As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project we have been using art and creativity as methods of re-engaging with the anthropological archives assembled by Northcote Thomas in West Africa in the early twentieth century. This has involved developing many wonderfully rewarding collaborations with Nigerian and Sierra Leonean artists. Much of the resulting work has been displayed at exhibitions in Benin City, Lagos and Nsukka.
One of the artists we have been working with in Sierra Leone is Sheku Shakalearn Mansaray. Shakalearn grew up in a village in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, but came to Freetown in 1990. He comes from a family of artists and developed his skills as a carver partly through an apprenticeship and partly through formal training at Milton Margai College of Education and Technology. He is coordinator of an NGO called Peacelinks, which uses art and performance to promote peacebuilding and social mobilization especially among young people.
Shakalearn chose to engage with a series of photographs Northcote Thomas made in 1914 documenting pot-making in the town of Kamalo in present-day Sanda Loko chiefdom in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Thomas created a number of these photographic series during his Nigerian and Sierra Leonean tours. Each image in a sequence recorded a different stage in a process: the stages in a manufacturing process, for example, or a ritual. From a sequence of 15 photographs showing stages in the production of earthenware pots in Kamalo, Shakalearn selected eight to reproduce in his carved panel.
Rather than carving on newly cut timber, Shakalearn salvaged planks from an old Creole ‘board house‘ that was being demolished in Freetown. These beautiful wooden houses, built during the 19th century, were once common in Freetown. Unfortunately, many have fallen into disrepair and they have gradually been knocked down to be replaced with modern concrete structures. When Northcote Thomas visited Freetown during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone, these houses would have predominated.
After rescuing the old timbers and cutting them to size, Shakalearn created a composite drawing of the eight different photographs on paper. He then chalked this onto the wooden panel and began to chisel out the work in relief. Normally Shakalearn’s carved works are given a much more fine finish. On this work, however, Shakalearn wanted to retain the aged patina of the salvaged boards. One inspiration was the work of the African-American artist Whitfield Lovell.
Clay pots were an everyday item used for storage and cooking, and were once made throughout Sierra Leone. Today, these sustainably-sourced and locally-manufactured pots have been displaced by imported plastic and metal utensils. There are, however, a few traditional potters still practicing in Sierra Leone. Most notable is the pot-making community at Mabettor near Lunsar in present-day Buya Romende chiefdom in the north of Sierra Leone.
In 2019, as part of our fieldwork for the [Re:]Entanglements project, we spent some time with the potters at Mabettor. We showed the community Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Sierra Leonean potters from 105 years before and left copies with them. A number of the potters, including Marie Sesay, Khadiatu Conteh, Adamsay Conteh, Isatu Koroma and Ya Abie Koroma demonstrated their pot-making techniques, which were exactly the same as those documented by Thomas in Kamalo. These day, however, their wares are mainly sold to visitors from overseas or Freetown who want them to decorate their homes.
We love the way Shakalearn uses traditional carving techniques to inscribe the archival documentation of another traditional craft form into wood salvaged from a building that would have stood at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys. Thank you Shakalearn!
A more detailed discussion of Northcote Thomas’s documentation of traditional pot-making and contemporary pot-making in Mabettor will be the subject of a future article.
Masquerade traditions are widespread across West Africa. Masked performers are earthly manifestations of spirits – whether of ancestors or forces of nature. They mediate between the visible world of humans and the invisible world of the spirits. They often play important roles in ceremonies marking key rites of passage, such as initiation into adulthood or passing to ancestorhood, and in ritual cycles, for instance those associated with farming, fertility and renewal.
Such spirits may be benevolent tutelary figures; some are fierce and forbidding; others may be clown-like and entertaining. Much has been written about their function in society, their iconography and symbolism, and the dramaturgy of their performances. Earlier European commentators often characterised these figures as ‘festishes’ or ‘juju’. Thomas was among the first to recognize their importance in the wider ‘magico-religious sphere’, and that this was not merely about ‘belief and worship’, but ‘inextricably mixed up with law, social organisation and other elements of human life’. He also acknowledged, however, that not enough was known about them to offer an adequate analysis, not least since this knowledge was largely restricted to initiates.
During his anthropological tours in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone between 1909 and 1915, Northcote Thomas photographed and documented many different masquerades, from the Eliminia performed by senior age-grade members in Otuo or those associated with annual Ovia festivals around Benin City during his Edo tour, to the graceful maiden spirit (Agbogho mmuo) or aggressive Mgbedike of the Nri-Awka Igbo. Here we focus on Thomas’s photographic documentation of Sierra Leonean masquerades.
‘Indigenous’ Sierra Leonean masquerade traditions are quite distinct from those found in Southern Nigeria and from the Igbo- and Yoruba-derived traditions introduced into Sierra Leone (especially Freetown) by the so-called ‘Liberated Africans’ in the 19th century. Of the indigenous types, only the Ndoli jowei (the ‘dancing sowei’) of the Mende female Sande society is well known. Its distinctive black helmet mask has become a national symbol of Sierra Leone, and examples are to be found in many museums.
Ndoli jowei is just one of a family of Mende spirit manifestations, although it is especially notable since it is one of the few female masquerades actually danced by women (in contrast to the Igbo Agbogho mmuo, for instance, which is a representation of a female spirit, but danced by men). Thomas photographed examples of the Ndoli jowei in Tormah (now known as Tormabum) in present-day Bonthe District, Southern Sierra Leone in 1915. He identified them in his photo register as ‘Bundu devils’, using the name given to them by Christian missionaries, who demonized such spirit manifestations.
‘Bundu’ – or, more correctly, ‘Bondo’ – is the Temne name for the women’s society known as Sande in Mende-speaking areas of Sierra Leone. Although associated with the Mende, the society and its masquerade is in fact more widespread in Sierra Leone, and can be found in many Temne-speaking areas where the Ndoli jowei is known as Nöwo.
Another photograph relating to the women’s society masquerades was published in Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, and is also captioned ‘Bundu “Devil”’. This is an altogether more intriguing figure insofar as the costume does not include the familiar black helmet mask. The photograph was taken in the Temne-speaking town of Magbeli (today spelled Magbile or Magbele) on the banks of the Rokel River. In his photographic register, Thomas also provides the name ‘Pa Fore Salia’, and indicates that the photograph is of a woman. It is interesting to note that the woman carries a man’s name and title.
In contrast to the finely carved helmet mask and dyed raffia costume of the Nöwo or Ndoli jowei, this masquerade costume might be best described as an accretion of beads, coiled basket roundels, bones, bells, shells and animal hair attached to sack cloth. The face of the dancer – presumably Pa Fore – is only partially obscured by the headpiece. This corresponds most closely to the Samawa masquerade described by Ruth Phillips in her book Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. (If you know the equivalent Temne name for this figure, we would welcome your advice.)
Samawa is a satirist, and her use of humour can be light and playful, but can also border on the menacing and frightening. Phillips’ description of a Samawa she witnessed during her research in Southern Sierra Leone in the 1970s, shares many features of the character photographed by Thomas in Magbile:
The costume and performance of samawa change depending on the specific object of her satire. She wears no headpiece, but rather face paint, exaggerated clothing, and the appropriate appended objects. In one performance of samawa that I saw, the impersonator’s face was painted with black and white spots to represent leprosy, a strip of fur was tied around her chin as a beard, and she was dressed in dirty rags. A big bulge under the front of her costume represented a swelling of the scrotum, and she hobbled about leaning on a stick like a cripple. All these deformities, she sang, would afflict any man who disobeys Sande rules, and she interrupted her song with bursts of loud, raucous laughter. (Phillips 1995: 90)
Sure enough, on the front of the costume of the ‘Bundu devil’ photographed by Thomas in Magbile, one can see two bulging sacks, probably representing elephantiasis of the scrotum, which is indeed a condition that men who dare to intrude on the secret practices of the women’s society are said to contract.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this is one of the few facts about the Bondo society that Thomas records in his Anthropological Report. The threat of scrotal elephantiasis was perhaps sufficient to deter him from pursuing his inquiries further!
In contrast to his limited investigations of women’s initiation societies, Thomas conducted extensive research into men’s societies such as Poro and Ragbenle. Thomas attempted to be initiated into Poro at Yonibana, but was prevented as a result of the intervention of a junior colonial administrator by the name of W. Y. Lyons. When Thomas complained about this interference, it was claimed that Lyons acted in the interests of the local population. It is more likely, however, that the idea of a European acting on behalf of the colonial government being initiated into a West African ‘secret society’ was seen as a transgression of a racialised boundary, which could not be tolerated by the colonial authorities.
When Thomas submitted the initial draft of his Report to the Colonial Office at the conclusion of his Sierra Leonean tour, he requested that many details of the Poro society and its connection with chieftaincy be withheld from publication because they would cause embarrassment to his informants. Due to these ethical concerns, the section on Poro in the published report is quite cursory.
There are many masquerades associated with Poro in the south of Sierra Leone, some of which had been previously photographed and published by the colonial administrator T. J. Alldridge. Thomas’s anthropological survey was focused in the north and central Sierra Leone, and he took relatively few photographs during his travels in the south, none of which include male masquerades. (The relative sparsity of photographs from the latter period of Thomas’s Sierra Leone tour was probably due to difficulties obtaining new glass plate negatives as the First World War intensified and affected shipping to West Africa.)
One Poro figure that Thomas did photograph, however, was ‘Pa Kasi’. Pa Kasi is not, strictly-speaking, a masquerade. He is, rather, a senior official of the men’s Poro society. Due to the remarkable nature of his costume, however, we include him here. The photograph was taken in Mabonto in present-day Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone. Pa Kasi plays important roles in the initiation of new members into Poro and also the crowning of paramount chiefs. The same figures is known as ‘Tasso’ in Mende-speaking areas. Thomas describes him as a ‘doctor’, adept at controlling the powers of magico-herbal ‘medicines’ which have the ability to both cure and kill.
The most remarkable aspect of Pa Kasi’s costume is his headdress of ambong. This takes the form of an inverted cone with, according to Thomas, the ‘feathers of the greater plantain-eater in it’. Around its rim are arranged skulls and thigh bones. In Thomas’s account, ‘the skulls are said to be those of people who have infringed Poro law’. This accords with the account of the American anthropologist Vernon Dorjahn who conducted research on the Temne Ragbenle and Poro societies in the 1950s and who states that the ‘skeletal material’ on Pa Kasi’s crown was ‘obtained from those executed for breaches of Poro discipline’ (Dorjahn 1961). In his description of the Tassos in Southern Sierra Leone, Alldridge (1901: 131), however, notes that the bones are those of ‘defunct Tassos’, whom the wearer has succeeded in office.
a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra
Whereas the Pa Kasi/Tasso figure has been documented by European travellers in Sierra Leone since the 1750s, Thomas was the first outsider to record the a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèramasquerades of the Temne Ragbènle society. It has been suggested that these spirits – krifi, or kärfi, in Temne – are found exclusively in Yele in Gbonkolenken chiefdom, in Tonkolili District, Central Sierra Leone, and that they travel to other chiefdoms in the region to perform at the crowning of chiefs. Thomas makes no reference to a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèrabeing exclusive to Yele, however, and, indeed, he photographed examples in Matotaka and Mamaka, in present-day Tane and Yoni cheifdoms respectively, which neighbour Gbonkolenken in Tonkolili District. Our own research also suggests that they continue to exist outside of Yele in other chiefdoms where the Ragbènle society is found.
Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone contains just a few notes on a-Ròng-a-Thoma and Namangkèra. Thomas documented, for example, the Ragbènle society’s role at the death of a chief and the initiation of a new chief. At each of these occasions, and also on the death of a member of the society, the a-Ròng-a-Thoma comes out to perform. a-Ròng may be glossed as meaning ‘mask’, and, according to Thomas, Thoma or Toma means ‘forbidden’, but is also the name of a particular tree. The wood of this tree, he notes, cannot be placed on a fire by a member of Ragbènle or he will burn himself. a-Ròng-a-Thoma generally dance in pairs and are accompanied by Namangkèra, who is a messenger figure.
Although there are a number of a-Ròng-a-Thoma headdresses in museum collections, until recently Thomas’s photographs were until recently the only documentation of the spirits in their complete costumes. The art historian, Fred Lamp, made a study of the figures during his fieldwork in Yele in 1979-80, during which he interviewed the paramount chief, officials of Ragbènle and former dancers of a-Ròng-a-Thoma. Lamp records that è-Ròng-è-Thoma are said to be the ‘chiefs’ of all the Ragbènle spirits, while Namangkèra is their brother. Both are regarded as water spirits. The wooden a-Ròng-a-Thoma mask is zoomorphic in form, with wide, flaring nostrils, a grid of teeth, and a pair of horns that curve around the crown of the head. It is worn with a costume of dyed raffia. According to Lamp, they are considered responsible for the general welfare and safety of the community and the growth of crops. Namangkèra’s mask has a conical, funnel-like opening, which Thomas describes as a ‘long wooden beard’ (the example photographed by Thomas has more anthromorphic facial features). Lamp notes that unlike a-Ròng-a-Thoma, ‘Namangkèra makes sounds and is very talkative, argumentative to the point that people describe him as a “lawyer”’.
A particularly unusual type of masquerade figure that Thomas photographed, and which is unique in Sierra Leone in having a brass face, is the a-Ròng-a-Rabai – the ‘mask of chieftaincy’ – or what Thomas refers to as the ‘cheifship krifi’. These are found exclusively in Temne areas of Sierra Leone, and have very rarely been documented. In an article on such masks, Bill Hart states that these are usually bear the name of the chiefly clan, often in archaic form. In his Anthropological Report, Thomas provides a more detailed account of the ‘cheifship krifi’ that he encountered at Mamaka. He writes,
At Mamaka he is called Sanko; Sanko and the chief, Satimaka, must be in separate houses; like the chief, he may not go where bundu [i.e. the women’s society] implements are kept, nor where there is a new-born child. It is significant that at the chief’s death his Sanko retires and is replaced by another man after offering a sacrifice.
Sanko wears a helmet of leather surmounted by a tuft; the face is of brass and there is a brass plate behind; strips of leopard skin are attached to the base, and over the skin is fibre that reaches to the waist. He has fibre ruffles round his wrists and net anklets with fibre tops. Four sticks tied together (bonkoloma) are in his hand; they are the chief’s staff; in point of fact the staff actually used by the chief is quite different, long and forked at the top.
The chiefship mask of Magbile is known as aron arabai; like Sanko the wearer cannot come out when the chief is dead; the mask is kept in the chief’s house. The dress is formed of skins, and he has palm-fibre trousers.
When he goes for a walk through the land he carries a broom and whips to flog people who do not come out when he dances. He can judge cases and pay the money received to the chief.
When we did fieldwork in Mamaka as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we were careful to discuss with the senior men the fact that we had photographs of things that perhaps not everyone was permitted to see. Among the elders we met was Pa Amadu Kamara, the grandson of Chief Satimaka, whom Thomas photographed. We learned Pa Amadu’s grandfather’s full name was Satimaka Memneh Sankoh, and that Sankoh is the name of the ‘devil’ (i.e. spirit) that dwells in the hill above the town. The devil of the hill, we were told, has someone in the town who is called Pa Sankoh. Pa Amadu expressed surprise that Thomas was able to photograph Sankoh; neither did he know whether the spirit still dwelled in the hill. There seemed to be a distinction made between the spirit or krifi, Sankoh, after whom the hill was named, and Pa Sankoh, who alone could communicate between krifi and the people of the town.
Ayuke or Kabemba
Boys and young men must be circumcised before they can be initiated into the Poro or Ragbènle societies. At the time of the circumcision ceremonies, the initiands withdraw into a circumcision bush, which is forbidden to women and where various prohibitions pertain. According to Thomas’s account of the process, while undergoing the ordeal, those being circumcised are under the guardianship of an old man, and also an old widow who is known as Yabemba. Yabemba must be past child-bearing age, and is the only woman permitted to enter the circumcision bush.
Once the initiands’ wounds have healed, they follow a masked figure – known as Bemba, Kabemba or Ayuke – back into the town, where they dance all night wearing long gowns (runku). Thomas records that in some towns the mask is worn by the man who conducts the circumcision operation (ayunkoli).
Following the ceremonies, Thomas states that the circumcision mask and its raffia costume are generally kept; although he notes that in some places they are thrown into the bush, presumably to decay. Thomas photographed examples of the Kabemba mask in Mamaka, Matotaka and Mayoso, and he also collected one in Mapori (Mafori?), with its fibre and palm-leaf dress, which he notes in his Report is ‘now in the Cambridge Museum of Ethnology’. We were able to identify and photograph this mask during our research with the Thomas collections at the museum, now called the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
Alldridge, T. J. (1901) The Sherbro and Its Hinterland. London: Macmillan.
Dorjahn, V. R. (1961) ‘The Initiation of Temne Poro Officials’, Man 61: 36-40.
Hart, W. A. (1986) ‘Aron Aarabai: The Temne Mask of Chieftaincy’, African Arts 19(2): 41-45+91.
Lamp, F. J. (2005) ‘The Royal Horned Hippopotamus of the Keita of Temne: “A-Rong-a-Thoma”‘, Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin: 36-53.
Phillips, R. B. (1995) Representing Woman: Sande Masquerades of the Mende of Sierra Leone. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Thomas, N. W. (1916) Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, Part 1: Law and Custom. London: Harrison & Sons.
Although the collecting of botanical specimens fell outside the remit of his anthropological surveys, Northcote Thomas devoted increasing energy to this pursuit during his tours in West Africa. Collections made during his final tour, in Sierra Leone, between 1914 and 1915, still constitute one of the most comprehensive reference collections of Sierra Leonean plant species in the world.
Like many aspects of his work as ‘Government Anthropologist’, collecting information about plants was not something Thomas was instructed to do by the colonial authorities, but was rather something he undertook on his own initiative. While his published reports make little mention of botany, Thomas was clearly very interested particularly in the medicinal uses of plants among the people he worked with.
As far as we know, he did not collect actual samples of plants during his 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking people of Nigeria. He did, however, make detailed notes on indigenous names of plants and their uses. Unfortunately, due to changes in pronunciation and the idiosyncrasies of Thomas’ phonetic transcriptions, it is not easy to identify species based on the vernacular names of plants written in Thomas’ notes. We were, however, able to identify ova, in Thomas’ list of medicinal plants in Otuo, North Edo, which is recorded as being used as a ‘strengthening medicine’ for babies. ‘The child’, Thomas explains, ‘is washed with it and drinks it for three months. Then the leaf is put in the girdle’. According to a 2017 article by Prof Idu MacDonald and colleagues at the University of Benin concerning ‘indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe’, ova is identified as Alchornea cordifolia, which is widely used in traditional medicine throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Thomas began collecting samples of plant specimens during his next tour, in 1910-11, in what was then the Awka District of Southern Nigeria – corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. Having assembled an initial collection of about 350 specimens from Awka and Agulu, Thomas sent these to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so that their scientific names could be determined. It appears that he intended to include these lists of vernacular name, scientific name and local uses in his reports on the Igbo-speaking peoples of Nigeria.
In a letter of 11th May 1911 to David Prain (1857-1944), Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Thomas apologises for the poor quality of the specimens. ‘I fear most of them are in very bad condition’, he writes, ‘as I have been having four tornadoes a week for some time and mist round my tent till 10am every day, so that nothing can be kept dry.’ He also explains that he lacks the technical knowledge and equipment to preserve seeds in such conditions, and seeks advice and materials so that specimens can be kept in better order in the future.
Over the following months, Thomas sends further batches of specimens to Kew for identification. In one letter he notes that ‘the collections are largely made by my junior interpreter’. Alas, we do not know the name of this interpreter and, typical of colonial era scientific practice, the specimens are all recorded under Thomas’ name. Thomas did seek to have this interpreter employed to continue the work of collecting during the following dry season at a cost of £20, including carriers. Neither the colonial government of Southern Nigeria nor Kew was disposed to fund this. In a letter from Arthur W. Hill (1875-1941), Assistant Director at the Royal Botanic Gardens, an offer was, however, made to purchase specimens collected under Thomas’ supervision at ‘the usual rate of £2 per 100 specimens’ – so long as they were in good condition and properly labelled.
At Kew, the actual work of identifying the scientific names of the plant specimens sent by Thomas was most likely undertaken by John Hutchinson (1884-1972), who was then assistant in the Tropical Africa section. In an internal memo attached to his determination list, Hutchinson notes that many of the specimens could not be identified due to the absence of flowers or fruits, which, in addition to leaves, are frequently necessary to determine species.
Prain conveyed Kew’s enthusiasm that Thomas should continue to send specimens during his subsequent tours and provided further guidance on botanical collecting practice. Templates were prepared for labels to encourage Thomas and his assistants to improve the quality of their documentation at the time of collection. These were adapted from a design included in a 1908 edition of Kew’s Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, dedicated to ‘The Useful Plants of Nigeria’.
Equipped with better knowledge about botanical collecting practices and materials, the specimens and associated information assembled during Thomas’ 1912-13 tour focusing on Igbo-speaking communities in the Asaba District (the north-east area of present-day Delta State) and 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone were of much better quality. Thomas continued to send batches to Kew, where they were identified, mounted on cards and accessioned into its Herbarium – a vast reference collection of the world’s plant species.
Despite gathering knowledge about West African plants and their uses on a more systematic basis, Thomas’ ambition to publish his findings on indigenous botanical knowledge seems not to have come to fruition. In April 1915, however, as Thomas’ anthropological survey of Sierra Leone drew to a close, the authorities at Kew suggested to Thomas that they collaborate on a definitive handbook on the Flora of Sierra Leone. Envisaged was a book that would appeal to a broader public rather than only botanical experts, and to include many illustrations by John Hutchinson that would make the volume ‘attractive and valuable’. A copy of Fawcett and Rendle’s Flora of Jamaica (1910) was sent to Thomas to give him an idea of what was proposed.
The letter, probably from David Prain, provides an indication of the significance of the collections assembled by Thomas and his assistants in Sierra Leone: ‘Thanks to your zeal and perseverance … I do not think there is anywhere so complete a collection representing the flora of Sierra Leone as there is now at Kew’. The letter continues: ‘We have had few collectors in Africa who have been so successful as you have been of late in Sierra Leone and I should be very sorry indeed if the opportunity of getting anything really good out of your efforts should be missed’.
After the First World War, plans for the proposed Flora of Sierra Leone were superseded by a geographically more expansive initiative that was to become the Flora of West Tropical Africa, the first part of which was originally published in 1927 under the editorship of John Hutchinson and John McEwan Dalziel (1872-1948). Correspondence with Thomas from the 1920s survives in the Kew archives, showing that he was consulted from time to time on the Sierra Leonean material while the manuscript was being prepared. The Flora of West Tropical Africa has been revised periodically and remains a major reference work.
After his few intense years employed as Government Anthropologist, Thomas fell into professional obscurity. In the late 1920s he moved to a cottage in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. One of the last letters we have found, written by Thomas in August 1928 from his West Malvern address, is to Arthur Hill, who had taken over as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He thanks Hill for sending him a copy of the newly published Flora of West Tropical Africa, but, in a manner typical of Thomas, then goes on to list typographical errors and misprints relating to his own contributions, including the misprinting of his own initials.
Despite the professional disappointments of his later life, Thomas continued to be interested in the medicinal properties of West African plants. In the early 1980s, the Canadian anthropologist Richard Slobodin (1915-2005) began research for a biography on Thomas. (He has previously written a biography of Thomas’ contemporary W. H. R. Rivers.) It is a project Slobodin did not complete, but one of the snippets of information he obtained from Thomas’ surviving daughter, Flora (1910-91), was that her father grew such medicinal plants in his garden.
Reconstructing Thomas’ Sierra Leone itineraries
As well as their value to botanical and pharmaceutical science, the plant collections assembled during Thomas’ anthropological surveys provide an important resource for assessing environmental change in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. This is a project we hope to pursue with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and colleagues in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the future. In the meanwhile, it is through the high quality of the documentation of these botanical specimens that we have been able to reconstruct Thomas’ itineraries, particularly during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone.
Through the information on the specimen cards and field books, we have been able to correlate dates and locations, and thereby follow his journey. Furthermore, in preparation for the abandoned Flora of Sierra Leone project, Thomas was asked to provide a sketch-map identifying each of the locations from which the specimens were obtained. This allows us to be certain of locations in cases where the spelling of place names has changed or where there are multiple places with the same name.
This was especially useful in the case of Thomas’ Sierra Leone tour, since his work was largely focused in northern and central Sierra Leone. We learn from the botanical specimens, however, that he spent the last three months of the tour travelling in Mende– and Sherbro-speaking areas of the south. It is likely that he travelled by rail to the southern towns of Bo and Kenema, and then proceeded by foot/hammock to Pujehun, Tomabum, Talia, Gbangbama, Victoria, Kanga, then back to the railway town of Mano, before ending his tour in Freetown at the beginning of April 1915. There are few photographs from this part of his journey, possibly because restrictions caused by the First World War meant that he was unable to obtain new glass plate negatives.
Collecting the world?
Preliminary work for a study of the archives and collections from Thomas’ anthropological surveys was undertaken by Roger Blench and Mark Alexander in the 1980s. While, like Slobodin’s biography, this initiative was not completed, Blench and Alexander began to document the whereabouts of the various collections, and this has been invaluable starting point for the work we have been pursuing in the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In an article published in The Nigerian Field entitled ‘The Work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’ (1995), Blench reports that many of the specimens collected by Thomas (or, as we now know, his assistants) were no longer traceable at Kew. Blench states that many of the Thomas specimens were duplicates already in the collection and that they were exchanged with other herbaria around the world. ‘Apparently’, he writes, ‘no record was kept of the destinations of these specimens nor was a record kept of the information recorded on the cards. As a result, much of the data was effectively lost, and many of Thomas’s vernacular names can no longer be tied to specimens’.
Perhaps as a result of Blench’s inquiries, Kew botanist Humphrey Burkhill conducted a thorough survey of the Thomas specimens at Kew as compared with those listed in Thomas’ field books. In an internal memorandum he reported that only 55% of the Nigerian collections and 36% of the Sierra Leonean collections could be located. In response, Nigel Hepper, another specialist in African plants at Kew, argued somewhat defensively that the problem lay in Thomas’ lack of knowledge of botanical practice of collecting duplicates under the same number, so that the total of 11,415 specimens from Thomas’s surveys represented far fewer different species and included a great many duplicates. Hepper explained that it was indeed standard practice of herbaria to exchange duplicates, and that ‘if some with different vernaculars were distributed then that was the cost of dealing with such large numbers’.
It appears then that the sheer scale of the collections, resulting from Thomas’ remarkable ‘zeal and perseverance’, undermined their usefulness. The same can be said of other aspects of Thomas’ work and this partly accounts for why, despite the quantity of materials produced, Thomas’ anthropological surveys produced little knowledge that could be practically applied in colonial governance. Remarkable though they were, Thomas’ endeavours speak of the hubris of colonial science and its project of collecting and documenting the world; a project that was destined to fail.
Blench, R. (1995) ‘The work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’, The Nigerian Field 60: 20-28.
Fawcett, W. and Rendle, A. B. (1910) Flora of Jamaica. London: British Museum.
Hutchinson, J. and Dalziel, J. M. (1927-36) Flora of West Tropical Africa, 2 vols. London: Crown Agents for the Colonies.
MacDonald, I., Ovuakporie-Uvo, O. and Ima-Osagie, O. S. (2017) ‘Indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe of Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria’, Journal of Medicinal Plants for Economic Development 1(1): 1-10.
Slobodin, R. (1997) W. H. R. Rivers: Pioneer Anthropologist, Psychiatrist of The Ghost Road, 2nd edition. Stroud: Sutton.
Many thanks to Kiri Ross-Jones, Archivist and Records Manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for her assistance while researching this article.
Working through the photographs, sound recordings, artefact collections and written accounts that constitute the archive of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa, the turbulence of the times in which these materials were assembled is not immediately apparent. Of course, it can be argued that the archive as whole is a trace of colonial violence. As the historian Nicholas Dirks reminds us, colonial conquest was the result not only of military force but was made possible and sustained through ‘cultural technologies of rule’. Regardless of whether they actually achieved their governmental objectives, Thomas’s surveys were certainly intended to contribute to the consolidation of British ‘indirect rule’ in what were then the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
It is perhaps indicative of the thoroughness with which local resistance to colonialization had been quashed that Thomas was able to travel around so freely over the six years of his surveys between 1909 and 1915. Thomas worked in the towns of Somorika, in 1909, and Agulu, in 1911, both a mere five years after they had been ‘pacified’ through British military operations; he travelled extensively in areas of Asaba District that, until two years previously, were centres of anti-colonial resistance in the Ekumeku wars; his research in Sierra Leone took place in locations that had seen violent conflict in the Hut Tax War of 1898; and he spent months working in Benin City, just 12 years after the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897. Thomas did not, of course, travel alone – his entourage would have included porters and assistants, and we know from correspondence that, at least some of the time, he was accompanied by a member of the police force. There is just one photograph, from Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, in which a uniformed police officer can be seen – we don’t know whether he was ordinarily stationed at the location, or accompanied Thomas there.
The years prior to the formal British colonisation of Nigeria and Sierra Leone were also turbulent. Conflict was ever present; often driven by competition for land, resources (including slaves) and control of trade routes. Much of this conflict was directly or indirectly connected to the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people and other commodities, but also resulted from antics of expansionist states in the interior (the incursions of Samori Toure’s Wassoulou Empire into northern Sierra Leone, for example, or Nupe raids into the north of present-day Edo State in Nigeria). Traces of these conflicts – sometimes mislabelled as ‘inter-tribal wars’ by the colonists – are more evident in the materials Thomas assembled during the anthropological surveys.
Fortified hilltop towns
The longue durée of conflict in pre-colonial Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is evident in the very location of many of the communities that Thomas visited. Town sites were often selected so as to make use of the natural features of the environment so that the community could be more easily defended against attack. This is most obvious in settlements in upland areas, for example those located in what were known at time of Thomas’s surveys as the Kukuruku Hills in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria, or in Koinadugu in north-eastern Sierra Leone. Many of the towns that Thomas visited and photographed in these areas occupied fortified hill-top locations. As a result of the ‘imposed peace’ that accompanied British colonisation, these settlements were subsequently abandoned and the towns moved to more accessible locations.
When we have brought Thomas’s photographs back to places such as Somorika, Okpe, Otuo and Afokpella in north Edo, or Yagala in Sierra Leone, community members are usually very interested to see what their old hilltop towns looked like when they were inhabited. In some cases, such as Yagala, the old towns were not abandoned until the 1950s and elderly members of the community have childhood memories of the places. Most community members, however, have known the old sites only in their abandoned state and through the many stories that are told about them. Many such stories relate to the heroism of warriors or the ingenuity of the community in repelling attack. The Imah of Somorika, HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, for example, regaled us with stories of the British attack on Somorika in 1904, which, while ending in defeat, is regarded as a moral victory.
In Yagala we were told the story of the famous warrior Suluku, from Bumban, who came with a war party, threatening attack. As they climbed one of the roads to the hilltop town, they came upon an old woman knitting. Suluku informed the woman that they had come to collect payment from Yagala. She gave him her knitting and said ‘Here it is, take it’. Suluku continued on his way to the town. Afterwards, he left by another route only to find the same old woman by the side of the road. He asked how she came to be there before them. ‘This is my place’, she answered, ‘I am not an invader like you’. Suluku thought that she had special powers and asked her for help. She agreed to help, but only in return for gifts. Suluku agreed, and said he would send his brother, Pompoli, from Bumban, with the gifts. Pompoli duly returned bearing the gifts and the old woman gave Suluku some of her magical powers. Incidentally, while Suluku died in 1906, Thomas photographed Pompoli when he visited Bumban in 1914.
In the lower lying, forested areas of Awka District, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, Thomas took several photographs of fortified watchtowers. They are known in Igbo as Uno-aja. None of Thomas’s fieldnotes survive from this tour and he did not publish anything about these structures, so we don’t know if he collected any information about them. Oral traditions about the towers survive, however.
These towers were typically two or three storeys high and were accessed through a small doorway on an upper floor, reached by a ladder. They served as both a look-out tower and a refuge, particularly for women and children, when a settlement was under attack. Some were rectangular in plan, such as those in the photographs above, others circular, as in the example at Awgbu (see below).
Professor Anselem Ibeanu, currently head of the Department of Archaeology at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did some research on these watchtowers in the 1980s. While the majority had long-since collapsed or been pulled down to make way for new buildings, he managed to locate a small number that had survived, even though in ruinous condition. One of these was called Okpala Obinagu in Awgbu, supposedly named after the founder of the community who erected it. The tower can be seen in the background of one of Thomas’s photographs of the obu (meeting house), probably of Chief Nwankwo of Awgbu, who Thomas also photographed.
Professor Ibeanu was able to speak to the elderly great-grandson of the builder of the tower, and was able to draw a reconstruction of what it had once looked like based on the oral accounts. This matches Thomas’s photograph with surprising accuracy, particularly its construction from concentric mud courses, each of which was allowed to partially dry before the next course was added, and the small apertures for windows. Interestingly, in Thomas’s photo register, he captions the tower a ‘storehouse’, suggesting that it was repurposed once the threat of attack subsided.
Re-enactments of warfare
Thomas seems to have struggled to obtain information about the conduct of war – perhaps his informants didn’t want to give away military secrets to the colonialists! He did, however, photograph men in ‘war dress’ and witnessed demonstrations of ‘mock battles’.
There is a wonderful photograph taken in Sabongida in 1909 of a ‘chief’ (unfortunately Thomas doesn’t name him) posing with a magnificent dane gun and wearing war dress. The chief’s gown is covered in amulets, and the protection it offered was more magical than physical. Later the same year Thomas witnessed the annual Ebisua dance at Fugar. Community members in Fugar readily identified the photographs of this event when we visited. Ebisua is a war dance performed annually by the Uruamhinokhua age grade in honour of the war god Ituke. The men clothe themselves in their war dress for the dance, and, brandishing their weapons, reenact their valiant acts of the preceding year. It is an opportunity for the fighting men to show off their strength and military prowess. We were told that, in times of war, men would display the severed heads of enemies they had killed.
Thomas photographed another interesting event in Awka in 1911. According to the sparse notes accompanying the photographs, they were taken at a funeral of a man killed in war. (We do not know if this was a re-enactment staged for Thomas, or an actual funeral.) Before an assembled crowd, a group of warriors parade in their war dress, carrying swords and shields. In some of the photographs they appear to be staging a mock fight (see the photograph at the top of this article). Probably during this same event, Thomas made a wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’.
Thomas also appears to have arranged for some of the participants in the funeral to pose for him to demonstrate traditional fighting techniques.
Memories of Okoli Ijoma
Not all traces of conflict are so legible in the archive; some traces only reveal themselves in the unexpected comments of community members in response to particular images. This was especially apparent in our fieldwork in the area around Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. In virtually every town in which we conducted fieldwork, the archive photographs provoked stories of wars with the notorious Okoli Ijoma (‘Okoro Ijomah’ in the Aro dialect). Indeed, it was often because of the threat of attack from Okoli Ijoma and his mercenaries that towns formed alliances with the British, which resulted in a more insidious form of colonisation.
Okoli Ijoma was a powerful warlord from Umuchukwu in Ndikelionwu, a few miles to the south-east of Awka. Ndikelionwu had been founded in the eighteenth century as part of the expanding Aro empire. The Aro, with their homeland at Arochukwu in present-day Abia State, had established a major slave trading confederacy with a powerful military base, often supported by mercenaries. They settled throughout Igboland, forming alliances with some communities, while preying upon others. They are credited with introducing firearms into the region.
Conflict with Okoli Ijoma’s forces would have still been fresh in the memory of communities around Awka at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys, and the photographs he took of both people and places still bring to mind that dangerous time – even after 110 years. In Nibo, for example, we were told how the great ikolo drum would be sounded as an alarm of impending attack. It was a signal for the women and children to disperse to refuges, and for the men to gather in preparation for the fight. To save Nibo from further attack, Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor of Nibo formed an alliance with Okoli Ijoma, arranging for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s son, Nwene Ijomah. Nnama became a deputy in Okoli Ijoma’s court, but, later, as the threat of reprisals from the British mounted, he switched allegiance, while Okoli Ijoma fought on.
In other towns, allegiances were similarly divided. In Amansea, for example, community members were able to identify a photograph of Chief Nwaobuana, a well-respected leader who later became a Warrant Chief. He is credited with curbing the excesses of Okoli Ijoma and defending the town from attack. Another man, Nwene, was also identified, however. Nwene was the ‘black sheep’ of the community, and was known to take stubborn children from their parents and sell them to the Aro traders. The era of Aro slave trading was brought to an end with the British attack on Arochukwu in 1901. Okoli Ijoma died in 1906.
Read more about Okoli Ijoma and the ‘Ada wars’ at the Ukpuru blog, which is also illustrated with photographs from the Northcote Thomas archives.
The coming of the British must have been met with ambivalence. On the one hand, alliance with the Europeans offered protection from local aggressors. On the other hand, of course, this led to the imposition of British colonial rule and the transformation of culture and society. Thomas’s anthropological surveys were carried out during this transformative moment, when new freedoms of the ‘British Peace’ could be appreciated, while the loss of self-determination under colonial rule was perhaps not yet fully apparent.
Some of the stories recorded by Thomas speak powerfully of this time of change and are therefore important historical sources. When local community members in Okpekpe, in the north of present-day Edo State, helped us translate recordings Thomas made there in 1910, it was interesting to listen to their interpretations. One recording compared past and present, celebrating the fact that children could now wander about freely and the town was now safe. We were told this related to the British defeat of the Nupe in 1897, who had, it was explained, on the one hand, brought Islam to Okpekpe, and, on the other hand, captured its people and sold them into slavery.
Godwin Gejele, from Okpekpe, provided the following translation of the recording from the Ibie language:
Eyia bhe amho We’re coming today
Imiegba ana mhia je, ukha la mhi ayo tse we namhe I’m going to Imiegba. If you get over there, extend my greetings
Ukha lamhi Imiakebu tsa Adogah na mhe tse we khu namhe, vhe wegbe omo mose ali omo kposo When you get to Imiakebu extend my greetings to Adogah. I really appreciate him. I pray that God will bless their male and female children
Eye bi na agbo nele ali ona uhiena ono gwuo so mhi ne. Omo ovhe lasa ne na now li vho, ogbo kho oshie yele asha kha sha In the olden days or in the present, which one is the better to live in? We can see in the old days, a child is not allowed to go out anywhere. Now one can go everywhere. Everywhere is safe.
Oso mhi ni bo, omue mhe gbe We’re grateful to the white man who had come to teach and taught us many things
When we discussed this recording, elders explained that the speech was delivered in the style of a town crier. This raises the question of whose message the speaker was communicating. Does the speech convey a genuine sense of gratitude to the ‘white man’ for removing the threat of Nupe slave raids, or is this propaganda dispatched from the new invaders?
Cohn, B. S. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. (Foreword by Nicholas Dirks)
Falola, T. 2009. Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria. Indiana University Press.
Ibeanu, A. M. 1989. ‘An Igbo Watch Tower (Uno-aja)’. Nyame Akuma, 31: 28-9.
Ohadike, D. C. 1991. The Ekumeku Movement. Ohio University Press.
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’.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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’!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During our fieldwork retracing the journeys made by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, it is a real privilege when we are able to identify the descendants of people that Thomas photographed. Photographs of individuals taken in the context of a colonial project are set free from the archive and become transformed into something magical, able to bring people face-to-face with their ancestors for the first time. People often remark with wonder how, after over a hundred years, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, the photographs have made their way back to the communities where they were taken.
When we visited Samaya, in Tambakha chiefdom, Sierra Leone, the power of photography and material culture to transport us in time and space was brought together. When Northcote Thomas visited Samaya in 1914, he made a number of photographs of Chief Almami Suri Kandeh. Suri Kandeh was a powerful paramount chief, reputed to have had 75 wives! The present paramount chief, Kandeh Sori Kakanday III, is a direct descendant of Suri Kandeh and was overjoyed to see the photograph of his illustrious ancestor.
Thomas photographed Chief Suri Kandeh wearing his regalia of office, including a silver medal known locally as the kingbatankeh – the ‘king’s chain’. We were thrilled to hear that the medal still formed part of the paramount chief’s regalia. The kingbatankeh is not normally seen other than on special occasions, and it is normally only worn by a paramount chief once he has passed through kantha, a period of ritual seclusion, traditionally part of a chief’s coronation in northern Sierra Leone. Due to the exceptional circumstances of our visit, however, a ceremony was performed and we were able to see the kingbatankeh and photograph Kandeh Sori Kakanday III wearing it, even though he had yet to pass through kantha.
Actually, there are two kingbatankeh in Samaya, and this is something of a mystery. Thomas’s photographs of Chief Suri Kandeh show him wearing a medal with a suspension mount by which it is attached to a chain. According to an article in Sierra Leone Studies written by Robert de Zouche Hall, Governor of Sierra Leone between 1952 and 1956, this silver medal had been given to Samaya’s chief by Governor Sir Frederic Cardew in the late 1890s. This was around the time of the anti-colonial Hut Tax War in Northern Sierra Leone, suggesting that Samaya had been loyal to the British during the uprising. The medal, of a type struck in 1883, is still in the possession of the chiefdom, and bears the head of Queen Victoria.
We do not know the exact year that Suri Kandeh was crowned as paramount chief, so it is uncertain whether it was he himself who was awarded the medal by Cardew or his predecessor in office, Kandeh Satanlai. We do know, however, that Chief Suri Kandeh was held in high esteem by the British colonial authorities. In a colonial intelligence report on Sierra Leone’s protectorate chiefs, dating to 1912, it is stated that Alimami Suri ‘rules his country very well, and is highly respected by his subjects. A strict Mohomedan, and a true friend to the Government’.
The second kingbatankeh in Samaya is larger, does not have a suspension mount, bears the head of King George III and is dated 1814. These medals were known to have been distributed to ‘friendly chiefs’ in Sierra Leone in the 1820s and 30s. ‘Friendly chiefs’ were those who were willing to sign treaties and align their interests with the British. Such treaty-making exploited enmities between local polities and was an insidious form of colonial expansion, eventually giving rise to the declaration of Sierra Leone as a British protectorate in 1896. The circumstances and date at which this larger medal came to Samaya are, however, not known to us.
In his 1959 Sierra Leone Studies article, Hall notes that one of the 1814 medals was in the possession of Paramount Chief Bai Samura of Sanda Loko chiefdom. According to Hall’s source (a colonial district officer), the medal was presented to Samura Renjia, a Loko chief based at Kamalo. Northcote Thomas’s tour took him to Kamalo in Sanda Loko after Samaya, and although Thomas made a photograph of the reigning paramount chief – also named Samura – this unfortunately appears to have been lost. When we visited Kamalo, we were, however, shown a photograph of Paramount Chief Samura Bangura, who reigned between 1942 and 1972, by his grandson Simeon F Bangura.
This photograph shows his grandfather wearing what is known in Kamalo as the kingdollar – the medal with George III’s head clearly visible. This was also part of the chiefly regalia. Interestingly, even though the medal is known as the king’s dollar, the story is that it was presented by Queen Victoria. It might be noted that a treaty was signed between Sanda Loko and the British government in 1837, the year that Victoria came to the throne – it was on such occasions that the medals were presented (indeed, they are sometimes called ‘treaty medals’). It is not known what happened to the kingdollar.
These medals have an interesting history. As Hall notes, the 1814 medal was originally struck as a reward to North American Indian Chiefs who had supported Britain during the so-called War of 1812 with the United States of America. Similar medals had been used as ‘tokens of friendship’ since the eighteenth century, often on the signing of treaties – a practice sometimes referred to as ‘peace medal diplomacy’.
The practice of presenting medals to ‘friendly chiefs’ was subsequently introduced in West Africa. Hall discusses the various issues of medals used in Sierra Leone, including the two types we encountered in Samaya. Other types can be found on display at the Sierra Leone National Museum, including a much poorer quality pewter version of the 1814 medal introduced by Governor Arthur Kennedy in 1853. These were evidently of such inferior quality that chiefs were ashamed to wear them.
When Governor Arthur Havelock revived the practice of medal giving in the 1880s (a time of extensive British colonial expansion and treaty-making in Sierra Leone), it was with the new, high quality, solid silver issue bearing the head of Queen Victoria – just like the one that Chief Suri Kandeh wears around his neck in Northcote Thomas’s photographs.
Between 1909 and 1915, Northcote W. Thomas, made hundreds of sound recordings as part of his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. His recordings included stories, ‘specimens’ of languages, and especially samples of local music traditions. These wax cylinder records are now in the collections of the British Library Sound Archive – one of the [Re:]Entanglements / Museum Affordances project partners. The fragile wax cylinders have recently been digitized and we are working with the recordings in our fieldwork.
During our fieldwork in Sierra Leone we have been retracing Northcote Thomas’s 1914-15 itineraries and returning copies of Thomas’s photographs and sound recordings to local communities. We have been collecting lots of new information about these archival materials. Supported by a small grant from the British Library, we have also been making some new field recordings of music in the same locations that Thomas worked in. Here, then, is part of our musical journey through northern Sierra Leone, in the footsteps of Northcote Thomas…
Kamalo, Sanda Loko Chiefdom, Karene District
Nandawa Kargbo, from Makankoi near Kamalo, singing a traditional Makama style Temne song accompanied by a ‘5 gallon’ (a five-gallon plastic container, replacing a bass drum). Nandawa sings Eye ye minɛ soli-o [I am worried], A tey mi thonɔŋ-o ka ȧŋwula [I am left in the wilderness], Eye ye I bayɛ sɔ wuni ŋȧsu abɛra I bayɛ su wuni ta mɔnɛ [I have no one left on my side, my fellow women, for the sake of poverty].
Sendugu, Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, Karene District
When we arrived unannounced in Sendugu one afternoon, we were greeted by a group of women singing and led by the oldest member of the community (the woman pictured above on the right). At the time of Northcote Thomas’s visit in 1914, Sendugu was the seat of the Paramount Chief, Bai Lama Munu. Since those days, however, the chieftaincy has been elsewhere. The song told of the return of power to Sendugu and the Munu lineage. The song included here has the words: A yɔ mi kare, ye [They wronged me], A yɔ kare ro rȧsu a yɔ mi kare [They wronged me by our people], Ye kare ŋa yemu, kare ka rȧbȧy-o [It is wronged, wronged by our leaders].
Matotoka, Tane Chiefdom, Tonkolili District
A Bundu society song performed by Digba Nasoko H. Turay, Matotoka. Accompanied by Bundu society women, saka (gourd shaker), saŋbori (Bundu drum), saŋgba (hour-glass-shaped drum) and ‘5 gallon’. The song is a warning to non-members to not interfere with Bundu society business. Digba Nasoko sings Yirȧ gbo əŋ kəli-o, Eya ye gbeleŋ bȧki yirȧ kəli-o [Sit and watch! Our elder sit and watch!], while the refrain, Gbenleŋ say, gbeleŋ kənəmla gbeleŋ say, is a Bundu chant that cannot be translated into ordinary language. The original location of Matotoka that Northcote Thomas would have visited is now the society bush and it is forbidden for non-members to visit it.
Mabonto, Simiria Chiefdom, Tonkolili District
This beautiful song is sung by Tambah Koroma from Kolifaka, and recorded in Mabonto. Tambah accompanies himself on the kondene, a 10-stringed bow (somewhat like a kora). This is originally a Yalunka instrument played by hunters. Traditionally, the kondene‘s bow was inserted into skin-covered gourd, which acts as a sound box. These days a metal pan is often substituted for the gourd. Tambah is a well-known kondene player locally, though when we visited him in Kolifaka, he explained that he hadn’t played in a long time and he showed us his kondene in pieces with no strings. The following day, however, when Tambah met us in Mabonto he had completely restored the kondene. This is a Koranko song his grandfather taught him. It tells of the hunters’ prowess and their ability to attract women, since they could provide food. It was played to hunters to give them courage as they left for the forest and its many dangers.
Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Tonkolili District
Northcote Thomas did not visit Bendugu, but he photographed a number of balaŋ players in Mabonto – praise singers of Paramount Chief Ali Suri. When we asked about local balaŋ players, we were told about Mohammed Gibateh in Bendugu, some hours drive away on very rough roads. The balaŋ is a xylophone, traditionally associated with the Mandingo, Soso, Koranko and Yalunka areas of Sierra Leone. This recording includes two balaŋ one played by Mohammed Gibateh, the other by his brother Fassaleh Gibateh. They come from a famous family of Koranko praise singers (Yelibah). This song speaks of the value of life – even if one has nothing, if there is life, there is hope. If there is hope, there is life.
Bumban, Biriwa Limba Chiefdom, Bombali District
A song led by Ma Binty Conteh welcoming us to Bumban. The song, sung in Biriwa Limba, expresses how the community is happy – someone has come to bring development to Bumban.
Gbawuria, Kabala, Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom, Koinadugu District
Mohammed Kuyateh is known as ‘Medo’ (‘the famous’), and is a well-known balaŋ player and praise singer in Kabala in north-east Sierra Leone. He is praise singer to the current Paramount Chief, Chief Gbawuru III, and his forefathers were praise singers to Chief Gbawuru I, who Northcote Thomas photographed in Kabala 1914. Thomas also photographed two balaŋ players in Kabala, including one called Fode, likely to be Mohammed’s grandfather, who was indeed named Yelli Fode. The first thing Mohammed did when we showed him this picture was count the number of ‘keys’ or gbene on the instruments – there were 15, while these days it is more typical to have more (Mohammed’s balaŋ has 18). Mohammed explained that the Yellibah always performs his songs in the Maninka language, regardless of what language he speaks normally. He is accompanied here by Salu Conteh on the bata (hour-glass shaped drum), and by his sons, Lansana Kuyateh (second bata) and Alusine Kuyateh (dundun or bass drum). Mohammed himself plays the balaŋ with a hand rattle or bell on one wrist.
Yagala, Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom, Koinadugu District
There are many different languages and dialects spoken in Sierra Leone, and Northcote Thomas was among the first to systematically document these. In Kabala and near-by Yagala we struggled to find anyone who could understand a number of recordings made by Northcote Thomas in Kabala in 1914. We were told, however, about a blind singer named Sidi Conteh who lived in a remote farming hamlet who might be able to help us. Guided by a friend from Yagala we set off for Kamaloko and, sure enough, Sidi was able to sing along to the 105-year-old recordings – they were actually in the local Wara Wara Limba dialect! Sidi accompanies himself on the kututen, a kind of finger piano. Sidi’s kututen is made from an old tin gallon can, one side of which is replaced by a wooden finger board to which are attached metal tongues made from old umbrella stretchers beaten flat. The can is filled with pebbles and shaken at the same time as being played to provide the rhythm. We love the way this song builds and how the voices of Sidi and other members of the Conteh family – Thunkeh, Marie and Koda – interweave with one another
Musaia, Dembelia Musaia Chiefdom, Falaba District
A Yalunka Bundu society song led by Sukaria Sigisa Samura. The women explained that this was one of their oldest songs, dating to the times of the great Yalunka chiefs. It was sung also as a demonstration of their pride in the women’s society, and in gratitude for our visit with photographs and recordings of their ancestors.
Copies of these and other songs recorded ‘in the footsteps of Northcote Thomas’ will be deposited with the British Library Sound Archive. We are grateful for the British Library for supporting this aspect of our fieldwork.