Robin Horton

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J.D.Y. Peel edited and annotated by Richard Fardon

Robin Horton presided as elder when we held a memorial event for John Peel at SOAS, just as he had when, now a decade ago, he offered the libation on the scattering of John Middleton’s ashes near the Uffington White Horse. Robin enjoyed being the elder: Nigeria had taught him how to do such things well, leavening gravity with humour as he helped us take leave of friends. The joke this time involved Robin affectionately berating John for reneging on the promise to write his obituary. John was the younger by almost a decade, so it was a reasonable expectation by the older of the younger man; one of which I was aware because John talked about it himself when he knew his illness was terminal. It seemed Robin had the final word, unless the score could be settled between them on the far side.

What I did not know, and he did not tell me, was that John had in fact written a text with the file name ‘Horton-vita’ in 2007 and sent a copy to Sokari Douglas Camp, Robin’s sister-in-law and ward. Sokari showed me this document when Robin died, four years after John, on 28 November 2019, and we agreed to its publication both as an obituary and as a testament to a long friendship, the final, final punchline to the joke. It’s dated the January of the year of Robin’s seventy-fifth birthday, so may be related to that anniversary as either the trigger to the agreement that John would write the obituary or its outcome.

John’s account of his friend’s life, at least in this version, was not quite final. I have added the occasional missing detail and references but otherwise thought it best to restrict my editing to notes. The text demonstrates something John told me frequently, that Robin’s family background and education were essential to understanding his life and work. I have not undertaken detailed research but add some information come by rapidly in notes that may be of interest.

William Robin Gray Horton’s family might comfortably have populated the pages of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75). In the first half of the twentieth century, they moved in intersecting Anglo-French social circles that revolved around the plastic arts, industry, the military, London high society parties as well as country house weekends, the hunt and sport. Robin’s mother was a society belle, as simply entering Gwen Le Bas into a search engine demonstrates amply. For instance, ‘Fancy Dress, December 1929: At a Santa Claus ball, Miss Gwen Le Bas as an oyster and Mrs Taser as a cocktail’ (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images).1 Robin’s father and his uncle by marriage were both senior military officers; his paternal grandfather as well as his maternal uncle both painters, and his maternal aunt a sculptor (as his ward Sokari would become).

Robin’s education in the natural sciences, philosophy and psychology evidently inform his later theoretical works, as even the titles of his works make evidence: ‘African traditional thought and Western science’, ‘Social psychologies: African and Western’, ‘Patterns of thought in Africa and the West’. As John explains, these theorizations began slightly later than Robin’s ethnographic writings, initially developed alongside them and eventually, to John’s disappointment displaced them entirely. If ethnography requires, in individually complex and widely differing ways, balancing near and far to allow writing to occur at an actual or conceptually achieved distance, it seems that Robin’s Nigerian circumstances belied distance. The experience captured in his later writing is increasingly of oscillation between African and Western, both in Robin’s actual movement and in his thought about it. As John privately surmised, but in this account continues to hope against the evidence, there would not be a grand ethnographic finale but instead an insistent repeated theme of comparison, as if readers could never quite be made to‘get’ the African versus Western contrast that Robin could not quite make settle.

I met Robin Horton only occasionally. The first time must have been around 1974-5 when Mary Douglas introduced us because Robin was looking for someone to research Kalabari kinship, and I had run into a brick wall with my original thesis topic. Robin made it all sound so straightforward that it was not obvious what if anything he did not already know about the subject. Our later encounters occurred when Robin was visiting John; on parting and in seeming distraction, he would remind me that he still meant to rebut what I had imagined to be a positive review I had written of his collected essays (1994). Other than my apparently having foisted some unwelcome political correctness on him, I never found out what I had got wrong. It was another of Robin’s running jokes. I thought being the master of a foxhunt was as well, but that transpired to be true, even if citing it when eighty might have been in humour. Over to John now and a doubly posthumous obituary.

ROBIN HORTON, among the most original and interesting anthropologists of his generation, was born in 1932. His grandfather, William Samuel Horton, had been one of the first American painters to work in the style of the French impressionists.2  His father came to England and enlisted in one of the Guards regiments during World War I; he became a British subject and sent his son to Harrow.3 On leaving Harrow (where he specialized in the natural sciences), RH did national service, which took him to Nigeria to serve as a junior officer with the Royal West Africa Frontier Force (later the Nigeria Regiment) from 1950-51 in Kaduna.4  While stationed at Enugu, his personal interest in the Nigerian soldiers under his command offended the racial code then prevailing in West Africa but led to the contacts which underlay his first published ethnographic work, two articles on aspects of northern Igbo religion and society (1954 & 1956).5 It was while RH was at Enugu that he first met Michael Crowder (the future African historian) who came out to join the battalion: Crowder utterly disregarded the fact that RH had been ‘sent to Coventry’ by the officers’ mess for his breaking of racial taboos. This led to a close friendship that lasted until Crowder’s death in 1988.

