R. E. G. Armattoe: the ‘Irishman’ from West Africa

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2006), News, Volume 14

Dr Armattoe with his Swiss wife Leonie (née Schwartz, later known as ‘Marina’) and their eldest daughter Irusia. (Recollections of the Nobel Laureation)

Dr Armattoe with his Swiss wife Leonie (née Schwartz, later known as ‘Marina’) and their eldest daughter Irusia. (Recollections of the Nobel Laureation)

Dr R. E. G. Armattoe was a man of many talents—a medical doctor, anthropologist, writer of prose and poetry, and, towards the end of his life, a budding politician. Although born and raised in Africa and receiving most of his tertiary education in Germany and France, Armattoe spent over a decade working in Northern Ireland. He was born in August 1913 to a prominent family of the Ewe tribe in Togoland. His father, Robert Glikpo Armattoe, was a merchant who traded mostly with German businesses and, according to his son, made a study of local indigenous languages. After the First World War, the former German colony was divided into two mandates, one under French and the other under British rule. Thus young Armattoe grew up speaking three European languages as well as his native Ewe, and was later to write and publish works in French, German and English. After receiving basic education in Togoland and the Gold Coast (now Ghana), in 1930 Armattoe left home to study in Germany. It is thought that he left Germany for France owing to the rise of Nazism. While studying at the Sorbonne, Armattoe met Leonie (later known as ‘Marina’) Schwartz, whom he married.
Having studied anthropology, literature and medicine in mainland Europe, Raphael Armattoe moved with his wife to Edinburgh, where he qualified to practise medicine in the British Isles. His subsequent residence in Northern Ireland may have been largely a matter of chance and practicality. He got a job as a locum in Belfast and then was appointed to the Civil Defence first aid post in Brooke Park, Derry, where he worked from 1939 to 1945. After the war, Dr Armattoe had a medical practice at his home at 7 Northland Road and devoted increasing time to writing and speaking on a variety of topics, mostly concerned with anthropology. The doctor often issued copies of speeches and magazine articles under the imprint of the Lomeshie Research Centre, named after his mother.
It is not difficult to find people in Derry today who remember the Armattoe family, but most of them were children in the 1940s. As local writer Helen Morrison says:

‘Everyone would have known him. There were no black people in Derry at the time. Yes, there were some servicemen and seamen during the war, but Armattoe was here even earlier. They said he was a marvellous doctor. He died young, you know. We were all very sad when we heard about it.’

Dr Armattoe dancing at the 1947 Nobel banquet. (Tidningen)

Dr Armattoe dancing at the 1947 Nobel banquet. (Tidningen)

Elsa McMillan Spence was in her twenties when she met Dr Armattoe at a lecture series sponsored by the St John’s Ambulance Brigade: ‘Of all the speakers, he was the best. He was a marvellous talker and could keep you spellbound with his knowledge of many subjects.’ Dr Armattoe engaged Ms McMillan to revise his papers for publication, and she was referred to in the Londonderry Sentinel as ‘The Hon. Secretary to the Sociological Section of the Research Centre’.
Already the author, by his own count, of over 150 published articles, Armattoe became better known in 1946 when he published his book The golden age of West African civilization. He also made newspaper headlines when he claimed that the Russians had developed an atomic bomb the size of a tennis ball. Armattoe never divulged the source of his information, but when his statement was put to US President Truman at a press conference the president denied any knowledge of the alleged Russian weapon. The publicity resulted in further speaking engagements for Dr Armattoe, not only in Derry and in Dublin, where he spoke at the Mansion House about ‘The advance of science in the Soviet Union’, but also in Sweden and the US.
In 1947 Dr Armattoe attended the Nobel Prize laureation ceremonies with his good friend Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger, winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize for physics, worked in Dublin at the Institute for Advanced Studies and wrote the foreword to The golden age of West African civilization. Perhaps the visit to the Nobel ceremonies whetted Dr Armattoe’s appetite for full-time research, for he soon successfully applied to the Wenner Gren Foundation for an anthropology research grant. The £3,000 grant allowed him to return to West Africa, to the land he had left some eighteen years previously.
Mme Armattoe and the couple’s two Irish-born daughters remained in Ireland while the doctor carried out his fieldwork. He returned to Derry half a year later to write up his reports. Most of the papers published as a result of this research trip were studies of Ewe physical anthropology, especially charting the distribution of blood groups, a field of study that was just emerging at the time. In 1949 Dr Armattoe was a panellist at a major conference in New York and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; this was also the last year that he lived in Ireland. The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace received a huge amount of publicity owing to the attendance of delegates from the Soviet Union and the resultant anti-Communist picketing. Dr Armattoe’s photograph appeared in the New York Post and the New York Times alongside some of the notorious Russians, including composer Dmitri Shostakovitch.
The parliamentarians (mostly Nationalist and Labour) who nominated Dr Armattoe for the Nobel Prize did not seem to think it necessary to give much background information in their letters of nomination, writing little more than that ‘in numerous publications he has advocated peaceable understanding between all nations and races and is a noted supporter of settlement of differences between nations by peaceable means’. That was not enough to get Armattoe’s name onto the shortlist. The 1949 prize went to John Boyd Orr, also a writer and medical doctor but in addition the director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The cover of The golden age of West African civilisation, with a foreword by Erwin Schrödinger.

The cover of The golden age of West African civilisation, with a foreword by Erwin Schrödinger.

After a year of separation, Mme Armattoe and the girls left Derry for Kumasi towards the end of 1950. There Raphael Armattoe set up a medical clinic, but also embarked on new adventures in poetry and politics. His two books of poetry, Between the forest and the sea and Deep down in the black man’s mind, are of continuing interest to students of African literature. Varying in both style and quality, the poems are evidence of Armattoe’s broad readership and familiarity with the genre. Ireland, Germany and Switzerland all receive attention, but the poetry mostly features Africa and Africans. The poems about his family and about African history are full of love and pride, but many of the poems express the author’s despair concerning the emergent leaders of the Gold Coast colony.
Nkrumah and Armattoe had met at the ground-breaking 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England. Both were strongly in favour of independence for African colonies, but Nkrumah’s vision was more centrist and Armattoe’s more federalist. Armattoe joined the Ghana Congress Party, formed in 1952 amid allegations of corruption in Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party. He also became active in the Joint Togoland Congress, calling for the reunification of the Togoland mandates as opposed to uniting British Togoland with the Gold Coast. Dr Armattoe travelled to New York in 1953 to address the United Nations on the ‘Eweland question’. On his way back to the Gold Coast he visited Ireland (his eldest daughter Irusia was by then enrolled in a Dublin boarding school) and Germany. Taken sick en route, Armattoe was treated in hospital in Hamburg, where he died on 21 December 1953, aged only 40. Mme Armattoe was anxiously awaiting her husband’s return for Christmas. After she received the news, she told friends that her husband had said he’d been poisoned, but she did not know by whom. He had previously suffered attacks and threats by Nkrumah supporters, and we shall never know whether the doctor died of natural or unnatural causes. Mme Armattoe maintained an affection for the country where her children were born; some years later she remarried (to an Irishman) and settled in the Dublin area.

Philippa Robinson is a local historian who works in an Irish-medium school in Derry.

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