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 noo!
Kedu ka ịmee?
Anọ m no 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.
Ọmaka 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.
Munwa bụ John ka eselu mu na ya na foto tata.
Ọ ya ka m fukwalu.
Okwu asi!
Mba, afulu m ya, hahaha!
D’anyị amuna amu n’ofu!
I na-asika asi nwoke m.  
Nwoke m, ọbụghị asi, afulu m n’anya.
Ọ dimma ebe I fulu n’anya na okwu adiro ya. K’anyị norisizi a 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 o bụ ndị-oyibo
Agwalu m fa, si fa na ndị-oyibo bialu
Ka fa kwadobe nd be fa nile.
Abụ m onye Ọnicha
Nnọọ!
Gị nwa onye Nibo.
Unu apụtachago ụla?
Ọ dimma.
Nnọọ o!
Kedu ka unu melu?
Anyị nocha nma nma.
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 I kene gị, gị daalụ o!
Si fa na onye-ocha si fa daalu o!
Onye-ọcha kenelu gị nma nma 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 bialu nkata bunu
K’anyi wee nolisia o!
K’anyi nolisia olili k’anyị naa o!
Hahahaha!
Omelu agaa du?
Nma nma ka o dị.
Ọ dimma o,Nkata nkata ka ọ bụ.
Ka ọ dị n’ofu.
Nnọọ o!
Ike agwubago m, ka m naa.
Eh?
Eh!
Ọ dimma, kachifo! Ka ọ dibazia!
K’anyị nolikwa, ikekwe anyị ga-afu ozo.
Nodu nma o!
Nnọọ o!
Ka o diba!
Ọ dimma,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.

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.

[Re:]Entanglements on the radio

[Re:]Entanglements on the radio
Click above to listen to SOAS Radio’s Professor Playlist with Paul Basu talking about the [Re:]Entanglements project and especially its work with Northcote Thomas’s historic wax cylinder recordings.

The [Re:]Entanglements project’s work on the historic sound archives from Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone has recently been the subject of two radio programmes.

Project lead, Paul Basu, was interviewed in November 2019 by Fred Molin for a programme on SOAS Radio called Professor Playlist. Like BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, guests are asked to select a number of audio tracks. Paul chose to talk about the [Re:]Entanglements project and selected a combination of original Northcote Thomas wax cylinder recordings from the early twentieth century, field recordings of communities’ responses when these archival materials are returned, and re-recordings of the original tracks sponsored by the project.

A programme about Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings and the [Re:]Entanglements was also broadcast on the German radio station BR Klassik in March 2020. This was the first in a series entitled Virtuelle Archive für Feldaufnahmen (Virtual archives for field recordings) produced by ethnomusicologist Helen Hahmann. The German-language programme, which also includes many clips of Northcote Thomas’s wax cylinder recordings, can be accessed by clicking on the screen shot below.

Click above to link to listen to the programme via the BR Klassik website.

For more on [Re:]Entanglements’ work with Northcote Thomas’s wax cylinder recordings see:

Ukhurhẹ – ancestors, archives, interventions

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhurhẹ ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by George Agbo.

The painstaking archival and collections-based research made possible through the Museum Affordances / [Re:]Entanglements project enables us to make novel connections between objects, images, texts and sounds, and opens up new avenues of understanding. Working with the material legacies of Northcote Thomas‘s anthropological surveys in West Africa provides insight into cultural practices of the past, challenges assumptions about colonial collecting, and presents possibilities for creativity and collaboration in the present.

When we first examined a remarkable assemblage of 39 carved wooden ukhurhẹ staffs in the Northcote Thomas Collection at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in 2018, we were immediately struck by the freshness of their appearance. As far as we know, they have never been on public display and they had the appearance of coming straight from the carver’s workshop – despite being at least 110 years old.

Brian Heyer provides a succinct summary of such ‘rattle-staffs’ in Kathy Curnow’s book Iyare! Splendor & Tension in Benin’s Palace Theatre. He writes,

When an Ẹdo man dies it is his eldest son’s duty to commission an ukhurhẹ in his honor. He then places it on the family altar as the only essential ritual object there. An ukhurhẹ consists of a wooden staff divided into segments designed to resemble the ukhurhẹ-oho, a bamboo-like plant that grows wild near Benin City. Each segment represents a single lifespan, and linked they are a visual symbol of ancestry and continuity. Their mass numbers on altars stress the importance of the group over the individual.

The top segment of the ukhurhẹ is hollowed by slits, a wooden piece remaining within. This acts as a rattle when the staff is stamped on the ground, a sound said to call the ancestors.

Ukhurhẹ topped by heads are standard for commoners and chiefs. Royal family members’ examples end in hands or hands holding mudfish. Only the Oba’s ukhurhẹ can be made from brass or ivory, though even most of the royal staffs are usually wooden, made by the members of the Igbesanmwan royal carving guild.

Northcote Thomas encountered these ukhurhẹ staffs during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo people of Southern Nigeria. They were – and, indeed, still are – an important part of the ancestral altars located in chiefly families’ palaces and compounds. Thomas photographed a number of such altars in Benin City itself and in the wider region. In Uzebba, for instance, Thomas noted that ukhurhẹ (which he spelled uxure or uchure) were known as ikuta, but fulfilled a similar memorial function – presencing the ancestors.

