Robert Lee Tignor

Bob Tignor’s scholarly life has been devoted to understanding peoples who have often left out of the grand narratives of history. His passions shaped the history department, contributed to international affairs at the University, and cultivated several generations of younger scholars at Princeton, as a mentor, as a scholar, and as a teacher. His cumulative impact at Princeton and beyond has been monumental.

Educated at the College of Wooster and earning his doctorate from Yale University in 1960, Bob joined Princeton University’s history department that same year. Other than visiting positions at the University of Ibadan, the University of Nairobi, and the American University in Cairo, Bob’s intellectual home has always been Princeton.

Bob may have had one institutional home, but his restless and ever-expanding imagination was the source of an incredible amount of scholarship, including seven major monographs and a two-volume history of the world from pre-history to the present. Bob was hired originally as a historian of Egypt and he spent his early years at Princeton working on an important book about British colonialism in Egypt, a timely study in light of Nasser’s impact on Third World nationalism. Modernization and British Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914 (1966) examined the ways in which foreign intrusion left enduring imprints on this important country in the Middle East. Bob has remained a distinguished Egyptologist: Egypt and the Sudan (1967), The Political Economy of Income Distribution in Egypt (1982),  State Private Enterprise, and Economic Change in Egypt, 1918-1952 (1984), and Egyptian Textiles and British Capital, 1930-1956 (1989) add up to an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the modern crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe.

While Bob was clearly seen as a rising figure in Middle East History, Jerome Blum, the chair of the department in the mid-1960s, suggested that Bob might begin to offer Princeton’s first courses in African history. Bob took up Blum’s challenge and moved to Nairobi, Kenya, learned new languages, learned the history of a new continent, and explored new methods, including ethnographic accounts of the roles of the Kamba, Kikuyu, and Maasai peoples of East Africa in the rise and fall of the British empire in Kenya. The Colonial Transformation of Kenya (1976) remains the classic study in this field; like good wine, it is a book that has improved with age. Subsequently, Bob returned to his interests in Egypt, but began to think more broadly about the comparative impact of European colonialism on the Middle East and Africa. The result was a majestic study of the role of business in the breakdown of the British empire in Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria. With Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire: State and Business in Decolonizing Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya, 1945-1963 (1998) Bob established himself as one of the world’s most distinguished historians of the Third World.

Throughout his prolific career, Bob has had some running concerns and provocative insights. At a time in which Third World nationalist historians tended to heap blame on European power-holders as the source of all their woes, Bob bucked the trend. He showed over and over again how much colonial agents were involved in the imperial enterprise. These imperial mediators ranged from tribal elders among the Kikuyu, to colonial administrators in Nigeria, to industrialists in Egypt. Bob also poked at some of the cherished verities about heroic nationalists – he had little sympathy for Nasser, and his large comparative book placed the blame for many of the post-colonial problems in the Middle East and Africa on the nationalist classes themselves. However, never did he let colonists, settlers, and imperial rulers off the hook. On the contrary, while he was never interested in letting nationalists get away with the game of blaming everyone else for their problems. Bob never lost sight of the fact that power was apportioned unequally between ruthless and cynical imperialists and their colonies.

These traits are combined in Bob’s latest work, a study of W.A. Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning economist from the Caribbean who went on to play an important role as a British colonial administrator and adviser to several post-colonial African governments. In this beautiful portrait, readers can see how the agonies of the end of a mighty empire and the traumas of emerging African and Caribbean nations became internalized in the figure of a single man who wanted the world to be governed by reason, not passion, to be more equitable, not violent. It is a signature of Bob’s work that there is close research, a story well told, and a commitment to avoid pat generalizing. And there is deep, deep, affection. Bob’s books are always balanced, where other scholars run for polarizing wings. They are carefully researched and documented, where so much of the writing was allusive and unscholarly. They have been standard-bearers for an entire field of scholarship.

Bob’s capacious scholarly interests, his commitment to revising the ways in which historians teach students history at Princeton and beyond, and his dedication to working with young scholars led him to begin a collaborative project among a group of colleagues in the department, beginning in the mid-1990s. What has emerged is a two-volume history of the world that is generally regarded as the defining scholarly work in the field. For those involved, this was a formative experience. One co-author noted that this venture was “the single most important intellectual experience in my 17 years in the department and at Princeton.” To another colleague, one of the world’s most famous historians, this collaboration was an eye-opener: “This close view has left vastly impressed. For I have been enabled, at last, to take the full measure of a scholar whose very efficiency and good nature as a colleague had led one almost to take him for granted. He is a towering figure among us.”

Bob’s was, and is, a grand, global vision of the past. If this inspired monumental books, Bob’s branching into new fields of scholarship also shaped the University’s and department’s understanding of societies far away. From 1970 to 1979, Bob directed Princeton’s Program in African Studies, and when he became chair of the history department, he took the helm of a distinguished department with deep strengths in the teaching of European history. It is often said that leadership is the ability to get people on board change. Bob did this effectively and diligently, ushering decades of greatness.

The combination of a big vision of history and leadership skills enabled Bob to push the intellectual frontiers of the department beyond Europe. When Bob entered the department in 1960, he had two colleagues who worked on the non-Western world. Even as late as 1977, when Bob became chair, matters had not improved much. By urging colleagues to take non-Western history seriously, the department went global; it is generally recognized as a model of how to rise to the challenge of going international without losing one’s identity.

The transformation of the department’s faculty led to a change in its curriculum. As chair, Bob supported the creation of new kinds of courses, in new fields, with connections and support for interdisciplinary international studies, especially in African, Asian, and Latin American affairs. The capstone on Bob’s achievement was the initiation of graduate and undergraduate courses in world history. In 1990, the survey course, “The World and the West” (now renamed “A History of the Modern World since 1300”), was taught for the first time and launched a 13-year collaboration between Bob Tignor and Gyan Prakash. Fittingly, the course is now the department’s gateway as History 201. Looking back almost three decades since Bob first took the helm, during which he chaired the department for 14 years, its transformation seems breathtaking.

Bob Tignor’s contributions to the scholarship in world history will endure in his many important books. His colleagues will forever be indebted to him for his support, encouragement, and his constant challenge to remember the forgotten. And his graduate students, as well as the hundreds and hundreds of undergraduates who have passed through his courses on Africa and the world, will be able to recall the experience of having been taught and mentored by a uniquely learned and deeply empathetic scholar.