Last Post for Peter Worsley (1924-2013)

by Assoc. Prof. Colin Filer, RMAP.

Sad to report that Peter Worsley died last week. I cannot imagine that he ever attended an Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO) meeting, but that is not surprising because he was forced to abandon his career in anthropology after the British and Australian intelligence services conspired to prevent him from doing fieldwork in Africa or the former Territory of Papua New Guinea during the early 1950s because of his left-wing sympathies.  Although he would be best known to ASAO members for The Trumpet Shall Sound (1957), he had already become a sociologist at the time it was published, and ‘cargo cults’ (or proto-nationalism) had not been the subject of his proposed fieldwork when he was a PhD student at the ANU.*  Siegfried Nadel had instead proposed to send him up to Goroka as one of the pioneers of New Guinea highlands ethnography, and one cannot help but wonder how his career might have turned out if the colonial authorities had allowed him to go there.  The thought of Peter instigating an anti-colonial uprising amongst the Asaro mudmen or their neighbours now seems rather quaint, but perhaps he would have turned out to be a British equivalent of Maurice Godelier instead of becoming something more like a British equivalent of Eric Wolf.

For those of us left-wing Brits who started their academic careers in the 1970s, it still looked as if social anthropology – at least in Britain –  was still mired in its colonial legacy, and the sociology of development appeared to be a rather more attractive disciplinary practice.  This was in no small measure due to the example which Peter had established, not only in The Trumpet, but also in The Third World (1964).  Oddly enough, having followed his example myself, albeit without being banned from PNG, I only got to know Peter towards the end of his life.  That was after Christin Kocher Schmid persuaded him to write a concluding chapter to her edited collection, Expecting the Day of Wrath (1999), in which he commented on the latest evidence of Melanesian millenarianism confronting a real millennium.  There he reiterated his argument that ‘cargo cults’ have only ever been one local variant of Melanesian millenarianism, which has itself been only one regional variant of a global phenomenon which is no more irrational than a bunch of other ideologies.  And in his autobiography (2008), he pointed out that The Trumpet was originally intended to be a survey of the global phenomenon, but the book got out of hand and the publishers persuaded him that Melanesia was more than enough.

[* Worsley completed his PhD at the Australian National University in 1954 with a thesis on ‘The changing social structure of the Wanindiljaugwa’ (an indigenous group from Groote Eylandt, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, North Australia). He is one of the academics featured in Alan MacFarlane’s outstanding series of interviews with anthropologists (and sociologists) as part of the World Oral Literature Project hosted by the University of Cambridge and Yale University. The image above, a reproduction of “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” (by Henry Raeburn, c.1790), is taken from the cover of his autobiography ‘Skating on Thin Ice’ .]

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One Response to Last Post for Peter Worsley (1924-2013)

  1. Basil Sansom says:

    Peter was a dear friend of mine. He did the 1st year sociology semester while I did the 1st year anthropology semester at Manchester in the 1960s, all unter the Social Anthropology banner — which is how sociology was sneaked into bachelors degrees at that venerable red brick institution. Your speculation that Peter might have been a Godelier actually misses the realities of his time. In the field, his great difficulty was in trying to recognise a reportable social fact that was not a fact of the kind already registered by Radcliffe-Brown. And Aboriginal lack of history and recall meant that there was no narrative (diachrony) out of Groote. Furthermore, Fred Rose had done the primitive economy thing for Groote so that bringing Marx to Aboriginal studies was a done deal (save for Peter’s essay on myth). Peter had no solution to the bottleneck problem that beset fieldworkers from about 1960 on. For my own part, I first had recourse to ecology and then to the ethnography of speaking whereas Peter’s answer was to transcend things local and discover world trends.

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