2.1b  Book Edited by Ann O’Hear: Letters from Nigeria, 1899‒1900: David Wynford Carnegie. Madison: African Program University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1992. Edited, with new introduction, notes, appendix, and index.

The title page of the original printed work provides the following information:

Letters from Nigeria of The Honourable David Wynford Carnegie F.R.G.S. 1899-2900; with introduction and appendix; privately printed  Brechin: Black & Johnston, Printers and Publishers 1902


The next page of the original printed work provides the following information:

Impression one hundred copies (Not published).

Section 2.1b(i) contains transcribed material on slavery from Ann O’Hear, “Introduction to the New Edition.”


Section 2.1b(ii) contains transcribed material on or relevant to slavery from the text of the Letters.



2.1b(i) Book Edited byAnnO’Hear:LettersfromNigeria,1899‒1900:DavidWynford Carnegie. Madison: African Program University of Wisconsin–Madison,1992.Edited, with new introduction, notes, appendix, and index. 


Transcript of extracts on slavery in the Ilorin area from Ann O’Hear, “Introduction to the New Edition” (1992) 



Page numbers given in the text below are to the text of the “Introduction to the New Edition,” Letters from Nigeria,1899‒1900:David Wynford Carnegie,1992. Selected endnotes to the “Introduction to the New Edition” are also included here, renumbered appropriately. Additions/clarifications that were provided by Ann O’Hear as she was making the transcription (July 2020) are shown in square brackets. 


Pp. vii-xvi comprise the “Introduction to the New Edition,” text and notes. 

viii. The letters provide some insight into Ilorin’s dealings with its outlying districts, especially on its strategies of economic control. It is clear from Carnegie’s accounts of his visits to the large village of Ejidongari, northwest of Ilorin, that these strategies were by no means altogether successful, at least at this particular period. Indeed, it seems that the city’s internal problems, combined with its conflicts with the British, had weakened its control in general.[1]Incidentally, Carnegie’s comments on “the powerful King” of Ejidongari, whom he portrayed as a strong and independent-minded individual,[2]are of particular interest, as in later sources this man is identified as an Ilorin court slave.[3]If this is true,[4]then Carnegie’s observations provide an illustration of the extent to which such slaves might gain power and independence.

The letters provide information on the institution of slavery, and on slaves’ reactions at the beginning of colonial rule. Like his successor, Resident Dwyer, Carnegie emphasizes the mildness of the institution in Ilorin. He recounts, as does Dwyer, that agricultural slaves worked only part time for their masters, and also worked for themselves.[5]According to modern Ilorin informants, it would seem that some such arrangements sometimes did obtain, though certainly not always,[6]as they did in some fashion elsewhere in the Sokoto Caliphate.[7]Carnegie also describes arrangements by which slaves could free themselves. Local informants confirm that this was possible in Ilorin,[8]as it was in other parts of the Caliphate. So Carnegie’s comments on these matters fit in (in very general terms) with other sources . . . His assertions with respect to the freedom of certain children of slaves, however, need to be treated with caution, since generally in the Muslim savanna it seems that the children of slaves remained slaves, though often with some improvement in status and conditions.[9]

         Carnegie’s underlying assertion of the mildness of slavery in Ilorin needs especially careful consideration. Carnegie was undoubtedly in large part receiving his information from members of the slave-owning elite (and maybe from a slave broker), who would have wanted to paint as positive a picture as possible.[10]He may also have believed that it would be dangerous to attack slavery, which, as Lugard decided, would “prematurely abolish the almost universal form of labour contract, before a better system had been developed,” and would result in “a state of anarchy and chaos”[11]. . . And despite [Carnegie’s] allegation that “as a rule they are quite content to remain slaves,”[12]not all Ilorin slaves wanted to remain in bondage when they had the chance to leave. Carnegie’s own statement that he had had to settle many slavery questions at Ilorin suggests that there were people anxious to free themselves.[13]From other evidence it is clear that there was a large exodus of slaves, many of them Hausa, in the wake of Goldie’s 1897 expedition [against Ilorin].[14]Carnegie himself presumably met some of them when he visited a small village near Jebba, inhabited by “Hausas who left Illorin after it was ‘broken’ by the Whiteman.”[15]


xi.    Although there is much that is valuable in Carnegie’s accounts, there are some references which cast doubt on his accuracy (when he is recording other than his own first-hand observations) or at least pose difficulties in interpretation. The accuracy of his treatment of slavery, especially its supposed mildness, is a major example . . . In another instance, Carnegie avers that the emir of Ilorin “has some 300 wives, not including slaves”; yet one would expect that only his four actual wives would be free, and that the rest, the concubines, would be slaves.[16]


[1]The chief of Ejidongari was refusing to pay tribute as were many others. See NNAK [Nigerian National Archives Kaduna] SNP 15, ACC No. 11, Ilorin Residents Reports 1900, Carnegie to Lugard, 10 July, and Carnegie to Lugard (no date, but after 17 July). [This file and several other items referenced in these endnotes are included in the Dr. Ann O’Hear Archive.] 

[2]He was said to be recognized by a number of villages, he acted as judge for his people, his town was large, and observers regarded him with apprehension [seeLetters, pages] (29, 41-42, 48). 

[3]NNAK Ilorinprof 4/1 829A/1917, Ilorin Emirate Reorganisation of Districts, Fiefholds District by District; NNAK SNP 15/1 ACC No. 119, Report for July-Sept 1906 by Resident Dwyer, para. 14. 

[4][For a later brief discussion of elite slave Eji (Ejidongari), see Ann O’Hear,“EliteSlavesinIlorininthe NineteenthandTwentiethCenturies,”InternationalJournalofAfricanHistoricalStudies,vol. 39,no. 2(2006), 260.] 

[5] [Pages 52-]53 [inLetters: Letter from Carnegie] (To his Mother.) June 19, 1900. ILLORIN; [also] Rhodes House (RH) Mss. Afr. s.958, Dwyer, Dr. P.M. Extracts from Reports Ilorin 1902-1908, Annual Report 1904. [This item forms part of the Commonwealth and African Collections,formerlyheld attheBodleianLibraryofCommonwealthand African StudiesatRhodesHouse, Oxford, but nowhousedintheWestonLibrary(formerlyknown asthe NewBodleian), where they retainthe “RH”reference numbers.] 

[6]Interviews conducted by E.B. Bolaji, B. Elesin and S.T. Salami in Ilorin, Oct-Dec 1988 [on behalf of Ann O’Hear]. 

[7]Paul E. Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” inThe Ideology of Slavery in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy (Beverly Hills, 1981), 216-18. 

[8]See note 6. 

[9]Paul E. Lovejoy,Transformations in Slavery(Cambridge, 1983), 207. See also Lovejoy’s discussion of Baba of Karo’s “idealized” account of the status of children of slaves: Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” 219-20. 

[10]In the text [of theLetters] (53), Carnegie’s account of slavery comes immediately after his account of a meeting with a slave broker. [Ann O’Hear note: If I were writing my “Introduction to the New Edition” today (July 2020), I would have chosen to use the wording “very likely from a slave broker” rather than “maybe from a slave broker”] For examples of reports on slavery which present an idealized version of the institution rather than the actual conditions in which slaves found themselves, see Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” 215-20. 

[11]Frederick Lugard,Instructions to Political and Other Officers, on Subjects Chiefly Political and Administrative(London, 1906), 136. 

[12][Letters,52-]53 [Letter from Carnegie] (To his Mother.) June 19, 1900. ILLORIN. 

[13][Letters,] 59 [Letter from Carnegie] . . . undated, but was presumably written about the 21st July, 1900, from Lokoja. (To H.M.C.) [his sister]. 

[14]PRO CO 147/124, G.T. Goldie to Earl of Scarborough, 6 March 1897; Seymour Vandeleur,Campaigning on the Upper Nile and Niger(London, 1898), 293. Ilorin informants (see note 6 above) also maintain that many slaves ran away when the British arrived. 

[15][Letters, 29-]30 [Letter from Carnegie] (To H.M.C.) March 28, 1900. JEBBA. A later colonial report also refers to many Hausa villages of (apparently) runaway slaves in the same area. NNAK SNP 7/13 3096/1912, Ilorin Division, Lanwa District Reassessment Report by R. Scott Chapman, para. 18. 

[16][Letters, 37 and] 39 [Letter from Carnegie] (To his Mother.) April 27, 1900, ILLORIN; Paul E. Lovejoy, “Concubinage and the Status of Women Slaves in Early Colonial Northern Nigeria,”Journal of African History, vol. 29 (1988), 246. 


2.1b(ii)Book Edited byAnn O’Hear: Letters from Nigeria,1899‒1900: David Wynford Carnegie. Madison: African Program University of Wisconsin–Madison,1992. Edited, with new introduction, notes, appendix, and index. 


Transcript of extracts from the text of the Letters with relevance to slavery and related topics, including “elite” slavery, runaway slaves, attempts by Ilorin to interfere with marketing in villages, debt pawnage, trade in slaves, slaves conducting long-distance trade for their masters, agricultural slaves, slaves working for their freedom, marriage, status of children of slaves, dues paid by villagers 


Page numbers given in the text below are to the text ofLettersfromNigeria,1899‒1900: David Wynford Carnegie,1992 edition. Selected endnotes to the text in the 1992 edition are also included here, renumbered appropriately. Additions/clarifications that were provided by Ann O’Hear as she was making the transcription (July 2020) are shown in square brackets. 



29. [Letter from Carnegie] (To H.M.C.) [his sister] March 28, 1900. JEBBA. 


[An] interesting case [in the provincial court] was a land palaver between two Kings . . . The land went to the powerful King Ajidungari [for whom, see section 2.1b(i) in this Archive and also further references in the Letters,below; Eji or Ejidongari was identified in later sources as an elite slave of the Emir or of the Sarkin Dongari—himself an elite slave titleholder—of Ilorin]. 


30. For the last three Sundays I have been shooting . . . I went alone and discovered a little village, about five miles away, where they live by selling “tombo” or “pompo” (palm wine). They are Hausas who left Illorin after it was “broken” by the Whiteman. 


34. [Letter from Carnegie] (To H.M.C.) April 11, 1900. JEBBA, N.N. 


[celebrating a Muslim holiday] There was certainly great rejoicing, and this morning a great crowd, headed by Sergeant Raji and Corporal Suliman . . . and the sort of Prime Minister of the King of Illorin[1] swarmed up to our house . . . 


37. [Letter from Carnegie] (To his Mother.) April 27, 1900. ILLORIN. 


39. [visiting the Emir of Ilorin] I asked to see his house, and the King showed me round . . . He has some 300 wives, not including slaves, but he would not show me these, nor indeed did he show me his private dwelling . . . 


41. [Letter from Carnegie] (To his Father.) May 7, 1900, JEBBA, NORTHERN NIGERIA [sending a journal:] 




April 13th. Continued along the Illorin road . . . then turned westward to Ajidungari . . . 

         Ajidungari is recognised as King by all villages west of, and including Eyatoro . . . 


April 14th. At Ajidungari. Had talk with the King, who expressed himself as very willing to please the White man in all things. He acknowledges Illorin as King, and pays him a yearly tribute (which I find later the King of Illorin denies), but objects to the system whereby he has to send all produce to Illorin for sale, instead of sending it to Jebba, where his people would get a higher price (this also the King of Illorin denies, saying he never even sees Ajidungari). 

