To date, we have found just one photograph that shows Thomas’s phonograph in use in the field. This photograph was taken in Agila (then spelled ‘Agala’), in present-day Benue State, and is captioned in Thomas’s photo register merely as ‘dancing’. Thomas made only a few sound recordings in Agila, all on 4th June 1913, including this one of a female vocal group (British Library C51/3222).
Northcote Thomas’s recording ‘ident’ can be heard at the beginning of the track, ‘Agala, June the 4th, 1913’, followed by the womens’ song. It is likely this was recorded as part of the session captured on the photograph in front of a large group of local spectators (including lots of children), who were no doubt intrigued by the strange presence of the ‘Government Anthropologist’ in their town.
Although Thomas’s third anthropological survey, which took place in 1912-13, was intended to focus on Igbo-speaking communities in what was then Asaba District, west of the Niger River, he also spent three months travelling to towns in eastern Igbo areas, including Owerri, Aba, Ikot Ekpene, Afikpo, Obubra, Ikom, Agila and Nkalagu.
This is the first in an occasional series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project by Jean Borgatti. Jean received a PhD in Art History from UCLA in 1976. She has carried out research in Nigeria among Edo-speaking people north of Benin for over 40 years, beginning in the 1970s, returning in 2003-04 and 2014-16 on Fulbright-Hays teaching/research fellowships with a base at the University of Benin, Benin City. She has carried out research among a number of small ethnic groups with which N. W. Thomas interacted, notably the Okpella (Ukpila), Ekperi, Weppa-Wano, Avianwu, Uzairue, Otuo (Otwa), Ogbe and Ibillo, publishing on the Okpella, Ekperi and Otuo masquerade complexes in the journal African Arts. In this blog, Jean recalls her encounter with a photograph by Northcote Thomas reproduced uncredited in a 1935 publication entitled The Secret Museum of Mankind, and how this led to her own documentation of the same remarkable Otuo masquerade in the early 1970s.
‘Awe-inspiring ceremonial attends the most important event in tribal life — the admission of the young men into the full rights of manhood. In South Kukuruku the initiation is performed once every three years by members of the Eliminya Society. They wear uncanny, somewhat insect-like masks with pendant tassels — always jealously concealed from the uninitiated and from women — a kind of tunic of loose cords, and crested helmets of palm-fibre.’
So reads the caption to this heavily modified photograph, published in 1935 in The Secret Museum of Mankind – a work described on the website at which it has been digitized, as a ‘mystery book’, with ‘no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, [and] no index’ (http://ian.macky.net/secretmuseum/). Advertised as ‘World’s Greatest Collection of Strange & Secret Photographs’, its accompanying texts ‘read like the patter of a carnival sideshow barker’, racist and sensational (ibid.).
Like other images in the book, the photograph is not attributed in The Secret Museum of Mankind. We know, however, that it is one of Northcote W. Thomas’s photographs taken in Otuo (Otwa) in July 1909, in the north of Nigeria’s Edo State, of a festival he records as being called ‘Eliminya’. The photograph and the caption had previously been published in 1922 in a serialized illustrated encyclopaedia entitled Peoples of All Nations edited by J. A. Hammerton. N. W. Thomas provided numerous photographs to sections on the ‘British Empire in Africa’ and contributed an article on the ‘manners and customs of its native races’.
Both Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind were published at a time described by Annie Coombes in her book Reinventing Africa (1997) when Africa was a concept as much as a geographical destination. She notes that the Africa that existed in the popular European imagination was an ideological space, at once savage, threatening, exotic and productive. These ideas are reinforced by the images and captions published in popular works such as Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind.
At this time two particular cultural arenas effectively disseminated knowledge of Africa to the European public: the displayed classification of material culture from Africa in ethnographic collections in local and national museums (such as the collections made by Northcote Thomas and now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), and the spectacle of Africans themselves in a variety of large-scale national and regional exhibitions. The popular illustrated press and serialized encyclopaedias such as Peoples of All Nations were also part of this dissemination, and, as mentioned above, this material was later republished in works such as The Secret Museum of Mankind.
I recognized the photographs when I obtained a second-hand copy of The Secret Museum of Mankind in the early 1970s, having earlier seen copies of some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs. These had been made from the album lodged in the National Museum in Lagos and provided by a colleague, since at that time I was considering whether to make an art historical field study in the Edo North area (known in Thomas’s time as Kukuruku). I spent some time in the UK at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where I was given access to Thomas’s collection – although it was not well catalogued, stored or described at that time. I pursued a field enquiry in Edo North between 1971 and 1974, witnessing the festival described by Thomas as Eliminya in Otuo (Otwa) in 1973. (When I visited the festival was called Igugu.) Although this was not my primary research, after witnessing this extraordinary masquerade spectacle I did some follow up work and wrote an article on Otuo’s age grade masquerades, published in African Arts (Borgatti 1982).
