In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin Turnbull 
by Roy Richard Grinker.
St Martin’s, 354 pp., £19.75, August 2000, 0 312 22946 1
Show More
Show More

According to the hype for this excellent biography of Colin Turnbull, he was one of the ‘most well-known anthropologists’ of the 20th century, along with Margaret Mead and Louis Leakey. For many of the more austere members of the profession, to say that these three are ‘well-known anthropologists’ is a bit like saying that Vanna White is a well-known lexicographer. To be fair, each of them did something that was a genuine contribution to anthropology, but the rest was docudrama and self-promotion. The discipline seems particularly vulnerable to this form of exhibitionist exuberance, and the public’s greed for the sensational and the exotic fuels it. The mandate of anthropology is so broad that it easily bursts the bounds of strict professionalism, despite academic attempts at containment. When I was elected to the Association of Social Anthropologists (about 1959), Meyer Fortes told me that it had been formed ‘to prevent people like Geoffrey Gorer from calling themselves social anthropologists’. But while the ASA might keep the Gorers and Meads out, it was susceptible to defection from within.

Turnbull was urged to do his doctorate at Oxford (as opposed to Cambridge, Manchester or the LSE) because they were not so fussy there about anthropology having to be a ‘science’. He still had to keep his nose reasonably clean for purposes of his dissertation, which appeared as Wayward Servants (1965), his one mainstream contribution to the discipline. His adviser was the super-strict Rodney Needham, whose standards of thoroughness were of the fussiest. So technically he was in. But he had no intention – it was foreign to his passionate nature – of toeing the professional line of objectivity in fieldwork and analysis. Like Mead with Samoa, he was concerned with utopia, not ethnography. The idyllic Mbuti pygmies of what was then the Belgian Congo and the dehumanised Ik of Uganda were to become rods with which to beat Western civilisation. He had a message, not a theory, and the message was derived from his peculiar personality, not from the ‘facts’ – even though, as the well-stuffed archive he left to the College of Charleston shows, he assiduously gathered these in the prescribed manner. But if we hadn’t had his two most famous books it would be no great loss to anthropology proper, however much of a loss it might be to humanity in general.

Turnbull rose to popular fame (and fortune) with his work on the gentle Mbuti and the abominable Ik, and Peter Brook added to his fame with the theatrical version of the latter (Les Iks, to be exact). Anthropologists were tolerant of The Forest People (1961) despite its naive romanticism, since it was an engaging account, which illustrated the role of the anthropologist as fieldwork hero, and was a painless introduction to ethnography for freshmen. Its lyrical evocations of the rainforest and the people’s oneness with this version of Eden struck a chord: that it would is obvious in retrospect, but it was less obvious at the time. Its thesis – that although the Mbuti appeared to be subservient to the Bira villagers who lived on the edge of the forest, in fact they manipulated them – was sympathetic and easy to grasp. I used the book as an introductory text on and off for twenty years, having the students do a Popperian exercise by thinking about what evidence might disprove the main contention. It continues to be used widely today, but perhaps for other, more politically correct reasons.

The Mountain People (1973) was another matter. Turnbull’s emotional denunciation of the Ik, a tribe driven to extremes of awful behaviour by prolonged starvation, was condemned by many senior members of the profession. Not only was it bad anthropology, Frederick Barth said, it was morally reprehensible. None of this touched Turnbull very deeply, since he had no scruples about not being scientific and objective, and when it came to morals he made his own decisions. But the sensational nature of his attachments and disgusts ensured his place in popular culture. Although of the generation that grew up during World War Two, he anticipated the flower children of the postwar baby boom, and they were mostly responsible for his mass-market appeal as they engorged anthropology courses in the 1960s and 1970s. He did not, however, consciously seek out any particular audience: he wrote to instruct the world in general. Indeed, his book on the Ik put him at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy for suggesting that human nature might not be intrinsically all good. He accused these black hillsmen in the Ugandan highlands of being profoundly wicked at a time when the self-evident truth that black misbehaviour must always be the result of white racism was already on its way to becoming gospel. But Turnbull called it as he saw it; he may have been wrong, he was certainly subjective, judgmental and naive.

His personal life (as we say) added to the myth of the handsome, charming hero. He was born in 1924, the child of a distant Scottish father and an eccentric Irish mother, who, despite being gruesomely over-possessive, dumped him on various foreign nannies. This is a necessary ingredient of the upper-class morality tale, as are Winchester and Magdalen, and service in the Royal Navy. There was plenty here for his sensitive soul to rebel against, as manifested first by his total and lasting devotion to a female guru/mother-substitute in India, Sri Anandamayi Ma. His homosexuality was at first ambivalent, and he had a serious engagement for a while to an Indian woman. He became deeply attached to a Mbuti youth, Kenge, on his initial visits to the Ituri forest. Then came a lifelong, tempestuous love affair with Joe Towles – a beautiful black American. Joe died of Aids in 1988; Colin had also contracted the disease, although he denied this to himself and to the world. (I knew him only slightly, but since we were on first name terms, I will continue with ‘Colin’.) Colin had his spirit ritually buried in a coffin next to Joe’s and retired from the world as a Buddhist monk, through the good graces of the Dalai Lama’s elder brother. Refusing treatment and determined to die, he was brought back to the US from Dharamsala. He died in 1994 and was buried, in Virginia, in the grave he had prepared next to Joe’s.

