According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood, dolls are known in all cultures across the world and are one of the oldest and most widespread forms of toys. Given their ubiquity, dolls made the perfect subject for comparative study across different cultural groups. Despite this, anthropological studies of dolls are rare. The colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas collected many examples of dolls during his 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria. Thomas’s interest in dolls pre-dated his appointment as Government Anthropologist in West Africa.
In 1906, Thomas published a questionnaire on dolls in the anthropological journal Man. The use of questionnaires distributed to colonial administrators, missionaries and other travellers was a common anthropological practice of the late 19th and early 20th century. At this time, anthropologists relied on material collected by others to inform their research. Prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist, Thomas had not personally undertaken fieldwork.
The questionnaire shows that Thomas was interested in what defined a doll as a doll, as distinct from other representations of human figures. ‘A doll’, he writes, ‘is, properly speaking, a child’s plaything … But there are points of contact between them and (a) magical figurines, (b) idols, (c) votive offerings, and (d) costume figures’. It is clear from the questions that, even as ‘a child’s plaything’, dolls have quite remarkable properties. Many of the questions seek to interrogate in what ways dolls may be perceived to be alive, and treated as such. For instance, there are questions about feeding dolls, whether they suffer from illnesses, whether they have feelings and emotions. Do they sleep? Do they die? If so, are burial ceremonies performed?
Although Thomas was particularly interested in the use of dolls among ‘non-European peoples’, many of his queries draw upon an earlier questionnaire formulated by the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, which was distributed to school children in the USA and Scotland. The findings of this and a subsequent study by A. Caswell Ellis were presented in an article entitled ‘A Study of Dolls’ published in 1896 in The Pedagogical Seminary. This is still regarded as a foundational work in ‘doll studies’. Thomas’s innovation was in extending this area of research into a cross-cultural, ethnographic context.
Unlike Hall and Ellis, however, it seems that Thomas did not complete his study or publish material gathered from the questionnaire. He did, however, present a preliminary paper on the subject of dolls at a meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute on May 14th, 1907.
A brief write-up in the Proceedings of the Institute notes that the discussants included anthropologists Emil Torday, Thomas E. Smurthwaite and Ernest A. Parkyn. The well-known dealer in ‘ethnographic specimens’, William O. Oldman, was evidently also present. A letter survives in which Oldman compliments Thomas on his ‘exhaustive and instructive lecture’, and draws Thomas’s attention to ‘a type of doll I do not think you mentioned’: straw dolls of Korea. Oldman encloses a photograph of such a straw doll in his collection as well as a ‘twin doll’ from Gold Coast (Ghana). Perhaps Oldman hoped Thomas would be interested in buying them! (Thomas states in the questionnaire that he would be ‘glad to receive specimens, which should be carefully labelled with the name of the tribe, etc.’)
In addition to the questionnaire, Thomas had been conducting library and museum based research on dolls. Notebooks and record cards survive in the Cambridge University Library, which include sketches and notes on different examples in European collections. A number of lantern slides also survive with line drawings of dolls from the African continent. These are probably the very slides used to illustrate Thomas’s talk at the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1907. The original source for many of the line drawings is an article entitled ‘Aus dem afrikanischen Kinderleben’ (‘From the African child’s life’) by Karl Weule, assistant director at the Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, published in Westermann’s Jahrbuch der Illustrierte Deutschen Monatschefte in 1899.
While Thomas did not publish a substantive article on dolls, he was clearly still interested in the topic at the time of his 1909-10 survey in Southern Nigeria. During this tour he collected approximately 40 dolls, mainly in the northern Edo towns of Uzebba, Otuo, Sabongida, Agbede, Irrua and Fugar. Those collected in Agbede, in particular, share many formal characteristics, and some appear to have been produced by the same maker.
Thomas also took a number of photographs of children holding dolls. In one instance, a girl appears to be holding one of the dolls collected by Thomas. This is somewhat puzzling since Thomas records the doll in question as being acquired in Fugar, while the photograph was taken in Ikpe, on the outskirts of Auchi, which Thomas visited after Fugar. It is possible that Thomas set up the photograph, getting the girl to pose with a doll he had previously collected. Alternatively, he may have recorded the provenance of the doll incorrectly, acquiring it in Ikpe. This raises the broader question about how Thomas acquired the dolls. Did he obtain them directly from makers? Or was he purchasing them from households? If the latter, did he persuade parents to sell him their child’s doll? It seems especially cruel to think that he may have forced children to part with their beloved toys.
Despite assembling this remarkable collection of Nigerian dolls, Thomas did not include any discussion of them in his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria. This is not surprising since the reports were primarily intended to provide information of use to colonial administrators, and the study of dolls would have been regarded as a matter of purely academic interest. But neither have we been able to locate any unpublished fieldnotes relating to the dolls. It appears, therefore, that Thomas did not use the opportunity of his fieldwork to gather the kinds of information that he requested in his 1906 questionnaire. As with much of the material assembled during Thomas’s anthropological surveys, we have only fragmentary knowledge.
We can, however, learn much by examining the collections and photographs themselves. The form of many of the dolls is highly abstract – some are barely more than sticks. Others, even though they may not have representations of arms or legs, have facial or body scarification marks similar to those worn by local people. Most striking is the correlation between the body ornamentation of the dolls and children photographed by Thomas, including hair beads, necklaces, waist bands and anklets. Some of the dolls are more representational in style, with arms, legs and more realistically carved facial features.
