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Musemunuzhi: Edwin Smith and the restoration and fulfillment of African society and religion

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Based on the argument that conventional disciplinary histories of anthropology obscure the ways in which anthropology and colonialism were linked through ethnographic practice, Cocks attempts to demonstrate some of these links by analysing the work of the British missionary - anthropologist Edwin Smith. After completing thirteen years as a Christian missionary among the Ila of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Smith co-authored the major ethnographic work, The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, and held influential positions at the Royal Anthropological Institute and International Institute for African Languages and Cultures during the 1920s and 1930s. Rather than his role and influence in these institutions, the focus of this paper is Smith's intellectual development, especially the central role of the missionary vocation behind his growing interest in ethnography and anthropology. After contextualizing Smith's early experiences and activities in Northern Rhodesia within the broader developments of nineteenth-century missionary practice, Cocks demonstrates how Smith's interest in the Ila language developed into a broader interest in Ila social and cultural life. Since, as he came to argue, the successful propagation of the Gospel required a knowledge of the customs and folklore of those to whom one was preaching, Smith embarked upon an ethnographic research project that culminated in The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia. After settling in England after the First World War, his vision of a Christian future for the Ila developed into a more general vision for the future of Africa that radically relativized Christian customs and practices. Finally, Cocks argues that a conceptualization of colonialism as a series of projects is the best way to understand its relationship to anthropology.

Keywords: Christianity; Edwin Smith; Ila; Methodism; Zambia; anthropology; colonialism; ethnography; missionaries

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University in Australia, Australia

Publication date: April 1, 2001

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