Late Professor Robert Gelston Armstrong, Odejo K’Idoma, was born on 29th June 1917 in Danville, Indiana, USA and attended Western Hills High School in Cincinnati, graduating in 1934. Armstrong’s love for languages was apparent in High School and by the time he left Western Hills, 17 year old Armstrong had a good understanding of Latin, French & German. He then proceeded to Miami University, Oxford, Ohio where he graduated in 1938 with a major in Economics and a minor in Sociology.
In 1939, Armstrong joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago as a Research Assistant and by 1942, he was awarded a Masters for his research thesis “The Acculturation of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians of Oklahoma” which was based on his fieldwork with the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians during his exchange research fellowship at the University of Oklahoma.
Following the US’ entry into World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, it was no surprise that Armstrong was drafted into the Army in 1942 as a Non-commissioned Officer (NCO). He supported the US’ Cryptanalysis efforts initially in Panama and the US before being posted to Belgium as an Infantry Intelligence Staff Sergeant. By the time the war ended in 1945, Armstrong was based in Berlin as a Russian language translator.
He returned to the US in early 1946 to his employment at University of Chicago where he remained until the autumn of 1947 when he became an Assistant Professor at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Between 1948 and 1949, he lectured at University of Puerto Rico and at the same time carrying out field work research on social change. He left Puerto Rico in 1949 when the British Colonial Social Science Research Council (CSSRC) offered him a research fellow role which required an extensive fieldwork in Africa.
Before leaving for Africa, Armstrong was determined to commence his doctoral dissertation, therefore he returned to the University of Chicago. Armstrong arrived in Nigeria in late 1950 and was posted to Nigerian Institute of Social & Economic Research (NISER) at University College Ibadan (now University of Ibadan) as an Administrative Officer. While at Ibadan, Armstrong completed his dissertation titled “State Formation in Negro Africa” in 1951 but could not defend it until early 1952 when he travelled to England in an arrangement that was acceptable to University of Chicago and he was awarded a PhD in Anthropology.
When Armstrong began his fieldwork in 1951, his focus was on Idoma people (a school of thought believe RC Abraham influenced his decision) and chose Igumale for his fieldwork but he never really settled there instead he stayed in Otukpo where he busied himself with understanding the Idoma language and began work on an Idoma dictionary. Armstrong remained in Otukpo until 1953 where his flair for languages saw him become proficient in the Otukpo dialect of Idoma language and this helped in a great way with his work on social anthropology of Idoma people.
On his return to the US, Armstrong worked in his family’s electrical equipment business and also continued writing on his anthropological fieldwork in Idoma land which saw to the publication of two critically acclaimed papers in 1954: “Talking Drums in the Benue-Cross River Region of Nigeria” in Phylon journal and “A West African Inquest” in American Anthropologist journal. He continued to manage the family business until late 1955 when his younger brother took over the family business from him enabling Armstrong to return to academia at Atlanta University. He remained at Atlanta until October 1959 when he went back to Ibadan following the receipt of a grant from CSSRC to carry out a one year study of Yoruba Language and Law.
On his return to Ibadan, Armstrong carried out his study attached to NISER and even though he was in Ibadan to study the Language and Law of Yoruba, he still carved out time to visit Otukpo to garner materials for his Idoma Dictionary. When his fellowship ended in 1960, instead of returning to the US, Armstrong was appointed Field Director of the Ford Foundation funded research body Survey of West African Languages which was replaced in April 1965 with the West African Linguistic Society (WALS). Armstrong was elected to the society’s first governing council and would remain a member until the mid 70s. He also played a leading role in the establishment of the Journal of West African Languages (JWAL) in 1964 and was a member of the editorial board from inception until the early 70s.
In 1962, he was made a Research Professor of Linguistics at the Institute of African Studies (IAS) at University of Ibadan and will hold the post until his retirement in 1983. He also had stints as the Director of IAS from 1966 to 1975 and 1976 to 1977. After leaving IAS, he became a Visiting Professor of Linguistics at the University of Nigeria Nsukka until 1985 when he retired to Otukpo.
In Otukpo, he continued to work on his Idoma dictionary and also acted as an advisor to the Idoma Bible translation efforts of the Methodist Church until his death on 29th April 1987. He was laid to rest on 30th May 1987 in Upu in accordance with Idoma traditional burial rites. In his honour, the the Otukpo Local Government chairman, Hon. Oklobia renamed the Railway Bye-pass Road to Prof. Armstrong Avenue.
Armstrong built on the foundation laid by Abraham and brought Idoma social and linguistic anthropology to the attention of the world. In recognition of his contribution to Idoma Land, the Och’Idoma II, conferred on him the title of Odejo K’Idoma, a reflection of the high esteem he was held; Odejo when translated means “a philanthropist” (Odejo is a tree, which bears fruits all year round, providing food for the birds). He was an influence on a good number of leading Idoma academics especially Prof. Amali, who he mentored and whose family accepted Armstrong as one of them. He authored many papers on Idoma in reputable journals (list available in our books section) and according to Stocking, Armstrong’s researches “provided a rich body of material about Idoma society and culture”.
- Kay Williamson, 1989. Robert Gelston Armstrong, 1917–87. Journal of the International African Institute, [pdf] Volume 59 / 04, pp 518-518.: Available through <https://www.cambridge.org/core/product/identifier/S0001972000051561/type/JOURNAL_ARTICLE> [Accessed 26 August 2014]
- Stocking, G.W., 2006. Unfinished Business: Robert Gelston Armstrong, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the History of Anthropology at Chicago and in Nigeria. In: Handler, R, ed. 2006. Central Sites, Peripheral Visions Cultural and Institutional Crossings in the History of Anthropology, Volume 11. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. pp.99-247.