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Debating Igbo Culture - the Colonial Tradition

6 Debating Igbo Culture - the Colonial Tradition Although many studies have stressed the similarities and the cooperation between the missions and the colonial administration, 1 there were also significant
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6 Debating Igbo Culture - the Colonial Tradition Although many studies have stressed the similarities and the cooperation between the missions and the colonial administration, 1 there were also significant differences between the colonial discourse on Igbo culture and the debate of the missionaries and Igbo Christians. While the latter groups were concerned with the differences (and later the similarities) between Christianity and traditional culture, the colonial administration was more interested in determining the functioning of traditional power and authority. The colonial descriptions of Igbo culture were part of a wider discourse that discussed the location, extent and political organization of African groups. Therefore, in the eyes of colonial officers and anthropologists, the colonial discourse on Igbo culture was purely pragmatic, aimed at the creation of knowledge that would be of assistance to the administration. Of course, the knowledge created was much more than just that, as it emerged in the context of a colonialist world view which justified the subjection of large parts of the world on the basis of racial stereotypes, and notions of primitiveness and savagery. The resulting descriptions of Igbo culture reflected actual field observations, varying degrees of colonialist stereotypes, and the pragmatic concern to determine political units and their rulers. The need to collect data was recognized throughout the colonial period, resulting in what I call the evolving colonial tradition of writing about Igbo culture. I do not use the commonly applied term `colonial discourse' for these descriptions, as that term relates to a much broader field of texts, aimed primarily at public opinion within Britain, 2 while my interest here lies with those aspects of the colonial discourse that may have had an impact upon Igbo consciousness. I use the term `tradition' instead to emphasize that, despite the heterogeneity and internal ruptures that also characterized the colonial project, 3 the colonial descriptions share a number of basic assumptions regarding Igbo culture, while later descriptions generously copy data from earlier reports. Through repetition and claims to authority, this tradition created part of the Igbo reality, although it appeared merely to describe. Despite the claims to authority, professionals were not employed all the time. During some periods, Government Anthropologists were active, but most of the time ethnographic data was collected by the regular district officers in the course of their other duties. This was of course done in collaboration with their Igbo clerks, whose interpretations proved essential to an understanding of Igbo culture. At least a number of the district officers relied on their clerks for information on Igbo culture, treating their opinions as authoritative. 4 In other cases entire reports were 1 For a discussion of the ways in which the link between mission and colonialism has been studied, see: Peter Pels, Critical Matters. Interactions between Missionaries and Waluguru in Colonial Tanganyika, (Amsterdam 1993) Homi Bhabha, `Of mimicry and man' in: Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York 1994). 3 Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture. Anthropology, Travel and Government (Oxford 1994) See for example NAI; CSO Secretary, S.P. to Chief Secretary of the Government, Enugu, 8 April 1936. The Colonial Tradition 175 written by Igbo clerks rather than by the district officer himself. 5 Nevertheless, these reports continued to reflect the colonial viewpoint. In this chapter, I will describe the colonial tradition of debating Igbo culture, and show, as I have done for mission Christianity's debate, how the understanding of Igbo culture changed over time. Like mission Christianity's descriptions, the colonial accounts have influenced Igbo perceptions of being Igbo and of Igbo culture. At the end of the chapter, I will discuss this impact. After discussing the influence of colonial perceptions upon Igbo culture in general terms, I will end the chapter by taking a look at those local Igbo political debates that took place in the explicit context of the colonial state. I will show how these debates discussed local political issues in terms that partly derived from, and were intended to influence, the colonial viewpoint. These debates represented an Igbo understanding of Igbo culture that was useful for communicating in the particular context of the interaction with the colonial administration, but was not yet relevant outside that context. Following Johannes Fabian, I call this process the pidginization of local Igbo political debates Searching for the chief The accounts of the expeditions of the