Gwilym Iwan Jones

Gwilym Iwan Jones

Gwilym Iwan Jones was born on the 3rd of May 1904 in South Africa. He spent some of his childhood in Chile before coming to England where he read history at St. John’s, Leatherhead and won a Welsh scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford. After completing his degree at Oxford he joined the Colonial Service and served as an Administrative Officer in Nigeria from 1926 to 1946. Most of his service was in the Eastern Region where he became District Officer for Bende and adjacent divisions of what was then Owerri Province. During this time he developed a profound interest in the society, history and arts of the peoples of southeastern Nigeria. In the 1930s Jones acquired a Roloflex camera and developed a system for immediate developing which produced negatives of such high quality that they continue to produce excellent prints six decades later. It was at this time that he built up the extraordinary photographic record of Southeastern Nigerian culture of which this archive provides a sample.

In 1939 Jones married Ursula Whittall. As a result of his growing interest in ethnology, and with the encouragement of Ursula, he chose, at age 43 to begin a new career and became a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College. He became a leading scholar of Africa and his official investigation of ritual murders in Basutoland in 1949 earned him the nick-name ‘Sherlock Jones’ in the popular press. He returned to Nigeria in 1957 on a commission to inquire into indigenous political systems and the role of chiefs. He returned again in 1963-64 and 1964-65 for ethnographic and historical research. This project included the collection of village histories written by local chiefs. His researches were extensive. His most important publications from this time period included an ethnography, The Ibo and Ibibio Speaking Peoples of S.E. Nigeria, [with Daryll Forde] (1950) and his important historical work, The Trading States of the Oil Rivers, (1963) which examined the great coastal states of Kalabar and Bonny. He retired from his lectureship at Cambridge in 1971 but continued his academic pursuits, publishing several books including: The Art of Southeastern Nigeria, (1984); Annual Reports of Bende Division, South Eastern Nigeria, 1905-1912, (1986); Ibo Art, (1989); and From Slaves to Palm Oil, (1989).

In many ways Jones’ scholarship was ahead of his time. He found little utility in the models of self-contained self-regulating tribal societies that occupied his functionalist colleagues. Trading States of the Oil Rivers provides a historically rich analysis of a complex system of shifting regional allegiances between polyglot polities. His focus on the arts was also progressive. While museum collections provide documentation of African art history, the cultural context is lost. Jones’ photographs provide a unique record of masks in performance and shrines in-situ in the early colonial period.

In his retirement Jones remained active in Jesus College where, in time, he became the oldest fellow. He died on the 25th of January 1995. In his 90 years of life he accomplished two full careers and produced a wealth of research and scholarship on the peoples of southeastern Nigeria — particularly the Igbo people, whom he greatly admired and among whom he gained lifelong friends. This web site is a celebration of Jones and his work and also of the peoples of southeastern Nigeria. Much of the art and culture recorded in these photographs has weathered the pressures of Christian missionization and the commercial culture of modern Nigeria. It remains an important part of life for many Nigerians. The brilliant expressive culture of this region was an inspiration to Jones and it is our hope that his record of it will inspire you as well.

Link to the obituary for Jones in The Independent