As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project we have been using art and creativity as methods of re-engaging with the anthropological archives assembled by Northcote Thomas in West Africa in the early twentieth century. This has involved developing many wonderfully rewarding collaborations with Nigerian and Sierra Leonean artists. Much of the resulting work has been displayed at exhibitions in Benin City, Lagos and Nsukka.
One of the artists we have been working with in Sierra Leone is Sheku Shakalearn Mansaray. Shakalearn grew up in a village in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, but came to Freetown in 1990. He comes from a family of artists and developed his skills as a carver partly through an apprenticeship and partly through formal training at Milton Margai College of Education and Technology. He is coordinator of an NGO called Peacelinks, which uses art and performance to promote peacebuilding and social mobilization especially among young people.
Shakalearn chose to engage with a series of photographs Northcote Thomas made in 1914 documenting pot-making in the town of Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Thomas created a number of these photographic series during his Nigerian and Sierra Leonean tours. Each image in a sequence recorded a different stage in a process: the stages in a manufacturing process, for example, or a ritual. From a sequence of 15 photographs showing stages in the production of earthenware pots in Kamalo, Shakalearn selected eight to reproduce in his carved panel.
Rather than carving on newly cut timber, Shakalearn salvaged planks from an old Creole ‘board house‘ that was being demolished in Freetown. These beautiful wooden houses, built during the 19th century, were once common in Freetown. Unfortunately, many have fallen into disrepair and they have gradually been knocked down to be replaced with modern concrete structures. When Northcote Thomas visited Freetown during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone, these houses would have predominated.
After rescuing the old timbers and cutting them to size, Shakalearn created a composite drawing of the eight different photographs on paper. He then chalked this onto the wooden panel and began to chisel out the work in relief. Normally Shakalearn’s carved works are given a much more fine finish. On this work, however, Shakalearn wanted to retain the aged patina of the salvaged boards. One inspiration was the work of the African-American artist Whitfield Lovell.
Clay pots were an everyday item used for storage and cooking, and were once made throughout Sierra Leone. Today, these sustainably-sourced and locally-manufactured pots have been displaced by imported plastic and metal utensils. There are, however, a few traditional potters still practicing in Sierra Leone. Most notable is the pot-making community at Mabettor near Lunsar in present-day Buya Romende chiefdom in the north of Sierra Leone.
In 2019, as part of our fieldwork for the [Re:]Entanglements project, we spent some time with the potters at Mabettor. We showed the community Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Sierra Leonean potters from 105 years before and left copies with them. A number of the potters, including Marie Sesay, Khadiatu Conteh, Adamsay Conteh, Isatu Koroma and Ya Abie Koroma demonstrated their pot-making techniques, which were exactly the same as those documented by Thomas in Kamalo. These day, however, their wares are mainly sold to visitors from overseas or Freetown who want them to decorate their homes.
We love the way Shakalearn uses traditional carving techniques to inscribe the archival documentation of another traditional craft form into wood salvaged from a building that would have stood at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys. Thank you Shakalearn!
A more detailed discussion of Northcote Thomas’s documentation of traditional pot-making and contemporary pot-making in Mabettor will be the subject of a future article.
Although the collecting of botanical specimens fell outside the remit of his anthropological surveys, Northcote Thomas devoted increasing energy to this pursuit during his tours in West Africa. Collections made during his final tour, in Sierra Leone, between 1914 and 1915, still constitute one of the most comprehensive reference collections of Sierra Leonean plant species in the world.
Like many aspects of his work as ‘Government Anthropologist’, collecting information about plants was not something Thomas was instructed to do by the colonial authorities, but was rather something he undertook on his own initiative. While his published reports make little mention of botany, Thomas was clearly very interested particularly in the medicinal uses of plants among the people he worked with.
As far as we know, he did not collect actual samples of plants during his 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking people of Nigeria. He did, however, make detailed notes on indigenous names of plants and their uses. Unfortunately, due to changes in pronunciation and the idiosyncrasies of Thomas’ phonetic transcriptions, it is not easy to identify species based on the vernacular names of plants written in Thomas’ notes. We were, however, able to identify ova, in Thomas’ list of medicinal plants in Otuo, North Edo, which is recorded as being used as a ‘strengthening medicine’ for babies. ‘The child’, Thomas explains, ‘is washed with it and drinks it for three months. Then the leaf is put in the girdle’. According to a 2017 article by Prof Idu MacDonald and colleagues at the University of Benin concerning ‘indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe’, ova is identified as Alchornea cordifolia, which is widely used in traditional medicine throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Thomas began collecting samples of plant specimens during his next tour, in 1910-11, in what was then the Awka District of Southern Nigeria – corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. Having assembled an initial collection of about 350 specimens from Awka and Agulu, Thomas sent these to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so that their scientific names could be determined. It appears that he intended to include these lists of vernacular name, scientific name and local uses in his reports on the Igbo-speaking peoples of Nigeria.
In a letter of 11th May 1911 to David Prain (1857-1944), Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Thomas apologises for the poor quality of the specimens. ‘I fear most of them are in very bad condition’, he writes, ‘as I have been having four tornadoes a week for some time and mist round my tent till 10am every day, so that nothing can be kept dry.’ He also explains that he lacks the technical knowledge and equipment to preserve seeds in such conditions, and seeks advice and materials so that specimens can be kept in better order in the future.
Over the following months, Thomas sends further batches of specimens to Kew for identification. In one letter he notes that ‘the collections are largely made by my junior interpreter’. Alas, we do not know the name of this interpreter and, typical of colonial era scientific practice, the specimens are all recorded under Thomas’ name. Thomas did seek to have this interpreter employed to continue the work of collecting during the following dry season at a cost of £20, including carriers. Neither the colonial government of Southern Nigeria nor Kew was disposed to fund this. In a letter from Arthur W. Hill (1875-1941), Assistant Director at the Royal Botanic Gardens, an offer was, however, made to purchase specimens collected under Thomas’ supervision at ‘the usual rate of £2 per 100 specimens’ – so long as they were in good condition and properly labelled.
At Kew, the actual work of identifying the scientific names of the plant specimens sent by Thomas was most likely undertaken by John Hutchinson (1884-1972), who was then assistant in the Tropical Africa section. In an internal memo attached to his determination list, Hutchinson notes that many of the specimens could not be identified due to the absence of flowers or fruits, which, in addition to leaves, are frequently necessary to determine species.
Prain conveyed Kew’s enthusiasm that Thomas should continue to send specimens during his subsequent tours and provided further guidance on botanical collecting practice. Templates were prepared for labels to encourage Thomas and his assistants to improve the quality of their documentation at the time of collection. These were adapted from a design included in a 1908 edition of Kew’s Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, dedicated to ‘The Useful Plants of Nigeria’.
Equipped with better knowledge about botanical collecting practices and materials, the specimens and associated information assembled during Thomas’ 1912-13 tour focusing on Igbo-speaking communities in the Asaba District (the north-east area of present-day Delta State) and 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone were of much better quality. Thomas continued to send batches to Kew, where they were identified, mounted on cards and accessioned into its Herbarium – a vast reference collection of the world’s plant species.
Despite gathering knowledge about West African plants and their uses on a more systematic basis, Thomas’ ambition to publish his findings on indigenous botanical knowledge seems not to have come to fruition. In April 1915, however, as Thomas’ anthropological survey of Sierra Leone drew to a close, the authorities at Kew suggested to Thomas that they collaborate on a definitive handbook on the Flora of Sierra Leone. Envisaged was a book that would appeal to a broader public rather than only botanical experts, and to include many illustrations by John Hutchinson that would make the volume ‘attractive and valuable’. A copy of Fawcett and Rendle’s Flora of Jamaica (1910) was sent to Thomas to give him an idea of what was proposed.
The letter, probably from David Prain, provides an indication of the significance of the collections assembled by Thomas and his assistants in Sierra Leone: ‘Thanks to your zeal and perseverance … I do not think there is anywhere so complete a collection representing the flora of Sierra Leone as there is now at Kew’. The letter continues: ‘We have had few collectors in Africa who have been so successful as you have been of late in Sierra Leone and I should be very sorry indeed if the opportunity of getting anything really good out of your efforts should be missed’.
After the First World War, plans for the proposed Flora of Sierra Leone were superseded by a geographically more expansive initiative that was to become the Flora of West Tropical Africa, the first part of which was originally published in 1927 under the editorship of John Hutchinson and John McEwan Dalziel (1872-1948). Correspondence with Thomas from the 1920s survives in the Kew archives, showing that he was consulted from time to time on the Sierra Leonean material while the manuscript was being prepared. The Flora of West Tropical Africa has been revised periodically and remains a major reference work.
After his few intense years employed as Government Anthropologist, Thomas fell into professional obscurity. In the late 1920s he moved to a cottage in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. One of the last letters we have found, written by Thomas in August 1928 from his West Malvern address, is to Arthur Hill, who had taken over as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He thanks Hill for sending him a copy of the newly published Flora of West Tropical Africa, but, in a manner typical of Thomas, then goes on to list typographical errors and misprints relating to his own contributions, including the misprinting of his own initials.
Despite the professional disappointments of his later life, Thomas continued to be interested in the medicinal properties of West African plants. In the early 1980s, the Canadian anthropologist Richard Slobodin (1915-2005) began research for a biography on Thomas. (He has previously written a biography of Thomas’ contemporary W. H. R. Rivers.) It is a project Slobodin did not complete, but one of the snippets of information he obtained from Thomas’ surviving daughter, Flora (1910-91), was that her father grew such medicinal plants in his garden.
