Traces of conflict in the archive

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

Working through the photographs, sound recordings, artefact collections and written accounts that constitute the archive of Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa, the turbulence of the times in which these materials were assembled is not immediately apparent. Of course, it can be argued that the archive as whole is a trace of colonial violence. As the historian Nicholas Dirks reminds us, colonial conquest was the result not only of military force but was made possible and sustained through ‘cultural technologies of rule’. Regardless of whether they actually achieved their governmental objectives, Thomas’s surveys were certainly intended to contribute to the consolidation of British ‘indirect rule’ in what were then the Protectorates of Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It is perhaps indicative of the thoroughness with which local resistance to colonialization had been quashed that Thomas was able to travel around so freely over the six years of his surveys between 1909 and 1915. Thomas worked in the towns of Somorika, in 1909, and Agulu, in 1911, both a mere five years after they had been ‘pacified’ through British military operations; he travelled extensively in areas of Asaba District that, until two years previously, were centres of anti-colonial resistance in the Ekumeku wars; his research in Sierra Leone took place in locations that had seen violent conflict in the Hut Tax War of 1898; and he spent months working in Benin City, just 12 years after the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897. Thomas did not, of course, travel alone – his entourage would have included porters and assistants, and we know from correspondence that, at least some of the time, he was accompanied by a member of the police force. There is just one photograph, from Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, in which a uniformed police officer can be seen – we don’t know whether he was ordinarily stationed at the location, or accompanied Thomas there.

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

The years prior to the formal British colonisation of Nigeria and Sierra Leone were also turbulent. Conflict was ever present; often driven by competition for land, resources (including slaves) and control of trade routes. Much of this conflict was directly or indirectly connected to the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people and other commodities, but also resulted from antics of expansionist states in the interior (the incursions of Samori Toure’s Wassoulou Empire into northern Sierra Leone, for example, or Nupe raids into the north of present-day Edo State in Nigeria). Traces of these conflicts – sometimes mislabelled as ‘inter-tribal wars’ by the colonists – are more evident in the materials Thomas assembled during the anthropological surveys.

Fortified hilltop towns

The longue durée of conflict in pre-colonial Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone is evident in the very location of many of the communities that Thomas visited. Town sites were often selected so as to make use of the natural features of the environment so that the community could be more easily defended against attack. This is most obvious in settlements in upland areas, for example those located in what were known at time of Thomas’s surveys as the Kukuruku Hills in the north of present-day Edo State, Nigeria, or in Koinadugu in north-eastern Sierra Leone. Many of the towns that Thomas visited and photographed in these areas occupied fortified hill-top locations. As a result of the ‘imposed peace’ that accompanied British colonisation, these settlements were subsequently abandoned and the towns moved to more accessible locations.

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

When we have brought Thomas’s photographs back to places such as Somorika, Okpe, Otuo and Afokpella in north Edo, or Yagala in Sierra Leone, community members are usually very interested to see what their old hilltop towns looked like when they were inhabited. In some cases, such as Yagala, the old towns were not abandoned until the 1950s and elderly members of the community have childhood memories of the places. Most community members, however, have known the old sites only in their abandoned state and through the many stories that are told about them. Many such stories relate to the heroism of warriors or the ingenuity of the community in repelling attack. The Imah of Somorika, HRH Oba Sule Iadiye, for example, regaled us with stories of the British attack on Somorika in 1904, which, while ending in defeat, is regarded as a moral victory.

In Yagala we were told the story of the famous warrior Suluku, from Bumban, who came with a war party, threatening attack. As they climbed one of the roads to the hilltop town, they came upon an old woman knitting. Suluku informed the woman that they had come to collect payment from Yagala. She gave him her knitting and said ‘Here it is, take it’. Suluku continued on his way to the town. Afterwards, he left by another route only to find the same old woman by the side of the road. He asked how she came to be there before them. ‘This is my place’, she answered, ‘I am not an invader like you’. Suluku thought that she had special powers and asked her for help. She agreed to help, but only in return for gifts. Suluku agreed, and said he would send his brother, Pompoli, from Bumban, with the gifts. Pompoli duly returned bearing the gifts and the old woman gave Suluku some of her magical powers. Incidentally, while Suluku died in 1906, Thomas photographed Pompoli when he visited Bumban in 1914.

