In a career devoted to the study of Africa’s Upper Nile Valley, particularly Sudan, historian Robert O. Collins wrote books and articles that were considered required reading for scholars and students of Africa.
The U.S. government sought his insight on the conflict in Darfur and on Osama bin Laden. Hollywood filmmakers asked his advice in depicting the region on screen. A former president of Sudan presented Collins with a distinguished award for scholarship.
But when Collins and a colleague wrote the 2006 book “Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World,” the two historians found themselves in the middle of what the New York Times called an international cause celebre.
To avoid a defamation lawsuit in British courts -- where the burden of proof is on the defendant -- the publisher of “Alms” apologized to a wealthy Saudi mentioned in the book, Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, and paid a settlement. The publisher, Cambridge University Press, also destroyed all unsold copies of “Alms,” an act of pure heresy to Collins and other scholars.
Until his death from cancer in Santa Barbara on April 11, the 75-year-old Collins maintained that he and J. Millard Burr had written a good book that deserved to exist.
“The Shaykh can burn the books in Britain, but he cannot prevent the recovery of the copyright by the authors nor their search for a U.S. publisher to reprint a new edition of ‘Alms for Jihad,’ ” Collins said in an essay posted online at George Mason University’s History News Network.
The “Alms” debacle was a rare incident in the life of the professor emeritus who was a preeminent scholar in his field.
Robert Oakley Collins was born in Waukegan, Ill., on April 1, 1933. His interest in Africa was ignited while browsing the library at Dartmouth University in the 1950s.
“He found the Africa area and he just became enthralled,” said his daughter, Catharine Collins Kristian. “At the time, it was an emerging area. All the colonial countries were either leaving or talking about granting independence.”
Collins traveled to Sudan in 1956, the year the country gained independence. It was the first of many trips and the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the nation, Kristian said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in 1954, Collins earned many other degrees in history: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oxford University’s Balliol College in 1956 and 1960, as well as a master’s degree and a doctorate from Yale University in 1958 and 1959. He was fluent in Arabic.
Collins taught for brief periods at Williams College in Massachusetts and at Columbia University in New York before joining the faculty of UC Santa Barbara in 1965.
For 10 years Collins served as dean of the graduate division. After his retirement in 1994 he continued to teach, write and mentor. With his doctoral students he was demanding, affable and always available.
“He wanted us to have a holistic understanding of African history from the beginning of times to modern times. And he was tough,” said Scopas S. Poggo, a native of Sudan who is now an assistant professor of African American and African studies at Ohio State University.
Collins wrote or co-wrote at least 30 books and many articles. His book “Shadows in the Grass: Britain in the Southern Sudan, 1918-1956" won the John Ben Snow Foundation Prize for the best book in British studies in 1984.
An eloquent public speaker, Collins brought strong storytelling skills to his writing, melding them with meticulous research. “Alms” was also thoroughly researched, “our interpretations judicious, our conclusions made in good faith on the available evidence,” Collins wrote in his online essay.
But “Alms” may be on the shelf again with a new publisher, Kristian said. Collins’ book “A History of Modern Sudan” is scheduled for release in May. The book traces Sudan’s history over 200 years and reveals the link between tragedies of today and events of the past.
“I wish all of his books could be reprinted,” Poggo said. “He has made very significant contributions to the history of southern Sudan. He left a very strong legacy.”
In addition to his daughter, Collins is survived by two sons, Randolph William Collins of Healdsburg, Calif., and Robert Ware Collins of San Jose; two brothers, Jack Gore Collins of Portland, Ore., and George William Collins II of Chesterland, Ohio; and five grandchildren.
There will be no public memorial service. Memorial donations may be sent to the Sudan-American Foundation for Education (SAFE), 141 N. Henderson Road, No. 1205, Arlington, VA 22203.