After national service RH went up to New College Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology, in which he took a First in 1956.6 After this he went to University College London to pursue anthropological research under Professor Daryll Forde, the leading specialist on West Africa, who suggested that he work on the Kalabari of the Niger Delta. Extraordinarily, in the light of the long years he spent and the intimate connections he established in the Kalabari town of Buguma, he became so dispirited in the early stages that he came close to going back home and giving it all up. After some years writing up and doing some teaching7 at UCL (though without completing his doctorate) he returned to Nigeria in 1962 to take up an appointment at the University of Ife (then sited at Ibadan). A great personal tragedy in his life was that his first wife Hanna (who came from Buguma) died in childbirth, and twin baby girls with her, in 1964. It helped assuage his grief that Hanna’s little sister Sokari,8 then aged six, came to live with him in his house on Mokola Hill, Ibadan.

Yet the 1960s was also a period of remarkable and varied intellectual productivity for RH. There were two small books or pamphlets on Kalabari religion or culture – The Gods as Guests (1960a) and Kalabari Sculpture (1965a)9 – and a long string of articles on similar themes, some more theoretical (mostly published in Africa, the premier journal of African anthropology), others more descriptive (often published with vivid photographs in Nigeria Magazine).10 These articles promised, not only an outstanding ethnography of a religion of great cultural richness, but also a radically new interpretation of traditional African religions in general: as not merely expressive vehicles of social values but also theoretical systems for explaining and controlling the phenomenal world. This latter argument was presented in several articles, highly influential throughout anthropology as a whole, which drew on RH’s Kalabari ethnography but ranged in their generalizations far beyond it. Chief among these – and perhaps the most widely cited and argued-over of all RH’s writings – was his great two-part article published in Africa 37 (1967), ‘African Traditional Thought and Western Science’.11

Political interference at the University of Ife 1962-65 had led to his resignation in 1965, and for several years he was attached as a research fellow to the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan 1965-69, supported in part by modest private means.12 Then, after the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) had moved to its splendid new campus at Ile-Ife itself (1970-78), he joined the staff of its Department of Sociology and Anthropology. There was a short-lived second marriage, again with a Kalabari woman.13 In 1978, after some prejudiced and ill-conceived attacks on his work on African thought by a group of Yoruba academics, he left Ife for a professorship in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State 1978-97, much closer to his adopted second home at Buguma. Here RH married again: it was a contented and long-lasting union which produced a daughter, Winnie.14 His main home and library remained on the University of Port Harcourt  campus where he became an Honorary Research Associate from 1997 till after his formal retirement in 2004, after which he relocated to the house he had built for himself and the family of his first wife at Buguma. Here he lives till today [writing in 2007].

The creativity of RH’s work in the 1960s was sustained into the 1970s and 1980s and took several new directions. His article ‘African Conversion’ in Africa 41 (1971a), followed by ‘On the Rationality of Conversion’ in Africa 45 (1975a/b) launched a new paradigm for the study of religious change, and stimulated much application and critique, not just in Africa or only by anthropologists.15 There were several articles of historical reconstruction: not just on Kalabari, but also one on the rise and decline of Ancient Ife (1976),16 and his seminal treatment of a difficult topic, “Stateless Societies in the History of West Africa” in J.F. Ade Ajayi and M. Crowder’s standard History of West Africa (1971b). There was his long comparative essay on “Social Psychologies: African and Western” that accompanied the re-issue of M. Fortes’s classic Oedipus and Job in West African Religion, itself as long as the original (1983a). There were various elaborations and replies to the critics of his earlier work on African thought, which had become a key point of reference in the debate about rationality as a cross-cultural category that was then current in the social sciences. The book he edited with Ruth Finnegan, Modes of Thought (1973), and his essay ‘Tradition and Modernity Revisited’, published in Hollis and Lukes’s edited volume, Rationality and Relativism (1983) further refined his ideas. Many of his articles on this theme (including his Frazer lecture of 1987) were collected in the volume Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science, published by Cambridge University Press in 1993.

By the 1990s RH was focussing more on local issues, though he still kept abreast with developments in anthropology, religious studies and the philosophy of science on his annual or twice-yearly visits to the UK, when he did the rounds of his colleagues, scoured the bookshops and returned to Nigeria laden with the latest publications. Based as he was in a mainly Religious Studies department at Port Harcourt, he was much concerned with maintaining the standards of a calm and objective study of religion – no easy endeavour in a country where religious belief was so strong and religious conflict a growing social reality. He worked to distil his introductory lectures, setting out the principles for an empirical study of religion in Nigeria, into a book – the four or five chapters I have seen show his exemplary clarity and grasp of the issues – though it still remains in typescript form.17 RH has always been a slow and considered writer, lucid and methodical, always eschewing jargon and obscurity, though prone to polemical digs at his opponents! At a time when Nigerian universities were sinking steadily into decline, through underfunding and mismanagement, indifference and corruption, with worsening facilities and dismal libraries, excessive student-staff ratios and wretched academic salaries, it showed an extraordinary devotion to his chosen field and country that RH stayed in Nigeria, when he might easily have moved to the rich pastures of the United States. He took enormous trouble to bring on and improve the work of his colleagues and students, particularly Masters students who might go on to do research and become the next generation of Nigerian scholars. He supervised their dissertations, corrected their drafts, provided references and introductions for them to the metropolitan centres of academic advancement. Most of this work inevitably dealt with a very local subject-matter, and much of it fell outside the strict confines of religious studies. For years, his two closest significant senior colleagues in Nigeria were the historian E. J. Alagoa and the late Kay Williamson, the greatest expert on the complex language patterns of the Niger Delta. RH has a truly synoptic vision of what Niger Delta studies might be, drawing on history (written and oral), ethnography, archaeology, linguistics …

Social anthropology is about drawing on a detailed knowledge of a particular culture (typically not the anthropologist’s own) in order to enhance our understanding of what makes humankind in general what it is. I can think of no other living anthropologist who has combined such a contribution to the discipline at the highest level of theory, with such a deep and long-lasting familiarity with ‘his people’ as RH has. Anthropological monographs have depended crucially on the fieldworker’s relationship with a ‘key informant’, often a wise elder or acknowledged expert in the lore of the community. RH has worked so long in Buguma, and has got to know it so well over such a long period of times (which has seen such changes), that he is now the principle ritual expert in the community, the main repository of the knowledge of its history and culture. Now in his mid-70s, RH has a strong sense of what work remains for him to do, both in terms of the theoretical issues about systems of thought that have always engaged him, and of the detailed analysis of Kalabari religion. My own most fervent hope is that he will complete his empirical and analytical study, so many years in gestation, of Kalabari religion.

J.D.Y. Peel
SOAS University of London
18 January 2007

2 Following Neil Roger-Davis (2012), William Samuel Horton, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1865 to wealthy parents who destroyed his canvases in childhood and later disinherited him, became the best-known American impressionist artist of his generation. In 1892, he married Carlotta ‘Lottie’ Gray, a wealthy New York socialite and shipowner’s daughter, moving the following year to Paris where William trained, made friendships with the likes of Monet and Degas, and exhibited his works in important galleries both in Paris and New York.

3 Robin’s father, William Gray Horton, addressed as ‘Gray’ after his mother’s maiden name, was born in Paris in 1897. Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, he became a naturalized British citizen in 1917. He joined the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards in May 1917, was wounded in November, and awarded the Military Cross in February 1918. He was a member of the British bobsleigh team at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix. In 1930, when a Captain, he married Gwendolen ‘Gwen’ Anna Le Bas (1901-44), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Edward Le Bas, in the Guards Chapel, or Royal Military Chapel in Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, which runs along the southern edge of St James’s Park, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.Gwen’s sister, Molly (1903-96), became a sculptor, and her brother Edward ‘Boy’ Le Bas (1904-66) a painter and collector. Gray left the army for a position in the Le Bas group of businesses in the same month Robin was born (on 27 October 1932). Robin and his younger sister Carlotta, like her grandmother known as ‘Lottie’, were both christened in the Chapel where their parents had married. Gray reenlisted in July 1939 and had an action-filled war, serving in France and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, ending the war as Chief of Staff in the RAF’s Berlin Air Command. Before Robin reached his twelfth birthday, his mother Gwendoline was one of 121 to die during morning service on Sunday 18 June 1944 when a V1 rocket bomb destroyed the same Guards Chapel that had been the scene of her wedding and children’s christenings. Robin’s father remarried in 1949 to Baroness Marcelle de Tornaco, the divorced wife of the Belgian racing car driver Baron Raymond do Tornaco, see Roger-Davis 2012; Gore 2017;
For portraits, now in the National Portrait Gallery, of Gwen and Molly together and separately,
Robin himself is in the National Portrait Gallery aged two in a Pierrot clown costume,

4 Robin’s maternal aunt became Molly Brocas Burrows by marriage to Montagu Brocas Burrows (1894-1967) who, as Lieutenant General, became Commander-in-Chief of the West Africa Command of the British Army from 1945 to his retirement in 1946.