I had been fortunate in 1973 to document a particularly important group of men who served as sponsors for the masquerades as they moved into what was described as the lower levels of leadership. They were men between 40 and 50 years of age in the Otuoyema age group. Otuo requires that its citizens participate in the age-grade system, even if that participation is by proxy, moving up systematically through the ranks. If a man does not participate, he may never become a chief in Otuo – no matter how successful he has been in the outside world. This seems to have provided considerable incentive for people to support the age-grade institution.
I returned to Nigeria in 2002-03 on a Fulbright-Hays Research and Teaching fellowship that enabled me to follow up on the Otuo (and neigbouring Ikao) festival. During the festival, I was the guest of the paramount chief of Otuo, Ovie Julius Elugbe, who had been one of the initiates in 1973. Subsequently, in 2016, I photographed the festival again, this time in the company of the linguist, Professor Ben Elugbe, the late Ovie’s nephew. 2016 was not a year for age-grade formation, since this occurs only once every five years when the new masquerades are introduced (in contrast to Thomas’s assertion that it occurred every three years). In between times, the fibre masquerades, if not those with carved wooden headdresses, come out annually in their respective quarters. Even though Thomas’s photographs provide an important visual baseline for Otuo’s cultural practices, much work remains to be done in these northern Edo communities that are struggling to conserve their remarkable heritage.
Along with the sound archives and collections of artefacts, the photographic legacy of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa provide a remarkable record of life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. As part of a ‘scientific’ endeavour, they were intended primarily as a form of ethnographic documentation and also constituted ‘data’ in themselves – particularly with regard to physical type photography. As part of a government-sponsored project, their entanglement in colonial power relations and racial representation/categorisation is unavoidable. This political context must be the primary lens through which we approach these images and practices.
Working through this vast archive of photographs, however, one is also struck occasionally by the aesthetic qualities of the images. This extends to both portraiture – which, in many cases, complicates our reading of these as ‘physical type’ photographs (this will be the subject of a future blog) – and what we might call ‘still life’ photographs. Indeed, as the examples included here show, Thomas’s photographs of material culture or architectural details are sometimes strongly redolent of the early still-life photography of Fox Talbot or Daguerre . This includes photographs of what appear to be ‘found scenes’ as well as compositions in which objects have been arranged purposefully for the camera. (Compare, for example, with Fox Talbot’s ‘The Open Door‘ and Daguerre’s ‘Fossils and Shells‘.)
This reminds us of a dual characteristic of photography that has been present throughout the history of the medium – that photography has been regarded as both a medium for the objective documentation of reality, independent of the photographer’s ‘artistry’, and as a medium of subjective artistic expression akin to painting or drawing. In the context of Thomas’s anthropological survey photography, a further question is raised regarding whether we may appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs, while being mindful (and critical) of the racial/colonial politics in which they are entangled?
The image of the anthropologist as a heroic, lone fieldworker, battling through adversity in order to single-handedly document disappearing customs and rituals is a tenacious myth. Some anthropologists intentionally portrayed themselves in such terms. Malinowski‘s 1922 monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, famously begins with the lines: ‘Imagine yourself, suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which brought you sails away out of sight’. In fact, we know that anthropological fieldwork is – and always has been – a highly collaborative endeavour. The important role of fieldwork collaborators – including fixers, brokers, assistants, interpreters and other participants – has, however, often gone unacknowledged. A notable exception was Franz Boas, who acknowledged his debt to his Tlingit-speaking assistant, George Hunt, who collected much of the data on which Boas’s publications were based.
N. W. Thomas was undoubtedly an energetic fieldworker, travelling extensively in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the course of some 55-months of anthropological survey work between 1909 and 1915. While Thomas was the sole author of the various reports and publications that resulted from this research, and is credited with assembling the thousands of photographs and sound recordings, and extensive collections of artefacts, botanical specimens and linguistic materials that are the legacy of these surveys, it is clear that this could not be the work of just one man. But who accompanied Thomas on his travels? How many assistants did he have? What roles did they play? One has to look hard to find a trace of such collaborators in the archives of Thomas’s surveys – but they can occasionally be glimpsed as peripheral presences.
This peripheral presence is most literally manifest when Thomas’s assistants appear at the edge of the photographic frame, holding a number board, supporting the photographic background sheet, or diffusing the sunlight with an umbrella. Many of Thomas’s photographic negatives are loosely framed, allowing peripheral detail to creep into the picture. The intention would have been to crop these images prior to publication, removing the traces of their co-production. As an experiment, such photographs can be differently cropped, placing the peripheral presences in the centre of the frame.
Represencing Thomas’s fieldwork collaborators also entails recognising their trace elsewhere in the archive. In negative number NWT 261, a photograph of a group of Hausa musicians and dancers taken in Benin City in 1909, an assistant can be seen on the verandah making notes in what appears to be Thomas’s photographic register. These register books survive in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute and, indeed, the handwriting on these pages is not Thomas’s. Has the act of writing this very register entry been captured at the periphery of the frame?
Within the photographic archive of the anthropological surveys, there are just five photographs of N. W. Thomas himself. These were likely taken by Thomas’s field assistants. In one intriguing pair of photographs, taken at the same location, it appears that Thomas and one of his assistants – probably Corporal Nimahan (see below) – have taken it in turns to photograph one another. This raises the question as to how many other photographs in the archive might have been taken by Thomas’s assistants rather than by Thomas himself.
There appears to be only one entry in Thomas’s photographic register books in which it is noted that an assistant has taken a photograph. Thus photograph NWT 283 is described as ‘Burial of Legema, 26.3.09’. Evidently a sequence of four photographs was taken under this same number: 3 and 4 ‘by N.W.T.’, 5 and 6 ‘by John’. In fact we know a little more about ‘John’ compared with Thomas’s other assistants. This was evidently John Osakbo of Benin City. In a surviving letter from Thomas to the Colonial Office, sent from London in May 1910 after the completion of his first anthropological tour, Thomas requests that this assistant be paid a ‘retaining fee’ of £1 a month until his return to West Africa. Thomas describes John Osakbo as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’, but notes that he was illiterate, and that the retaining fee should be paid on condition that he learn to read and write, and that he should also ‘receive training in photography’. It appears that Thomas’s request was granted. Thomas also recorded a phonograph of John Osakbo playing a song on a high-pitched woodwind instrument. Thomas’ voice can be heard at the start of the wax cylinder recording (NWT 16; BL C51/2164), ‘…song played by my servant, John, February 10th, 1909’.
It is likely that the number of individuals who accompanied N. W. Thomas on his travels varied from tour to tour. He travelled with camp equipment as well as photographic kit, phonograph and much else and would therefore have needed carriers. He seems to have travelled on foot, on bicycle and by hammock. In a letter to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, written in 1928, recalling the collecting of vernacular names of plant species in Sierra Leone, Thomas mentions that Temne and Mende plant names were obtained from his hammock boys, and that they had been recruited in Freetown. Thomas relied on the assistance of interpreters, not only in his day-to-day interactions with people in the communities he visited, but also in compiling vocabularies and other linguistic data. In the preface to Part II of Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, concerned with linguistics, Thomas provides a list of the interpreters with whom he worked during his first tour and explaining the methodology he employed. Their names are: Erumese (Edo/Benin City), Nimahan (Kukuruku and Ishan), Osidora (Agbede and Kukuruku), Ogbedo (Edo/Benin City), James Smart (Sobo), George, Oganna and Isuma (Kukuruku). Nimahan was a corporal of the Southern Nigeria Police, and appears to have acted as both official interpreter and as representative of colonial authority. In Part III of Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone: Timne Grammar and Stories, Thomas notes that the first twelve stories published in the book ‘were recorded from the mouth of various members of my staff’.
In conclusion, by attending to their peripheral presences in the archive, it is clear that N. W. Thomas was not a lone fieldwork, but was accompanied and assisted in his anthropological survey work by an entourage of collaborators. While further work needs to be done to identify both the names and full range of activities they undertook, it is evident that their roles were fluid (‘hammock boys’, for example, provided ethnographic and linguistic information and did not simply transport the anthropologist on his itinerations). These collaborators were not peripheral to the anthropological project, but were in fact central to the endeavour. Hopefully, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to identify more of N. W. Thomas’s Nigerian and Sierra Leonean collaborators, and correct the erroneous impression that Thomas was single-handedly responsible for assembling this remarkable ethnographic archive.
In the first of a series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project, the artist and designer Chiadikōbi Nwaubani introduces his discovery of Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive and how this has provided inspiration for his work. Nwaubani was born in London in 1991 to Igbo parents. He returned with them to live in Nigeria between 1994 and 1997, and subsequently travelled back and forth between the UK and Nigeria. Having encountered many historical photographs of Igbo culture online, mainly digitised from old ethnographic accounts such as N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, he created the Ukpuru blog in 2010, where he reposts them along with associated information.
In this guest blog Chiadikōbi Nwaubani describes how he began experimenting with the archival images and interrogating them through his art practice. ‘Susu Boy’ is Nwaubani’s response to Plate VIII of N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, published in 1916. From Thomas’s photographic registers, we know that the subject was in fact Momo Samura. The original photographs, from which the plate was made, were taken in Samaia in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone in May 1914.
I became involved in the [Re:]Entanglements project after sharing some of the designs I made with Northcote Thomas’s published photographs online. My initial involvement with Northcote’s work was through the lens of a descendant of the people he depicted in his photographs. I was interested in the ‘physical type’ portraits he made. Even though I was not familiar with the history of this kind of anthropological photograph, I had some idea about the nature of colonialism, which these photographs seemed to affirm. I started the Ukpuru blog in 2010 in which I post old photographs of the Igbo area that I have found online, particularly from early European ethnographies. My interest in ethnography comes from witnessing masquerades in my ancestral home town in Umuahia. The Ekpo masquerades, as they are known, have an imposing presence. The designs of the masks are highly varied and quite detailed. These figures were some of the earliest images I drew.
I took some of Northcote Thomas’s published photographs and manipulated them with gradient colours – colours that were quite sharp, like purple and a kind of neon red. These colours gave a lively theme to the photos, and also a pop art feel. In this way, I feel that the subjects are transported from being a ‘type’ into being a symbol of history – both colonial and indigenous… a kind of vision of the past.
More recently I have been making paintings on paper, which bring out stronger themes. My use of black for fleshing out figures, not only draws out the focus on race, but also seems quite similar to Ekpo masks – these represent ghosts and ancestral spirits. The first of this type of painting I made was ‘Susu Boy’. When I first saw the photograph in Thomas’s Anthropological Report, it struck me as a kind of lonely looking study of the young man because of where he was positioned in the book. There is no name in the caption. The only information left for the viewer is the man’s features, particularly ones that are suggested to be racial, and also his skin colour. With so little information, I am led to imagine what might be happening ‘off camera’, in the margins. What happened just before the photo was taken? Or just after? What was the nature of the relationship between the man photographed and the photographer?
The arm of a white man holds the number board. Although no measure or number board may be found on the published photograph or negative, I wanted to draw attention to the ‘scientific’ presentation of the subject. The numbers, the measure, the presence of the hand with the board – these are used to frame the story and to raise questions pertaining to what was happening around the subject, both literally and figuratively considering the situation that this area of the world was in at the time. Most of this – and his – story will, for the most part, remain unknown. The jumbled numbers and bright colours give a sense of turmoil in the background – even if not literal turmoil, then one coming from the nature of the study of the subject and the way we see these images today in relation to what we know of the past.
Chiadikōbi Nwaubani’s ‘Susu Boy’ is currently on display alongside N. W. Thomas’s photograph of Momo Samura as part of the Photographic Affordances exhibition at the Royal Anthropological Institute.
[Re:]Entanglements is part of a research project entitled ‘Museum Affordances‘ funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council. The project is exploring the legacies of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa as a way of thinking through broader issues that museums and archives are negotiating today. Ethnographic museums in particular have large collections of objects that were acquired during the colonial era from throughout the world, and which have been on display or deposited in museum stores ever since.
One way of thinking about these collections, which have been dispersed from their place of origin, is through the metaphor of ‘diaspora‘. Like diasporas of people, ‘object diasporas’ are caught ‘in-between’ one place and another. Some diasporic populations regard themselves as exiles, forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands; others feel quite ‘at home’ in their diasporic location, but nevertheless have strong sense of connection and identification with the places from which they or their ancestors originated. This is often determined by the circumstances in which they or their ancestors left their place of origin. Were they taken by force? Did they decide to leave voluntarily?
How might the metaphor of diaspora help us understand the status of ethnographic objects in European and North American museums? Some objects were taken forcibly – confiscated, for example, as ‘loot’ during colonial punitive expeditions. Others were purchased or exchanged. We need to think about where – and how – these objects ‘belong’. How do such object diasporas connect with diasporas of people who have links to the same places of origin?
Further to our post on Northcote Thomas, Benin Kingship and the Interregnum, this photograph shows another controversial Benin chief who rose to power during Oba Ovonramwen’s exile. This is Chief Iyamu, a paramount chief appointed by the British colonial administration and given executive powers over a territory to the South East of Benin City at Urhonigbe.
In his history of Benin under British Administration, Philip Igbafe argues that such paramount chiefs ‘were ordinary chiefs and individuals who showed themselves to be useful agents of the British officers and had to be used to rule the extensive Benin Territories’. They were appointed ‘because they were loyal [to the British] and willing to serve, prepared to adapt to new conditions in order to retain influence, and could therefore be relied upon to do the bidding of the administrative officers’.
Chief Iyamu was photographed by N. W. Thomas seated on a white horse, surrounded by his retainers, and wearing a splendid gown. He is pictured in front of an imposing European-style house, known as Egedege N’okaro or ‘first storey building’. It was reputedly the first residential building constructed in Benin City with an upper storey. According to the Edo World website, construction of the house began in 1903-04 under the supervision of O. S. Crewe-Read, an Assistant District Commissioner, who was killed in 1906 at Owa by Ika resistance fighters. Although the circumstances are not clear, the house was given to Chief Iyamu, who completed its construction around 1905-06.
Although Thomas did not record the circumstances in which the photograph was made, one can surmise that Chief Iyamu had a hand in the mise en scène. Resplendent on his white horse, posed in the forecourt of his impressive Benin City residence, here is a carefully composed display of power, prestige and status.
At the same time, Chief Iyamu was a controversial figure. According to Igbafe, Iyamu was among those paramount chiefs who abused the power given them by the colonial administration, and it is likely that he would have been imprisoned for his misdemeanours had the British authorities not deemed it inexpedient to do so for political reasons. Despite the people of Urhonigbe rising up against Iyamu in 1912 and 1914, he was given the title Ine after restoration of the Obaship and crowning of Eweka II in 1914.
Egedege N’okaro is still standing, a well-known landmark on Erie Street in Benin City.
Earlier generations of anthropologists have been criticised for their failure to properly account for the historical contingencies that frame the context of their fieldwork. In their writing they often represented the societies they studied as if they existed outside of time, evoking customs and cultural practices as if they had remained unchanged over the centuries. For anthropologists of Northcote Thomas’s generation, there was a further paradox insofar as they worked within a ‘salvage’ paradigm, documenting and collecting cultures that they believed were on the brink of extinction due to the incursion of European influence. Thomas acknowledged that colonial contact was destructive, but he did not question whether it was also inevitable.
Thomas arrived in Benin City at a time of tumultuous change, just twelve years after the sacking of the city during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, in the aftermath of which Oba Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar. Benin’s monarchy was eventually restored in 1914, when Ovonramwen’s son, Prince Aiguobasimwin, was installed as Oba Eweka II, but the interregnum between 1897 and 1914 was characterised by fierce political rivalry between different factions. This rivalry was played out in the context of the new political system introduced by the British colonial authorities, which included the appointment of a Native Council and so-called paramount chiefs. While purporting to respect traditional power structures, this system of ‘native administration’ weakened the indigenous system of government, creating new tensions and rivalries.
This was the fraught political context in which Thomas’s first tour as Government Anthropologist took place. Reading Thomas’s official report of this tour, his Anthropological Report on the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, one is struck by the absence of any discussion of political structure. Indeed, given the primacy of sacred kingship in Edo, and the elaborate rituals that surround it, it is remarkable that Thomas should not devote a chapter to the subject in the report. It is important to remember, however, that Thomas’s reports were effectively British government publications, intended primarily for distribution to colonial officers. It is perhaps not surprising that they omitted such a controversial issue as kingship.
In fact, it appears that Thomas intended to write a more detailed account of Edo-speaking communities in Nigeria. An incomplete manuscript survives, which we will be piecing together as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, that does include a chapter specifically dealing with kingship. This address such matters as the origins of kingship in Benin, the relationship between the Oba and the Uzama chiefs, rituals around succession and so on. The account does not, however, make mention of the destruction of the Oba’s Palace in 1897 or the dethroning of Ovonramwen, who was, after all, still living in exile at the time it was written.
While Thomas was silent on colonial politics and contemporary power struggles among Benin’s elites, he was evidently granted audiences with and photographed many of the key figures involved. These included Chief Obaseki, Chief Ezomo, Chief Ero, Chief Osula and Chief Imaran. Chief Obaseki was close to the British administration and came to dominate the Native Council during the interregnum. He was ambitious and opposed the installation of Aiguobasimwin as Oba in 1914. Chief Ezomo and Chief Ero had been among the seven Uzama chiefs, and had played important roles within the pre-1897 Benin government. During the interregnum, these chiefs were all members of the Native Council. It is possible that Thomas’s are the only photographic representations of these important figures in the history of Benin. If Thomas himself was an unreliable witness to these events, his photographs, at least, constitute a unique historical record.
Igbafe, P. A. 1979. Benin under British Administration: The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Kingdom, 1897-1938. Longman.
Marking the launch of the [Re:]Entanglements project, the first of a number of exhibitions related to the project has been installed at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The exhibition, entitled ‘Photographic Affordances’, includes a selection of fine digital prints from scans of N. W. Thomas’s original glass plate negatives that are held in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections.
Photographs made during Thomas’s four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 are dispersed in various institutions, including over 5,000 glass plate negatives held at the Royal Anthropological Institute and several thousand loose prints in the collections of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Approximately half the photographs made in Thomas’s three Nigerian tours were compiled in albums. Triplicate sets of these albums were made: one was originally kept in the Colonial Office Library in London, another was sent to the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, while the third was intended for scholarly reference and originally deposited at the Horniman Museum in London. Today complete sets of the albums can be found in the UK’s National Archives and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while, to date, we have located one album at the National Museum in Lagos. Hopefully, in the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to locate the remaining albums in Lagos.
Many of the prints on display at the Royal Anthropological Institute are so-called ‘physical type’ portraits. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century anthropological orthodoxy imagined the world’s population to be divided into distinct races and tribes, each with its own language, material culture and cultural traditions. It was also believed that people belonging to these groups were physically different from one another. Anthropologists of the era, including N. W. Thomas, expended a great deal of effort in mapping these different groups and their physical characteristics. One technique for doing this was through making photographic portraits of people – usually full face and profile – which could then be compared. The same techniques were used in the Ethnographic Survey of the British Isles, for example, but this kind of photography is often associated with colonial attitudes, which seemingly reduced people to objects that could be measured, categorized and compared.
When physical type photographs were published in Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, the captions followed this objectifying anthropological practice. Thus, people were reduced to ‘types’ and the photographs were accompanied by labels such as ‘Man of Awka’, ‘Man of Mbwaku’ and ‘Woman of Isele Asaba’. In keeping with the supposedly ‘scientific’ genre of the photographs, the subjects do not smile. They seem to manifest the colonial violence we expect of them. By examining Thomas’s photographic negatives, however, a different impression emerges: Thomas was usually careful to note the names of those he photographed and, among the unpublished outtakes, we find people smiling and even giggling. This challenges our expectations and suggests there was a more personal relationship between the anthropologist and the person being photographed.
Despite the large number of physical type photographs made by Thomas while he was engaged as Government Anthropologist, the colonial authorities themselves had little interest in them, regarding them as being of ‘purely scientific interest’ and of no value in colonial governance. Thomas himself seems to have pursued this kind of photographic practice more out of a sense that this was what a professional anthropologist was expected to do, rather than a conviction in its scientific import.
The physical type photographs displayed in the Royal Anthropological Institute exhibition raise difficult questions, particularly for an institution founded in the 1870s and also entangled in histories of colonialism and ‘racial science’. Some of the faces smile, but others gaze into Thomas’s camera lens defiantly. They return the colonial anthropologist’s gaze, and now, gazing down from the Institute’s meeting room walls after 100 years hidden away in storage, they confront and unsettle representatives of the discipline today.
The exhibition is not open to the public, but please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in seeing it.
Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate glass negatives. Although these photographs were made as part of an anthropological survey, today they form a remarkable historical record of the localities in which he worked.
The first surviving photograph from Thomas’s anthropological surveys, made soon after he arrived in Southern Nigeria in January 1909, shows a chain of three men passing pots of water between them to put out a house fire in Benin City. Thomas captions the photograph ‘fire brigade’ in his photographic register. It is one of a sequence of shots of a house fire and its aftermath.
Thomas individually numbered each of his photographs and subsequently categorized them under geographical and thematic headings, such as Topography, Houses, Daily Life, Decorative Art, Technology, Ceremonies and so forth. He also kept a photographic register, in which he – or an assistant – made a brief note about each photograph as they were taken.
Over the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be researching this unique photographic archive alongside Thomas’s sound recordings and artefact collections and will regularly post about our discoveries. Please share these posts and add any comments you may have.