Governing the Nuer - Documents by Percy Coriat on Nuer History and Ethnography 1922-1931
by Douglas H. Johnson
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Percy Coriat was the first Nuer-speaking British official to produce a substantial body of informed and detailed reports on the Nuer. This volume brings together all of his most substantial writings found in Sudanese, South Sudanese and British archives to date, and makes them available for the first time to a wider audience interested in the history and ethnography of the Nuer. These papers give the most comprehensive account yet published of Nuer life in the 1920s, describing the events that preceded and led to Evans-Pritchard’s own fieldwork in the 1930s and providing a much-needed historical context for his famous Nuer trilogy.
Winner of the 1995 African Studies Association Text Prize (now the Paul Hair Prize)
‘Appointed at a time when “character” was thought the important quality in a Sudan Political Service officer, Coriat…was a man of action who recorded what he did, what he saw and what he understood. It is this first hand observation which gives the collection its greatest value as a primary source. Anyone concerned with Nuer ethnography or history will find these documents indispensable and Johnson’s introduction and detailed notes provide clear guidance to them.’ – African Affairs
‘The collection of papers by Percy Coriat…[provides] the reader [with] a vivid glimpse of ground level imperialism, and a good bit more, as well. Coriat…clearly was an astute observer who maintained an extraordinarily intimate association with the Nuer…As with any collection of archival materials, however, its usefulness to a wider audience depends very largely on the editorial skills of the collector. In this regard, Douglas Johnson has done a superb job, enlivening the papers with valuable insight and analysis.’ – Journal of African History
Cover design by Nick Clarke
Cover illustration: ‘Peace treaties’: Tunnicliffe, Alban, Coriat, 1929 (Coriat collection, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)
I first came across Percy Coriat’s neglected writings on the Nuer in 1972 when beginning research on the history of the Nuer prophets. They appeared to me then, even in the early stages of my research, to be of a quality quite different from other contemporary administrative reports. I came to appreciate his work all the more after doing fieldwork among the Gaawar and Lou Nuer in 1975—6, when I met many persons who had known Coriat well. My research on Nuer history then brought me in touch with persons in Britain who knew either Coriat or his work, and I was particularly pleased to meet his widow, Mrs. Kay Coriat, in 1977. She allowed me full access to her husband’s few remaining papers and photograph collection before donating these papers, and some of her own, to Rhodes House, Oxford.
This volume presents all of Coriat’s known major writings on the Nuer, with the exception of his 1939 article on Guek (Coriat 1939). A preliminary list of his reports was published in JASO in 1981 (Johnson 1981b). I later discovered a number of his other papers in the Sudan, some in Khartoum, but most were in Malakal and Bor before I transferred them to the Southern Records Office in Juba. It is possible that more documents may be found, but the prospect is not hopeful. His reports on the Lou were transferred from Abwong to Akobo in 1937 but were destroyed when the Akobo office burned down in 1939. Some of his writings on the Gaawar may still be in Fangak. None had been transported to New Fangak when I visited the office there in my capacity as Assistant Director for Archives in the Regional Ministry of Culture and Information in 1981. I was told that some of the oldest district reports had been left in a storeroom in old Fangak when the administrative headquarters was moved in 1976. I subsequently learned that many of those papers were damaged or destroyed when old Fangak was attack and looted by ‘Anyanya II’ guerrillas late in 1981. I have not been able to visit the offices in Bentiu, but record-keeping in the early days of Western Nuer District was haphazard at best. However hopeful we may be that a more complete corpus of writings might one day be compiled, that hope should not delay the publication of the substantial body which has already been gathered together.
Percy Coriat was the first Nuer-speaking British official to produce a substantial body of informed and detailed reports on the Nuer. This volume brings together all of his most substantial writings found in Sudanese, South Sudanese and British archives to date, and makes them available for the first time to a wider audience interested in the history and ethnography of the Nuer. These papers give the most comprehensive account yet publish of Nuer life in the 1920s, describing the events that preceded and led to Evans-Pritchard’s own fieldwork in the 1930s and providing a much-needed historical context for his famous Nuer trilogy.
The information and views set out in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publishers. Neither the publishers nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the nature, veracity or accuracy of the information contained herein or the use which may be made thereof.