Edwin Williams Smith

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Edwin Williams Smith: 1876-1957.

Edwin Williams Smith, who died in December, 1957, at the age of 81, was elected to the Council of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1927 and subsequently became its President (1933-5); he was awarded the Rivers Memorial Medal in 1931 and the Silver Medal of the Royal African Society in 1939, and delivered the Frazer Lecture in 1946 and the Henry Myers Lecture in 1952. Although not a professional anthropologist, his early career as a missionary had convinced him that a sympathetic appreciation of traditional beliefs and practices would be of great value to everybody concerned with the administration and development of tribal societies; and the distinctions conferred upon him were essentially in recognition of his persistent and notable efforts to promote what he himself called ‘a dynamic science of man in the service of Africa.’

Born at Aliwal North in the Cape Colony, of Primitive Methodist missionary parents, Edwin Smith was educated in England, where he was ordained in 1897. The following year he went as a missionary, first to Basutoland, and then (1902) to Northern Rhodesia. There, in addition to pursuing his routine vocational activities, he produced both grammatical works and Biblical translations of great merit. Together with Captain A. M. Dale, a local Government officer, he also wrote the famous Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, which for many years after its publication in 1920 remained one of the few really good ethnographical studies available about African society.

In 1915 Smith returned to England, and after serving for a year as chaplain with the expeditionary forces in France received an appointment with the British and Foreign Bible Society, ultimately acting as its Literary Superintendent (1933-9). He became increasingly concerned with problems of race relations and social development in Africa, about which he wrote a good deal. Two of his books in this field were particularly influential, and have often been reprinted: The Golden Stool (1926), a classic in applied anthropology, and Aggrey of Africa (1929), the biography of ‘the finest interpreter which the present century has produced of the white man to the black, of the black man to the white.’ He also played a leading part in the foundation of the International African Institute, to which for many years he gave outstanding service, both as a member of the Executive Council and as editor (1944-8) of its journal Africa. His other main interest was African religion, and in a series of semi-popular works, culminating (1950) in a symposium which he edited on African Ideas of God, he tried to dispel the misconceptions of many missionaries and others about the role of religion in tribal life.

During the Second World War he was visiting Professor of African Studies at Hartford Seminary and Fisk University in the United States, and while there received an honorary D.D. from Wesley College, Winnipeg.

In later life Smith returned to one of his early interests: missionary biography. In 1925 he had published a brief but excellent life of Robert Moffat. This was followed by more ambitious accounts of the Mabilles of Basutoland (1939), Lindley of Natal (1949), and Roger Price of Bechuanaland (1957). These three volumes, based on wide reading of documentary source material and special journeys to inspect personally the regions where his subjects had worked, are all important contributions to the history of European-Bantu contacts in Southern Africa.

To his younger associates Smith was always most helpful and encouraging; they will remember with gratitude his consistent kindness and tolerance, and his pleasure in sharing with them the fruits of his own vast experience and knowledge of things African.    


This obituary first appeared as: Schapera, I.. 1959. ‘Edwin Williams Smith: 1876-1957’. Man Vol. 59, pp. 213. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

SCHAPERA, I.. 1959. ‘Edwin Williams Smith: 1876-1957’. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/edwin-williams-smith).