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Viewing the past from multiple angles: JRF Dr George Roberts

Dr George Roberts is a historian of post-colonial Africa and its roles during the international affairs of the late twentieth century. In the first of a series of Q&As with Trinity’s Junior Research Fellows, Dr Roberts paints an intriguing picture of Cold War East Africa and explains why it’s vital to view the past from multiple angles – which will take him to archives in India and Uganda, as well time in Tanzania during his Fellowship.

Tell us about your research

My PhD focused on the experience of Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, during the Cold War. In the 1960s, Dar es Salaam was a hotbed of revolutionary politics in Africa. Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere, brushed aside Cold War development models touted by Moscow and Washington, and instead set out a bold vision for transforming a poor ex-colony into an ‘African socialist’ state. At the same time, Dar es Salaam played host to exiled guerrilla movements from across southern Africa, who set up offices in the city. The capital soon became home to a cosmopolitan mixture of ambitious Tanzanian politicians, Cold War diplomats, African liberation leaders, radical local journalists, foreign correspondents, and a host of spies. My research traces the encounters between this diverse dramatis personae – and the complicating effects they had on Tanzanian nation-building, the global Cold War, and the liberation of southern Africa.

What interests you most about your research?

I love slowly, carefully, often painstakingly putting together a jigsaw that illuminates our understanding of the not-so-distant past from multiple angles. Lots of Cold War history is written using archive material from the ‘usual suspects’ – and, especially for Anglophone historians, this means the state records of the UK and US. But when we start looking at other archives – in this case, found not just in Tanzania, but France, East Germany, West Germany, Portugal, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia – a more nuanced picture begins to take shape.

Why is your research important?

When we think about the Cold War, East Africa isn’t usually what springs to mind. But superpower rivalry left almost no part of the world untouched. My work seeks to revive African voices often excluded from the historical record. Cambridge is a brilliant place to study History, maybe the best in the world. But even here, we remain fixated with the European experience – you only have to glance at the Tripos syllabus to see that. Current developments both close to home and elsewhere demonstrate the potential dangers of such a narrow, self-centred view of the world. If my research and teaching can make just a small contribution to the way in which we see our planet and its past in a less Eurocentric light, I feel I’m making a positive contribution to the academy and beyond.

How are you spending your time at Trinity?

My first task is to turn my PhD into a book, so there’s a lot of re-writing and editing going on. My appetite for further sources material isn’t fully satisfied, so I’m also planning trips to archives in, India and Uganda in the near future. Hopefully the manuscript should be ready to go by the end of 2018. Parallel to this, I’m developing a second project – a history of Marxist dissent in Africa, built around the biography of a Tanzanian radical Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu. For much of the time, then, I’ll be based in Dar es Salaam (though checking back into Cambridge as much as I can!) I’m hoping to carry out interviews with a range of radical thinkers in East Africa, as well as mining archives throughout the region and also developing relationships with local scholars at the University of Dar es Salaam.

What does the Junior Research Fellowship mean to you?

The pressures on early career academics are very tough these days and teaching loads or funding constraints make doing extended periods of research abroad difficult. So I’m really grateful for the space the Fellowship provides to pursue my interests, develop my thinking, and build constructive relationships with other young historians, of Africa and beyond.

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