Clare College Cambridge

Professor Ruth Watson

Professor Ruth Watson

University Lecturer in African History

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What is your subject and specific area of study?

I am a historian of Africa and my research has focused in particular on the history of Nigeria. Although I am originally from Australia, I spent some of my childhood in a place called Ife, a town in southwestern Nigeria in a region known as Yorubaland. My experience there as a primary and secondary school student taught me what a great privilege an education is, because I knew other children not so fortunate to have a place in school. Although I was caned for being left-handed, there was the bonus of going fishing with Wole Soyinka (the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). After I returned to Australia as a teenager, I developed a strong desire to return to Nigeria and discover more about its past. This got underway a decade later, when I began my doctorate on the history of a Yoruba city called Ibadan, which was founded as a war-camp in 1829 and soon developed into the largest urban centre in the area. I was particularly interested in examining how the military chiefs of Ibadan adapted to the introduction of British colonial rule from the late nineteenth century, and what happened to ideas of political authority and civic culture. I found that neither Ibadan chiefs nor British officials were dominant; instead, each side was forced to adapt and change so as to accommodate the other. As part of my research I spent a great deal of time visiting the old military households of Ibadan and interviewing the descendants of chiefs I was reading about in the colonial archives. For me, such fieldwork is an essential part of doing African history.

More recently I have been researching a project exploring the connections between literacy, cultural identity and the development of ideas on colonial citizenship in Nigeria during the inter-war years. Another interest of mine is the relationship between film and African history.

What makes Clare College such a good place to study your subject?

Clare College has a team of historians who offer coverage of a broad scope of geographic areas and time periods. Whilst our passionate enthusiasm for so many different kinds of history is sure to infect you, there will also be ample opportunity for you to take lectures and supervisions with historians from other colleges. You will no doubt have heard that Clare is a ‘friendly’ college; as a fellow who joined in 2010, I can assure you that this is true. Clare must be one of the most welcoming and down-to-earth places in Cambridge. This spirit of openness influences how we engage with other fellows and our students – we are a genuine community of scholars who all seek to learn from each other. A number of college-based seminars and classes run throughout the year, enabling students and fellows to share ideas and debate topics, while another popular event is the annual history subject dinner. As far as African history goes, Clare students are very well served for relevant books in the college library, and the extensive holdings of the University Library are minutes away from Memorial Court. The Centre for African Studies is to move to a new purpose built building adjacent to the History Faculty, which is just a short walk away from Clare. But most important of all, history students at Clare enjoy a companionable and supportive intellectual home which enables them to get the very most out of their studies.

Main Publications:

Civil Disorder is the Disease of Ibadan: Chieftaincy and Civic Culture in a Yoruba City (2003)

‘”What is our intelligence, our school going and our reading of books without getting money?” Akinpelu Obisesan and his diary, 1914-1929’ in Africa’s Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self (2006)

‘Beholding the Colonial Past in Claire Denis’s Chocolat’ in Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen (2007)


History Faculty website:

A fun puzzle to test your knowledge of Africa’s geography:

The Kingdom of Ife, an exhibition at the British Museum in 2010:

African photographs in the National Archives: