N. W. Thomas botanical collections

NorthcoteThomas Flora of Southern Nigeria Herbarium Specimens
Examples of laid herbarium specimens collected during N. W. Thomas’ anthropological surveys at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (RBG K000412375; K000489471; K000234313) (Click image to enlarge.)

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.

Lists of medicinal plants used at Otua and Sabongida, North Edo. Excerpts from the object catalogue from Thomas’ 1909-10 anthropological survey of the Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria. (MAA Doc.413) (Click image to enlarge.)

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.

Northcote Thomas Olodi Gloriosa Superba
Left: Given his interest in West African botany, Thomas photographed very few plants in situ. He photographed this example of Gloriosa superba (English: flame lily; Igbo: olodi) against his photographic backdrop in vicinity of Agukwu Nri in 1911. (NWT 2826a; RAI 400.16241) Right: A more recent colour photograph of Gloriosa superba (http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org).

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.

Left: Excerpt from ‘List of plants (in part) collected by Mr N. W. Thomas. Recd.1911-1912’ prepared by John Hutchinson, assistant Tropical Africa section, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. (RBG PDL Folio 205) Right: Excerpts from corresponding pages of plant catalogue, including vernacular (Igbo) names of specimens and their uses. (MAA Doc.416) (Click image to enlarge.)

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’.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Southern Nigeria Herbarium Specimen Labels
Left: Page from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Additional Series IX, The Useful Plants of Nigeria, 1908, providing guidance on botanical collecting and labelling. Centre: Correspondence between Kew and the Crown Agents for the Colonies regarding labels for Thomas’ botanical collections. Right: Examples of labels used by Thomas during his 1912-13 tour of Asaba District, Southern Nigeria. (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Southern Nigeria 2343 Dioscorea
Left: Specimen of Dioscorea smilacifolia (Igbo: ikwolo ji oku) collected by Thomas or one of his assistants in Ezi, in present-day Delta State, Nigeria, on 10 February 1913 (RBG K001146076); Right Excerpt of corresponding page from Thomas’ list of specimens collected on his 1912-13 tour, including vernacular (Igbo) name and uses of specimens. Thomas notes that the root of Dioscorea smilacifolia is yam-like and is eaten at times of famine. (Click image to enlarge)

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’.

While the possibility of the Flora of Sierra Leone was being deliberated, another Kew botanist – Keeper of the Herbarium, Dr Otto Stapf (1857-1933) – drafted a more modest contribution, which was incorporated into Thomas’ Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916) as a ‘Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone’. The Report also includes a glossary of 46 Temne plant names, with scientific determinations – this was a very modest list, given that Thomas documented some 10,654 specimens in his botanical field books from Sierra Leone.

Otto Stapf Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone
Left: ‘Note on the Botanical Features of Sierra Leone’ by Otto Stapf published in N. W. Thomas Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone (1916). Right: Otto Stapf in 1924. (Click image to link to the article)

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.

Northcote Thomas Flora of Sierra Leone specimen labels
Examples of botanical specimen labels used during Thomas’ 1914-15 tour of Sierra Leone. They provide details of the specimen number and vernacular name, but also place and date collected, allowing us to reconstruct Thomas’ journeys in Sierra Leone. Note the use of a rubber stamp with Thomas’ signature. (Click image to enlarge)
Northcote Thomas Sierra Leone itinerary 1914-15
In his botanical field books, Thomas listed the specimen number ranges collected in particular places, along with the dates they were collected. (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Northcote Thomas Sierra Leone herbarium specimen map 1914-15
Thomas’ sketch map showing the locations in Sierra Leone at which herbarium specimens were collected, 1914-15. (RBG) (Click image to enlarge)

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.

Further reading

  • 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.

Nzu, orhue, sacred chalk

Nzu, orhue, sacred chalk
John Okwuchukwu Okoye Mgbemena, chief priest of the Ndi-ichie shrine at Obu Mgbemena, Umudioka, Neni, inviting the presence of Chukwu, other deities and ancestors through nzu (chalk). Filmed by Chris Allen, lightsurgeons.com. Translation: George Agbo and Yvonne Mbanefo.

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 is nzu, 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

Initiate of Ovia Society, Iyowa, Benin City, 1909
An Oviovia, a newly initiated member of the Ovia society, Iyowa, with his forehead smeared with chalk (orhue). Photographed by Northcote Thomas, October 1909. NWT 1288. MAA P.29446.

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…

The Omolotuo Cultural Group sing: A gigantic tree has given birth to its king; A lion has given birth to its king; It is a good person that gives; Celebrate with this chalk. Filmed by Paul Basu.

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.

Obi Nwokobia and nzu, Okpanam
Left: George Agbo and Obi Victor Nwokobia discussing nzu during fieldwork in Okpanam; Right: close-up of the molded chalk. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

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.

Northcote Thomas photograph of Obi Mgbeze Okpanam after his title-taking
‘Chief Mgbeze’ of Okpanam, photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1912 after his title-taking ceremony. He holds a pair of alo staffs and wears the eriri ukwu on his ankles, visual markers of his new status. Mgbeze is painted with chalk to symbolize purity and communion with the ancestors. We were told that this photograph was taken at the Udo shrine. (NWT 4093, MAA P.32104)

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).

Northcote Thomas portraits of people with nzu markings
Use of chalk around the eyes. Left to right: Woman and baby, Kokori, 1910 (NWT 1461, MAA P.29759); Omu, Okpanam, 1912 (NWT 4108, MAA P.32119); Okonlo, Ibuzo, 1912 (NWT 4336, MAA P.32320). Photographs by Northcote W. Thomas.
Northcote Thomas portraits of people with nzu markings
Use of chalk around the eyes. Left to right: Okoye, Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2383, MAA P.30731); Ojankwo of Onudu, Awgbu, 1911 (NWT 2491, MAA P.30817); Man in farm, Nimo, 1911 (NWT 2964b, MAA P.31223). Photographs by Northcote W. Thomas.

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.

Paul Okafor, Chief Priest of Nge Ndo, Nibo
Paul Okafor, one of the chief priests of the Nge-Ndo shrine, Nibo. (Nge-Ndo means the Ngede whose mother is called Udo.) The chalk marks on his forehead and left eyelid grant him access into the world of the spirits. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

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.

Dibia Nwandu, Ebenebe
Nwandu, a dibia in Ebenebe, demonstrating how he performs igba afa (divination). As well as the chalk markings on the ground, note the spots of chalk daubed on his right eyelid and left foot. Photographs by Glory Chika-Kanu.

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 figures on 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.

Ogbo Obodo marks, Iwa-Ji ohuu (New Yam) Festival, Onitsha Olona
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the ọgbọ obodo markings associated with the Mkpitime cult in Onitsha Olona, 1912. The marks, created in chalk and other materials, represent different totemic animals and aspects of local cosmology. They are drawn on the dancing ground during the Iwaji festival and are erased in the dust by the feet of the dancers. (NWT 4258, MAA P.32253).

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’.

Chalk lozenges and markings, Ake shrine, Idumowina, Benin City
Chalk in various forms at the altar of the Ake shrine, Idumowina, near Benin City. An album of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of the shrine that we presented to the community is placed on the altar as an offering to Ake. Photograph by Paul Basu.

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.

Paul Basu at Imoka Shrine, Imoka Festival, Awka
Paul Basu kneels before the Imoka shrine during the Imoka Festival in Awka. A great mass of nzu (chalk) was piled up in the shrine. Having received blessings at the shrine, he was given chalk from the shrine to eat. Note also chalk marks around the eyes of the priests on the left, and on the toe of the priest on the right. Photograph by George Agbo.

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!

Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo, Obi Dege Igbo, Igbo-ukwu
Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo at the Obi Dege Igbo, Igbo-ukwu discussing the use of nzu in Igbo culture. To his left a visitor from Neni draws four lines on the ground before rolling the chalk to another guest. Photograph by Glory Chika-Kanu.
Prince Chukwunonso Umeokonkwo calls upon God, the deities and ancestors while marking the ground with chalk. Filmed by Chris Allen, lightsurgeons.com. Translation: George Agbo and Yvonne Mbanefo.

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.

Further reading

  • 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.