In most cases Thomas uses the English word ‘doll’ to label these figures. Occasionally a local language word is used. Two of the dolls collected in Fugar are, for example, labelled ‘omo’, which means child in the Edo language. One of the dolls collected in Agbede is labelled ‘utomo’, while another collected in Uzebba is labelled ‘omowowo’ (both of these include the word fragment ‘omo’). One example collected in Irrua is labelled ‘agagaigboie’.
In the absence of more detailed contextual information, it is not always clear what distinguishes the figures Thomas labelled as dolls from other kinds of figures collected by Thomas. Some, particularly more representational and less abstract figures, are visually more of less indistinguishable from those Thomas labels as ‘ele’ or ‘olose’ figurines, or figures associated with shrines. Fascinating though this wonderful assemblage of Nigerian dolls is, we can only regret that Thomas did not also collect the kinds of information he sought to elicit from others in his 1906 ‘Questionnaire on Dolls’. How interesting it would have been to have answers to those questions: Were they fed? Did they suffer from illnesses? Do they die? Are they reincarnated? What names did they carry? Did they feel emotions? Who made them? Do they have magical properties? We shall perhaps never know.
Although the collecting of botanical specimens fell outside the remit of his anthropological surveys, Northcote Thomas devoted increasing energy to this pursuit during his tours in West Africa. Collections made during his final tour, in Sierra Leone, between 1914 and 1915, still constitute one of the most comprehensive reference collections of Sierra Leonean plant species in the world.
Like many aspects of his work as ‘Government Anthropologist’, collecting information about plants was not something Thomas was instructed to do by the colonial authorities, but was rather something he undertook on his own initiative. While his published reports make little mention of botany, Thomas was clearly very interested particularly in the medicinal uses of plants among the people he worked with.
As far as we know, he did not collect actual samples of plants during his 1909-10 survey of Edo-speaking people of Nigeria. He did, however, make detailed notes on indigenous names of plants and their uses. Unfortunately, due to changes in pronunciation and the idiosyncrasies of Thomas’ phonetic transcriptions, it is not easy to identify species based on the vernacular names of plants written in Thomas’ notes. We were, however, able to identify ova, in Thomas’ list of medicinal plants in Otuo, North Edo, which is recorded as being used as a ‘strengthening medicine’ for babies. ‘The child’, Thomas explains, ‘is washed with it and drinks it for three months. Then the leaf is put in the girdle’. According to a 2017 article by Prof Idu MacDonald and colleagues at the University of Benin concerning ‘indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe’, ova is identified as Alchornea cordifolia, which is widely used in traditional medicine throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Thomas began collecting samples of plant specimens during his next tour, in 1910-11, in what was then the Awka District of Southern Nigeria – corresponding approximately to present-day Anambra State. Having assembled an initial collection of about 350 specimens from Awka and Agulu, Thomas sent these to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so that their scientific names could be determined. It appears that he intended to include these lists of vernacular name, scientific name and local uses in his reports on the Igbo-speaking peoples of Nigeria.
In a letter of 11th May 1911 to David Prain (1857-1944), Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Thomas apologises for the poor quality of the specimens. ‘I fear most of them are in very bad condition’, he writes, ‘as I have been having four tornadoes a week for some time and mist round my tent till 10am every day, so that nothing can be kept dry.’ He also explains that he lacks the technical knowledge and equipment to preserve seeds in such conditions, and seeks advice and materials so that specimens can be kept in better order in the future.
Over the following months, Thomas sends further batches of specimens to Kew for identification. In one letter he notes that ‘the collections are largely made by my junior interpreter’. Alas, we do not know the name of this interpreter and, typical of colonial era scientific practice, the specimens are all recorded under Thomas’ name. Thomas did seek to have this interpreter employed to continue the work of collecting during the following dry season at a cost of £20, including carriers. Neither the colonial government of Southern Nigeria nor Kew was disposed to fund this. In a letter from Arthur W. Hill (1875-1941), Assistant Director at the Royal Botanic Gardens, an offer was, however, made to purchase specimens collected under Thomas’ supervision at ‘the usual rate of £2 per 100 specimens’ – so long as they were in good condition and properly labelled.
At Kew, the actual work of identifying the scientific names of the plant specimens sent by Thomas was most likely undertaken by John Hutchinson (1884-1972), who was then assistant in the Tropical Africa section. In an internal memo attached to his determination list, Hutchinson notes that many of the specimens could not be identified due to the absence of flowers or fruits, which, in addition to leaves, are frequently necessary to determine species.
Prain conveyed Kew’s enthusiasm that Thomas should continue to send specimens during his subsequent tours and provided further guidance on botanical collecting practice. Templates were prepared for labels to encourage Thomas and his assistants to improve the quality of their documentation at the time of collection. These were adapted from a design included in a 1908 edition of Kew’s Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, dedicated to ‘The Useful Plants of Nigeria’.
Equipped with better knowledge about botanical collecting practices and materials, the specimens and associated information assembled during Thomas’ 1912-13 tour focusing on Igbo-speaking communities in the Asaba District (the north-east area of present-day Delta State) and 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone were of much better quality. Thomas continued to send batches to Kew, where they were identified, mounted on cards and accessioned into its Herbarium – a vast reference collection of the world’s plant species.
Despite gathering knowledge about West African plants and their uses on a more systematic basis, Thomas’ ambition to publish his findings on indigenous botanical knowledge seems not to have come to fruition. In April 1915, however, as Thomas’ anthropological survey of Sierra Leone drew to a close, the authorities at Kew suggested to Thomas that they collaborate on a definitive handbook on the Flora of Sierra Leone. Envisaged was a book that would appeal to a broader public rather than only botanical experts, and to include many illustrations by John Hutchinson that would make the volume ‘attractive and valuable’. A copy of Fawcett and Rendle’s Flora of Jamaica (1910) was sent to Thomas to give him an idea of what was proposed.
The letter, probably from David Prain, provides an indication of the significance of the collections assembled by Thomas and his assistants in Sierra Leone: ‘Thanks to your zeal and perseverance … I do not think there is anywhere so complete a collection representing the flora of Sierra Leone as there is now at Kew’. The letter continues: ‘We have had few collectors in Africa who have been so successful as you have been of late in Sierra Leone and I should be very sorry indeed if the opportunity of getting anything really good out of your efforts should be missed’.
After the First World War, plans for the proposed Flora of Sierra Leone were superseded by a geographically more expansive initiative that was to become the Flora of West Tropical Africa, the first part of which was originally published in 1927 under the editorship of John Hutchinson and John McEwan Dalziel (1872-1948). Correspondence with Thomas from the 1920s survives in the Kew archives, showing that he was consulted from time to time on the Sierra Leonean material while the manuscript was being prepared. The Flora of West Tropical Africa has been revised periodically and remains a major reference work.
After his few intense years employed as Government Anthropologist, Thomas fell into professional obscurity. In the late 1920s he moved to a cottage in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. One of the last letters we have found, written by Thomas in August 1928 from his West Malvern address, is to Arthur Hill, who had taken over as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He thanks Hill for sending him a copy of the newly published Flora of West Tropical Africa, but, in a manner typical of Thomas, then goes on to list typographical errors and misprints relating to his own contributions, including the misprinting of his own initials.
Despite the professional disappointments of his later life, Thomas continued to be interested in the medicinal properties of West African plants. In the early 1980s, the Canadian anthropologist Richard Slobodin (1915-2005) began research for a biography on Thomas. (He has previously written a biography of Thomas’ contemporary W. H. R. Rivers.) It is a project Slobodin did not complete, but one of the snippets of information he obtained from Thomas’ surviving daughter, Flora (1910-91), was that her father grew such medicinal plants in his garden.
Reconstructing Thomas’ Sierra Leone itineraries
As well as their value to botanical and pharmaceutical science, the plant collections assembled during Thomas’ anthropological surveys provide an important resource for assessing environmental change in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. This is a project we hope to pursue with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and colleagues in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in the future. In the meanwhile, it is through the high quality of the documentation of these botanical specimens that we have been able to reconstruct Thomas’ itineraries, particularly during his 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone.
Through the information on the specimen cards and field books, we have been able to correlate dates and locations, and thereby follow his journey. Furthermore, in preparation for the abandoned Flora of Sierra Leone project, Thomas was asked to provide a sketch-map identifying each of the locations from which the specimens were obtained. This allows us to be certain of locations in cases where the spelling of place names has changed or where there are multiple places with the same name.
This was especially useful in the case of Thomas’ Sierra Leone tour, since his work was largely focused in northern and central Sierra Leone. We learn from the botanical specimens, however, that he spent the last three months of the tour travelling in Mende– and Sherbro-speaking areas of the south. It is likely that he travelled by rail to the southern towns of Bo and Kenema, and then proceeded by foot/hammock to Pujehun, Tomabum, Talia, Gbangbama, Victoria, Kanga, then back to the railway town of Mano, before ending his tour in Freetown at the beginning of April 1915. There are few photographs from this part of his journey, possibly because restrictions caused by the First World War meant that he was unable to obtain new glass plate negatives.
Collecting the world?
Preliminary work for a study of the archives and collections from Thomas’ anthropological surveys was undertaken by Roger Blench and Mark Alexander in the 1980s. While, like Slobodin’s biography, this initiative was not completed, Blench and Alexander began to document the whereabouts of the various collections, and this has been invaluable starting point for the work we have been pursuing in the [Re:]Entanglements project.
In an article published in The Nigerian Field entitled ‘The Work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’ (1995), Blench reports that many of the specimens collected by Thomas (or, as we now know, his assistants) were no longer traceable at Kew. Blench states that many of the Thomas specimens were duplicates already in the collection and that they were exchanged with other herbaria around the world. ‘Apparently’, he writes, ‘no record was kept of the destinations of these specimens nor was a record kept of the information recorded on the cards. As a result, much of the data was effectively lost, and many of Thomas’s vernacular names can no longer be tied to specimens’.
Perhaps as a result of Blench’s inquiries, Kew botanist Humphrey Burkhill conducted a thorough survey of the Thomas specimens at Kew as compared with those listed in Thomas’ field books. In an internal memorandum he reported that only 55% of the Nigerian collections and 36% of the Sierra Leonean collections could be located. In response, Nigel Hepper, another specialist in African plants at Kew, argued somewhat defensively that the problem lay in Thomas’ lack of knowledge of botanical practice of collecting duplicates under the same number, so that the total of 11,415 specimens from Thomas’s surveys represented far fewer different species and included a great many duplicates. Hepper explained that it was indeed standard practice of herbaria to exchange duplicates, and that ‘if some with different vernaculars were distributed then that was the cost of dealing with such large numbers’.
It appears then that the sheer scale of the collections, resulting from Thomas’ remarkable ‘zeal and perseverance’, undermined their usefulness. The same can be said of other aspects of Thomas’ work and this partly accounts for why, despite the quantity of materials produced, Thomas’ anthropological surveys produced little knowledge that could be practically applied in colonial governance. Remarkable though they were, Thomas’ endeavours speak of the hubris of colonial science and its project of collecting and documenting the world; a project that was destined to fail.
Blench, R. (1995) ‘The work of N. W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria’, The Nigerian Field 60: 20-28.
Fawcett, W. and Rendle, A. B. (1910) Flora of Jamaica. London: British Museum.
Hutchinson, J. and Dalziel, J. M. (1927-36) Flora of West Tropical Africa, 2 vols. London: Crown Agents for the Colonies.
MacDonald, I., Ovuakporie-Uvo, O. and Ima-Osagie, O. S. (2017) ‘Indigenous plants used by the Otuo tribe of Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria’, Journal of Medicinal Plants for Economic Development 1(1): 1-10.
Slobodin, R. (1997) W. H. R. Rivers: Pioneer Anthropologist, Psychiatrist of The Ghost Road, 2nd edition. Stroud: Sutton.
Many thanks to Kiri Ross-Jones, Archivist and Records Manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for her assistance while researching this article.
The areas in which Northcote Thomas worked as a Government Anthropologist in Nigeria and Sierra Leone have, of course, changed a great deal in the 105 years since the end of his last tour. During 18 months of fieldwork, retracing the itineraries of Thomas, we have, however, also been struck by the many continuities. Despite urbanisation and Christianity, cultural traditions are strong! Take chalk, for example…
Thomas’s reports and fieldnotes on the Edo- and Igbo-speaking communities that he researched between 1909 and 1913 are full of references to the use of chalk in rituals, ceremonies and customs. This chalk is known variously as ‘calabash chalk‘ and ‘kaolin‘. In Igbo it isnzu, in Edo orhue. As Thomas documented, this chalk is used in multiple ways – as an offering to the deities and ancestors, as a medicine, as a symbol of purity, of good fortune and hospitality. It is a sacred substance.
Rites of passage
Chalk is used in many ceremonies and rituals, from birth to death. For example, Thomas describes the initiation of boys into the Ovia society in Iyowa, north of Benin City. ‘The boy joins the society’, Thomas writes in an unpublished manuscript, ‘by payment of a calabash of [palm] oil, 20 yams, a calabash of palm wine, 4 kola and 5 legs of Uzo [duiker]. The yams are cooked and fufu is sacrificed to Ovia. The boy marks his face with chalk and is then called Oviovia or the son of Ovia’.
Thomas recorded a number of what he labelled ‘birth songs’ in his travels in what is now the north of Edo State. The Omolotuo Cultural Group interpreted a number of these when we visited Otuo, explaining that they would be sung when the newly born child was presented to the community. To celebrate, both the child and the community members would mark their faces with chalk or arue as it is called in the Otuo dialect. The Omolotuo Cultural Group performed such a song for us, marking their faces accordingly…
Title-taking and kingship
During our fieldwork in Okpanam, in present-day Delta State, Obi Victor Nwokobia explained that nzu is part of the paraphernalia associated with royalty, signifying blessing and purity. It is used in the coronation of a new king (obi) and to invoke ancestral blessings on his guests at the palace.
With others in Okpanam, Obi Nwokobia was particularly interested in a series of photographs Northcote Thomas took in 1912 of an individual he identified as ‘Chief Mbweze’. The name, we were told, should be written ‘Mgbeze’, and what the photographs record is his title-taking ceremony. Thomas does not state what title Mgbeze was receiving, though he lists the highest titles a man may attain in Okpanam as being eze and obu.
Obi Nwokobia explained to us the use of nzu in the obi/eze coronation ceremonies. Prior to the conferment of the title, the initiand is rubbed with chalk all over his body. He also wears a white wrapper. The white of the chalk and cloth represents purity and sanctification. The candidate must then spend a period of 28 days in isolation. During this time, the white of the chalk connects the initiand to the ancestors. When the candidate emerges from this period of seclusion, he is considered pure and to have received ancestral validation of his coronation. The newly titled man dances and throws nzu on the people gathered as a mark of blessing on them. It is a moment that Thomas captured in his series of photographs of Mgbeze’s title-taking. These same practices are used in the coronation of an obi today.
Seeing beyond the visible
Among the hundreds of photographic portraits of individuals made by Thomas can be found many in which people have chalk smeared around one or both eyes. This could signify various things. The high female office of Omu, for example, was entitled to wear chalk around both eyes, as can be seen in Thomas’s photograph of the Omu of Okpanam (see centre photograph below).
