by Peter Rivière

Wood door from Gabon, collected by Walker. 1884.56.47

General Pitt-Rivers, until around 1884, played an important and active part in the life of the various anthropological societies of the time. He was a member of both the Ethnological Society of London (ESL) and the Anthropological Society of London (ASL), and was a key player in their merging to form the Anthropological Institute (AI). One of the people he got to know as a result of his involvement with these societies was Robert Bruce Napoleon Walker. There are a large number of items in the Founding Collection that are either definitely or probably connected with Walker.

Walker, born in 1832, was a British merchant and explorer based in the Gabon, West Africa, from 1851 onwards. [1]  Both Walker’s elder brothers were in West Africa and one of them had presented zoological specimens to the Liverpool Museum in 1855. Walker himself was collecting zoological specimens for the Liverpool Museum and the British Museum by 1858, and later for others as well. There is also evidence that he sent zoological and ethnographic material to his agents –‘usually the well-known Samuel Stevens but later to E.T. Higgins. In 1867 he made enquiries of Moore [Curator of the Liverpool Museum] about using “your friend Mr. Leyland”’. [2] Stevens was an entomologists and natural history dealer whose business was taken over in 1867 by Edmund Higgins. Joseph Leyland was likewise a natural history dealer who sold items to the Liverpool Museum over a 20-year period. If McMillan is correct these men also dealt in ethnographic and anthropological objects, but none of the items in Pitt-Rivers’ Founding Collection is recorded as having passed through their hands.

Walker was definitely making collections of ethnographic objects before 1862 as the International Exhibition of that year included ‘a collection of mats, fibres, commercial products, skins, native arms, musical instruments, &c., of the Ba Fan tribes’ that he had made. [3] What happened to this collection after the Exhibition had closed is unknown. It is possible that Pitt-Rivers acquired some of the objects for we know he visited the exhibition and may even have been involved with the organization of the some of exhibits from the Royal United Services Institute.

Walker became a Fellow of the ASL in 1864. [4] He is recorded as attending a meeting on 17 January 1865 and it is stated that he had only recently returned from West Africa where he had spent 23 years in Gabon. [5] On 31 January 1865 it is noted that he had donated various objects to the ASL and was called upon to comment on them. The objects in question were a grass cap, pipe bowl and two ivory carvings from Loango (now part of the Republic of Congo), a grass cap and grass cigar-case from Sierra Leone, a pipe bowl from Porto Novo (Capital of Benin) and a hairpin from the Gabon. [6]

A further gift, a bible translated into Mpongwe, from Walker is recorded in the minutes of the meeting of 28 February 1865. [7] He spoke at the meeting of the 14 March 1865. [8] On 1 May he read a paper entitled ‘On the alleged sterility of the union of women of savage races with native males, after having had children by a whiteman; with a few remarks on the Mpongwe tribe of negroes’. [9] On 4 April he attended a farewell dinner to Richard Burton where a toast was also drunk to his future success. In reply Walker stated that he would shortly be returning to Gabon and intended to renew his explorations. [10] In fact the ASL supported a further expedition to the tune of £25 - approximately £1,142 in modern currency. [11]  He was back in Gabon by October when he wrote saying that he was sending to the ASL a Fang shield and nine Fang spears, [12] but there is no confirmation that they arrived. At a Special Ordinary Meeting on 1 February 1866, Walker was elected Local Secretary for the Gabon. In the minutes of the meeting of 20 March 1866, the gift of a girdle worn by Mpongwe women is noted. [13]

At the Society’s meeting of 15 January 1867 it was reported that a letter had been received from Walker dated 17 November 1866, [14] in which he stated that the ‘best and rarest specimens’ in his collection had been lost at sea, but he was sending another collection which should arrive in March. [15] Its arrival was duly reported at the meeting of 2 April 1867. It was composed of 46 specimens and was accompanied by 16 ‘closely written pages’. It was decided not to read these out as Walker planned a paper or papers to be read before the Society at some future date. In the meantime attention was drawn to the weapons in the collection as Walker was of the view that ‘nothing throws so much light on the savage races as the character of the weapons they used’. A full list of the specimens is provided, and although there are 46 specimens many of them are composed of numerous objects. For example, specimen 1 is two fly whisks and specimen 5 three pipe bowls. Furthermore some specimens have subdivisions; specimen 10 consists of five spearheads and 10a of 6 spears. The collection is a mix of ethnographic objects and human crania, of which there are 10. [16]

Walker’s contact with the ASL continued. Extracts from letters were read at the meeting of 31 December 1867 [17] and notice of a donation of photographs on 15 December. [18] On 2 March 1869, further ethnographic items were recorded as received from Walker; they consisted of two war-caps, a war knife, two beheading knives, the skull of a slave, and a kilt made from palm leaf. [19] On 5 April 1870 the receipt of three more skulls from Walker was recorded. [20] Following the merger of the ASL with the ESL a similar announcement occurs in the report of the AI’s meeting of the 6 November 1871 [21] but it is not clear whether the same skulls are being referred to.

After this there appear to be no further donations from Walker, but this may be a failure of the newly formed AI to record such donations. There are, however, still occasional mentions of him. He attended a meeting of the Anthropological Institute’s AGM on 25 January 1876 at which Pitt-Rivers, as President, was in the chair. [22] He is listed as still being the local secretary in the Gabon in 1879, [23] and his attendance at a meeting on 9 November 1897, at which he commented on a paper by C.H. Read and O.M. Dalton, ‘Works of art from Benin City’, is recorded. [24] He died in 1901.

There are in all 141 items (158 objects) in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Founding Collection that are listed as collected by or associated with Walker. Of these 90 are identified as having been at sometime in the possession of the ASL, although they passed into the hands of Pitt-Rivers on different dates. Nine of them were acquired in or before 1867 with two in 1862; 45 by 1875, and 36 in 1881. We know that the AI decided in 1881 to get rid of its ethnographical collection, but keep its large collection of skeletal remains and put most emphasis on the library. Pitt-Rivers bought the whole collection, with the exception of a Burmese gong, for £40 (about £2,000 today).

Unfortunately we have no information of how many items were involved or what they were. It is clear that the ASL was also disposing of some of its ethnographical items before this date although the archival sources give no indication of this. Pitt-Rivers acquired the 51 items listed as associated with Walker but not with the ASL in the 1870s and one must assume that he purchased them directly. A caveat must be entered here to the effect that the documentation of the Founding Collection needs to be treated with caution and there is often uncertainty about sources and dates of accession. Furthermore it is not certain that all of the Walker items in the Founding Collection had been owned by Pitt-Rivers. It is possible that some of them were transferred to the PRM during the re-organization of the collections in the Oxford University’s museums in 1886, and thus strictly speaking these objects do not form part of the Founding Collection although they are so catalogued.

As might be assumed from what has already been written, all the items, with one exception, come from West Africa, with two-thirds from Gabon and 23 items from the Congo. The exception is a Zulu or Xhosa rattle from South Africa, although this may well be a misattribution. All except two of the items were collected by Walker in the field, the exceptions being a crossbow and a crossbow part that came from the collection of Paul du Chaillu, the French-American explorer best known for his collection of gorillas, who was in the Gabon in the 1850s, when Walker was already there.

Given, as already mentioned above, that Walker declared that ‘savage races’ were best understood through their weapons, it is not too surprising to find that well over half his collection in the PRM, 83 items, are classified as ‘Weapon’. These consist of bows, spears, swords and knives, but 54 arrows are the main component of the class. It should be noted, however, that some objects are classified under more than one heading, so that there are 16 items classified as ‘Tool’ of which eight are also classified as ‘Weapon’, and 13 classified under ‘Navigation’, all paddles, six of which are also classed as ‘Weapon’.  Generally no other particular class of object dominates the other half of the collection; there are items related to food, pottery, narcotics, etc., but surprisingly there is a total lack of any items classified under ‘Agriculture’.

Bearing in mind the caveats about how the various Walker items reached the Founding Collection an attempt will be made to identify which objects in the PRM were formerly in the AI’s collection. The first donation of objects which Walker made was in 1865, and, as mentioned above, consisted of a grass cap, a pipe bowl and two ivory carvings from Loango (now part of the Republic of Congo), a grass cap and a grass cigar-case from Sierra Leone, a pipe bowl from Porto Novo (Capital of Benin) and a hairpin from the Gabon. The only two carved figures attributed to Walker recorded in the database (1884.65.65 .1, 1884.65.65 .2) are made of wood rather than ivory. There are no grass caps listed on the database, nor a grass cigar-case. There are eight pipes recorded on the database but it is impossible to tell whether any of them are these. The Gabon hairpin may be 1884.71.17, although it may equally well be from the much larger donation of 1867.

In 1865 Walker sent the ASL a Fang shield and nine Fang spears. The shield may well be 1884.30.34 and three of the Fang spears 1884.19.109; 117; 118, although once again these may be items from the larger 1867 donation. In 1866 the ASL received a Mpongwe woman’s girdle; there are two such objects in the Founding Collection (1884.76.1, 1884.76.5), both of beadwork. We cannot be certain when the ASL received these items but they appear to have been acquired by Pitt-Rivers in the 1881 disposal.

Walker’s major donation was that received in 1867, but the simple descriptions we have of the objects make it very difficult to identify which of the items ended up in the Founding Collection. For example, there is a number of grass clothes in the list of objects displayed at the ASL meeting of 2 April, but only three of these ended up in Pitt-Rivers’ possession and it is not possible to tell which they are. A Bakele mat, however, is certainly in the PRM although because of some doubt about whether it formed part of the Founding Collection or was transferred from elsewhere in the University in 1886 it had not been given a definite accession number. There are eight tobacco pipes in the Founding Collection but none of them can be matched with the four in the 1867 list. The three Fang spears are presumably just a sample of the dozen contained in the 1867 donation, and the eight assorted Fang knives, daggers and swords cannot be matched with nine such weapons in the ASL collection. Item 12 on the ASL listed is simply described as a ‘musical instrument’ and it is thus impossible to know whether it is one of the five such objects in the Founding Collection. Only one paddle was displayed at the ASL meeting and it is described as coming from Inlenga on the Ogowe River and out of the 13 paddles associated with Walker, one (1884.55.63) fits this description. The 1867 collection only contained one hairpin, but the database records two similar objects (1884.71.17-18) and it is presumably one of these. This leaves a series of objects listed which do not appear to have been obtained by Pitt-Rivers – they include an ivory carving, a native pitcher, a nest of six baskets, a mosquito net, five Fang spearheads (these are in addition to the Fang spears), and a fan.

There are a further 186 items in the Founding Collection from the Gabon which are not recorded as being connected in some way with Walker although it is highly likely that many of them are. This is even more certain in the case of six items which came from the ASL’s collection, five of which were part of the 1881 disposal. The range of these items is very similar to that of the items that are associated with Walker. Weapons dominate to even greater degree with 165 items so classified (17 also classified as tools), including 42 spears and 87 arrows.

The Second Collection contained three items associated with Walker. There are two bead necklaces from Gabon which Pitt-Rivers acquired at Sotheby’s on 3 July 1883. More mysterious is the third acquisition, probably made the same day, which is described as ‘Plait of Hair of “Pamela Canot”, which had simply been owned by Walker. No more has been found out about this object or who or what Pamela Canot was.


[1] For a biography of Walker see: Nora McMillan, ‘Robert Bruce Napoleon Walker, F.R.G.S., F.A.S., F.G.S., C.M.Z.S. (1832-1901), West African trader, explorer and collector of zoological specimens’, Archives of Natural History , 23 (1996): 124-41. As her title suggests, McMillan has little to say about his collecting of ethnographic objects and human anatomical specimens.

[2] McMillan: 128.

[3] See Burton, R F, Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po. Tinsley Brothers, London ,1863. Volume 2, p. 258 fn. This footnote forms part of a very long footnote which would appear to be a verbatim copy of a catalogue entry of the West African exhibits at the International Exhibition. A number of catalogues were published covering different aspects of the exhibition but so far it has not been possible to trace this one.

[4] JASL 3 (1865): i.

[5] JASL 3 (1865): cxix, ccxii.

[6] JASL 3(1865): cxxiv-cxxv.

[7] JASL 3 (1865): clxiii.

[8] JASL 3 (1865): clxviii.

[9] A summary of this paper appeared in JASL 4 (1866): clxxix-clxxxi. This is a topic which was likely to have been of direct interest to Walker as he had a son and daughter by an aristocratic Mpongwe and children by other Mpongwe women. He was married twice in England and had a son by the first of these marriages (information lodged at the RAI by Stephen Flinders, married to a direct descendant of Walker).

[10] Anthropological Review 3 (1865): 176-7.

[11] JASL 4 (1866): xlix, lviii.

[12] JASL 4 (1866): xcii.

[13]JASL 4 (1866): lxxxix, cxxviii.

[14] The date of the letter is referred to as 14 November in one place and 17 November in another.

[15] JASL 5 (1867): xciv-xcvi. McMillan (131) refers to a barque Eastward Ho lost off Dover on 24 March 1866 which was carrying Walker’s collections but it is not clear whether these included the ethnographic items referred to here.

[16] JASL 5(1867): cxlix-clii.

[17] JASL 6 (1868): lxii-lxiii.

[18] 1868 (JASL 7 (1869): lxii.

[19] JASL 7 (1869): cxxx.

[20] JASL 8 (1870): cxxxvi.

[21] JAI 1(1872): 268.

[22] JAI 5 (1876): 465.

[23] JAI 8 (1879): 20.

[24] JAI, 27 (1898): 362-82, see 376.

Note that the door in the illustration can be seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Lower Gallery, case 56.b the introduction to the Body Arts displays.

March 2012.

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