Musical returns and revivals

Ikenna Onwuegbuna reworking Igbo sound archive

One of the archival legacies of N. W. Thomas‘ anthropological surveys of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is a unique collection of around 750 wax cylinder sound recordings. Since they were recorded using a long-obsolete technology, it had been virtually impossible to listen to the recordings until the British Library Sound Archive digitized them a few years ago. It is only now, however, through the [Re:]Entanglements project that we are beginning to appreciate their remarkable value.

The recordings, which include stories, songs, music, conversations and ‘samples of language‘, constitute an important primary source concerning the histories of the various locations and communities included in Thomas’ itineraries. Due to the poor quality of the recordings and linguistic changes in the areas in which they were made, the recordings are challenging to work with. In an earlier article, Revisiting some Awka folksongs, ethnomusicologist Samson Uchenna Eze discusses some of the difficulties transcribing a selection of the recordings.

As part of our collaboration with colleagues at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna of the Department of Music has analysed and reworked a further selection of Thomas’ recordings made in the Igbo-speaking towns of Awka and Agulu in 1911. Onwuegbuna’s grandmother was a well-known singer, and, as an indigene of the Awka region himself, Onwuegbuna is able to provide invaluable insight into the cultural and musical context of the recordings, able to discern nuances and idioms particular to that context. In what follows he provides a kind of masterclass on each of the recordings, before reflecting on their broader significance today.

Ikenna Onwuegbuna [Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Dr Ikenna Onwuegbuna introducing the traditional music ensemble at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which he directs, at the opening of the [Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition, February 2020. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Reworking archival sound

As an ethnomusicologist, music performer and studio producer, Onwuegbuna carefully selected, scrutinized and creatively reworked five of the audio tracks recorded by Thomas. These include three vocal songs, a song performed by a Mmọ̄nwụ̄ (a ‘spirit manifest’ or, less correctly, masquerade), and an instrumental track.

As Onwuegbuna noted in conversation, the limitations of the phonograph sound recording equipment that was available to Thomas are very evident in the recordings. In addition to the high levels of noise, the wax cylinders have an extremely limited dynamic range, and reproduce only a narrow frequency spectrum. The duration of the recordings was limited to about 2½ minutes. Another significant limitation was the fact that recording was made not electronically, through a microphone, but via a horn, which funnelled sound waves onto a membrane upon which a cutting needle was attached. The mouth of the horn had to be placed close to the sound source – thus a soloist singing directly into the horn would produce a good recording, while members of a chorus or instrumentalists positioned further away might not register well.

The only photograph from N. W. Thomas’ anthropological surveys showing his wax cylinder phonograph recorder. Photograph by N. W. Thomas, Agila, present-day Benue State, Nigeria, 1913. See Sound recording in the field article. (NWT 4885; MAA P.32756.)
Group of children from Hula singing into an Edison phonograph during the 1898-99 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait. One gets a better sense of the limitations of the phonograph and its recording horn in this photograph. (MAA
N.34988.ACH2.)

Mindful of these limitations, which convey a distorted impression of this sonic heritage, Onwuegbuna has recorded a new version of each of the historical recordings using modern studio techniques, including sampling of the traditional instruments that would have been used, but which are barely audible in the originals. This has provided an opportunity of imagining how the original performances may have sounded, with a much broader tonal and dynamic range, and complete with choruses and full instrumentation.

As well as recording them, Northcote Thomas also collected examples of musical instruments during his anthropological surveys. Pictured is a selection of instruments collected from the Awka region in 1910-11 that feature in Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s reworkings of the historical recordings. Clockwise from bottom left: Ékwé (wooden slit-drum) (MAA Z 14218); Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattle) (MAA Z 14061); Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattle) (MAA Z 14223.1); Ōgénè (clapperless bells) (MAA Z 14236); Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute) (MAA Z 14046); Ị̀gbà (membrane drum) (MAA Z 14200).

For each of the recordings we include the original (digitized) wax cylinder recording made by Thomas, Onwuegbuna’s re-recording of the track, a short video in which Onwuegbuna discusses the original track and how he has reworked it, as well as additional musicological notes.

Kwà-àjáyámmá – vocal group, Agulu, 1911 (#449)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of vocal group, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, February 1911. (NWT 449; BL C51/2334.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.449 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

This is a women’s dance song recorded by N. W. Thomas in Agulu, Awka area, in 1911. In reinterpreting the song, I was guided by the thematic contents to supply instrumental accompaniments and vocal harmony to the original. I also enriched the lyrical content by adding some new materials while retaining some of the original contents.

Kwà-àjáyámmá, an onomatopoeic sound and chorused response to the melodic calls of the soloist, is a non-lexical text used in describing the syncopated rhythmic movements of the dancers. As the soloist sings about the innovations that the group has introduced courtesy of their travels to near and far places, this newness is celebrated in chorused response and dance.

Since Igbo musical instruments have gender inscriptions and gender restrictions, I carefully selected the accompanying instruments along the lines of such bounds.

Álō (metal gong)obbligato
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Àrụ̀kụ̀ Gbá Ngwā – vocal group, Awka, 1911 (#435)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of female vocal group, Awka, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 25 January 1911. (NWT 435; BL C51/2675.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.435 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

Àrụ̀kụ̀ gbá ngwā (meaning ‘Àrụ̀kụ̀, hasten up’) was recorded by N. W. Thomas in Awka in 1911, as a female duet. In my reinterpretation, I treated the so-called female duet (which is actually two female voices singing in unison) as a vocal introduction to a mixed-gender dance song. The introduction, in irregular rhythm, is preceded with a horn sound, which warns the listener to expect more in the music than merely a female music ensemble. As the music modulates metrically from irregular to regular rhythm, a dance mode is ignited, accompanied by a dense instrumental texture. This dense texture is further deepened by the vocal harmony of the chorused responses. The lyrics chronicle the history of the group – their collective and individual achievements, and their popularity – and, at the same time, highlights the norms and values of the land. While the onomatopoeic sounds in the chorus are used for exclamations, the chanted words that interject occasionally are declamations – a common practice in a male or mixed gender ensemble.

 The instruments deployed in the ensemble include:

Álō (metal gong)obbligato
Òpù (animal horn)speech surrogate
Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute)instrumental melody
Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Íyó-ólòlólō – vocal group, Awka, 1911 (#436)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of female vocal group, Awka, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 25 January 1911. (NWT 436; BL C51/2676.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.436 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

This song, by a vocal group recorded by N. W. Thomas in Awka in 1911, celebrates music, the talent of music-making, and the musicians. In the lyrics, music is metaphorical alluded to as the drum (Ị̀gbà), thereby implying that the group is a mixed ensemble of melodic and rhythmic (melo-rhythmic) instruments. In my reinterpretation, I introduced vocal harmony and instrumental accompaniment.

Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ékpílí (pod rattles)time referent
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic

Égwú Mmọ̄nwụ̄ – vocal group, Agulu, 1911 (#442)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of male vocal group, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 12 February 1911. (NWT 442; BL C51/2686.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.442 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

Égwú mmọ̄nwụ̄ (music of the spirit) captures the reality of the union between the living and the ancestors in Igbo cosmology. Here, two masked singers in muffled voices (ónú mmọ̄nwụ̄) were captured in a vocal performance by N. W. Thomas in 1911 in Agulu. In the call and response vocal interchange, the ‘spirit-manifest’ (Mmọ̄nwụ̄) passes coded information in a simple melody, without any instrumental accompaniment. What I have done, in reinterpretation, is to introduce three instruments while retaining the original vocal melody as recorded by Thomas. In my creative rationalization, a terse texture will still clear the path for the logogenic melody, without masking the message.

The instruments:

Óké ōgénè mkpị̀ n’ábọ̀ (male twin clapperless bells)melo-rhythmic
Nwúnyè ōgénè mkpị̀ n’ábọ̀ (female twin clapperless bells)time referent
Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattles)rhythmic

Égwú – percussion and flute instrumental, Agulu, 1911 (#448)

Original N. W. Thomas recording of percussion and flute instrumental, Agulu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, 14 February 1911. (NWT 448; BL C51/2697.)
Ikenna Onwuegbuna’s contemporary reworking of the recording, 2019.
Ikenna Onwuegbuna discusses Thomas’ recording no.448 and his approach to reworking it. In conversation with Paul Basu.

In titling this instrumental dance music, I settled for the generic term, Égwú, which not only could translate to music, but also means song, dance, drama, banter, festival, and games. Since it is an instrumental style, I could not think of a better title. As the rhythmic complexity can be felt in a consortium of percussion instruments, the resultant groove provides a soundscape to support and project the emotional dynamics of the melodic instruments. To further deepen the already dense texture of the original recording by Thomas, I introduced a pentatonic-tuned xylophone that occasionally breaks the dominance of the flute melody.

The featured instruments in my edition include:

Ọ̀jà (notched end-blown flute)instrumental melody
Ngédégwū (xylophone)instrumental melody
Ọ́kwá (double-slab xylophone)melo-rhythmic
Ị̀gbà (membrane drum)melo-rhythmic
Ékpílí (pod rattles)time referent/rhythmic
Ùdù (pot drum)pulse marker
Ị̄chākā (beaded gourd rattles)rhythmic
Ọ́kpọ́kọ́lọ́ (wooden claves)time referent
Ōgénè (clapperless bells)rhythmic
Ékwé (wooden slit-drum)rhythmic
Ọ́yọ̀ (pebble-filled basket rattles)rhythmic
Wooden clappersrhythmic

Cultural loss and revival

by Ikenna Onwuegbuna

This ethnomusicological re-engagement with the sound archive has provided an opportunity to peep into the history of the Awka people, with a view to ascertaining the nature and features of their music, including their compositional practices and performance techniques. It enables us to reflect on continuities and changes in the phenomenon of folk artistry.

Reflecting on the historical recordings, it is clear that the only phenomenon that is permanent is change. Igbo society is undergoing rapid changes due to the influence of globalization on its cultural institutions and practices. This is a consequence of the history of European colonialism in the region and especially the incursion of foreign religion that caused a great change from Igbo traditional religion to Christianity.

For a few decades now, there has been growing consciousness of the importance of cultural revival. Against the background of massive loss of cultural heritage, this cultural revivalist movement has been making slow but steady progress. The effort to conserve what can be conserved, to resuscitate what is almost dead, and to change the mentality of the people about their culture is an ongoing process in Nigeria.

In order to rework the historical sound recordings made by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys one must couple a forensic approach to analysing the originals with an in-depth knowledge of the cultural, linguistic and musicological context. Recreating the full sonic experience using modern studio techniques allows us to recover a musical heritage, which the limitations of Thomas’s wax cylinder phonograph could not capture.

This becomes a significant service to the survival of cultural diversity and to the cultural identity of the Igbo people. This is not merely a matter of historical interest. The musical performances that Thomas recorded in the Awka District in 1910-11 are full of inspirational materials that can be adapted by composers of African popular and art music for their original compositions. They provide resource materials for creative artists in humanities, social sciences and beyond. All these could be harnessed for cultural diversity, advancement and socio-economic development.


Thank you Ikenna for your inspirational work with a small selection of Thomas’s recordings, pointing towards the huge potential of the wider collection. Thanks also to British Library Sounds for providing access to the digitized recordings and a small grant to help facilitate this re-engagement work.

N. W. Thomas botanical collections

NorthcoteThomas Flora of Southern Nigeria Herbarium Specimens
Examples of laid herbarium specimens collected during N. W. Thomas’ anthropological surveys at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (RBG K000412375; K000489471; K000234313) (Click image to enlarge.)

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.

Lists of medicinal plants used at Otua and Sabongida, North Edo. Excerpts from the object catalogue from Thomas’ 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria. (MAA Doc.413) (Click image to enlarge.)

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.

Northcote Thomas Olodi Gloriosa Superba
Left: Given his interest in West African botany, Thomas photographed very few plants in situ. He photographed this example of Gloriosa superba (English: flame lily; Igbo: olodi) against his photographic backdrop in vicinity of Agukwu Nri in 1911. (NWT 2826a; RAI 400.16241) Right: A more recent colour photograph of Gloriosa superba (http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org).

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.

Left: Excerpt from ‘List of plants (in part) collected by Mr N. W. Thomas. Recd.1911-1912’ prepared by John Hutchinson, assistant Tropical Africa section, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (RBG PDL Folio 205) Right: Excerpts from corresponding pages of plant catalogue, including vernacular (Igbo) names of specimens and their uses. (MAA Doc.416) (Click image to enlarge.)

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’.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Southern Nigeria Herbarium Specimen Labels
Left: Page from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Additional Series IX, The Useful Plants of Nigeria, 1908, providing guidance on botanical collecting and labelling. Centre: Correspondence between Kew and the Crown Agents for the Colonies regarding labels for Thomas’ botanical collections. Right: Examples of labels used by Thomas during his 1912-13 tour of Asaba District, Southern Nigeria. (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Southern Nigeria 2343 Dioscorea
Left: Specimen of Dioscorea smilacifolia (Igbo: ikwolo ji oku) collected by Thomas or one of his assistants in Ezi, in present-day Delta State, Nigeria, on 10 February 1913 (RBG K001146076); Right Excerpt of corresponding page from Thomas’ list of specimens collected on his 1912-13 tour, including vernacular (Igbo) name and uses of specimens. Thomas notes that the root of Dioscorea smilacifolia is yam-like and is eaten at times of famine. (Click image to enlarge)

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’.

While the possibility of the Flora of Sierra Leone was being deliberated, another Kew botanist – Keeper of the Herbarium, Dr Otto Stapf (1857-1933) – drafted a more modest contribution, which was incorporated into Thomas’ Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916) as a ‘Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone’. The Report also includes a glossary of 46 Temne plant names, with scientific determinations – this was a very modest list, given that Thomas documented some 10,654 specimens in his botanical field books from Sierra Leone.

Otto Stapf Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone
Left: ‘Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone’ by Otto Stapf published in N. W. Thomas Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916). Right: Otto Stapf in 1924. (Click image to link to the article)

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.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Sierra Leone specimen labels
Examples of botanical specimen labels used during Thomas’ 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone. They provide details of the specimen number and vernacular name, but also place and date collected, allowing us to reconstruct Thomas’ journeys in Sierra Leone. Note the use of a rubber stamp with Thomas’ signature. (Click image to enlarge)
Northcote Thomas Sierra Leone itinerary 1914-15
In his botanical field books, Thomas listed the specimen number ranges collected in particular places, along with the dates they were collected. (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Northcote Thomas Sierra Leone herbarium specimen map 1914-15
Thomas’ sketch map showing the locations in Sierra Leone at which herbarium specimens were collected, 1914-15. (RBG) (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Further reading

  • 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.

A Conversation

The phonograph sound recordings made during Northcote Thomasanthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone are like time capsules. Between 1909 and 1915, Thomas and his local assistants made well over 700 recordings of songs, stories and ‘specimens of language‘. Many of these have been unheard for over a century.

Thanks to digitization of the original wax cylinders by the British Library, these recordings are now accessible once again. As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been working with communities and local language/dialect speakers to transcribe and translate as many of the recordings as possible. It is not easy work, partly due to changes in the languages over 100 years and partly due to the poor quality of the wax cylinder recordings.

When we are able to obtain a good transcription and translation, the results are often quite startling. They provide remarkable insights into a moment in time: a moment of colonial intrusion, of which the anthropological survey was, of course, a part.

Recording No.465 was made during N. W. Thomas’s 1910-11 tour of what the colonial authorities had designated Awka District, in the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. The recording appears to have been made in the town of Umuchukwu, also known as Ndikelionwu, in 1911. It is a recording of a conversation between two young men, John, described as ‘an Onitsha boy’, and Nwile, ‘a Nibo boy’. Judging from the conversation, it seems that they have both accompanied the anthropologist on his visit to Umuchukwu, although Nwile seems to know the local chief and acts as an intermediary.

Conversation in Igbo between John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, recorded by Northcote Thomas in Umuchukwu in 1911. (NWT 465; BL C51/2723)

We worked with Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba to obtain a transcription and English translation from the Igbo. With the translation in hand, we also discovered that Thomas had actually already published a transcription and translation of the recording in the third part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, which is devoted to ‘Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar’. Usually Thomas noted the record number alongside published transcriptions/translations, but on this occasion he neglected to do so. It was, however, easy to recognize the text once we received the translation. It is interesting to compare the original phonetic rendering and translation with the new one. (We discuss the orthographic conventions that Thomas employed in a previous blog post.)

Excerpt of the transcription and translation of John and Nwile’s conversation, publishing in Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar. (Click on image to enlarge.)

The transcription and translation provided by Yvonne Mbanefo and Oba Kosi Nwoba:

D’anyị, I noo mma?
Ano m nnoo!
Kedu ka ịmee?
A nọ m nnoo ọfụma
I budi onye ebe?
Abụ m onye Nibo
Oo!
Brother, are you well?
I am just there
How are you?
I am just fine.
Where are you from?
I am from Nibo  
Oh!
Mu na gi na aluko olu na ofu ebe.
Ọ maka no-ofu.
Anyị nwa wee bia n’obodo ndị a.
Anyị bialu ụmụchukwu tata.
We work together in the same place
It is a good thing
We came to this people’s town
We came to Umuchukwu today.
Umuchukwu ndị a bụ ndị ebe?
Fa bụ ndị ikeri-ọnwụ
Ndị Ikeri-ọnwụ?
Eh!  
This Umuchukwu is in which part?
It is in Ikeri-onwu.
Ikeri-onwu?
Yes!
Kedukwa onye anyị no be ya?
Anyi no be Chief a na-akpọ Kanu.
O!
Ya na ndị be ya niile.
Esego nwunye ya na foto?
Esego nwunye ya tata 
Ya na onye du?
Ya na nke onye Ọnicha
Ezi e?
Eh!
Who are we even in his house?
We are in Chief Kanu’s house
Oh!
With his whole family  
Have they taken photograph of his wife?
The wife was photographed today
With who?
She and the person from Onitsha
Truthfully?
Yes.
Mụnwa bụ John ka eselu mu na ya na foto tata.
Ọ ya ka m fukwalu.
Okwu as!
Mba, afulu m ya, hahaha!
D’anyị amuna amu n’ofu!
I na-asika asi nwoke m.  
Nwoke m, ọ bụghị asi, afulu m n’anya.
Ọ di mma ebe Ị fulu n’anya na okwu adiro ya. Ka anyị norisizia nu.
Ma gị gwakwa ndị a na abiama bialu be fa.
Nnukwu ife bialu tata.
It is I John, that was photographed with her today.
That is what I have seen.
It is a lie!
No, I saw it, haha!
Brother don’t laugh like that
You are always lying, my man  
My man, it is not a lie, I saw it.
It is ok since you saw it, there is no disputing it. Let us relax.
But tell them that they have a visitor.
A big thing came today
Ị gwago fa na ọ bụ ndị-oyibo
Agwalu m fa, si fa na ndị-oyibo bịalụ
Ka fa kwadobe ndi be fa niile.
Abụ m onye Ọnicha
Nnọọ!
Gị nwa onye Nibo.
Unu apụtachago ụla?
Ọ dị mma.
Nnọọ o!
Kedu ka unu melu?
Anyị nocha mma mma.
Have you told them it is the white people?
I told them that the white people are here, let them prepare their people.
I am from Onitsha.
Welcome!
You, from Nibo.
It is well.
Welcome!
How are you people doing?
We are all fine.
Kene ndị a daalụ o!
Chief achoo Ị kene gị, gị daalụ o!
Si fa na onye-ocha si fa daalu o!
Onye-ọcha kenelu gị mma mma o!
Greet this people!
Chief, he wants to greet you, greetings to you!
Tell them that the white person greets them.
The white person greets you well.  
Si fa n’anyi bialu k’anyi fu fa anya o!
Anyi bịalụ nkata bunu
K’anyi wee nolisia o!
K’anyi nọlisịa olịlị k’anyị naa o!
Hahahaha!
Ọmelụ agaa du?
Mma mma ka ọ dị.
Ọ dị mma o, Nkata nkata ka ọ bụ.
Ka ọ dị n’ofu.
Nnọọ o!
Ike agwubago m, ka m naa.
Eh?
Eh!
dị mma, kachifo! Ka ọ dbaza!
K’anyị nolikwa, ikekwe anyị ga-afu ọzọ.
Nodu nma o!
Nnọọ o!
Ka ọ diba!
dị mma, na-eme ofuma.  
Tell them we came to see them.
We came to have a chat in your house.
Let us stay well!
When we are done enjoying our visit, let us go!
Haha!
How are things?
Everything is fine.  
It is well, they are all conversations.
Let it be like that.
Welcome!
I am getting tired, let me go.
Ok?
Ok.
It is well, goodnight, later!
Let’s be seeing, we will probably see again.
Stay well!
Later!
It is well, be good.

The conversation would, of course, have been staged for the phonograph recorder, perhaps to document the differences in Onitsha and Nibo dialects. But, while the primary purpose of the recording was linguistic, through their exchange, John and Nwile also tell us a great deal about the broader encounter between the anthropologist, the Umuchukwu elite and their own joking relationship. The latter is most evident when listening to the men laughing together.

From this audio recording, we can build up a picture of the visit of the oyibo – the whiteman – to Chief Kanu’s compound in Umuchukwu. This entails multiple linguistic mediations between N. W. Thomas and John, John and Nwile, and Nwile and Chief Kanu. We gain insight into the formal greetings exchanged and the communication that the anthropologist has come to see the chief and to talk. We learn that the chief’s wife has been photographed that day, apparently alongside John himself! (The word ‘foto‘ has clearly entered the Igbo vocabulary by this time.)

Chief of Umuchukwu, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. In this and subsequent photographs of the same man, the caption ‘Chief Jacob Mb[onu]’ is crossed out. If not Mbonu, could this be Chief Kanu, who is mentioned in the conversation? (NWT 2507; RAI 400.15387)

Unfortunately, the annotations accompanying the photographs that Thomas made in Umuchukwu are vague and confusing, with crossings out and omissions. The ‘Chief of Umuchukwu’ is, however, identified (though the name ‘Chief Jacob Mbonu’ is crossed out) – is this Chief Kanu? The next photograph in the sequence is of a woman with mbubu scarification marks running down her chest and stomach. Is this one of chief’s wives? (There is no sign of John besides her!) And then there is another photograph of two men dressed in European clothing. They are dressed in a similar manner to Thomas’ assistants and translators elsewhere. Might they just be John and Nwile?

The entries in Thomas’s photographic register contain no information about these two photographs taken before and after those of the Chief of Umuchukwu. The unnamed woman in the photograph on the left may be one of the Chief’s wives. Note the mbubu scarification on her chest and stomach (NWT 2508; RAI 400.15388). The men in the photograph on the right are dressed similarly to other assistants and translators that accompanied Thomas on his travels. Might they be John, from Onitsha, and Nwile, from Nibo, whose conversation Thomas recorded in Umuchukwu? (RAI 2506; RAI 400.15386)

Northcote Thomas’s phonograph recordings constitute an important and untapped historical resource. While they were recorded largely for linguistic research purposes, today they provide a unique opportunity for us to hear the voices of those normally assumed to be silenced in the colonial archive. The Indian postcolonial studies scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously asked ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ – listening carefully to the colonial anthropologists’ wax cylinder recordings we are in no doubt that they can indeed, and that their voices provide a crucial counter-narrative to dominant historical accounts.


Thank you to Yvonne Mbanefo, Oba Kosi Nwoba and the British Library. If you are an Igbo speaker, do please let us know if you spot any errors in the transcription or translation of the conversation between John and Nwile, or have any alternative interpretations! Please leave a comment here or email us at info@re-entanglements.net.

Conservation notes: Maiden Spirit mask

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria. Prior to conservation.
Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, in 1911. (NWT 390; MAA Z 13689)

[Re:]Entanglements project conservator, Carmen Vida, provides insights into some of the conservation techniques used to clean and consolidate a remarkable Igbo maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911, and how close examination can tell us more about the mask’s biography both before and after it entered the museum.

One of the most visually striking objects that has come to the UCL Conservation Lab in preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is an Igbo maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu-Nri, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911.

The maiden spirit (agbogho mmuo) is one of the most celebrated Igbo masquerade types. Although danced by men, the masquerades – manifestations of ancestral spirits – represent ideals of youthful femininity. The carved, wooden masks typically have fine facial features, with thin, straight noses, small mouths and light complexions, often decorated with uli designs or tattoos. They often have elaborate hair-styles, adorned with crests, coiled plaits and combs. They wear tight-fitting, vibrantly coloured and patterned appliqué costumes, which again evoke uli and other body painting designs. They dance mainly for entertainment, including at the annual Ude Agbogho or ‘Fame of the Maidens’ festival. Thomas collected two examples of the masks in Agukwu-Nri.

Left and centre: Agbogho mmuo (maiden spirit masquerade) as painted by Ben Enwonwu. Right: Photograph of Agbogho mmuo costume by G. I. Jones.
Left and centre: Evocations of the colour and movement of agbogho mmuo in the art of Ben Enwonwu; Right: Maiden spirit masquerade costume photographed by G. I. Jones in Awka, Nigeria in the 1930s.

The mask we have been working with is a particularly fine example. It has a yellow and white face with black tattoos or scarification marks over the eyebrows, down the forehead and on either side of the eyes. Great detail has been paid to the carving of the hairstyle and of a tall, elaborate headdress that comprises a crest, four combs extending upwards and two stands surmounted by birds in between. The crest is made up of a large diamond-shaped section that is flanked by two horns that support two curved sections with upturned bells above. The painted decoration on the mask used red, black, yellow and white pigments. At some point, probably in the mid-20th century, the mask has been secured with copper wires onto a wooden mount.

Northcote Thomas photographs of maiden spirit masquerade (agbogho mmuo), Awka, Nigeria, 1910.
Maiden spirit masquerade figures photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka in 1910-11, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. (Clockwise from top left: NWT 1965 (RAI 400.17808); NWT 1967 (RAI 400.17810); NWT 1977 (RAI 400.17819); NWT 2279 (RAI 400.15914))

Thomas made a number of photographs of agbogho mmuo dancing at Awka in December 1910 and March 1911, and also photographed the masks he collected in Agukwu-Nri later in 1911. There are no photographs, however, of the masks he collected being performed and we do not know for sure whether they had been used in dances before Thomas acquired them or if he obtained them directly from the artist(s) who made them.

Although Thomas did acquire complete masquerade costumes during his 1909-10 Edo tour, it does not appear that he did so on his 1910-11 Igbo tour. (There is a complete agbogho mmuo costume on display at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, but provenance is unknown.) That there were additional costume elements attached to the mask we are focusing on here is, however, evident from some fibres that remain attached to the rows of holes that run around the edges of the mask, especially in the area of the jaw and chin.

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria. Noting remains of costume attached.
Fibres attached to the holes around the edges of the mask provide evidence that it was attached to additional costume elements prior to being collected. Note also the museum label attached to the inside of the mask, recording the location in which it was collected and the Igbo name of the mask recorded by Thomas: Isi abogefi.

Unusually, Thomas made quite detailed notes about the mask. He records the name of the type of mask as Isi abogefiIsi meaning ‘head’, while abogefi may be a dialect variation or erroneous rendering of agbogho, meaning ‘girl of marriageable age’. He notes that the carved bird on one side of the head represents a black pigeon (ndò), and that on the other side a parrot. The central crest he records as isi nkpo umu nwayi, a representation of a headdress women wear for dancing. Thomas records the sources of the four pigments: the black (oji) and yellow (èdò) pigments are derived from trees, red (ufie) is from camwood, and white (nzu) from chalk/white clay. He goes on to explain that the mmuo comes out to dance at the feast of Anuoye during the dry season. Anuoye is a goddess of protection in Nri. He writes that the mmuo will only dance for half a day, once a year. He goes on to detail the sacrifices made to her, and how these are later cooked and redistributed by the young men who perform the masquerade.

Conserving Isi abogefi

In preparation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, the mask required conservation because there were issues with its stability and appearance that needed to be addressed. The initial condition assessment of the mask started telling us part of the history of this object. But it was by contrasting the object’s present condition with that recorded in earlier photographs that the tale of the object’s journey could start being pieced together.

Left: Photograph of maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri at the time of acquisition in 1911; Right: Photograph of the mask published in G. I. Jones' Art of Southeast Nigeria.
Left: Photograph of the Isi abogefi maiden spirit mask taken by Northcote Thomas at the time of acquisition in Agukwu Nri (probably against Thomas’s canvas tent). Note the coiled raffia bundle next to the mask, which was possibly placed as a cushion between the mask and the wearer’s head. The mask is propped up on a box file, no doubt used by Thomas for keeping his fieldnotes in order! (NWT 2934b; RAI N.76430). Right: Photograph of the same mask published in G. I. Jones’ The Art of Eastern Nigeria in 1984.

Comparison with the earliest photograph, that taken by Thomas himself in 1911, allowed us to establish that the mask had already been repaired before it had been collected (see our earlier blog post about this) and that Thomas seems to have acquired it without the costume element of which we found traces. Put together, these two facts lend more weight to the likelihood that the mask had seen previous use rather than being especially made for Thomas. Indeed, in the 1911 photograph one can also see a coiled raffia bundle, which was probably placed on top of the wearer’s head as a cushionbefore putting the mask on.

A later photograph of the mask taken for the anthropologist G. I. Jones, for his book The Art of Eastern Nigeria, published in 1984, shows the mask free of some of the damage now visible. Specifically, the losses to the lip, and the breaks and subsequent repairs now visible on the jaw and on the four combs are not apparent in the photograph for Jones’ book. This gives us an approximate point in time after which this particular damage and the subsequent repairs must have happened: post 1984.

Repairs are particularly clear on the back of the front left comb and on the front and back right combs too, because the adhesive used has aged and darkened. The nature of the breaks and the similarity in the appearance of the adhesive used in the repairs suggests at least one episode of catastrophic damage – a fall, perhaps? – rather than gradual deterioration. Having worked on this object I have also experiential knowledge of its instability as the top heavy crest makes it prone to tipping forward.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, noting damage to mask.
Left: Details of damage on the front of the mask that were not apparent in the c.1984 photograph in G. I. Jones’ book. Right: Detail of the back of the left front comb where the break and aged adhesive can be clearly seen.

All of the above has consequences for any future conservation of this mask: as the post-1984 repairs are relatively recent and carried out in the context of the museum, it may be acceptable to remove the darkened adhesive and redo the repairs should this become necessary. We would not consider doing this with the more historical repairs, which may instead be conserved themselves as a vital part of the object’s biography. Similarly, being able to date the more recent repairs to after 1984 may help identifying the adhesive used and the best approach to its removal. The option of redoing the recent repairs was not considered at this stage because the information only became clearer as we worked on the mask, but also because at present the repairs, although disfiguring, are stable and removing them now may cause unnecessary damage.

The hands-on conservation of the object started with cleaning. As with other objects collected by Northcote Thomas that we have treated as part of [Re:]Entanglements, there was much surface dirt, with dust and dirt accumulated in the crevices, recesses, and carved details of the mask. Some of this dirt was relatively easy to remove using standard museum vacuum techniques. However, on organic porous materials such as wood, if dust is left for a long time it can end up becoming engrained into the pores and harder to remove, giving the object a grey and dull look. This was definitely the case with the maiden spirit mask. So, first the loose dirt and dust were removed with a museum vacuum and soft brushes. This did not prove sufficient to remove the dull grey film of engrained dirt, and after testing the steadfastness of the various pigments, the mask was carefully swabbed with a solvent to help lift the dirt off its surface. This was quite successful and some of the original sheen of the surface was returned to the object.

The treatment then focused on the structural issues that were placing the mask at risk. There were cracks at the base of both the horns that attach the crest to the head. The crack to the front horn, in particular, seemed to go most of the way through and moved when handled. Both cracks were consolidated and secured by injecting a protein-based adhesive into the cracks with a syringe and holding them under tension in the correct position until the adhesive cured.

Video showing conservation cleaning and consolidation processes on the maiden spirit mask.

The stand which holds the bird on the right was very loose and unstable, and the historical repair there, which we discussed in an earlier blog post, no longer secured it. The iron metal sheet of the earlier repair also had a rusted surface and small losses to the bottom edge, as well as a nail missing, and even though the corrosion was not active, it was unsightly and was therefore cleaned off slightly. Flexible fills using Japanese tissue paper and a conservation grade adhesive were made under the metal sheet to pack the joint and secure the stand, and then tinted to match the colour of the mask in that area so that they would be largely invisible.

The surviving lip fragment was re-adhered and the old wooden mount has been temporarily raised with a layer of Plastazote foam, so as to lift the jaw off the ground and relieve the pressure exerted by the weight of the object on the jaw, which has resulted in cracks in the wood. A new mount will be made for the exhibition display to replace the existing one, which will definitively solve this problem.

Damage to the upturned bells on the top of the crest was also examined: two of the bells – the third and the fifth from the front – display losses. These do not present any risk to the stability of the object and therefore nothing was done other than cleaning. But a close examination of them tells of at least two episodes of damage. On the third bell some of the break edges are darkened and dirty, but there is also a cleaner and therefore relatively more recent break edge.  Reference to the photographs showed that some of the damage to the third bell, corresponding to the darkened break edge, was there at the time Thomas photographed the object in 1911 and therefore predates acquisition. Further losses have evidently happened between the time Thomas photographed the mask and the date it was photographed for Jones’ book. The fifth bell also has a small loss to the rim, with a dark break edge suggesting an old break possibly contemporary with the earlier loss on the third bell, though the photographs do not show this area and so nothing can be said with certainty.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, noting damage to mask.
Details of the damage to the inverted bell decoration along the top of the mask’s crest. Highlighted in red are the darkened break edges, suggesting historical damage that is also evident in Thomas’ 1911 photograph; highlighted in yellow are more recent, lighter break edges.

Throughout the conservation process, the mask gradually revealed more and more of its history, allowing us to speculate more confidently on how Thomas may have acquired it, guiding our conservation decisions, and helping us trace and even roughly date some of the damage episodes it has suffered after entering the collection. But it does not end here. As a result of this conservation treatment there is one more tale the object has started to tell us, and that could open another venue of information into this object’s past.

Left and centre: Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria, after conservation. Right: strikingly similar mask in collection of Art Institute, Chicago.
Left and centre: The maiden spirit mask after the conservation treatment has been completed. Right: A maiden spirit mask now in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago, which bears a striking resemblance to that collected by Thomas despite its ‘encrusted patina’.

During the research carried out on Igbo maiden spirit masks as background for the conservation treatment, a very similar mask was located in the Art Institute in Chicago (Accession No. 1994.315). The mask in Chicago is described in Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor’s book Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos as being covered in an ‘encrusted patina’ and its polychrome surface may have been lost, but it is nevertheless recognisably similar and uses the same motifs as the mask collected by Thomas, suggesting that it was made by the same artist(s). It also appears to have the remains of the costume element. This discovery may open the door to further research into the provenance and origins of the mask collected by Thomas and the role it may have played in Igbo societies before it entered the collection, and is a clear example of the affordances conservation work offers within and outside its own remit.


As noted above, Thomas collected two maiden spirit masks in Agukwu Nri in 1911. The second one was recently included in a virtual ‘Museum Remix: Unheard‘ trail across the University of Cambridge’s museums. Senior Curator, Mark Elliot discusses some of the untold/unheard stories associated with the mask in this video.

Maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Nigeria.
The second maiden spirit mask collected by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri in 1911. (NWT 391; MAA Z 13690)

Further reading

  • H. Cole and C. Aniakor (1984) Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.
  • B. Hufbauer and B. Reed (2003) ‘Adamma: A Contemporary Igbo Maiden Spirit’, African Arts 36(3): 56-65 + 94-95.
  • G. I. Jones (1984) The Art of Eastern Nigeria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • N. W. Thomas (1913) Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking peoples of Nigeria, Part I. London: Harrison & Co.

Traces of conflict in the archive

Men displaying fighting techniques, Awka. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911.
Display of traditional fighting techniques, Awka, 1911. Photograph by Northcote Thomas. NWT 2135; MAA P.30533.

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.

A police officer caught in the background of a panoramic photograph taken during Northcote Thomas's 1910-11 tour of Awka District
A police officer caught in the background of a panoramic photograph made by Northcote Thomas during his 1910-11 tour of Awka District. Detail. MAA P.39412.

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.

Oba Sule Idaiya pointing out the old site of Somorika, Edo State, Nigeria
HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, the Imah of Somorika, pointing out the original hill-top location of Somorika, Edo State, Nigeria. In a strenuous but very rewarding excursion, the Imah himself took us around the various quarters of the old town and we were able to identify many locations photographed by Thomas in 1909. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Chief Amadu Baio Conteh at Old Yagala, Sierra Leone
Section Chief Amadu Baio Conteh standing in the site of his old family home in the hill-top settlement of Old Yagala in Sierra Leone. Thomas visited the site when it was still inhabited in 1914. It was finally abandoned in 1954 and a new town created in a more accessible location at the bottom of the hill. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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.

Defensive structures

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.

Watchtowers, Awka, 1910-11. Photographed by Northcote Thomas.
Defensive watchtowers (uno-aja) photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. Left to right: NWT 1990 (MAA P.30422), NWT 2016 (MAA P.30442), NWT 2057 (MAA P.30480).

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.

Obu and watchtower, Awgbu, Nigeria. Photographed by Northcote Thomas, 1911.
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the obu and watchtower in Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2340, RAI 400.15967). Right: drawn reconstruction of the watchtower in Awgbu based on oral history accounts collected by Professor Ibeanu (Ibeanu 1989: 28).

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’.

Left: chief clothed in war dress, Sabongida, 1909; right: Ebisua dance, Fugar, 1909.
Left: Chief in war dress, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Sabongida, 1909 (NWT 883c, MAA P.28902). Right: Ebisua dance, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Fugar, 1909 (NWT 1058a, MAA P.29138).

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.

Warriors parading at a funeral while spectators look on, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. (NWT 2118, RAI 400.16068.)

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’.

Wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’. Recorded by Northcote Thomas in Awka on February 2, 1911, perhaps at the same event that he photographed. (NWT 438, BL C51/2681)

Thomas also appears to have arranged for some of the participants in the funeral to pose for him to demonstrate traditional fighting techniques.

Demonstration of fighting techniques, Awka, 1911
Men demonstrating traditional fighting techniques and displaying war dress, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Awka, 1911. (Left: NWT 2132; MAA P.30531; Right: NWT 2127; MAA P.30528.)
Shields collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria
Shields collected by Northcote Thomas similar to those in the photographs above. The example on the left was collected in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, in 1911 (NWT 244, MAA Z 14099), the example on the right was collected in Okpe, present-day Edo State, in 1909 (NWT 1865, MAA Z 13191).

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.

Uno Nko Nko with its large ikolo drum, Nibo
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ikoro drum in the obu in Nibo, 1911 (NWT 3089a; RAI 400.16463). This would be sounded to warn the community of attack. Right: the ikoro drum today. (Photograph by George Agbo).

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.

Divided allegiances. Left: Portait of ‘Obuana of Egwoba’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911. This was identified as Chief Nwaobuna, who is said to have protected Amansea from the attacks of Okoli Ijoma. (NWT 3452, RAI 400.20006.) Right: Portrait of Nwene of Amansea, 1911. He is said to have sold children into slavery. (NWT 3448, RAI 400.19999.)

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.

Pax Britannica?

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.

Left: Children at Okpekpe, 1910. Note the high defensive walls and the cactus, which was planted in dense clumps around towns in the region as a further deterrent to attack. Photograph by Northcote Thomas (NWT 1582, RAI 400.18518). Right: Godwin Gejele and Abdulnur Anidu translating Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings made in Okpekpe. Photograph by Paul Basu.
Recording made in Okpekpe by Northcote Thomas in 1910, thought to be the speech of a town crier. (NWT 302, BL C51/302.)

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?

Further reading

  • 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.

Collection notes: Ngene alusi figure

Ngene alusi figure, Awgbu, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Ngene alusi figure, collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. Now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. (NWT 378; MAA Z 14234)

One of the most impressive objects collected by Northcote Thomas during his 1910-11 anthropological survey of present-day Anambra State, Nigeria is this Ngene alusi figure. Thomas appears to have acquired this 1.25m high sculpture in Awgbu, about 11km south of Awka.

Thomas wrote a great deal about alusi (or alose) in his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria. According to Thomas this referred to a wide range of deities or spirits, which were subordinate to Chukwu, the supreme being of Igbo religion. Some, he explained, had personal names such as ‘Ngene’ or ‘Ofufe’, whose shrines were often located in large enclosures, sometimes surrounded by highly decorated walls. These shrines were the locus of weekly and annual rituals, sites for oath-taking and sacrifice. These deities are given material form in different ways, including through sculptures such as this Ngene figure.

In Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos, Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor note that in the area around Awka ‘sculptures of gods and their supporters are typically arranged against a shrine wall often hung with cult apparatus’ (1984: 89). The carvings, they explain, are rarely by the same artist – over time the figures rot, are eaten by termites or otherwise deteriorate and are replaced as necessary. They are repainted and re-dressed during annual festivals, when the community’s allegiance to the deities is renewed through feasting and sacrifices.

Inspecting Ngene alusi figure, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology
Left: Detail of Ngene alusi figure showing ichi scarification marks on forehead and white, yellow and red-brown paint pigmentation. Right: [Re:]Entanglements project researchers, George Agbo and Paul Basu, examining the Ngene figure at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores. (Photograph by Katrina Dring)

When we first located the Ngene figure in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores, we were struck at how fresh the carving and its paint was. Unlike such figures we have seen in situ, it did not appear to have accrued the signs that it had been installed in a shrine or used in rituals. We know that Thomas commissioned carvers to make other objects he collected, such as a large number of ukhurhe rattle staffs in Benin City, and we wondered if this was the case with Ngene.

Photographing Ngene in the field

Three interesting photographs of Ngene exist from the time that it was collected. During his 1910-11 tour, Thomas began the practice of lining up objects he had collected in front of a cloth backdrop and photographing them prior to shipping them to Cambridge. Numbers are set up alongside each object, and Ngene stands in a row of objects numbered 374 to 388, including two masks, a dance paddle, an iron staff for ozo title holders, two drums, an ogene gong, a rattle, a yam grater, dish, basket, cup and a mat used for carrying the dead. In total, Thomas collected 19 objects in Awgbu. One of Thomas’s assistants can be seen on the left holding the backdrop straight.

Northcote Thomas collections, Awgbu, Nigeria, 1911
A photograph by Northcote Thomas or one of his assistants documenting collections made in Awgbu prior to being shipped to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Note one of Thomas’s assistants holding up the backcloth on the left. The numbers, 374-388, correspond with those in Thomas’ collection catalogue. (NWT 2968; MAA P.31227)

There are two even more intriguing photographs of Ngene in an album held at the National Museum in Lagos. The photographs were made using Thomas’s Kodak Panoram camera, which had a swivel lens and created a ‘panoramic’ exposure measuring 7″ x 2¼” on 105 format film rolls. In contrast to the formality of the documentation photo of the objects lined up with their catalogue numbers, these offer a glimpse of humour, even frivolity, behind the scenes.

Panoramic photographs taken by Northcote Thomas or one of his assistants, captioned ‘Chief dancing’ in Thomas’ photo register. The Ngene figure and other objects in the formal documentation photograph can be seen in the scene. Note the children sitting on Thomas’s camp chairs, watching the scene, and one of Thomas’ assistants on the left hand of the lower image. (NWT 3995 & 3996)

In Thomas’ photo register, the images are captioned ‘Chief dancing’, and we can see two robed men in bowler hats dancing in front of an audience of young man and children, some lounging on Thomas’ camp chairs. To the left of the photographs is Ngene. It appears that a number of caps have been placed on its head, but they may be placed on top of the iron staff in front. Looking carefully, one can see other objects from collection documentation photograph in the frame, and indeed it appears musicians are playing the drums and rattle that also feature in the object line up. Again, one of Thomas’ assistants can be seen, smiling at the joyful spectacle, to the left of one of the photographs.

Notes on Ngene’s form

The Ngene figure acquired by Thomas in Awgbu shares many formal similarities to other alusi sculptures from the region, although it is also quite distinctive (it is less naturalistic than many examples). Like many alusi, it has ichi scarification marks on its forehead and a carved pattern on its chest and torso. It has a prominent umbilical hernia, a small penis, large nipples and carved bracelets and anklets. It is made from a single piece of wood and painted with white, yellow and red-brown pigments.

Formal comparison of Igbo alusi figures
Formal comparison of Ngene figure from Awgbu (left) with other alusi sculptures. The three figures on the right were collected, controversially, by Jacques Kerchache from the area around Awka in the late 1960s during the Nigerian Civil War. They featured in an exhibition Igbo: Monumental Sculptures from Nigeria in 2010.

The hands and feet of alusi fugures are often not naturalistic. As Herbert Cole and Chike Aniakor note, ‘One conventionalized feature of these carvings, the palms-up hand position, has meanings which contribute to our understanding of the deities and their cults. Informants report that this shows the open-handedness or generosity of the deities, as well as their willingness to receive sacrifices and other presents. The gesture also means “I have nothing to hide”, suggesting honesty and a “good face” (1984: 92).

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition, we will be recreating the line up of objects, including the Ngene alusi figure, as per Thomas’ documentation photograph above. These objects are being prepared for display at the conservation labs at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. The remainder of this article is written by Bill Mastandrea, a postgraduate conservation student who has been working on the figure.

[Re:]Connecting across time: Human hands and the conservator’s eye

by Bill Mastandrea

As mentioned in previous blog posts, conservation can help to provide a voice to objects which may otherwise have little to no context. Where objects are left voiceless, we run the risk of losing the valuable, humanizing information which surrounds them. It is these intangible facets of object biography that have personally interested me and propelled me to pursue conservation as a career. While the physical materiality of an object is integral, it is arguably its invisible stories which bring us closer both to it and to the people associated with it. Objects are not simply empty remnants of the past, but are living things, full of traces of what they have witnessed, endured, and experienced. While objects reveal different things to different people, the tools of conservation allow us to see particular narratives that others might miss, helping connect people of the present to those in the past.

As a post-graduate student in Conservation at UCL, the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project has afforded me the great opportunity to investigate and conserve this Ngene alusi figure prior to it being exhibited. Here I want to report particularly on discoveries made during the initial stages of the conservation process, including condition checking and visual examination under visible and ultraviolet (UV) light. My observations point to a particular episode in the figure’s life history, which will inform my treatment proposal and future work on the object.

Details of Ngene alusi figure, collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, present-day Anambra State, Nigeria, in 1911. (NWT 378; MAA Z 14234)

Condition checking of the figure began routinely, with investigation under visible light. The figure is carved from a single piece of wood and painted with white, yellow, and red-brown pigments and stands 1.24 metres tall. Intricate carving on the face, chest, upper arms, and stomach are interpreted as representative of scarification marks; and the carved rings around the ankles and wrists, bangles. Prominent areas of physical damage are noted on the head of the figure, where a non-terminal crack has formed, likely from fluctuations of temperature and humidity, and the right foot, which has been broken in two. Small flight-holes in the object are evidence of prior insect infestation, made by boring insects after reaching maturity.

Left: Photograph of Ngene figure taken probably in the 1930s held by the British Museum, showing the right foot apparently in tact. Right: The figure photographed by George Agbo at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018, showing the broken foot.

Comparison with historic photographs shows that damage to the foot occurred after it had been accessioned into the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology collection. The foot appears to be in tact in a photograph of the figure probably dating to the 1930s held at the British Museum. The crack in the head is already evident in that photograph and, indeed, on close inspection, it can be seen in the field photograph of the figure lined up with other objects. The crack appears, however, to have worsened over time. It is presently unclear when the insect damage took place. Remnant material on the break edge of the foot suggests that someone in the past has attempted to adhere the foot back together.

In order to investigate the historic repair to the foot, the figure was observed under UV light. Some materials, including those used in the creation of objects or in their repair/conservation, have characteristic fluorescence, which can help in preliminary material identification. The use of UV is a valuable tool for a conservator trying to ascertain whether a repair was carried out with an historically-used conservation material, or through a more traditional repair practice carried out by the ‘source community’ itself. When I inspected the repair on the Ngene figure’s foot, the material was crusty and flaky in nature, and barely visible against the colour of the wood under ordinary light. Under UV, however, the material flouresced a pale yellow-white colour.

Ultraviolet light Ngene alusi figure, damage to foot
Top: Detail of the figures broken right foot, showing sides A and B of the break in visible light. Bottom: Sides A and B of the break under ultraviolet light. Note the crusty, pale yellow-white material under UV.

This routine investigation into adhesive material on the figure’s foot under UV light led, however, to the discovery of something unexpected. Hidden in plain sight, but made more obvious by UV light, were a series of hand prints on the back of the left leg and on the back of the head. In visible light, they appear only as a clear, glossy film, while under UV, these hand prints fluoresce strongly, similar in colour to that of the adhesive material used on the foot of the object. What information is there for the conservator to glean from these prints?

Ultraviolet light Ngene alusi figure
Left: Back of the head of the figure in visible light (A), showing no clear hand print, and under UV light (B), where finger prints are visible. Right: Back of the right leg of the figure in visible light (A), showing an unknown clear, glossy material, and under UV (B), where the finger prints are more visible.

After discussion with the project conservator, Carmen Vida, and with Kirstie French, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s conservator, it was decided that non-destructive material identification of the adhesive material used to make the hand prints will be conducted. In order to identify adhesive materials, conservators use a number of methods, including solubility tests, microchemical tests and what is called Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). By identifying the material trace on the broken foot, it will be possibly to establish when and where the repair was likely to have taken place. And, by comparing this with the material of the hand prints, we will be able to ascertain if these were left at the same time as the repair or relate to another episode in the figure’s biography.

While we wait for the tests to be completed, we can only speculate as to who the hand prints belong to: Perhaps the object’s creator, or a member of the community? Perhaps N. W. Thomas himself, or one of his assistants? Perhaps a long-since retired conservator at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology? Other questions arise. Do the prints on the head and leg belong to the same person? Were they created at the same time? Their orientation may tell us more about how they came to be left. Was the figure being carried or set up straight?

Further investigation will hopefully provide at least some of the answers to these questions. For now, the hand prints remain an opportunity for personal contemplation. Tactility is an essential aspect of human experience, and one that is experienced by nearly everyone as we navigate through our world. So much of our past has come into being through the hands, as well as minds, of artisans, craftspeople and other specialists. At the very least, these hand prints add to the biography of the Ngene figure, instilling in it yet another story of lived experience with which we can connect.

Reference

  • Cole, H. M. and C. C. Aniakor. 1984. Igbo Arts: Community and Cosmos. Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles.

Experiments in language

Northcote Thomas experiments in language

Linguistic research formed an important part of Northcote Thomas‘ anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Prior to the early 20th century, most research into West African languages had been undertaken by Christian missionaries. In the context of the emerging colonial sciences, an understanding of local languages was not only useful in terms of communication with local populations, but it also served the project of mapping ‘tribal’ or ‘ethnic’ groups, their territories and their historical relation with one another.

The languages people speak and the tribal or ethnic group names they are given were often used interchangeably. In this respect, Thomas introduced a more nuanced distinction between language and ethnicity. The titles of his published reports therefore refer to the ‘Edo-speaking’ and ‘Igbo-speaking’ people of Southern Nigeria, rather than, for instance, ‘the Edo’ or ‘the Igbo’. Alas, this recognition that language and ethnicity are quite different entities was not reflected in the subtitle of his Sierra Leone report: ‘The Timne and Other Tribes’.

Northcote Thomas, Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria
Northcote Thomas’ own annotated copy of his Specimens of Languages from Southern Nigeria (1914). Cambridge University Library, Special Collections.

Collecting specimens of language

Methodologically, Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 were defined by practices of collecting and documentation. Thus, he collected ‘specimens’ of language in much the same way as he collected ‘specimens’ of material culture or, indeed, specimens of local botanical species. The use of the term ‘specimen’ carries an implicit assertion about the ‘scientific’ status of the anthropological surveys and the knowledge they produced, with its connotations of objectivity, rigour and authority. (Qualities that can, of course, all be contested.)

Northcote Thomas linguistic tour, Edo dialects, ,1909-10
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing dialectical differences in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

The process of collecting linguistic specimens included the compilation of word lists, phrases and stories. For this, Thomas enlisted the assistance of interpreters. Finding reliable interpreters was a considerable challenge and there is much correspondence on this issue in the Colonial Office archives, especially relating to Thomas’s initial tour as Government Anthropologist in 1909-10. We learn, for example, that Thomas regarded the first interpreter who had been assigned to him – a schoolteacher named Erumese – as ‘reckless and inaccurate’, while he was frustrated that his replacement – a Corporal Nimahan of the Police Force, who was ‘thoroughly competent’ – was obliged to return to his police duties after a period of four months.

Excerpt from Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part II: Linguistics, in which Thomas lists the names of the interpreters employed during his 1909-10 tour, including Erumese, Corporal Nimahan, Osidora, Ogbebo, James Smart, George, Oganna and Isuma.

Thomas named these interpreters and acknowledged the extent and importance of their contributions in his Edo report. Unfortunately, in his subsequent reports, individual assistants are not named, though there is no doubt that their contributions remained vital. The role of interpreters also went beyond providing linguistic assistance. In a letter sent in 1911, during his second tour in what was then Awka District, for instance, Thomas praised his ‘junior interpreter’, one Alfred Nwile, remarking that he has displayed ‘great intelligence and skill’ in collecting botanical specimens.

The actual ‘collecting’ of words, phrases and stories, whether by Thomas or his assistants, was done either through direct transcription into text or with the use of a wax cylinder phonograph recorder. In appendices to his Edo Report, Thomas provided guidance notes for colonial officials, including use of the phonograph in linguistic documentation, and advice regarding language transcription. He provided a list of 150 words and phrases for translation to allow for comparison across languages, as well as more detailed questions about language usage. These were effectively the same techniques that Thomas and his assistants used during the four anthropological surveys.

Northcote Thomas, linguistic notebook, Igbo dialects, 1910-13
Pages from one of Northcote Thomas’s linguistic notebooks, comparing differences in Igbo dialects. SOAS Library, Special Collections. (Click image to enlarge.)

Recordings and transcriptions

Thomas wrote up and published the results of the linguistic research from the surveys in various books and articles. These included volumes of his main anthropological reports dedicated to ‘linguistics’, ‘vocabularies’, ‘grammar’, ‘tones’ and ‘dictionaries’, as well as separate volumes entitled Specimens of Language from Southern Nigeria (1914) and Specimens of Language from Sierra Leone (1916), which comprise of pages of tables of words translated into different local languages and dialects. These works were distributed to members of the colonial service, as well as to university libraries. How many people actually read them at the time is unknown – one suspects not many!

Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples, Proverbs, Narratives, Vocabularies and Grammar
Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part III (1913), illustrating Thomas’s method of phonetic transcription and comparing dialect differences between Onitsha, Awka and Bende Igbo. (Click image to enlarge.)

Duplicates of the wax cylinder sound recordings were also made available at the Horniman Museum in South London and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford for scholarly consultation. Again, these seem to have been little used. The recordings have now been digitized by the British Library and we have been working with these throughout the [Re:]Entanglements project. In particular, we have been taking the recordings back to the communities in which they were recorded over 110 years ago, and it has been wonderful to witness as people listen to the voices of their ancestors and reconnect with this aural heritage.

In many cases, Thomas published transcriptions of the audio recordings, and it is fascinating to reunite these sounds and texts.

Experimenting with tones

Edo, Igbo and Temne are all tonal languages, in which lexical or grammatical meaning is altered by the pitch contour in which words are spoken. Thomas’s anthropological surveys took place at a time when the science of phonetics was becoming established in universities in Europe. Thomas was a friend of the phonetician Daniel Jones, who ran the Experimental Phonetics Laboratory at University College London. Jones had developed a method for determining what he termed phonetic ‘intonation curves‘ using phonograph cylinder recordings. Jones and Thomas worked together applying this technique to document the tonal changes in the specimens of Igbo speech that Thomas and his assistants had recorded during his 1910-11 and 1912-13 tours. According to Jones’ biographers, Beverly Collins and Inger Mees (1999), this was a pioneering piece of research on tone languages.

Daniel Jones, experimental phonetics, UCL, 1918
Daniel Jones demonstrating the use of the kymograph, an instrument for recording air pressure variations during speech. Experimental Phonetics Laboratory, University College London.

Thomas wrote up the experiment in Part VI of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, providing transcriptions with musical annotations for some of the recordings they worked with. The specimens of Igbo language they worked with include such memorable expressions as ‘Does the goat frighten the dancer?’, ‘He took an egg, cried for a cloth, passed the bridge’ and ‘He put his foot on her waist and caused a big palaver’!

Northcote Thomas, Tones in Ibo, 1914
Top: Pages from Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part VI (1914), providing a tonal transcription of phrases recorded in Awka Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 505 ‘Spoken sentences in Igbo’, recorded 1911 (British Library C51/2785). Thomas’s voice can be heard between the Igbo phrases giving the translation in English.
Top: Pages an article entitled ‘Some Notes on the Tones of the Ibo Language of Nigeria‘ (originally published in 1914), providing a tonal transcription of vowel sounds recorded in the Asaba Igbo dialect. (Click image to enlarge.) Bottom: The original wax cylinder recording from which the transcription was made, NWT 627a ‘Asaba vowel sounds’, recorded 1913 (British Library C51/2975). After Thomas’ introductory ‘ident’, the voice pronouncing the words is probably that of one of Thomas’ assistants, who also provides the English translations.

Orthographic debates

In his guidance for colonial officers, Thomas wrote that ‘For the collection of Vocabularies or native texts, two things are essential, one is, a certain amount of training of the ear, the other is an adequate system of transcription’. With regard to this system of transcription, he added, ‘the cardinal principles are, that each sound should have a sign peculiar to itself and that each sign should represent one and only one sound’.

At the time of Thomas’s surveys, there were a number of competing phonetic alphabets in use. Thomas used a system based on modifications to Latin script through diacritical marks. This was based on a Standard Alphabet devised by Karl Richard Lepsius for ‘reducing unwritten languages and foreign graphic systems to a uniform orthography in European letters’, published in the 1860s and recommended for adoption by the Church Missionary Society.

Northcote Thomas linguistic orthography and diacritical marks
Excerpts from Appendix A of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part I (1910), setting out the orthographic system that he uses for different speech sounds. Thomas explained in some detail how it should be used and modified. (Click image to enlarge.)

In a review of Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone published in the Times Literary Supplement published in 1916, the reviewer criticized Thomas’s use of ‘inverted vowels and coined accents’, which he found confusing and wondered if there were not a more simple system. This provoked a lengthy exchange in the letters pages of the TLS that lasted seven months, in which numerous authorities debated various issues concerning phonetic spelling.

In Nigeria, the Lepsius system was superseded, first, by the adoption of a ‘Practical Orthography of African Languages’, developed by the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures in the 1920s, and, subsequently – in the case of Igbo – by the Ọnwụ system in the 1960s. The Ọnwụ system consists of 28 consonants and 8 vowel sounds.

The Ọnwụ system of orthography widely used in Nigeria today, with equivalent sounds as represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet in square brackets.

N. W. Thomas, linguist?

As may be discerned in the discussion above, Thomas was as much a linguist as he was an anthropologist. In 1914, while he was working in Sierra Leone, he was asked to advise on the introduction of linguistics in the training of new Colonial Service staff. Candidates who passed the examination were entitled to salary supplement. In the National Archives in Sierra Leone we discovered a draft paper Thomas had prepared entitled ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’, which was evidently intended as a introductory text for teaching purposes.

Northcote Thomas Elementary Sketch of Phonetics
Handwritten manuscript of Thomas’s ‘Elementary Sketch of Phonetics’ in a correspondence file concerned with language training for officers in the Colonial Service, probably drafted in 1914. The manuscript includes annotated excerpts from proofs of Daniel Jones’ An Outline of English Phonetics (1918). Sierra Leone National Archives. (Click image to enlarge.)

In the event, it appears that this text was not adopted, and George Noel-Armfield’s book, General Phonetics for Missionaries and Students of Languages (1915) was used alongside reprints of the linguistic appendix to Thomas’s earlier Edo report. The latter was used as a guide for candidates who were expected to collect specimens of language from the colonial territories in which they served.

Thomas’s career as a government anthropologist came to an abrupt end in 1915 at end of his Sierra Leonean tour. He did, however, continue to write articles on linguistic themes, including a broader survey of what were then called ‘Sudanic languages‘ (languages of the Sahel belt) published in the Bulletin of the newly established School of Oriental Studies in 1920, and an attempt at reconstructing historical population movements through linguistic analysis in a paper entitled ‘Who were the Manes?‘ published the same year in the Journal of the Royal African Society.

Thomas also taught African languages, as an occasional lecturer at the Imperial Institute in London’s South Kensington, as part of the Tropical African Services Course. Candidates were evidently required to collect and transcribe language samples, as evidenced in a letter we discovered from Llewellyn Travers Chubb, sent to Thomas in 1925 from Bende in present-day Abia State.

Travers Chubb letter to Northcote Thomas regarding Tropical African Service course, 1925
Letter from Llewellyn Travers Chubb to Northcote Thomas, 21 February 1925, from Bende, Owerri Province, referring to Thomas’s teaching on the Tropical African Services Course in the autumn of 1924, and enclosing his word list assignment. (Click image to enlarge.)

Nothing of significance?

What are we to make of all this endeavour today? More recent linguists have been quick to dismiss the value of Thomas’s work. Betram Okolo, a linguist based at the University of Benin, Nigeria, argues that ‘nothing of significance’ was written on Igbo linguistics between 1890 and 1930, and describes Thomas’ efforts as ‘grossly inadequate’ and ‘misleading’. However, his remark that Thomas’ work ‘represents one of the most idle performances offered to the public on the Igbo language’ seems somewhat unfair. Indeed, it seems Okolo was not aware that the records on which Thomas conducted his tonal experiments were also recorded by him and his assistants over six years of fieldwork using primitive equipment in challenging conditions, or just how pioneering were his attempts with Daniel Jones at documenting tonal languages using ‘scientific’ methods.

Excerpt from Betram Okolo article, The History of NIgerian Linguistics
Excerpt from Betram Okolo’s article ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey‘, published in 1981, in which he dismisses Thomas’s linguistic research, perhaps without fully appreciating its vast scope or pioneering nature.

While we might contest the assertion that Thomas’s linguistic work was an ‘idle performance’, its entanglement in the colonial project cannot, of course, be denied. Joseph Errington argues that ‘Colonial linguistics needs to be framed … as a nexus of technology (literacy), reason, and faith and as a project of multiple conversion: of pagan to Christian, of speech to writing, and of the alien to the comprehensible’ (Errington 2001: 21).

Furthermore, as Judith Irvine has recently noted, ‘These early projects contributed to the shape of African linguistics as we inherit it today, and – as part of the colonial enterprise – they had effects on the lives of the African languages’ speakers’ (Irvine 2008: 324). This is perhaps most evident in the use of (modified) European scripts to render many of Nigeria’s and Sierra Leone’s languages, and in the use of English as their national languages, such that younger people especially are turning away from their local languages.

Revisiting Thomas’s linguistic research

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been collaborating with colleagues in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In a future article, linguists Gloria Tochukwu Okeke and Ogechukwu Miracle Uzoagba will report on their experimental research on dialect change, comparing Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings with recreations of the same texts by present-day speakers of the same dialect. Their fascinating work suggests that the value of Thomas’s recordings may lie in the future rather than in the past.

Dr Gloria Okeke of the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Nigeria, introduces her work exploring sound changes in the Awka Igbo dialect using Northcote Thomas’s historical sound recordings.

Selected references

  • Collins, B. and I. M. Mees (1999) The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin & New York.
  • Errington, J. (2001) ‘Colonial Linguistics’, Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 19-39.
  • Irvine, J. T. (2008) ‘Subjected Words: African Linguistics and the Colonial Encounter’, Language & Communication 28: 323-343.
  • Okolo, B. A. (1981) ‘The History of Nigerian Linguistics: A Preliminary Survey’, Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 6: 99-125.

Traditional Nigerian Folktales

Pages from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria; Part IV: Proverbs, Stories, Tones in Ibo (London, 1914). Click here to open in a new browser window.

In the early 20th century, the disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies were very close. Prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909, Northcote Thomas was a member of the Councils of both the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Folklore Society. Folklorists, in particular, documented traditional stories and songs, and Thomas had edited a number of such collections.

During his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded many stories on wax cylinder phonographs. He transcribed and published many of these in his Anthropological Reports and in articles in the journal Man. Other than regarding these as specimens of ‘native texts’ (though, of course, they were not ‘texts’ but oral traditions), he provided little explanation or commentary. Given that his surveys were intended to be of practical value to the colonial governments that were funding them, neither did he attempt to explain the utility of collecting the stories from a governmental perspective. As with so many aspects of Thomas’s surveys, while the value of the research at the time was unclear, the significance of the recordings as historical documents is now considerable.

The recordings are, however, challenging to listen to and the transcriptions and translations Thomas provided have many errors and inconsistencies. The potential for future research is immense. To illustrate this the [Re:]Entanglements project has worked with Yvonne Mbanefo of the Igbo Studies Initiative and Ugonna Umeike of the Department of Fine and Applied Art, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to bring some of the stories to life. Yvonne has rendered some of the stories into contemporary Standard Igbo, re-recorded and translated them, while Ugonna has illustrated the stories, drawing upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs for visual reference. Here is one of the stories Thomas recorded in Asaba in 1913…

Akuko onye isi, onye ngwuro, ogbenye na Eze

(The Story of the Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King)

Above: Ugonna Umeike’s illustration of the story; below: some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs used as visual references informing the illustration.
Northcote Thomas’s original 1913 recording of the story. NWT 613. (British Library C51/2930.)
Re-recording of the story in Standard Igbo. Transcription/translation by Yvonne Mbanefo; voiced by Oba Kosi Nwoba.

Otu nwoke onye isi nọ n’obodo ọ maara ọfuma oge oke ụganị dakwasara ya.
A blind man was in a town that he knew very well when a great famine befell him.
Ọ gara na be Eze obodo ahụ, wee yọọ ya nri.
He went to the king of that town, and asked him for food.
Eze nyere ya ji na anụ, ọ wee were obi aṅụrị pụọ.
The king gave him yams and meat, and he walked away rejoicing.
Mana tupuu ọ pụọ, Eze nyere ya ndụmọdụ, gwa ya ka ọ ghara ịgwa onye ọbụla na e nyere ya nri.
But before he went the king advised him not to tell anyone that he was given the food items.
Ọ pụwara, wee hụ onye ngwụrọ bụ onye oke agụụ ji,
He walked  away and  met the cripple who was very hungry
Wee gwa ya ka ọ gaa na nke Eze ka ọ nata ya ihe oriri.
And he told him to go to the king to receive things to eat from him.
Onye ngwụrọ gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya nri.
The cripple went to the king and asked him for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ nwere nri.
The king asked him who told him he had food.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye isi gwara ya.
He said it was the blind man that told him.
Eze weere ji na anụ nye ya, ka o si nye onye isi.
The king took yams and meat and gave to him as he gave to the blind man.
Ọ nyekwara ya otu ndụmọdụ ahụ.
He gave him the same advice.
Ozugbo nje, onye ngwụrọ wee jiri nwayọọ wee laa.
Immediately the cripple went quietly.
Ọ gatụrụ n’ụzọ, wee hụ ogbenye, malite kwuwe n’olu ike
He went a little way, then met a poor man and began saying in a loud voice,
“Gakwuru Eze maka oke nke gị; ọ na-eyere ndị nwere nsogbu.”
“Go to the king for your share; he is aiding the helpless.”
Ogbenye gakwuuru Eze wee yọọ ya oke nke ya.
The poor man went to the king and at once asked for his own share.
Eze jụrụ ya onye gwara ya na ọ na-enye ndị mmadụ nri.
The king asked him who told him he was giving food to people.
O kwuru na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze nyere ya ihe ka o sị nye Onye ngwụrọ, wee gwakwa ya ihe ọ gwara ya (onye ngwụrọ).
The king gave to him as he gave to the cripple, and told him the same word he told him (the cripple).
Ogbenye pụwara, wee hụ onye ohi.
The poor man went away and saw a thief.
Onye ohi yọrọ ya gwa ya ebe ọ nwetara ji na anụ mana ogbenye ekweghịị.
The thief begged him to tell him where he got yams and meat but the poor man refused.  
Onye ohi gakwuuru Eze ka ọ yọọ ya nri.
The thief went to the king to ask for food.
Eze jụrụ ya onye ọ hụrụ n’ụzọ.
The king asked him whom he met on the road.
Ọ gwara ya na ọ bụ onye ngwụrọ.
He said it was the cripple.
Eze jụrụ ya ma ọ nwere ihe ọ gwara ya, ọ wee sị mba.
The king asked him whether he told him anything and he said no.
Ọ gwara ya gaa n’ụlọ onye isi na onye ngwụrọ, zuo ihe ha nwere.
He said go to the house of the blind man and cripple and steal what they have.
Eze gwakwara ya hapụ ogbenye, ka a ghara ikpe ya n’aka Eze.
The king told him to leave the poor man alone so that he does not get reported to the king.
Onye ohi zuuru ihe onye isi, ma onye isi ahụghị ya, zuo ihe onye ngwụrọ ma onye ngwụrọ enweghi ike iso ya.
The thief robbed the blind man who didn’t see him, he robbed the cripple who couldn’t chase after him.
Ọ bụrụ na o zuuru ihe ogbenye, Ogbenye ga- ekpe ya n’aka Eze.
If he had robbed the poor man, the poor man would have reported him to the king.


Many thanks Yvonne, Kosi and Ugonna for bringing this story to life for us!

[Re:]Entangled Traditions exhibition, Nsukka

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
‘Red cap chiefs’ appreciating Chijioke Onuora’s large scale batik portrait of Ezeana Odigbo.

For 10 days in February 2020, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka hosted the third [Re:]Entanglements project exhibition to take place in Nigeria. The exhibition, ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’, was the culmination of a collaboration between the project and eleven artists associated with the famous ‘Nsukka Art School‘, as well as colleagues from the departments of Music and Linguistics.

Nsukka’s Department of Fine and Applied Arts was established in 1961 by Ben Enwonwu and was one of the earliest departments of the University of Nigeria. The Department became famous in the years following the Biafran War (1967-70) when luminaries such as Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu began turning away from Western art traditions and finding inspiration in indigenous art, culture and philosophy. In particular a number of artists began rediscovering and experimenting with Igbo uli body and wall art traditions. Northcote Thomas‘s photographs are some of the earliest and most comprehensive visual documentations of uli wall paintings. This represents an important new reservoir of traditional uli work and, not surprisingly, a number of the participating artists drew upon these photographs in their contemporary works in different media.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Visitors at the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

As with earlier exhibitions in Benin City and Lagos, the objective of the collaboration was to explore the ‘creative affordances‘ of the photographs, sound recordings and artefact collections produced during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria between 1909 and 1913. As the leading university in the Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria, the Nsukka collaboration focused on materials assembled by Thomas during his second and third tours – those focusing on areas of what are now Anambra and Delta states.

The collaboration began in 2018 with an open workshop to introduce prospective participants to the [Re:]Entanglements project and Thomas’s archival materials. Following a call to submit proposals, projects were given the go-ahead and provided with a budget to cover materials and expenses. A follow-up workshop took place in 2019 in which participants presented their works-in-progress.

The exhibition was opened by HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma, a well known female chief from Delta State. The Omu has been a close friend of the [Re:]Entanglements project since our visit to Okpanam. In a very moving speech Obi Martha Dunkwu told the story of how Northcote Thomas’s 1912 photograph of the Omu of Okpanam settled a dispute in which the Omu’s right to wear the red cap of chiefly office had been contested. The story illustrated powerfully how these colonial era archives could intervene in contemporary issues. The Omu explained that this was no small matter.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Scenes from the opening event with special guest HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu, the Omu Anioma.

There was a lively and well-attended opening ceremony in which each of the artists presented their work to the Omu and her entourage. The event was accompanied by a traditional music ensemble made up of students of the Department of Music under the direction of Ikenna Onwuegbuna, Head of the Department of Music. The music included versions of songs originally recorded by Northcote Thomas himself.

Re-entangled Traditions exhibition, University of Nigeria, Nsukka
Artist Chinyere Odinukwe introducing her work to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu and other guests at the exhibition opening.

In ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’, each of the artists took on a particular Igbo cultural ‘tradition’ – uli body and wall painting, ichi scarification, hair-styles, clothing, wrestling – that featured in Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. These visual references formed the basis of their experiments. In the following sections we present each of the participating artists’ works juxtaposed with some of the Northcote Thomas photographs that inspired them. The musicological and linguistic contributions to the exhibition are the subject of separate blog posts (see Revisiting some Awka folksongs).

Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo

Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo, 2019, batik, 396x207cm
Chijioke Onuora, Ezeana Obidigbo - Northcote Thomas reference
Listen to Chijioke Onuora discussing his training at the ‘Nsukka Art School’, his contribution to the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition and the significance of the N. W. Thomas archives.

Chijioke Onuora is Head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He initially trained at Nsukka as a sculptor in the early 1980s and was taught and influenced by many of the leading figures of the ‘Nsukka School’. Through this training he came to appreciate the traditional Igbo art that was fast disappearing in his village in the Awka area and made studies of shrine carvings. For his PhD in Art History, Onuora made an extensive study of ikolo drums, including their sculptural, musical and socio-cultural dimensions.

Onuora works across many different media, though he regards drawing – the line – as fundamental to all these. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ collaboration, he was particularly interested in re-engaging with Igbo ichi scarification, with its linear markings. As a child, Onuora encountered men – and, indeed, one woman – bearing these marks. Now he believes there is just one elderly man in his village who has still has the marks.

When he was introduced to the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, he was struck by the large number of photographs of men of all ages with ichi scarification. This has inspired him to focus on ichi in his ongoing work.

Onuora produced two monumental batik works for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition. The first is a portrait of Ezeana Obidigbo of Neni, originally photographed by Thomas in 1911. Onuora’s village was close to Neni and his grandparents walked every week to the Oye market there – the scene of some of Thomas’s most memorable photographs. The Umudioka community of Neni were specialist surgeons who travelled throughout the region making the ichi marks.

Chijioke Onuora, Nze na Nwunye ya
Chijioke Onuora, Nze na Nwunye ya, 2019, batik, 376x220cm.

Onuora’s second batik, ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, is based on a photograph taken by Thomas in Agulu of a mud relief sculpture of a male and female figure, and marks a return to Onuora’s earlier work on shrine figures. The male figure again wears the ichi scarification marks. In both ‘Ezeana Obidigbo’ and ‘Nze na Nwunye ya’, the central panel is flanked by two panels evoking traditional wood carving – symbols of prestige and status – also photographed by Thomas during his 1910-11 survey of what was then Awka District.

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 4x 101x101cm.
Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi, Playing with Time and Memory - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi discussing the history of uli at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, including his own engagement with the uli tradition.

Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi is a painter and Associate Professor in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka. He joined the Department as an undergraduate in 1987 and, like many students of his generation, was influenced by Uche Okeke and others who had rediscovered the uli painting tradition as a demonstration of Igbo cultural resilience, first as an indigenous response to European colonialism and subsequently in the wake of the traumatic defeat of the Nigerian Civil War. Ikwuemesi was encouraged to continue the work Okeke’s generation had begun and to conduct research with the last generation of women who created uli wall paintings in the traditional setting of the village.

Although much of Ikwuemesi’s work is more overt in its political engagement, providing commentary on the violence and corruption of contemporary Nigeria, alongside this, he continues to draw upon uli explicitly in his paintings. This he sees as a form of cultural activism. In particular, Ikwuemesi is keen to promote the popularisation of uli design, so that it reaches beyond elite art audiences and collectors, and returns as a popular form.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ikwuemesi drew upon Northcote Thomas’s photographs of uli wall paintings, merging motifs and linear forms from different locations, to produce a series of four acrylic paintings on canvas. The title of the series, ‘Playing with Time and Memory’, reflects both the long history of uli painting among Igbo-speaking people and his own part in that history.

Exploring Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting, Ikwuemesi was struck by the continuities and changes in the art form. Despite the ruptures of colonialism and war, he celebrates the resilience of cultural traditions, how people continue ‘to do old things in new ways’. ‘Colonialisation’, he argues, ‘did not take away the soul of the people or the soul of their culture’.

RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu

RitaDoris Ubah, Igbo Kwenu
RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah, Igbo Kwenu, 2019, appliqué, 305x144cm.
RitaDoris Ubah, IgboKwenu - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah discussing her translation of uli mural designs into textile art and her incorporation of N. W. Thomas archives into her teaching.

RitaDoris Ubah is a Lecturer in Textile Art. She completed her BA, MFA and PhD all at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Ubah’s aunt was herself a traditional uli artist. When Ubah started teaching at Nsukka, she realised that while uli traditions had been incorporated into other forms of contemporary art practice, including painting, ceramics and other graphic arts, they had not been explored in textiles. Thus Ubah was keen to bring uli into the curriculum, whether through weaving, embroidery, knitting or appliqué.

Ubah was particularly excited to discover the rich historical documentation of uli in Northcote Thomas’s photographs. As well as inspiring her own work, she has introduced her students to the archive and it now the subject of various class assignments. She describes the photographs as a ‘landmark resource’ and explains that every student passing through Nsukka is taught about it.

RitaDoris Ubah, Oje Mba Enwe Ilo
Some of RitaDoris Edumchieke Ubah’s fashion collection inspired by N. W. Thomas’s documentation of traditional uli designs.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Ubah produced several works, including a large appliqué panel entitled ‘Igbo Kwenu’, a second appliqué of a masquerade figure photographed by Thomas, and fashion collection featuring uli motifs from Thomas’s photographs. Ubah is particularly interested in the history of uli as a women’s art form, originally painted on the body. (The word uli comes from the plant from which the dye is made.) Ubah’s fashion collection, which was worn by models at the exhibition opening, represents an interesting return of uli to ‘clothing’ the body.

Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi

Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi, 2019, oil on canvas, 2x 61x76cm.
Chinyere Odinukwe, Akwamkosa Achalugonwayi - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chinyere Odinukwe discussing her work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chinyere Odinukwe took her BA and MA in the Department of Fine and Applied Art, Nsukka. She works mainly with acrylic paint on canvas, but also incorporates other materials in her work, notably salvaged plastics and metal foils.