Reconstructing Thomas’ Sierra Leone itineraries
As well as their value to botanical and pharmaceutical science, the plant collections assembled during Thomas’ anthropological surveys provide an important resource for assessing environmental change in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. This is a project we hope to pursue with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and colleagues in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the future. In the meanwhile, it is through the high quality of the documentation of these botanical specimens that we have been able to reconstruct Thomas’ itineraries, particularly during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone.
Through the information on the specimen cards and field books, we have been able to correlate dates and locations, and thereby follow his journey. Furthermore, in preparation for the abandoned Flora of Sierra Leone project, Thomas was asked to provide a sketch-map identifying each of the locations from which the specimens were obtained. This allows us to be certain of locations in cases where the spelling of place names has changed or where there are multiple places with the same name.
This was especially useful in the case of Thomas’ Sierra Leone tour, since his work was largely focused in northern and central Sierra Leone. We learn from the botanical specimens, however, that he spent the last three months of the tour travelling in Mende– and Sherbro-speaking areas of the south. It is likely that he travelled by rail to the southern towns of Bo and Kenema, and then proceeded by foot/hammock to Pujehun, Tomabum, Talia, Gbangbama, Victoria, Kanga, then back to the railway town of Mano, before ending his tour in Freetown at the beginning of April 1915. There are few photographs from this part of his journey, possibly because restrictions caused by the First World War meant that he was unable to obtain new glass plate negatives.
Collecting the world?
Preliminary work for a study of the archives and collections from Thomas’ anthropological surveys was undertaken by Roger Blench and Mark Alexander in the 1980s. While, like Slobodin’s biography, this initiative was not completed, Blench and Alexander began to document the whereabouts of the various collections, and this has been invaluable starting point for the work we have been pursuing in the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In an article published in The Nigerian Field entitled ‘The Work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’ (1995), Blench reports that many of the specimens collected by Thomas (or, as we now know, his assistants) were no longer traceable at Kew. Blench states that many of the Thomas specimens were duplicates already in the collection and that they were exchanged with other herbaria around the world. ‘Apparently’, he writes, ‘no record was kept of the destinations of these specimens nor was a record kept of the information recorded on the cards. As a result, much of the data was effectively lost, and many of Thomas’s vernacular names can no longer be tied to specimens’.
Perhaps as a result of Blench’s inquiries, Kew botanist Humphrey Burkhill conducted a thorough survey of the Thomas specimens at Kew as compared with those listed in Thomas’ field books. In an internal memorandum he reported that only 55% of the Nigerian collections and 36% of the Sierra Leonean collections could be located. In response, Nigel Hepper, another specialist in African plants at Kew, argued somewhat defensively that the problem lay in Thomas’ lack of knowledge of botanical practice of collecting duplicates under the same number, so that the total of 11,415 specimens from Thomas’s surveys represented far fewer different species and included a great many duplicates. Hepper explained that it was indeed standard practice of herbaria to exchange duplicates, and that ‘if some with different vernaculars were distributed then that was the cost of dealing with such large numbers’.
It appears then that the sheer scale of the collections, resulting from Thomas’ remarkable ‘zeal and perseverance’, undermined their usefulness. The same can be said of other aspects of Thomas’ work and this partly accounts for why, despite the quantity of materials produced, Thomas’ anthropological surveys produced little knowledge that could be practically applied in colonial governance. Remarkable though they were, Thomas’ endeavours speak of the hubris of colonial science and its project of collecting and documenting the world; a project that was destined to fail.
Blench, R. (1995) ‘The work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’, The Nigerian Field 60: 20-28.
Fawcett, W. and Rendle, A. B. (1910) Flora of Jamaica. London: British Museum.
Hutchinson, J. and Dalziel, J. M. (1927-36) Flora of West Tropical Africa, 2 vols. London: Crown Agents for the Colonies.
MacDonald, I., Ovuakporie-Uvo, O. and Ima-Osagie, O. S. (2017) ‘Indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe of Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria’, Journal of Medicinal Plants for Economic Development 1(1): 1-10.
Slobodin, R. (1997) W. H. R. Rivers: Pioneer Anthropologist, Psychiatrist of The Ghost Road, 2nd edition. Stroud: Sutton.
Many thanks to Kiri Ross-Jones, Archivist and Records Manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for her assistance while researching this article.
Northcote Thomas visited the Esan (or Ishan) towns of Agbede, Irrua and Ubiaja in August 1909. At the royal palace in Ubiaja, Thomas photographed some remarkable carved doors and house-posts. 71 years later, in 1980, the art historian Carol Ann Lorenz conducted research in Esanland as part of her PhD project Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture (Columbia University, 1995). In this article, we revisit Lorenz’s unpublished notes about the Ubiaja carvings in the light of our own research as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In 1980, Lorenz was able to document the remains of what she termed ‘figurated house-posts’ – or orẹ in the Esan language – in a number of towns, including 75 in Uromi, a short distance from Ubiaja. These sculptural posts supported the verandas of palaces and noble residences, providing a visual statement of the owner’s status and authority. At the time of Lorenz’s fieldwork, such posts were no longer made and those that survived were in a very poor state – some no more than mere stumps. Although the examples in Ubiaja were no longer in evidence, Lorenz noted the importance of Thomas’s photographs insofar as they provided a rare documentation of an assemblage of complete posts in situ.
Ubiaja palace complex
Lorenz was unable to find any oral traditions about the carvings in Ubiaja. She did, however, learn from the ruling Onojie (king) of Ubiaja, HRH Abumhenre Ebhojie II, that a fire had destroyed the palace in 1902. Evidently unaware that Thomas visited Ubiaja seven years later, in 1909, Lorenz made the incorrect assumption that he had photographed the palace sculptures prior to their destruction in the conflagration. It appears, rather, that the house-posts that Thomas photographed were part of a new palace, built after 1902, or of buildings that had not been affected by the fire. Indeed, we know from Thomas’s photograph register that he photographed at least two different buildings within the palace complex.
When we visited Ubiaja as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, a brand new palace had recently been constructed for the reigning Onojie, HRH Curtis Idedia Eidenojie. Adjacent to this impressive new concrete structure are various generations of earlier earthen-walled palace buildings, many in a ruinous state. It was not possible to say with certainty if any of these were the remains of the palace that Thomas photographed in 1909.
Thomas visited Ubiaja during the rule of Elabor, who reigned between 1876 and 1921. By 1909, however, Elabor was elderly and suffering from ill-health. In these circumstances, a power struggle existed between a senior member of the royal household, Prince Obiyan, and Elabor’s eldest son, Prince Ugbesia, over who should act as the Onojie’s regent. Thomas photographed Elabor alongside a man he labelled ‘Obiria’. During our fieldwork in Ubiaja, the name Obiria was not recognised and it was felt that this was an incorrect transcription of Ugbesia. Some of the doorposts photographed by Thomas and discussed by Lorenz are, according to Thomas’s photo register, from ‘Obiria’s house’.
Lorenz provided descriptions of each of the house-posts photographed by Thomas. Regarding the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1000), the sculpture on the left depicts two kneeling figures, one above the other with a platform between them. Lorenz reported that this configuration was unique in her survey of Esan sculptures, although it was common in Yorubaland. The sculpture on the right depicts a figure carrying a fowl or bird on a head tray, possibly representing an intended sacrifice.
The house-post in the photograph above left (NWT 1002) is described as ‘depicting a female figure touching her breast with one hand and her full belly with the other. Her abdomen is decorated with incised patterns’. Lorenz described the house-posts in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) as ‘depicting a painted snake image on a plank post, and a three-dimensional trumpet blower’. While Lorenz identified all these sculptures as belonging simply to ‘the palace in Ubiaja’, those in the photograph above right (NWT 1003) can be identified in the photograph below, which Thomas’s labelled ‘Obiria’s house’. Although not the main palace, it is likely that this was located in the palace complex.
Lorenz described the sculptures in the photograph of what we now know to be ‘Obiria’s house’ (NWT 1007) as depicting (from left to right): ‘a naked male figure, a swordsman carrying a severed head, a warrior with a shield and spear, a man with a pith helmet, a trumpet player, and a seated king’. There is a strong formal consistency in the four central carvings (the swordsman, warrior, man in pith helmet and trumpet player), suggesting they were made together and were the work of a single artist or workshop. They also appear to be relatively recently carved, due to the lack of weathering or insect damage.
Although Lorenz did not comment on it, the post on extreme left of this photograph – that depicting ‘a naked male figure’ – is perhaps more interesting than it at first appears. Firstly, it has no head. Instead of a head, the post continues merely as a flat ‘plank’ to the roof joists. Could its head possibly be that held by the swordsman sculpted from the adjacent pillar? Secondly, the figure appears to be shackled around its neck and left leg to a pillar beside it. Pure speculation, but perhaps this figure represents the body of a vanquished enemy? Stripped, shackled and finally beheaded?
Although we cannot be absolutely sure that Obiria is the king’s son, Ugbesia, it is interesting to note that Ugbesia was known to be despotic and tyrannical. The Esan historian, Christopher Okojie, writes that with the decline in Elabor’s powers, ‘the light of the Ruling House of Ubiaja went out’ and was ‘replaced with darkness in which hatred, confusion, suspicion and bipartisan warfare’ reigned. As noted above, at the time of Thomas’s visit, there was conflict between Ugbesia and his competitor for the regentship, Prince Obinyan. This quarrel evidently split Eguare (the palace quarter) into two warring factions, which had a profound effect on the wider Ubiaja community. In 1914 Ugbesia was formally recognized as regent, but the following years were also spent embroiled in conflict until, in 1919, he died in ‘mysterious circumstances’, predeceasing his incapacitated father by two years.
