Sydney Kanya-Forstner (October 24, 1940 - March 31, 2017) was a much esteemed colleague in the Department of History for no fewer than thirty-four years. Born in Budapest in 1940 and educated in Toronto at Upper Canada College, he gained his Honours B.A. in History at Trinity College, University of Toronto in 1961. He won a prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship – as well as a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a Canada Council Fellowship and a Queen Elizabeth II (Ontario) Scholarship, all declined – to study for his Ph.D. at King’s College, Cambridge, where he completed his thesis in just four years in 1965.
He was immediately appointed to a four-year Research Fellowship in History at Gonville and Caius College before being elected a Fellow and College Lecturer in History at that same college in 1969. His first book, The Conquest of the Western Sudan: A Study in French Military Imperialism (Cambridge University Press, 1969), was based on his doctoral thesis and remains the definitive work on French expansion in West Africa. He was tempted back to Toronto in 1972 to take up an appointment as Associate Professor at History at York, where he continued to publish a series of pathbreaking studies on the history of French West Africa and French imperialism more generally. Notable was the book that he wrote in collaboration with Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew in 1981: The Climax of French Imperial Expansion 1914-1924 (Thames & Hudson/Stanford University Press). He was promoted to the rank of Professor in 1982.
By this time, he had established a notable partnership and rapport with our departmental colleague and African historian Paul Lovejoy, and together they jointly published a number of articles and three books in the 1990s: Slavery and its Abolition in French West Africa: The Official Reports of G. Poulet, E. Roume, and G. Deherme (University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), The Sokoto Caliphate and the European Powers, 1890-1907 (a special issue of Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 1994) and Pilgrims, Interpreters and Agents: French Reconnaissance Reports on the Sokoto Caliphate and Borno, 1891-1895 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). (Some telling insights on the nature of their collaboration and a strong reminiscence of Sydney’s wit may be found in their joint-article, “Editing Nineteenth-Century Intelligence Reports on the Sokoto Caliphate and Borno, or the Delights of a Collaborative Approach”, History in Africa 24, 1997, 195-204, available via JSTOR.)
During his career at York Sydney taught a number of courses on 19th/20th century European Imperialism and the history of Modern Africa at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but he will arguably be most remembered for developing and teaching one of the Department’s most popular courses: HIST 1010 6.0, War, Revolution and Society in the 20th Century. He taught it first in 1982 and was still lecturing in the course in the year of his retirement 2005-6, only taking a break for sabbaticals. The course still continues as in demand as ever thirty-five years after its creation.
K-F, as he was usually known, was also active in administration, serving as Director of the Graduate Programme in History from 1980 to 1984, where his incisive intellect and attention to detail saw him appointed Associate Dean of Graduate Studies from 1983 to 1988. He had served YUFA in a number of roles in his early years at York, for instance, chairing the negotiations committee in 1975-77, and served on a number of important Senate committees during his career. He was always quick to spot a logical flaw in motions under discussion at Departmental Council and was never slow to make a decisive, often witty, intervention to bring matters to a sensible conclusion.
Throughout his career at York, Sydney was generous in offering a series of directed readings courses to graduate students in African history, and as testimony to their esteem, two of them, Femi J. Kolapo and Kwabena O. Akurang-Parry, published a Festschrift in his honour in 2007 to mark his retirement from teaching: African Agency and European Colonialism: Latitudes of Negotiations and Containment (University Press of America).
Sydney made a huge contribution to the Department of History and to York University. He will be much missed. The Department’s sincerest condolences go out to the Kanya-Forstner family at this difficult time.