Codrington, R. H.

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Codrington, R. H.



The life of Robert Henry Codrington can best be summed up as: priest, Oxford don, missionary, and ethnographer. He was born in Wroughton, Wiltshire, England, in 1830, son of a Church of England priest, and was educated at Charterhouse public school and at Oxford, where in 1855 he became a fellow of Wadham College. He chose the church as a profession. Ordained in 1857, he emigrated to New Zealand and lived for a few years in Nelson. Then, in 1866, he joined the Melanesian (Church of England) mission, founded in 1849 to bring Christianity to the widely scattered islands of Melanesia. He worked as a missionary until 1877, acting as head of the mission from 1871 to 1877 but refusing a bishopric because he disliked prolonged travel at sea by whaleboat or schooner. Much of his mission work consisted in teaching in the mission school on Norfolk Island, but he also served from time to time as resident missionary on the more isolated Melanesian islands. Codrington returned to England in 1888, thereafter occupying various church offices and devoting him-self to his ethnographic and linguistic studies. His theological colleagues thought of him as the saint and teacher of Melanesia. Social scientists can well regard him as the first systematic ethnographer of the area.

The Melanesians. Codrington’s work on the social life and culture of those parts of Melanesia that he knew best—principally the Solomons, the New Hebrides, and the small islands lying between these two larger groups—remains a classic of ethnographic reporting. His chapters, always readable, contain a mass of firsthand data on such topics as kinship and marriage, status, property, secret socie-ties, religion, ritual, magic, the life cycle, and folklore. Although the accounts tend heavily to empha-size aboriginal religious practices—the field in which Codrington was himself professionally interested—Codrington made a considerable effort to present a reasonably well-rounded picture of island life as it was before it was significantly changed by contact with such agents of European culture as missionaries, traders, blackbirders, administrators, and beachcombers. Elkin (1953, p. 8), in summarizing Codrington’s ethnography, notes that although these accounts have many merits and flashes of insight, Codrington failed to depict a functioning community with discernible principles of cohesion or patterns of change. In extenuation, it must be remembered that Codrington studied and wrote about Melanesia long before contemporary anthropological theory about sociocultural processes was developed, and that inevitably he collected source material on those aspects of Melanesian life that most interested him as a missionary. It was left to Rivers to resurvey, in 1908, many of the islands earlier described by Codrington and, in the light of his own Torres Strait experiences, to go deeper in his investigations and to venture more firmly into theoretical waters (Rivers 1914; Elkin 1953, p. 115).

Concept of mana. Codrington’s work on the concept of mana ([1891] 1957, pp. 117–127, 191–217) is credited by Marett (1915) with being the classic source upon which the scientific study of the role of mana in comparative religion is based. It is doubtless true, as Lowie ([1924] 1948, pp. 75–76) and Marett both cogently argued, that somewhat similar concepts do exist in religious systems as far apart as the Crow and Iroquois of America and the Ekoi of Africa. Nonetheless, Codrington was the first to recognize and analyze the important details that make up the mana concept: the invisible power that explains for the preliterate many of those aspects of life that transcend what the European would now call the natural order of the world. With the idea of mana as the key, it is perfectly understandable how the Melanesians can explain those aspects of life that involve sickness, magic, dreams, prophecy, divination, and curses and that might otherwise be incomprehensible and therefore uncontrollable and frightening. By analyzing the mystique of mana Codrington paradoxically provided a significant clue to the rationality of the preliterate world view.

Secret societies. Codrington devoted two long chapters ([1891] 1957, chapters 5, 6) to a vivid description of the general social structure and functions of secret societies and clubs, which are so characteristic a feature of Melanesian life. He was particularly concerned with what he regarded as two distinct classes of secret societies: the sukwe, or village club, and the tamati, or bush-meeting ghost society. He gave full accounts of the members’ costumes and customs, their masks, badges, lodges (the gamal), dances and initiation ceremonies, and the characteristic ordering of statuses within the societies. Rivers (1914, chapters 3–5) later reconsidered the whole nature of this Melanesian institution, showing that a closer relationship existed between the two types of societies than Codrington had thought. Then, in a dramatic fore-shadowing of functional anthropological theory, Rivers revised and amplified Codrington’s views on the social functions of the secret society, emphasizing the role of the clubs in determining social rank and status (thus, in some respects, checking and muting the powers of the Oceanic hereditary chief), their role in redistributing native wealth (thus preventing establishment of a status system based on wealth alone), and their influence in protecting property rights and maintaining social order in the community. Far from being terrorist or reactionary secret societies, the Melanesian clubs encouraged and fostered the characteristic virtues that made the ideal Melanesian citizen. Codrington’s contribution in this field, as enlarged by Rivers’ field work, constitutes a significant step forward in the theory of social structure.