Northcote Thomas photographs of ukhure on ancestral altars, Benin City, 1909
Left: Ikuta at ancestral shrine in Uzebba, 1909 (NWT 546, RAI 400.15687); Right: Ukhurhẹ propped against the back wall of Chief Ezomo’s ancestral altar, Benin City, 1909 (NWT 160, RAI 400.17962). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute.

In his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, Thomas explains that these staves – also widely known as rattle-staffs – represent particular male ancestors. They are placed on the family altar after the death of the family head, once he has transitioned into the status of an ancestor. The ukhurhẹ is a manifestation of the ancestor’s spirit, and the family make sacrifices to the ukhurhẹ to honour and seek the intercession of their departed kin. Over the generations the staffs accumulate, alongside other altar objects such as ivory tusks, memorial heads, bells and stone celts.

Excerpt from Northcote Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 1910
Excerpt from Northcote Thomas’s Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria (London, 1910), describing the uchure (ukhurhẹ).

In unpublished notes, Thomas describes the practices surround the ukhure in greater detail. He describes, for example, Chief Ero‘s yearly sacrifice to his ancestors in which the blood of sacrificed cows, goats and fowl was smeared on the staffs. He describes how the ukhurhẹ propped against the wall at the ‘shrine of the father’ in Chief Ezomo‘s compound were stained dark brown due to these ‘repeated outpourings of blood’. He also reports that Ero could only give the names of two of the ancestors represented by the staffs, suggesting that the massed staffs come to represent the ancestors in a more collective sense.

In addition to the rattle-staffs found on ancestral altars, Thomas also documents the use of larger, more elaborately carved ukhurhẹ of community cults associated with various divinities. In October 1909, Thomas spent several days observing the festival of the Ovia cult in the town of Iyowa, a few miles north of Benin City. He documented the ceremonies, songs and dances in great detail. (This will be the subject of a future article). The ukhurhẹ of Ovia plays a central part in the festival as a manifestation of the deity itself. The figure on the top of the ukhurhẹ has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, which carries it.

Northcote Thomas's photographs of Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Left: Ovia masquerade holding the ukhurhẹ (NWT 1276, MAA P.29433); Middle: boys holding Ovia ukhurhẹ staffs for Thomas to photographs, note that the carved figure at the top of each staff has the form of the Ovia masquerade (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Cowries are offered to Ovia on the second day of the festival (NWT 1267, RAI 400.18370). Photographs by Northcote Thomas, courtesy Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Northcote Thomas's typescript notes on the Ovia Festival, Iyowa, 1909
Pages from Northcote Thomas’s unpublished typescript notes about the Ovia Festival, including description of the use of ukhurhẹ. Click image to enlarge.

Forty-four years after Northcote Thomas documented the Ovia Festival at Iyowa, another anthropologist – R. E. Bradbury – made a study of the same festival at Ehor, another village on the northern outskirts of Benin City. Bradbury writes that the ukhurhẹ ‘are the real symbols of Ovia’; ‘they are about four and a half feet high, carved with representations of the Ovia masquerades. They, more than anything else, are identified with Ovia herself who is sometimes said to enter them when she is called upon by the priests’.

Representations of Ovia on ukhure
Left: Detail of two of the Ovia ukhurhẹ photographed by Northcote Thomas in Iyowa (NWT 1253, RAI 400.18358); Right: Detail of Ovia ukhurhẹ collected by Northcote Thomas in Benin City in 1909 (NWT 296, MAA Z 20328). The carved figure has the same form as the Ovia masquerade, with its network headdress surmounted with parrot feather plumes, and crossed sticks beaten during the Ovia dances.

In The Art of Benin, art historian Paula Girschick Ben-Amos explains that the ukhurhẹ of these ‘hero deities’ are ‘different from the more commonly seen ancestral staffs, as they are much thicker and have the figure of a priest or other objects specific to the cult as a finial’. ‘The rattle staff,’ she writes, ‘is both a means of communication with the spirit world, achieved when the staff is struck upon the ground, and a staff of authority, to be wielded only by properly designated persons’.

It is interesting to note that Thomas did not collect any ukhurhẹ that had actually been used in rituals either on ancestral altars or in cult ceremonies. And this brings us back to our initial impressions of the assemblage of ukhurhẹ we encountered in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology stores in 2018.

Ukhure carvings commissioned by Northcote Thomas in University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
A selection of ukhure ancestral staffs collected by Northcote Thomas in the care of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Prior to our examination of the staves we had found an intriguing exchange of letters between Northcote Thomas and Charles Hercules Read, who, in 1909, was Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum. The letters show that Thomas was under the impression that Read had agreed to acquire the collections he had been gathering during his survey, reimbursing his initial outlay in purchasing them. It is clear, however, that Read was not interested in the kinds of ‘ethnographical specimens’ that Thomas was collecting. Writing from Benin City in July 1909, Thomas explained, for example, that ‘I have ordered all the “jujus” of Benin City to be carved, probable cost £25’. Read replied in August that ‘I am by no means sure that I want these modern things made to order as it were, unless they serve some definite and immediate purpose’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 1909
Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and C. H. Read of the British Museum, 14 July 1909 and 20 August 1909. British Museum original correspondence. Click image to enlarge.

Given the freshness of the carvings, we suspected that the carved ‘jujus’ Thomas refers to in this letter were the ukhurhẹ staffs, each surmounted with a figure representing a different deity or ebo. Confirmation of this came, by chance, a couple of years later, when we found a further reference to the carvings in correspondence between Thomas and the German anthropologist Bernhard Struck, curator at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Dresden. Thomas and Struck maintained a professional correspondence over many years and, in a 1924 letter sent from his home near Oswestry, Thomas provides detailed corrections and comments on an scholarly article Struck was evidently working on. In a digression, Thomas notes that ‘There are 30-40 ebo; I have commissioned [herstellen lassen] the uxure from Eholo nigbesawa. They are in Cambridge’.

Correspondence between Northcote Thomas and Bernhard Struck
Excerpts from a letter from Northcote Thomas to Bernhard Struck, 6 August 1924. Thomas was a fluent German speaker/writer. In the letter Thomas comments on the manuscript of an article Struck is writing; this seems to correspond with Struck’s essay ‘Chronologie der Benin-Altertümer’ [Chronology of Benin Antiquities], but this was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie in 1923.

Elsewhere in the same letter, Thomas explains that ‘Eholo nigbesawa’ means Eholo the woodworker [Holzarbeiter]. In fact, however, Eholo is the title given to the head of the wood and ivory carvers’ guild, the Igbesanmwan – and the name/title should be Eholo N’Igbesamwan. It seems, therefore, that Thomas commissioned the ukhurhẹ from Eholo N’Igbesamwan and they were either carved by him personally or by other members of the guild. According to the Historical UK inflation rate calculator, the estimated cost of £25 corresponds to approximately £2850 today, so this would have been a significant and lucrative commission.

The story of how the ukhurhẹ were obtained is important, not least since it challenges stereotypical assumptions that colonial-era collectors such as Thomas either looted objects from sacred sites or else exploited local craftspeople by paying paltry sums for their work.

Whereas Read saw little value or purpose in these ‘modern things made to order’, it appears that, for Thomas, this was an opportunity to assemble what he perceived as a complete set of representations of Edo deities in a traditional form. While many of these deities are associated with identifiable symbols or regalia, such as that of Ovia, Thomas may have been projecting his own assumptions about the distinct visual representation of each ebo when he commissioned them to be carved in this way. Perhaps the carvers even encouraged him in this belief! In the labels attached to each ukhurhẹ and in the corresponding catalogue of collections, each is given its name.

Excerpt from catalogue of objects collected by Northcote Thomas in Southern Nigeria, 1909-10
Above: Pages from the collections catalogue from Northcote Thomas’s 1909-10 tour, listing the names of the various ebo represented on the ukhurhẹ staffs; Below: Carved figures on the tops of the ukhurhẹ commissioned by Thomas, corresponding to the list above. Click images to enlarge.

Carvers still produce ukhurhẹ in Benin City today, and many families still maintain traditional ancestral altars in their compounds.

Ukhure for sale in carvers' shops in Benin City
Ukhurhẹ for sale in carvers’ shops in Benin City today. Left, the shop of William Edosomwan, Igun Street; Right, Emma O. Carving Depot, Igbesanmwan Street. Photographs by Paul Basu.
Ukhure on ancestral altar at Ezomo's Palace, Benin City
Chief Ezomo, James Okponmwense, shows us the ancestral shrine at his Palace. None of the ukhurhẹ are of particular antiquity. He explained that most of the shrine objects were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Photograph by Paul Basu.

As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we commissioned an ukhurhẹ to be made as a memorial to Northcote Thomas himself. We worked with traditional carver Felix Ekhator, who has a workshop on Sokponba Road, Benin City, just opposite the famous Igun Street. Felix’s first calling was as a professional wrestler, but in the late 1970s he followed in his father’s footsteps and focused on woodworking as a career. He made our ukhurhẹ in the traditional way from the wood of a kola tree, which is hard and durable. At its top Felix carved the figure of Northcote Thomas, copying his posture and clothing from a photograph taken on his 1909-10 tour.

Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Above and below: Felix Ekhator working on the Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ in his workshop off Sokponba Road, Benin City. Photographs by George Agbo.
Felix Ekhator carving new commission of ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator and the finished ukhure featuring Northcote Thomas, Benin City
Felix Ekhator with the finished Northcote Thomas ukhurhẹ. Photograph by Paul Basu.

The finished ukhurhẹ will be displayed alongside a selection of those commissioned by Thomas 110 years previously in Benin City at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition scheduled to open at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in April 2021. Our intention is to use contemporary artworks, such as Felix Ekhator’s ukhurhẹ, as interventions, disrupting conventional expectations of what an ‘ethnographic’ or ‘historical’ display should be, and provoking further questions. Should, for example, we honour Northcote Thomas, the colonial-era anthropologist, as an ancestor? Should we introduce his presence, his agency, alongside the cultural artefacts that he caused to be produced?

Mock up of [Re:]Entanglements exhibition display of ukhure collected by Northcote Thomas
Initial mock-up of the planned display of ukhurhẹ at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition. Felix Ekhator’s contemporary ukhure disrupts our reading of the historical ‘specimens’ commissioned by Thomas. Visualisation by Paul Basu.

We gratefully acknowledge a small grant from the Crowther-Beynon Fund that enabled us to commission the new ukhurhẹ from Felix Ekhator.

Listening to images, troubling the archive

Art Assassins, South London Gallery, Government Anthropologist
Photograph of Northcote Thomas and assistants at a meeting of chiefs in Neni to discuss a land dispute, 1911. Annotated by one of the Art Assassins as part of Emmanuelle Andrews’ free-writing workshop at the South London Gallery.

[Re:]Entanglements is collaborating with the Art Assassins, the young people’s forum of the South London Gallery in Peckham. As part of the project, the Art Assassins are working with a number of London-based artists and researchers with connections to West Africa. The idea is for each artist or researcher to use their creative practice to help the Art Assassins explore the Northcote Thomas collections and archives, and consider its relevance for young people in South London today. The Art Assassins’ work will culminate in an exhibition at the South London Gallery, which they will curate themselves.

The first researcher-in-residence to collaborate with the group is Emmanuelle Andrews. Emmanuelle is a researcher and social justice advocate, specialising in the human rights of LGBTI+ people across the Commonwealth, where the criminalisation of same-sex intimacy exists predominantly as a result of colonial-era laws. Domestically, Emmanuelle focuses on racial justice and community resilience, researching issues such as the 2011 London Riots and the Notting Hill Carnival as well as exploring solidarity-making across histories of black radical movements, as in her film Coming to Love.

Since October Emmanuelle has been guiding the Art Assassins through provocative encounters with Northcote Thomas’ work and its legacy. Through discussion and creative exercises she has challenged the group to confront the archive as a method for reflecting on their own entanglements with colonialism. In this guest blog post Emmanuelle looks back on her experience working with the Art Assassins.

Northcote Thomas photograph, Oshodi's brothers, Benin City, 1909
The ‘anthropological gaze’ returned. Photograph of ‘Oshodi’s brothers’, Benin City, taken by Northcote Thomas, 1909. NWT 310. RAI 400.15461.

Confronting the disciplines

In my first encounter with the Art Assassins I began with sharing a personal reflection on a visit to the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) with Paul Basu, leader of the [Re:]Entanglements project and Professor of Anthropology at SOAS University of London. Having studied Anthropology and Law for my undergraduate degree, before studying a Masters in Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, this experience was a (re)visit to my disciplinary ‘home’: Anthropology. What I wanted to encapsulate to the Art Assassins was the feeling of lacking belonging here and the field of Anthropology as one that invites, for a black women like myself, a visceral combustion of self and other, as I reflected on my position as being a recipient of the colonial anthropological gaze, as well as potentially an instigator of it. Sitting in the RAI, I considered the historical reality that I was never meant to be there in this form – valued (at least originally) as the ‘viewed’ and not the ‘viewer.’ I hoped to bring to the forefront for the Art Assassins the fact that any dabbling in Northcote Thomas’ work will always be personal, as our very beings refract through the colonial archive.

During my visit to the RAI, I also looked at the collection of Thomas’ plate glass negatives, and handled some of his photographic registers, in which he categorised and annotated the images. Afterwards, I joined the Art Assassins at the British Library Sound Archive where we explored its collection of Thomas’s and other historical ethnographic and ethnomusicological wax cylinder recordings. You can read more about our visit here.

SLG Art Assassins, Emmanuelle Andrew's screening of Faces|Voices film
The Art Assassins viewing Faces|Voices, directed by Paul Basu and Chris Allen, during Emmanuelle Andrews’s first workshop at the South London Gallery.

Listening to images

The visit to RAI and the British Library Sound Archive inspired me to begin my first workshop with the Art Assassins at the intersection of sound and image. I invited the group on a journey through the archive by other means: through a privileging of the senses that confront Western ontology’s desires to judge knowledge through the rationale of scientific certainty.

Watching the beautiful and award-winning film, Faces|Voices, produced as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, and featuring the film’s participants voicing their responses to Northcote Thomas’ photographic archive, I moved the group to consider whether Thomas’s images were necessarily ‘silent’ in the first place. (In what ways are these images silent? For whom? In what languages?)

Drawing the link between Anthropology’s motivation of filling supposed gaps about distant others and the related violence of Western knowledge-making, I used the film as a starting point to complicate questions of who, in the colonial anthropological project, had voice and who were silenced. I wanted to push the Art Assassins away from a simple reading of Northcote Thomas as the powerful agent of colonialism and his subjects as agentless victims. While we cannot, and should not, ignore the colonial context of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys, it became clear that we can achieve this without reproducing its grammars of violence.

Tina M Campt, Listening to Images book
Tina M. Campt’s inspirational book, Listening to Images (Duke University Press, 2017).

To ground this reading, I introduced the group to Tina M. Campt’s concept of ‘listening to images’, which she describes as both…

a description and a method … [It] opens up the radical interpretive possibilities of images …. To ‘listen to’ rather than simply ‘look at’ images is a conscious decision to challenge the equation of vision with knowledge by engaging photography through a sensory register that is critical to Black Atlantic cultural formations: sound.

Resisting the practice, then, of allowing the eyes to ‘read’ silence in Northcote Thomas’ ‘voiceless’ photographic archive, we instead privileged alternative frequencies by listening closely to the images and expressing our discoveries in a free-writing exercise. Rather than finding misery in the archive, the Art Assassins wrote of joy, talent, romance and longing. It is here that the ‘low hum’of resistance to the colonial project might be found.

Art Assassins, South London Gallery, Free-writing exercise
Free-writing workshop with the Art Assassins, South London Gallery.
Art Assassins, South London Gallery, Free-writing with Northcote Thomas archive
Examples of the Art Assassins’ free-writing engagements with Northcote Thomas’s photographic archive. Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge.
The Art Assassins are making a film about their explorations of the Northcote Thomas archive. At each of their meetings, they take it in turn to make video diaries recording their experiences. Here Fatima reflects on the free-writing exercise.

Confronting Northcote Thomas

Since the Art Assassins’ experience of Northcote Thomas had hitherto been exclusively through the archives of his anthropological surveys, I felt it was important to separate Thomas, the man, from his professional role as Government Anthropologist. Drawing on Paul Basu’s article ‘N. W. Thomas and Colonial Anthropology in British West Africa’, I attempted to take the Art Assassins on a journey that simultaneously elucidated what anthropological methodology looked like in practice, and lead the Art Assassins to reflect on whether we might potentially decolonize the anthropological tradition through making Northcote Thomas the object of inquiry.

SLG Art Assassins, Emmanuelle Andrew's presentation Uncovering Northcote Thomas
Complicating our understanding of the Government Anthropologist. Emmanuelle Andrews making a presentation about Northcote Thomas to the Art Assassins at the South London Gallery.

Looking into his controversial legacy as illustrated by the comments made by Thomas’ peers as well as contemporary anthropologists, we considered how we might learn about Thomas and the period he was working in through various lenses, such as medical anthropology, or critical race theory.

Considering tales spread by his dissenters that he was ‘a recognised maniac in many ways’ (what might this tell us about the stigma of mental health in the 19th/20th century?) and the accusation that he brought ‘a certain amount of discredit upon the white man’s prestige’ (how might this complicate our understanding of Northcote Thomas as a puppet of the colonial state?), we were confronted with the possibility that we might in fact sympathise with Thomas, or at least consider him in a new light, particularly given the fact that he was sometimes a nuisance to the colonial project.

I encouraged us all to sit with the discomfort of these findings, whilst at the same time question what was at stake with any attempt to view him as a human being with the flaws and quirks of any other.

The unfolding discussion was rich, with the Art Assassins demonstrating yet again their interest in, and talent for, dealing with theoretically difficult concepts and disciplinary interrogations, such as whether anthropology was really the appropriate discipline to confront some of the challenges we were facing.

SLG Art Assassins, notes
Notes from the session with Emmanuelle Andrews made by the Art Assassins.

We all left the session buzzing with questions. Northcote Thomas had gone to Nigeria and Sierra Leone to find answers and provide solutions, and we realised that in order to ethically embark on this project, we had to part with the ideal of knowledge as a signifier of value. Surprising a lesson it may be, coming from someone who embodies the role of researcher-in-residence, we nonetheless learned that it is our ability to sit with uncomfortable questions that can provide the most intellectual and creative freedom and, hopefully, culminate in a practice that truly is decolonial.

Art Assassins, Ivo and Nathan, reflect on how their understanding of the colonial archive and how it can be decolonized have changed through the workshops.

Panoramic photography and photographic excess

Northcote Thomas panoramic photograph, Nigeria 1910-13
Panoramic photograph made by N. W. Thomas using the Kodak No.1 Panoram camera, Nigeria, 1910-13. Print from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, P.39431.

Northcote Thomas used a number of different cameras during his four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915. During his first tour, in Edo-speaking areas of Nigeria, his equipment list included a Hunter & Sands Tropical camera and a Goerz camera. On his three subsequent tours, in Igbo-speaking areas of Nigeria and in Sierra Leone, however, his photographic kit included three cameras: an Adams Videx camera, a Stereoscopic camera, and a Kodak Panoram camera. The majority of Thomas’s photographs were taken on quarter plate glass negatives on the Videx, but it is clear that Thomas experimented with both stereoscopic photography, also using quarter plates, and panoramic shots using the Kodak Panoram, which used 105 format roll film.

Through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have been systematically digitising all of N. W. Thomas’s photographic negatives and prints with our partners at the Royal Anthropological Institute and University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. Until recently, we believed that only Thomas’s quarter plate glass negatives and corresponding prints had survived. However, we were excited to discover quite a number of his panoramic prints in the collections in the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. On a recent research visit to the National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria, we were also delighted to find a number of these panoramic prints mounted in one of the photograph albums produced during Thomas’s surveys.

Northcote Thomas photograph album in National Museum, Lagos collection
Page of panoramic photographs from one of the albums produced during N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria. Originally deposited in the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, the albums are now in the care of the National Museum, Lagos.

The Kodak No.1 Panoram camera, which Thomas used, was manufactured between 1900 and 1926. The camera had a swinging lens, which took 3.5 x 12 inch exposures across a 112 degree arc on 105 film stock. An advertisement of the time asserts that ‘The pictures taken by these instruments have a breadth and beauty not attainable with the ordinary camera. The wide scope of view makes the Panoram excellent for taking landscapes, as it can cover a wide area without the distortion incident to the use of wide angle lenses’. There is an excellent article on the Kodak No.1 Panoram at Mike Eckman Dot Com.

Kodak No.1 Panoram camera
Kodak No.1 Panoram camera. The picture on the right shows a close-up of the Panoram’s ‘swing lens’, which turned 120 degrees when the shutter was released.

The more we explore Northcote Thomas’s fieldwork photography, the more we learn how innovative he was for the time. For example, during his 1910-11 tour in what was then Awka District, he experimented with using two cameras simultaneously to photograph a scene from different angles. This technique would, of course, become an important technique in cinematography. (The earliest known example of a two-camera set up in cinema was the 1911 Russian film Defence of Sevastopol.) In the example here, we can see that Thomas and his assistants simultaneously photographed what is described as the Ogugu ceremony at Agulu, south of Awka, using both the Adams Videx and Kodak Panoram cameras.

Ogugu ceremony, Agulu, Nigeria. Photograph by Northcote Thomas, 1910-11.
Ogugu ceremony, Agulu, Southern Nigeria. Photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1910-11 onto quarter plate glass negative using the Adams Videx camera. Print from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, P.30566 (NWT 2170).

In the resultant sequences of photographs there is a further intrigue, which speaks of the ‘excess’ of the photographic image, and particularly the peripheral presences that creep into the frame without the photographer’s awareness. Of over 7,000 photographs in the archive, there are perhaps only three or four that intentionally show something of the process of Thomas’s anthropological survey work. It is only through this photographic excess that we catch glimpses of the endeavor.

To date, then, the only photographs we have seen in which we glimpse Northcote Thomas behind the camera are the reverse shots of the Ogugu ceremony at Agulu taken by one of his assistants on the Kodak Panoram. In the background of the panoramic shot we see Thomas stood behind the tripod mopping his brow together with three of his assistants and items of his kit strewn around. A rare insight into the anthropologist-photographer at work.

Ogugu ceremony, Agulu, Nigeria. Northcote Thomas in background behind camera, 1910-11.
Ogugu ceremony, Agulu, Southern Nigeria. ‘Reverse angle’, photographed by one of Thomas’s assistants in 1910-11 using the Kodak Panoram camera. Note Thomas, behind the camera tripod, and assistants caught in the background (see detail). Print from the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, P.39450.

Peripheral presences: N. W. Thomas’s Field Assistants

Assistant with umbrella. Peripheral presences in N. W. Thomas's anthropological photography. NWT 194b, 195a, 196a and 200a.
One of N. W. Thomas’s assistants, probably John Osakbo, as a peripheral presence at the edge of the frame in a series of physical type portraits photographed in Benin City in 1909. NWT 194b, 195a, 196a, 200a.

The image of the anthropologist as a heroic, lone fieldworker, battling through adversity in order to single-handedly document disappearing customs and rituals is a tenacious myth. Some anthropologists intentionally portrayed themselves in such terms. Malinowski‘s 1922 monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, famously begins with the lines: ‘Imagine yourself, suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which brought you sails away out of sight’. In fact, we know that anthropological fieldwork is – and always has been – a highly collaborative endeavour. The important role of fieldwork collaborators – including fixers, brokers, assistants, interpreters and other participants – has, however, often gone unacknowledged. A notable exception was Franz Boas, who acknowledged his debt to his Tlingit-speaking assistant, George Hunt, who collected much of the data on which Boas’s publications were based.

N. W. Thomas was undoubtedly an energetic fieldworker, travelling extensively in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the course of some 55-months of anthropological survey work between 1909 and 1915. While Thomas was the sole author of the various reports and publications that resulted from this research, and is credited with assembling the thousands of photographs and sound recordings, and extensive collections of artefacts, botanical specimens and linguistic materials that are the legacy of these surveys, it is clear that this could not be the work of just one man. But who accompanied Thomas on his travels? How many assistants did he have? What roles did they play? One has to look hard to find a trace of such collaborators in the archives of Thomas’s surveys – but they can occasionally be glimpsed as peripheral presences.

This peripheral presence is most literally manifest when Thomas’s assistants appear at the edge of the photographic frame, holding a number board, supporting the photographic background sheet, or diffusing the sunlight with an umbrella. Many of Thomas’s photographic negatives are loosely framed, allowing peripheral detail to creep into the picture. The intention would have been to crop these images prior to publication, removing the traces of their co-production. As an experiment, such photographs can be differently cropped, placing the peripheral presences in the centre of the frame.

Peripheral presences. Details of N. W. Thomas photographs NWT 427 and 959.
Placing the peripheral presence in the centre of the frame. Again, probably John Osakbo, described by N. W. Thomas as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’. NWT 427, 959.

Represencing Thomas’s fieldwork collaborators also entails recognising their trace elsewhere in the archive. In negative number NWT 261, a photograph of a group of Hausa musicians and dancers taken in Benin City in 1909, an assistant can be seen on the verandah making notes in what appears to be Thomas’s photographic register. These register books survive in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute and, indeed, the handwriting on these pages is not Thomas’s. Has the act of writing this very register entry been captured at the periphery of the frame?

Peripheral presences in N. W. Thomas's anthropological photography. NWT 261.
Left: A group of Hausa musicians and dancers, photographed in Benin City in 1909. Right: Detail showing figure on the verandah at the right edge of the frame, and of the photographic register entry he appears to be writing. NWT 261.

Within the photographic archive of the anthropological surveys, there are just five photographs of N. W. Thomas himself. These were likely taken by Thomas’s field assistants. In one intriguing pair of photographs, taken at the same location, it appears that Thomas and one of his assistants – probably Corporal Nimahan (see below) – have taken it in turns to photograph one another. This raises the question as to how many other photographs in the archive might have been taken by Thomas’s assistants rather than by Thomas himself.

N. W. Thomas (left) and an unnamed field assistant, possibly Corporal Nimahan, 1909.
Left: N. W. Thomas, possibly photographed by Thomas’s interpreter, Corporal Nimahan. Right: Unnamed assistant wearing corporal’s stripes (possibly Corporal Nimahan), probably photographed by N. W. Thomas. RAI 400.38267, 400.38292.

There appears to be only one entry in Thomas’s photographic register books in which it is noted that an assistant has taken a photograph. Thus photograph NWT 283 is described as ‘Burial of Legema, 26.3.09’. Evidently a sequence of four photographs was taken under this same number: 3 and 4 ‘by N.W.T.’, 5 and 6 ‘by John’. In fact we know a little more about ‘John’ compared with Thomas’s other assistants. This was evidently John Osakbo of Benin City. In a surviving letter from Thomas to the Colonial Office, sent from London in May 1910 after the completion of his first anthropological tour, Thomas requests that this assistant be paid a ‘retaining fee’ of £1 a month until his return to West Africa. Thomas describes John Osakbo as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’, but notes that he was illiterate, and that the retaining fee should be paid on condition that he learn to read and write, and that he should also ‘receive training in photography’. It appears that Thomas’s request was granted. Thomas also recorded a phonograph of John Osakbo playing a song on a high-pitched woodwind instrument. Thomas’ voice can be heard at the start of the wax cylinder recording (NWT 16; BL C51/2164), ‘…song played by my servant, John, February 10th, 1909’.

 

It is likely that the number of individuals who accompanied N. W. Thomas on his travels varied from tour to tour. He travelled with camp equipment as well as photographic kit, phonograph and much else and would therefore have needed carriers. He seems to have travelled on foot, on bicycle and by hammock. In a letter to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, written in 1928, recalling the collecting of vernacular names of plant species in Sierra Leone, Thomas mentions that Temne and Mende plant names were obtained from his hammock boys, and that they had been recruited in Freetown. Thomas relied on the assistance of interpreters, not only in his day-to-day interactions with people in the communities he visited, but also in compiling vocabularies and other linguistic data. In the preface to Part II of Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, concerned with linguistics, Thomas provides a list of the interpreters with whom he worked during his first tour and explaining the methodology he employed. Their names are: Erumese (Edo/Benin City), Nimahan (Kukuruku and Ishan), Osidora (Agbede and Kukuruku), Ogbedo (Edo/Benin City), James Smart (Sobo), George, Oganna and Isuma (Kukuruku). Nimahan was a corporal of the Southern Nigeria Police, and appears to have acted as both official interpreter and as representative of colonial authority. In Part III of Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone: Timne Grammar and Stories, Thomas notes that the first twelve stories published in the book ‘were recorded from the mouth of various members of my staff’.

In conclusion, by attending to their peripheral presences in the archive, it is clear that N. W. Thomas was not a lone fieldwork, but was accompanied and assisted in his anthropological survey work by an entourage of collaborators. While further work needs to be done to identify both the names and full range of activities they undertook, it is evident that their roles were fluid (‘hammock boys’, for example, provided ethnographic and linguistic information and did not simply transport the anthropologist on his itinerations). These collaborators were not peripheral to the anthropological project, but were in fact central to the endeavour. Hopefully, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to identify more of N. W. Thomas’s Nigerian and Sierra Leonean collaborators, and correct the erroneous impression that Thomas was single-handedly responsible for assembling this remarkable ethnographic archive.

Northcote Thomas, Benin Kingship and the Interregnum

Chief Obaseki, Benin City, 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas (NWT 52; RAI 400.17873)
Chief Obaseki, photographed in Benin City by N. W. Thomas in 1909. Philip Igbafe describes Obaseki as the most prominent Benin chief during the interregnum, and close to the British colonial administration. (NWT 52; RAI 400.17873)

Earlier generations of anthropologists have been criticised for their failure to properly account for the historical contingencies that frame the context of their fieldwork. In their writing they often represented the societies they studied as if they existed outside of time, evoking customs and cultural practices as if they had remained unchanged over the centuries. For anthropologists of Northcote Thomas’s generation, there was a further paradox insofar as they worked within a ‘salvage’ paradigm, documenting and collecting cultures that they believed were on the brink of extinction due to the incursion of European influence. Thomas acknowledged that colonial contact was destructive, but he did not question whether it was also inevitable.

Thomas arrived in Benin City at a time of tumultuous change, just twelve years after the sacking of the city during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897, in the aftermath of which Oba Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar. Benin’s monarchy was eventually restored in 1914, when Ovonramwen’s son, Prince Aiguobasimwin, was installed as Oba Eweka II, but the interregnum between 1897 and 1914 was characterised by fierce political rivalry between different factions. This rivalry was played out in the context of the new political system introduced by the British colonial authorities, which included the appointment of a Native Council and so-called paramount chiefs. While purporting to respect traditional power structures, this system of ‘native administration’ weakened the indigenous system of government, creating new tensions and rivalries.

Chief Ero, Benin City, 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas. (NWT 44; RAI 400.17868)
Chief Ero and attendants, photographed by N. W. Thomas in Benin City in 1909. Ero was one of the seven Uzama chiefs. During the interregnum, Ero was a member of Benin’s Native Council. (NWT 44; RAI 400.17868)

This was the fraught political context in which Thomas’s first tour as Government Anthropologist took place. Reading Thomas’s official report of this tour, his Anthropological Report on the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria, published in 1910, one is struck by the absence of any discussion of political structure. Indeed, given the primacy of sacred kingship in Edo, and the elaborate rituals that surround it, it is remarkable that Thomas should not devote a chapter to the subject in the report. It is important to remember, however, that Thomas’s reports were effectively British government publications, intended primarily for distribution to colonial officers. It is perhaps not surprising that they omitted such a controversial issue as kingship.

Chief Osula, Benin City, 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas. (NWT 48; RAI 400.17871)
Chief Osula, photographed by N. W. Thomas in Benin City in 1909. (NWT 48; RAI 400.17871)

In fact, it appears that Thomas intended to write a more detailed account of Edo-speaking communities in Nigeria. An incomplete manuscript survives, which we will be piecing together as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, that does include a chapter specifically dealing with kingship. This address such matters as the origins of kingship in Benin, the relationship between the Oba and the Uzama chiefs, rituals around succession and so on. The account does not, however, make mention of the destruction of the Oba’s Palace in 1897 or the dethroning of Ovonramwen, who was, after all, still living in exile at the time it was written.

While Thomas was silent on colonial politics and contemporary power struggles among Benin’s elites, he was evidently granted audiences with and photographed many of the key figures involved. These included Chief Obaseki, Chief Ezomo, Chief Ero, Chief Osula and Chief Imaran. Chief Obaseki was close to the British administration and came to dominate the Native Council during the interregnum. He was ambitious and opposed the installation of Aiguobasimwin as Oba in 1914. Chief Ezomo and Chief Ero had been among the seven Uzama chiefs, and had played important roles within the pre-1897 Benin government. During the interregnum, these chiefs were all members of the Native Council. It is possible that Thomas’s are the only photographic representations of these important figures in the history of Benin. If Thomas himself was an unreliable witness to these events, his photographs, at least, constitute a unique historical record.

Further reading:

Igbafe, P. A. 1979. Benin under British Administration: The Impact of Colonial Rule on an African Kingdom, 1897-1938. Longman.

 

‘Fire Brigade’, Benin City, January 1909

'Fire brigade', Benin City, January 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas.

Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate glass negatives. Although these photographs were made as part of an anthropological survey, today they form a remarkable historical record of the localities in which he worked.

The first surviving photograph from Thomas’s anthropological surveys, made soon after he arrived in Southern Nigeria in January 1909, shows a chain of three men passing pots of water between them to put out a house fire in Benin City. Thomas captions the photograph ‘fire brigade’ in his photographic register. It is one of a sequence of shots of a house fire and its aftermath.

Thomas individually numbered each of his photographs and subsequently categorized them under geographical and thematic headings, such as Topography, Houses, Daily Life, Decorative Art, Technology, Ceremonies and so forth. He also kept a photographic register, in which he – or an assistant – made a brief note about each photograph as they were taken.

Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1912, Anthropological Photographs
Excerpt from the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1912. This shows a report of the Association’s Committee on Anthropological Photographs, including a catalogue of the photographs from N. W. Thomas’s first tour, classified by location and theme.

Over the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be researching this unique photographic archive alongside Thomas’s sound recordings and artefact collections and will regularly post about our discoveries. Please share these posts and add any comments you may have.