Polly Hill Memorial in Cambridge

A memorial celebration of Polly Hill’s life took place in Clare Hall, Cambridge on 28th May 2006. She died peacefully on 21st August 2005, aged 91. Chris Gregory, who partly owed his own conversion from economist to ethnographer to Polly Hill, provided the continuity; her grandchildren read poetry; Mark Hill and Caroline Humphrey made short speeches as family representatives; Keith Hart and Murray Last spoke of her anthropological work in West Africa and India; the Indian economist, Sunanda Sen, praised her book attacking development economists; Clare Hall’s President read out a letter from Nick Shackleton; members of the audience gave their personal testimony; and her son-in-law, Alastair Burn, wound up the formal proceedings.

Everyone mentioned what a remarkable woman Polly Hill was – she was sometimes difficult, but also a warm and generous friend. A large gathering reflected on the imbalance between her achievements and their recognition, while celebrating vivid memories of the way she lived.

Polly Hill was born into the nearest thing to an aristocracy that British academic life knows. Her father, A.V. Hill, was a Nobel prize-winning physiologist, her mother’s brother was Maynard Keynes and her grandfather John Neville Keynes. She read economics at Cambridge and soon published a study of unemployment for the Fabian Society. She then worked as a civil servant, but, after joining the weekly, West Africa, she ended up spending 1954-65 at the University of Ghana, when that country led Africa to independence from colonial rule. She became an academic and a mother at the age of 40; and, as Chris Gregory reminded us, she considered her devoted daughter, Susannah, to be her crowning achievement.

Polly Hill was Smuts Reader at Cambridge in the 1970s and a founding Fellow of Clare Hall. She called herself a ‘field economist’, but she was awarded a PhD in social anthropology for her publications on Ghana. Some of us think of her as the most significant economic anthropologist to date; and she spent over a dozen years in the field until her 70s. She did impressive work with the rural Hausa of N. Nigeria and a comparative study of ‘dry grain farming families’ in Karnataka, India. But she will be remembered principally for The Migrant Cocoa Farmers of Southern Ghana (1963).

Ghana was then the world’s leading cocoa producer, but the farmers were assumed to be African ‘peasants’ earning a little extra by adding cocoa to their subsistence farms. Hill traced the industry to its origins in the late 19th century and showed that the cocoa farmers were pioneers, opening up virgin forest, often in companies capable of hiring Swiss construction firms to develop the infrastructure that they needed. The colonial authorities only found out about it when their revenues from import and export duties rose inexplicably. She documented the complexity of the social organization: all the cocoa-farmers were migrants; their families had accumulated wealth from earlier export trades, such as slavery and rubber; their level of education was often high. Some drew on existing kinship forms; others formed companies which allocated land rights among members. They invented new share-cropping institutions as a means of recruiting labour. Hill was sure that Ghana’s cocoa industry was capitalist from the beginning; but this capitalist class did not capture the state and her message so disturbed prevailing assumptions of western superiority (often held by anthropologists, despite themselves) that it has still not been fully absorbed.

Development Economics on Trial (1986), a withering critique of the profession she might have joined, went into six editions. In her later years, Polly Hill edited (with Richard Keynes) the letters exchanged between her uncle Maynard and his wife, the Russian ballerina, Lydia Lopokova; she wrote about the people of the Fens, where she lived in a splendid modern house complete with willow trees, Moore sculpture and an impressive collection of paintings; she carried out research on the earliest women students at Cambridge, who included one of her ancestors; and she published her own poetry for limited circulation among her friends.After an undistinguished start to her career, Polly Hill did ultimately fulfill the intellectual promise of her family heritage. Although she never had an established teaching position, she inspired many young researchers from around the world, as messages from Chris Hann and Allen Roberts testified on her memorial day. If she is not better known today, this is because she was neither an economist nor an anthropologist in the narrow way those disciplines have come to be defined. Rather, she was a true original who developed her own methods in order to make great discoveries. Long before today’s ageing rock-stars and failed politicians announced their plans for Africans’ redemption, Polly Hill took the trouble to find out what they have done for themselves.

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