Otuo wrestling festival, July 1909

N. W. Thomas type-written notes describing wrestling festival in Otuo
Excerpt from N. W. Thomas’s typed-up notes describing Otuo’s ‘Ukpesoda’ wrestling festival, 12-13 July 1909.

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.

Children sweeping road before wrestling festival, Otuo
Uninitiated children sweeping the road to the market before the start of the festival, Otuo. NWT 817b, RAI 400.17082.

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.

Distributing sacrifices at wrestling festival, Otuo
Distributing sacrificed fufu and meat to the king and chiefs on the first day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 816f, RAI 400.17075.

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 wrestling festival, women's song.
Women singing on the first day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 816l, RAI 400.17080.

‘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.

Otua wrestling festival, drummers
Drummers playing on the second day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 817a, RAI 400.17081.

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.

Wrestling festival, Otuo
Wrestling scenes during the second day of the festival, Otuo. NWT 818c2, RAI 400.17084; NWT 818c3, RAI 400.17085; NWT 818c4, RAI 400.17086.

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.

Alukpe drum collected by N. W. Thomas in Otuo
‘Alukpe’ drum collected by N. W. Thomas in Otuo in 1909. If this is not the actual drum in the photographs of the wrestling festival, it is very similar. NWT 2048, MAA Z 13384.

The Eliminya Festival masquerades ‘in detail’, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Otuoyema Group masquerades of the type referred to as Osa. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the final performance of Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, 1973. The performance was held in honor of Samuel Ogbemudia who served as military governor of what was then Midwest State. Right: Otuoyema Group masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas (NWT 839) in Emafu (Imafun) Quarter, Otuo, in 1909.

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).

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Osa type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

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.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
From left to right: Obagege, crested, and Ogbigbia type masquerades photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

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.

Jean Borgatti Eliminya Festival masquerades in detail
Left: Olu, ‘whipping masquerades’, whose role is to disperse malevolent spirits; right: Ogbogbomudu masquerade types, which perform humorous skits in the playing ground. Photographed by Jean Borgatti at the Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, in 1973.

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.

Eliminya Festival masquerade photographed by Northcote Thomas in Otuo in 1909
Northcote Thomas’s photograph of the Osa masquerade type in Otuo in 1909. NWT 837.

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.

Further reading:

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.

The Eliminya Festival, Otuo, Guest blog by Jean Borgatti

Northcote Thomas's photograph of Eliminya masquerade costumes, Otuo as published in Peoples of All Nations in 1922.
N. W. Thomas’s photograph of Eliminya masquerade costumes as published and captioned in Peoples of All Nations in 1922, and The Secret Museum of Mankind in 1935.

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.).

Northcote Thomas's photograph of the Eliminya masquerade costumes, Otuo, July 1909. NWT 840. RAI 400.19717.
N. W. Thomas’s original photograph of the Eliminya masquerade costumes, taken in Otuo in July 1909 (NWT 840). Scanned from glass plate negative in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections (RAI 400.19717).

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).

Jean Borgatti's photograph of Eliminya or Igugu festival, 1973.
Otuoyema group masqueraders in fibre costumes, Otuo, 1973. Photograph by Jean Borgatti.

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.

Jean Borgatti's photograph of Eliminya or Igugu festival, 1973.
Otuoyema group masqueraders wearing headdresses of raffia velvet, Otuo, 1973. Photograph by Jean Borgatti.

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.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2003
Large masquerade (Ugbokpa), sometimes called ‘umbrella’, followed by a smaller, flat ‘whipping’ masquerade (Olu) moving from playing ground to playing ground at the beginning of the festival. Igugu/Eliminya Festival, Imakhize Village, Otuo, January 12, 2003.

 

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2003
Ugbokpa and Olu masquerades in Uzawa Village playing ground with age company member. Igugu/Eliminya Festival, Otuo, January 12, 2003.

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.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2016
Large masquerade (Ugbokpa) arriving at playing ground in Oluma Village. Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, January 1, 2016.

Jean Borgatti, Eliminya Festival, Otuo, 2016
Small masquerade (Olu) performing to the beat of the drum (odoka) in Oluma Village. Igugu/Eliminya festival, Otuo, January 1, 2016.

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.