Defensive structures

In the lower lying, forested areas of Awka District, which was the focus of Thomas’s 1910-11 tour, Thomas took several photographs of fortified watchtowers. They are known in Igbo as Uno-aja. None of Thomas’s fieldnotes survive from this tour and he did not publish anything about these structures, so we don’t know if he collected any information about them. Oral traditions about the towers survive, however.

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

These towers were typically two or three storeys high and were accessed through a small doorway on an upper floor, reached by a ladder. They served as both a look-out tower and a refuge, particularly for women and children, when a settlement was under attack. Some were rectangular in plan, such as those in the photographs above, others circular, as in the example at Awgbu (see below).

Professor Anselem Ibeanu, currently head of the Department of Archaeology at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, did some research on these watchtowers in the 1980s. While the majority had long-since collapsed or been pulled down to make way for new buildings, he managed to locate a small number that had survived, even though in ruinous condition. One of these was called Okpala Obinagu in Awgbu, supposedly named after the founder of the community who erected it. The tower can be seen in the background of one of Thomas’s photographs of the obu (meeting house), probably of Chief Nwankwo of Awgbu, who Thomas also photographed.

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

Professor Ibeanu was able to speak to the elderly great-grandson of the builder of the tower, and was able to draw a reconstruction of what it had once looked like based on the oral accounts. This matches Thomas’s photograph with surprising accuracy, particularly its construction from concentric mud courses, each of which was allowed to partially dry before the next course was added, and the small apertures for windows. Interestingly, in Thomas’s photo register, he captions the tower a ‘storehouse’, suggesting that it was repurposed once the threat of attack subsided.

Re-enactments of warfare

Thomas seems to have struggled to obtain information about the conduct of war – perhaps his informants didn’t want to give away military secrets to the colonialists! He did, however, photograph men in ‘war dress’ and witnessed demonstrations of ‘mock battles’.

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

There is a wonderful photograph taken in Sabongida in 1909 of a ‘chief’ (unfortunately Thomas doesn’t name him) posing with a magnificent dane gun and wearing war dress. The chief’s gown is covered in amulets, and the protection it offered was more magical than physical. Later the same year Thomas witnessed the annual Ebisua dance at Fugar. Community members in Fugar readily identified the photographs of this event when we visited. Ebisua is a war dance performed annually by the Uruamhinokhua age grade in honour of the war god Ituke. The men clothe themselves in their war dress for the dance, and, brandishing their weapons, reenact their valiant acts of the preceding year. It is an opportunity for the fighting men to show off their strength and military prowess. We were told that, in times of war, men would display the severed heads of enemies they had killed.

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

Thomas photographed another interesting event in Awka in 1911. According to the sparse notes accompanying the photographs, they were taken at a funeral of a man killed in war. (We do not know if this was a re-enactment staged for Thomas, or an actual funeral.) Before an assembled crowd, a group of warriors parade in their war dress, carrying swords and shields. In some of the photographs they appear to be staging a mock fight (see the photograph at the top of this article). Probably during this same event, Thomas made a wax cylinder phonograph recording of ‘Igbo war shouting’.

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

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

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

Memories of Okoli Ijoma

Not all traces of conflict are so legible in the archive; some traces only reveal themselves in the unexpected comments of community members in response to particular images. This was especially apparent in our fieldwork in the area around Awka, in present-day Anambra State, Nigeria. In virtually every town in which we conducted fieldwork, the archive photographs provoked stories of wars with the notorious Okoli Ijoma (‘Okoro Ijomah’ in the Aro dialect). Indeed, it was often because of the threat of attack from Okoli Ijoma and his mercenaries that towns formed alliances with the British, which resulted in a more insidious form of colonisation.

Okoli Ijoma was a powerful warlord from Umuchukwu in Ndikelionwu, a few miles to the south-east of Awka. Ndikelionwu had been founded in the eighteenth century as part of the expanding Aro empire. The Aro, with their homeland at Arochukwu in present-day Abia State, had established a major slave trading confederacy with a powerful military base, often supported by mercenaries. They settled throughout Igboland, forming alliances with some communities, while preying upon others. They are credited with introducing firearms into the region.

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

Conflict with Okoli Ijoma’s forces would have still been fresh in the memory of communities around Awka at the time of Thomas’s anthropological surveys, and the photographs he took of both people and places still bring to mind that dangerous time – even after 110 years. In Nibo, for example, we were told how the great ikolo drum would be sounded as an alarm of impending attack. It was a signal for the women and children to disperse to refuges, and for the men to gather in preparation for the fight. To save Nibo from further attack, Ezeike Nnama Orjiakor of Nibo formed an alliance with Okoli Ijoma, arranging for his younger sister to marry Okoli’s son, Nwene Ijomah. Nnama became a deputy in Okoli Ijoma’s court, but, later, as the threat of reprisals from the British mounted, he switched allegiance, while Okoli Ijoma fought on.

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

In other towns, allegiances were similarly divided. In Amansea, for example, community members were able to identify a photograph of Chief Nwaobuana, a well-respected leader who later became a Warrant Chief. He is credited with curbing the excesses of Okoli Ijoma and defending the town from attack. Another man, Nwene, was also identified, however. Nwene was the ‘black sheep’ of the community, and was known to take stubborn children from their parents and sell them to the Aro traders. The era of Aro slave trading was brought to an end with the British attack on Arochukwu in 1901. Okoli Ijoma died in 1906.

Read more about Okoli Ijoma and the ‘Ada wars’ at the Ukpuru blog, which is also illustrated with photographs from the Northcote Thomas archives.

Pax Britannica?

The coming of the British must have been met with ambivalence. On the one hand, alliance with the Europeans offered protection from local aggressors. On the other hand, of course, this led to the imposition of British colonial rule and the transformation of culture and society. Thomas’s anthropological surveys were carried out during this transformative moment, when new freedoms of the ‘British Peace’ could be appreciated, while the loss of self-determination under colonial rule was perhaps not yet fully apparent.

Some of the stories recorded by Thomas speak powerfully of this time of change and are therefore important historical sources. When local community members in Okpekpe, in the north of present-day Edo State, helped us translate recordings Thomas made there in 1910, it was interesting to listen to their interpretations. One recording compared past and present, celebrating the fact that children could now wander about freely and the town was now safe. We were told this related to the British defeat of the Nupe in 1897, who had, it was explained, on the one hand, brought Islam to Okpekpe, and, on the other hand, captured its people and sold them into slavery.

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

Godwin Gejele, from Okpekpe, provided the following translation of the recording from the Ibie language:

Eyia bhe amho
We’re coming today

Imiegba ana mhia je, ukha la mhi ayo tse we namhe
I’m going to Imiegba. If you get over there, extend my greetings

Ukha lamhi Imiakebu tsa Adogah na mhe tse we khu namhe, vhe wegbe omo mose ali omo kposo
When you get to Imiakebu extend my greetings to Adogah. I really appreciate him. I pray that God will bless their male and female children

Eye bi na agbo nele ali ona uhiena ono gwuo so mhi ne. Omo ovhe lasa ne na now li vho, ogbo kho oshie yele asha kha sha
In the olden days or in the present, which one is the better to live in? We can see in the old days, a child is not allowed to go out anywhere. Now one can go everywhere. Everywhere is safe.

Oso mhi ni bo, omue mhe gbe
We’re grateful to the white man who had come to teach and taught us many things

When we discussed this recording, elders explained that the speech was delivered in the style of a town crier. This raises the question of whose message the speaker was communicating. Does the speech convey a genuine sense of gratitude to the ‘white man’ for removing the threat of Nupe slave raids, or is this propaganda dispatched from the new invaders?

Further reading

  • Cohn, B. S. 1996. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton University Press. (Foreword by Nicholas Dirks)
  • Falola, T. 2009. Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria. Indiana University Press.
  • Ibeanu, A. M. 1989. ‘An Igbo Watch Tower (Uno-aja)’. Nyame Akuma, 31: 28-9.
  • Ohadike, D. C. 1991. The Ekumeku Movement. Ohio University Press.

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.

Fieldnotes: Chief Suri Kandeh’s kingbatankeh

PC Kandeh Sori Kankanday III of Samaya pictured with his illustrious ancestor Chief Suri Kandeh
Paramount Chief Kandeh Sori Kakanday III of Samaya, pictured with Northcote Thomas’s photograph of his ancestor Chief Alimami Suri Kandeh. Both wear the kingbatankeh as part of the regalia of office. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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.

It is equally remarkable when working with the artefact collections assembled by Thomas to identify objects that Thomas photographed in the field, and know these are the very same objects – they provide such a tangible link with the past.

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.

Chief Suri Kandeh wearing medal, photographed by Northcote Thomas
Left: Chief Alimami Suri Kandeh and elders (NWT 5189; MAA P.32937); Right: detail of Chief Alimami Suri Kandeh (NWT 5195; MAA P.32946). Photographed by Northcote Thomas in Samaya, 1914. Note the kingbatankeh, with its suspension mount.

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.

Kingbatankeh medal of PC Kandeh Sorrie Kankanday III, Samaya, Sierra Leone
The kingbatankeh worn by Chief Alimami Suri Kandeh when photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914. Note the suspension mount. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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’.

Information Regarding Protectorate Chiefs, Sierra Leone National Archives
Alimami Suri – ‘the best chief in the District’. Excerpt from ‘Information Regarding Protectorate Chiefs, 1912’, report held by the Sierra Leone National Archives.

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.

Kingbatankeh medal of PC Kandeh Sorrie Kankanday III, Samaya, Sierra Leone
The second, earlier kingbatankeh in Samaya, with the head of George III. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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.

Old photograph of PC Samura Bangura, paramount chief of Sanda Loko chiefdom
Photograph of Paramount Chief Samura Bangura of Sanda Loko chiefdom, who reigned between 1942 and 1972, wearing the kingdollar, with the bust of George III. Courtesy of 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’.

North American Indian Chiefs wearing British medals
Before being introduced in West Africa, the practice of gifting medals to native chiefs was employed in Britain’s North American colonies. Chiefs fighting alongside the British in the War of 1812 were awarded the same medal as that shown above with the head of George III and dated 1814. Left: Tecumseh (1768-1813), a Native American Shawnee chief who formed an alliance with the British during the War of 1812, painted version of a pencil sketch by Pierre Le Dru c.1808. Right: Shon-ka-ki-he-ga, Horse Chief, Grand Pawnees Head Chief, painted by George Catlin, 1832.

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.

1853 issue pewter medal in Sierra Leone National Museum collection
Pewter version of the 1814 issue medal introduced in Sierra Leone in 1853. An 1882 memorandum records that chiefs stopped wearing them because of being mocked by traders. This rare example is in the collection of the Sierra Leone National Museum. Photograph by Paul Basu.

When Governor Arthur Havelock revived the practice of medal giving in the 1880s (a time of extensive British colonial expansion and treaty-making in Sierra Leone), it was with the new, high quality, solid silver issue bearing the head of Queen Victoria – just like the one that Chief Suri Kandeh wears around his neck in Northcote Thomas’s photographs.

A musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas

Musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas in Sierra Leone

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, Kamalo, Sierra Leone

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

Women singers at Sendugu, Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, Sierra Leone

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

Digba Nasoko Turay and Bondo society women at Matotoka, Sierra Leone

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

Tambah Koroma

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

Mohammed Gibateh, Bendugu, Sierra Leone

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

Ma Binty Conteh, Bumban, Sierra Leone

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 'Medo' Kuyateh, Kabala, Sierra Leone

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

Sidi Conteh, Kamaloko, Yagala, Sierra Leone

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

Sukaria Sigisa Samura, Musaia, Sierra Leone

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.