PAUL HAIR, Professor of Modern History at Liverpool University from 1979 to 1990, was something of a polymath: an innovative and wide-ranging historian of British social history, of Portuguese and British West Africa, an ethno-linguistic historian as well as an expert on world exploration and encounter.
He was thus a natural choice to be President of the Hakluyt Society in 1992, as that society exists to advance an understanding of world history and of people's encounters with each other, through the publication of voyages and travels undertaken by individuals from all parts of the world to the unknown. He was himself a traveller and also had a fine sense of humour; he used to say that as an intergalactic explorer he would have been quite at home on the starship Enterprise.
Born in Amble, Northumberland, in 1926, Hair won an open major scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge, from where he graduated in History in 1949, and was then appointed Student Bursar for Nuffield and Balliol colleges, Oxford. Between 1953 and 1965 he researched and taught at Ibadan University, Nigeria, in Sierra Leone and in the Sudan, before joining the History Department at Liverpool University in 1965.
He began his career, as he put it, as a 19th-century social historian "digging out all extant primary sources and examining them in detail, a `more-and-more-on-less-and-less' exercise". His DPhil thesis, supervised by G.D.H. Cole, had been on the social history of coalminers and was perhaps the result of Hair's time as a Bevin boy down the mines where he did his National Service. He then moved on to tackle violent death in the medieval period and fostered a database project on Cheshire parish records with colleagues at Manchester University.
His early years in Nigeria had opened his eyes to the importance of anthropology and linguistics to historical research and to the necessity of an African history as distinct from the "imperial" historical tradition about Africa's past which then held sway. However, Hair was rightly sceptical of what later passed for African history when it ignored European written sources as, biased though they must be, they are the best source which survives for five and half centuries of African history. …