To date, we have found just one photograph that shows Thomas’s phonograph in use in the field. This photograph was taken in Agila (then spelled ‘Agala’), in present-day Benue State, and is captioned in Thomas’s photo register merely as ‘dancing’. Thomas made only a few sound recordings in Agila, all on 4th June 1913, including this one of a female vocal group (British Library C51/3222).
Northcote Thomas’s recording ‘ident’ can be heard at the beginning of the track, ‘Agala, June the 4th, 1913’, followed by the womens’ song. It is likely this was recorded as part of the session captured on the photograph in front of a large group of local spectators (including lots of children), who were no doubt intrigued by the strange presence of the ‘Government Anthropologist’ in their town.
Although Thomas’s third anthropological survey, which took place in 1912-13, was intended to focus on Igbo-speaking communities in what was then Asaba District, west of the Niger River, he also spent three months travelling to towns in eastern Igbo areas, including Owerri, Aba, Ikot Ekpene, Afikpo, Obubra, Ikom, Agila and Nkalagu.
Along with the sound archives and collections of artefacts, the photographic legacy of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys in West Africa provide a remarkable record of life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century. As part of a ‘scientific’ endeavour, they were intended primarily as a form of ethnographic documentation and also constituted ‘data’ in themselves – particularly with regard to physical type photography. As part of a government-sponsored project, their entanglement in colonial power relations and racial representation/categorisation is unavoidable. This political context must be the primary lens through which we approach these images and practices.
Working through this vast archive of photographs, however, one is also struck occasionally by the aesthetic qualities of the images. This extends to both portraiture – which, in many cases, complicates our reading of these as ‘physical type’ photographs (this will be the subject of a future blog) – and what we might call ‘still life’ photographs. Indeed, as the examples included here show, Thomas’s photographs of material culture or architectural details are sometimes strongly redolent of the early still-life photography of Fox Talbot or Daguerre . This includes photographs of what appear to be ‘found scenes’ as well as compositions in which objects have been arranged purposefully for the camera. (Compare, for example, with Fox Talbot’s ‘The Open Door‘ and Daguerre’s ‘Fossils and Shells‘.)
This reminds us of a dual characteristic of photography that has been present throughout the history of the medium – that photography has been regarded as both a medium for the objective documentation of reality, independent of the photographer’s ‘artistry’, and as a medium of subjective artistic expression akin to painting or drawing. In the context of Thomas’s anthropological survey photography, a further question is raised regarding whether we may appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the photographs, while being mindful (and critical) of the racial/colonial politics in which they are entangled?
The image of the anthropologist as a heroic, lone fieldworker, battling through adversity in order to single-handedly document disappearing customs and rituals is a tenacious myth. Some anthropologists intentionally portrayed themselves in such terms. Malinowski‘s 1922 monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, famously begins with the lines: ‘Imagine yourself, suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which brought you sails away out of sight’. In fact, we know that anthropological fieldwork is – and always has been – a highly collaborative endeavour. The important role of fieldwork collaborators – including fixers, brokers, assistants, interpreters and other participants – has, however, often gone unacknowledged. A notable exception was Franz Boas, who acknowledged his debt to his Tlingit-speaking assistant, George Hunt, who collected much of the data on which Boas’s publications were based.
N. W. Thomas was undoubtedly an energetic fieldworker, travelling extensively in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the course of some 55-months of anthropological survey work between 1909 and 1915. While Thomas was the sole author of the various reports and publications that resulted from this research, and is credited with assembling the thousands of photographs and sound recordings, and extensive collections of artefacts, botanical specimens and linguistic materials that are the legacy of these surveys, it is clear that this could not be the work of just one man. But who accompanied Thomas on his travels? How many assistants did he have? What roles did they play? One has to look hard to find a trace of such collaborators in the archives of Thomas’s surveys – but they can occasionally be glimpsed as peripheral presences.
This peripheral presence is most literally manifest when Thomas’s assistants appear at the edge of the photographic frame, holding a number board, supporting the photographic background sheet, or diffusing the sunlight with an umbrella. Many of Thomas’s photographic negatives are loosely framed, allowing peripheral detail to creep into the picture. The intention would have been to crop these images prior to publication, removing the traces of their co-production. As an experiment, such photographs can be differently cropped, placing the peripheral presences in the centre of the frame.
Represencing Thomas’s fieldwork collaborators also entails recognising their trace elsewhere in the archive. In negative number NWT 261, a photograph of a group of Hausa musicians and dancers taken in Benin City in 1909, an assistant can be seen on the verandah making notes in what appears to be Thomas’s photographic register. These register books survive in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute and, indeed, the handwriting on these pages is not Thomas’s. Has the act of writing this very register entry been captured at the periphery of the frame?
Within the photographic archive of the anthropological surveys, there are just five photographs of N. W. Thomas himself. These were likely taken by Thomas’s field assistants. In one intriguing pair of photographs, taken at the same location, it appears that Thomas and one of his assistants – probably Corporal Nimahan (see below) – have taken it in turns to photograph one another. This raises the question as to how many other photographs in the archive might have been taken by Thomas’s assistants rather than by Thomas himself.
There appears to be only one entry in Thomas’s photographic register books in which it is noted that an assistant has taken a photograph. Thus photograph NWT 283 is described as ‘Burial of Legema, 26.3.09’. Evidently a sequence of four photographs was taken under this same number: 3 and 4 ‘by N.W.T.’, 5 and 6 ‘by John’. In fact we know a little more about ‘John’ compared with Thomas’s other assistants. This was evidently John Osakbo of Benin City. In a surviving letter from Thomas to the Colonial Office, sent from London in May 1910 after the completion of his first anthropological tour, Thomas requests that this assistant be paid a ‘retaining fee’ of £1 a month until his return to West Africa. Thomas describes John Osakbo as ‘the most capable boy I ever saw’, but notes that he was illiterate, and that the retaining fee should be paid on condition that he learn to read and write, and that he should also ‘receive training in photography’. It appears that Thomas’s request was granted. Thomas also recorded a phonograph of John Osakbo playing a song on a high-pitched woodwind instrument. Thomas’ voice can be heard at the start of the wax cylinder recording (NWT 16; BL C51/2164), ‘…song played by my servant, John, February 10th, 1909’.
It is likely that the number of individuals who accompanied N. W. Thomas on his travels varied from tour to tour. He travelled with camp equipment as well as photographic kit, phonograph and much else and would therefore have needed carriers. He seems to have travelled on foot, on bicycle and by hammock. In a letter to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, written in 1928, recalling the collecting of vernacular names of plant species in Sierra Leone, Thomas mentions that Temne and Mende plant names were obtained from his hammock boys, and that they had been recruited in Freetown. Thomas relied on the assistance of interpreters, not only in his day-to-day interactions with people in the communities he visited, but also in compiling vocabularies and other linguistic data. In the preface to Part II of Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, concerned with linguistics, Thomas provides a list of the interpreters with whom he worked during his first tour and explaining the methodology he employed. Their names are: Erumese (Edo/Benin City), Nimahan (Kukuruku and Ishan), Osidora (Agbede and Kukuruku), Ogbedo (Edo/Benin City), James Smart (Sobo), George, Oganna and Isuma (Kukuruku). Nimahan was a corporal of the Southern Nigeria Police, and appears to have acted as both official interpreter and as representative of colonial authority. In Part III of Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone: Timne Grammar and Stories, Thomas notes that the first twelve stories published in the book ‘were recorded from the mouth of various members of my staff’.
In conclusion, by attending to their peripheral presences in the archive, it is clear that N. W. Thomas was not a lone fieldwork, but was accompanied and assisted in his anthropological survey work by an entourage of collaborators. While further work needs to be done to identify both the names and full range of activities they undertook, it is evident that their roles were fluid (‘hammock boys’, for example, provided ethnographic and linguistic information and did not simply transport the anthropologist on his itinerations). These collaborators were not peripheral to the anthropological project, but were in fact central to the endeavour. Hopefully, through the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to identify more of N. W. Thomas’s Nigerian and Sierra Leonean collaborators, and correct the erroneous impression that Thomas was single-handedly responsible for assembling this remarkable ethnographic archive.