Thomas notes that native doctors (dibia) were also entitled to wear chalk around either one or both eyes, depending on their seniority. The same was true of priests. Chalk around the eyes signifies an ability to see beyond the visible world and into the world of the spirits. Chalk is still used in this way among traditional doctors, diviners and priests, as we have often encountered during our travels in Thomas’s footsteps. They are sometimes called dibia anya nzu, meaning ‘native doctor with the eye of chalk’.
When we met Paul Okafor, chief priest of the Nge-Ndo Ngene shrine in Nibo, Anambra State, he wore chalk on his forehead and left eyelid. He explained that the mark on his forehead granted him access into the spirit world, while that on his eyelid allowed him to see into the spirit world so as to be able to solve his clients’ problems. Okafor further explained that he must wash the nzu off before going to bed, or else he would not be able to sleep, but rather continue to commune with the spirits until the next morning.
According to Nwandu, a dibia we met at Ebenebe, he uses nzu as a medium to communicate with the ancestors. He also applies nzu to part of his eyelid to be able to see the spirit world, and he demonstrated for us how he draws chalk lines on the ground when performing spiritual consultations – igba afa – for his clients.
Ọgbọ obodo and the Mkpitime cult
In the fourth part of his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking People of Nigeria(1914), concerning the ‘laws and customs’ of the Western Igbo or Anioma people, Thomas provides an interesting account of the Nkpetime or Mkpitime cult. Mkpitime is the name of a female deity associated with a small lake close to Onitsha Olona, now Delta State, which Thomas visited in October 1912. Thomas evidently spent time with the orhene or priest of Mkpitime, a man named Mokweni, whom he also photographed. His visit coincided with the annual Iwaji (New Yam Festival).
During the festival, the orhene is said to ‘go into nzu (chalk)’. This is a period of seclusion during which no one is allowed to make a noise, quarrel or fire a gun. Three days after going ‘into nzu‘, the orhene is supposed to make offerings at Lake Mkpitime and swim in its waters. On the fourth day, the orhene comes out of seclusion, accompanied by drumming and dancing before the mmanwu (spirits manifest as masquerades). Thomas describes how a woman created figureson the earth of the dancing ground using chalk, but also charcoal, red mud and ashes. Thomas notes that this is called obwo [ọgbọ] obodo – translating as ‘circle of dance’. The motifs represent various ‘totemic’ animals and other aspects of local cosmology, including a leopard, ‘tiger cat’, pangolin, monkey, viper, cross-roads, mirror, the sun, moon and Mkpitime herself. According to Thomas, domestic animals such as goats, ducks and fowls must not step on the figures. However, they are soon obliterated by the dancing feet of the celebrants.
Chalk at shrines
Chalk is associated with many deities throughout Southern Nigeria, including Ovia, Ngene and Mkpitime, mentioned above, but also Olokun, Ake, Imoka and others. Artist-educator, Norma Rosen, has written about chalk iconography in Olokun worship, for example, and some of the designs she discusses are not dissimilar to those Thomas photographed in Onitsha Olona. In an article Rosen wrote with the art historian Joseph Nevadomsky, the scene is described in which this ‘elaborately drawn chalk iconography’ is similarly ‘obliterated by dancing feet’, sending ‘vaporous messages fly[ing] back and forth … between the other world and earth’.
We witnessed something similar – and, indeed, participated in the dancing – when we visited the Ake shrine at Idumowina, on the outskirts of Benin City. We had created an album of Thomas’s photographs, which documented the shrine in 1909, and presented copies to the community and the Ake priest. A special ceremony was held in which the album was presented to the deity. As can be seen in the photograph above, adjacent to the altar was a pile of molded chalk blocks and a dish of powdered chalk. The powdered chalk was sprinkled on the altar on which the album was placed, and was used to create patterns on the ground, which were subsequently erased by our dancing.
In his fieldnotes about the Ake Festival that he documented at at Idumowina in 1909, Thomas describes how women would come to the shrine asking the deity to bless them with children, and also to thank the deity if they had recently given birth. (Ake, like Olokun, is a deity associated with fertility.) He records that children were given chalk to eat.
Indeed, chalk is traditionally ingested by pregnant women and as a medicine for various complaints. We have eaten nzu, too, during our fieldwork, after seeking blessings at the Imoka shrine, during the Imoka Festival in Awka.
A symbol of goodwill, friendship and hospitality
In some areas of Igboland, nzu is used instead of or alongside kola-nut in traditional hospitality ceremonies. The most senior man or traditional priest will draw or sprinkle lines of chalk on the ground while uttering a prayer. The number of lines drawn is often four, corresponding to the four deities or market days of the week – eke, oye, afo and nkwo. The prayer is addressed to Chukwu (the supreme God), lesser deities and the ancestors, asking for long life, wealth, peace and fairness. At the end of each prayer, those present will respond by saying Ise!
After the prayer, the chalk will be rolled across the ground from the feet of one person to the next in order of seniority (and social/geographical proximity to the host). It is important that the chalk is not passed hand to hand. Each will then make a mark on the ground before him, again often four lines. Ozo title holders are entitled to mark eight lines. Before rolling the nzu to the next person, each will take a small piece of chalk and mark one of their feet, or an eyelid and put a little in their mouth.
Nevadomsky, J. & N. Rosen, 1988. ‘The Initiation of a Priestess: Performance and Imagery in Olokun Ritual’, The Drama Review 32(2): 186-207.
Rosen, N. 1989. ‘Chalk Iconography in Olokun Worship’, African Arts 22(3): 44-53.
The first phase of the [Re:]Entanglements project has been focusing on researching the archives and collections assembled during Northcote Thomas’s anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. After the surveys, the collections were dispersed and they are now scattered across many institutions, including the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Royal Anthropological Institute, the British Library Sound Archive, the UK National Archives, and National Museum, Lagos. One of the exciting aspects of this research is to reassemble the disassembled documents, photographs, sound recordings and artefacts relating to a particular event that N. W. Thomas documented.
Here, for example, we bring together photographs, sound recordings and an object that can be associated with an account of a wrestling festival that Thomas attended on 12-13 July 1909 in the North Edo town of Otuo (spelled Otua by Thomas). This written account was found in a bundle of typed up notes from his first tour, perhaps fragments of an early draft of his Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria.
At Otua I witnessed a wrestling festival called Ukpesoda, said to have been ordered by Osa.
At 8.30 in the morning the road to the market but not the market itself was swept by boys who had not yet joined otu [an age-set]; then they plucked leaves from any tree on the road & headed by two boys carrying brooms marched through the town & back to the square.
In the afternoon a sacrifice was offered to the ground, euelekpa, by four of the king’s company, while the other chiefs looked on. The main share in the ceremony was borne by Eidevri (A) & Omorigie (B). A said: I salute the whole town; now is the time for our feast; B replied: the whole town thanks you.
A said: The king gets more fufu than others. The king replied: I thank you for seeing that it is all right. The fufu was provided by the king & three chiefs.
A & B then washed their hands & stood on either side of the stone of sacrifice. B brought water & put the dish on the ground; A washed his hands over the stone; B brought fufu & handed it to A & then put soup & four pieces of meat in the fufu dish. A put it on the ground close to the stone & they repeated this operation four times, once for each set of fufu. Then A & B stood aside, saying: We have finished, come & eat.
Then small boys lined up some ten yards away, rushed in, seized the fufu & took it away from the square to eat.
On their return A & B began to divide the fufu for the different companies. A cut the fufu horizontally, leaving some in the bottom of the calabash for the chief who provided it & putting the other slices on leaves on the ground. Then he took a knife & cut the fufu on the leaf & B gave to each company. The head took it & summoned the others. The people who are not yet in a company also get a portion, which is handed to the firstcomer after the order is given.
The meat was then cut up; the four chiefs got a piece each & A took the remainder home; it was divided on the following day.
The sacrifice over, the women began to dance & sing for joy; two performed to the song of the others; then all raised their hands & shouted.
‘Otua women’s song, July 13th 1909’. NWT 169, BL C51/2449.
On the following morning three drummers appeared on the square at 7.30 AM with three kinds of drums called alukpe, ozi & adoka.
Drumming recorded by N. W. Thomas in Otuo, July 1909. NWT 156, BL C51/2268.
As soon as the people collected the wrestling began. Men hopped round the circle as a challenge & the victor hopped around afterwards.
Anyone familiar with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart will recall the significance of wrestling in southern Nigerian society. We might imagine the scene in Otuo as being not unlike that evoked by Achebe:
The drummers took up their sticks again and the air shivered and grew tense like a tightened bow … The wrestlers were now almost still in each other’s grip. The muscles on their arms and their thighs and on their backs stood out and twitched. It looked like an equal match. The two judges were already moving forward to separate them when Ikezue, now desperate, went down quickly on one knee in an attempt to fling his man backwards over his head. It was a sad miscalculation. Quick as the lightning of Amadiora, Okafo raised his right leg and swung it over his rival’s head. The crowd burst into a thunderous roar. Okafo was swept off his feet by his supporters and carried home shoulder-high. They sang his praise and the young women clapped their hands.
Since the N. W. Thomas collections are in different physical locations, it is only through digital technology that we can bring them together in one space, reuniting sound, image and object. Bringing together these materials seems simple enough, but actually involves painstaking archival and collections-based research. Each institution has accessioned these materials using its own numbering system, and it has been necessary to reunite them using Thomas’s own original numbering systems, relying on the scratched numbers on the edges of photographic negatives, Thomas’s spoken ident at the beginning of sound tracks, and associating Thomas’s collection numbers with his object catalogues. This is further complicated by the fact that there is no straight-forward documentation of Thomas’s itineraries, recording what he did where, and what he collected, photographed and recorded.
In an earlier guest blog, the art historian Professor Jean Borgatti described her first encounter with the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas in the early 1970s. She recounted how she was able to track the changes and continuities in the masquerade traditions associated with the Eliminya Festival in Otuo from Thomas’s photographs from 1909 to her own documentation of the festival in 1973, 2003 and 2016. In this second guest blog, Jean discusses the Eliminya masquerade costumes themselves in greater detail.
Otuo community life is based on the principle of age-grading. Community member and teacher, I. Igbafe, described a series of 13 grades through which passed age sets formed every 5 years. (The anthropologist, R. E. Bradbury, described 11 such grades). Each grade bears a name and has specific tasks associated with it as well as specific ritual duties and roles. Masquerade and dance regalia characterize each group through the Otuoyema, or first title grade – the group moving upward in the Eliminya/Igugu festival. Igugu is a cognate with the Yoruba language term Egungun that refers to ancestors and ancestral masquerades, and was the name used by my informants in 1972-3. (Yoruba is spoken widely in Otuo as well as throughout northwest Edo communities.) Eliminya is cognate with the Edo term Erivi meaning the world of the dead and unborn, residence of the gods, the ancestors and masquerade-dancers (Melzian 1937: 55-6).
In Otuo, men between the ages of 45 and 50 both sponsor and wear masks and headdresses in festivals held to mark their entry into the group of community leaders. The sponsoring age group wears only two of the seven or eight mask types that appear, the others being worn by the age company above them. These masks are used for a season lasting 5-7 years and are thereafter destroyed. Consequently, they are almost unknown to the outside world. The masks incorporate a vast array of images that refer to ideas of power and leadership: leopards, equestrian figures, colonial officers, the Nigerian Army, heraldic angels and airplanes. The names of the masquerades belong to the esoteric lore associated with each age company, although the masks I refer to as ‘bowler hats’ are called by the popular names ‘umbrella’ or ‘helmet’ – names that suggest kingship or the military but in either case, authority. These and the ‘whipping masquerades’ are those costumes carried by the sponsoring age company [see illustrations in Jean’s previous guest blog]. The symbolism and significance of these masks also belongs to the esoteric lore of the association. However it is said that while the activity of whipping masquerades purifies the community, the ‘umbrella’ masquerades are enjoyed for their dancing.
All the masquerade headdresses are worn with a costume of woven raffia covering the performer’s head and torso, following the shape of his body. A fringed panel falls over his chest and shoulders. The section covering his head is embellished with a nose-like tassel. The lower hem of the costume terminates in long strands of fiber. The performer’s arms and legs, painted with linear designs, are partially visible through the fringe as is his cloth applique apron. (Today, shorts are worn rather than the backless apron worn in the past that left the buttocks exposed and visible as the fringe swayed.) Each headdress appears to give a distinctive name to the masquerade. In the parade of masked figures I witnessed in 1973, where the photographs that accompany this blog were taken, costumes worn with a towering feather headdress (Obagege), a central crest of straws bound together, and small wooden caps resembling women’s plaited hairstyles (Ogbigbia) precede the whipping masquerades (Olu), a type far outnumbering the rest since each member of the age group moving upward must wear this one. The wooden capped masqueraders are said to be for maintaining order during the public displays.
The ‘whipping masqueraders’ perform to disperse malevolent spiritual forces, each cracking his whip in an attempt to achieve a sound approximating a gunshot. (Those who succeeded were greeted with a resounding cheer.) These are followed by the ‘umbrellas’ (Ugbokpa) and the wooden helmet masks (Ogbogbomudu). These characters are said to be linked to the rains, and perform humorous skits in the playing ground. The most elaborate masks and headdresses featuring figural superstructures (Osa) come a stately last.
That each company moving upwards in the system must provide a new set of headdresses provides for the incorporation of new motifs into the compositions and new materials into their construction. Northcote Thomas photographed only three of these masquerade types in Otuo: the whipping masquerade (Olu) and the umbrella masquerade (Ugbokpa), whose later 20th- and 21st-century counterparts are dramatically similar, and one towering Osa masquerade that appears to have a canework superstructure into which are pegged multiple small figures. The final two types of masquerade I witnessed in the 1973 parade consisted of a helmet, usually janus-faced, surmounted by a superstructure containing multiple figures or simply a multi-tiered headdress with carved figures and animals attached to the basic structure, evoking the complex example photographed by Thomas.
My research in Nigeria was carried out between 1971 and 1974 under the auspices of the Federal Department of Antiquities and was partially funded by the following: UCLA Museum of Cultural History-Ralph Altman Fund and NDEA Title VI fellowships via the African Studies Center, UCLA. Research in 2002-04 and in 2014-16 was carried out under a Fulbright-Hays teaching and research fellowship at the University of Benin in Benin City. I would like to thank the people of Otuo for sharing information and experiences with me, particularly Chief Erukpe Omokhudu, Mr Isaac Adokhai Afekhai, and Teacher Igbafe of Otuo for their personal assistance in 1973. In 2003, his Highness, Julius Elugbe, the Ovie of Otuo, was instrumental in facilitating my documentation of the festival. In 2016, his nephew, Professor Ben Elugbe, was my host during the masquerades’ morning walk-about.
Borgatti, J. M. 1982. ‘Age Grades, Masquerades, and Leadership among the Northern Edo’, African Arts 16 (1): 36-51+96.
Bradbury, R. 1957. The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of Southwestern Nigeria. London: International African Institute.
Igbafe, I. n.d. ‘Age Group Organization in Otuo’. Unpublished manuscript given to the author, and subsequently deposited in the Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC.
Melzian, H. 1937. A Concise History of the Bini Language of Southern Nigeria. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
This is the first in an occasional series of guest blogs for the [Re:]Entanglements project by Jean Borgatti. Jean received a PhD in Art History from UCLA in 1976. She has carried out research in Nigeria among Edo-speaking people north of Benin for over 40 years, beginning in the 1970s, returning in 2003-04 and 2014-16 on Fulbright-Hays teaching/research fellowships with a base at the University of Benin, Benin City. She has carried out research among a number of small ethnic groups with which N. W. Thomas interacted, notably the Okpella (Ukpila), Ekperi, Weppa-Wano, Avianwu, Uzairue, Otuo (Otwa), Ogbe and Ibillo, publishing on the Okpella, Ekperi and Otuo masquerade complexes in the journal African Arts. In this blog, Jean recalls her encounter with a photograph by Northcote Thomas reproduced uncredited in a 1935 publication entitled The Secret Museum of Mankind, and how this led to her own documentation of the same remarkable Otuo masquerade in the early 1970s.
‘Awe-inspiring ceremonial attends the most important event in tribal life — the admission of the young men into the full rights of manhood. In South Kukuruku the initiation is performed once every three years by members of the Eliminya Society. They wear uncanny, somewhat insect-like masks with pendant tassels — always jealously concealed from the uninitiated and from women — a kind of tunic of loose cords, and crested helmets of palm-fibre.’
So reads the caption to this heavily modified photograph, published in 1935 in The Secret Museum of Mankind – a work described on the website at which it has been digitized, as a ‘mystery book’, with ‘no author or credits, no copyright, no date, no page numbers, [and] no index’ (http://ian.macky.net/secretmuseum/). Advertised as ‘World’s Greatest Collection of Strange & Secret Photographs’, its accompanying texts ‘read like the patter of a carnival sideshow barker’, racist and sensational (ibid.).
Like other images in the book, the photograph is not attributed in The Secret Museum of Mankind. We know, however, that it is one of Northcote W. Thomas’s photographs taken in Otuo (Otwa) in July 1909, in the north of Nigeria’s Edo State, of a festival he records as being called ‘Eliminya’. The photograph and the caption had previously been published in 1922 in a serialized illustrated encyclopaedia entitled Peoples of All Nations edited by J. A. Hammerton. N. W. Thomas provided numerous photographs to sections on the ‘British Empire in Africa’ and contributed an article on the ‘manners and customs of its native races’.
Both Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind were published at a time described by Annie Coombes in her book Reinventing Africa (1997) when Africa was a concept as much as a geographical destination. She notes that the Africa that existed in the popular European imagination was an ideological space, at once savage, threatening, exotic and productive. These ideas are reinforced by the images and captions published in popular works such as Peoples of All Nations and The Secret Museum of Mankind.
At this time two particular cultural arenas effectively disseminated knowledge of Africa to the European public: the displayed classification of material culture from Africa in ethnographic collections in local and national museums (such as the collections made by Northcote Thomas and now in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), and the spectacle of Africans themselves in a variety of large-scale national and regional exhibitions. The popular illustrated press and serialized encyclopaedias such as Peoples of All Nations were also part of this dissemination, and, as mentioned above, this material was later republished in works such as The Secret Museum of Mankind.
I recognized the photographs when I obtained a second-hand copy of The Secret Museum of Mankind in the early 1970s, having earlier seen copies of some of Northcote Thomas’s photographs. These had been made from the album lodged in the National Museum in Lagos and provided by a colleague, since at that time I was considering whether to make an art historical field study in the Edo North area (known in Thomas’s time as Kukuruku). I spent some time in the UK at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where I was given access to Thomas’s collection – although it was not well catalogued, stored or described at that time. I pursued a field enquiry in Edo North between 1971 and 1974, witnessing the festival described by Thomas as Eliminya in Otuo (Otwa) in 1973. (When I visited the festival was called Igugu.) Although this was not my primary research, after witnessing this extraordinary masquerade spectacle I did some follow up work and wrote an article on Otuo’s age grade masquerades, published in African Arts (Borgatti 1982).
I had been fortunate in 1973 to document a particularly important group of men who served as sponsors for the masquerades as they moved into what was described as the lower levels of leadership. They were men between 40 and 50 years of age in the Otuoyema age group. Otuo requires that its citizens participate in the age-grade system, even if that participation is by proxy, moving up systematically through the ranks. If a man does not participate, he may never become a chief in Otuo – no matter how successful he has been in the outside world. This seems to have provided considerable incentive for people to support the age-grade institution.
I returned to Nigeria in 2002-03 on a Fulbright-Hays Research and Teaching fellowship that enabled me to follow up on the Otuo (and neigbouring Ikao) festival. During the festival, I was the guest of the paramount chief of Otuo, Ovie Julius Elugbe, who had been one of the initiates in 1973. 2003 was a year during which age sets moved up, so new masquerades had to be made and the displays were elaborate, though not as elaborate as in 1973.
Subsequently, in 2016, I photographed the festival again, this time in the company of the linguist, Professor Ben Elugbe, the late Ovie’s nephew. 2016 was not a year for age-grade formation, since this occurs only once every five years when the new masquerades are introduced (in contrast to Thomas’s assertion that it occurred every three years). In between times, the fibre masquerades, if not those with carved wooden headdresses, come out annually in their respective quarters, going to each village square or playing ground to dance. According to Professor Elugbe, there are eighteen distinct playing grounds today. If no one is there to beat the drums for the masquerades when the arrive, they may just walk around and go on to the next playing ground.
Even though Thomas’s photographs provide an important visual baseline for Otuo’s cultural practices, much work remains to be done in these northern Edo communities that are struggling to conserve their remarkable heritage.