5 The RAI archive additionally lists two unpublished papers of the same period, ‘Ijo ritual sculpture’, with photographs by Robin Horton and Noah Onwuka (MS 345), and ‘Untitled about the Ijo of the Rivers Province’ (MS 349), both originally among the papers of William Fagg.

6  I owe the following details to Jennifer Thorp, archivist of New College Oxford. Robin ‘was offered a place [at New College] with an Open Scholarship in Natural Science, in December 1950, to be taken up after the completion of his National Service (begun in March 1951). His academic achievements at Harrow had been outstanding: distinctions in English (Language & Literature), French and Latin at School Certificate level (plus credits in Greek, History and Maths), and Distinctions in Botany, Zoology, Chemistry and Subsidiary Physics at Higher Certificate level. A reference from the senior Biology Master at Harrow noted his determination to study chemistry or biology, despite the blandishments of the classical masters who saw him as a promising humanities student. The same reference noted his ability to learn very quickly and his “decided flair for investigation”, which demonstrated itself in fieldwork, and described his personality as “a very likeable fellow with plenty of guts. He is an adequate Rugger player and a keen and excellent horseman”; and in general praised his intellect and balanced outlook.
His National Service took him to South Nigeria, where he served in the 2nd Battalion Nigerian Regiment, based at Enugu. His student file indicates that during this time he became very interested in Anthropology, to the extent of asking us whether he could read Biology and Anthropology when he came up to Oxford. The fellow who advised him at that stage was the physiologist Dr Richard Creed, who would become his college tutor when he came up in 1953. In the event Robin read PPP (Philosophy, Psychology, Physiology) when he came here, matriculating in Michaelmas term 1953. He passed his Natural Sciences Prelims in 1954 and finals in Trinity term 1956, gaining a 1st in PPP. All his tutors noted his intelligence, capacity for hard work, and wide interest; Isaiah Berlin (Philosophy 1956) in particular described him as “A most intelligent and interesting man with original intellect and great independence of judgement… He should do admirably in any task to which he sets his hand.”’

7 According to Murray Last (pc) who based his knowledge on conversation with John Lavers who was at UCL then, Robin lectured on the ‘Anthropology of Religion’.

8 To become the celebrated artist Sokari Douglas Camp CBE, The reader will have noticed the artist thread running through this life story. Sokari contributed an obituary to The Guardian’s ‘Other Lives’ columns,

9 The Gods as Guests. An aspect of Kalabari religious life, (71pp.) was a Special Issue of Nigeria Magazine (Volume 3); Kalabari Sculpture, (49pp.) a publication of the Federal Department of Antiquities of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, presumably accepted during the directorship of Bernard Fagg (1957-63), see also note 5.

10 A bibliography of Horton’s publications has been promised for publication in the journal Africa. For some of the ethnographic essays from the period 1960-70, many of them named after Kalabari institutions, see: 1960b, 1962a, 1963, 1964a, 1965b, 1966, 1967c, 1968, 1969a,1969b, 1970.

11 The theoretical works stretch from the early 1960s and predominate from the 1970s: 1960c, 1961, 1962b, 1964b, 1967a/b, 1971a, 1873, 1975a/b, 1983a, 1983b, 1987. 

12 John enters in brackets ‘[Is this correct?]’ after the reference to private means. Sokari Douglas Camp tells me she was too young to remember clearly, but the years between posts included the Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War, 1967-70, so it may well be that Robin lived discreetly on his private income.

13 Sokari Douglas Camp explains that Robin was estranged from his second wife, Suzy West, for some time before her death.

14 Robin’s wife Ibiene survives him, as do their daughter Edwina, and granddaughters Zelda and Elsa, and Robin’s sister Carlotta.

15 John omits to mention here both that Robin’s original argument about conversion was largely based on his own then recent monograph on the Yoruba religious movement Aladura (Peel 1968), and that they were later to co-author a defence of the Horton, intellectualist thesis (Horton and Peel 1976).

16 I cannot find a reference to Horton (1976) but he did publish two essays on Ife in 1979 and 1992. 

17 The historian E.J. Alagoa (mentioned later in this paragraph) will apparently be taking care of Robin’s copious papers.