In her notes on the above photograph of a palace courtyard (NWT 994a), Lorenz describes the house-post figures as depicting, from left to right, ‘a seated king, an ekpokin box bearer, an ujie group, two swordbearers, and a female figure nursing a child’. An ekpokin is a box used to carry gifts or tributes to the king. Ujie is music/dance genre in Esanland associated with royalty. According to Lorenz, these were common motifs in Esan sculpture.
In addition to house-posts, Thomas photographed other sculptural forms in Ubiaja, including a number of carved doors and an agbala stool. The door carvings are quite distinct from the styles either of Benin or Igboland, of which Thomas photographed many examples. Lorenz argues that they are strongly influenced by Nupe door carving styles from the north, with discrete relief figures arranged in vertical rows. The Nupe had invaded the region to the north of Esanland earlier in the 19th century, and their influence extended to the Esan towns such as Irrua, Agbede and Ubiaja that Thomas visited. Unlike Nupe doors, however, the Esan examples include many representations of human figures, as well as the more typical representations of animals and inanimate objects.
Lorenz interprets the figure at the top right of the photograph above left (NWT 1025) as being a male noble (okpia) holding a segmented ukhurhestaff. He is positioned above a female figure (okhuo), below whose feet a horizontal female figure lies. Lorenz observes that this door appears to have been repaired. The centre panel featuring a human figure, profile of a monkey and a lizard, has, she suggests, been carved in a different style to the two panels that flank it. She also observed that this and the left-hand panel were placed upside down when the door was reassembled. The larger male figure at bottom left should be at the top, holding the royal symbols of ada and eben aloft.
Thomas’s photograph above right (NWT 1027) features scenes of violence, which Lorenz argues is a common theme in Esan carving. At the bottom right is an equestrian figure (ohenakasi), depicted in profile, wielding a double-edged sword (agbada). The male figure at top left, interpreted by Lorenz as a warrior, carries a grid-like shield, known as asa in Benin. The shield was made of sticks or palm ribs, which, as Lorenz argues, ‘would not offer much physical defence’. They were, however, ‘fortified with protective medicine (ukhumun), which enabled it to repel or catch enemy weapons’. This door also features a leopard (bottom left, recognizable from its tail which arches over its back), a crocodile eating another animal (top right), and a ceremonial eben sword – all three emblems are associated with royalty.
Lorenz devoted a whole chapter of her thesis to a discussion of a type of courtly furniture, the agbala or stool of office. Like other items of regalia, the stool illustrate both similarities and differences between Esan and Benin City, where the equivalent stool is known as agba. Lorenz argues that Esan elites ‘appear to have required a locally carved stool of office which was similar enough to the Benin agba to retain its association with prestige and authority, but divergent enough to be a distinctively Esan product’.
Such stools are used exclusively by the Onojie or other hereditary chiefs on ceremonial and ritual occasions. Lorenz notes that it is particularly forbidden for the owner’s senior son and heir to sit upon them. The stools are kept in the ancestral shrine room and often serve as a focus of offering to the ancestors. Thomas photographed one of these agbala stools in Ubiaja, and noted that they were equivalent to ukhurhe rattle-staffs, used to commemorate and honour the paternal ancestors.
Lorenz was able to locate nearly 30 examples of Esan agbala stools and was able to identify three distinct styles. The example photographed by Thomas in Ubiaja is typical of what she terms the ‘ridged figural’ style, which feature highly-geometricized caryatid figures, carved in relief on the stretchers, often – as in this case – with arms upraised. The side panels also feature relief carvings, with a semi-circle cut away at the base to form two legs. Unfortunately, the design on the seat of the stool is not clear in the photograph.
Thomas did not photograph examples of wood carving in the other Esan towns he visited. He did, however, collect the side panel of another agbala stool in Irrua. This is an example of what Lorenz defines as an ‘openwork’ style, associated with the town of Uromi. Indeed, by comparing this panel with other complete stools, she argues that it was likely made in Uromi, even though it was collected in Irrua.
Esanland at a crossroads of culture
Through her analysis of Esan sculpture, including the examples documented by Northcote Thomas in Ubiaja in 1909, Lorenz’s main thesis was that Esan culture was essentially hybrid in nature. It was the mixture of Benin, Nupe, Yoruba and Igbo traditions that gave Esan art its unique character, as evidenced in these remarkable sculptural house-posts, carved doors and stools of office. Alas, these arts are no longer practised, and, due to the ephemeral nature of the materials, susceptible to decay and insect damage, and to collectors (Northcote Thomas included), very little of this sculpture has survived. We found not even a memory of it at the palace in Ubiaja.
Perhaps a new generation of contemporary Esan artists will one day discover Thomas’s photographs of these amazing sculptures and revive – or reinterpret – the tradition?
Lorenz, C. A. 1995. Ishan Sculpture: Nigerian Art at a Crossroads of Culture, Unpublished PhD thesis, Columbia University.
Okojie, C. G. 1960. Ishan Native Laws and Customs (Yaba: Okwesa)
Ukpan, J. A. 2010. History and Culture of Ubiaja (Benin City: Obhio)
Working through the photographs, sound recordings, artefact collections and written accounts that constitute the archive of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa, the turbulence of the times in which these materials were assembled is not immediately apparent. Of course, it can be argued that the archive as whole is a trace of colonial violence. As the historian Nicholas Dirks reminds us, colonial conquest was the result not only of military force but was made possible and sustained through ‘cultural technologies of rule’. Regardless of whether they actually achieved their governmental objectives, Thomas’s surveys were certainly intended to contribute to the consolidation of British ‘indirect rule’ in what were then the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
It is perhaps indicative of the thoroughness with which local resistance to colonialization had been quashed that Thomas was able to travel around so freely over the six years of his surveys between 1909 and 1915. Thomas worked in the towns of Somorika, in 1909, and Agulu, in 1911, both a mere five years after they had been ‘pacified’ through British military operations; he travelled extensively in areas of Asaba District that, until two years previously, were centres of anti-colonial resistance in the Ekumeku wars; his research in Sierra Leone took place in locations that had seen violent conflict in the Hut Tax War of 1898; and he spent months working in Benin City, just 12 years after the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897. Thomas did not, of course, travel alone – his entourage would have included porters and assistants, and we know from correspondence that, at least some of the time, he was accompanied by a member of the police force. There is just one photograph, from Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, in which a uniformed police officer can be seen – we don’t know whether he was ordinarily stationed at the location, or accompanied Thomas there.
The years prior to the formal British colonisation of Nigeria and Sierra Leone were also turbulent. Conflict was ever present; often driven by competition for land, resources (including slaves) and control of trade routes. Much of this conflict was directly or indirectly connected to the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people and other commodities, but also resulted from antics of expansionist states in the interior (the incursions of Samori Toure’s Wassoulou Empire into northern Sierra Leone, for example, or Nupe raids into the north of present-day Edo State in Nigeria). Traces of these conflicts – sometimes mislabelled as ‘inter-tribal wars’ by the colonists – are more evident in the materials Thomas assembled during the anthropological surveys.
Fortified hilltop towns
The longue durée of conflict in pre-colonial Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is evident in the very location of many of the communities that Thomas visited. Town sites were often selected so as to make use of the natural features of the environment so that the community could be more easily defended against attack. This is most obvious in settlements in upland areas, for example those located in what were known at time of Thomas’s surveys as the Kukuruku Hills in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria, or in Koinadugu in north-eastern Sierra Leone. Many of the towns that Thomas visited and photographed in these areas occupied fortified hill-top locations. As a result of the ‘imposed peace’ that accompanied British colonisation, these settlements were subsequently abandoned and the towns moved to more accessible locations.
When we have brought Thomas’s photographs back to places such as Somorika, Okpe, Otuo and Afokpella in north Edo, or Yagala in Sierra Leone, community members are usually very interested to see what their old hilltop towns looked like when they were inhabited. In some cases, such as Yagala, the old towns were not abandoned until the 1950s and elderly members of the community have childhood memories of the places. Most community members, however, have known the old sites only in their abandoned state and through the many stories that are told about them. Many such stories relate to the heroism of warriors or the ingenuity of the community in repelling attack. The Imah of Somorika, HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, for example, regaled us with stories of the British attack on Somorika in 1904, which, while ending in defeat, is regarded as a moral victory.
In Yagala we were told the story of the famous warrior Suluku, from Bumban, who came with a war party, threatening attack. As they climbed one of the roads to the hilltop town, they came upon an old woman knitting. Suluku informed the woman that they had come to collect payment from Yagala. She gave him her knitting and said ‘Here it is, take it’. Suluku continued on his way to the town. Afterwards, he left by another route only to find the same old woman by the side of the road. He asked how she came to be there before them. ‘This is my place’, she answered, ‘I am not an invader like you’. Suluku thought that she had special powers and asked her for help. She agreed to help, but only in return for gifts. Suluku agreed, and said he would send his brother, Pompoli, from Bumban, with the gifts. Pompoli duly returned bearing the gifts and the old woman gave Suluku some of her magical powers. Incidentally, while Suluku died in 1906, Thomas photographed Pompoli when he visited Bumban in 1914.
In the lower lying, forested areas of Awka District, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, Thomas took several photographs of fortified watchtowers. They are known in Igbo as Uno-aja. None of Thomas’s fieldnotes survive from this tour and he did not publish anything about these structures, so we don’t know if he collected any information about them. Oral traditions about the towers survive, however.
These towers were typically two or three storeys high and were accessed through a small doorway on an upper floor, reached by a ladder. They served as both a look-out tower and a refuge, particularly for women and children, when a settlement was under attack. Some were rectangular in plan, such as those in the photographs above, others circular, as in the example at Awgbu (see below).