. . . he agrees to employ aMallam,and make a monthly report of all cases settled by him (for it has been his practice to act as Judge for his people), and to settle no important case without first consulting the proper Authority at Jebba . . ./ 

42. . . .The town, including some outlying farms, contains some 600 men, is clean and has a fairly large market. 


43.April 16th. . . [the village of ] Malete has a small market; from what the people say it would appear that the King of Illorin, or his advisers, do anything but encourage country markets; their policy being to cause all produce to come for sale to Illorin. 


46. [at Ilorin] 

April 26th. Hearing small cases all day. 


Money-lending. A man lends money to another. He charges no interest in money, but, until the debt is paid back, half the debtor’s time and labour is for the benefit of the lender, and half at his own disposal.  (?) [interpolation by Carnegie’s sister, during her preparation of the letters for printing?] Thus every borrower pays 100 per cent. for his loan. For by the time he has made by his half-day’s work sufficient to pay back the loan, he has also paid the lender all his other half-days in labour. In the half-days belonging to borrower he must make enough to feed and keep himself and sufficient money to pay off the debt.[2] 


47. [Letter from Carnegie] (To H.M.C.) May 27, 1900, KISHI, W. AFRICA. 


48. On leaving Jebba, Ajidungari was our first town of any size. The old King is a great pal . . . my first acquaintance with him was through a man who had complained that his land had been taken and village robbed, so I sent for Ajidungari. Sergeant Raji said, “he be big man,” in rather a hesitating way, so I answered “I don’t care how big he is, Englishmen come here to keep order in the land, and if a man does wrong he must account for it,” and so Ajidungari was summoned, and came in and was talked to, and has been a pal ever since . . . There was a big market going on, 500 people or so . . . 


52. [Letter from Carnegie] (To his Mother.) June 19,1900, ILLORIN. 


53. . . . I interviewed a gentleman who deals in slaves, quite a nice man. He is really a compact form of servants registry office. He is a Dilali, or broker, and sells slaves on commission. If you wanted a slave for your pony carriage, or the garden, I would go to Mr. Badamashi, theDilali, and ask if he could find me a good slave for pruning roses, and he would hunt round the country until he found some one who had such a slave to get rid of, and so the bargain would be struck, he would get a commission from me and from the man who sold the slave, 1s. 9d. from each of us.[3]We are accustomed to think of all slavery as diabolical, chains and blood and torture and all horrors, but here at any rate it is mild enough. A slave, taking the case of a man, often works for his master many miles away. Most of the people who pass here going to and from Lagos are slaves trading for their masters in Illorin, Kano, Sokoto, and all about. A slave on a farm works half a day for his master, and half for himself, and gets one full day to himself in every week. He can free himself by paying about £4 to his master, which sum a strong willing man can put by in say four years; but as a rule they are quite content to remain slaves; to be free is no advantage, as they have no ambition beyond a full tummy. If a slave pays for and marries a woman (who must be a slave), the children are free from birth. If, however, children occur without marriage, and without payment, then they are slaves, and belong to the master of their mother. 

         Of course slave raiding still goes on north of the river Niger, but not here, though I think certainly now and again, or even frequently, slaves raided north of the river are sold secretly in Illorin. There is said to be a night market, but I can’t be sure about it. 

. . . 

A “dash” of three goats and about 24 eggs just arrived from Sani, Bale(Chief) of Ajisai and Bode Sani (village or town of Sani). I have just returned from settling a boundary dispute between him and another neighbouring chief. The Bale is paid yearly rent in kind, as well as current provisions by all the villagers and farmers; he pays yearly rent to the Balogum(or Big Chief) who owns the land, and probably lives in Illorin; the latter in his turn pays a yearly tribute to the Emir, and he, theoretically at least, is a vassal of Sokoto.[4]Any man can get farming land (or agricultural land would be more correct) for nothing, so long as he pays his rent, and is approved by the Bale




[1] Probably a major slave official, such as the Sarkin Dongari. 

[2] This describes theiwofaor pawning system, for which see Ann O’Hear, “Pawning in [the Emirate of] Ilorin,” in Paul E. Lovejoy and Toyin Falola, eds,Pawnship in Africa[Boulder, CO, 1994, 217-243. 

[3] There are some difficulties in interpreting the Ilorin data on commissions. In general, it seems that the commission was paid by the seller of the goods. Haddon-Smith, however, reported in 1893, with respect specifically to slave sales, that a fixed charge was paid by the buyer. Carnegie, also with reference to slave sale, says the commission is from both. Possibly there were special arrangements governing transactions in slaves. In judging the accuracy of Carnegie’s account [of commissions], it may be pointed out that he did obtain his information first-hand from a broker; and also that it does seem likely that the broker would generally make some profit from both parties to the transaction. See Ann O’Hear, “Political and Commercial Clientage in Nineteenth-Century Ilorin,”African Economic History, no. 15 (1986), 75 and note 68; G.B. Haddon-Smith, “Interior Mission to Yorubaland 1893: Extracts from the Diary of G.B. Haddon-Smith, Political Officer” (for these Extracts, see this Archive, sections 8.2a and 8.2b). 

           [Note that while any information that Carnegie received from the broker whom he interviewed on commissions with regard to slave sales may have been fairly accurate, any information he received from the broker on slavery in general would undoubtedly have laid stress on the mildness of the institution.] 

[4]Ilorin was actually directly under Gwandu. 


2.2a(i) Bibliography of  Source Materials for “Oriki and the History of Slavery in Ilorin, Nigeria.” List of hard-to-find works on oriki used in the preparation of this chapter, including rare published oriki (alphabetical order by author):

Adeeko, Adeleke. “Oral Poetry and Hegemony: Yoruba Oriki.” Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 26, nos. 3‒4 (2001): 181‒192.


Awe, Bolanle. “Notes on Oriki and Warfare in Yorubaland.” In Yoruba Oral Tradition, ed. Wande Abimbola, 267‒292. Ile-Ife: Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Ife, 1975.


Babalola, S.A. (Adeboye), Awon Oriki Orile Metadinlogbon. Ikeja: Longman Nigeria, 2000.


Babayemi, S.O. Content Analysis of Oriki Orile (Ibadan: Institute of African Studies[, 1988]).


Barber, Karin. “Documenting Social and Ideological Change through Yoruba Oriki: A Stylistic Analysis.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, vol. 10, no. 4 (June 1981): 39‒52.


Gbadamosi, Bakare. Oriki. Ibadan: Mbari Publications, October 1961. See pages 5, 23, 27, 32, 33.


Olajubu, Chief Oludare. “Yoruba Oral Poetry: Composition and Performance.” In Oral Poetry in Nigeria, ed. Uchegbulam N. Abalogu, Garba Ashiwaju, and Regina Amadi-Tshiwala, 71‒85. Lagos: Nigeria Magazine, 1981.


Olatunji, Olatunde O. Features of Yoruba Oral Poetry. Ibadan: University Press, 1984. See chapter 4, “Oriki: Yoruba Praise Poetry,” 67‒107.




2.2a (ii). Comments by Karin Barber, 15 June 2018, on Ann O’Hear, “Oriki and the History of Slavery in Ilorin, Nigeria,” a chapter included in African Slaves, African Masters: Politics, Memories, Social Life, ed. Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, and Martin Klein, 153-174. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press (Tubman Series), 2017.


E-mail message from  Karin Barber, 15 June 2018:


Thanks so much for sending me a copy of your chapter on oriki and the history of slavery in Ilorin. . . . The chapter is very interesting. You've done a superb job of sifting and synthesising the various accounts of oriki, and I admire the way you have searched the Ilorin material for oriki fragments about slaves. 


The only traces of the voices of the underdog (iwofa in this case, rather than slave) that I was able to detect in the Okuku oriki was a passage which could have originated as the lament of someone suffering from harsh labour conditions, but which has been inflected in the oriki to serve as a glorification of the master (pp. 283-4 of I Could Speak Until Tomorrow). The facility with which accomplished performers carried this kind of incorporation and repurposing of existing texts to make them function as praise encourages me to think that this is what might have happened here. But your findings go well beyond this rather speculative interpretation. I'm really pleased to have this addition to my oriki “library”.


All the best




Emeritus Professor K.J.Barber
Department of African Studies and Anthropology

School of History and Cultures
University of Birmingham
Birmingham B15 2TT

2.4b(i) “Shifting Projects of Elite Royal Slaves in Ilorin and Divergence between the Projects of Ilorin and Kano Slaves.” Conference: Landscapes, Sources, and Intellectual Projects in African History: Symposium in Honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, University of Birmingham, Department of African Studies and Anthropology and Centre of West African Studies, 2015. 


Copyright© Ann O’Hear, December 2015 



Shifting Projects of Elite Royal Slaves in Ilorin and Divergence between the Projects of Ilorin and Kano Slaves[1] 


Ann O’Hear 


In this paper, I look at the projects, specifically, of the elite slaves of the emirship in Ilorin.[2]These slaves were close to the emirs and held major positions in the 19th century, enjoying influence, wealth, and prestige. Under British rule, some continued to exercise influence, particularly asbaba kekere, or intermediaries, controlling access to the emirs. So their overall project was to achieve political and economic self-aggrandisement by manipulating their position. 

           But, after a massive loss of influence in the 1930s, their slave status became an embarrassment, leading to a shift in their projects, to the manipulation of family histories in order to retain some prestige while hiding their former status.  

           The Ilorin slaves’ projects in the 19th and early 20th centuries were somewhat similar to those of royal slaves elsewhere, especially Kano. But later, one particular divergence between the projects of Ilorin and Kano ex-royal slaves becomes evident, and I will return to this at a later point in the paper. 

In this paper, therefore, I take a brief look at some of the Ilorin slaves and their 19th- and early-20th-century projects, then I focus on their shift to a historical project and on a comparison between Ilorin and Kano that reveals the divergence between them that is linked with this project. 


So, in the 19th century, the Ilorin royal slaves pursued self-aggrandisement through the often intertwined avenues of military service,baba kekereroles, and opportunities associated with land ownership, land agency, and land settlement. Among these slaves were the heads of the Jimba family; the Sarkin Dongari, Balogun Afin, Ajia Ijesha, Are Ogele, Ajia Atikekere, and Sarkin Baraje; and Adenlolu of Lanwa. 

           A number of them profited from military service, with the Jimba chiefs providing a good example. And it is reported that from the reign of Shita, the second emir, the emirs did not go to war in person, and that captured slaves and other booty went first to the warrior slaves and chiefs, who would siphon off a large share. 

Major opportunities for influence and wealth in the 19th century were also provided bybaba kekereroles, in which elite slaves enabled people to gain access to the emir, to obtain land or justice. Many major slaves were involved. One example will suffice here: when Adenlolu was sent to settle north of the city and protect the trade route to the Niger, many men obtained farm lands from him as the emir’s land agent, “following him as their Baba Kekere.” He was said to be “a man of great influence,” as was his son. 