For her [Re:]Entanglements project, Odinukwe wanted to juxtapose the historical and the contemporary by transforming the appearance of a woman named Nwambeke, photographed by Thomas in Nibo in 1911. (Odinukwe’s maternal home town is Nibo.) In order to do this, Odinukwe subtly altered the Nwambeke’s dress and jewellery – adding earrings, make-up and bra-top, for instance. In particular, she transformed her wrapper from a locally-made plain cotton garment (akwamkosa) into a dazzling contemporary fabric.

Odinukwe replaces Thomas’s plain photographic backdrop with a background inspired by one of Thomas’s photographs of uli wall painting.

Chinyere Odinukwe, Ulomdi
Chinyere Odinukwe, Ulomdi, 2019, oil on canvas, 76x61cm.

In re-imagining Nwambeke as a modern Nigerian woman, albeit one framed by her indigenous culture, Odinukwe draws attention to the transformed place of women in Nigerian society today. Odinukwe says that she has given this woman her freedom. She observes that, even today, some people are enslaved in their different ways of life, whether religiously, politically or pyschologically. Odinukwe argues that we should not be chained by our traditions.

Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie

Chika Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie
Chikaogwu Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie, 2019, photography, 178x114cm.
Chika Kanu, Isi Mgbe Ochie - Northcote Thomas references

Chikaowu Kanu trained at Nsukka as a sculptor. He is now pursuing a PhD in Art History, while continuing to develop his skills as a photographer, videographer and graphic designer. Familiar with the Nsukka School’s long-standing engagement with traditional uli art, Kanu was impressed by another form of body art that was very evident in Northcote Thomas’s photographs – hair dressing.

In his project for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Kanu sought to recreate some of the hairstyles that Thomas photographed. This proved to be a challenging task. It was not easy, for example, to find models willing to have their hair dressed in such remarkable styles. Others – barbers and models alike – assumed that Kanu would make lots of money from the photographs he was taking and thus demanded high fees that Kanu could not pay. Eventually, however, Kanu succeeded in collaborating with barbers and models, and displayed the results as a photo-montage in the exhibition. Kanu’s display drew a great deal of interest from visitors.

Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele

Ngozi Omeye, The String That Holds the Pot
Ngozi Omeje, Eriri ji obele, 2020, clay, nylon thread, steel.
Ngozi Omeye, The String That Holds the Pot - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Ngozi Omeje discussing her work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

There is a long tradition in ceramics and installation art at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, associated with artists such as El Anatsui and Ozioma Onuzulike. Ngozi Omeje is foremost in the younger generation of ceramicists at Nsukka. In 2018, when the [Re:]Entanglements project collaboration with Nsukka began, she was in the middle of producing work for her highly successful exhibition, ‘Connecting Deep’, at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.

Omeje creates sculptures by suspending small clay pieces – miniature cups, leaves, rings, balls, etc. – on nylon threads. Often her works are of monumental proportions. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Omeje echoed the form of an elaborated decorated clay pot photographed by Northcote Thomas by suspending miniature leaves made from clay. On the one hand, her use of leaves fashioned from clay allowed her to follow the form of the linear patterns on the pot; on the other hand they are expressive of the temporality of the archive – the play of ephemerality and permanence.

The title of Omeje’s piece, Eriri ji obele, refers to an Igbo aphorism – ‘the string that holds the pot’ (or, more correctly, ‘the string that holds the calabash’). Our lives are in God’s hands.

Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe

Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe (Struggle for Freedom), 2019, acrylic on canvas, 130x97cm.
Chukwunonso Uzoagba, Ogu Mnwere Onwe - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chukwunonso Uzoagba discussing his work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chukwunonso Uzoagba in a Lecturer in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka, specialising in graphics and art education. He has a particular research interest in Igbo rites of passage and ritual practice – aspects of traditional life that were thoroughly documented by Northcote Thomas.

When Uzoagba encountered the Northcote Thomas archives as part of the [Re:]Entanglements workshop at Nsukka, he was immediately drawn to Thomas’s photographs of wrestling matches. Wrestling was very much a traditional art form and part of festivals marking coming of age ceremonies. Combining various elements from different photographs, including a portrait of Thomas himself, Uzoagba wanted to use the wrestling match as a metaphor for the struggle of Igbo people with the forces of colonialism. The title ‘Ogo Mnwere Onwe’ translates into English as the ‘Struggle for Freedom’.

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice, Eze Nri

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice and Eze Nri
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, left to right: Nibo Lady Fashionista, 2019, 87x117cm; The Last Sacrifice, 2019, 95x171cm; Eze Nri, 2019, 93x120cm; all poly material, wire gauze and acrylic.
Chukwuemeka Nwigwe, Nibo Lady Fashionista, The Last Sacrifice and Eze Nri - Northcote Thomas references
Listen to Chukwuemeka Nwigwe discussing his work for the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition.

Chukwuemeka Nwigwe teaches art history, textiles and fashion at Nsukka. He has a particular interest in the history of Igbo dress and had already drawn upon the work of Northcote Thomas and other colonial-era publications in his PhD research. While Nwigwe made use of the small selection of photographs published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report of the Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, through the [Re:]Entanglements project he was able to access a vast archive of thousands of images relevant to his research. He was able to utilise these in a recent postdoctoral fellowship.

For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition, Nwigwe produced three mixed media works, experimenting with weaving techniques inspired by the nest-building techniques of the village weaverbird to create silhouetted figures of characters from the Thomas archive. He used silhouettes to reflect the mystery surrounding these characters, which can only be seen imperfectly in Thomas’s monochrome images.

The backgrounds of each panel are made from discarded poly materials – especially brightly-coloured polythene strips used to wrap motorbike tyres. Nwigwe explains how he collected these from roadside mechanics’ shops.

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within, 2019, tapestry weaving, embroidery, 3x 150x61cm.
Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko, The Beauty Within - Northcote Thomas references

Jennifer Ogochukwu Okpoko graduated from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2018 just before the collaboration with the [Re:]Entanglements project began. She specialises in textile design. As part of her undergraduate studies, she conducted research with traditional Igbo weavers in Delta State.

When Okpoko started exploring the Northcote Thomas archives after the initial [Re:]Entanglements collaboration workshop, she was excited to see photographs of uli murals from her hometown, Agulu, in Anambra State. She chose to feature one of these in her work for the exhibition.

Her piece, entitled The Beauty Within, comprises three large panels, each reproducing the uli mural using different textile materials and techniques. The first uses tapestry weaving using a limited palette of earth colours, similar to the colours that are likely to have been used in the original wall paintings. The second panel has a tiled form, in which vibrant colours are used in the tapestry woven squares, juxtaposed with the earth colours in the other sections. The third panel is mixed media using tapestry weaving and embroidery techniques to recreate the mural in bright contemporary colours.

Ugonna Umeike, Renewal

Ugonna Umeike, Renewal
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal, 2019, digital painting.
Ugonna Umeike, Renewal - Northcote Thomas reference

Ugonna Umeike majored in sculpture at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, but he has a wide range of interests including illustration, painting and digital art. Umeike was particularly interested in Northcote Thomas’s artefact collections and field photographs of traditional material culture. These he brought to life in a series of digital illustrations that were exhibited in the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ show.

Umeike also exhibited an illustration of one of the stories that Northcote Thomas recorded and transcribed – ‘The Blind Man, the Cripple, the Poor Man, the Thief and the King’ – which will be the subject of a separate blog post. Finally. he is working on a comic strip of another story recorded by Thomas.

Ugonna Umeike, Open;y covered
Left: Ugonna Umeike, Openly Covered, 2019, digital painting; right: charm collected by N. W. Thomas, used to keep owner from getting wet when raining.

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu, Mask with ichi
Left: mask featuring ichi scarifications collected by N. W. Thomas in Ugwoba; right: Livinus Kenechi Ngwu holding his freshly carved response to the mask in the N. W. Thomas collection.

Livinus Kenechi Ngwu is a Lecturer in Sculpture at Nsukka. He works in various materials. For the ‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions’ exhibition Ngwu carved a wooden mask using traditional tools and techniques inspired by one of the masks collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

The original mask, which was collected in Ugwoba in present-day Anambra State, is described by Thomas as ‘isi maun apipi’. On its forehead are representations of the ichi scarification marks.


‘[Re:]Entangled Traditions: Nsukka Experiments with an Anthropological Archive’ was curated by George Agbo and Paul Basu. We would like to thank all the artists who participated in the collaboration. Especial thanks to Chijioke Onuora and Krydz Ikwuemesi for championing the project within the Department of Fine and Applied Arts; to Chika Kanu for designing the exhibition catalogue; to Glory Onwuasoanya Kanu for coordinating catering at the exhibition launch; to HRM Obi Martha Dunkwu for travelling from Okpanam to open the exhibition; to Emmanuel Ifoegbuike for his invaluable assistance; and to Charles Igwe, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka for supporting the initiative.

See also the following posts on other contributors to the exhibition:

Ancestral Reconnections

Display of Northcote Thomas photographs in Nibo
Archival returns: Chief Edozie Nnama (Ozo Odenigbo) points at his great-grandfather, Ezeike Nnama, at an informal exhibition of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Nibo, October 2019. Photograph: George Agbo.

[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.


George Agbo discussing Northcote Thomas's photographs of Nibo
[Re:]Entanglements project researcher, George Agbo, discussing Northcote Thomas’s photographs in Nibo. Photograph: Glory Chika-Kanu.

Homecoming

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.

Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye, Nnama and email correspondence
Left: Dr Obianuju Helen Okoye looking at the photograph of Chief Nnama on WhatsApp; right: the confirmatory email, also distributed via WhatsApp to the extended Nnama family.

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.

Ezeike Nnama

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.

Northcote Thomas's photograph of Chief Nnama
Chief Nnama of Nibo, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1911. NWT 3006a & 3007; RAI 400.16496 & 400.16436. Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

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.

Nnama’s people

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.

[Re:]Entanglements project Flickr site
Screenshot of a page from the Nibo album at the [Re:]Entanglements project Flickr site.

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.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Eke, Aduko and Nwanna
Left to right: ‘Eke’ (NWT 3010; RAI 400.16505); ‘Aduko’ (NWT 3012; RAI 400.16502); ‘Nwanna’ (NWT 3028a; RAI 400.16394). Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

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.

Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi and Nwanna
Locally-made photomontage of 87-year-old Chief Lawrence Ogbuefi alongside Northcote Thomas’s photograph of his father, Nwanna.

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.

Uno Nko Nko with its large ikolo drum, Nibo
Left: Northcote Thomas’s photograph of uno nko nko, with its giant ikolo drum, built over the resting place of Umuanum’s founding ancestor, Anum Ogoli (NWT 3089a; RAI 400.16463. Courtesy of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Right: uno nko nko and the ikolo drum today. Photograph: George Agbo.
Obu Orjiakor, Nibo
Obu Orjiakor, the court house built by Chief Nnama’s father, Chief Orjiakor Eleh, in c.1856 and used by both Chief Orjiakor Eleh and his son Chief Nnama. Chief Nnama’s grave is just behind the obu. Photograph: George Agbo.

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.

Ngene shrine wall, Nibo, photographed by Northcote Thomas
One of several photographs taken by Northcote Thomas of the beautifully decorated walls of the major Ngene shrine in Nibo in 1911. NWT 3064; MAA P.31307. Courtesy of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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.

All Saints Anglican Church, Nibo
All Saints Anglican Church, Nibo. The original smaller church was built by Rev Joshua Orjiakor Nnama, Chief Nnama’s son. The larger church in the photograph was built by the community on on the site of the Ngene shrine, the land was donated by the Nnama family.

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!