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Africa Education


Michael Wolfers, Thomas Hodgkin: Wandering Scholar, Merlin Press, 2007,

256 pages, hardback ISBN 9780850365801, £40, paperback ISBN

9780850365818, £16.95


Thomas Hodgkin (1910-1982) was a crusader for the education and advancement of the peoples of Africa and of the developing countries in general and a pioneer in the study of the pre-colonial history of sub-Saharan Africa. In 2000, Thomas’ daughter, Elizabeth, and Michael Wolfers published his Letters from Africa 1947- 56, sent mainly to his wife, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, O.M., a Nobel chemistry laureate. These represent a fascinating and informed commentary on Africa during the period of the transition from colonialism to independence. Michael Wolfers has now followed this up with a detailed biography of the author of these letters, which provides a gripping account of a life devoted to learning and the cause of human emancipation.


Thomas Hodgkin was a scion of an affluent, intellectual and well-connected family whose roots go back to seventeenth century Cotswold Quakers. His paternal grandfather, Thomas Hodgkin, was a banker and historian, who wrote Italy and Her Invaders in eight volumes: his maternal grandfather, A. L. Smith, was a pioneer of the Workers’ Educational Association and Master of Balliol

College, Oxford; his father, Robin Hodgkin, was Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford and a historian, who wrote A History of the Anglo-Saxons in two volumes.

Family relationships and friendships linked him to establishment figures from Archbishop William Temple to well-known poets, archaeologists, academics, civil servants and politicians.


After completing his education at Winchester and Balliol, Thomas was appointed to the Palestine Civil Service in 1934, at the time of the British mandate. Having already developed left-wing views, he became increasingly uncomfortable about British repression of the Arabs for opposing unlimited Jewish immigration and resigned his position. Back in London, he joined the Communist Party, participated in demonstrations and wrote for the League Against Imperialism and Labour Monthly. He tried secondary school teaching, but decided it was not for him and moved into WEA lecturing – eventually securing a post as a WEA tutor in North Staffordshire in 1939. This brought him into contact with George Wigg, a former regular soldier, who was the North Staffs WEA district secretary.


Thomas’ post was regarded as a reserved occupation and he continued in it throughout the Second World War. He helped George Wigg to lobby for Army education and, in the 1945 General Election, took part in the campaign in which Wigg was elected as the Labour MP for Dudley. In return, George Wigg pushed him to apply for the secretaryship of the University of Oxford Delegacy for Extra- Mural Studies, and to promote the university extension course in Africa when he was appointed.


This led to a succession of extended trips to Africa, during the course of which he became familiar with nationalist and religious leaders, businessmen, trade unionists, writers, journalists and others, in addition to initiating higher education on a significant scale. When the Cold War led to anti-Communist witch-hunting, Thomas resigned from the Communist Party in 1949 and from the Oxford Extra- Mural Delegacy in 1952.


He was, however, sufficiently well known as an expert on Africa to support himself by lecturing and writing. In 1956, he produced a widely acclaimed book, Nationalism in Colonial Africa. Along with Basil Davidson, he helped lead the way in encouraging the study of African history. His Nigerian Perspectives, first published in 1960, with an enlarged second edition in 1975, became a seminal source for historians of Africa. In addition, he wrote innumerable articles and contributed to other books. In 1981, he published Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path.


He regarded himself as a Marxist, but he was not dogmatic. Although he rejoined the Communist Party in 1976, after 27 years, it was never at the centre of his activity. He was, however, totally committed to progressive causes. I remember his unflagging support for Liberation’s campaign against the execution, detention and ill-treatment of political prisoners by President Nimeiry of the Sudan in the early 1970s.


Michael Wolfers’ book is a magnificent record of a fascinating life. In addition to its political content, it provides much information on Thomas’ personal idiosyncrasies, his permissive attitudes, his relationships with people in all walks of life, and his extended and talented family. I had difficulty in putting it down before I had finished reading it.


All who are interested in Africa and the developing countries, in historical research and in learning more about this outstanding personality should read this book. I recommend it without reservation.


Stan Newens

with grateful acknowledgements to Liberation









































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