Professor Anselem Ibeanu, currently head of the Department of Archaeology at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did some research on these watchtowers in the 1980s. While the majority had long-since collapsed or been pulled down to make way for new buildings, he managed to locate a small number that had survived, even though in ruinous condition. One of these was called Okpala Obinagu in Awgbu, supposedly named after the founder of the community who erected it. The tower can be seen in the background of one of Thomas’s photographs of the obu (meeting house), probably of Chief Nwankwo of Awgbu, who Thomas also photographed.
Professor Ibeanu was able to speak to the elderly great-grandson of the builder of the tower, and was able to draw a reconstruction of what it had once looked like based on the oral accounts. This matches Thomas’s photograph with surprising accuracy, particularly its construction from concentric mud courses, each of which was allowed to partially dry before the next course was added, and the small apertures for windows. Interestingly, in Thomas’s photo register, he captions the tower a ‘storehouse’, suggesting that it was repurposed once the threat of attack subsided.
Re-enactments of warfare
Thomas seems to have struggled to obtain information about the conduct of war – perhaps his informants didn’t want to give away military secrets to the colonialists! He did, however, photograph men in ‘war dress’ and witnessed demonstrations of ‘mock battles’.
There is a wonderful photograph taken in Sabongida in 1909 of a ‘chief’ (unfortunately Thomas doesn’t name him) posing with a magnificent dane gun and wearing war dress. The chief’s gown is covered in amulets, and the protection it offered was more magical than physical. Later the same year Thomas witnessed the annual Ebisua dance at Fugar. Community members in Fugar readily identified the photographs of this event when we visited. Ebisua is a war dance performed annually by the Uruamhinokhua age grade in honour of the war god Ituke. The men clothe themselves in their war dress for the dance, and, brandishing their weapons, reenact their valiant acts of the preceding year. It is an opportunity for the fighting men to show off their strength and military prowess. We were told that, in times of war, men would display the severed heads of enemies they had killed.
Thomas photographed another interesting event in Awka in 1911. According to the sparse notes accompanying the photographs, they were taken at a funeral of a man killed in war. (We do not know if this was a re-enactment staged for Thomas, or an actual funeral.) Before an assembled crowd, a group of warriors parade in their war dress, carrying swords and shields. In some of the photographs they appear to be staging a mock fight (see the photograph at the top of this article). Probably during this same event, Thomas made a wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’.
Thomas also appears to have arranged for some of the participants in the funeral to pose for him to demonstrate traditional fighting techniques.
Memories of Okoli Ijoma
Not all traces of conflict are so legible in the archive; some traces only reveal themselves in the unexpected comments of community members in response to particular images. This was especially apparent in our fieldwork in the area around Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. In virtually every town in which we conducted fieldwork, the archive photographs provoked stories of wars with the notorious Okoli Ijoma (‘Okoro Ijomah’ in the Aro dialect). Indeed, it was often because of the threat of attack from Okoli Ijoma and his mercenaries that towns formed alliances with the British, which resulted in a more insidious form of colonisation.
Okoli Ijoma was a powerful warlord from Umuchukwu in Ndikelionwu, a few miles to the south-east of Awka. Ndikelionwu had been founded in the eighteenth century as part of the expanding Aro empire. The Aro, with their homeland at Arochukwu in present-day Abia State, had established a major slave trading confederacy with a powerful military base, often supported by mercenaries. They settled throughout Igboland, forming alliances with some communities, while preying upon others. They are credited with introducing firearms into the region.
Conflict with Okoli Ijoma’s forces would have still been fresh in the memory of communities around Awka at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys, and the photographs he took of both people and places still bring to mind that dangerous time – even after 110 years. In Nibo, for example, we were told how the great ikolo drum would be sounded as an alarm of impending attack. It was a signal for the women and children to disperse to refuges, and for the men to gather in preparation for the fight. To save Nibo from further attack, Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor of Nibo formed an alliance with Okoli Ijoma, arranging for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s son, Nwene Ijomah. Nnama became a deputy in Okoli Ijoma’s court, but, later, as the threat of reprisals from the British mounted, he switched allegiance, while Okoli Ijoma fought on.
In other towns, allegiances were similarly divided. In Amansea, for example, community members were able to identify a photograph of Chief Nwaobuana, a well-respected leader who later became a Warrant Chief. He is credited with curbing the excesses of Okoli Ijoma and defending the town from attack. Another man, Nwene, was also identified, however. Nwene was the ‘black sheep’ of the community, and was known to take stubborn children from their parents and sell them to the Aro traders. The era of Aro slave trading was brought to an end with the British attack on Arochukwu in 1901. Okoli Ijoma died in 1906.
Read more about Okoli Ijoma and the ‘Ada wars’ at the Ukpuru blog, which is also illustrated with photographs from the Northcote Thomas archives.
The coming of the British must have been met with ambivalence. On the one hand, alliance with the Europeans offered protection from local aggressors. On the other hand, of course, this led to the imposition of British colonial rule and the transformation of culture and society. Thomas’s anthropological surveys were carried out during this transformative moment, when new freedoms of the ‘British Peace’ could be appreciated, while the loss of self-determination under colonial rule was perhaps not yet fully apparent.
Some of the stories recorded by Thomas speak powerfully of this time of change and are therefore important historical sources. When local community members in Okpekpe, in the north of present-day Edo State, helped us translate recordings Thomas made there in 1910, it was interesting to listen to their interpretations. One recording compared past and present, celebrating the fact that children could now wander about freely and the town was now safe. We were told this related to the British defeat of the Nupe in 1897, who had, it was explained, on the one hand, brought Islam to Okpekpe, and, on the other hand, captured its people and sold them into slavery.
Godwin Gejele, from Okpekpe, provided the following translation of the recording from the Ibie language:
Eyia bhe amho We’re coming today
Imiegba ana mhia je, ukha la mhi ayo tse we namhe I’m going to Imiegba. If you get over there, extend my greetings
Ukha lamhi Imiakebu tsa Adogah na mhe tse we khu namhe, vhe wegbe omo mose ali omo kposo When you get to Imiakebu extend my greetings to Adogah. I really appreciate him. I pray that God will bless their male and female children
Eye bi na agbo nele ali ona uhiena ono gwuo so mhi ne. Omo ovhe lasa ne na now li vho, ogbo kho oshie yele asha kha sha In the olden days or in the present, which one is the better to live in? We can see in the old days, a child is not allowed to go out anywhere. Now one can go everywhere. Everywhere is safe.
Oso mhi ni bo, omue mhe gbe We’re grateful to the white man who had come to teach and taught us many things
When we discussed this recording, elders explained that the speech was delivered in the style of a town crier. This raises the question of whose message the speaker was communicating. Does the speech convey a genuine sense of gratitude to the ‘white man’ for removing the threat of Nupe slave raids, or is this propaganda dispatched from the new invaders?
Cohn, B. S. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. (Foreword by Nicholas Dirks)
Falola, T. 2009. Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria. Indiana University Press.
Ibeanu, A. M. 1989. ‘An Igbo Watch Tower (Uno-aja)’. Nyame Akuma, 31: 28-9.
Ohadike, D. C. 1991. The Ekumeku Movement. Ohio University Press.
The areas in which Northcote Thomas worked as a Government Anthropologist in Nigeria and Sierra Leone have, of course, changed a great deal in the 105 years since the end of his last tour. During 18 months of fieldwork, retracing the itineraries of Thomas, we have, however, also been struck by the many continuities. Despite urbanisation and Christianity, cultural traditions are strong! Take chalk, for example…
Thomas’s reports and fieldnotes on the Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities that he researched between 1909 and 1913 are full of references to the use of chalk in rituals, ceremonies and customs. This chalk is known variously as ‘calabash chalk‘ and ‘kaolin‘. In Igbo it isnzu, in Edo orhue. As Thomas documented, this chalk is used in multiple ways – as an offering to the deities and ancestors, as a medicine, as a symbol of purity, of good fortune and hospitality. It is a sacred substance.
Rites of passage
Chalk is used in many ceremonies and rituals, from birth to death. For example, Thomas describes the initiation of boys into the Ovia society in Iyowa, north of Benin City. ‘The boy joins the society’, Thomas writes in an unpublished manuscript, ‘by payment of a calabash of [palm] oil, 20 yams, a calabash of palm wine, 4 kola and 5 legs of Uzo [duiker]. The yams are cooked and fufu is sacrificed to Ovia. The boy marks his face with chalk and is then called Oviovia or the son of Ovia’.
Thomas recorded a number of what he labelled ‘birth songs’ in his travels in what is now the north of Edo State. The Omolotuo Cultural Group interpreted a number of these when we visited Otuo, explaining that they would be sung when the newly born child was presented to the community. To celebrate, both the child and the community members would mark their faces with chalk or arue as it is called in the Otuo dialect. The Omolotuo Cultural Group performed such a song for us, marking their faces accordingly…
Title-taking and kingship
During our fieldwork in Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Obi Victor Nwokobia explained that nzu is part of the paraphernalia associated with royalty, signifying blessing and purity. It is used in the coronation of a new king (obi) and to invoke ancestral blessings on his guests at the palace.
With others in Okpanam, Obi Nwokobia was particularly interested in a series of photographs Northcote Thomas took in 1912 of an individual he identified as ‘Chief Mbweze’. The name, we were told, should be written ‘Mgbeze’, and what the photographs record is his title-taking ceremony. Thomas does not state what title Mgbeze was receiving, though he lists the highest titles a man may attain in Okpanam as being eze and obu.