           Other slaves also benefitted from opportunities associated with landholding, land agency, and land settlement. The Sarkin Dongari, the Balogun Afin, the Ajia Ijesha, and the Are Ogele were all sent by the emir to areas south of Ilorin, settling their followers on the land they were granted, which became attached to their families (though the Are Ogele, unlike the other three, was a land agent rather than a landholder). They profited from opportunities related to tribute collection and access to the emir. 

           Land grants made to royal slaves tended to be handed down in their families. All told, few land grants made by the emirs were recorded as being recalled and reassigned. Successive emirs may have accepted royal slaves’ hereditary rights to land in an effort to ensure their continuing loyalty, especially as the emirs began to face opposition from their free chiefs. But in the turbulence surrounding the period of the late 19th century and the British takeover, while some royal slaves did pursue their projects via loyalty to the reigning emir, others turned against him or asserted their independence. 

           But since those who chose open resistance to the new colonial regime from 1900 onward were eventually defeated by the threat of British force, other royal slaves decided to stay in the service of the current emir and take advantage of the power vacuum created by British policy (which reduced the power of the major chiefs and gave greater authority to the emirs) and the personal weakness of the early-20th-century emirs. They could still manipulate their positions, particularly throughbaba kekereroles and tax collection. Some were apprehended by the British, including the Ajia Atikekere, the Ajia “Omo” Ijesha (descendant of the originalajia), the Balogun Afin, and the Sarkin Baraje. Many others must have evaded the rather sporadic British efforts to bring them down. 

But although they continued to profit asbaba kekere, they had less success in the colonial bureaucracy. The British were suspicious of them, and district headships were mostly given to royal family members or free chiefly families. However, some royal slaves did become village area heads. The title ofmagajiof Lanwa Village Area was given to Adenlolu’s descendants, but the district headship went to relatives of the emirs. In Afon, descendants of the Are Ogele were also appointed as village area heads. But these small-scale headships offered only limited opportunities forbaba kekereor tax-related profit, as much was siphoned off by others.  

In 1936, the power of the palace slaves was broken, as the result of a land dispute involving four palacebaba kekere, whose behaviour and influence over the emir was condemned by many city chiefs and the colonial authorities. All this led to the general loss of the royal slaves’ power. And they disappeared from the colonial record. 

           When their influence dwindled, their slave status became an embarrassment rather than an opportunity, and their projects now emphasised the massaging of their family histories, aiming to retain some prestige by highlighting their previous importance (and its ceremonial remnants),[3]while mostly hiding or glossing over their former slave status. This project may also have included interference with colonial records.[4] 


The Historical Projects of the Elite Slave Families 

           The families of the Sarkin Dongari, Balogun Afin, Ajia Atikekere, Sarkin Baraje, Ajia Ijesha, Jimba, Magaji Lanwa, and Are Ogele are all of slave heritage, as is clearly identified in various sources. But in 1989‒90,their family heads or representatives almost all claimed free origin. Five of them, in their “histories,” emphasise that their ancestors were “friends” (free followers) of the founders of the emirate, placing them right at the beginning of Islamic Ilorin. With respect to their lands and their activities, however, they agree with the sources that identify their ancestors as slaves; and the functions they say they still perform in the palace are consistent with those of slave officials elsewhere. 

The family of Adenlolu denied its former slave status in a 1970s court case. The family was sued over a piece of land that its head, themagajiof Lanwa, had sold. The plaintiff claimed that the land had been given to his own ancestor and that Adenlolu was a slave and just a land agent. The defendants claimed that their ancestor was a warrior and denied that he was enslaved.[5]They won the case. Because the family had been accepted as tax collectors and harvested locust beans, the judge could not believe they had been slaves. Thus the family was confirmed in rights it had never been granted in the first place. This gave legitimacy to the family’s project, to claim ownership of the land and reject former slave status.[6] 

           Two families, however, present a different picture. The Jimba family could hardly deny its former status outright, since Samuel Johnson’sHistory of the Yorubasidentifies the first Jimba as an emir’s slave. Thus, Safi Jimba, a member of the family, skates around the issue in his publishedHistory of Ilorin(1981), which details the 19th-century exploits of his family. 

A second family, that of the Are Ogele, is, to my knowledge, the only one that has publicly admitted its former status. In another 1970s court case, also involving a land dispute, a descendant of the first Are agreed that he was a slave of Emir Shita, who had sent him to Ogele where he built many villages. No military prowess or other distinction was claimed for him. But witnesses testified that tribute was given to the Are Ogele “as the owner of the land.” Again, the family won the case, the evidence about tribute-giving presumably outweighing the admission of previous slave status. In any case, the family’s project, to claim ownership of the land, met with success. The Are Ogele family seems to have been largely rooted in the rural area, lacking contacts and influence in the city. Perhaps its project has been, in general, to accept the limits of its situation and make the best of it.[7] 


A Comparison with Elite Slavery in Kano 

We can see a number of similarities between the elite royal slaves of Ilorin and those of Kano, who have been studied extensively by Sean Stilwell; I am basing my treatment of Kano on his research. In both cases, we see self-aggrandisement by manipulation and important military and policing functions. Both groups became powerful as intermediaries with the emirs, involved themselves in political disputes, and continued to pursue their projects in the early colonial period. 

But there were differences. For one thing, while titles given to slaves in Ilorin tended to become hereditary in certain families, emirs in Kano made strenuous and often successful efforts to block this. 

In addition, in Ilorin, land granted to royal slaves has tended to be handed down in their families, while in Kano, while royal slaves established and administered royal plantations for the emir, they did not themselves own land. And though some still supervised royal estates in 1975, by the 1990s they were no longer involved in (and thus no longer profiting from) this supervision. 

            In Ilorin, elite royal slaves could acquire their own slaves through military service. In Kano, elite royal slaves were given slaves by the emir for their use but did not own them. 

Although both groups suffered a major, permanent loss of much of their influence in the early 20th century, in Kano, even the slave titles were abolished for a while; in Ilorin, this does not seem to have happened. 

The most interesting difference between elite royal slaves in Ilorin and in Kano, however, arises in more recent times and lies in their differing attitudes to slave status, as illustrated by the Ilorin slave-descendant titleholders’ changing projects. 


The Divergence in Attitude 

           In Ilorin, in 1989‒90, titleholding families descended from elite royal slaves mostly emphasised free status while stressing their former prestige, military prowess, connections with the emir, and Islamic credentials. In Kano in the 1990s, however, Sean Stilwell found that titleholders and other descendants of royal slaves had no problem admitting their slave status: they were “very willing” to discuss royal slavery and their place in it. 

And even where Kano informants stressed the Islamic legitimacy of early elite slaves, they did so, in direct contrast to Ilorin informants,in conjunction with their slave status, as shown by Sean Stilwell in his discussion of Kano elite slaves Barka, Nasamu, and Hajjo. 

           Up to at least the 1990s, then, Kano slave descendants found good reason to continue accepting royal slave origin. Sean Stilwell recently told me that, in the 1990s, “many were still associated with the palace in a variety of ways, and found both meaning and status in that service.” 

A number of questions arise from all this. Do the Kano informants accept slave origin because they still gain prestige by serving one of the most important figures in the caliphate? Is it because their slave origin is bound up with their Islamic identity? Does it stem from their strong royal slave culture? Could it be connected in some way with the restoration of their titles in 1956? Stilwell and coauthors note in “The Oral History of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate” that although the formal powers of the restored titleholders were limited, “some are known to have played very important informal and advisory roles.” How far does this continue, and how does it contribute to their prestige? 

           And what about the descendants of elite royal slaves in Ilorin? Why is their attitude to slave origin so different from that in Kano? Certainly there has been sensitivity in Ilorin over slavery in general. Has the elite slaves’ desire to hide their origins contributed to this? Or vice versa? Is the difference between landholding in Ilorin and Kano a factor?[8]Is the point in Ilorin that you now need to be accepted as free if you want to retain or claim land? That if you are challenged, you have to “prove” your free descent? While the experience of Adenlolu’s descendants supports this idea, the case of the Are Ogele family does not. 

This is as far as I have been able to go thus far with this exercise. I hope the questions it raises will encourage people to sharpen and individualise the experiences of royal slaves and highlight the complexity of royal slavery. 



Much of the material in this paper comes from an article I published in 2006, and I would like to express my gratitude to two people who helped greatly in the writing of that article: one is Professor Stefan Reichmuth, who generously provided information and insights; and the other was my friend and one-time colleague, the late Dr. E. B. (Dele) Bolaji, who conducted in-depth interviews with royal slaves’ descendants in the city of Ilorin on my behalf. I would also like to thank the organisers of “Landscapes, Sources, and Intellectual Projects in African History,” symposium in honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias (Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham, November 2015), for prompting me to take a fresh approach to the material.




[1]The information provided in this paper is taken from my article “Elite Slaves in Ilorin in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,”International Journal of African Historical Studies39, no. 2 (2006), 247‒73; and from the following studies of Kano by Sean Stilwell: “Culture, Kinship, and Power,”African Economic History, no. 27 (1999), 137‒75; “Power, Honour and Shame: The Ideology of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,”Journal of the International African Institute70, no. 3 (2000), 394‒421; andParadoxes of Power: The Kano “Mamluks” and Male Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate, 1804‒1903(Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004). Also Sean Stilwell, Ibrahim Hamza, and Paul E. Lovejoy, “The Oral History of Royal Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate: An Interview withSallamaDako,”History in Africa28 (2001), 273‒91. 

Other endnotes in this paper are used only to add information not provided in the text. 


[2]Or occasionally, slaves of individual emirs, such as Adenlolu of Lanwa, who was owned by Emir Shita and inherited by his son, Aliu, who did not become emir until later. 


[3]There may even have been competition over these ceremonial remnants: this is suggested by the fact that in 1989‒90several families were claiming the same duties as others were. However, it is also possible that some of these duties were performed by each of these families in turn, at the apogee of each family’s power. 


[4]In the 1960s, a list of slave titles was removed from a provincial file before it went to the Nigerian National Archives, Kaduna. Also, I found only a very limited amount of information on the 1936 crisis in the Ilorin files in Kaduna, although one might normally expect detailed accounts and analyses of such an important series of events. 


[5]The exact words were “never enslaved during the reign of Oba Moma.” 


[6]Though in 1982, when asked by a student researcher, the district head of Lanwa (a member of the Ilorin royal family who later became emir) agreed that Adenlolu was a slave of the royal house, so the family’s claims to free origin did not, apparently, go uncontested. 


[7]For a while, however, in the 1980s this seemed to be shifting, when the family grouped itself with other small-scalebales (also most likely of slave descent) who were trying to become officially recognised as “traditional rulers” and hence as graded chiefs. This must have involved some revision of their “history.” For claims to “traditional” rulership, see Ann O’Hear,Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors(Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997), chapter 8. 


[8]Even the Ajia Atikekere says he still owns land in Shao. It would appear that of all the slave titleholders discussed here, only the Sarkin Baraje does not hold at least some of the land his ancestor was given. Perhaps the land was recalled when the then sarkin was disgraced in 1927.

2.4b(ii) “Yoruba/Caliphate Society: Proverbs and Praise Poems.” Conference on Tales of Slavery: Narratives of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Enslavement in Africa, University of Toronto, 2009.


Copyright© Ann O’Hear, July 2020



Paper presented at Conference on Tales of Slavery: Narratives of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Enslavement in Africa, University of Toronto, 2009. Slightly revised version.


