OBITUARY: G. I. Jones
Monday 27 February 1995
Gwilym Iwan ("G.I.") Jones was a colonial administrator, anthropologist, and leading scholar of the art of Eastern Nigeria. A university lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College, he was an ethnographer in the classic mould, painstaking in the collection of data, rigorous in his analysis, displaying the knowledge and insight of one who had true empathy with the peoples of Eastern Nigeria, with whom he had worked for so long.
Born in South Africa in 1904, an Anglican clergyman's only son, Jones soon acquired a taste for travel. He spent his early childhood in Chile before returning to England in 1915. Educated at St John's, Leatherhead, its ethos of Spartan Christianity reinforced by wartime conditions, he became friends with the future poet Geoffrey Grigson. Then, as always, his own man, he acquired something of a reputation for unconventionality, insisting on studying history despite the school's classical tradition, his waywardness being vindicated when he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, in 1923. As an undergraduate, he defied classification as either hearty or aesthete, achieving distinction in the History Schools and playing rugby on the wing for London Welsh.
He was endowed by his education with the spirit of service, and by his peripatetic childhood with the spirit of adventure, and the colonial service, which he joined in 1926, was a natural choice for his future career. He served as an Assistant District Officer in Eastern Nigeria, later becoming a District Officer in Bende and adjacent divisions of Owerri Province.
An exemplary officer, administering a sizeable district single-handed, Jones took a particular interest in the integration of indigenous and centralised forms of government, frequently championing the interests of local people against the more bureaucratic concerns of the central administration. His determination to understand the ethnically diverse, and ever-changing, cultures of Eastern Nigeria led him to acquire the Certificate in Anthropology at Oxford.
His realisation that these cultures were undergoing dramatic changes, particularly with regard to traditional ritual, led him to take a course in photography. The result, his photographic archive of Ibo and Ibibio masquerades, provides a unique record of a central institution in the life of Eastern Nigeria in the 1930s. He later joined with K.C. Murray to survey, collect and photograph the masks and sculpture of Eastern Nigeria.
In 1939 he met and married Ursula Whittall, a true kindred spirit, whose lifelong support contributed so much to his life and work.
Leaving the Colonial Service in 1946, he became a lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge, which he served with typical generosity and dedication for the rest of his life. In 1962 he became a Fellow of Jesus College.
He turned his unrivalled knowledge of Eastern Nigeria to impressive use in the academic world, publishing a number of works on the ethnography and history of the area. Foremost among these were the masterly ethnography The Ibo and Ibibio Peoples of Eastern Nigeria (1950), co-written with Daryll Forde, and his seminal study Trading States of the Oil Rivers (1963), which examined the economic and political structures of the great trading states of Kalabari and Bonny in the Niger Delta.
His subsequent career led him often to Africa. Most prominently, he investigated the notorious ritual murders in Basutoland in 1949, earning him the sobriquet "Sherlock Jones" in the popular press. In 1957, in the prelude to independence, he returned to Eastern Nigeria at the Regional Government's request to examine the role in government of traditional rulers and chiefs.
Although he retired in 1971, Jones devoted much of his time to research, publishing in 1984 The Art of Eastern Nigeria.
Many-talented, gifted intellectually and personally, G.I. Jones was a man of infectious energy and enthusiasm. His skill and sensitivity leaves behind a lasting record of a unique culture, just as his kindliness, integrity, good-humour and generosity of spirit secures the memory of a unique man.
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