I John Middleton (1921-2009)

By Beidelman, T. O. | Africa, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

I John Middleton (1921-2009)


Beidelman, T. O., Africa


On 27 February 2009 John Middleton died in New Haven, Connecticut, a week after falling and striking his head; he had never regained consciousness. He had taught a seminar on Africa at Yale University earlier on the day he fell. After his death Media and Identity in Africa (2009), a volume newly co-edited with K. Njogu, was published. So John died still teaching and creating and with future projects in mind. He never believed in retirement and this is certainly how he would have wanted to leave us.

John Francis Marchment Middleton was born in London on 22 May 1921. He graduated (majoring in English Literature) from the University of London in 1941. His first experience of East Africa was shortly after this when he served there for three years in the Army during the Second World War. He returned to Britain keen to become an Africanist. He studied anthropology at University College London, and on the advice of Meyer Fortes transferred to Oxford (Exeter College) where he got his doctorate in 1953. Evans-Pritchard was his supervisor, but it was clear that the greatest influence on his work was Fortes. The power and originality of John's dissertation lay in his views of how belief was used in local strategies for power and authority, which were traced through developmental cycles of kinship. His greatest achievement was Lugbara Religion (1960), based on his dissertation. This seminal classic was a tacit and powerful revision, even a rebuttal, of much of the work then going on at Oxford. (1) John's other most significant books are The Kikuyu and Kamba of Kenya (1953), Land Tenure in Zanzibar (1960), The Lugbara of Uganda (1965), The Study of the Lugbara (1970), The World of the Swahili (1992), and (with Mark Horton) The Swahili (2000)--together with co-edited, pioneering collections of original essays such as Tribes without Rulers (1958) with David Tait, Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa (1963) with E. H. Winter, Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa (1963) with John Beattie, many collections of articles on Africa and social anthropology, and an encyclopaedia of African studies. He also published over seventy essays on African ethnography and social issues, and numerous reviews.

John became one of the most influential Africanists of his time, mostly because of his writings but also because of his wide influence as a teacher, his administrative service at the International African Institute and his editorship of its journal, Africa. John's most significant teaching posts were in Anthropology at the University of London (1956-63, 1972-81), as founding chair of the Department of Anthropology of New York University (1966-72) where he was appointed on the recommendation of Margaret Mead, and as Professor of Anthropology at Yale University (1981-91, and then emeritus). John also taught in South Africa and at the Universities of Northwestern, Oregon and Virginia in the United States. He was always bitter that he was required by law to retire, especially since that law was soon changed and one could then teach as long as one was able. To keep busy he continued to teach part-time at Yale and steadily elsewhere in the United States, as well as in Britain, France, Germany and West Africa. John was a great teacher, especially in graduate seminars and as a personal mentor. He was also a tireless and valuable scholarly correspondent who wrote regularly to a huge number of his former students and colleagues. He maintained contact with an amazing range of Africanists all over the world. His lifetime ties with the International African Institute further enhanced this network.

John wrote a great deal on the Lugbara but also became an authority on the East African Swahili and related coastal peoples. In 1976-7 when his wife, the anthropologist Michelle Gilbert, began fieldwork in Ghana, John returned to research in West Africa, where he had briefly worked earlier (1962-4 in Nigeria). He published some of this West African material, but his great ethnographic love was East Africa, first in Uganda with the Lugbara, then Swahili in Zanzibar (1958) and on the Kenya coast (1986-1991). …

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