N. W. Thomas – an accidental artist?

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Shrine of Olukun, Benin City. NWT 144. MAA P.28134.
N. W. Thomas, Shrine of Olukun, Benin City, 1909. NWT 144. MAA P.28134.

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‘.)

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Instruments for marking body and medicines, Benin City. NWT 49. MAA P.28070.
N. W. Thomas, Instruments for marking body and medicines, Benin City, 1909. NWT 49. MAA P.28070.

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?

N. W. Thomas, Still Life, Shrine, Fugar. NWT 1056. MAA P.29135.
N. W. Thomas, Shrine, Fugar, 1909. NWT 1056. MAA P.29135.

Chief Iyamu and Egedege N’okaro, Benin City

Chief Iyamu, photographed by N. W. Thomas in front of Egedege N'okaro, Benin City in 1909
Chief Iyamu with retainers photographed in front of Egedege N’okaro, Benin City in 1909. Photograph by N. W. Thomas. NWT 1361. RAI 400.16557.

Further to our post on Northcote Thomas, Benin Kingship and the Interregnum, this photograph shows another controversial Benin chief who rose to power during Oba Ovonramwen’s exile. This is Chief Iyamu, a paramount chief appointed by the British colonial administration and given executive powers over a territory to the South East of Benin City at Urhonigbe.

In his history of Benin under British Administration, Philip Igbafe argues that such paramount chiefs ‘were ordinary chiefs and individuals who showed themselves to be useful agents of the British officers and had to be used to rule the extensive Benin Territories’. They were appointed ‘because they were loyal [to the British] and willing to serve, prepared to adapt to new conditions in order to retain influence, and could therefore be relied upon to do the bidding of the administrative officers’.

Chief Iyamu was photographed by N. W. Thomas seated on a white horse, surrounded by his retainers, and wearing a splendid gown. He is pictured in front of an imposing European-style house, known as Egedege N’okaro or ‘first storey building’. It was reputedly the first residential building constructed in Benin City with an upper storey. According to the Edo World website, construction of the house began in 1903-04 under the supervision of O. S. Crewe-Read, an Assistant District Commissioner, who was killed in 1906 at Owa by Ika resistance fighters. Although the circumstances are not clear, the house was given to Chief Iyamu, who completed its construction around 1905-06.

Although Thomas did not record the circumstances in which the photograph was made, one can surmise that Chief Iyamu had a hand in the mise en scène. Resplendent on his white horse, posed in the forecourt of his impressive Benin City residence, here is a carefully composed display of power, prestige and status.

Chief Iyamu, photographed by N. W. Thomas in Benin City in 1909
A portrait of Chief Iyamu, photographed by N. W. Thomas in Benin City in 1909. NWT 1363. RAI 400.16555.

At the same time, Chief Iyamu was a controversial figure. According to Igbafe, Iyamu was among those paramount chiefs who abused the power given them by the colonial administration, and it is likely that he would have been imprisoned for his misdemeanours had the British authorities not deemed it inexpedient to do so for political reasons. Despite the people of Urhonigbe rising up against Iyamu in 1912 and 1914, he was given the title Ine after restoration of the Obaship and crowning of Eweka II in 1914.

Egedege N’okaro is still standing, a well-known landmark on Erie Street in Benin City.

Paul Basu Egedege N'Okaro Benin City 2018
Photograph of Egedege N’Okaro taken in 2018 from approximately the same spot as Northcote Thomas’s photograph from 109 years earlier. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Many thanks to friends at the Nigeria Nostalgia Project for helping to piece together the story of this house.

Northcote Thomas, Benin Kingship and the Interregnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

 

‘Fire Brigade’, Benin City, January 1909

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Government Anthropologist sets sail for Lagos

S. S. Burutu, Elder Dempster Line

On this day, January 9th, in 1909, the Government Anthropologist, N. W. Thomas, set sail on the S. S. Burutu from Liverpool. Travelling on this Elder Dempster & Co. steam ship, he was bound for Lagos and his first experience of anthropological fieldwork in West Africa.

It was a more a matter of chance than design that N. W. Thomas’s became the first Government Anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. A few years earlier, in 1905, the Chief Magistrate of the Gambia, A. D. Russell, had proposed distributing a questionnaire to colonial administrators in Britain’s West African territories in order to collect information about the ‘customary laws’ of local populations. It was thought that this information would be useful for those colonial officials who were responsible for ‘administering justice’ in the context of indirect rule. The proposal was adopted and over the following couple of years a large amount of material amassed at the Colonial Office.

Report on Central Province, Southern Nigeria, tribal marks
Excerpt from one of the reports compiled by colonial officers on West African customs and laws reviewed by N. W. Thomas. These pages are concerned with ‘tribal marks’ in the Central Province of Southern Nigeria. RAI Manuscripts & Archives.

At the same time, the academic discipline of anthropology was fast establishing itself in Britain. The first qualification in the subject was, for example, introduced at Oxford in 1906, and a first generation of professional anthropologists had been lobbying government for the establishment of an Imperial Bureau of Anthropology modelled on that already existing in the USA. In 1908, when the Colonial Office began considering publication of the information about customary laws in West Africa, it was decided that the job of editing the material should be entrusted to an anthropologist. On the recommendation of E. B. Tylor, N. W. Thomas was approached to take on this task.

Thomas’s review of the questionnaire material was, however, damning. He reported that the quality of the information gathered was extremely variable, and found fault both in the design of the questionnaire and in the methods used in gathering the data. Such research, he argued, needed to be undertaken by an expert ‘familiar with modern anthropological methods’ rather than by colonial administrators – adding that, if so desired, he would be prepared to take on such a task. Thomas’s report shook the confidence of officials in the Colonial Office, and they took Thomas’s recommendations seriously. Following further consultation with senior anthropologists, including J. G. Frazer and C. H. Read, Thomas was duly engaged to carry out ‘an investigation of an experimental character into native law, custom, &c.’ in West Africa.

Of the governors of Britain’s West African territories, it was Sir Walter Egerton, Governor of the Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, who was most receptive to the idea of supporting the initiative to engage a professional anthropologist. It was thus agreed that the first ‘experimental’ anthropological survey should take place in Southern Nigeria. If the survey proved successful, it was agreed that the initiative would be extended, perhaps to other territories. It was important to note that Thomas was given little direct instruction either from the Colonial Office or colonial government in Southern Nigeria. Rather than focusing narrowly on specific problems or issues, Thomas embarked on a general ethnographic survey, following the guidance set out in the methodological handbook, Notes and Queries in Anthropology.

It is likely that Thomas chose Southern Nigeria’s Central Province as the focus of his initial tour due to his acquaintance with R. E. Dennett and H. N. Thompson, respectively the Deputy Conservator and Conservator of Forests in Southern Nigeria, who were ordinarily based in Benin City, the provincial headquarters. The companionship of Dennett and Thompson would, no doubt, have eased Thomas’s entry into what were, for him, the unknown worlds of both West Africa and the Colonial Service. Indeed, when his appointment was confirmed, Thomas requested that his departure for Southern Nigeria might be delayed until January 1909, so that he might travel out with Thompson, who had been on leave in England. The passenger list on the S. S. Burutu thus lists both N. W. Thomas and H. N. Thompson among its first class customers.

Passenger List of the S. S. Burutu, departing from Liverpool, 9th January 1909.
Passenger List of the S. S. Burutu, departing from Liverpool, 9th January 1909. Highlighted are the names of H. N. Thompson and N. W. Thomas, both bound for Lagos.

Further details about N. W. Thomas’s biography and career can be found in the article ‘N. W. Thomas and colonial anthropology in British West Africa: reappraising a cautionary tale’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 84-107.