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A hostile tribe made him their chief:
Edwin W. Smith and anthropology
John Young
So far as the topic of this conference is concerned I contributed a piece a few years
ago on African Missionaries in Zambia1 which was related to our theme this year. Today I
want to consider the related issue of mission and anthropology. British Methodism has
produced many world class scholars but in anthropology Edwin W Smith is unique in being
the only missionary of any denomination to be President of the Royal Anthropological
Anthropology was in its infancy in the nineteenth century. The Aboriginal Protection
Society, founded in the 1830s to protect newly colonized peoples ‘provided the original
intellectual and moral impetus which led ultimately to the formation of the Royal
Anthropological Institute of Great Britain’2 in 1871. Conceived of as a comprehensive study
of humanity the subject became a discipline in its own right, first at Oxford in 1884 and as
‘ethnology’ at Cambridge in 1900. EB Tylor (1832-1917), Oxford’s first Professor of
anthropology, had made field studies as a young man but ‘For the most part he culled his data
from the reports of travellers and missionaries’.3 He and JG Frazer (1854-1941) who
followed the same method were described as ‘armchair anthropologists’. Frazer would raise
the subject’s standing with editions of the Golden Bough from 1890 onwards and in 1908, at
Liverpool, became the first Professor of Social Anthropology. Before the First World War
social anthropology developed further with courses at the London School of Economics
involving the early field worker academics, CG Seligman and WHR Rivers.
Edwin Smith (1876-1957)4 was born of missionary parents in South Africa but after
early years there he lived in England until 1898 when he felt called to join the Primitive
The stories of two of the African Missionaries (Robert Moalosi and Ezekiel Masunyane) were
expanded and appear on the online Dictionary of African Christian Biography;
http://www.dacb.org/stories/zambia/moalosi_robert.html and
Lewis, I. M., Social Anthropology in Perspective: The Relevance of Social Anthropology’ 2nd edn,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 37. Some relevant histories of the subject are: Goody, J., The
Expansive Moment: Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1995; Kuklick, Henrika, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology 1885-1945,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; Kuper, A., Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern
British School, London: Routledge, 1983.
Chris Holdsworth, ‘Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett (1832–1917)’, Oxford Dictionary of National
Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006Dictionary of National Biography, Article on
E.B. Tylor.
On Edwin Smith: McVeigh, M, God in Africa: Conceptions of God in African Traditional Religion
and Christianity, Cape Cod Massachusetts: Claude Starke, 1974. Young: W. John, ‘The Legacy of Edwin W
Smith’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Jul. 2001, Vol. 25, Issue 3, p. 126-130; available online
Methodist mission in Central Africa as a Bible translator. After language study in Lesotho
and an extended period in Aliwal North on account of the Boer War he began his work
among the Ila in 1902. He reduced their language to writing and published his Handbook of
the Ila Language in 1907. By that time he had made friends with A. M. Dale, a District
Officer, and having realised ‘that speech can only be learnt in its cultural context’5 they
turned to anthropology for help and Smith joined the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1909.
For guidance they used the available scholarly literature and, as Smith said, Frazer’s ‘little
collection of Questions became for us a golden string leading us through the maze of African
life.’6 The result of their collaboration was a famous book, The Ila-Speaking Peoples of
Northern Rhodesia (2 Volumes, 1920). Referred to here as ISP it is often known as ‘Smith
and Dale’ and Smith always acknowledged Dale’s7 contribution although Smith was actually
responsible for more than 90% of the text and 82% of the photographs. ISP joined the classic
missionary anthropologies of Roscoe (The Baganda (1911)) and Junod (The Life of a South
African Tribe (1912)). They were amateurs but later generations of anthropologists admired
their work. Elizabeth Colson, in her Introduction to the 1968 edition of ISP, stated that ‘The
Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia is one of the great classics of African ethnology.
This has been recognised since it first appeared in 1920 and the years have not diminished its
reputation’8 She noted that their reading of Tylor and Frazer ‘did little to help them in their
study of the Ila; but their study of the Ila made an enduring contribution to the field of
scholarship.’9 Apart from their treatment of kinship and social organisation she said that ‘they
succeeded magnificently’10 and ‘They wrote of friends whom they respected as their
This great work established Smith’s reputation as an anthropologist and became ‘a
standard work of reference in African ethnography... in the 1920’s and later.’12 In the 1990s
Smith’s great granddaughter enrolled in a course on medical anthropology and was surprised
to hear the lecturer bring in Smith as a significant anthropologist.
Although Smith was involved in anthropology thereafter his interest ran parallel to
and fed into several other activities, mostly about Africa. He was involved in the African
at http://www.dacb.org/stories/zambia/legacy_smith.html and Young, W. John, The Quiet Wise Spirit: Edwin
W. Smith (1876-1957) and Africa, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2002. Referred to as QWS.
Smith Edwin W., Presidential address ‘Anthropology and the Practical Man’, Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute, 1934, p xvi.
Smith, Edwin W., Plans –and People! A Dynamic Science of Man in the Service of Africa, London:
Lutterworth Press, 1948, p. 7.
Dale died on 1 May 1919. His son Andrew Mapani Dale included some biographical information on
his father in, The Little Bell Boy, Lusaka, Zambia: ZPC Publications, 1998.
Colson, Elizabeth, ‘Introduction’ to 1968 edition of ISP p 1.
Op cit p 2.
Op cit p 5.
Op cit p 6.
Letter to author from Professor Sir Raymond Firth, 28 June 1994.
Society (now the Royal African Society) and wrote many of the book reviews for its journal
in the 1920s. He helped found and was active in the International African Institute (IAI)
which drew together anthropologists and missionaries and created research fellows who
investigated change in Africa. Africa World War 2 he edited the IAI journal Africa for a few