Obi Nwokobia explained to us the use of nzu in the obi/eze coronation ceremonies. Prior to the conferment of the title, the initiand is rubbed with chalk all over his body. He also wears a white wrapper. The white of the chalk and cloth represents purity and sanctification. The candidate must then spend a period of 28 days in isolation. During this time, the white of the chalk connects the initiand to the ancestors. When the candidate emerges from this period of seclusion, he is considered pure and to have received ancestral validation of his coronation. The newly titled man dances and throws nzu on the people gathered as a mark of blessing on them. It is a moment that Thomas captured in his series of photographs of Mgbeze’s title-taking. These same practices are used in the coronation of an obi today.
Seeing beyond the visible
Among the hundreds of photographic portraits of individuals made by Thomas can be found many in which people have chalk smeared around one or both eyes. This could signify various things. The high female office of Omu, for example, was entitled to wear chalk around both eyes, as can be seen in Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam (see centre photograph below).
Thomas notes that native doctors (dibia) were also entitled to wear chalk around either one or both eyes, depending on their seniority. The same was true of priests. Chalk around the eyes signifies an ability to see beyond the visible world and into the world of the spirits. Chalk is still used in this way among traditional doctors, diviners and priests, as we have often encountered during our travels in Thomas’s footsteps. They are sometimes called dibia anya nzu, meaning ‘native doctor with the eye of chalk’.
When we met Paul Okafor, chief priest of the Nge-Ndo Ngene shrine in Nibo, Anambra State, he wore chalk on his forehead and left eyelid. He explained that the mark on his forehead granted him access into the spirit world, while that on his eyelid allowed him to see into the spirit world so as to be able to solve his clients’ problems. Okafor further explained that he must wash the nzu off before going to bed, or else he would not be able to sleep, but rather continue to commune with the spirits until the next morning.
According to Nwandu, a dibia we met at Ebenebe, he uses nzu as a medium to communicate with the ancestors. He also applies nzu to part of his eyelid to be able to see the spirit world, and he demonstrated for us how he draws chalk lines on the ground when performing spiritual consultations – igba afa – for his clients.
Ọgbọ obodo and the Mkpitime cult
In the fourth part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking People of Nigeria(1914), concerning the ‘laws and customs’ of the Western Igbo or Anioma people, Thomas provides an interesting account of the Nkpetime or Mkpitime cult. Mkpitime is the name of a female deity associated with a small lake close to Onitsha Olona, now Delta State, which Thomas visited in October 1912. Thomas evidently spent time with the orhene or priest of Mkpitime, a man named Mokweni, whom he also photographed. His visit coincided with the annual Iwaji (New Yam Festival).
During the festival, the orhene is said to ‘go into nzu (chalk)’. This is a period of seclusion during which no one is allowed to make a noise, quarrel or fire a gun. Three days after going ‘into nzu‘, the orhene is supposed to make offerings at Lake Mkpitime and swim in its waters. On the fourth day, the orhene comes out of seclusion, accompanied by drumming and dancing before the mmanwu (spirits manifest as masquerades). Thomas describes how a woman created figureson the earth of the dancing ground using chalk, but also charcoal, red mud and ashes. Thomas notes that this is called obwo [ọgbọ] obodo – translating as ‘circle of dance’. The motifs represent various ‘totemic’ animals and other aspects of local cosmology, including a leopard, ‘tiger cat’, pangolin, monkey, viper, cross-roads, mirror, the sun, moon and Mkpitime herself. According to Thomas, domestic animals such as goats, ducks and fowls must not step on the figures. However, they are soon obliterated by the dancing feet of the celebrants.
Chalk at shrines
Chalk is associated with many deities throughout Southern Nigeria, including Ovia, Ngene and Mkpitime, mentioned above, but also Olokun, Ake, Imoka and others. Artist-educator, Norma Rosen, has written about chalk iconography in Olokun worship, for example, and some of the designs she discusses are not dissimilar to those Thomas photographed in Onitsha Olona. In an article Rosen wrote with the art historian Joseph Nevadomsky, the scene is described in which this ‘elaborately drawn chalk iconography’ is similarly ‘obliterated by dancing feet’, sending ‘vaporous messages fly[ing] back and forth … between the other world and earth’.
We witnessed something similar – and, indeed, participated in the dancing – when we visited the Ake shrine at Idumowina, on the outskirts of Benin City. We had created an album of Thomas’s photographs, which documented the shrine in 1909, and presented copies to the community and the Ake priest. A special ceremony was held in which the album was presented to the deity. As can be seen in the photograph above, adjacent to the altar was a pile of molded chalk blocks and a dish of powdered chalk. The powdered chalk was sprinkled on the altar on which the album was placed, and was used to create patterns on the ground, which were subsequently erased by our dancing.
In his fieldnotes about the Ake Festival that he documented at at Idumowina in 1909, Thomas describes how women would come to the shrine asking the deity to bless them with children, and also to thank the deity if they had recently given birth. (Ake, like Olokun, is a deity associated with fertility.) He records that children were given chalk to eat.
Indeed, chalk is traditionally ingested by pregnant women and as a medicine for various complaints. We have eaten nzu, too, during our fieldwork, after seeking blessings at the Imoka shrine, during the Imoka Festival in Awka.
A symbol of goodwill, friendship and hospitality
In some areas of Igboland, nzu is used instead of or alongside kola-nut in traditional hospitality ceremonies. The most senior man or traditional priest will draw or sprinkle lines of chalk on the ground while uttering a prayer. The number of lines drawn is often four, corresponding to the four deities or market days of the week – eke, oye, afo and nkwo. The prayer is addressed to Chukwu (the supreme God), lesser deities and the ancestors, asking for long life, wealth, peace and fairness. At the end of each prayer, those present will respond by saying Ise!
After the prayer, the chalk will be rolled across the ground from the feet of one person to the next in order of seniority (and social/geographical proximity to the host). It is important that the chalk is not passed hand to hand. Each will then make a mark on the ground before him, again often four lines. Ozo title holders are entitled to mark eight lines. Before rolling the nzu to the next person, each will take a small piece of chalk and mark one of their feet, or an eyelid and put a little in their mouth.
Nevadomsky, J. & N. Rosen, 1988. ‘The Initiation of a Priestess: Performance and Imagery in Olokun Ritual’, The Drama Review 32(2): 186-207.
Rosen, N. 1989. ‘Chalk Iconography in Olokun Worship’, African Arts 22(3): 44-53.
The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.
When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹstaffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.
Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,
When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.
The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.
Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.
Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹstaffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ(which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.
In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹis a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹto honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.
In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹpropped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.
In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹof community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹof Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹhas the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.
Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.
In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.
It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹthat had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹwe encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.
Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.
Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹstaffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.
Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹfrom Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.
The story of how the ukhurhẹwere obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.
Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹand in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.
Carvers still produce ukhurhẹin Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.
As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹto be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹin the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.
The finished ukhurhẹwill be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021. Our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?
We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.
[Re:]Entanglements is part of a broader project entitled Museum Affordances, which is exploring what museum collections and archives make possible, or afford, for different stakeholders. As we have retraced the journeys made by the colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas over 100 years ago in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, equipped with the photographs and sound recordings that he and his local assistants made, it has become apparent that one of the most powerful affordances of these archives is to enable people to reconnect with their ancestors. It has been a privilege for us to witness as community members set eyes upon the faces of their grandparents and great-grandparents, often for the first time.
Another striking affordance is the way these ancestral reconnections also connect extended families in the present. The descendants of those photographed during Thomas’s anthropological surveys now reside in many places throughout the world, forming transnational family networks among the broader diasporas of people with West African heritage. Social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp enable such families to stay in contact, and it is interesting to see how the archive photographs that we bring back to communities in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are recirculated on these platforms, bringing extended families together through an appreciation of their shared past.
In October 2019, we were delighted to receive a message from Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye (née Nnama), a public health physician based in Chicago, Illinois, USA, sending us a photograph she had received from family members in Nibo in Anambra State, Nigeria. Dr Okoye – ‘Uju’ – wrote seeking confirmation: Was this really Chief Nnama, her late great-grandfather? It had been presented as such by a researcher from the [Re:]Entanglements project who had visited Nibo bearing the photographs.
In this guest blog, Uju tells the story of this ‘reunion of sorts’. Part family memoir, part eulogy for an illustrious ancestor, part local history, it is a rich and personal reflection on the contemporary value of these colonial-era archives.
The visitor from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka came unannounced, bearing precious gifts. ‘My name is Dr George Agbo’, he said in Igbo as he explained the purpose of his visit to the assembled group of Nibo indigenes. As he set up copies of Northcote Thomas’s 100-year-old photographs in an impromptu display, many of those gathered were somewhat bewildered. The exhibition of these portraits of strange-yet-familiar faces can best be described as a homecoming – an unexpected reunion of sorts, an intimate opportunity to embrace a past that was lost…
Staring at my phone in disbelief, I carefully examined the image that had pinged into our Nnama family WhatsApp group, which has over 50 members dispersed across West Africa, the UK and USA. My cousin, Chief Edozie Nnama (Ozo Odenigbo), had just shared a black and white photograph of a chiefly-looking man stating that it was our famous great grandfather. For the next two days there was confusion as we tried to make sense of what seemed to be an interesting rumour. How could we be sure? So, to the source we went for confirmation, and I sent an email enquiry to the [Re:]Entanglements project.
Fingers shaking, I took a screenshot of my email correspondence with Paul Basu, the project leader, forwarding it to the family WhatsApp group. A mere ‘copy and paste’ seemed inadequate for news of such magnitude. For all of our Nnama family members – all who knew Nnama in the same manner that I did, as a revered name – it was the unearthing of a priceless family heirloom, made possible through the archival excavations undertaken by the [Re:]Entanglements project.
