SOAS University of London


Pioneering the study of African History

SOAS played a pivotal role in establishing African history as a distinct field of scholarship. Though the School had been founded to prepare officials for postings in Britain's colonies, its Africa-related research and teaching broadened quickly, producing a step-change in critical approaches to the Continent and its past. 

SOAS, University of London was founded as the School of Oriental Studies on 5 June 1916. From the early 1930s, the School taught many of the languages of Africa. Among its students of African languages was Paul Robeson, the distinguished American singer-actor and leading campaigner against racism, who studied Swahili and phonetics in 1934.

A major figure in development of the study of Africa was Professor Roland Oliver, whose interest in ecclesiastical history led him to focus on the historical impact of Christian missionaries in Africa. Professor Oliver's research showed that there was no academic study of African history, only the study of Europeans in Africa. As eminent historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was to state so controversially in 1963: “Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa.” It was Oliver who challenged that perception,  becoming lecturer in the tribal history of East Africa at SOAS, a ground-breaking appointment which marked the beginnings of the contemporary academic field of African history.

Pioneering study of Africa in UK pics
The Africa Department at SOAS, July 1948


Later still, SOAS embraced the social sciences, teaching and promoting research on African politics, economics, and development ambitions. The School now has unrivalled expertise in languages, cultures and histories of the civilisations in Africa – with more than 350 degree combinations available, specialist programmes on the languages of Africa and home to the Centre of African Studies, constant innovation keep SOAS teaching and learning relevant and rewarding. SOAS’ unique perspective on the world is reinforced by the diversity of our academic staff, with the highest proportion of BME professors in the UK.

Notable alumni from Africa include BBC news presenter Zeinab Badawi (MSc Near & Middle Eastern Studies 1989);  Uganda's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, His Excellency Mr Francis K Butagira (African Law 1966);  and Chief Dr (Mrs) Cecilia Ibru (Hausa 1981) - Former Managing Director and CEO of major Nigerian bank, Oceanic Bank International.  More recently, Liberian-born Development Studies PhD student Robtel Neajai Pailey was awarded the Diplomatic Courier and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy 2013 “99 Under 33” - an international list of the most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33.  

SOAS also offers a vast range of public events on African, ranging from the languages and arts in Africa, archaeology and cultural heritage, development and food security, post-conflict governance and colonial and post-colonial history.