline of African history. These included 'A Short History of Africa' (1962), co-authored with his colleague, John Donnelly Fage, and Oliver's influential 'Oxford History of East Africa' (1963-76). Together with John Fage (some of whose archives are also held at SOAS), Roland Oliver was a founding editor in 1960 of the Journal of African History and, again with John Fage, the 'Cambridge History of Africa', which appeared in eight volumes between 1975 and 1986. '

In 1963, Oliver carried out a survey of 250 working Africanist academics in the United Kingdom and founded the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK) itself. He became its fourth President in 1966-67. Over his long career he worked with the Institute of Race Relations, the British School of History and Archaeology (latterly the British Institute of East Africa), the African Education Trust, the Royal Africa Society and the Africa Centre. He was also Visiting Professor at the University of Brussels (1961), Northwestern University (1962), and Harvard University (1967). From 1979 to 1993 he was president of the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

Alongside the historian Rev. Gervase Matthew and the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Oliver was pivotal to the foundation in 1961 of The British School of History and Archaeology (later The British Institute in Eastern Africa) first based in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika [Tanzania], as an inter-disciplinary research centre to promote archaeological and historical research into the pre-colonial history of Tanganyika [Tanzania], Uganda, Kenya and Zanzibar. The institute relocated to Nairobi, Kenya in 1964. Oliver was a founding member of the London based Governing Council and was elected in 1981 to the role of the Institute's President, a post he held until 1993.

Oliver was also a leading member of the Minority Rights Group, a campaign group set up to highlight the problems faced by ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities around the world. Oliver played a key role in the group's foundation, alongside David Astor, the editor and proprietor of 'The Observer' newspaper. Oliver served as the non-governmental organisation's first Chair in 1967. The Minority Rights Group worked to commission situation reports on individual group's cases which were aimed at raising awareness especially amongst media organisations.

In 1966, Roland Oliver was awarded the Haile Selassie Award for African Research, the Distinguished Africanist Award by the American African Studies Association in 1989, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1993. In 2004, Oliver was awarded the Distinguished Africanist Award of the African Studies Association of the UK (ASAUK).

In December 1947, Oliver married Caroline Linehan, who he had first met when they worked together at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Their daughter Sarah was born in 1949. Caroline Oliver passed away in 1983 after a long illness. In 1990, Roland Oliver married Professor Suzanne Miers, a fellow Africanist and historian. He died on 9 February 2014 at his home in Frilsham in Berkshire.

Oliver's autobiography, 'In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History' was published in 1997.

Notable publications by Roland Oliver include:

The Missionary Factor in East Africa (1952)

Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa (1957)

A Short History of Africa (with John Fage) (1962)

Oxford History of East Africa, 3 vols (1963-1976)

Africa since 1800 (with Anthony Atmore) (1967)

Africa in the Iron Age (with Brian Fagan) (1975)

Cambridge History of Africa, 8 vols (1975-1986)

The African Middle Ages (with Anthony Atmore) (1981)

The African Experience (1991)

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Note

Oliver: see Arnold and Shackle, 'SOAS Since the Sixties', pp.9, 89-90, 92-93, 184

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