Melanesian languages. One of the first tasks of the missionary, in Melanesia as elsewhere, is to study the indigenous language or languages. Some of the members of the Melanesian mission, like the able Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, were naturally gifted as linguists but wrote down no extended linguistic analyses. Others, like Codrington, produced, with painstaking labor, the definitive texts for those coming after to study and to use. Codrington’s Melanesian Languages (1885), and his Dictionary of the Language of Mota (1896), written with J. Palmer, are a missioner’s studies, not those of a trained linguist. The book on Melanesian languages is mostly concerned with the phonology, grammar, and vocabulary of the languages of the Banks Islands (twelve dialects, of which Mota be-came the approved vernacular mission language), the Torres Islands, Rotuma, the New Hebrides (seven dialects), the Loyalty Islands, Santa Cruz, and the Solomons. Codrington’s erudition is both powerful and impressive: all who follow him in this field of study—the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages—will build to a large degree on the foundation he so painstakingly established. Capell (1962a; 1962b) makes many incidental references to Codrington’s work that indicate its continuing relevance for the study of western Pacific languages.

Two contrasting pictures of Codrington serve to sum up the significance of his work and life for social scientists: first, the burly, bearded priest slowly and laboriously collecting data about Melanesian societies and languages as he worked as teacher and resident priest among lately converted cannibals; second, the retired priest, prebendary of Sidlesham and examining chaplain to the bishop of Winchester, writing his classic accounts of Melanesian life, yet finding time to enjoy the company and friendship of Victorian storytellers like Lewis Carroll and Hans Christian Andersen, eminent divines like Manning and Newman, as well as politicians and reformers like Gladstone and Wilberforce.

The master of Melanesian ethnography died suddenly—old in years, wise in theology, honored in scholarship—on September 11, 1922.

Ernest Beaglehole

[For further information about Melanesia, seeOceanian society. See alsoReligion; Religious specialists; and the biography ofRivers.]


1885 The Melanesian Languages. Oxford Univ. Press.

(1891) 1957 The Melanesians: Studies in Their Anthropology and Folklore. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press.

1896 Codrington, Robert Henry; and Palmer, John A Dictionary of the Language of Mota, Sugarloaf Island, Banks’ Islands; With a Short Grammar and Index. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.


Armstrong, E. S. 1900 The History of the Melanesian Mission. London: Ibister.

Capell, Arthur 1962a A Linguistic Survey of the South-western Pacific. New & rev. ed. South Pacific Commission Technical Paper, No. 136. Nouméa (New Caledonia): The Commission.

Capell, Arthur 1962b Oceanic Linguistics Today. Cur-rent Anthropology 3:371-428.

Cranstone, Bryan A. L. 1961 Melanesia: A Short Ethnography. London: British Museum.

Elkin, Adolphus P. 1953 Social Anthropology in Melanesia. Published under the auspices of the South Pacific Commission. Oxford Univ. Press.

Fox, Charles E. 1958 Lord of the Southern Isles: Story of the Anglican Mission in Melanesia 1849–1949. London: Mowbray.

Lowie, Robert H. (1924) 1948 Primitive Religion. New York and London: Liveright.

Marett, R. R. (1915) 1955 Mana. Volume 8, pages 375–380 in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Edited by James Hastings. New York: Scribner.

Rivers, William H. R. 1914 The History of Melanesian Society. Vol. 1. Publication No. 1 of the Percy Sladen Trust Expedition to Melanesia. Cambridge Univ. Press.