Yoruba/Caliphate Society: Proverbs and Praise Poems

Ann O’Hear


Should a bush pig act like a domestic pig, it will spoil a town; if a slave is made king, he will decimate the town. 


The Oba’s [king’s] slave is never so addressed. 


When a slave stays longer in the village he could become a chief. 


When a slave stays longer in the house he abuses the compound. 


This paper takes a brief look at two oral genres, namely, proverbs and praise poems. It also makes mention of similar or related genres, including slogans, other sayings, names, nicknames, and epithets. It aims to provide a few examples of where and how these types of information may be found, and of some of the ways in which they may be of use in providing African voices (though not necessarily direct slave voices) on slavery. Thus, the paper illustrates the use of interviews, local histories, and other sources, including local newspapers, and shows how proverbs, praise poems, and related genres can give us some ideas or insights about, for example, the attitudes of society in general to slavery and slaves, the status of slaves in comparison to freeborn citizens and pawns, the forms of resistance that slaves engaged in, the status and lives of the select group of elite slaves, the continued servitude of former slaves, and attitudes to slavery today. In conclusion, the paper discusses what types of information we might reasonably expect to glean (or not) from these types of sources and makes some suggestions for the future. 


The City of Ilorin 


The paper focuses on one location, the city of Ilorin, situated in northern Yorubaland and formerly the center of the southwestern most emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate. The location is important, as Ilorin is extremely secretive about slavery, and information of any sort, but most especially information providing the slave voice, is very hard to come by.[1]Thus the researcher is compelled to search for information in a wide variety of sometimes hidden places. 

            Ilorin began to grow in population in the early nineteenth century, first under Afonja and then under Fulani rule. The first Fulani leader in the city is commonly known as Mallam Alimi, and two of his sons, and their descendants, became emirs in rotatory succession. Although the city was ruled by Fulani emirs, it was populated by a variety of groups, including Hausa and especially Yoruba; the last-mentioned have always provided the overwhelming majority of the city’s people.[2]Slave raiding, slave trading, and the use of slaves were all prominent features of nineteenth-century Ilorin.[3]Slaves were extensively used in agriculture. In the early colonial period, many of the city’s aristocrats and others settled large numbers of their former slaves and other poor clients permanently in the agricultural hinterland, where they continued to live in conditions of servitude. At the other end of the slave spectrum, elite slaves (that is, influential slaves of the emirs and aristocrats) featured prominently in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history of the city, and various families descended from these slaves still live there today. 


Proverbs and Other Sayings 


The birth of a slave is no different from that of a freeborn. 


Nobody cares when a slave dies, but there is much wailing when a freeborn son or daughter dies. 


These two proverbs, known both in Ilorin and elsewhere in Yorubaland, reveal some ambivalence in the attitudes of free society toward slaves,[4]and suggest that the norms, both Yoruba and Islamic, that were intended to guide the treatment of slaves were not always followed in practice.[5]There was little ambivalence, however, with regard to the status of slaves in comparison with free persons, even iwofa(pawns). The inarguable difference in status between slave and free is used to drive home the lessons that proverbs wish to teach: 


It is a slave who calls himself a slave, while an iwofacalls himself an iwofa; it is the son of the owner of the land who calls himself king. 

[Interpretation:] It is a person’s behaviour that shows who he is.[6] 


If we are sent on an errand like a slave, we should deliver the message like a freeborn. 

[Interpretation:] In the execution of a difficult and perhaps degrading assignment, we should use intelligence to make the task as easy as possible.[7] 


The proverb “When a slave stays longer in the village he could become a chief” is interpreted as “Whoever tries to endure his suffering, he will one day overcome it.”[8]It is concerned, not with the remote possibility of a slave’s actually changing his status, but with the shock value of juxtaposing the status “slave” with that of “chief.” And while “the Oba’s slave is never so addressed,” because such a slave’s influence or military prowess in the service of the king may inspire fear in others, who prudently refrain from mentioning his status, his status is still that of a slave.[9] 

            The proverb “Should a bush pig act like a domestic pig, it will spoil a town; if a slave is made king, he will decimate the town” is interpreted as meaning “An opportunity given to a worthless person to be treated or behave with decency will be misused”[10]and suggests that a slave might not only be despised but also feared, as violent resistance to his treatment was always possible. In contrast, “When a slave stays longer in the house he abuses the compound” suggests a possibility of resistance that was open only to an acculturated, probably relatively well-treated slave. The Ilorin informant who provided this proverb explains that when a slave lives for a long time in his owner’s house, he learns the history of the compound, so that in the case of a quarrel, he can abuse the members of the family by “telling the history of their great grandfather,” that is, by telling stories designed to embarrass them by dragging the skeletons out of the family closet.[11]It’s worth noting that while these proverbs dealing with resistance reflect the attitudes and fears of free society, and not directly the voices of slaves, they do at least provide evidence of slave agency. 

            While the proverb on the resistance of an acculturated slave may be of specifically Ilorin origin, the majority of the others quoted above were found originally in other sources (labeled as generically Yoruba) and then presented to Ilorin informants who identified them as known in Ilorin and provided interpretations of them. It seems, therefore, that they reflect a broader pattern of attitudes to slaves found throughout Yorubaland, and even further afield. Hausa proverbs, for example, collected at the beginning of the twentieth century, reflect much the same attitudes: “A slave and a free man cannot be cooked together”; “A slave is a slave no matter how wealthy he is.”[12] 

            Other types of sayings may also be useful in reflecting attitudes toward slaves or their descendants. Two examples will be given here. First, in the 1950s, the descendants of slaves and poor clients who had been settled in the agricultural districts around Ilorinfinally broke out into open resistance by joining the Ilorin Talaka Parapo, or commoners’ party, against the Northern Peoples Congress, the party of the emirs and aristocrats. As reported in the Daily Servicenewspaper, they met with fierce opposition from the supporters of the emir: 


tragedy struck Arnigari village in Molete District . . . as a gang of armed men from Paku village and Molete invaded the farms of members of the Ilorin Talaka Parapo Action Group Alliance and destroyed their yams and other farm products. 

            The invaders who travelled to the village at noon are believed to be members of the Northern Peoples Congress. 

            Most of the villagers who arrived . . . to protest to the NA Police alleged that the invaders beat drums and sang war songs on arrival at the village. 

            “We were startled and became helpless,” the villagers said. 

            They alleged that as the invaders continued to uproot their yams, they were heard saying [this quotation is first given in Yoruba, then in English]: We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies.[my emphasis][13] 


The slogan chanted by the invaders illustrates graphically, and with heavy irony, the attitudes of the ruling class to resistance among the descendants of their slaves, and a firm determination to keep them under control. 

            The second example comes from the 1980s. In the city itself, public mention of slave origin has long been frowned upon. A mantra, “These days there are no more slaves,” was repeated over and over again by an informant in the late 1980s during the course of an interview attempting to elicit proverbs about slaves, probably because there were other people within hearing distance. The saying confirms a public sensitivity with regard to slavery that contrasts with the fact that it is perfectly well known, in private, who and where in the city the slave descendants are. This sensitivity is reflected particularly clearly in the denials of former slave status by the families of former elite slaves.[14] 


Praise Poems, Names, Nicknames, and Epithets 


The term oriki is used both for the “cognomen or attributive” name given to a child and for the praise poems composed to celebrate the lives of prominent persons, towns, and so forth.[15]Here it refers to praise poems. Many Ilorinfamilies perform oriki, even some of those families whose origin is not Yoruba. For example, according to Abdurahman Alabi, in his local history, Adifa Community in Ilorin, women in the family of Daniyalu, which is of royal (Fulani) descent but has not provided candidates for the emirship, perform on important occasions a Fulani dance accompanied by a Yoruba praise song, including the following words: “E ka lo Adifa ni le Daniyalu t’eru ndi omo-oba.” Alabi translates as follows: come to Adifa, Daniyalu’s compound, where the slave becomes a prince. This is in reference, Alabi notes, to the “non-discriminatory” or egalitarian treatment given to both princes and slaves by Daniyalu.[16]The words of this song suggest that further investigation in the Daniyalu family might prove fruitful. Why is the egalitarian treatment of slaves singled out for praise? Is it in any way connected with the fact that the original Daniyalu, unlike two of his brothers, was never able to become an emir rather than a prince? Does it suggest that the Daniyalu family, having been excluded from the succession, was claiming the high moral ground on slavery? Or could it be that some of the slaves of the Daniyalu family became elite slaves, maybe prominent in war? 

            Praise poems or songs are particularly interesting as sources of information about elite slaves in Ilorin. For example, an oral interview provided me with the first detailed information on a certain Dada, a major military slave of the Balogun Ajikobi (one of the four main military and territorial chiefs).[17]Especially notable is the fact that Dada was not a slave of the emir but a slave of an aristocrat, and therefore a member of a group that has so far been largely neglected in the literature in general, in comparison with the slaves of emirs. Dada had his own praise poem, parts of which, at least, are still remembered today and performed in front of his descendants: 


Interviewer: I have heard that there was a slave in Ilorincalled Dada . . . , who became a great warrior. Is this true? 

Informant: Yes. 

Interviewer:Where did he live?  

Informant: Ile Omodada in Itamerin area of Ilorin. 

Interviewer: Did he serve under one of the major chiefs? 

Informant: Yes. 

Interviewer:Can you tell me anything about his career, for example, what wars did he fight in? Why is he remembered as a great warrior? 

Informant: He fought in the following wars: Orimope, Ogun Offa, Ogun Ile Baruba. He was very brave and had a lot of strength. During the wars, he had this special oriki: 

            Mo wole; too ba wole oo bale je   

            [Do not enter into the house; if you do, you will spoil the house] 

            Mo ku sile, too ba ku sile, o bale je 

            [Do not die at home; if you do, you will spoil the house] 

Drummers today still greet his descendants with the above oriki.[18] 


Unfortunately, the list of wars given by the informant is problematical. It appears to refer to Ilorin’s participation in the Yoruba wars of the later nineteenth century but also to a much earlier conflict with Borgu. This may well be an example of the Ilorin tendency to cluster or conflate events, sometimes widely separated in time, around a particular well-known individual. The oriki itself is somewhat difficult to interpret: it may well reflect a desire to emphasize the ferocity of the warrior; but it may also, possibly, hint at his outsider status. 

            The Ajia Ijesha family also remembers an oriki. The first Ajia Ijesha, a slave of the emir, was a warrior and titleholder in Ilorin whose descendants still carry the title and live in Ilorin today. Although the Ajia Ijesha is identified several times as a slave in records from the early colonial period, and there are other indications that he and his descendants carry a slave title, a present-day member of the family denies that the family is of slave ancestry. He does admit that the orikiof the Ajia Ijesha contains the words “Bawa n bako,” although he claims that they mean, not “slave of a guest/stranger” but “one who called himself slave, but was never captured in war.”[19]This modern interpretation is consistent with other, similar Ilorinfamilies’ denials of former slave status, but whatever the Ajia Ijesha family’s present-day gloss on the matter, these words from their orikihelp to confirm their slave origin. 

            The head of the Jimba family, which provided prominent slaves of the emir of Ilorin, also features in at least one oriki,  that of Ibikunle, who was Balogun of Ibadan from 1851 to 1864. This oriki appears to refer not to the original Jimba, who according to Samuel Johnson was responsible for plundering Old Oyo, but to the second head of the family, who was also a warrior: 


[Ibikunle] assaulted the Ijebu on the right wing of battle; 

The Ijebu whose king Adejowon is the Awujale 

He assaulted the Ijebu on the left wing of battle; 

The Ijebu whose king is the Awujale. 


He pleaded innocence and yet assaulted Jimba; 

Jimba, that native of Ilorinwith a nose so big 

you could hardly see his mouth![20] 


This doesn’t give us any substantive information, but the very fact that the second Jimba features in the orikihints at this warrior’s importance. 

            The Jimbas are an interesting family, and one that can’t very well claim nonslave origin, because the first Jimba is mentioned on several occasions by Samuel Johnson in his well-known and widely read History of the Yoruba and is clearly identified by Johnson as one of the emir’s head slaves. An early-twentieth-century Arabic history of Ilorin also identifies Jimba as a slave, as does the 1950s “History of Ilorin” written by the native courts registrar of the time, Mallam Sulu. It is quite possible that Mallam Sulu read Johnson’s account, but he was also the son of the incumbent emir and was himself soon to become Emir Sulu Gambari, so he would already have been well aware of the Jimba family’s status.[21]A modern representative of the Jimba family, lawyer Safi Jimba, has written his own Short History of Ilorin. In this book, he tiptoes very gently around the slavery issue. Although he makes extensive use of Johnson, he doesn’t quote the passages in which Johnson calls the first Jimba a slave. Indeed, he hardly refers to slaves at all throughout his book. The only possible hint that Safi Jimba doesn’t erase is contained in his dedication of the book to his grandfather, “Ilari Ogun.” This epithet may well be taken from an oriki, and it may suggest a comparison with the ilarislave officials of Old Oyo.[22] 

            Another epithet or name given to an elite slave may also have been taken from an oriki. This is the name “Ogunkojole,” given to a slave also called Alihu, who was a key figure, described  as “perhaps the most powerful man in the kingdom,” exercising “very great influence with” Emir Moma” and “being treated with great respect wherever he went,” despite his being “the king’s slave.” He threatened to behead the powerful Balogun Gambari Adamu. “Ogunkojole” is translated as “War does not resemble home.”[23]Again, this is hard to interpret, and may intend little more than to highlight the individual’s role as a warrior; but it may also hint at an origin outside Ilorin, to which the individual may have been brought as a slave. Unfortunately for Alihu, his power and influence did not last, and he and his master were forced to commit suicide together in 1895 by blowing themselves up in the palace powder magazine.[24] 

            The name “Na Samu” is identified by Jan Hogendorn as  a “joke” name for a slave, meaning “I got [him].”[25]In the mid-nineteenth century, an elite slave of the same name (variously given as Nasama, Nasamu, Nasamo), assistant to the slave official known as the Sarkin Dongari, was identified as the Ilorin executioner. Another Nasamu was an elite slave of the Basambo, an Ilorin titleholder.[26]All this makes it very likely that yet another Nasamu, a major Ilorinwarrior singled out for attention by Samuel Johnson, was also a slave. While the Ilorinarmy was besieging Offa, 


The Ilorinhorsemen were in the habit of kidnapping the caravans between Ofa and Erin bringing in provisions. On this occasion Enimowu [“leader of the expedition” and son-in-law of Basorun Ogunmola] attacked the kidnappers, and in a short time put them to flight, and pursued them rather too far. One notable Ilorinhorseman, Nasamu by name, but surnamed “Gata-ikoko” (i.e., a devouring wolf, from his great fondness for meat) in the chase easily out-distanced his pursuers, and with a few choice horsemen he made a wide detour and re-appeared at the rear of their pursuers! . . . The pursued had now become the pursuers. Great was the havoc wrought by the Ilorins with their spears on the panic-stricken pursuers now taken in the rear.[27] 


After the end of the siege of Offa, while the Ilorinarmy was harassing the Ibadanarmy at Ikirun, 


A small town behind Ilobu . . . was surprised and taken by the Ilorins. When the news reached Akintola at Ilobu he quickly marched out, gave chase, and intercepted them as they were returning with captives and booty. It was on this occasion that a single combat was fought between the champion lancers of the two armies which recalled similar warfare of ancient times. The two famous horsemen of both armies here met for the first time. Nasamu, nick-named “Gata-Ikoko” of whom we have heard . . .  the most famous of the Ilorinhorsemen on his famous war steed named from its colour “Arasi,” here met with Latunji. . . . Both of them had heard of each other’s fame and exploits on various battlefields, and had been longing to meet each other in a trial of valour. They now accosted each other, “Is that you?” “Is that you?” and then the single combat began 

according to their accepted rules, with spear on either side, and the hosts on both sides stood holding their breath, and watching these two chiefs of strength. The combat lasted for some time, which shows they were equally matched; but by a skilful turn Nasamu with his spear knocked Latunji’s spear off his hand, and then went about to throw him off his horse and spear him on the ground, when Latunji hastily whipped out his revolver from his side and wounded Nasamu in the right hand, causing his spear to fall off his hand. With the left Nasamu gathered up his reins, put spurs to his horse and escaped: the Ilorins with one accord gave way and were hotly pursued and badly beaten, all their captives and booty being recovered.[28] 


Given the prominent slaves who bore the name Nasamu, it seems that some “joke” slave names remained in place to remind even elite slaves that they were still slaves. In some places, Hunwick notes, slaves were given Arabic names which were often “redolent of happiness, good fortune and favour from God.”[29]It seems that some similar process was at work in Ilorin, where the children of slaves might be called Nagode (“I give thanks”) or Alheri (translated as mo ri ore, “I have seen good”).[30]However, the good fortune was that of the owner, and the children of slaves, however acculturated, were still to be reminded of their origins. 

            One final, rather quirky, example of the importance of names and their connection with slave status in Ilorin, as elsewhere, comes again from Samuel Johnson. After Governor Carter of Lagoshad arranged a settlement of the Ilorin/Ibadan war in 1893, and Ilorinhad broken this agreement, a British officer was sent to the city: 


Captain Bower had to go to Ilorinto remonstrate with the Emir. . . . The Ilorinchiefs took great exception to the manner Captain Bower was addressing their King. . . . They called Captain Bower “Bawa” . . .; that in Hausa is the name of a slave. All their great men have each one a Bawa—their principal slave—and hence Captain Bower was taken for Sir Gilbert Carter’s slave!. For a slave to be talking after that manner to, and threatening their King, was intolerable! . . . he was said to have been literally hustled out of Ilorin.[31] 


It is notable that “an Ilorininformant mentions Bower by nameas having been humiliated in the city.”[32]Possibly the Ilorinchiefs literally thought that Bower was a slave, but more likely they were playing on words in order to humiliate him. Whatever is the case, the lowly status of a slave, even an apparently elite slave, was emphasized. 




This has been a very brief look at proverbs, oriki,and similar oral genres, which are difficult but potentially useful sources and deserve to be more widely consulted in the study of slavery. In conclusion, a few points about their usefulness may be made, and questions asked about the future: 


  • Proverbs and slogans may be most useful in slavery studies in revealing attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and fears, providing information on status differences, and suggesting the differences between treatment and norms. Glosses on proverbs may, however, provide surprisingly specific information, as in the Ilorininformant’s explanation of the way in which the slave who “stays long in the house [may abuse] the compound.”  

  • From my very small sample, the fact that numerous proverbs seem to be known in various areas of Yorubaland, and that some similar proverbs exist in Hausaland seems to suggest that they may reflect a regionwide set of attitudes to slavery rather than attitudes specific to any particular place or area. But how far is this true? And for what period? Does the fact that proverbs are common to various areas today merely reflect a more recent spread of oral material since the disappearance of slavery, due to improved transportation and increased migration? Do proverbs collected in areas that were slave reservoirs differ from those found in areas of significant slave ownership? 

  • Slave names, like proverbs, may provide information on status; they may also be used to identify individuals in the historical record as slaves. Orikiand epithets that may have been taken from them are also suggestive about status, though they may be difficult to interpret. 

  • My own investigations have shown orikiand epithets to be useful in the study of elite slaves in Ilorin. Further study of orikimay well reveal more about elite slaves and their exploits, in Ilorinand elsewhere. Or is Ilorinthe only Yoruba city where orikiof elite slaves are found? And if so, what does that tell us about both Ilorinand other Yoruba cities? What similar praise poems and epithets exist outside Yorubaland that may be milked for the study of slavery? 

  • A study of orikioutside Ilorinmay reveal information about individuals who were enslaved in Ilorin, say, and became prominent on returning to their home areas (such as Offa and Igbomina) or elsewhere. Esu or Esubiyi, for example, was captured by Ilorinforces and held as a slave in Ilorin, until he was ransomed and left the city. Eventually he created a kingdom at Ayede, and received a “praise title”:[33]perhaps the orikiof individuals like Esu may provide details of their enslavement, whether in Ilorinor elsewhere. 

  • While oral interviews are one of the most important sources of examples of the genres explored here, local histories should also be consulted as often as possible. Local histories have a number of problems, including their indebtedness to various other sources, which they may rarely cite, and the various axes they have to grind, but on occasion they provide an epithet or quotation from an oriki, which may provide new information and serve as a starting point for further investigation. 



[1] On secrecy about slavery in the Ilorin area, see, for example, Ann O’Hear, “African Sources for the Study of Slavery and Its Aftermath in Ilorin, Nigeria,” paper presented at the African Studies Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 2007; Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors(Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 187, citing letter from anonymous research assistant, 10 June 1994; “Elite Slaves in Ilorin in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,”International Journal of African Historical Studies30, no. 2 (2006), including 269, n. 102. Otolorin Adesiyun records that two of his 1975 informants refused to say much or anything about slavery because of the sensitivity on this issue inIlorin(interviews conducted in 1975, organized by Paul E. Lovejoy, deposited in the Lovejoy Collection,AhmaduBelloUniversity,Zaria). See also below, especially on elite slaves. 

[2] C. S. Whitaker estimated that the Yoruba have always made up at least 90 percent of the Ilorin population.The Politics of Tradition: Continuity and Change in Northern Nigeria, 1946 –1966 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970), 123. On the Yoruba predominance inIlorin, see also H. B. Hermon-Hodge,Gazetteer of Ilorin Province(London: George Allen & Unwin, 1929), 272. 

[3] On slave raiding, slave trading, and slavery inIlorinin the nineteenth century, see O’Hear,Power Relations. 

[4]Translations provided by E. B. Bolaji after he was given the proverb in Yoruba and discussed it with anIlorininformant. In 1988, I provided a number of proverbs (including the two quoted here), in Yoruba, to my research associate, Dr. E. B. Bolaji, and to another research assistant, Suleiman Ajao. I asked them to find out from informants whether the specified proverbs were known inIlorin. For the source of these proverbs, see, for example, the entry foreruin R. C. Abraham,Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962). E. B. Bolaji and Suleiman Ajao also collected other proverbs fromIlorininformants. (Dr. Bolaji, a scholar of Yoruba oral literature, died tragically young; I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.) 

           With regard to the ambivalent attitude of free society toward slaves, a proverb quoted by A. B. Ellis reveals a similar attitude: “A slave is not the child of a tree (i.e., made of wood). When a slave dies his mother hears nothing of it, but when a free man dies there is mourning; yet the slave, too, was once a child in his mother’s house.”The Yoruba-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast ofWest Africa(London: Chapman and Hall, 1894), 228. 

[5]On norms and practice, see, for example, Paul E. Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Context of Ideology,” inThe Ideology of Slavery in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy, 11–38 (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1981) and “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” in Ideology of Slavery, 201–43); and O’Hear, Power Relations, 31–35, 39–44. 

[6] Proverb and interpretation collected by E. B. Bolaji, 1989–90. 

[7] Translation and interpretation provided by E. B. Bolaji after he was given the proverb in Yoruba and discussed it with anIlorininformant, 1988. 

[8] Proverb and interpretation collected by Suleiman Ajao from a senior male informant, Okelele,Ilorin, 3 December 1988. 

[9]Translation provided by E. B. Bolaji after he was given the proverb in Yoruba and discussed it with anIlorininformant, 1988. 

[10]Translation and interpretation provided by E. B. Bolaji after he was given the proverb in Yoruba and discussed it with anIlorininformant, 1988.. 

[11] Proverb and interpretation collected by Suleiman Ajao from a senior male informant, Okelele,Ilorin, 3 December 1988. For proverbs on resistance, see also Hausa proverbs cited by Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” 227–28, 

[12] Quoted by Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” 237. For other Yoruba proverbs with similar themes, see note 4, proverb quoted by Ellis; also “One would not remove the thorn which pricks the foot of one’s son from the foot of one’s slave,” quoted in P. O. Ogunbowale,The Essentials of the Yoruba Language (London: University of London Press, 1970). 

[13] Daily Service (Lagos), 1 June 1959. 

[14] Interview with an elderly female informant, Okelele,Ilorin, 7 September 1988. On secrecy with regard to slavery inIlorin, see, for example, note 1 above. For particular sensitivity with regard to families of former elite slaves, see O’Hear, “Elite Slaves.” I found a list ofIlorintitles in anIlorinprovincial file in the Nigerian National Archives, whose cover page indicated that it included slave titles. Unfortunately, however, the material on slave titles had been removed before the file was sent toKadunain the 1960s (269, n. 102). 

           The reasons for sensitivity and secrecy may include a general desire on the part of theIlorinauthorities to cover up their slave-holding past and their continuing efforts to retain control over rural dwellers, and also perhaps a desire to protect the families of their former elite slaves. The ex-elite slave families’ denial of slave status today reflects a disastrous (for them) series of events in 1936, which led to their loss of power and influence asbaba kekeres, or intermediaries with the emir. “While slave status provided an avenue to power . . . there was no disgrace in acknowledging it. Once power was lost, to be called a slave became degrading” (“Elite Slaves,” 273; see also 265–66). I thank Stefan Reichmuth for this suggestion. 

[15] Rev. Samuel Johnson, The History of the Yorubas (1921; reprint, Lagos: C.S.S. Bookshops, 1976), 85; Ogunbowale, Essentials of the Yoruba Language, 149–50; Chief J. A. Ayorinde, “Oriki,” in Sources of Yoruba History, ed. S. O. Biobaku, 63-76 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 62. 

[16] Abdurahman Kola Alabi, Adifa Community in Ilorin: Historical Notes (self-published, c. 1990). 

[17] Interview by E. B. Bolaji and Alhaji Tunde Elesin, with an informant in Ile Agbogi,Ilorin, 2 November 1988 (one of a series of interviews organized and translated on my behalf by Dr. E. B. Bolaji and conducted by E. B. Bolaji, S. T. Salami, and B. Elesin,Ilorin, 1988. See Ann O’Hear with E. B. Bolaji, “Slavery inIlorin,Nigeria,” annotated interview). I first saw the name Dada in an interview conducted by O. Adesiyun with Alfa Sheu, Alowa (Alawaye) Compound, 12 July 1975, Lovejoy Collection, translation of tape 6 by Busayo Simeon and transcript of tape 6. Much more recently, I have found a further brief mention of this slave in a local history: Sheikh Ahmad Tijani Adisa-Onikoko,A History of Ilorin Emirate(Ilorin: Sat Adis Press Service Enterprises, n.d. [1992 or 1993]), 67. 

[18] Interview by E. B. Bolaji and Alhaji Tunde Elesin, with an informant in Ile Agbogi,Ilorin, 2 November 1988. 

[19] See O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 270–71, citing Nigerian National Archives, Kaduna (NNAK), Ilorinprof 4/1 829A/1917, Ilorin Emirate Reorganisation of Districts; and interview by E. B. Bolaji and/or Mallam A. B. Adua with a member of the Ajia Ijesha family, Ilorin, 7 November 1989 (one of a series of interviews organized and translated on my behalf by Dr. E. B. Bolaji and conducted in by E. B. Bolaji and/or Mallam A. B. Adua, 1989 –90). 

[20] Quoted in Toyin Falola and G. O. Oguntomisin, Yoruba Warlords of the Nineteenth Century (Trenton,NJ: AfricaWorld Press, 2001). For the first Jimba as despoiler of Old Oyo, see Johnson, History, 217–18, 259. 

[21] O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 271, citing the following: Johnson,History, 217–18 and 259; Abu Ikokoro,Ta’lif akhbar al-qurun min umara’ bilad Ilurin,dated 24 March 1912,photocopy of an annotated and corrected copy of an English translation (presumably by B. G. Martin), provided to me by Ade Obayemi; and Rhodes House, Oxford (RH), Mss. Afr. s. 1210, C. W. Michie, Political Situation in Northern Provinces and History of Ilorin, History of Ilorin, “compiled by M. Sulu, Ilorin Native Courts Registrar, chiefly from accounts given to him by old people in Ilorin Town in 1953.” 

[22] O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” citing the following: Alhaji Safi Jimba,A Short History of Ilorin(Ilorin: Jimba Book Productions Company, 1981), iii; and Robin Law,The Oyo Empire c. 1600–1836: A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), onilariin Old Oyo. 

[23]O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 258–59, citing Public Record Office (PRO) CO 147/104, G. T. Carter to Chamberlain, Odo Otin, 9 January 1896; Gilbert T. Carter,Despatch from Sir Gilbert T. Carter, Furnishing a General Report of the Lagos Interior Expedition, 1893), 26; G. B. Haddon-Smith, Interior Mission to Yorubaland 1893: Extracts from the Diary of G. B. Haddon-Smith, Political Officer, no. 5, 28 February 1893, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, London; and Rev. S. S. Farrow, “A Visit to Ilorin,” part 1,Niger and Yoruba Notes1 (1894), 29. 

[24]O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 259, citing PRO CO 147/104, G. T. Carter to Chamberlain, Odo Otin, 9 January 1896; H. B. Hermon-Hodge,Gazetteer of Ilorin Province(London: George Allen & Unwin, 1929), 73; andLagos Weekly Record, 28 September 1895. 

[25] Jan Hogendorn, “The Economics of Slave Use on Two Plantations of the Zaria Emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate,” International Journal of African Historical Studies10 (1977), 374, cited in O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 253, n. 26. 

[26] O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 253, n. 26, and 255, including n. 34. 

[27] Johnson,History, 564. 

[28] Ibid., 603–4. 

[29] J. O. Hunwick, “Black Slaves in the Mediterranean World: Introduction to a Neglected Aspect of the African Diaspora,” Slavery and Abolition13 (1992): 13. 

[30]Bolaji/Elesin interview with informant in Ile Agbogi,Ilorin, 2 November 1988; interview by Shehu T. Salami with Alhaji Mustapha Magaji Adeyi, head of Adeyi’s Compound, Okelele,Ilorin, 20 October 1988. 

[31] Johnson, History, 648–49, quoted in O’Hear, Power Relations, 43–44 

[32] O’Hear, Power Relations, 44, and n. 219, citing an interview conducted by O. Adesiyun with Mustapha Mesuna, Adana Compound, Ilorin, 10 July 1975, Lovejoy Collection, translation of tape 2 by Busayo Simeon. 

[33] Olatunji Ojo, “Ethnic Identity and Nineteenth-Century Yoruba Warfare,” Harriet Tubman Seminar paper, December 2003, 18. 

2.4b(iii) “African Sources for the Study of Slavery and Its Aftermath in Ilorin, Nigeria.” African Studies Association Annual Meeting (USA), 2007. 


Copyright© Ann O’Hear, July 2020 


Paper presented at African Studies Association Annual Meeting (USA), 2007 


African Sources for the Study of Slavery and Its Aftermath in Ilorin,Nigeria 

Ann O’Hear 


Ilorin, as you know, is a city in northern Yorubaland, and it was formerly the southwesternmost emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate. Slavery was clearly an important institution in the city and its environs, and the descendants of slaves, together with other people of dependent status, still inhabit much of what the colonial officers called the “Metropolitan Districts” around the city. In addition, descendants of elite slaves (that is, major slaves of the emirs and aristocrats) still live in and around the city. I propose to examine sources for the nineteenth century but also sources for the period after the official emancipation of the slaves, when freed slaves and their descendants still lived (and to an extent they still do) in conditions of servitude. In contrast to the rest of the slaves, for much of the first four decades of the twentieth century, various elite slaves and their descendants continued to exercise considerable influence in the city. 

            I have been looking at slavery and its aftermath in the Ilorinarea, on and off, for twenty-five years or more. In that time, I have used a wide variety of sources. There’s no hard and fast line between “European” and “African” sources--colonial records, for example, and European and American travelers’ accounts contain a lot of interview material and collected histories--but in this paper I will try to focus on three types of what may be called local sources: 


  • oral testimonies, including interviews conducted by my representatives or myself or for other researchers; this type of sources also includes records of oral testimonies contained in student dissertations; 

  • written local histories and similar sources, such as autobiographies, both published and unpublished; and 

  • Nigerian newspaper reports, especially those including eyewitness accounts of events, statements from participants, and details of local election results. 


In general terms, I will be looking at the difficulties involved in obtaining information, the advantages and problems associated with the sources, the kinds of material that can usefully be found in them, and what this information is useful for. With regard to the difficulties involved in obtaining information, I should point out that anyone studying slavery in the Ilorinarea is working in the context of a city and environs in which the subject is still one of extreme sensitivity up to the present day. The sources help to reveal this sensitivity, by their silences as much as their statements. For me, one of the most interesting questions of all, and one that still awaits a complete answer, is: Why are some centers, like Ilorin, so secretive about slavery, while in others it seems to be much more freely discussed?--with regard to elite slaves, for example, I see a distinct contrast between Sean Stilwell’s informants in Kano and mine in Ilorin. 

            I’d like, first, to provide a very brief sketch of some background information on the city and its slaves. Ilorinbegan to grow in population in the early nineteenth century, first under Afonja, and then under Fulani rule. Although its rulers were Fulani, however, the city was populated by a variety of groups, including Hausa and especially Yoruba, who have always provided the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants.[1]Of the city’s four baloguns, or major warlords, two represent the Yoruba population, one the Hausa, and one the Fulani. Slave raiding, slave trading, and the use of slaves were all prominent features of nineteenth-century Ilorin. Slaves were always extensively used in agriculture, but in the early colonial period, many of the city’s aristocrats and others settled large numbers of their slaves and poor clients permanently in the agricultural hinterland. For most of the colonial period, the descendants of the slaves and other dependent farmers were tightly controlled by the urban elite, who controlled access to land, provided district heads and other Native Authority personnel, and acted as intermediaries, who in Ilorinwent by the name of baba kekere.The dependent farmers were forced to pay tribute in produce and labor, bribes, high taxes, and market and other fees. They provided wives for city men. They failed to share in migration to wealthier areas, no doubt due to their isolation and ignorance of opportunities, but also, I believe, due to the close control over them. They failed to share in even the very limited educational opportunities that were offered. For several decades, their opportunities to resist their dependent status were limited to covert, “diffident” (to use Michael Watts’ term)[2]acts of resistance. But the period of rapid political change in the 1950s provided an opportunity for them to fight against their dependent status, through a commoners’ party, the Ilorin Talaka Parapo, which allied with the Action Group to fight against the NPC, the party of the aristocratic elite. The elite managed to regain its control, however, and ironically, by the time of national independence, the farmers had been returned fully to their state of dependence. In May 1959, as an Action Group newspaper reported, a gang of armed men invaded the farms of members of the ITP/AG Alliance, saying “We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies.”[3]In later years, some new opportunities presented themselves, through local government reforms, the Land Use Decree, and the political campaigns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nevertheless, even as recently as 1991, a research assistant of mine, in conversation with the remaining inhabitants of a relatively remote hamlet, discovered that their conditions of dependency had hardly changed.[4] 

            The difficulties in obtaining information on a sensitive subject like slavery are particularly associated with oral sources--though they are also illustrated by colonial and other sources, such as a list of titles that I found in the national archives in Kaduna, only to discover that the portion of the list that dealt with slave titles, as promised on the title page, had simply been removed[5]--no doubt the local files had been very carefully examined (and culled) before they were transferred to Kaduna. 

            The problem of getting information from interviews was compounded for me by the fact that I was, personally, rather highly visible. Let me give you an example. On one occasion, I was able to go out into the districts with the help of an Ilorinchief (much of the time I was trying to keep under the radar of the chiefs, for obvious reasons, but this particular chief was a highly unusual individual, and also occupied a somewhat unusual structural position). I had been looking for information on agriculture in the districts--in the end, I was able to confirm the hypothesis that the poor dependent farmers would have been the last people to be considered in the provision of extension services, etc.--and I had amassed a lot of material from the colonial records. The only problem was that it was all from the point of view of the colonialists; I had nothing from the farmers themselves. So I explained to my friend that I was looking for information on extension services and agricultural “development” in general, and he introduced me to the baleof a village in which his family had formerly owned land, and off we went to interview the villagers. The next day I went back to my friend’s compound, to thank him, and I found him roaring with laughter. Not half an hour after I had departed with the bale,he had been visited by the emir’s messengers, with a message from the emir, demanding to know why he had sent a white woman into the emir’s districts. 

            So for much of the time, both because I was so conspicuous and because I needed the assistance of fluent Yoruba speakers, I relied on research associates and assistants. I was very fortunate in these. One of my major associates was a colleague at the college where I taught, and a very good friend. He was a native of Ilorin, and a member of a family with some traditional prestige. He had been sent away to school and had converted to Christianity, later even founding his own church, but he kept in close touch with his family. Also, he did his PhD research on part of the corpus of  Yoruba oral literature. So he was familiar with the city but to an extent distanced from it, and he also had a great deal of experience with oral interviews, and with translating responses into English. I provided him with detailed lists of very specific questions, asking for concrete bits of information, not generalizations, we discussed them, and he translated them into Yoruba. I left it to him to find suitable informants and to decide on how to approach them, to find assistants to help him in conducting interviews, and to transcribe the responses and translate them into English. He organized a major series of interviews for me on slavery in general, another on elite slaves specifically, and also a series on pawnage. He was particularly helpful in his glosses on the information--discussing the terminology that his informants had used, and describing the circumstances of the interviews and any specifics of the interviewees that might have influenced their testimony.  I should perhaps point out that given the sensitivity of the subject, he asked all the potential informants whether they would allow the information they gave to be published, and if they would, whether or not they wanted their names to be used. 

            This sensitivity is graphically illustrated by the experience of another assistant of mine, whom I mentioned above. I had known him as a student and he had also worked for another researcher. For a while he taught at a secondary school in a difficult-of-access part of the districts--not far from the city, but very badly served by roads. I asked him to go and talk to people in a number of small nearby hamlets that were pretty clearly of slave origin, but warned him to be extremely careful in his approach. He took a local student with him, and he did manage to come up with some very useful information from one small hamlet. Its inhabitants were still paying tribute and still regarded the Ilorinlandowners as their masters. The landowners in the area had highlighted their status by putting up signs saying “This village belongs to X,” “This village belongs to Y.” However, the inhabitants of the hamlet in question were largely elderly, and many younger people were said to have gone off to Lagos to work, indicating that although the city elite continued to assert its dominance, the migrants at least had gained a measure of independence. Even those villagers who did agree to talk to the researcher were reluctant and nervous, however, and in the end he was threatened by inhabitants of other hamlets and run out of the area.[6]The incident did provide very clear evidence of the state of dependency today, at least in such small isolated pockets, and equally clear evidence of the continued touchiness of the subject. I’ve never asked anyone to do any similar research since then.  

            My own interviewing was done largely in connection with the major industries of Ilorin, including weaving, pottery making, and lantanabead making, and I found that in these interviews, I was sometimes able to ask questions on slavery incidentally, as it were, to my research on the industries. A number of useful vignettes or anecdotes were the result. For example, slaves were used to dig clay to be sold to the Ilorin potters, and a weaver/warrior took his slaves to the warfront where he made them weave (no doubt this work was carried out in the periods of inactivity that characterized the lengthy siege of Offa in the later nineteenth century).[7]Wealthy beadmakers captured and bought slaves for use in their work, and gave out female slaves in marriage (or concubinage) to important customers. On the other hand, slaves might not be used in secret processes, such as the harvesting and processing of the eluleaf, which is used in blue dye production and is also used in magic.[8] 

            Oral testimony often supplements, fleshes out, complements, or confirms information found in other sources. This is clearly illustrated by testimony from elite slave families, whose members in almost all cases deny their slave origin, but with regard to their lands, activities, and functions, they are in general agreement with other sources that identify their ancestors as slaves. Even the functions they say they perform in the palace today are consistent with those performed by slave palace officials elsewhere.[9] 

            On occasion, however, oral testimony comes up with something completely new, or at least new to me. For example, it provided me with my first information on a certain Dada, a major military slave of the Balogun Ajikobi, a slave who had his own oriki, or praise-poem, which is still remembered today. This information extends our knowledge of elite slaves of major chiefs other than rulers, a group that has so far largely been neglected.[10]It’s only very recently that I have come across a brief mention of this slave elsewhere, in a published local history.[11] 

            In some cases, oral testimony raises doubts about other sources. It supports the suggestion that some accounts of slavery in the caliphate and in Yorubaland have presented an idealized, ideological rather than actual, picture of slave treatment.[12]It is evident from Ilorin informants’ responses to questions on whether agricultural slaves were allowed to work part of the day for themselves and sell the produce from their personal farms that the situation was not so simple as might seem from other accounts; not only were caliphate and Yoruba norms not necessarily followed in Ilorin, but Ilorin people didn’t always even pay lip service to these norms.[13]To further complicate matters, informants’ testimony on concubines suggests that in some cases there were competing norms at work. Ilorinpractice with regard to the status of concubines, as reported by informants, seems in some cases to have been more lenient than was laid down by Islamic law. The assertions made by some informants that a concubine who had given birth would become a free wife suggest that some Ilorinpractice was more akin to Yoruba custom, while statements by others sound closer to the legal position of the caliphate, in which the concubine remained a slave, although her status improved.[14] 

            A missionary account from the 1850s refers to an Ilorinbalogunas having had a plantation of “26,000 slaves of his own, all working in irons.” While this is obviously to be taken as a wild exaggeration, even if there were other information available, a useful corrective is offered by Ilorin informants, whose accounts suggest very strongly that small-scale holdings were common, either because most slaveholders had just a few slaves or because a wealthy master might divide his slaves among several scattered piece of land. The warrior Ojibara, said to have had “about four” plantations with “not less than ten slaves” working on each, perhaps represents the middle rank of owner. On a larger scale, Jamurogo Balogun Ajikobi is said to have had “many” plantations, with “at least twenty-five slaves working on each.”[15] 

            In this instance, informants were able to provide some reasonably precise numbers. In other cases, however, oral testimony may not be able to provide specific numbers or dates. Oral information cannot, for example, provide any specifics on the overall numbers of slaves in Ilorinin the nineteenth century. Informants do agree that slaves were numerous, but they do not agree as to whether the slaves formed a majority of the population or not.[16]A certain amount of evidence on the size of the slave exodus from Ilorinafter the arrival of the British is available from informants’ testimonies, but these provide neither quantifiable data nor any precise time frame. Informants agree that many slaves departed, and several assert that a majority of them left. The exodus was serious enough to create a well-remembered problem of labor supply and an increase in pawning of persons.[17] 

            Informants who gave testimony on pawnage also provided a further example of the difficulty of pinpointing the time to which their testimony applies. I was trying to pinpoint informants’ testimony in time in order to provide some sort of answer to the question of when pawning declined in Ilorin, but in order to do this, I had to have some rough idea of the informants’ ages. One alhajasaid she was 133 years old (in 1991), but she also claimed to have been born in the reign of the “terrible emir,” that is, Emir Moma, who reigned in the 1890s and so comprehensively lost his struggle with his balogunsthat he was forced to blow himself up in his palace with his chief slave. However, an alhajisaid he was about 60 years old, but he also claimed to have been born in the reign of Moma.[18]The memory of this emir was and is so powerful that many events have come to be clustered around, or conflated into, his reign. 

            This is a good point at which to switch to an examination of written local histories and similar sources, as I’d like to look at another couple of examples of clustering or conflation, but this time they’re to be found in the Short History of Ilorin  published in 1981 by an Ilorin lawyer called Safi Jimba, in which the author identifies the first head of the Jimba family, who was a major elite slave warrior in the early nineteenth century, as in charge of  “a vast portion of Ilorin’s great arsenal, gun powder and heavy weaponry.” However, the reference to the munitions suggests a much later period in the century and a later head of the Jimba family. Thus, Safi Jimba is apparently conflating the first Jimba with a later family head. In another conflation, the author states that the title of daoduwas conferred on the first head of the family in the early years of the emirate; yet the incumbent daoduin the 1980s told another researcher that the title was conferred on the second family head, after his victory over a balogunin a revolt that can be dated to the 1870s.[19] 

            Now, the Jimbas are an interesting family, and one that can’t very well claim non-slave origin. This is because the first Jimba is mentioned on several occasions by Samuel Johnson in his well-known and widely read History of the Yoruba, and identified clearly by him as “one of the head slaves” of the emir. Johnson credits Jimba with plundering the city of Old Oyo.[20]The Ta’lif, a short early-twentieth-century Arabic history of Ilorin, also identifies Jimba as a slave, as does the unpublished “History of Ilorin,” dating to the 1950s and written by one Mallam Sulu, Native Courts Registrar, which also identifies him as the man who conquered Old Oyo and left it “desolate.” It’s quite possible that Mallam Sulu used Johnson, but the mallam was the son of the incumbent emir (and was himself soon to become Emir Sulu Gambari), so he was already well aware of the Jimbas’ status.[21]In the ShortHistory,Safi Jimba skates very delicately around the issue. Although he makes extensive use of Johnson, he doesn’t quote the passages in which Johnson calls the first Jimba a slave. Indeed, he hardly refers to slaves at all throughout his book. He describes the Balogun Afin as a warlord and chief, like Jimba, again without mentioning that Balogun Afin was (and is) a slave title in Ilorin.[22]The only possible hint that Safi Jimba doesn’t manage to erase is contained in his dedication of the book to his grandfather, “Ilari Ogun.” I wonder if the word ilarihere has a slave connotation, as in the slave officials of that name in Old Oyo?[23] 

            One problem with regard to local histories and similar sources is interference from previously published or circulated works, which may or may not be acknowledged by later authors. Mallam Sulu may have used Johnson to flesh out his account. A later author, Adisa-Onikoko, in turn, uses Mallam Sulu’s history, as well as the Gazetteer of Ilorin Provincethat an Ilorin Resident, H. B. Hermon-Hodge, had published in 1929 (this is a favorite source for later chroniclers), and a variety of other sources, written and oral. Sometimes he provides specific acknowledgments in the text, sometimes not.[24]The problems here are, first, that a version given in a respected written source may be accepted in preference to other versions, which may then gradually be forgotten. And second, where the source of an item remains unspecified, it’s impossible to judge the biases that feed into it. One strength of Adisa-Onikoko’s book, however, is his detailed section on the ITP/Action Group resistance of the 1950s; in this case he is speaking from close first-hand acquaintance with the period: as a free-lance journalist, he reported for four of the major journalists based in Ilorinat the time.[25] 

            All the authors of local histories have their own particular axes to grind, and this, together with the general reticence on the subject of slavery, means there’s often not much attention given to the subject. Occasionally, however, you get a surprise. For example, from the Political Reminiscencespublished in 1993 by J. S. Olawoyin, a well-known politician from the town of Offa, who was an Action Group leader and closely involved in the struggles of the 1950s and later, I found that the author’s father and associates of his father had been captured in the Offa/Ilorin war of the late nineteenth century by Ilorin soldiers and sold to Abeokuta and Lagos, where they were converted to Christianity and trained as carpenters. The author’s father “became a Christian through the influence of his master, . . . a . . . leader of the Anglican Mission at Abeokuta,” and he and his associates later founded the CMS church in Offa. Female relatives of the author were captured and sold to Ikirun.[26]Aside from providing insight into the genesis of J. S. Olawoyin’s attitude toward Ilorin, this also provides an almost unique example of the individual experiences of those enslaved by Ilorin. This is the kind of discovery that makes it worth sifting through all the local accounts that can be found. 

            A further type of local source, as mentioned above, is provided by newspapers. In the case of Ilorin, these are most useful on the continuance of dependency relationships into the middle of the twentieth century and beyond, the resistance of dependent farmers in the 1950s and the struggle of their overlords to regain control, and the resistance and accommodation of the 1970s and later. The newspaper accounts provide plenty of specific cases, details of events, interviews or statements, and local election results.      There are, of course, some problems associated with the newspaper accounts themselves. For example, in their reporting of the 1950s events, they are not always accurate (I was able to demonstrate this for one Daily Timesreport), and the numbers given for participants in demonstrations may well be exaggerated. At least one Timesreporter may be accused of bias toward the aristocratic elite, while the Nigerian Tribunewas an Action Group broadsheet and the Daily Servicealso supported the Action Group. Nevertheless, these latter two newspapers provide a great deal of detail in their reports and frequently quote statements from involved Metropolitan District individuals. Their accounts of events are often confirmed by the Daily Times.And the newspaper correspondents or at least their stringers were eyewitnesses of events.[27] 

            There are many examples, but I’ll give just one here It’s taken from the Daily Service,and written in May 1959, by which time a campaign to crush the resistance movement was in full swing. In one incident, 


tragedy struck Arnigari village in Molete District . . . as a gang of armed men from Paku village and Molete invaded the farms of members of the Ilorin Talaka Parapo Action Group Alliance and destroyed their yams and other farm products. 

            The invaders who travelled to the village at noon are believed to be members of the Northern Peoples Congress. 

            Most of the villagers who arrived . . . to protest to the NA Police alleged that the invaders beat drums and sang war songs on arrival at the village. 

            “We were startled and became helpless,” the villagers said. 

            They alleged that as the invaders continued to uproot their yams, they were heard saying [this quotation is first given in Yoruba, then in English]: We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies.[28] 



Note (1) that this quotation gives evidence of both resistant and accommodationist behavior; and (2) that, despite the effort to intimidate them, the resistant villagers were still prepared to complain openly when they were attacked.[29] 

            Newspaper reports are also important sources for the story of resistance and accommodation in the political climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They document, for example, new strategies employed by the dependent population of the districts, especially the demand for “independence” from Ilorin, which involved a movement to remove their district heads, who were nominated from elite city families, and  a campaign to have their “traditional rulers” graded--which included the publicizing of “historical” narratives claiming independent origins for their settlements.[30]After the 1983 elections, the Nigerian Herald reported, a delegation from the Asa local government area complained to the state governor that the area had no graded chiefs. The delegation included “traditional rulers,” the “Ologbondoroko” of Olobondoroko, “Alaboto” of Aboto, “Olu-Ode” of Odo Ode, “Dado” of Okeso, “Onireke” of  Reke, “Olosin” of Osin, and “Are” of Ogele. Some of these chiefs were from settlements that could make no historically valid claim to non-dependent origin. The petitioners even included the Are Ogele, descendant of “one of [the] head slaves” of Emir Shita, sent to the area by the emir “to look after the farms and other slaves.”[31] 

            Just to bring things together in conclusion. There are difficulties in obtaining local sources, and problems associated with the use of these sources. For example, like all sources, we need to be aware of their biases, and we need to be aware of the extent of interference from other sources. They may be vague or confusing with regard to chronology. They need to be used in conjunction with other sources. But they can supplement, expand, confirm, or contradict what is found in other sources, or provide information that is completely new. They can answer questions, test hypotheses (for instance, on matters of resistance and accommodation), or even suggest new questions (such as what is behind the secrecy in Ilorin). So it’s absolutely necessary, at least, to conserve them and make them available. I’ll end with a few questions: Where can we deposit collections of oral interviews, without which no one will ever be able to check our work? Is any person or any institution collecting ephemerally published histories? Is anyone scanning such works, to make them more widely available? Is it possible, at the very least, to set up internet bibliographies that would direct researchers to people and institutions that can help them find these sources?



[1] C. S. Whitaker estimated that the Yoruba have always made up at least 90 percent of theIlorinpopulation.The Politics of Tradition: Continuity and Change inNorthern Nigeria, 1946 –1966(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970), 123. On the Yoruba predominance inIlorin, see also H. B. Hermon-Hodge,Gazetteer of Ilorin Province(London: George Allen & Unwin, 1929), 272. 

[2] Michael Watts, “On Peasant Diffidence: Non-Revolt, Resistance, and Hidden Forms of Political Consciousness in Northern Nigeria, 1900–1945,” inGlobal Crises and Social Movements: Artisans, Peasants, Populists, and the World Economy,ed. Edmund Burke III (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), cited in Ann O’Hear,Power Relations in Nigeria: Ilorin Slaves and Their Successors(Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 15, and note 105. 

[3] O’Hear,Power Relations,166 and n. 165. 

[4] Ibid., 187. 

[5] Ann O’Hear, “Elite Slaves inIlorinin the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,”International Journal of African Historical Studies30, n. 2 (2006): 269, n. 102. 

[6] O’Hear,Power Relations,187; letter from anonymous research assistant, 10 June 1994. 

[7] O’Hear,Power Relations,26. 

[8] Ibid., 35–36. 

[9] O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” esp. 269. 

[10] Ibid., 255, 248. 

[11] Sheikh Ahmad Tijani Adisa-Onikoko,A History ofIlorinEmirate(Ilorin: Sat Adis Press Service Enterprises, n.d. [1992 or 1993] ), 67. 

[12] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate,” inThe Ideology of Slavery,ed. Paul E. Lovejoy(Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1981), 215, cited in O’Hear,Power Relations,32, and n. 110. 

[13] O’Hear,Power Relations,32-33. 

[14] Ibid., 41. 

[15] Ibid., 30. 

[16] Ibid., 25; Ann O’Hear, “Ilorinas a Slaving and Slave Trading Emirate, inSlavery on the Frontiers of Islam,ed. Paul E. Lovejoy(Princeton,NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2004), 60 and n. 52. 

[17] Ann O’Hear, “British Intervention and the Slaves and Peasant Farmers ofIlorin, c. 1890–c. 1906,”Paideuma40 (1994): 138. 

[18] Ann O’Hear, “Pawning in the Emirate ofIlorin,” inPawnship inAfrica: Debt Bondage in Historical Perspective,ed. Toyin Falola and Paul E. Lovejoy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), 234 and n. 158. 

[19] O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 250–51, including nn. 14, 15. Also see Alhaji Safi Jimba,A Short History of Ilorin(Ilorin: Jimba Book Productions Company, 1981), 5. 

[20] Samuel Johnson,The History of the Yorubas(1921; reprint,Lagos, 1976), 217–18 and 259, quoted in O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 250. 

[21] Abu Ikokoro,Ta’lif akhbar al-qurun min umara’ bilad Ilurin,dated 24 March 1912,photocopy of an annotated and corrected copy of an English translation (presumably by B. G. Martin), provided to me by Ade Obayemi; Rhodes House (RH) Mss. Afr. s. 1210, C. W. Michie, Political Situation in Northern Provinces and History of Ilorin, History of Ilorin, “compiled by M. Sulu, Ilorin Native Courts Registrar, chiefly from accounts given to him by old people in Ilorin Town in 1953.” See also O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 271. 

[22] See Jimba,History,6, 7, 70. 

[23] Forilariin Old Oyo, see Robin Law,The Oyo Empire c. 1600–1836: A West African Imperialism in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). 

[24] Adisa-Onikoko,History ofIlorinEmirate. 

[25] Ibid., 48, also 34–63. 

[26] Chief J. S. Olawoyin,My Political Reminiscences 1948–1983(Ikeja: John West Publications, 1993), 10–11. 

[27] O’Hear,Power Relations,283–84, n. 33. 

[28] Ibid., 166. 

[29] See ibid., 150–68 and accompanying notes, for further examples of newspaper reports from the 1950s. 

[30] O’Hear,Power Relations,177–80, 183. 

[31] Ibid., 183 and note 61, and 29; O’Hear, “Elite Slaves,” 272. More recently, a member of the Are Ogele family has admitted its slave origin. For a discussion, see “Elite Slaves,” 272–73.