Oxford in the ‘New World’. Notes for a genealogy of the anthropology of South America
This essay deals with the figure of four anthropologists trained at Oxford, who were specialists of Native South America at their respective times: Everard im Thurn, Beatrice Blackwood, Audrey Butt Colson, and David Maybury-Lewis. I first refer to some of the research done at Oxford in this regard (lowland South America) and then examine these pioneers’ diverse contexts through archive exploration.
Key words: anthropologists, indigeneity, history of anthropology, South America, Native America.
"What anthropologists really like to hear about, apart from other anthropologists, is anthropology" (Rodney Needham)
Not every history is a completely nice and transparent one. My initial interest was to know about the motivations to study the indigenous peoples of the Americas in Oxford anthropology, who as this discipline has aided to evince, were brutally decimated since the “discovery” and occupation of the so-called “New” World began. About 95% of the indigenous population died as a result of the so-called Conquest and subsequent colonisation of their territories by multiple European empires. In the wake of unapologetic narratives attempting to reframe the past in a more bearable and allegedly nonconfrontational way (according to which that surviving 5% must pay unrestricted homage to the grace of having received the gifts of civilisation), I started asking what anthropology has concretely been doing, besides apparently just abandoning the “study of the primitive peoples” or self-indulging into questioning categories like indigenous (in turn embedded in a history of rights' vindications; cf. UN 2007), to help set right the record of those who provided it its raison d'être until the middle of the last century. T o be sure, much has been done since the emergence of the systematic study of human “cultures” began. Despite this uneasy coexistence with the legacy of labels such as “savages”, a denomination spearheaded by founding figures like R.R. Marett and E.B. Tylor, I chose an approach as disaffected, "objective", and diaphanous as possible. The result is an essay with an exploratory character, this is, with an expositive rather than an analytic goal, as I argue this makes possible a better understanding of how these ideas and ways of framing “other” ways of life -what we call the anthropological thinking- has been progressively developing through the concrete actions of its practitioners, explicitly towards respect, pluralism, and mutual understanding, although always within the limits of a specific epoch.
In this essay I will retrieve four vignettes of different anthropologists trained at, and linked in many ways to Oxford, representing different times and contexts. I first start with a general panorama of South American anthropology in the United Kingdom, exploring specifically some of the research that has been conducted in this regard at Oxford. This is unavoidably superficial since a thorough review greatly exceed the purposes of this contribution. Nevertheless, I think it will serve as a starting point for further documentation on the subject to those interested in the topic.
Undoubtedly this genealogy would have to begin with Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), who despite had not gone properly on a fieldwork expedition, did go to Mexico on a holiday (Petch 2007: 28), and was able to publish extensively through his, probably his most renowned book is Primitive Culture from 1873, but he also wrote several essays and papers presented at different scientific institutions. Tylor maintained “correspondence with people abroad who could collect both data and artifacts” (Stoking 1992 cited in Petch 2007: 28), as we will see with the case of im Thurn. But Barbara Whitchurch Freire-Marreco (1879-1967) was the very first graduate from Oxford in anthropology, where she was “taught by [Henry] Balfour” (Petch 2007: 29) and was “examined by Tylor who had never examined or been examined”. Freire-Marreco conducted fieldwork among Pueblo peoples in New Mexico and Arizona between 1910-13 . She co-edited with John Linton Myres the third edition (1912) of the influential manual Notes and Queries (Petch 2007: 29). Her friend and colleague Beatrice Mary Blackwood (1889-1975) visited the same Pueblo communities and went also to New Guinea. After these two pioneer women, Francis John Heathorn Huxley (1923-2016), biologist trained at Oxford and member of the Huxley family (his uncle was Aldous), got a MSc. in anthropology from Oxford in 1950, after having been awarded an Emslie Horniman scholarship two years before. That very year, 1948, Mr. Huxley went on an Oxford University expedition to Gambia. Then he conducted fieldwork among the Ka’apor people in Brazil, first with Darcy Ribeiro in 1951, and then on his own in 1953 (Roberts and Itten 2021: 5). His dissertation was published in 1957 under the title Affable Savages: An Anthropologist Among the Urubu Indians of Brazil. He was also the author of The Way of the Sacred (1974) among many other titles. Also, interestingly specially with relation to the fourth section of this essay, Mr. Huxley was one of the founders of the organization Survival International.
Also in the 1950s, Audrey Joan Butt (born 1926) went to the Upper Mazaruni, Guyana, completing her DPhil in 1954. She then “lectured in 1956 on South American societies, mainly the Guianas, and with a particular emphasis on the Akawaio, at the Department of Ethnology and Prehistory at Oxford University” (Rival 1999). Dr. Butt Colson has written and researched extensively about the Kapong and Pemong peoples of the Guiana Shield (Guyana, Venezuela, Brazil, Surinam), mainly in the Upper Mazaruni. Her latest book, Land (2009), summarizes her career and contributions to contemporary demands for territory.
This relative lack of anthropological research of South America from Oxford during the first half of the twentieth century can be directly explained having in mind that Latin America was not historically an area of interest for Great Britain (note the absence of South America in Wendy James’ contribution to Rivière 2007, about Oxford’s global links), and on the other hand, by the fact that most of the efforts were placed on working within those territories that were part of the Empire (the so-called ‘prescribed area’). In a very explicit way, then, the trajectory of anthropology was entangled with colonialism . In fact, a big part of the teaching activity was devoted to the formation of colonial officers, an activity that lasted until around those same years. In parallel, this is reflected theoretically in what was the common ideology sustaining the expansion of British (or more broadly European) colonialism, namely: social evolutionism. Anthropology was defined explicitly, until the middle of the last century, as the ‘study of primitive societies’ (Evans-Pritchard 1951 quoted in Asad 1973: 11). Physical anthropology of the kind of classifying races and human types was one of the commonest enterprises to be sought by practicing anthropologists (although already in the figure of Blackwood this can be problematized, given her awareness of the problems of racism, see Peers 2003). Yet, much has happened during the last century, in which anthropology ‘surprisingly has survived’ (James 2004: 15). In this context, I propose in this essay to shed some light on the trajectory of four pioneers of South American anthropology at Oxford: Sir Everard im Thurn, Miss Beatrice Blackwood, Dr. Audrey Butt Colson, and Dr. David Maybury-Lewis, by following different registers, devices, and archives (photography, correspondence, papers). Each of the following sections will be dealing with one of these figures at a time.