Emil Torday (1875-1931), Hungarian by birth but educated both there and in Germany, arrived in Brussels at the age of twenty. Although he began his professional career as a bank clerk, by 1900 he had abandoned finance, becoming a Belgian commercial agent in King Leopold’s Congo Free State. Four years in this position resulted in a great deal of travel based in the Katanga area of southeastern Congo, where his interest in African cultures, particularly the Luba, developed. He made contact with the British Museum in 1904, when he returned to Europe on holiday, and contacted Keeper Charles H. Read of the British Museum, giving the institution a selection of Luba items. He and the British Museum came to an agreement—he would return to the Congo to work for the Belgians, but would also collect for the museum, sending photographs and research results to curator T. A. Joyce. An extended trip for the Belgian Compagnie du Kasai followed in 1905-06, allowing research among the Hungaan and Yaka, among others. Then, supported by the British Museum, he left his job and returned to the Belgian Congo from 1907-09 to fully concentrate on research in the Kuba kingdom and neighboring territories.
Torday, then 32, had European travelling companions for the first time: Melville William Hilton-
Simpson, 26, shared photographic duties with Torday, and the artist Norman Hardy sketched and later produced watercolors of the people and objects viewed. Hardy stayed with the others for only six months, never reaching the Kuba capital. The senior of the trio at 43, he had already created ethnographic images in the Pacific islands, and later reproduced tomb paintings in Egypt. Despite the camera, artists’ services were still useful, providing both color indications and details. Africa’s humid heat wreaked havoc with film, and it was difficult to wash the development chemicals properly (Mack 1990: 31). Torday’s memoirs mention mutual practical joking with Hardy, but also underline the great esteem in which Torday held Buya, an eight-year-old Yansi boy. Buya, son of a chief who had become Torday’s friend during an earlier Congo stay, was a bold child who creatively shamed and cursed at recalcitrant leaders (of a different ethnic group, to be sure), helping to ensure the travelers’ passage continued.
As a collector, Torday bought numerous items from the Bushoong, Ngongo, Lele, Wongo, Luba, Mbala and other Congo peoples. Transportation of these items required many tin chests, carriers and middlemen, since over 3000 items found their way to Europe. Most ended up in the British Museum, although nearly 400 are housed in Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum. While Torday certainly considered some of the pieces “specimens” of various cultures, he also clearly appreciated their artistry. Years later, he wrote about his acquisition process: “By now the Bushongo had found out what the things were we wanted, and that it mattered little that a wooden carving was broken, if the workmanship was remarkable” (Torday 1926: 193).
Torday’s facility with language (he learned at least eight African languages [Hilton-Simpson 1911: 8], as well as numerous European tongues) permitted the kind of sociability that allowed the acquisition of both knowledge and goods. During his four-month stay at the Kuba capital, he became a companion and sympathizer to its Bushongo ruler, Kot aPe, who granted him a court title. Seeing the royal Kuba portrait figures excited his desire to acquire one for the British Museum. After some encouragement and persuasion, the ruler “wanted it to go to a safe place and be seen by people of all nations,” persuaded that it might otherwise “perish any day by fire, or by some unfortunate foreign invasion.” Using reverse psychology as the ruler advised, Torday convinced the nobles (who were usually opposed to the monarch’s wishes) that he wanted to protect the sculpture, but Kot aPe had refused. This stratagem succeeded, greased by payments to each titled man, since the sculptures were corporate property. Not one, but four such portraits ended up in Torday’s hands, along with many boxes, cups, masks, cloths and other objects purchased from the Kuba and other Congo peoples with cowries and trade goods.
Torday’s final trip included a disastrous run-in with a rhinoceros, which left him with severe pain and mobility problems. These issues were somewhat mitigated by his satisfaction in seeing at least a small selection of the pieces he had collected displayed together with some field photographs at the British Museum, a contextual approach rare in contemporaneous displays (Mack 1990: 86). Torday spent time writing, but also sought a rest cure for a gastric ulcer.
On August 27, 1912, Dr. George Byron Gordon, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, contacted Torday about coming to Philadelphia. The lure was a proposed museum expedition to the Amazon Valley. Gordon was coy in his phrasing—“The offer of the position of ethnologist on this expedition would be rather premature at the present writing”—but did intrigue Torday, who was “pleased to consider” the possibility, and agreed with Gordon that he could also deliver a number of public lectures on his African journeys. In the exchange of letters that followed, Gordon also offered a more concrete proposal: that Torday might catalogue the museum’s “considerable collections from the Congo”, and that their acquaintance might lead to an African expedition. Torday challenged the notoriously tight-fisted director about his financial arrangements, ensuring not only a pay increase but the inclusion of his passage costs.
Torday left Britain on December 14, 1912, and began working at the museum January 1, 2013 on
a three-month contract. His time was spent cataloguing works purchased from the German dealer J. F. G. Umlauff in the summer of 1912 that had been collected by Leo Frobenius during his 1904-06 trip through Central Africa. Torday disdained Frobenius and his methods, considering him less an ethnologist than a disinterested and disengaged shopper. Torday’s familiarity with the region allowed better identifications than Umlauff had listed, and he left notations of changed attributions on the museum’s catalogue cards. While there, he created a small display of the Congo collection, delivered two public lectures, and wrote an article for the Museum Journal that presaged his 1925 popular travel account On the Trail of the Bushongo, including many of the same anecdotes and passages. The Amazon expedition left Philadelphia on March 19th without Torday, who returned to London at the end of the month. No further mention of an African expedition was made.
Torday offered Gordon items he had brought along from his own collection, leaving them behind on speculation. Like others before him, he found it necessary to prod the museum director for a decision and payment, but he had greater success than many. On May 5, 1915 he enlisted some of the same craftiness he had employed in Africa: “Would you let me know what you have decided about my collections? Should you not want them you would not mind, I hope, sending them to an address I would give you.” Within a month, the deal was consummated. Gordon paid only $280 for a few dozen objects from the Bushoong, Lele, Luba and neighboring groups. These included arrowheads and a few textiles, as well as a fine Bushoong divination implement and some well-sculpted boxes and cups from the Wongo, Lele and Pende.
Torday planned to switch careers and began a medical degree, but World War I intervened, and
he was interned in London because of his citizenship. His work afterwards was that of an independent scholar who had transitioned from merchant to researcher. Torday was in the vanguard of the budding discipline of anthropology, his agreement with the British Museum serving as a catalyst. Employing the “Notes and Queries” approach (Mack 1990: 29), he aimed for a broad overview of culture, creating a compendium of information: migration origins, folktales, designs and their names, burial customs, and more. Torday accomplished much in a surprisingly short time, his numerous books and articles based on fieldwork completed before he was thirty. Though he operated during the height of the colonial mindset, Torday believed in direct involvement with people, mutual respect, and adaptation. His genuine liking for the people he encountered occupied him throughout his life, not only in scholarly ways, but through activities with the Save the Children International Union (Mack 1990: 89).