nineteenth century form a precursor to the colonial tradition in the sense that not only did they describe the people encountered, they also quite literally attempted to place the different groups on a map. Following the expeditions along the river Niger during the 1840s and 1850s, there were attempts to enter the interior in 1894 and The reports of these expeditions, the information received from coastal groups, and the missionary reports, all served as essential intelligence when the British decided to conquer Southeast Nigeria after Once the area was conquered, the colonial administration felt the need for more extensive knowledge about the newly subjected people as an entirely new system of administration had to be set up. An attempt was made to understand the workings of the pre-colonial political system, because it was thought that existing rulers would be the most suitable to represent the new colonial government. Other subjects that were of interest to the administration included the causes of theft, and the effects of the liquor trade. In more general terms, it was argued that knowledge of local culture would serve to bring to notice those customs which should be discouraged by the administration, and customs which were considered progressive and should therefore receive encouragement. 8 Thus the need for acquiring knowledge of Igbo culture was recognized, provided that this knowledge was practical, and indeed the colonial officers were encouraged to `study the native from the native point of view' as this would assist them in the 5 NAI; CSO Vol.I R. Hargrove to the Under S. of S. for the Colonies, London, 21 May Johannes Fabian, `Popular culture in Africa: findings and conjectures' in: Karin Barber, ed., Readings in African Popular Culture (Bloomington, Indianapolis and Oxford 1997) 18-28; there 19 (originally published in Africa in 1978). 7 A. E. Afigbo, `Southeastern Nigeria in the nineteenth century' in: J. F. Ade Ajayi and Michael Crowder, History of West Africa Vol.II (Harlow ) ; there PRO; CO Letter Cameron to Churchill, 13 August 1921. 176 Dmitri van den Bersselaar practical work of ruling their district. At least two of these officers conducted independent research which they published as books. They claimed that the aim of these publications was to help their successors by providing them with basic information on the peoples of the area. 9 The development of a colonial tradition Around 1900, the common method to gain information about the local culture was to distribute ethnographic questionnaires to colonial officers. 10 This method was adopted by the Colonial Office in 1906 when it decided to compile a systematic account of the population of British West Africa, focusing primarily on the law of the different groups: a questionnaire was produced which was circulated to the district officers. When the answers arrived in England, the Colonial Office decided to ask a trained anthropologist to analyze the data and organize the information into a book. After consulting such experts as Frazer, Read, and Tylor, they decided to ask Northcote W. Thomas, an anthropologist who had recently published an armchair study of Australian kinship. 11 However, Thomas concluded that the data produced by the questionnaire was of inferior quality, and argued that only an experienced anthropologist would be able to collect reliable data. He consequently managed to convince the civil servants in the Colonial Office to employ him. 12 When Thomas was appointed as the first Government Anthropologist, he was given specific instructions that his work should be of practical interest to the government, and that purely scientific research should not interfere with his main duties. 13 When Thomas was first sent to Southern Nigeria, he followed established practice and distributed his own questionnaire to the colonial officers. However, his relations with these officers were not very cordial. Apparently, Thomas believed that he could order about the local colonial officers because he had been appointed by the Colonial Office, while his rather eccentric personal style did not go down well with them either. Decades later, J. W. Flood, a civil servant in the Colonial Office, wrote that `Mr. Northcote Thomas was a recognized maniac in many ways. He wore sandals, even in this country, lived on vegetables, and was generally a rum person.' 14 Although Thomas did produce some very practical reports, he spent much of his time doing the type of impractical especially linguistic research from which he had been instructed to refrain. 15 This is reflected in his Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of 9 A. E. Afigbo, `Anthropology and colonial administration in south-eastern Nigeria, ', Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 8.1 (1975) 19-35; there The quote comes from the introduction to C. Partridge, Cross River Natives (London 1905), cited by Afigbo. 10 Jan Vansina, `The ethnographical account as a genre in Central Africa', Paideuma 33 (1987) ; there 435, George W. Stocking, Jr., After Tylor. British Social Anthropology (Madison, WI 1995) PRO; CO Letter to Crown Agents, October 1914; CO /1003 Memorandum Fiddian on the appointment of an anthropologist to West Africa, 16 December Henrika Kuklick, The Savage Within. The Social History of British Anthropology, (Cambridge 1991) Ibidem, Ibidem, 200. The Colonial Tradition 177 Nigeria which was published in six volumes, largely filled with linguistic data, but also including information on the `law and custom' of two Igbo groups. 16 The book contributed to the idea of the existence of one generally shared Igbo culture in the sense that Thomas tended to consider his observations from one group to be valid for all Igbo. Despite Thomas's connection to the British administration, in many respects his report was a very critical and independent product. 17 Thomas indicates what information was derived from personal observation, what from discussions with elders, and what from missions or from the colonial administration, often indicating that his own opinion differed from that of the latter groups. Compared to later colonial studies, his report was not very concerned with proving its relevance to the administration. Although Thomas' research was funded by the Colonial Office he did not bother to indicate how the knowledge he had accumulated could contribute to policy formulation. The administrators considered this to be a major short-coming. Their doubts about Thomas were increased by the fact that the district officer of the area where Thomas conducted his research did not agree with most of the anthropologist's observations. They reached the conclusion that `an anthropologist was not always of service from an administrative point of view.' 18 As a result Thomas's appointment did not last long; in 1912 the Protectorate's administration (apparently at the instigation of Frederick Lugard, the Governor of Nigeria 19 ) had him removed to Sierra Leone where his work proved equally controversial. His employment with the Colonial Office came to an end in Nevertheless, Thomas made a considerable impact upon a number of fields, especially linguistics, as his categorization of Igbo dialects was largely accepted by linguists for a long time. 21 By demarcating who were the Igbospeaking peoples, Thomas contributed considerably to the definition of who was Igbo and who was not. Furthermore, in having produced the first anthropological work on the Igbo, he not only influenced the ideas of the colonial officers who received copies of his report, 22 but also influenced later ethnographical research on the Igbo. Finally, for a long time his behaviour and the type of works he produced served as a deterrent to any temptations the Colonial Office might have of hiring another professional anthropologist. 16 Northcote Whitridge Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria 6 Vols (London 1913) has the following volumes: I. Law and custom of the Ibo of the Awka neighbourhood, S. Nigeria; II. English-Ibo and Ibo-English dictionary; III. Proverbs, narratives, vocabularies and grammar; IV. Law and custom of the Ibo of the Asaba district, S. Nigeria; V. Addenda to Ibo-English dictionary; VI. Proverbs, stories, tones in Ibo. Thomas nevertheless claimed that `comparatively little of my time is devoted to linguistic research' (V, iii-iv). 17 His report was principally critical of the government and the missions. His attitude towards the people he studied, to judge from his book, appears to have been a mixture of critical study and some degree of naivety: `Another incident will sufficiently prove their sincerity; I enquired as to their procedure when they were called to a sick man; they told me that they marched up and down beating their doctors' staff on the ground, and then declared that they saw an evil spirit; I asked what they really saw; they laughed and said, oh, nothing, but it's a good way of getting money out of a man. With such frankness as this in matters affecting their trade I can hardly imagine that they would deceive me in the matter of the snake medicine.' Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples I, PRO; CO /1003 Memorandum Fiddian. 19 Kuklick, The Savage Within 200. It should be noted that the Protectorates of Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria were only amalgamated in 1914, but that Frederick Lugard became the first governor of both parts of Nigeria in Stocking, After Tylor Kay R. M. Williamson, `The Lower Niger Languages', Oduma Magazine 1.1 (1973) NAE; CALPROF 14/8/1171 Report on Ibo language by Mr. N. W. Thomas, Government Anthropologist (1913). 178 Dmitri van den Bersselaar However, Lugard had his own ideas about anthropological research totally unrelated to the colonial administration's experience with Thomas which did not include a government anthropologist. According to Lugard, political officers would conduct anthropological studies that were of greater relevance to the administration than those of professional anthropologists, as their results would be more practical. This idea was based upon Lugard's own experiences in Northern Nigeria where political officers managed to combine their duties with anthropological researches. 