Neil L. Whitehead: An Obituary by Peter Hulme

Noted anthropologist and Caribbeanist Neil L. Whitehead died March 22 following an illness. Peter Hulme, his long-time friend and collaborator, has written the tribute that follows.

It’s nearly a month now since I heard that Neil Whitehead had died.  Only his family knew of his illness, so his death came as a shock to his many friends.  He had just had his 56th birthday, which is no age at all to be ending a career.

My first memory of Neil is a phone call from him around 1988, after he’d heard that I was working for Oxford University Press on an anthology about encounters with indigenous cultures of the Caribbean.  I soon invited him to join me as co-editor and we spent the next three years locating and translating texts, each working on different sections but then meeting up periodically for intensive two-day sessions either at his house in Oxford or mine in Ardleigh.  We made a good team.  He was a historical anthropologist with an interest in textual complexity, I was a literary critic with an interest in how historical texts were interpreted.  We both had strong ideas.  Fortunately, most of the time they coincided.  When they didn’t, we worked through them amicably.  The Introduction was finalised, I remember, during a few days in Dominica—Neil’s first visit to the island.  Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs From Columbus to the Present Day came out in 1992 and we both remained proud of the book.

Just after Wild Majesty was published, Neil got his first ‘proper’ job, at the University of Wisconsin Madison (previously he had a series of research fellowships), so we subsequently saw each other less frequently—maybe every couple of years, often at conferences or visiting talks.  Our geographical frames had always been slightly different: my centres of gravity were very much Dominica, then Cuba, while his was Guyana—glancing northwards to the islands but drawn also south to the Amazon: his first book (Lords of the Tiger Spirit) had been a ground-breaking study of the development of the Carib polity in the two centuries after contact.  But another common interest was travel writing—Neil owned a copy of just about every travel book about Guyana, even the trashiest (in fact the trashier the better)—so a logical next step for him was the critical edition he produced in 1997 of Walter Ralegh’s The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana.  These critical editions of primary texts—two more were to follow—show Neil’s scholarship at its most powerful.  He never took these colonial-era writers at their word, but he had a sympathetic understanding of how they were interpreting their encounters with indigenous cultures, based on his knowledge of the relevant historical anthropology—which in turn was bolstered by his experiences on the ground.  His introduction to the Discoverie was almost book-length, and its second chapter, “The Discoverie as ethnological text”, has been vindicated by recent archaeological work in Guayana and the wider Amazon region.

As an early career researcher Neil hadn’t had the resources to do much fieldwork.  Now at Madison he could undertake extensive visits to South America, out of which came Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death, published in 2002, which cemented his reputation as an ethnographer.  The second of his great textual editions (made with Michael Harbsmeier) was of Hans Staden’s True Captivity (2008).  Geographically this took him further south, but of course its centrality to discussions of cannibalism kept it relevant to Caribbean debates.   Again, an introduction of more than 100 pages, along with extensive notes, will make this a definitive edition for many years to come.  Neil’s final textual work came on the ur-text of Caribbean ethnography, Fray Román Pané’s Antiquities of the Indies (the edition published last year as Of Cannibals and Kings: Primal Anthropology in the Americas).  Pané’s is the first extended account of any Caribbean culture, but its linguistic and textual complexity (it was only ever published in an Italian translation and no original manuscript survives) has made it exceptionally difficult to interpret.  Once again, Neil’s edition is now the one to which every scholar will turn.

The last time I saw Neil was in July 2009 when I invited him over to the American Tropics conference at Essex.  His lecture, entitled, with typical flair, “Golden Kings, Cocaine Lords, and the Madness of El Dorado: Guayana as Native and Colonial Imaginary”, was a real tour-de force which thrilled, informed, and entertained in equal measures.  The last time I heard from him was just a few months ago when he sent me a copy of the Pané edition which will now have to remain the final achievement of a remarkable career.  Cultural anthropology is certainly mourning one of its leading lights, but Neil was also a great Caribbeanist.  Many of us working in the region have lost an open-hearted and generous friend as well as a valued colleague.

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