Northcote W. Thomas and his Collection

Northcote Whitridge Thomas (1868-1936) was the first British Government Anthropologist to work in the West African counties of present-day Nigeria and Sierra Leone. He made a remarkable contribution to European knowledge of the Igbo and Edo speaking peoples and their lands, across the fields of cultural anthropology, botany, music and linguistics. His published anthropological reports on Sierra Leone and the Igbo and Edo speaking peoples of Nigeria can be accessed online by following the links at the bottom of this page.

Thomas collected a vast number of objects during his fieldwork in Nigeria from 1909-1913 and Sierra Leone 1914-1915. Over 2000 of these are now housed in the collections of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) in Cambridge.

Thomas’s collection came to Cambridge during a period of transition, when the Museum was preparing to move from its first home to its current premises on Downing Street. The scale and the comprehensive nature of the collection were noted by Museum staff from the start. The first mention of the collection appears in the Museum’s annual report of 1911, which notes that

"the overhauling and labelling at the Newnham Warehouse of the Thomas Collection from Nigeria has also taken up much time, over 2000 specimens having been labelled up to date. A considerable number of these objects, which were broken in transit, have been mended".

The acquisition of the collection was formally reported in 1914, describing the purchase of “a comprehensive collection of native manufactures formed in Southern Nigeria by N.W. Thomas, M.A., Trinity College, Government ethnologist of the Colony”. The purchase was financed by Professor A.A. Bevan, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge.

The value and importance of Thomas’s collection was not universally recognised, and more research needs to be done on Thomas himself, his collecting practices and his reception by superiors in the colonial service, or museum curators, and the public. The Museum’s accession register describes "[a] comprehensive collection, numbering over two thousand objects, including a large number of duplicates, illustrative of the Ethnology of the Yoruba, Kukuruku and Esa people, collected in Southern Nigeria, 1909 and 1910, [...]. Some valuable specimens from Benin are included in this collection.”

Though he did collect some artefacts in Benin, Thomas focused his attention largely on the areas outside this well-known kingdom, which attests to his eccentricity, a pioneering spirit and a certain disregard of authority. We do not know the acquisition history for all of Thomas’ objects, but from his reports we learn that he traded, bartered, paid for and was presented with objects, reflecting the variety of relationships and circumstances in which he found himself. His unconventional approach was not always favoured by his superiors. But by going outside his brief and out of his way to collect many objects of daily use, he provided the Museum with a collection that offers a unique perspective on Edo State in the early twentieth century.

For more information on N.W. Thomas please see:

Blench.R.M. 1995. The Work of N.W. Thomas as Government Anthropologist in Nigeria. The Nigerian Field 60: 20-28 (1995).

Thomas, Northcote W. 1910. Anthropological Report on the Edo-speaking peoples of Nigeria. Part 1: Law and Custom. London, Harrison and Sons.

Thomas, Northcote W. 1913. Anthropological report on the Ibo-speaking peoples of Nigeria. Part 1. Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Awka Neighbourhood, S. Nigeria. London, Harrison and Sons.

Thomas, Northcote W. 1914, Anthropological report on Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria. Part IV. Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Asaba District, S. Nigeria. London. Harrison and Sons.

Thomas, Northcote W. 1916. Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone. Part 1. Law and Custom of the Timne and other tribes. London, Harrison and Sons.