Fardon, Richard 1994. ‘Keeping faith with science’, review of Robin Horton Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West. Essays on Magic, Science and Religion, Africa 64(3): 406-14.

Gore, Jan 2017. Send More Shrouds: the V1 attack on the Guards’ Chapel, 1944, Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military.

Horton, R. 1954. The Ohu system of slavery in a northern Ibo village-group. Africa 24: 311-336.
— 1956. God, man, and the land in a northern Ibo village-group. Africa 26: 17-28.
— 1960a. The gods as guests: An aspect of Kalabari religious life. Special Issue of Nigeria Magazine vol. 3.
— 1960b. New Year in the Delta: A traditional and a modern festival. Nigeria Magazine September 67: 256-297.
— 1960c. A definition of religion and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 90(2): 201-226.
— 1961. Destiny and the unconscious in West Africa. Africa 31(2)::110-116.
— 1962a.The Kalabari worldview: An outline and interpretation. Africa 32(2): 197-219.
— 1962b. The high god: A comment on Father O’Connell’s paper. Man 62: 137-140.
— 1963. The Kalabari Ekine society: A borderline of religion and art. Africa 33(2): 94-114.
— 1964a. Kalabari diviners and oracles. Odu 1(1): 3-16.
— 1964b. Ritual man in Africa. Africa 34(2): 85-105.
— 1965a. Kalabari sculpture. Federal Department of Antiquities of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
— 1965b. Duminea: A festival for the water-spirits in the Niger Delta. Nigeria Magazine September 86: 187-198.
— 1966. Igbo: An ordeal for aristocrats. Nigeria Magazine September 90: 168-183.
— 1967a. African traditional thought and Western science: Part one. Africa 37(1): 50-71.
— 1967b. African traditional thought and Western science: Part two. Africa 37(2): 155-187.
— 1967c. Ikaki – The tortoise masquerade. Nigeria Magazine 94: 236-39.
— 1968. Ikpataka Dogi: A Kalabari funeral rite. African Notes 5: 52-72.
— 1969a. From fishing village to city state: A social history of New Calabar. In M. Douglas & P. Kaberry (eds) Man in Africa, 38-59. London: Tavistock.
— 1969b. Types of spirit possession in Kalabari religion. In J. Beattie & J. Middleton (eds) Spirit mediumship and society in Africa, 14-49. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
— 1970. A hundred years of change in Kalabari religion. In J. Middleton (ed.) Black Africa: Its people and their cultures today, 192-211. New York: Macmillan.
— 1971a. African conversion. Africa 41(2): 85-108.
— 1971b. Stateless societies in the history of West Africa. In J.F. Ade Ajayi & M. Crowder (eds) History of West Africa, vol. 1, 72-113. Harlow: Longman.
— 1973. Lévy-Bruhl, Durkheim and the scientific revolution. In Horton & Finnegan (1973: 249-305).
— 1975a. On the rationality of conversion Part I. Africa 45(3): 219-235.
— 1975b. On the rationality of conversion Part II. Africa 45(4): 373-397.
— 1979. Ancient Ife: A reassessment. Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 9(4): 69-149.
— 1983a. Social psychologies: African and Western. In M. Fortes Oedipus and Job in West Africa, 41-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— 1983b. Tradition and modernity revisited. In M. Hollis & S. Lukes (eds) Rationality and relativism, 201-260. Oxford: Blackwell.
— 1984. Judaeo-Christian spectacles: Boon or bane to the study of African religions? Cahier d’Etudes africaines 24(96): 391-436.
— 1987. Back to Frazer? The Frazer Memorial Lecture, published in Horton (1993).
— 1992. The economy of Ife from c.A.D. 900-c.A.D. 1700. In A. Akinjogbin (ed.) The cradle of a race, 122-147. Lagos: Sunray Publications.
— 1993. Patterns of thought in Africa and the West: Essays on magic, science and religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— & J.D.Y. Peel 1976. Conversion and confusion: A rejoinder on Christianity in Eastern Nigeria. Canadian Journal of African Studies 10: 481-98.
— & R. Finnegan (eds) 1973. Modes of thought. London: Faber & Faber.

Peel, J.D.Y. 1968. Aladura: A religious movement among the Yoruba. London: Oxford University Press for the International African Institute.

Roger-Davis, Neil 2012

To cite this article:

PEEL, J.D.Y.. 2007. ‘Remebering Robin Horton’. Royal Anthropological Institute, February 2020. (available on-line:



PEEL, J.D.Y.. 2007. ‘Robin Horton (1932-2019)’. Anthropology Today Vol. 36, No. 1, pp.23-24. (available on-line: