In the mid-1950s, Goodwin travelled to Nigeria where he undertook a series of excavations in association with Bernard Fagg, the pioneering British prehistorian in West Africa, along with Thurston Shaw and Oliver Davies. He made three visits between 1953 and 1957, of between two and four months each, working mainly at Benin and Ife. At home he had suffered a number of setbacks. Not for the first time, he found himself at loggerheads with his own university administration. In South Africa the discipline of archaeology had entered a long fallow period following the National Party election victory of 1948. Nigeria was more than a change of scene; it was a chance for Goodwin to reinvent himself. It also placed him in a more direct relationship with the men who laboured alongside him.
For the first time Goodwin provides a written commentary on his co-workers, mainly in letters home to his wife. The shift in register to the letter format (gossipy, confiding) is significant, as, no doubt, are the possibilities presented by distance and the appeal of the exotic. In a letter of December 21, 1954, shortly after his arrival in Benin, he writes of visiting the District Officer, and continues: "Thence to the little museum – as big as our drawing room at Fintona – where we met the local historian Egharevba, who has written a dozen booklets which I bought". In a letter of January 5, 1955 addressed to "My Dear Everybody", he writes:
The "staff" consists of the following: Mr Jacob Egharevba…[Justus] Akeredolu [who] is from Owo, about 100 miles due north. He was trained for 3 years in England, went to France, Switzerland & Italy, and is in a temporary post which he hopes to make permanent soon. He has his own chalet at the rest house & we eat together in the mess. Luckily he does not share my chalet! So far… I have had my little place to myself. He comes in from time to time, & puts pottery together. He is trained as a museum assistant but has little power to think things out. He is an expert wood-carver in ebony etc., essentially a rather artistic craftsman. Thin and tall, with a narrow face & skull and a pleasant smile, about 42 or so.
He has a little Bini (Benin) boy as his personal servant, a nice lad who loves cleaning my bicycle, for which I "dash" him a bob or so a week. He says he would prefer a book on geography – whether he means an atlas I don't know, he is about 13 – 14.
Haruna Rashid is at sergeant-major level & an Assistant, whereas Akeredólu is an Instructor grade. He is Hausa-speaking from Kano on the north and was at Ife with us, a nice lad of about 30 or perhaps less. Very willing, a little presumptuous (he likes to pop into my bathroom & use my toothglass for a drink of water) but quite courteous and helpful.
Two of my labourers, Gáruba and Adámu, I had at Ife, both very nice men, not very hard workers, but willing, a third is Enobi (like N-O-B) who is new to me. Then by some curious chance another man (known as Conjo) has drifted up from the Kongo tribe at the north of the Conjo. His people were all cannibals 40 years ago, and he is like a Nubian slave, short legged, stocky, bullet headed and just one mass of muscles. He works the others off their feet, quite happy to do all the pick & shovel work. I can only suppose he has escaped justice by coming here.
In a letter of February 3, 1955 he writes: "It was so hot today and yesterday that all my labourers disappeared at lunchtime. I found two lying asleep in separate ‘graves' we had dug, and two asleep in a mango tree". Later in the same letter he writes: "A team of good diggers now would make important discoveries – unhappily only Akeredolu is good (not excellent and very work-shy), while Haruna Rashid, the sort of foreman, is appallingly bad when he gets fits of brooding over his failure to become an 'officer' and to get overseas training – as I analyse it. Normally he is great fun and a keen and fairly good worker".
In a letter of February 13, 1955 he complains about the wages paid to his co-workers (by the Nigerian Department of Antiquities): "My four labourers get about 15 [pounds] a month between them. This for excellent fellows away from their homes. By Wednesday there is no food, and they work on empty stomachs ‘till they are paid on Saturday morning". Goodwin closed up the Benin excavation and headed north to Jos, to a new site. In a letter of April 19, 1955 he writes: "Unhappily there will be [no-one]…to talk to. I shall be rather lonely and cut off, apart from diggers and assistants".
There were two strikes during his time in Nigeria, the first at Ife in 1953. In a letter of December 22, 1953 he writes: "On Monday some of the labourers went on strike, so we sacked the ringleader – much to his surprise. We had him on the doorstep for 2 days explaining that he hadn't really done anything, but we eventually sent him back to Jos. He was a chatterer and always thinking up new ideas for chattering, so he probably didn't mean it". The "we" here refers to Goodwin and Bernard Fagg. The second strike was at Benin in 1957. In a letter of January 7, he writes: "On Friday the labourers went on a slow-down strike as they felt I ought to find a place for them to sleep. They have been dossing in the compound of the…[chief Hausa] and he is kicking them out…The real trouble is my men get from 2/8 to 3/- per day and are ‘foreigners' while the local minimum is 5/- a day. The results are that everyone puts prices up to outside people, and my men can't make out on their pay".
There are instances of illness among Goodwin's co-workers. In a letter of the previous day, January 6, he writes: "My most stupid digger, Ali Tudur Wado, has gone to hospital with acute bronchitis so only three diggers left". The following day he goes to look for potential sites with Jacob Egharevba, and writes: "When we returned two of the men were ill so I sent them with notes to the hospital. One is bronchial from the Harmattan, the other is not at all well. I had sent him in a week ago to be treated for syphilis, but after reacting well to the treatment, he has more or less collapsed, but he was too late in the vast hospital queue, and will have to wait…for treatment – if he survives. Meanwhile I have dosed him with aspirin…"
In another part of Goodwin's archive, following the conventional separation of image and text, is collected a set of photographs from his sojourn in Nigeria, including several that show his co-workers. We see three men crouching in a hole; a close-up of a figure excavating with a hand-pick; two men bending over a sieve; and five figures standing in an excavation, separated by baulks of deposit. Most of them produce a smile for the camera, although in another photograph taken immediately before or after this one they are scowling.
Once again, none of the images are captioned, although the packet of photographs has a note in Goodwin's hand, "Nigeria ‘55". It seems reasonable to infer that several of the figures in these photographs are the subject of Goodwin's first letter home. A number of the men are recognisable across the set of images. The figure shown in close up, excavating with the hand pick, is probably Justus Akeredolu. Amidst this swirl of names and faces it is the detail in Goodwin's letters that speaks tellingly of colonial relations of work. We have Goodwin's concern over the shared toothglass, the penny-pinching detail of payment and the cost of food and lodging, the colonial shibboleths (cannibalism!), and the final, chilling observation ("if he survives"), all of it framed by Goodwin's breezy paternalism. In two of the letters we find the familiar opposition between "talk" and "chatter", and the somewhat plaintive formulation "there will be no-one to talk to…apart from diggers and assistants", an exemplary paradox, we might say. Away from South Africa and the increasingly rigid demarcations of apartheid, Goodwin lived and worked in closer association with his co-workers while in Nigeria. At the same time, as in so much of his life, there was a touch of bathos in his situation. In an earlier letter to Bernard Fagg he wanders what it will be like to drive a lorry and manage an army of workers, in the style, say, of Mortimer Wheeler. As it turns out he is given a bicycle to ride, and a small team of reluctant well-diggers.