Marking the launch of the [Re:]Entanglements project, the first of a number of exhibitions related to the project has been installed at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The exhibition, entitled ‘Photographic Affordances’, includes a selection of fine digital prints from scans of N. W. Thomas’s original glass plate negatives that are held in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections.
Photographs made during Thomas’s four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 are dispersed in various institutions, including over 5,000 glass plate negatives held at the Royal Anthropological Institute and several thousand loose prints in the collections of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Approximately half the photographs made in Thomas’s three Nigerian tours were compiled in albums. Triplicate sets of these albums were made: one was originally kept in the Colonial Office Library in London, another was sent to the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, while the third was intended for scholarly reference and originally deposited at the Horniman Museum in London. Today complete sets of the albums can be found in the UK’s National Archives and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while, to date, we have located one album at the National Museum in Lagos. Hopefully, in the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to locate the remaining albums in Lagos.
Many of the prints on display at the Royal Anthropological Institute are so-called ‘physical type’ portraits. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century anthropological orthodoxy imagined the world’s population to be divided into distinct races and tribes, each with its own language, material culture and cultural traditions. It was also believed that people belonging to these groups were physically different from one another. Anthropologists of the era, including N. W. Thomas, expended a great deal of effort in mapping these different groups and their physical characteristics. One technique for doing this was through making photographic portraits of people – usually full face and profile – which could then be compared. The same techniques were used in the Ethnographic Survey of the British Isles, for example, but this kind of photography is often associated with colonial attitudes, which seemingly reduced people to objects that could be measured, categorized and compared.
When physical type photographs were published in Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, the captions followed this objectifying anthropological practice. Thus, people were reduced to ‘types’ and the photographs were accompanied by labels such as ‘Man of Awka’, ‘Man of Mbwaku’ and ‘Woman of Isele Asaba’. In keeping with the supposedly ‘scientific’ genre of the photographs, the subjects do not smile. They seem to manifest the colonial violence we expect of them. By examining Thomas’s photographic negatives, however, a different impression emerges: Thomas was usually careful to note the names of those he photographed and, among the unpublished outtakes, we find people smiling and even giggling. This challenges our expectations and suggests there was a more personal relationship between the anthropologist and the person being photographed.
Despite the large number of physical type photographs made by Thomas while he was engaged as Government Anthropologist, the colonial authorities themselves had little interest in them, regarding them as being of ‘purely scientific interest’ and of no value in colonial governance. Thomas himself seems to have pursued this kind of photographic practice more out of a sense that this was what a professional anthropologist was expected to do, rather than a conviction in its scientific import.
The physical type photographs displayed in the Royal Anthropological Institute exhibition raise difficult questions, particularly for an institution founded in the 1870s and also entangled in histories of colonialism and ‘racial science’. Some of the faces smile, but others gaze into Thomas’s camera lens defiantly. They return the colonial anthropologist’s gaze, and now, gazing down from the Institute’s meeting room walls after 100 years hidden away in storage, they confront and unsettle representatives of the discipline today.
The exhibition is not open to the public, but please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in seeing it.
Photography played an important part of N. W. Thomas’s work as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. During the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that he spent conducting fieldwork, Thomas took approximately 7,000 photographs on quarter plate glass negatives. Although these photographs were made as part of an anthropological survey, today they form a remarkable historical record of the localities in which he worked.
The first surviving photograph from Thomas’s anthropological surveys, made soon after he arrived in Southern Nigeria in January 1909, shows a chain of three men passing pots of water between them to put out a house fire in Benin City. Thomas captions the photograph ‘fire brigade’ in his photographic register. It is one of a sequence of shots of a house fire and its aftermath.
Thomas individually numbered each of his photographs and subsequently categorized them under geographical and thematic headings, such as Topography, Houses, Daily Life, Decorative Art, Technology, Ceremonies and so forth. He also kept a photographic register, in which he – or an assistant – made a brief note about each photograph as they were taken.
Over the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project we will be researching this unique photographic archive alongside Thomas’s sound recordings and artefact collections and will regularly post about our discoveries. Please share these posts and add any comments you may have.
