Richard Saumarez Smith obituary

Other lives: Anthropologist who specialised in studying the intricacies of land tenure under imperialism

My older brother Richard Saumarez Smith, who has died aged 77, taught civilisation studies and anthropology at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon for many years, having previously been a maths teacher at a London school.

Richard was born in Darjeeling, India, to William Saumarez Smith, who worked for the Indian civil service, and his wife, Betty (nee Raven). Betty retreated from India at the end of the second world war, taking her two eldest children, John and Richard, with her to Cambridge. When our father returned to Britain after partition, my sister, Helen, and I were born and we lived in the village of Redlynch in Wiltshire.

Richard won a scholarship to Wellington school in Berkshire, which he loathed, as it was too military, too conventional, perhaps too much associated with the colonial attitudes of our father. On another scholarship, in 1964 he began a maths degree at King’s College, Cambridge. While there he spent a long vacation with a friend, Jonathan Ambache, in the Amazon jungle, studying the Chocó Indians of Colombia, recordings from which are now held by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Shortly afterwards Richard gave up maths in favour of an anthropology degree, then went to Delhi University in 1969 to do an MLitt under the Indian sociologist and philosophical anthropologist JPS Uberoi, who became a lifelong mentor.

He taught for a year at Punjab public school – a private school in the state of Nabha, East Punjab – while working on a Cambridge PhD thesis studying patterns of land tenure in the Punjab during the Indian Empire, based on a long period of study in the land records office in Ludhiana.

In 1980 Richard moved back to the UK and taught maths at Daneford secondary modern school in Bethnal Green, east London, while studying for his PhD. In 1981 he married Martha Mundy, a fellow anthropologist, and two years later they moved to Jordan, where Martha taught at Yarmouk University. There, he wrote up his thesis, published in 1996 as Rule by Records: Land Registration and Village Custom in Early British Panjab.

In 1993 Richard and Martha moved to Lebanon, where he took up work as a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, remaining there until retirement in 2016. Thereafter they generally spent half the year in a rented flat in Tyre and the other six months in a house they had bought in south-west France.

At the time of his sudden death due to a fall, Richard was doing research work with Martha on the land history of southern Lebanon in the spirit of their joint work published in 2007 as Governing Property: Law, Administration and Production in Ottoman Syria.

He is survived by Martha, and by Helen and me. John died in 2021.


Charles Saumarez Smith

The GuardianTramp

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