I have been reading Pascal Bianchini’s superb book on Jean Suret-Canale (1921-2007), the founding father of African history in France. Suret-Canale’s 1962 book Afrique noire: L’ère coloniale 1900-1945, Bianchini writes, ‘made him known to a generation of African intellectuals and activists.’ Quite simply Suret-Canale changed the face of African history for African activists, students and intellectuals.
Suret-Canale taught many early leaders of nationalist movements in West Africa in the Communist Party inspired study groups, the Groupes d’études communiste. Suret-Canale was an active trade unionist during the extraordinary strike of railway workers on the Dakar-Bamako line in 1947 (the subject of last century’s greatest novel God’s Bits of Wood). Though a leading intellectual in the French Communist Party, his work was not marked by dogmatic party formulas. On the contrary, Bianchini describes his approach as a ‘defence of a type of “idealism” but always based on the discovery of empirical elements, opposed to a strictly materialist conception, where historical facts are inscribed on pre-established formulas.’ Perhaps it is crude to draw these comparisons but Suret-Canale could be described as the French Basil Davidson, though his books are notable for their academic rigor. He was spurned by the French academy, only qualifying at 57 for the position of maître-assistant (a junior lecturer), and not allowed to supervise students or teach African history. A remarkable man. Has anyone come across his name or work?