The [Re:]Entanglements project has been researching and rearticulating the collections originally assembled by the anthropologist N. W. Thomas in the early years of the twentieth century in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. What does this remarkable ethnographic archive mean for different people today?
In the early twentieth century, anthropological fieldwork was primarily directed toward collecting and documentation. In the course of four anthropological surveys in West Africa, Northcote W. Thomas assembled remarkable collections of artefacts and local arts and crafts, but also ‘specimens’ of language, and even botanical species. With the aid of local assistants, he documented many aspects of contemporary life in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone in thousands of photographs; recorded songs, stories and music on wax phonograph cylinders; and conducted household surveys.
Thomas’s fourth tour, in Sierra Leone, coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Due, in part, to the straitened economic conditions that prevailed, it was decided to discontinue this early experiment in colonial anthropology. Rather than being kept together, Thomas’s collections were dispersed to various institutions where they were mainly put into storage. For the first time in over 100 years, as part of the [Re:]entanglements project, we shall be researching and rearticulating these collections, which today constitute a unique ethnographic archive of life in areas of Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the early 1900s. We are interested in understanding what this archive means to different people today.
As the work of reassembling these collections proceeds, we’ll be posting our discoveries and our queries to the project blog. We welcome your help. If you have any insights into the objects, photographs, sound recordings and other materials we post about, please do add your comments or get in touch using the contact form.
Material culture, art and artefacts
Thomas was particularly interested in material culture. He photographed many objects in situ, and documented manufacturing processes such as pot-making. He also collected around 3,000 objects, the majority of which were subsequently acquired by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (now the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology). From the little correspondence that survives relating to his collecting practices, it appears that Thomas purchased and commissioned the majority of objects he collected. He occasionally photographed his collections prior to sending them to the UK.
As part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we have photographed a large part of the collection held at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, and taken images of the objects back to communities from whence they came. Many objects have been researched and conserved, and a selection will be displayed at the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition in Cambridge in 2021.
In addition to the extensive collections at Cambridge, a small number of objects from N. W. Thomas’s first tour are held by the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.
Over the 55 months between 1909 and 1915 that Thomas spent conducting fieldwork in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, he exposed approximately 7,000 quarter plate glass negatives. Around 5,200 of these negatives survive and are held in the photographic archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Approximately 6,200 loose contemporary prints are held by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. About half of the photographs that Thomas took during his three Nigerian tours were compiled in triplicate sets of albums, each set comprising eight volumes. Originally, sets of these albums were held by the Colonial Office in London and the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, while a third set was intended for scholarly reference and held by the Horniman Museum in South London. Today copies of the albums are held by the UK National Archives and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. At least one of the albums is now held by the National Museum, Lagos and we are trying to ascertain whether others have also survived in Nigeria.
One of the most remarkable legacies of N. W. Thomas’s anthropological surveys are the field recordings he made. These were recorded on wax phonograph cylinders without the use of a microphone. Thomas made over 700 recordings, including samples of speech in the different regional dialects used in the areas in which he worked, as well as songs, stories and musical instruments. Copies of the wax cylinders were originally deposited at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and the Horniman Museum in South London for scholarly reference. The British Library Sound Archive now holds the most complete set.
Hausa ‘small boy’s song’ recorded by N. W. Thomas in 1909 during his first tour as Government Anthropologist. NWT117a. BL C51/2408.
Thomas also transcribed and translated a selection of the recordings using a somewhat idiosyncratic phonetic alphabet. Here is an example of an Igbo story he recorded in the Asaba region, ‘The Tortoise and the King’.
Igbo story of ‘The Tortoise and the King’ recorded by N. W. Thomas in the Asaba region in 1913. NWT617. BL C51/2942.
Explore Northcote Thomas’s sound recordings at the [Re:]Entanglements project SoundCloud.
Thomas became increasingly interested in ethnobotany and, from his second tour, made large collections of botanical specimens for the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Thomas recorded the vernacular name of plants in the local language and made notes on their use. To this day this constitutes an important reference collection of botanical species in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The dates and localities Thomas noted on the specimen cards provide the most comprehensive record of his tour itineraries.