Academic journal article History In Africa

Establishing the Facts: P. A. Talbot and the 1921 Census of Nigeria*

Academic journal article History In Africa

Establishing the Facts: P. A. Talbot and the 1921 Census of Nigeria*

Article excerpt

I

Most historians writing about twentieth-century Africa have, at one time or other, used colonial statistical data. When we do this, we normally add a disclaimer, pointing out that these statistics are likely to be unreliable, and then proceed to use them anyway. But surely, we should be able to say something more definite about the reliability of these data? If we know more about the process by which these statistics were collected, for which aims, and with what preconceived ideas in mind, we should be able to establish, if not a margin of error, then at least some idea of which aspects of colonial statistics are more reliable than others. Furthermore, the process of colonial data-collecting was linked to establishing ethnic and other categories, which have since become generally accepted. This paper addresses these questions in an analysis of the context and contents of the published report of the 1921 Census of Southern Nigeria, and discusses its usefulness as a source for historians. The issues I discuss here with specific reference to this Nigerian census are characteristic for colonial censuses in general and should therefore be of relevance to all historians using colonial census data, and also-more generally-help us to understand how some of the most basic categories describing African societies have been constructed in the process of the acquisition of information by colonial governments.

The 1921 Census of Southern Nigeria was part of the first comprehensive census of Nigeria. Until now I have not succeeded in locating the raw census data in either Nigeria or the UK.1 However, the abstract of the census, included in the four volumes of P. A. Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria. A Sketch of their History, Ethnology and Languages, with an Account of the 1921 Census (London, 1926) is generally available and commonly used as a source by historians of Southern Nigeria. A companion publication for Northern Nigeria also exists.2 Percy Amaury Talbot, of the rank of Resident, was the Census Officer for Southern Nigeria. Talbot was an obvious choice for Census Officer, being an experienced Colonial Officer with a longstanding interest in anthropology.

Before he was asked to conduct the Census in the Southern Provinces, Talbot had already been conducting anthropological research during intervals of official work for some years, which had resulted in books on the Ekoi and on the Ibibio.3 He was not, however, a statistician. It took Talbot years to mould the raw census data into the published report, much to the annoyance of his superiors (for comparison, the report of the admittedly much more restricted census of 1911 had been published in 1913, and the Census of Nigeria, 1931 would be published in 1933). In 1923 Nigeria's Chief secretary wrote that "our experience of Mr. Talbot with the Census does not inspire His Excellency with any kind of confidence in his methods of work or habits of industry."4 This was unkind and perhaps unfair: Talbot had to spend a long time negotiating with the colonial Officers on the spot' to adjust the original census data. Furthermore, in his foreword to The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, Talbot claimed to have submitted five volumes to the Government in October 1923, three of which were devoted to the census data (published in the final report as Vol. I Historical Notes, and Vol. IV Linguistics and Statistics). He also claimed to have completed the ethnological sections (Vols. II and III) in July 1924.5

I did not find any evidence for the first date mentioned by Talbot, but I did come across a letter from November 1924 in which Talbot's census report, and especially its anthropological sections, were criticized.6 This criticism might explain a further delay in the production of the report. At any rate, the report published in 1926 is very comprehensive, and contains an impressive and wide-ranging overview of Southern Nigeria, collated from a vast array of sources. …

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