Daryll Forde

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Professor Daryll Forde, FBA

Professor Daryll Forde, who died on 3 May 1973, at the age of seventy-one, was President of the Institute from 1947-49. His death is a tragic loss to his family and friends, to anthropology, and to African Studies in which he played a dominant international role for nearly thirty years. Daryll Forde was a remarkable person, a true prodigy, with a width and wealth of knowledge and interests rarely encountered today. Even the bare outlines of his career convey something of his extraordinary range. He graduated in Geography in 1922 at University College London. He taught this subject at the College between 1923 and 1928, when he completed his Ph.D. thesis in prehistoric archaeology which was partly based on his own original research in Wales. The following two years were spent as a Commonwealth Fellow in Anthropology at Berkeley, California, where he collaborated with A. L. Kroeber and R. H. Lowie and carried out ethnographic fieldwork amongst the Yumi and Hopi Indians. In 1930, when he was still only 28 years old, Daryll Forde was appointed Gregynog Professor of Geography and Anthropology at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth where, with characteristic originality, he set in train local community studies of the kind that are so fashionable today. His entry into the African field where he was to exert such a crucial influence occurred five years later when he began his studies of the Yako people of the Cross River region in south-eastern Nigeria, his last visit there being cut short by the outbreak of the second world war in 1939. By this time, he was already a distinguished ‘polymath’ (to use a favourite word of his) with a growing international reputation in archaeology, geography, ethnology and the embryonic social anthropology. This wide-ranging disciplinary expertise was further enriched by the geographical diversity of the places in which he had carried out original field research.

After service in the research department of the Foreign Office during the war, Daryll Forde became Director of the International African Institute in 1944 and Professor of Anthropology at his old college (UCL) a year later. The success with which he combined these two separate if mutually reinforcing careers—each more than enough for most of his colleagues—is a tribute to his inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm. It also, I think, suited his character; for when he tired of the one he could always find new problems and new excitements in the other. At Gower Street he presided over a department which, following his own training, possessed the rare advantage of combining physical as well as social and cultural anthropology with archaeology and primitive technology. And although he taught and supervised research in social and cultural anthropology, he stoutly defended this holistic approach to the study of man at a time when it was far from fashionable to do so. In his view, ecology rather than ethology provided the common denominator. It is appropriate, therefore, that his important text-book, Habitat, economy and society (first published in 1934 and still going strong)— one of, if not the first best seller in modern social anthropology—and his last major lecture, The Huxley Memorial Lecture (in 1970), should both have concentrated on this theme.

At University College, Daryll Forde taught Anthropology; at the Institute he practised it, founding and furthering an ambitious programme of new ventures and activities. Under his vigorous editorship, Africa became the leading Africanist journal in the world; in 1945 he launched the invaluable Ethnographic Survey of Africa (which now boasts some sixty volumes) and its linguistic counterpart, the Handbook of African Languages. With the far-sighted inspiration which was typical of him, he also saw the need for a complementary bibliographic service and set out to provide it in African Abstracts. These facilities did much to raise the level of African Studies to new scholarly heights. This impressive achievement was consolidated by the publication of a series of important monographs based directly on fieldwork and prepared for the press at the Institute by the Director and his devoted assistants. But perhaps his most successful new venture—and certainly one he himself greatly appreciated —was the series of International African Institute seminars in African countries, each dealing with a leading inter-disciplinary theme and culminating in an integrated symposium under his general editorship.

These fruitful ‘meetings of minds’, as he sometimes called them, brought African and European scholars together and fostered a tradition of inter-disciplinary collaboration between African and non-African research workers which, if it continues to flourish so abundantly, may well prove to be one of Daryll Forde’s most valuable contributions.

All these achievements, involving endless and often tediously difficult negotiations, are an impressive testament to Daryll Forde’s selfless devotion to African Studies and to his colleagues who owe him so much. By an adroitly controlled application of ‘banana oil’ (as he expressively put it), not only were African and European scholars brought together successfully at the same time and place and for the same reason, but even the British and French! For in the best sense of the word Daryll Forde was an inspired impresario. It is doubtful if anyone else of his generation in Britain or France, or anywhere else for that matter, had the flair or the will to make such an outstanding contribution to the study of Africa. All this forms a lasting memorial to Daryll Forde’s unstinting, if not always fully appreciated labour in the development of African Studies.

Most men would consider themselves lucky to be remembered for doing so much. But this is only a part of Daryll Forde’s legacy. He also made seminal theoretical contributions in social anthropology, especially in his pioneering work on the ecological prerequisites of types of descent (here foreshadowing Marshall Sahlins’s later work), in economic anthropology, and in the study of religion. As his students and those who worked closely with him know only too well, Daryll Forde possessed a razor-sharp analytical mind and was a brilliant seminar chairman. Indeed it was partly because he so clearly perceived the limitations and logical imperfections in the work of others that he did not write more himself. Nevertheless his cogent and usually constructive criticism was always a spur to further efforts, and it was exciting to engage him in debate for he treated students and staff alike as equals and was never patronising or pompous. One of the most attractive features of his warm personality was his insatiable appetite for novelties, both in ideas and people. You did not have to agree with him, and to an unusual degree for a man of his age and eminence he was very ready to listen to what one had to say. Although he could be intimidating, he did not constantly thrust inflexible opinions on his listeners, but on the contrary really wanted to know what they thought. This made him seem tremendously vital and young: I, at least, always thought of him as a man in his fifties even when in his last two or three years he was far from being in the best of health. Partly perhaps because he was basically a modest person and because he enjoyed the security of early success, he did not feel the need to pose as a charismatic leader, surrounded by acolytes. Many brilliant and successful anthropologists nevertheless were taught by him, and many owe more to him, I suspect, than they often recognise. He was also capable of inspiring immense devotion and loyalty in those who worked with him. This was particularly important at the International African Institute where he built up a formidable team to whose combined talents and energy African Studies are deeply indebted. Of course if he could be considerate and patient, Daryll Forde could also be impatient, and he did not suffer those he considered fools gladly. Sometimes his judgements here may have been too hasty and too severe. Certainly some of his more strait-laced colleagues were sometimes shocked by his engaging irreverence; and his ill-concealed contempt for the intricacies of devious academic politics won him enemies as well as friends. But even here it was hard to question his motives. It was usually simply that he knew something important had to be done and how to do it and he wanted to bring the matter to a conclusion without unnecessary fuss and delay.

Finally, it must be recorded that those who had the privilege of knowing Daryll Forde well, could not fail to appreciate how much he owed to his wife, Evelyn, whose shrewd good sense and realism helped him to deal with the many perplexing problems which he faced, especially in his last years at the Institute. It was this support more than any other that made it possible for him to preside over the contraction necessitated by the post-colonial financial situation, in the activities of the Institute which he had done so much to create and increase. It is also a tribute to the resilience and optimism of his personality that he was able, bitterly though he regretted it, calmly and judiciously to direct this volte face in the Institute’s affairs. The sad thing is that he did not live to see the appointment of his successor at the Institute, or to enjoy the retirement for which he and his wife had been preparing and which they both so richly deserved. No one, of course, as Daryll Forde used to remind himself, is indispensable. But some are more than others.

Ioan Lewis

This obituary first appeared as: Lewis, Ioan. 1973. ‘Obituaries’. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1973, p. 56-58 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

LEWIS, IOAN. 1973. ‘Obituaries’. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1973, p. 56-58 (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/daryll-forde).