Trevor Grundy writes on the life of the historian and political activist

At a dinner party in Salisbury (Harare) in the late1950s when white rule in Rhodesia was at its height, Terence Ranger, who has died at his home in Oxford at the age of 85, told the left-wing academic John Reed  that he wished he'd been born black. "Terry," Reed wrote years later, "began a debate on what it means to  be African by saying how much he wishes he was black because for the black man everything is still open,  everything is still to do - a new state and a new culture to build up."

In early 1968 - soon after the publication of his greatest work "Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7" (Heinemann, London, 1967) the still young Terence Ranger sat in a lecture room at Dar es Salaam. Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael was thumping the rostrum telling black students that they must learn to hate whites.

Ranger later recalled - "A history student sitting next to me was shouting ‘I do hate the whites. I do hate the whites,' pausing to whisper to me, ‘I don't mean you Professor Ranger.'"

Terence Ranger was always the exception.

At Highgate School exceptionally mediocre. At Oxford University, exceptionally curious about little known incidents in English and Irish history. In Southern Rhodesia, exceptionally brave as well as provocative.

Although in Southern Rhodesia for less than six years -from 1957-1963- he managed to get up the collective noses of most whites. He was hurled fully clothed into a swimming pool after telling a group of rugger-bugger Europeans that blacks should be allowed to swim in it.

Undaunted, he launched an anti-colour bar march through Salisbury.

Lawrence Vambe, the Zimbabwean author and historian, said of him: "For a white person and an immigrant at that, to act in this fashion required an uncommon amount of moral, physical courage. In the circumstances, the apostles of segregation were horrified by Ranger's behaviour and prevailed upon the government to make him pack up and go."

He and his wife Shelagh went to Tanzania to work at the University of Da r es Salaam, in those days a hot bed of thought -though little action - from expatriate Marxists and students all to willing to learn to hate whites if that was on the course. It was there that Ranger started work on his masterpiece, "Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7."

It showed how Africans lived before the arrival of Cecil Rhodes and his Pioneer Column in 1890 and attempted to explain why the country's two main tribes, the Shona and Matabele, rose up against the European settlers who went on to form a country names after Rhodes and run the lace until independence came in April 1980..

From Tanzania, he went to the University of California for five years and then on to Manchester University where he stayed for 13 years before taking up the chair or Race Relations at Oxford University. He left England once again in 1968 to return to Africa where he worked on a four year contract at the University of Zimbabwe, "a grandather figure for research students," he quipped.


Terence Ranger was born on November 29, 1929, son of middle class parents whose income was precarious. His father was a reckless gambler. "The family's moral politics were contained within a bourgeois life style which varied in elaboration according to my father's prosperity," he said. "The result of all this was that I grew up with a horror of gambling." On school days, he said: "Except for literature and history I might as well not have had a brain at all."

After 18 months of National Service, he went to Oxford where the core of the History Honours syllabus was a continuous knowledge of English history. While there he made an important contact, one most interesting contact -Hugh Trevor Roper who later became notorious for dismissing the possibility of any meaningful African history whatsoever.

Uncertain what to do next, in 1957 Ranger applied for a lectureship at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland as lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern History. He arrived in Salisbury in 1957 with only the scantiest understanding of Africa, having read just two books on the subject Trevor Huddleston's "Naught for Your Comfort" and John Gunther's "Inside Africa."

In 1957, Southern Rhodesia was key to the success or the failure of the British-designed Central African Federation that joined two Rhodesias (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) to Nyasaland (Malawi). For whites, it was the last throw of the dice.

But instead of joining the white community and absorbing their traditional prejudices, Ranger and Shelagh linked arms with a cross-section of freedom fighters, men such as James Chikerema, George Nyandoro, Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Maurice Nyagumbo, Stanlake and Sketchely Samkange, Michael Mawema, Enoch Dumbutshen and the cleverest and most ruthless of hem all Robert Mugabe..

Ranger helped write articles which explained the African nationalist position on almost everything. He believed that an end to white rule would see an end to corruption and nepotism. Most whites dismissed him as a self-serving liberal crank who hadn't much of a clue about what they always called "real Africans."

When he was deported, a crowd of black nationalists surrounded him at the airport and waved him off. The picture of him and them that day was one of his proudest possessions and is the front cover of his autobiography "Writing Revolt - An Engagement with African Nationalism 1957-67." (James Currey, 2013)

During his quite long and almost always fascinating life - the last years plagued by diabetes and to some degree memory loss - Ranger published and edited dozens of books and wrote hundreds of articles and book chapters. The publication that brough him his greatest fame in Britain and in non-Africanist circles was "The Invention of Tradition" (Cambridge University Press, 1983) which he co-edited with Eric Hobsbawm.

A memorial service will be held at Oxford later this year.

(Professor Terence Ranger: born November 29, 1929 died January 2, 2015. He is survived by his wife Shelagh and adopted daughters).