Robin Horton, A Quintessential Professor Takes Final Exit Robin Horton, A Quintessential Professor Takes Final Exit



Obioma Ogbonnaya

On a beautiful late sunny afternoon in 1951, a young Briton filled with ambitious dreams for the future made his firstconnection with Nigeria as he began his national service. His home country, Britain, had sent him to Nigeria. By the early 1960s he had returned on an academic research trip and fell in love not only with the country, but also with a local woman.

Robin Horton, who died at the age of 87 on November 28, 2019, was a British anthropologist who specialised in the study of the Kalabari people of Nigeria, where he lived and worked as a professor for much of his life.

Late Prof. Robin Horton was one of the world best social anthropologists and philosophers. A professor of Comparative Religion, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Robin Horton was born in the year 1932, and was notable for his scientific approach to the study of religion. For more than four decades Horton lived in Africa, where he conducted research on African indigenous religions, magic, mythology & rituals. During the 40 years of residence in Africa, he worked as a professor of philosophy and religion at several universities including the University of Ife, Osun State and University of Port Harcourt in Rivers State, Nigeria.

He had a very interesting family background. His father came to England and enlisted in one of the Guards regiments during World War I, and became a British subject and sent his son to Harrow, one of the best schools. On leaving Harrow (where he specialised in the natural sciences), Robin Horton 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) 1950-51 Kaduna.

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).

It was while Robin Horton was at Enugu that he first met Michael Crowder, the future African historian, who came out to join the battalion: Crowder utterly disregarded that fact that Robin Horton had been “sent to Coventry” by the officers’ mess for his breaking of racial taboos, an action that led to a close friendship that lasted until Crowder’s death in 1988.

After national service, Robin Horton went back to New College Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology, in which he took a First Class. After this, he went to University College London 1953-56 to pursue anthropological research under Professor Daryll Forde, the leading specialist on West Africa, who suggested that he worked 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. Horton returned to Nigeria in 1962 to take up an appointment at the University of Ife, then domiciled at Ibadan.

As a result of the political interference at the University of Ife between 1962-65, he resigned and for several years he was attached as a research fellow to the Institute of African Studies at the University at Ibadan between1965-69, supported in part by modest private means. Then, after the University of Ife had moved to its splendid new campus at Ile-Ife itself (1970-78), he joined the staff of its Department of Sociology and Anthropology. 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 between 1978-97, where he moved much closer to his adopted second home at Buguma.

The creativity of Robin Horton’s work in the 1960s was sustained into the 1970s and 1980s, and took several new directions. His article “African Conversion” in Africa41 (1971), followed by “On the Rationality of Conversion” in Africa45 (1975) launched a new paradigm for the study of religious change, and stimulated much application and critique, not just in Africa or only by anthropologists.

There were several articles of historical reconstruction: not just on Kalabari, but also one on the rise and decline of Ancient Ife (1976), 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(1971). 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 (1983).

By the 1990s late Prof. Horton was focused more on local issues, while still keeping 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.

Prof. Horton, who will be interred at his adopted home in Buguma, Rivers State on Saturday January 18, 2020 has worked so long in the communities, and has got to know it so well over such a long period of times (which has seen such changes), that he isnow the principle ritual expert in the community, the main repository of the knowledge of its history and culture. He 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.

Prof. Atei Mark Okorobia of the History and Diplomatic Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Port Harcourt and a former student of the Briton, said Horton ultimately became a Kalabari-Ijo (Ijaw) man by choice and acculturation. “Indeed, I honestly think, that while there had or have always been individuals with greater specialised knowledge of some aspects of Kalabari history and culture, Horton’s knowledge of the general history and culture of the Kalabari-Ijo, is such that, there is scarcely anyone, living or dead, that could claim a deeper knowledge than him. He also joined and became a full and active member of Ekine, the highest Eastern Ijo socio-cultural fraternity.”

A devoted family man, even whenmixed-race couples was frowned upon both in Nigeria and Britain at the time; Horton got married to Hanna, his first wife. However, their happiness did not last long, as Hanna died in childbirth, and Robin therefore lost both his wife and their twin baby girls. While the second marriage was also short-lived, he got married into Kalabariland again to Ibieneba and both had a beautiful daughter Mrs. Edwina Nwaogu and two granddaughters– Zelda and Elsa Nwaogu.

His son in-law, Emeka Nwaogu, a swashbuckling legal practitioner in Lagos, has fond memories of the late professor. He said: “Prof Horton loved his family, he cared for the family and people around him. I must also add here that he loved and dotted on his grandchildren. It was a delight to watch him play with them. They will surely miss his exit.”

According to Okorobia, Horton taught and mentored a crowd of highflying academics in History and Religious Studies, as well as in other endeavours in Kalabariland. It is not surprising therefore, that he is fondly referred to as the ‘Kalabari-Bekinbo’, meaning ‘the Kalabari Whiteman’- an outsider, transformed into an insider. Even after his retirement, he remained highly committed to his traditional research interest, especially in the areas of Kalabari and Niger Delta Studies.

*Ogbonnaya, the Managing Editor of The Lead wrote in from Lagos

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