Nibo, my great-grandfather’s lands
Dusty red sand. Lush green tropical terrain. A bumpy ascent along untarred roads above the Obibia river. The joyous chants of children playing in the water below. My father’s loud voice bellowing, ‘These are my grandfather’s lands! These are all Nnama’s lands!’ These images remain ingrained in my mind. As a child I knew their significance. This was the land of my ancestors. It was my land. This place, Nibo, was home.
Nested in Igboland, on the banks of the Obibia river in Anambra State, Nigeria, Nibo lies close to its populous neighbour, Awka, with whom it shares a long history and close cultural ties. As children raised in various locations in West Africa and the United States, my father – Prof Samuel Kingsley Ifeanyi Nnama (Ozo Oyibo, Ozo Akaligwe, Ikenga Nibo-Traditional Prime Minister of Nibo, and the second in Nibo’s hierarchy at the time of his passing in 2016), who spent his childhood in Nibo and initially migrated to the United States in 1975 – made it a point to ensure that my siblings and I fully understood the legacy with which we had been entrusted. This was made especially tangible each Christmas during our childhood and teen years, when we would make an annual pilgrimage to our Nigerian hometown, Nibo.
Hearing the pride in my dad’s voice as he attempted to connect us, his children, with our mysterious and powerful ancestor – his grandfather, who he never actually knew in person – left a desire for a deeper understanding. Who exactly was this Nnama? How did he acquire his fame? What did he look like?
Since we had no photographs to look at, we created our own images in our minds. As I matured on another continent, thousands of miles from Nibo, my curiosity grew even stronger.
There he sits, with identifying facial marks and the nza over his shoulder. The scarification marks are called ichi – they signified royalty and status. The nza is a horsetail switch, which in those days formed part of the regalia of leadership. It is even used today by the current ruler of Nibo. His neatly-cut beard amazed me – what instrument, I wondered, did they use to maintain such neatness?
The photograph had a profound effect on me. I realized that while my dad has passed on his love for history and family to me, this image validated my connections. Nnama was more than a figure in a folktale – he was real! And the tears started flowing.
My late father was a keen family historian. This was a passion which he passed on to me at an early age. Back in 2007, we together created Wikipedia pages for Nibo and Chief Nnama to document their histories. Nibo is made up of four villages: Ezeawulu, Umuanum, Ifite and Ezeoye. Nnama Orjiakor was born sometime in the late 1860s/early 1870s into the royal family of Umuanum village. In the late 19th century there was a dispute between the ruling lineages of Umuanum and Ezeawulu, each claiming the throne. After decades of conflict (ogu uno), Umuanum prevailed and Nnama was confirmed as the Ezeike (king). To secure the peace, the opposing factions were united in the marriage of Nnama’s son – my grandfather – Orji Nnama and Mgbafor, the daughter of Ezekwe, the warrior leader of Ezeawulu village.
Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor was an astute strategist and formed an alliance with the powerful Aro warlord Okoli Ijoma of Ndikelionwu. Nnama arranged for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s second son Nwene Ijomah. In pre-colonial days, Nnama served as Okoli Ijomah’s deputy in the ‘Omenuko’ court, which presided over much of present-day Anambra State. This alliance offered Nibo great protection and safety during turbulent times.
With the coming of the British, however, Nnama recognized the futility of resisting the colonialist’s military might and the Nibo war council agreed to surrender. This marked the end of Nnama’s alliance with Okoli, who vowed that he would not be ruled by any other king and waged a military campaign against the British, suffering great losses and eventually putting an end to his own life rather than succumbing to the enemy. Meanwhile, Nnama was appointed as a Warrant Chief by the British in 1896 and continued to serve as Nibo’s traditional ruler until his death in 1945.
Northcote did not only photograph Chief Nnama when he visited Nibo in 1911. Inquiring further from Paul Basu, I was directed to a Flickr album containing almost 300 photographs he had made of people and places from my hometown. I was amazed to see my people in their natural habitat, often with remarkably intricate hairstyles that would be envied even today. As I looked through the photographs, I tried to connect the dots.
The photograph of Nnama begins the sequence of images that Northcote took in Nibo. The anthropologist would, of course, have gone to the king first. After taking Nnama’s picture, I reasoned that Nnama would then have arranged for Northcote to photograph other members of the ruling family. Prof Basu then sent me copies of Northcote’s photographic registers, allowing us to put names to the faces. Although the Igbo names were often incorrectly transcribed, I was hopeful that some of them might correspond with those recorded in our extended family (umunna) tree compiled by my late father.
In the photo register, after ‘Chief Nnama’ was ‘Oniyi’, who I couldn’t identify. But next was ‘Eke’. This was Nnama’s brother, whose descendants we all know. Then there was ‘Aduko’, which sounded so familiar. Could it be? Was it her? I wondered. Yes, this was surely Nwonye Oduko, my grandfather’s older sister, and Nnama’s first child.
Unfortunately, Aduko’s photograph is spoilt by a double-exposure. But, nevertheless, there she stands: Nnama’s ‘Ada’, his first child and daughter. Tall and seemingly full of pride, with scarification marks around her breast signifying her status as a daughter of the king. My dad had told me about his aunt Oduko, and the image made me smile.
‘Nwoze’, ‘Ekewuna’, ‘Ekwnire’, ‘Nweze’, ‘Ebede’, ‘Nwogu’, ‘Nwankwo’… these names I did not recognize, even taking into consideration Northcote’s errors of transcription. But then came ‘Nwanna’. Looking at the family tree, I saw there was indeed a Nwanna under the Ogbuefi branch of the family. I looked up the corresponding photograph and was stunned to discover that this Nwanna bore a striking resemblance to my dad’s older cousin, Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi, as well as his siblings, children and grandchildren. Other family members made the same observation.
In haste, I forwarded the image and a summary of my findings to Chief Lawrence’s daughter via WhatsApp. It was a remarkable discovery. For the Ogbuefi family members, looking at the photograph of Nwanna was akin to gazing in a mirror. For my Uncle Lawrence, aged 87 years old, this was a priceless heirloom. Nwanna was his father. He died when Uncle Lawrence was still young and my uncle had never before seen a photograph of him. After over 80 years, this image was a kind of resurrection that had him shedding tears of joy.
Uncle Lawrence wrote to me:
I salute the doggedness of the British anthropologist, Northcote Thomas, who visited my town Nibo in 1911 and took photographs of my people, including my dad – Nwanna Ogbuefi. I also salute the Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge for preserving those photographs for us. Those of us who were too young, even at our father’s death, to have any mental picture or reminiscences of what he looked like now have the opportunity of seeing what our dad looked like and appreciate the resemblances.
Northcote Thomas made trips to our land and made recordings that now establish a link with our fore-parents. Thomas may be long gone, but his work lives on to unite peoples of lost identities and educate and inform our children of the kinds of lives their great grandparents lived.
Travelling in time
To see Northcote’s photographs of Nibo carries us back to the Nibo of my grandfather’s childhood. To hear voices, recorded on Northcote’s phonograph, chanting songs in a pure Nibo dialect, stirs up a deep nostalgic feeling. As my cousin, Chief Nnamdi Nnama (Ozo Owelle) put it: It is an uncommon feeling, like one has travelled back in time to truly discover who you really are. Looking at the pictures said so much to me, and also left so much unanswered.
While much has changed in Nibo since Northcote’s visit, there are still traces of that time. Although faded over time, still standing is our famous uno nko nko – built over the site where our founding ancestor, Anum Ogoli, who established our village Umuanum was laid to rest. Inside can still be found the huge ikolo drum, which was also photographed by Northcote in 1911. The sound of this great drum could be heard at a great distance and the ikolo was used to communicate with the villagers.
The large tree that Northcote photographed, was still to be seen in my youth, when we took the short cut along the dusty path back to our house. And the obu, or court house, that Nnama’s father – Chief Orjiakor Eleh – built around 1856 remains an important landmark. (Nnama was buried just behind it.) Long gone, however, were the richly decorated walls that once enclosed the Ngene shrine.
My dad always told me that when the British came to Nibo, they came with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. Chief’s Nnama’s son, my grandfather, Orji Nnama, chose the Bible. He converted to Christianity, taking on the Christian name Joshua, and eventually became a missionary. This must have dismayed his father, since Nnama was not only the king, he was also keeper of the local gods, the chief priest of the Ngene shrine (Ngene Ukwu Afa), the biggest shrine in Nibo.
Even though Chief Nnama was a traditionalist he was also pragmatic. When his missionary son, now known to everyone as Rev Joshua, approached his father for land to build what would become St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Nnama rose to the task by offering his prized land at the very centre of the town – the Eke market square. A remarkable edifice that still stands today.
Rev Joshua also later built his own personal church on Nnama family land, All Saints Anglican Church. When the church needed to expand, the Nnama family donated the land on which the Ngene shrine once stood, and which had long-since become overgrown with bushes, to be the site of the new All Saints Anglican Church. In the passage of over a hundred years since Northcote photographed it, different religious institutions, the old exchanged for new, and yet the site is still sacred.
Since that fateful day when his face appeared on my phone, I often think about Ezeike Nnama. What would he think about his many descendants scattered around the world? What would he think of his town of Nibo today, with a new church prevailing where his traditional shrine once stood? I wish I could tell him that, though his descendants now serve a Christian God, we all stand tall with great pride in our rich legacy, because we know from whom we came.
Ancestral reconnections foretold
Reflecting on the significance of these ancestral reconnections, I want to leave the last words to my cousin, Chief Chibueze Nnama (Ozo Orjiakor VI, Ozo Nnama V), the current Nnama clan family head, who eloquently states:
I was elated, excited, amazed and joyous when we were informed of the interviews, records and pictures of our great-grandfather Chief Nnama Orjiakor (also known as Ozo Orjiakor II, Ozo Nnama I, Ofulozo, Alukachaa ekwe). This was awesome because in line with the cultural oral tradition of our forefathers: we, my brothers and sisters, children of Chief Godwin Chukwuedozie Davidson Nnama (Ofulozo), the first son of Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama (Ogbuaku), as teenagers and undergraduates, would sit down with our grandfather at the Obu Nnama Orjiakor while he relayed our entire family history, culture, taboos, African tradition religion, the coming of the white man and conquering of the Igbo tribes of the Lower Niger, slave trade, notable judgements as Warrant Chief, words of wisdom of his father, Chief Nnama Orjiakor and grandfather, Chief Orjiakor Eleh, the Warrior King. We were repeatedly told that our great-grandfather, Chief Nnama Orjiakor, was interviewed and the records were stored in the archives somewhere in Britain.
As the family historian and cultural custodian, it is awesome and uplifting that the truth of the records, culture and heritage of our great-grandfather, Chief Nnama Orjiakor, as foretold and repeatedly emphasised by our grandfather, Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama Ogbuaku, has come to light in our lifetime.
Thank you very much, Uju, for sharing your family’s remarkable story with us!
During our fieldwork retracing the journeys made by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, it is a real privilege when we are able to identify the descendants of people that Thomas photographed. Photographs of individuals taken in the context of a colonial project are set free from the archive and become transformed into something magical, able to bring people face-to-face with their ancestors for the first time. People often remark with wonder how, after over a hundred years, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, the photographs have made their way back to the communities where they were taken.
When we visited Samaya, in Tambakha chiefdom, Sierra Leone, the power of photography and material culture to transport us in time and space was brought together. When Northcote Thomas visited Samaya in 1914, he made a number of photographs of Chief Almami Suri Kandeh. Suri Kandeh was a powerful paramount chief, reputed to have had 75 wives! The present paramount chief, Kandeh Sori Kakanday III, is a direct descendant of Suri Kandeh and was overjoyed to see the photograph of his illustrious ancestor.
Thomas photographed Chief Suri Kandeh wearing his regalia of office, including a silver medal known locally as the kingbatankeh – the ‘king’s chain’. We were thrilled to hear that the medal still formed part of the paramount chief’s regalia. The kingbatankeh is not normally seen other than on special occasions, and it is normally only worn by a paramount chief once he has passed through kantha, a period of ritual seclusion, traditionally part of a chief’s coronation in northern Sierra Leone. Due to the exceptional circumstances of our visit, however, a ceremony was performed and we were able to see the kingbatankeh and photograph Kandeh Sori Kakanday III wearing it, even though he had yet to pass through kantha.
Actually, there are two kingbatankeh in Samaya, and this is something of a mystery. Thomas’s photographs of Chief Suri Kandeh show him wearing a medal with a suspension mount by which it is attached to a chain. According to an article in Sierra Leone Studies written by Robert de Zouche Hall, Governor of Sierra Leone between 1952 and 1956, this silver medal had been given to Samaya’s chief by Governor Sir Frederic Cardew in the late 1890s. This was around the time of the anti-colonial Hut Tax War in Northern Sierra Leone, suggesting that Samaya had been loyal to the British during the uprising. The medal, of a type struck in 1883, is still in the possession of the chiefdom, and bears the head of Queen Victoria.
We do not know the exact year that Suri Kandeh was crowned as paramount chief, so it is uncertain whether it was he himself who was awarded the medal by Cardew or his predecessor in office, Kandeh Satanlai. We do know, however, that Chief Suri Kandeh was held in high esteem by the British colonial authorities. In a colonial intelligence report on Sierra Leone’s protectorate chiefs, dating to 1912, it is stated that Alimami Suri ‘rules his country very well, and is highly respected by his subjects. A strict Mohomedan, and a true friend to the Government’.
The second kingbatankeh in Samaya is larger, does not have a suspension mount, bears the head of King George III and is dated 1814. These medals were known to have been distributed to ‘friendly chiefs’ in Sierra Leone in the 1820s and 30s. ‘Friendly chiefs’ were those who were willing to sign treaties and align their interests with the British. Such treaty-making exploited enmities between local polities and was an insidious form of colonial expansion, eventually giving rise to the declaration of Sierra Leone as a British protectorate in 1896. The circumstances and date at which this larger medal came to Samaya are, however, not known to us.
In his 1959 Sierra Leone Studies article, Hall notes that one of the 1814 medals was in the possession of Paramount Chief Bai Samura of Sanda Loko chiefdom. According to Hall’s source (a colonial district officer), the medal was presented to Samura Renjia, a Loko chief based at Kamalo. Northcote Thomas’s tour took him to Kamalo in Sanda Loko after Samaya, and although Thomas made a photograph of the reigning paramount chief – also named Samura – this unfortunately appears to have been lost. When we visited Kamalo, we were, however, shown a photograph of Paramount Chief Samura Bangura, who reigned between 1942 and 1972, by his grandson Simeon F Bangura.
This photograph shows his grandfather wearing what is known in Kamalo as the kingdollar – the medal with George III’s head clearly visible. This was also part of the chiefly regalia. Interestingly, even though the medal is known as the king’s dollar, the story is that it was presented by Queen Victoria. It might be noted that a treaty was signed between Sanda Loko and the British government in 1837, the year that Victoria came to the throne – it was on such occasions that the medals were presented (indeed, they are sometimes called ‘treaty medals’). It is not known what happened to the kingdollar.
These medals have an interesting history. As Hall notes, the 1814 medal was originally struck as a reward to North American Indian Chiefs who had supported Britain during the so-called War of 1812 with the United States of America. Similar medals had been used as ‘tokens of friendship’ since the eighteenth century, often on the signing of treaties – a practice sometimes referred to as ‘peace medal diplomacy’.
The practice of presenting medals to ‘friendly chiefs’ was subsequently introduced in West Africa. Hall discusses the various issues of medals used in Sierra Leone, including the two types we encountered in Samaya. Other types can be found on display at the Sierra Leone National Museum, including a much poorer quality pewter version of the 1814 medal introduced by Governor Arthur Kennedy in 1853. These were evidently of such inferior quality that chiefs were ashamed to wear them.
When Governor Arthur Havelock revived the practice of medal giving in the 1880s (a time of extensive British colonial expansion and treaty-making in Sierra Leone), it was with the new, high quality, solid silver issue bearing the head of Queen Victoria – just like the one that Chief Suri Kandeh wears around his neck in Northcote Thomas’s photographs.
a single photograph can provoke especially strong responses, often because it
touches on a ‘raw nerve’ or intervenes in contemporary issues, reminding us how
history matters in the present. Thomas’s photograph no.4108 is one such case.
Photograph no.4108 is a portrait of a woman with white marks around her eyes and on her forehead created with nzu (kaolin chalk). Around her neck she wears an assortment of necklaces made from various beads and shells. On her head is a cap that has a band with a series of small triangular blades and feathers sticking out of it. According to the brief note in Thomas’s photo register, the subject of the photograph is the ‘Omu’ of Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Nigeria.
In volume four of his Anthropological Report on Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Thomas gives some explanation of the role of the Omu in various communities in Anioma – the territory of the Igbo-speaking population West of the Niger River, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1912-13 tour. According to Report, Omu is the ‘market queen’, who presides over the market and serves the shrine in it. She enforces order, collects dues and controls the prices of goods for sale. In some places, Thomas records that the market cannot begin until the Omu arrives, and that she may fine the women of her town for non-attendance and forbid them to go to more distant markets instead of attending that in their own town. At Okpanam, Thomas tells us that the Omu sent her stool to the market as a sign for it to begin.
Northcote Thomas made around 30 photographs in Okpanam, many recording the title-taking ceremony of Obi Mgbeze that was happening when he visited in September 1912. However, during our fieldwork in Okpanam, it was the photograph of the Omu that consistently attracted most attention and elicited the most comment.
As Thomas’ photograph of the Omu was viewed and re-photographed, the recurring comment it produced was: Okwa ha si na Omu adi ekpu okpu ododo? (‘Why do people argue that the Omu does not wear a red cap?’) The comment indexes an ongoing contestation about the right to wear the red cap in the community.
During colonial times in Igbo-speaking areas of Nigeria, the red cap became part of the regalia of office for senior title holders, including the so-called ‘Red Cap Chiefs’ or warrant chiefs. More recently, concern has been expressed that this symbol of authority is being worn by those who have no right to wear it.
In Okpanam the issue of the okpu ododo or red cap has become
entangled in local political disputes. Traditionally, Okpanam’s community was
headed by the Diokpa-Isi, the eldest man in the community. As the
administrative demands on the Diokpa-Isi grew, and considering his old age, members
of Okpanam community at home and in the diaspora agreed to institute the new post
of Ugoani. The process, which began in 2004 and was approved by Delta State
government in 2009, was followed by the election of Dr Michael Mbanefo Ogbolu
as Ugoani in May 2010. Following the performance of the associated rite in
2011, he was given staff of office by the government. The Ugoani was intended
to act as the representative of the Diokpa-Isi and Izu Ani (General Assembly), but
remain answerable to them. Over the past few years, however the Ugoani and his council
have assumed greater power, such that the Ugoani has come to be recognized as
the modern political head of Okpanam by the State, while the Diokpa-Isi, Izu
Ani, Obi titled men and Omu have become regarded as ‘traditional’ roles. This
has led to tensions and the red cap has become a symbol of the squabble.
Against the custom of the community, which stipulates that only Obi title holders and the Omu (whose status is equivalent to that of an Obi) are eligible to wear the red cap, the Ugoani and his cabinet members began to incorporate the red cap into their regalia, even though they do not hold the Obi title. The Obis then sued the Ugoani and his council, demanding that they stop wearing the red cap. As the contestations escalated, both sides issued statements and counter-statements in the Nigerian press and in various online forums. Responses of the Ugoani and Ugoani-in-Council were reported in The Nigerian Voice, for example, stating that the Omu is only a chief (albeit a ‘respected and revered one’), not of equivalent status as an Obi, and is therefore not entitled to wear the red cap either.
These statements were refuted strongly by Obi title holders in Okpanam, who drew attention to the ancient institution of the Omu compared to the recent establishment of the Ugoani role. In a lengthy post to the Anioma Trust Facebook page, Obi Nwaokobia was reported as stating that the ‘Ugoani has no authority to make a statement on Omu Okpanam’. Obi Nwaokobia further explained that ‘the institution of Omu has existed [since] the founding of Okpanam’ and that she is ‘the Traditional Mother of the community and she enjoys all the rights and privileges of a Royal Mother’. When an Omu dies, like Obis, she is buried in a sitting position, and in Okpanam, the Omu is more than a chief but in the same rank as Obis.
When we came to Okpanam, we were not aware of the
contestation around the Omu’s status or her right to wear the red cap. When we
learnt of the controversy, however, it was not surprising to find that the
Thomas’s photograph of the Omu in 1912 elicited such a powerful response.
Although the photographs are monochrome, the style of the hat with its band and
feathers is clear. Here was irrefutable evidence that the Omu traditionally wore
the red cap.
For many, the ‘red cap controversy’ has been settled by an archival image. Photographs of Thomas’s photograph soon began circulating on social media after our visit, bringing it to the attention of the international Anioma community. At the ‘Okpanam Indigene’ Facebook page, for example, Emma Agala juxtaposed Thomas’s 1912 photograph with that of the current Omu, HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, and included a long extract from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the role of the Omu. The extensive research of the [Re:]Entanglements project itself was cited as confirming its authenticity. Among the 59 comments to the post, Martha Dunkwu herself remarks: ‘You are right. The red cap is there, the feather, the beads, the Akwa Ocha. Did you notice that the Aziza [that] the male Obis use is on her red cap? It’s wonderful that the British in 1912 recorded Omu-ship in Okpanam’.
No doubt the debates will continue in Okpanam, but the
incident demonstrates how the ethnographic archive may intervene in
contemporary events in ways that we have not anticipated. Our fieldwork
following Northcote Thomas’s itineraries in West Africa can present many
challenges, but the story of Omu and her red cap reminds us of the importance
of bringing back this archive to the communities whose histories it documents.
by George Emeka Agbo, Chijioke Onuora and Paul Basu
On 31 December 2018, the pavilion of the Umudioka Arts and Cultural Centre in Neni, Anambra State, Nigeria was filled by thousands of people who attended the 40th Nka Dioka Cultural Festival of Umudioka, Neni. Ndi Igwe (community leaders), titled men, and state functionaries graced the occasion. A live orchestra, cultural musical troupes (such as Egedege), and masquerades (agbogho mmonwu, otenkwu, etc.) electrified the arena with their performances. The people of Umudioka filed in in groups according to their age grades, all dressed in the same uniform designed exclusively for the occasion. The main motif repeated on this uniform comprised of a man’s face with ichi marks positioned above the tools used for the scarification, framed with the inscription ‘40th Year Nka Dioka Cultural Festival of Umudioka Community Neni’. The motif is a visual articulation of the event, giving insight into the history and culture of this town in Anambra State.
Umudioka communities (in Neni and seven other towns among the Igbo) were historically known as specialist surgeons who carried out ichi and nki facial scarification, mbubu (body marking from neck to belly) and iwa eze (tooth filing). Among the photographs that Northcote Thomas made during his 1910-11 anthropological survey of what was then Awka District (corresponding more or less with present-day Anambra State), there are numerous portraits of people with facial and body scarification. Due to its broad social, political, and economic signification, ichi was the most common of these markings. Ichi specialists from Umudioka were invited to various towns across the region to create the marks on those who wanted them. Their clients were mainly male, although certain women, including priestesses, could also obtain the marks. Thomas wrote about the practice in his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria.
In the case of families of high social and economic status,ichi marks could be obtained for their children at a relatively early age. In adulthood one can also do it as an expression of one’s wealth and prestige. The ichi scarification process begins with a journey by the Nwadioka (ichi specialist from Umudioka) to the Nwa Ichi (his client). The Nwadioka is accompanied by Nwa Nso, an assistant who carries the the Nwadioka’s tool bag and prepares the ground (mat and wooden pillow) on which the Nwa Ichi lies for the marking. He is also accompanied by the Nwa Mgbado Ichi, a second assistant who holds down the Nwa Ichi’s legs on the mat while the scarification is taking place. It is, of course, painful to receive ichi marks; so, to assuage the pain during the procedure, the Nwa Ichi’s mother or wife intermittently gives him a piece of fish to eat. Words of encouragement and melodious songs are also used to soothe the pain. At the same time, the lyrics of the songs convey various messages about ichi, the dexterity and experiences of the Nwadioka, and the value of the art. Nwa Nso plays the role of a nurse for fourteen days, cleaning the cuts with warm water and administering herbs that facilitates the healing.
Before the incursion of Christian missionary activity, ichi served as a means of protection for those who had the marks. For instance, they were not prone to abduction for slavery which was rampant at that time. The high value placed on ichi also made it a prerequisite for ozo title taking in most Igbo communities. In fact, ichi is seen as a sign of class stratification, not only by virtue of receiving the marks, but by the Nwa Ichi’s ability to ‘hire’ the costly implements used to make the marks. There are two types of ichi knives which do not necessarily produce different results but the use of one attracts higher payment than the other. Thus, there is an ichi knife for the highly affluent and another for the average class. When the Nwadioka completes the ichi cutting, he remits a certain percentage of his pay to the group of retired Nwadioka called Ndi Isimmanka.
In the mid-twentieth century, the ichi marking tradition was disrupted by
the expansion of Christianity, which held that it was a fetishistic practice. Following
the consequential decline, and after much controversy, the ichi tradition was, however, reinvented in Neni in 1978. From then
on, ichi marks would no longer be
received in the actual sense of cutting the skin, rather it became a symbolic
practice performed annually at the Nka Dioka Cultural Festival. We witnessed
this reinvented tradition being performed at the 40th anniversary of Nka Dioka
in Neni on 31 December 2018. Two men received the symbolic marks that day. Then
men were carried on the backs of attendants and laid on mats where the ceremony
took place. The marking ceremony was accompanied by the traditional ichi songs and the Nwa Ichi were given
fish to eat as in the original ceremony. The marking itself, however, did not
involve cutting; rather the ichi
knife merely traced the patterns on the men’s foreheads, leaving no visible
Northcote Thomas was not the only ethnographer to make a study of ichi scarification among the Igbo people. The anthropologically-minded missionary, George Basden, who spent most of his career working in the Awka/Onitsha area from 1900 to 1926, discussed ichi scarification in his 1921 book Among the Ibos of Nigeria. In particular, Basden noted the important role of Umudioka (which he spelled Umu-di-awka) communities in the practice. He observed that the men of Umudioka ‘hold a sort of monopoly of the profession [of ichi cutting], and travel all over the country for the purpose’; further noting that ‘judging by the number of those bearing the ichi marks, it must be a prosperous business’ (1921: 183).
It was, however, a later Government Anthropologist, M. D. W. Jeffreys, who made a more extensive investigation of facial scarification as part of a study of ‘the magico-religious beliefs of the Umundri’. Jeffreys identified two distinct ichi patterns, one associated exclusively with Ndri, another which he termed the ‘Agbaja Pattern’. In his article, ‘The Winged Solar Disk of Ibo Itchi Facial Scarification’, published in 1951, Jeffreys provides a detailed account of ichi from a man named Nwora from Nibo, who was an old man when interviewed in 1930, when he recalled having the ichi operation in his youth. Nwora explained that the Eze Nri had told the Umudioka to cut other towns differently to Nri, and it is forbidden to use the Nri pattern elsewhere.
Ichi patterns were not only cut into people’s forheads. The same patterns are used to decorate a wide range of objects, including wooden door panels, ancestral figures, stools, masks and pottery used for ritual purposes. Thomas photographed many such objects during his survey work, and we have also come across examples in the artefact collections he made, which are cared for by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. We will be including a section on ichi in the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition in 2020 when we will display some of these objects alongside contemporary artwork by Chijioke Onuora, who is developing a series of batik paintings drawing on ichi motifs documented in Northcote Thomas’s photographs and collections.
As can be seen in the Nka Dioka Cultural Festival in Neni, ichi is celebrated as an important part of Igbo cultural heritage – especially among Umudioka communities. In this respect it is interesting to note how Chief Odidika Chidolue (also known as Oke Iwe Adimma) is revered by the community as the only surviving man in Neni who has actual ichi marks. As a valued part of Neni’s living heritage, he receives a monthly stipend of 15,000 Naira from the Eyisi Ebuluo Foundation, which supports the preservation of local culture. In the course of our fieldwork we had the privilege of talking with Chief Odidika Chidolue as well as Nze R. O. Udeze (Eyisi Ebulue II) and Fidelis Igwilo, and were fortunate in being able to record some of their traditional ichi songs.
We look forward to continuing our research in Neni and, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, exploring other opportunities for documenting this fascinating cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations.
References Basden, G. T. (1921) Among the Ibos of Nigeria. London: Seeley, Service & Co. Jeffreys, M. D. W. (1951) ‘The Winged Solar Disk or Ibo Itchi Facial Scarification’, Africa 21(2): 93-111. Thomas, N. W. (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part I: Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Awka Neighbourhood, S. Nigeria. London: Harrison & Sons.