23 From now on, the district officers were expected to make their own notes about Igbo culture, and indeed every District Office contained an Intelligence Book in which relevant observations were to be recorded. Furthermore, they were expected to regularly write intelligence reports, containing practical ethnographical information collected by the district officer. Some colonial officers became really interested in this ethnographical side of their work and later even took courses on the subject during their leave in Britain. Colonial officers were officially encouraged to acquire a background training in anthropology when on leave, and the colonial administration recommended certain courses for which it would pay the college fees. 24 However, by the early 1930s only a few officers had actually attended these courses. 25 Nevertheless, the colonial debate on Igbo culture continued. In 1920 another attempt was made to collect information on the `laws and customs' of the peoples of Nigeria using an ethnographic questionnaire. This time, the results were not to be analyzed by a professional anthropologist, but by R. Hargrove, one of the district officers. This project was a rather straightforward affair. Questionnaires were sent out to the district officers, containing questions relating to a number of aspects of traditional culture. Once the answers were collected, they were organized under the heading of the question. Each question became a separate chapter in the final work, and each of these chapters was made up of a general introduction, produced by Hargrove on the basis of the reports, and a description of the situation in the various districts, each district being a separate paragraph. Hargrove was careful to edit the original answers as little as possible, although he occasionally changed the writing, and he also felt obliged to delete what he considered to be `undue criticism of education, missionary work, government regulations, etc.' 26 In Hargrove's view, the need to produce an accurate description of the peoples of Nigeria was second only to the need to create a positive picture of the work and successes of the colonial administration. Therefore, he changed statements such as the remark in the report on the Igbo town of Awgu that `slave dealing in superfluous daughters is also very rife', or the observation that human sacrifice was still in existence in Aba Division, as these statements would indicate a failure of the government to check these matters. 27 Hargrove was under the impression that his compilation of reports would be published, PRO; CO /1003 Memorandum Fiddian. 24 NAI; CSO Taking of anthropological and ethnological courses by European officers during leave in England; CSO Secretary, Northern Provinces, to Chief Secretary, 9 July NAI; CSO ; See also Afigbo, `Anthropology and colonial administration' NAI; CSO Vol.I R. Hargrove to the Governor of Nigeria, London, 17 November Ibidem. 28 NAI; CSO Vol.I Donald Cameron, Acting Governor to S. of S. for the Colonies, Nigeria, 2 August 1923. The Colonial Tradition 179 but this never happened. However, a number of typescript copies of the work were produced to be used by administrative officers. Later, the compilation was also consulted by anthropologists. 29 The colonial administration's efforts to get more definite information about their subject population were not restricted to qualitative descriptions of their societies, as they also included attempts to literally count the people through organized censuses. In principle, the census results contributed to knowledge about who were Igbo (and who were not), and how many Igbo there actually were, thereby contributing to the drawing of the ethnic map of the area. I use the term `ethnic map' not merely to refer to the actual maps being produced, but also, in a wider sense, for a set of assumptions that provide the colonizer with the information correct or otherwise thought necessary to understand and govern the country. An ethnic map is a policy tool and, as such, does not necessarily correspond to reality. It not only fixes what is fluid and changing, it also lacks detail since it contains only those social groupings and aspects of culture which the government considered relevant to the administration. 30 However, the colonial censuses and the resulting ethnic maps did not merely simplify reality. To an important extent they actually created the reality they claimed to describe, as the categories used to classify the population did not correspond to locally held notions, but to the perspective of the colonial administration. 31 Data was entered in grids that had been designed partly on the basis of earlier reports on the area, but mostly reflected generally held notions about the organization of subject peoples. As grids were filled with tribes, clans, religions and occupations, these notions came to be regarded (by the administration, at least) as obvious and true and
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