John D. Kesby

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John D. Kesby, 1938-2023

John Kesby was born on 14 April 1938 in Ilford, then in Essex, where he early developed an interest in natural history. He won a scholarship to Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green (1949–57) and subsequently took a First Class Honours Degree in Geography at the University of Oxford (1957–60), gained a distinction in the Oxford Diploma (1960–61), and completed a BLitt dissertation (1961–63) on ‘British missionaries in the South-West Pacific, 1842–1900: their evaluations and policies with regard to the indigenous peoples’ from the then Faculty of Anthropology and Geography. He thereafter embarked on a period of doctoral work under the supervision of John Beattie and Edwin Ardener which in 1971 culminated in the award of an Oxford DPhil for a thesis entitled ‘The Social organisation of the Warangi of central Tanganyika.’

As a vehicle for undertaking his doctoral work John began with an attachment as research associate to the (then) East African Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda, where he remained until 1966. During these years, in addition to his own investigations, he taught undergraduates in Sociology and Social Anthropology at Makerere University College, at that time part of the University of East Africa. This provided him with a base for – and refuge from – his fieldwork amongst the Warangi people of Kondoa District in Tanzania. In May 1964 he was granted access to official records in Kandoa to work specifically on Rangi history. His residence amongst the Rangi continued until 1966, during which time he was supported by a Royal Anthropological Institute Emslie Horniman award, as well as a grant from the Goldsmiths’ Company of the City of London.

On returning to the UK in 1966 he had a series of teaching appointments at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, moving in 1968 to Cambridge where he held a Joint College Lectureship in Social Anthropology simultaneously at King’s and Newnham. In 1971 he was appointed to a lectureship in Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, as a member of Darwin College. He remained at Kent until his retirement in 1998. During this time he met and married in 1983 Sheila Gregory, a former student. In 2014 John and Sheila moved to Bexhill-on-Sea, where they remained until John’s death in 2023.

Throughout his life John Kesby was a passionate descriptive naturalist, and in many ways this explains his anthropology, both the things that interested him, but also his overarching approach to knowledge. As early as 1956 he was collecting vascular plant specimens and surveying vegetation types in the interior of Iceland for the Natural History Museum in London (NHM), part of an expedition organised by the British Schools Exploring society. He was collecting again for the NHM in 1958, this time in Andorra, and in 1960 for the Kew herbarium in Senegal and Mauritania. This work was conducted under the auspices of the Oxford and Cambridge Expedition to Mali and Mauritania, and afforded him an opportunity to visit the Mouride sect in Senegal, and to survey farming methods in the oases of Mauritania. He was back in Iceland in 1961 as a member of a Kirkby Exploration Group, collecting plants for the Fielding-Druce Herbarium of the University of Oxford Biology Department. It was not altogether surprising therefore that when he came to undertake his doctoral work with the Rangi, a major focus was to be their natural history knowledge. Back in the UK, he continued his natural history interests through the Kent Field Club, mapping the vascular plants of Kent between 1971 and 1979, and between 1981 and 1990 the butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets and dragonflies, walking miles especially over the chalk downs, and undertaking biological recording for the Nature Conservancy Council, later to become English Nature and the JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee).

John was therefore an ethnographer in the old-fashioned sense, who saw natural history and human cultural variation as of a piece. This can be seen in his The Cultural Regions of East Africa, published in 1977. He was not interested in theory as such, and indeed for Adam Kuper (1979) he was ‘atheoretical.’ Reading his meticulous work conveys the impression that things are as they are and just need to be properly described, ‘presenting rather than justifying’. John’s other major works include The Rangi of Tanzania: An Introduction to Their Culture (1981), two volumes of Progress and the Past among the Rangi of Tanzania (1982), and three volumes of Rangi Natural History: The Taxonomic Procedures of an African People (1986), all published as HRAFlex Books by the Human Relations Area Files. Though dedicated to understanding the systematic knowledge Rangi have of their natural world, and while interested in animal symbolism and human relations with other animals, nowhere in his writings does he identify professionally as an ethnobiologist or attach his work to the wagon of a particular ethnobiological theory. He acknowledges the significance of the benchmark contributions to the study of folk classification by Brent Berlin and Eugene Hunn, but without specifically engaging with it. Still, the combination of his experience and profound knowledge of Rangi language and ethnography will ensure that the natural history knowledge volumes remain an important source for others in the comparative global analysis of plant and animal categories.

John could certainly entertain strong opinions on particular matters, and these are reflected, for example, in his Introduction to The Cultural Regions of East Africa, where he is critical of the unscientific folk-histories that were creeping into the curriculum of East African schools in the early 1960s, and where he urges the need to follow the evidence for establishing the correct history. As Paul Spencer (1978) remarks, The Cultural Regions, stands by itself: ‘imaginative, encyclopaedic and idiosyncratic in its own way’. John’s certitude in matters ethnographic was also reflected in his participation in Kent research seminar culture, where he would impressively marshal the facts on some matter to the point where he exhausted the capacity of his interlocutors to respond, one of whom on a memorable occasion was Lucy Mair. Both John and Lucy shared similar ontological leanings, both sceptical of academic point-scoring, spurious complexity of argumentation while pursuing a broadly empiricist approach: both eschewing theory and more comfortable assembling ‘the facts of the matter.’ Beyond this, John in particular was a documentalist by inclination. His initial focus on the cultural regions of east Africa later developed into a general fascination with the principles underlying cultural regions and their subdivisions on a global scale, work that he completed and archived but did not publish.

Unsurprisingly, John Kesby’s approach to anthropology was reflected in his teaching. He had an astonishing memory and delivered all lectures verbatim, without notes. Everything was well-organised and unencumbered by the critical apparatus of controversy. All this made his teaching very attractive to students, who could produce lecture notes of a clarity that made them easy to recollect in an examination setting. John was also a religious person, though he rarely discussed any theological underpinnings with colleagues. Whether his estrangement with theory was partly a reflection of its uneasy position in the face of revealed Christian truths was never clear. Nothing in his writings, for example, suggests that he was anti-evolutionist, or indeed dismissive of other faiths. He had a circle of friends and acquaintances drawn from many faiths. While he made no attempt to engage with colleagues or students on matters of faith, the evidence of his religiosity was there in his lectures and course handouts for those willing to search for it. For many years he convened the Kent core ‘Religion and belief’ course, the programme for which was entitled ‘God, gods and ancestors’, and where GOD appeared he did so always in capital letters. There may have been a connection between his empiricist approach to anthropology, his lack of interest in competing arguments about the meanings and purpose of religion, and his own apparently fixed view of human being.

John Kesby died on 18 March 2023 after a slow but progressive scoliosis impacted by other complicating factors, including Parkinson’s Disease. Meticulous to the last, in 2014 John had deposited his field notebooks, photographs, film and several unpublished manuscripts in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI MS 483-4), where they can be accessed by those interested in the work of a serious but gentle scholar.

Roy Ellen,
Crockshard Farmhouse, Wingham

Kuper, Adam 1979. Review of ‘The Cultural Regions of East Africa.’ Man 14 (3), p. 575.

Spencer, Paul 1978. Review of ‘The Cultural Regions of East Africa.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41 (3), p. 638.

To cite this article:

ELLEN, ROY. 2024 ‘John D. Kesby, 1938-2023’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2024. (available on-line: