William R. Bascom

Professor William R. Bascom, who died on 11 September at the age of 69, was one of the first and most distinguished of the American school of Africanists which came into prominence after the Second World War. Bascom was one of the group of talented young scholars trained and in-spired by Melville J. Herskovits at Northwestern University in the thirties.

Working in that spirit of cultural anthropology, Bascom gave primary attention to the aesthetic, intellectual and religious traditions of the Yoruba, to the study of whose culture he devoted a lifetime of fieldwork and scholarly research. But Bascom took pains, as well, to relate Yoruba cultural achievements to their social and political organization. His early papers on the distinctive and long-established pre-colonial urbanism and on the family systems of the Yoruba remain of fundamental value. Greatly interested in the tenacity of African cultural traditions in the face of social change, he carried out a number of investigations into the persisting influence of Yoruba customary beliefs and practices in the languages, folklore and ritual of the descendants of the West Africans who were transplanted to Cuba and other parts of the New World in the nineteenth century. And though he was primarily and essentially an Africanist, it should be noted that he also had a spell of fieldwork in Micronesia after the War.

Bascom was well known among ethnologists and others in this country and on the Continent concerned with the arts of West Africa and African folklore for his expertise and his publications, best represented in his book African Art in Social Perspective, and for his studies of master carvers. However, his lasting fame — appropriately recognized in this country by his election to Honorary Fellowship of the Institute shortly after his retirement — rests on his monumental book on Ifa Divination (1969), a work of profound and sensitive scholarship that ranks as one of the most outstanding works of Africanist research of the past half-century. This was followed last year by an equally exhaustive study of the cowrie-using method of divination alternative to Ifa but hardly mentioned by other Yoruba specialists. Like all of Bascom’s Yoruba studies, these works have been greatly appreciated and admired by the growing number of Nigerian Yoruba scholars engaged in the different branches of linguistic and cultural research.

Apart from his leading position among American Africanists, Bascom was a folklorist of note and made important contributions to the development of scientific comparative methods in the study of folklore. Bascom was first and foremost a field ethnologist, not a museum man. That was perhaps why his directorship of the Lowie Museum at the University of California at Berkeley, to which he was appointed after having held a teaching post at Northwestern was marked not only by the development of excellent exhibition techniques but especially by the expansion of facilities for research and scholarship in relation to the collections. Ever generous of time and consideration to both graduate students and to established scholars, and a man of genial personality and goodwill, he was looked up to with affection and respect by a wide circle of colleagues and friends. Bill and his wife Berta, herself a Northwestern trained ethnologist who worked with him on his researches both in her native Cuba and in Africa, were famous for their hospitality and the deepest sympathy of all their friends and colleagues will go out to her.

No event in his life so well shows up his steadfastness of character and his high ideals as the story of the Ife bronzes.

He happened to be engaged in fieldwork at Ife in 1938—39 when the great find of some sixteen naturalistic bronzes (later shown to be from about the fourteenth century) were found by a man digging foundations for a new house near the Oni’s palace. It was by no means accepted then, as it would be now, that the Oni-in- Council had a title to them, and when two of the heads were offered to Bascom by the presumed owner he bought them and took them home to Evanston. There he kept them for some fifteen years. He was generous about lending them for public exhibition but always repelled offers from innumerable dealers and others to buy them (including it was said an offer by an exalted personage to buy one for the then astronomical sum of $20,000 — though $lm. would be a more realistic figure today). Finally, yielding to requests from Nigeria and moved by his own high principles, he returned them to the Oni.


This obituary first appeared as: Fagg, William and Fortes, Meyer. 1981. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 47, p. 12-13 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

FAG, WILLIAM and FORTES, MEYER. 1981. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 47, p. 12-13 (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/william-archer).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online https://aio.therai.org.uk/aio.php?action=doquicksearch&qs_resultsmode=fullkeywords&qs_decades=all&qs_keyword=William%20*Bascom