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Tribute paid to founding father of study of African history

20 March 2014

SOAS, University of London has paid tribute to Roland Oliver, Professor of African History at SOAS, a major figure in development of the study of Africa, who died on 9 February, aged 90.

Professor Oliver joined SOAS in 1948, where he worked successively as Lecturer, Reader and Professor until his retirement in 1986. His research on ecclesiastical history led him to focus on the historical impact of Christian missionaries in Africa. 

Much of Professor Oliver's work was done on the ground, travelling with his wife and daughter across the continent, pursuing the archaeological remains of pre-colonial kingdoms and interviewing and recording conversations with, and oral histories from, villagers and locals.

His research highlighted the fact that there was no academic study of African history, only the study of Europeans in Africa. Professor Oliver’s appointment as a Lecturer in the Tribal History of East Africa in 1948, therefore, was ground-breaking, and marked the beginnings of the contemporary academic field of African history.

Professor Oliver founded the African History Seminar in 1952, which became 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.

Professor 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.

Director of SOAS Professor Paul Webley said: “The impact Professor Oliver had on the study of Africa from within the UK is extraordinary. The premise he set – to understand and explore the world from different perspectives – and not just one’s own – is one which SOAS continues to uphold as a principle approach to the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.”

Professor Oliver was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at SOAS in 1992. His obituary appeared in The Times on 14 March.