Monica Wilson, 1908-1982

Monica Wilson, an Honorary Fellows of the Institute, died on 24 October 1982 at the age of 74.  Born Monica Hunter in 1908 in the then Cape Colony, she studied anthropology under Hodson in Cambridge, and her doctoral thesis, based on her work on the response to white rule of the Pondo of the Ciskei, was published as Reaction to Conquest.  She was awarded a Fellowship by the Rockefeller Foundation at the same time that Godfrey Wilson, whom she was to marry, received one from the International African Institute, and together they attended the seminar in which Malinowski prepared all the recipients of these grants for the study of social change in Africa.  They went together to the Nyakyusa of southern Tanganyika, the first couple of professional anthropologists to make a joint study; there have still not been many.

They did not adopt a rigid division of labour, but Monica’s special interest was in religion.  After Godfrey’s early death, however, it fell to her to publish the bulk of their material.  This appeared in three volumes, Good Company, a general account of a social organisation of a very unusual kind, Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa, and Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa.  Although we owe to Evans-Pritchard the first serious study of the belief in witchcraft, it was Monica who first recognised that religion and witchcraft are two sides of a coin.  In Communal Rituals she took advantage of a return visit twenty years later to include data on political and economic change during that period.  When she gave the Scott Holland lectures in Cambridge in 1969 she took as her theme ‘religion and social change in Africa’, and combined her historical treatment with the argument of the only book that she and Godfrey produced together, The Analysis of Social Change, a slight book that was well received by the reading public when it appeared, but has not made much impact on anthropology.

Monica Wilson was Professor of Anthropology at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, from 1947-51, and at Cape Town from 1952-73.  Her most substantial activity in the latter part of that time was her editorship with Leonard M. Thompson of the Oxford History of South Africa.  She contributed three chapters to the first volume on the different ethnic groups and one on frontier relations in the Eastern Cape in the nineteenth century; and to the second chapter on the development of peasant societies and economy.


This obituary first appeared as: Mair, Lucy. 1983. 'Obituary. Monica Wilson'. RAIN 54, 14. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

MAIR, LUCY. 1983. 'Obituary. Monica Wilson'. RAIN 54, 14. (available on-line:


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