Someone must already be writing the screenplay, which would have to be based on Roy Richard Grinker’s comprehensive and moving account. Colin’s heroic and passionate efforts to help death-row inmates, and to campaign against capital punishment in the US in the face of its crushing popularity, mark him out as a humanitarian. But it is the ‘marriage’ with Joe, whom he met in a bar in New York while working at the American Museum of Natural History, which will spark most interest. It illustrates the driving central need of Colin’s life: to atone for his own privileged position. Joe was certainly the object of a profound love, but he was also an opportunity to show that one of the underprivileged was not simply as good as but better than the rest of us, and definitely better than Colin himself.

Intelligent and even eloquent, Joe could not fulfil Colin’s exaggerated expectations of him. Colin was wilfully blind to his faults and failings, his lethargy and paranoia. He willed Joe to be a great genius and a great anthropologist: Joe was neither. Colin pushed him through a doctoral dissertation for Makerere University (taking care to be one of his examiners): a descriptive thesis on the initiation ceremonies of the Bira villagers – work Joe had done while accompanying Colin on visits to the Mbuti. (Joe, to Colin’s annoyance, preferred the villagers to the pygmies.) Despite being hired by the universities that wanted Colin as a star attraction, Joe was a failure as a teacher. Colin persisted in his delusions about Joe, even enrolling in his course on religion and receiving a condescending B, which he insisted was fully justified. Whenever personal failings cost Joe his precarious jobs, he would routinely invoke racism; Colin would hotly support him and resign. It was Oscar and Bosie revisited. The gesture with the two coffins has overtones of Rossetti’s burial of his unpublished poems with the body of Lizzie Siddal, except that Colin was more consistent.

You might say that his life, interesting as it was, has nothing to do with an assessment of him as an anthropologist. I’m not sure about that, but where then does he stand professionally? We have accepted Wayward Servants into the canon, but some would claim that it is only a clarification – with one or two points corrected and descriptive material added – of Father Schebesta’s monumental account in Die Bambuti. So what of the two books on which his fame is largely based? It depends what you think an anthropologist is. Is an anthropologist (social and/or cultural) someone who lives for a while with native people and records feelings, impressions and judgments about their life? No: that is what a sensitive travel writer does. There is only a little of lasting use to anthropology in the two books that brought Colin fame; arguably there is nothing at all in the second one. But something in the books touches us, engages us, even excites us, in a way travel journalism rarely does, something closer to Conrad or Melville in its effect. Colin could wear both professional and literary hats, as is shown by the technical competence of his thesis, and his autobiographical The Human Cycle (1983). But as the angry jeremiad on the Ik shows even more clearly, he was happiest and most at ease when indulging his sentiments, particularly his moral outrage. This broke all the anthropological rules of the day, but it was prescient. In a sense, the current generation of anthropologists has voted for Colin. It may not be ‘anthropology’, they say, but it ought to be. This is what anthropology should be like, not hiding behind a phony and unachievable objectivity. The Post-Modern anthropology of multiculturalism, activism, commitment and self-reflexivity is the anthropology of Colin being himself, and refusing to be what the profession of his day demanded he should be. The flower children, now deflowered and tenured, are the true disciples of Turnbullian subjectivism. Insofar as they are predominantly activists, they could be seen as the heirs to Joe’s insistence on helping the Ik rather than studying them. As Colin would have wished, he and Joe triumphed as a team – except that he would have preferred Joe to triumph alone.

Is this the true Turnbull legacy? Perhaps, although his conclusions on the Ik must always make him suspect to the neo-Rousseauians, who will only be satisfied with complete human goodness. The Ik did not show that humans are basically bad, but that when reduced by terrible circumstances they can behave really badly, and not with the altruism and compassion the tender-minded would predict. The self-reflexive only want an angelic face to shine back at them from the mirror of the Other. (The other what? we ask.) But if Colin said the wrong thing for them, he said it the right way – subjectively and moralistically – and that is the way anthropology is going. He was an oracle desperately trying to tell us something about life and how to live it: we should live it like the Mbuti, and not like the Ik. That much is obvious. But should we live it like Colin Turnbull? The quick answer is that we couldn’t for the most part. He represents an extreme – a romantic extreme in the grand romantic fashion. But all extremes have a lesson for the norm. Colin’s utter devotion to Joe; his promotion of Joe at his own expense; the absolute blindness of his love; the almost Wagnerian purity of his death-in-life decision to expire with Joe – all this is a message about passion to a world largely denied the possibility of passion. The world Colin was raised in was the same world many of us grew up in: one of emotional repression. Great passions might be permissible, in the romantic tradition, for great ‘artists’ – but the rest of us had to get on with the job. Yet perhaps we need reminding that people are capable of a fuller, richer, more uncompromising life of the emotions: a life unconstrained by the social rules of what is or is not done. Such overpowering love is not for all of us, but it tests the boundaries and so is revelatory; it is a human possibility, and must be part of any theory of the human condition. Colin’s anthropological encounters with Africa, and with a pretentious but cramped profession, were incidental to his life-work, which was his love for Joe.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences