Phyllis Kaberry

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Phyllis Kaberry died suddenly at the end of October 1977. She was born in 1910 in California of English parents. Her father, an architect, moved to Sydney and successfully established his family there. Most of Phyllis’s early life was spent in Australia. She retained the many Australian friends she made at school, at the University, and in the course of her Australian and New Guinea fieldwork, and counted herself as ‘mere English of the Australian variety’. She kept in close touch with her family and was devoted to her brothers’ children.

Phyllis was one of the outstanding students of her year at the University of Sydney, where she studied under Raymond Firth and Ian Hogbin. She obtained her B.A. in 1933 and her M.A. with First-Class Honours in 1935. In 1934 she started on her first field research on the social status of aboriginal women in N.W. Australia, and, in 1935-6, carried out a further 13 months’ stint, chiefly among the Forrest and Lyne River, and East and South Kimberley tribes, as a Fellow of the Australian National Research Council. Her main findings were published in 1939, as Aboriginal Woman, now back in demand as a consequence of new perceptions in social anthropology.

In 1936 she came to London and worked as a Research Assistant in the main with Audrey Richards, in Malinowski’s Department at the London School of Economics, while preparing her Ph.D. thesis; her doctorate was conferred in 1939. Then another Fellowship from the Australian National Research Council enabled her to carry out a study of the Abelam of the Sepik District of New Guinea — a study which involved the exercise of a good deal of tact and resource in a ‘lightly-administered’ area. She returned to Sydney in 1940 as an Honorary Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology while preparing her material for publication, in a series of papers in Oceania.

From 1941 to 1943 she held a Sterling and then a Carnegie Fellowship at Yale University, where she lectured on Australia and New Guinea and edited Malinowski’s unpublished material on culture change, published as The Dynamics of Culture Change in 1945, with an introduction by her. She was restive at being without ‘war work’. In 1943 she returned to London to work at the Royal Institute of International Affairs on the post-war problems of South-East Asia, Malaya in particular. In 1944 the International African Institute was consulted, by the Government of Nigeria, on the question of organizing a field study of the peoples of Bamenda, in the Cameroons under British mandate, with special reference to the position of women, whose low status was held to be one of the obstacles to the social and economic development of the region. Phyllis Kaberry was persuaded to undertake this study by Dr Margaret Read, and so began her association with a region which has since increasingly attracted the interest of scholars.

In 1945 she made her first field-trip, lasting 14 months’, to Bamenda, followed by another of equal duration in 1947. She must have walked many hundreds of miles in the course of her initial surveys, which took her all over the region, until she settled down to a more intensive study of the economic position of women in Nso, in the South-East of it.

Soon after her return she was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Anthropology at University College, published the first of her numerous papers on her Cameroons work, and by 1950, had completed the first draft of her Women of the Grassfields (HMSO 1952), a study of the topics she was invited to report upon, framed within a lively account of the societies and economies of Bamenda in general and of Nso in particular. It went straight to the heart of the problem faced by administrators, in its analysis of the system of land rights and crop ownership, and was influential in promoting a number of steps to raise the status and health of Bamenda women-farmers. In 1951 she was advanced to a Readership, and took on a considerable load of teaching and administration. She had it ever in mind to restudy her Cameroons field, to analyse the accommodation of the societies of Bamenda to administrative and fiscal reforms, to changes in political leadership, and to the successful introduction of peasant-grown coffee. In 1958 a Leverhulme Fellowship enabled her to undertake a seven-months study in Nso and elsewhere during which she collected a mass of oral and documentary material, later refined into two papers for Africa which exemplify her perspicacity as an analyst of the social changes she had witnessed, and her ear for significant or paradoxical statement.

In 1960 and 1963, with the help of a Wenner-Gren and a Hayter Travel Grant she returned to Bamenda to undertake a comparative study of political systems for a projected symposium, organized by Claude Tardits, which had arisen from the conversations of historians and social anthropologists over the preceding years. Further papers emerged from these two periods of fieldwork, the motive for which can be found in her extended review article Primitive States (B.J.S., 8,1957), in which her abiding interest in the organization of production and exchange and the allocation of resources and services in preindustrial societies is concisely stated; this interest, I believe, derived from her early acquaintance with M. M. Postan and Eileen Power, and was sustained by continuous reading in medieval economic history.

Her last fieldwork, with some of which I collaborated as an historian, was never completely written up. Her feelings of obligation to her informants and collaborators and in particular to the intelligentsia of the region in which her fieldwork was done, resulted in a short, and now rare, book — Traditional Bamenda (Buea, 1968) — in a series edited by her friend Edwin Ardener.

An historian is not the best person to assess Phyllis Kaberry’s contribution to social anthropology. But I can (as her pupil) confirm the justice of the award of the Rivers Memorial Medal to her (in 1957) for fieldwork. She was an outstanding and disciplined fieldworker, to judge from my experience, well and critically apprised of the existing documents, and with a brilliant sympathy for the perplexities and moral dilemmas of chiefs, local political leaders, catechists, conservative lineage-heads, tax-collectors, traders, what you will. Her evident integrity attracted a rich deposit of information on social change in this area which may be of capital importance for the future. Her field-notes have been left to the British Library of Economics and Political Science. They will be, I judge, a resource for students prepared to put their notions to the test of faithful and copious fieldwork.

I must confess that I did not detect any attachment by Phyllis to particular schools of thought. She was, as she confessed, an eclectic, loyal to what she had learned from Malinowski, and from her teachers at Sydney and L.S.E., and from Daryll Forde, ever-ready to learn from her colleagues and pupils, and open to new views.

After 1970 ill-health beset her. Despite it, she struggled on, with remissions in which her wit and energy were reasserted. She leaves behind her some uncompleted projects — a study of the Abelam Yam Cult, a monograph on the Nso Kingdom, and a text book on pre-industrial societies.

Her students, now all over the world (and these include her field assistants, many of them are now in exalted positions) will remember her for her professional generosity, her nose for pretentiousness, and her gaiety.

E. M. Chilver

This obituary first appeared as: Chilver, E.M.. 1978. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 24, p. 11-12 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

CHILVER, E. M.. 1978. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 24, p. 11-12 (available on-line:


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